What did the Normans Ever Do For Us?

Asked of the Romans, it could equally be asked of the Normans.  England, France and Ireland have all tended to ignore or sideline the influence of the Normans.  For all their glorious achievements the Normans loom smaller than they should in our histories.  To understand this, we need to consider how a Viking leader established mutiple dynasties that shaped European history at one of its most formative times.

Rollo the Viking may have adopted the outward form of the Franks, feudal obeisance, even Christianity but it is unlikely that he internalised much of it.  In granting him extensive lands along the Seine, the Franks had made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse, to the immense benefit of both sides.  The next generation born in Normandy would be immersed in the ways and mores of the Franks, beginning with his son and heir, William Longsword.  William would die young in an ambush but he was a devote Christian and emphatically confirmed his people’s transition from Viking to feudal aristocracy.  The duchy of Normandy would survive minorities and successfully negotiate the transition from the Carolignians to the House of Capet as the new kings of France.  Indeed, the duchy of Normandy would be the best administrated region of France and a model for the emerging nation state of both France and England.

Rollo may have hoped that he was founding a dynasty but his settlement in the Seine valley was a move wiser than he could have realised.  Though Vikings were well informed of the ebb and flow of power within Europe, no one could have grasped the immense changes underway as the Dark Ages drew to a close and a new form of polity began to emerge, the nation state.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries were profoundly formative ones.   They would define much of subsequent European history across the spectrum of politics, religion and culture.

What was the basis of this society and how did it differ from the one in which Rollo was born, raised, and in which he had risen to such prominence as a Viking?  To return to our original question, how did the Normans become so different from the Vikings they would encounter in Ireland?

Let us start with something so natural to us that we take them for granted – cities.  Notably Rollo and his kin established themselves in Rouen.  This had been a Roman city, much reduced by Viking raids until refortified and repopulated by the Frankish King Odo.  It would prosper and become the capital city of the duchy of Norman and the lynch pin of their domain.  Cities are more than just population centres or bases from which to concentrate and deploy military forces.  Cities make possible the bureaucracy of government, the collection and storage of tax revenue, the administration of criminal justice and punishment, the recording of laws, regulations, land ownership, and information about population. All of these activities require and therefore create professional classes which in turn generate and expand cities as centres of administration, trade, learning and intellectual life.  Cities make government possible, they make nation states possible.

Critically in Europe, cities were also the bureaucratic centres of the Church.  Bishops, as the princes of the Church, along with their scribes formed the civil service of the emergent nation states, notably in the Chancellery which provided the secretarial office of the king.  The Chancellor at this time took the notes, wrote the charters, issued the king’s letters and filled the key documents.  Invariably he was a bishop and did his work in Latin.  This bureaucratic drudgery was essential to the projection of power won by warrior kings in battle.  Cities were also essential to commerce and acted as accelerators of industry, technology and skills.  The tax and wealth they generated, combined with the machinery of government, allowed for the creation and maintenance of professional armies.  For the Roman Empire, cities were the pinions of civilisation.  As cities declined with the empire, Europe fell into chaos, civilisation reduced to that preserved by the great monasteris (see Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilisation).  As the cities revived, so did Europe.

Castles served a similar purpose, though they were purposefully military in intent, a way of projecting power and defending territory.  In that, they were problematic for they allowed local magnates resist central power.  Castles were in effect a measure of civil strife.  As the nation state developed, kings would over time limit and eventually eliminate castles not directly in the service of the state.

True, Vikings established their own cities and the Danes were the first to concentrate populations and establish kingships, well ahead of the Norwegians and Swedes.  But they remained primarily ports for trade and raiding, not centres of laws, taxes, and bureaucracy. In taking Rouen as their capital, Rollo and his followers were adopting a new way of holding power, grafting themselves onto a system of organisation maintained by the church that had its roots in Rome.

It may not have been clear to Rollo, but the Church itself, notably under Gregory VII, was engaged in a vast exercise of reform, a key aspect of which was to partner with secular leaders in bringing political stability from the chaos of the Dark Ages.  This was to forge an alliance of church and state that would endure into the twentieth century.  The fortunes of Norman conquerors from England to the further edges of Christendom would turn on the ebb and flow of their relationship with the Papacy for the Papacy granted legitimacy to kings and nobles.  [Note: The partnership of the kings and the Church was particularly formative for Western Europe, influencing the development of feudalism as system of contractual rights, setting a limit to the reach of the state, and inculcating a sense of the dignity inherent in all irrespective of social status however much its observation was fitful and incomplete: for more on this see Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order.]

If castles were inimical to the interest of the emergent nation states, land was the great lever in the hands of kings.  Normans might win land through the sword, but they could only hold it and pass it on if they stood in favour with the king.  The possession of land was a function of feudalism.  Rollo may have been granted the duchy of Normandy as a heritable gift but when he placed his hands within those of the king, Charles the Simple, in his act of homage, he was submitting to the king’s favour.  To break his fealty would forfeit his possessions.  Holding onto land was no longer simply a function of military might and supportive kin but a matter of politics and the assertion of legal rights within a system controlled by the state. To accept this and to assume feudal obligations meant the end of the Viking way of life, the free booting independence of traders and raiders.  Unlike the Vikings, the Normans would pay tax.

The Normans took to law and governance with surprising alacrity. They were punctilious about observance of laws and the honouring of rights.  In this they were following in the tradition of Charlemagne and in turn the Romans.  William the Conqueror deployed the power of law as an instrument of power in England.  Indeed, like the Romans before them, the Normans were great adopters of good practice.  William would use elements of Anglo-Saxon law and administration that suited his purposes, notably sheriffs and this new institution, the Exchequer, an office he would export to Normandy.  He knew too the power of information and commissioned the Domesday Book to record the details of the kingdom he had seized, the better to control it.  His great grandson and royal heir, Henry II, consciously repeated this, insisting on the establishment and fair administration of law throughout England, using it to resolve the bitter land disputes that were inevitable after the years of anarchy in bringing stability to the realm.  So successful was he in this that the capriciousness of his son, King John, led the English magnates to reign him back to the rule of law through the Magna Carta.

Holding land was essential to the Normans and their manors were organised to be as self-sufficient as possible.  As the Lord of the Manor the Norman aristocracy became a vital part of the feudal chain of organisation, owing obligations to the king just as peasants owed obligations to them, these obligations in turn were reciprocated by obligations of protection.  The Manor imitated the form of monasteries which in turn echoed that of the Roman villas.  Lords of the Manor were part of the judicial system.  They operated their own courts under public law and following local customs of tenure and did so until the 19th century.  Holding fairs, developing trade and markets, establishing towns and villages, and investing in the infrastructure of roads, bridges and harbours were all hallmarks of Norman life and colonisation.    Where we see these in Ireland they are part of our Norman heritage, alien to Gaelic Ireland.

You had of course to get land before you could hold it.  The Normans were a fecund bunch and illegitimate children were recognised, at least in the first hundred years until the Church clamped down on it.  For male offspring, the challenge was to get land. The eldest son would inherit two-thirds but the younger sons had to fend for themselves.  For most of them this meant winning land through the sword.  Sword land was recognised as a legitimate way of seizing land and it was this drive to acquire land that generated Norman expansion into England, Wales, Ireland, Italy and the Middle East.

Being a member of the landed aristocracy conferred on Normans a key advantage in battle.  It allowed young boys and men to devote their lives completely to soldiering.  From the time they could walk, they were taught to ride horses and to fight.  In an age where most soldiers were part time, earning their living as farmers or fishermen, the Normans had a clear advantage – at war, they were professionals.  Their speciality was as armoured mounted soldiers, in other words knights.  They were the armoured divisions of their day, using mobility, ruse and the shock of the well timed charged to win the field.  This advantage outweighed their often limited numbers; again and again, the fortunes of Normans turned on their martial prowess in the field and their skill as cavalry against larger odds.  (The association of cavalry and landed gentry would endure for centuries.)  They combined this with the rapid establishment of fortified bases, motte-and-bailies, which were very effective means of territorial control.

A further and critical dimension to the Normans was their Christian faith.  Most warrior casts need the assurance of a strong belief system and Normans were zealous in their religious commitment and their submission to Rome, notwithstanding the odd politick defiance, was par for the course.  It took its most obvious form in their support for the establishment of religious orders (Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries most notably) and the building of churches and Cathedrals.  Endowments and land grants were undertaken as a matter of course by Norman lords and their wives. Family members would become princes of the Church, though Rome increasingly asserted its sole right to do this. And of course Norman lords played leading roles in the first three Crusades.

All of these elements were on display when the Normans landed in Ireland and established their presence here.  As Cambro-Normans, they were well versed in fighting the native Welsh whose organisation and style of warfare was similar to the Gaelic.  All this guided the nature of the force they assembled in Wales, including of course mounted knights but also mounted Welsh bowmen, Breton allies, and Flemish mercenaries.  They numbered no more than a few hundred but were well prepared and organised.   Their alliance with MacMurrough gave them precise intelligence about the opposition they would face and the terrain in which they would be operating.  They quickly seized Waterford and Wexford, securing these as their bases and sources of resupply. Dodging the High King’s forces at Castleknock, they stole up through Wicklow and most likely approached Dublin via Rathfarnham, seizing Dublin from the Danes who uncharacteristically fled in panic.  As they pounced on Gaelic armies, they secured their holdings with motte-and-bailey fortifications, soon replaced stone towers and castles.  They established their manorial system and set about building villages, towns, ports, bridges and abbeys.  In all of this one can see the outlines of what a Roman invasion would have looked like.

There was one likely critical difference.  The Romans tended to do things completely when it came to invasion.  Their conquests of Gaul and England were complete.  The Normans in Ireland were opportunists.  Strongbow’s rapid success in Ireland was still only partial by the time Henry II arrived in 1171 with a show of force.  Yet Henry’s intention had as much to do with checking Strongbow and ensuring that Ireland would not become a rival kingdom.  Rather Ireland would be a held as a Lordship, under the suzerainty of the crown.  It was a partial conquest only that left Gaelic society in possession of much of the land and itself pretty much intact as a way of life.  The point of English policy in Ireland was to control it at minimum cost to the Exchequer.  This meant that Norman and Gaelic life would endure side by side for the following centuries.  The fortunes of the colonists who came from England and settled around Dublin and the other cities would ebb and flow, more often ebbing as the influence of the Crown shrank back to Dublin and the pale during the later Middle Ages.

Contrast the style and success in Ireland of the Normans with that for their Viking forebears.  The Vikings were raiders, initially in small groups and later in larger formations that became armies.  But their success was in surprise attacks and in the weakness of those from whom they sought to plunder.  Where they faced concerted defences and opposition, they faltered.  This was true of Western Europe under Charlemagne and it was true too in Ireland where the Vikings were confined to their city ports by the Gaelic Irish.  After the battle of Clontarf, the Gaelic did not seize Dublin but the establishment of a Danish kingdom in Ireland was checked.  Vikings prized individual martial prowess. Normans, on the other hand, prized command, discipline, and coordinated movement.  Their amour of conical helmets and chainmail were commonplace and had been so since Roman times; so was their weaponry of shields, swords and lances.  Yet combined with disciplined cavalry (aided by the stirrup which allowed them leverage the power of the lance) and a tireless inventiveness on the field, they were formidable, well capable of besting far greater forces arraigned against them.

Finally, the Normans understood the value of building alliances in the lands they conquered, following the early example of Rollo.  Through marriage – generally Norman men marrying local women – they formed alliances and secured their holdings.  A key part of the deal between Strongbow and Dermot MacMurrough was that Dermot would give his daughter in marriage to him.  Their daughter in turn was given by Henry II in marriage to William Marshall in reward for a lifetime of service.

The most successful contingent of the Normans who arrived in Ireland were not however associated with Strongbow or Marshall but rather the FitzGeralds.  It was the FitzGeralds, descendants of the fabulous Welsh Princess Nest, who over the coming generations through war and inter-marriage with the Gaelic Irish became the leading family of Ireland.  They artfully mediated relations between Ireland and the English crown for centuries, until that role was made redundant by the imperialist ambitions of the Tudors in the sixteenth century.  The 10th Earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald, was executed along with five of his uncles at Tyburn in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. It was only after the rebellion of Silken Thomas and his execution that Ireland was declared a kingdom in 1542 and ruled by the English crown.

The two and a half centuries between the founding Normandy in 911 and the arrival of the Normans in Ireland in 1169 saw an extraordinary evolution, the measure of which was evident in the rapidity with which the Vikings collapsed militarily and Viking Ireland disappeared with the arrival of Strongbow and his knights.  The critical distinction was Norman capacity for organisation, from the preparation for the campaign, its execution in the field, the manner in which they turned victories into facts on the ground, and their assiduous creation of functioning administrations.

Yet the irony of the Norman invasion of Ireland was that it came just as Norman power was fading.  Norman glory was well past its high point by then, its influence in its closing chapter as both England and France went their separate ways and Norman lords assimilated. In Ireland, much like the Vikings before them, they would enter a kind of time-warp, lingering as an anachronism until the arrival of the aggressively Protestant New English in Ireland with all their imperialist certainties and ethnic fury.

What then of Norman identity?  Why did it fade when other identities endured like the French, English, Irish and Italian?  The most obvious answer is that the Normans never founded a nation state that was purely Norman.  Moreover, one of their great strengths was adaptability to local mores the better to secure their positions.  Yet the explanation is more complex than that for it is hard to imagine either England or France without the foundations laid by the Normans as state builders – in the administrative and legal systems they developed, in the stability they brought, the trade they developed, the urban developments and centres of respite and learning in religious houses and the Church that they sponsored.

In France, Normandy remained a duchy, subservient to the Frankish king in Paris.  Notably Henry II had had a chance to challenge Louis VII, the Capetian King of France and his feudal overlord.  Yet he declined to capture Louis at the siege of Toulouse in 1159, too punctilious about his role within feudal society and the fearful of the audacity of a strike for kingship of France. Henry might be kind of England and control more than half of France but he was a vassal of the king.  In historical terms, the glory of France would not admit of a major contribution from Normans and they would remain in the nation’s narrative secondary to the Franks.

In England, the Normans were never numerous enough to impose their Anglo-French language and their spoken word retreated in favour of the emerging English language.  However much English was profoundly influenced by the Normans, the historical narrative could not admit it.  Nor could it admit the fact that the Normans built the common law system and the baronial society so fundamental to English society.  This was in part because the Normans were regarded as conquerors where, oddly enough, the Anglo-Saxons were seen as a foundational influence.  Much of this can be attributed to 19th century historians who looked to the Dark Ages for ‘racial’ origins; the English found the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans the Norse, and the Irish the Celts.  The Normans, protean and liberal (wherever they went but most decidedly in their multicultural kingdom of Sicily), didn’t fit into this dangerously romanticised search for pure antecedents.

The lack of recognition of the Norman contribution was repeated in Ireland.  This is partly too to do with the fact that they came as conquerors but assimilated into the fabric of our nation.  They merged into the local society where the cliché captured at least half a truth: they became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Their true assimilation as Irish would only really occur when they, as the Old English, opted to adhere to Catholicism in face of the Protestant Reformation and the pressure of the Tudors.  With that decision, they finally cast their lot with their Irish identity and in many ways eroded their own distinctive contribution.  It is also partly I suspect to with the fact that we find it hard to imagine what Gaelic life was life before the Normans.  How can we imagine a society that did not have all the vestiges of a state that the Normans brought with them?  We have to imagine a nation state that existed in the mind, as an intellectual feat of memory and custom.

So for complex reasons, the Normans faded as a distinct identity.  If you ever wonder what the Normans ever did for us, remember that their contribution to the development of Western Europe was both critical and enduring, even if unacknowledged.  By a strange elixir of circumstance, their Viking character grafted onto the remnants of Roman civilisation, revivifying a host of characteristics that were Roman – the centrality of cities, the devotion to the rule of law, the adoption of complex bureaucracy, the professionalization of armies, and the alliance with the Church in stabilizing Europe, the building the nation state, and the audacity of their drive to conquest.  In all of this, the Normans were the new Romans, setting in train a new age for Europe. This new age was founded on the nation states and nation states have a way of simplying their historical narratives.  In helping to create the nation state, the Normans ironically created the means of their own erosion from the record.



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The Mysterious Genesis of the Normans

Gaelic Ireland very different from its European neighbours in that it had not been colonised by the Romans and was in many ways a pre-early modern society without the typical Roman imprint of cities, bureaucracy or even much church organisation, either local or ultramontane.  But like its neighbours it was ruptured by two shocks in the early medieval period.  The first was the arrival of Vikings in the ninth century and the second the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth.  Indeed, the Normans fought the Vikings for possession of Dublin, itself a product of Viking settlement like all the other cities and towns in Ireland at the time – Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.

Yet here’s the odd thing: the Normans were originally Norsemen, in other words Vikings.  They had settled on the Seine in 911.  By the time the Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169, they were profoundly different from their forebears.  The spoke French, were aristocratic, fought in highly disciplined formations, used fortifications as primary means of conquest, were socially organised by feudalism and held land as feudal magnates, were highly literate, and were the avatars of European chivalry.  The Norman kings and lords were engaged in a symbiotic and powerful partnership with the Church that was fundamental to the rise of the nation state as we know it.  By the time Strongbow had landed in Ireland in 1170, the Normans had ruled England for over a hundred years and the Angevin domain under Henry II ran from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees.  Norman lords had captured (and lost) Jerusalem, had established a maritime state at Antioch, seized control of Calabria and Sicily, and established footholds in North Africa. When the Normans faced off against the Vikings in Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, it was as if across a vast evolutionary leap.  By what mysterious process had this leap occurred?

Quite why Vikings turned from farming, fishing, and trading to raiding and plundering remains a mystery.  What we know of Viking society comes from archaeology, sagas and runic inscriptions, none of which shed much light on socio-economic dynamics.  But raid they did where societies were weak and unable to mount adequate defences.  After the death of Louis the Pius, Charlemagne’s son and successor, the civil wars that engulfed the Carolinginian Empire allowed the Vikings to raid again Western Europe. The long coastline of Neustria Province (in the new kingdom of West Frankia) was particularly vulnerable as Charlemagne’s grandson and now king, Charles the Bald, was unable to mount an effective defensive system as his grandfather had done.  Vikings repeatedly raided up the Seine from the 840s to the 890s, driving monastic settlements out of the valley and repeatedly threatening Paris.  Charles paid them off with Danegold (a tribute to ensure departure).

Of course the Vikings came back, wintering regularly on the Seine and raiding south and west deep into the Provinces.  By 860 Charles the Bald had learned that the most effective way to stop the raids was for to fortify towns and bridges; in other words to rebuild the Roman fortifications.  He did this with the help of the Church which had, ironically, often stripped Roman walls to build churches during the rule of Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious when the region had been was stable and protected.  Roman local government structures and models of bureaucracy had survived in the form of Church and it was the Church and its educated bishops that provided the officialdom for Charlemagne and later kings to manage their realms.  Charles now looked to strengthen local government, replicating his grandfather’s efforts, the better to organise defences against the Vikings.  West Frankia was, however, damned to endure Viking raids because of leaders too weak (with names like Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Charles the Bald and so on, not greatly surprising) to wrest control from powerful local magnates.

It is generally held that the Viking migrations occurred in three phases.  The first was raiding and plundering; the second the extortion of Danegold; and the third settlement. At some point during the transition from the ninth to the tenth century, Scandinavians settled along the lower Seine.  This may have been facilitated by the withdrawal of the local population, under the orders of King Odo, to repopulate and fortify Rouen.  Rouen was the first place along the river where fortification was possible and a key to the defence of Paris, the emergent capital of an emergent nation state.  Be that as it may, the settlement was associated with one leading Viking figure, Rollo, “the founder of Normandy”. [Francois Neveux, A Brief History of the Normans, the conquests that changed the face of Europe (Robinson, 2006) p. 57.  My account is drawn from Neveux’s mainly, supplemented by the more circumspect Leonie V. Hicks’ A Short History of the Normans and W.L. Warren’s magnificent biography of Henry II.  For the Angevin context, see my previous blog on this.  For the role of Normans in teh evolution of chivalry, see Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshall, The Greatest Knight, the remarkable William Marshall, The Power behind Five English Thrones.  Marshall was of course a major figure in the early phase of the Norman conquest of Ireland.]

According to Neveux, based on a history of Normandy commissioned and written between 1015 and 1026 by Dudo of Saint-Quentin, Rollo was a Norwegian leading a war party of Danes supported by some Anglo-Saxons.  In a pattern that the Normans would repeat over successive conquests, including Ireland, Rollo was granted an extensive tract of land in exchange for protection from other enemies while he married into the local Frankish aristocracy.

It was not a smooth process – Rollo left for many years only to return and attack Paris.  When he was defeated at the battle of Chartres, it was politic to sign a deal, the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. The lands granted to him stretched from the river Epte, a tributary of the Seine, to the sea.  To sweeten the deal, Rollo was given permission to plunder Brittany, paving the way for its eventual incorporation into Normandy.  Rollo also agreed that he and his followers would convert to Christianity; indeed conversion was a seen a key factor in sealing alliances not least because the state itself was a product of the partnership between secular leaders and the Church. Conversion was, notes Neveaux, “a sine qua non of integration into the Frankish world”. Rollo paid homage to the king, Charles the Simple, and was granted the lands not in fiefdom but as hereditary, a critical distinction and sign of Rollo’s leverage.  Rollo, in another act that would be repeated by the Normans, granted lands to the monasteries in his new domain.  (In subsequent years, Frankish magnates bordering Normandy granted lands to monasteries to block Norman encroachment.)  In return, Rollo agreed to protect the Franks from attacks by his Viking kinsmen.  In this way, the Franks plugged a major gap in their defences as their new Scandinavians allies and Frankish locals settled down in what would be henceforth known as the duchy Normandy.  An additional advantage for the Franks was that the growing power of the Normans would finally put manners on the troublesome Bretons further west.

Rollo personally manifests an amazing transformation from pillaging Viking to resplendent feudal lord, integrated into Frankish aristocracy, sworn in fealty to the king, servant of the Church, and master of an autonomous principality with Rouen as its capital.  He did not know it at the time, but his acceptance of this new role was a key development in the evolution of both England and France as nation states.

Neveux writes that Normandy would soon grow “to include almost the whole ecclesiastical province of Rouen, the former second Provincia Lugudensis” of Roman Gaul. It is as if the palimpsest of Roman civilisation was flooded again with energy, its circuitry revivified by the energy of Rollo and his Norsemen.  Is this the key to the transformation of the Normans and the awesome power they wielded in the following centuries?  Were the Normans the second coming of the Romans?  And if so, can we see in the Norman conquest of Ireland a glimpse of what might have been had Roman legions landed in Hiberia?  More anon.


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On Reading Woodham-Smith’s ‘The Reason Why’

I cannot leave a second hand bookshop without a book.  Or rather I probably can but I never do. It is usually a hardback, probably history.  The impulse to buy an orphaned book is an irresistible mix of discovering a gem combined with a gleefully low price pencilled in by hand on the inside cover like a wink. To my mind, it’s a kind of rescue.

I pulled a handsome navy hardback from the shelf. I recognised the author as Cecil Woodham-Smith who had written an admired history of the Great Irish Famine. The title did not give much away: ‘The Reason Why’ seemed incomplete to all  but the uninitiated, speaking to something I should know but couldn’t place. There was no subtitle, no contents page, no foreword, and no introduction. ‘Theirs is not to reason why’ dimly stirred at the back of my head, a fragment of Kipling’s famous eulogy. A print of Lord Cardigan riding in the Phoenix Park clinched it; the charge of the Light Brigade. My brain flashed an image of Trevor Howard, the salty and coiled British actor playing Cardigan with mad exuberance in an old movie.

Woodham-Smith writes like a cavalry officer, with flash and verve, which charges the narrative forward. It’s said that she finished the book in a great, non-stop, thirty-six hour gallop. Yet this characterisation would do the book (and her writing) a disservice, for it has many treasures and surprises. Her descriptive writing is compressed in length but expansive in suggestion. She captures that odd transition in British society from a largely rural agricultural society at the opening of the 19th century, dominated by the landed aristocracy, to an industrial behemoth. The charge of the Light Brigade was a comic-tragic imbroglio made possible by that transition.

With unerringly deft touches, and great psychological acuity, she captures the personalities of the two principle authors of the disaster at Balaclava, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan. She quickly but richly sketches the histories of the respective Brudenell and Bingham families of which they were the most arrogant scions; the Brudenells long associated with British royalty, the Binghams as ferocious colonisers of Mayo.

Her description of George Charles Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, and his attempts to clear his estates around Castlebar of the starving peasantry after potato blight stuck is shocking: “Starving and dying, the people came to Castlebar and roamed the streets, begging for food…. Dead bodies lay by the side of the road… men and women who had fallen by the wayside were seen struggling in vain to rise until, with a low moan, they collapsed in death…”  She goes on: “To the Earl of Lucan famine horrors were so many convincing demonstrations of the urgent necessity of clearing the land.” Here was a man so convinced of his plans for consolidation and improvement that his actions likely led to the deaths of hundreds, and the wiping out of whole families.

Though he argued the point, it seemed clear that Lord Lucan had ensured that the workhouse – that much feared, last and cruel bastion of hope – ceased to function and the unfortunate inhabitants – homeless, sick, and starving – were turned out to their certain death. True, he poured his own wealth into the effort to improve his estates, but the price in misery and death was high. And it was true too that no landlord alone should shoulder all blame when the British Government was so determined to avoid landing the British taxpayer with the cost of relieving millions of starving Irish. Yet at this remove and judged from today, his actions would surely approach the threshold of crimes against humanity. Though censured by public opinion, he was incapable of reflection and remorse if at any cost to his pride. His brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, lived life with immense wealth and without a moment’s self-doubt; a great, handsome empty-head. No surprise then, when locked in ambiguous command of the cavalry, their mutual antagonism set the springs for the action that led to the destruction of the Light Brigade.

As for Woodham-Smith’s climatic chapters on the Crimea campaign and her final passages on the battle of Balaclava and that fatal charge, her concentrated marathon of writing paid off in an exhilarating tour de force. All of the personalities and forces at work that she had detailed throughout the book converged in that valley, itself so clearly visualised for the reader, and played out in pomp, heroism, stupidity, and butchery.

The Reason Why was a popular history when published in 1953. If you happen to find it when browsing dusty bookshelves, it’s worth its pencilled price tag and some time in a comfy chair.

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A visit to Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial, Canada

They put the granite Celtic cross on top of a cliff overlooking the southern passage of the St Lawrence river. That way every passing ship on its way to Quebec and Montreal could see it. The members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians had commissioned a sixteen meter high monument in memory of the five thousand Irish emigrants who died on Grosse Ile in the summer of 1847, “Black ’47”, one of the worst years of the Great Irish Famine. The blocks of the cross are rough hewn and its cruciform top is cut square and unadorned. It is defiant and solemn, and has stood there since 1909.

My wife and I visited Grosse Ile during the summer.  Since we had lived in Washington many years ago and become familiar with the history of Irish America, we had been aware of the small island’s place in the history of famine emigration to North America.  The day we boarded the ferry the weather was cold and blustery, with heavy cloud cover.  The great St Lawrence river churned under a whipping breeze. The ferry captain spoke briefly in English and at length in French about his family’s connection with Grosse Ile.  As we slowed on the approach to the island, we could see the Celtic cross loom atop a short rocky cliff.  It was a stirring moment.

Once landed and past the informal guidance about your visit, you approach the monument up a hill through a copse of short trees and stubby pines. If the cross looks grim and defiant from the deck of a passing vessel, it has an intimacy on the landward side.  The cross stands in a gentle cusp of rock and grass, surrounded by the low trees.  Beyond it as backdrop flows the wide expanse of the St Lawrence. It is a tranquil and intimate space, as if a ritual or performance has just taken place or is about to begin.

When you continue through the woods, the hill descends to a picturesque meadow, furrowed with oversized lazy beds. That it is dotted with small white crosses tells you that this is the mass grave, final resting place of desperate Irish emigrants fleeing a home now ravaged by starvation, disease and despair.  Packed mercilessly into ships ill-fitted for their human cargo, many of the passengers died crossing the Atlantic, their bodies cast into its depths.  Up to thirty percent of the 98,000 crossing on the cheaper route to Canada would die on the passage or shortly after arriving. 

The complete failure of the 1846 crop was followed by the failure of new crop of potato in 1847.  The impact on Ireland assumed the character of an apocalypse.   Hope evaporated as the land and governmental indifference betrayed the peasant population to death by starvation and disease.  Those who had the means realised that the future was bleak and cashed in to buy passage to America.  Landlords seized the opportunity to clear their land of peasant holdings and offered money to leave.  As death rates soared coffins to bury the dead became so scare that reusable ones with hinged bottoms were made. Mass graves became common place.  Social norms of hospitality broke down, family bonds of affection broke as a morsel of food meant the difference between life and death.  Even the instinct for rebellion was quenched by the imperative to survive as whole-scale demoralisation swept the land.  As Kirby Miller writes in Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America: “Finally, and perhaps most revealingly, ancient rural customs surrounding death fell into disuse as the island degenerated into a vast charnel house….. Wakes disappeared from apathy and fear of contagion…”  Those who fled were no longer emigrants but refugees and the 1847 exodus, as Oliver MacDonagh noted, “bore all the hallmarks of panic and hysteria.”

Whole families lie here in the lovely meadow of Grosse Ile  Now their names float eerily over the grave when seen through the glass panels of the modern commemorative placement. It was their misfortune to die of disease here, mainly typhoid, but at least their names are now recorded as lying in the largest mass grave outside of Ireland.

Today Grosse Ile is a wonderful commemorative park, a gently immersive but profoundly moving experience about a terrible chapter in our history. Just about this time of year, some 170 years ago, Grosse Ile would be closing for the coming winter after its grimmest summer.  


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The Inflation Enigma

Not exactly a title designed to excite but it is worth a few moments of consideration.  At the intersection of wages, prices, interest rates and economic growth, inflation is one of the key barometers of economic health and central to the management of economies.

Some inflation is regarded as essential to maintaining economic growth by encouraging production through rising prices, thus encouraging employment which in turn stimulates demand and then more production and hence more employment.

There is history to this.  Deflation, the contraction of money in circulation with consequent downward pressure on prices (too little money chasing too many goods), was seen as a major cause of the Great Depression, combined as it was with high unemployment.  The great economist John Maynard Keyes argued that lack of demand was at the root of the problem and set out the case for putting money into the economy to kick start growth (known as pump-priming).  His expansionary monetary policy was regarded by conservatives (the kind that liked to link currencies to the gold standard) with some horror but it has become a major tool in the management of economies.

Yet expansionary monetary policy (not least because of wartime spending in the 1930s and 1940s) worked back then and it worked recently to overcome the financial crisis.  US Fed chairman Ben Bernanke (who had studied the Great Depression) and Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, engaged in “quantitative easing”, pumping dollars and euros into their economies.  The Fed took on some $4.5 trillion worth of assets onto its books as part of this expansion of the money supply.  The ECB set up an initial $640 billion loan fund (some years behind the US because Draghi’s predecessor Jean Claude Trichet, had controversially hiked interest rates and resisted quantitative easing). The balance sheet of the Eurosystem (the ECB and all 19 central banks in the Eurozone) was $4.4 trillion as of last year.

Increasing the money supply eases credit by making money cheaper and lower interest rates are a key to boosting demand by expanding the consumer’s capacity to borrow and buy stuff.  When the financial crisis hit, the problem was that interest rates were already low so the authorities had to go to historic lows.  Japan went so far as to set a negative interest rate, meaning that your money eroded in value if you kept in savings rather than in use through purchases or investment.  (The ECB did the same for one category of bank rate).)

The Bank of England acted similarly in the face of Brexit last year.  After the referendum and expecting an immediate economic hit, the BoE dropped the interest rate (to 0.25% for banks) and boosted the money supply by £70 billion. It worked in the short term but by lowering sterling it has encouraged price inflation which, with wages stagnant, will ultimately lower demand.  We can see this happening now. I think the judgement of history on this intervention will be mixed but it let the BoE say it was doing its bit to help.

Historically too much money could mean that things got out of hand, causing rampant price inflation (too much money chasing too few goods): to keep up with prices, the authorities print more money and undermine confidence in its value, leading to hyper-inflation.  The phenomenon brought down the Weimar Republic and helped usher in the Nazi regime. It happened again in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, peaking in 2008 with literally astronomical inflation measured in the tens of billions, leading to the abandonment of the currency in 2009 in favour of foreign currencies.

Central Banks have since the end of WWII pursued a careful balance between price stability and economic growth capable of sustaining full employment (around 4% unemployment). The sweet spot or target rate is regarded as around 2% inflation. Economic theory sees a direct connection between employment and inflation: as employment rises, so do wages (thanks to competition for labour) leading to price increases.  The converse is held to be true too and the inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation is known as the Phillips Curve.

In the face of the financial crisis and economic slow down, the actions of the US Fed and ECB in expanding the money supply worked, though it took longer than anticipated (and the ECB moved slower than the Obama administration).  Both the US and Eurozone economies are now growing and unemployment dropping.  Ireland was one of the first to recover and now Portugal, Spain and Italy are looking at growth in excess of 1%.

With full employment and little productive slack in an economy, one can expect wages to rise, the amount of money in the system to increase, and upward pressure on prices; in short inflation.  In response, central banks would typically tap the brakes by raising the interest rate (the price of money), encouraging people the save or invest in say government bonds, thus reducing the volume of money in circulation and easing price inflation.

This is in fact what the US Treasury has just announced.  It will start selling off the assets it brought to flush money into the US economy and will start slowing and carefully raising the interest rates.  The ECB is likely to follow suite but like its beginning will be wary about its end, with tapering rather than finality, the better to preserve some flexibility.

In some ways, a rise in interest rates would be a good thing.  Yes, you will point out, public debt servicing increases, credit is more expensive and mortgage costs go up.  This is why it is politically unpopular and why governments are always keen to keep interest rates down. But by putting a price on money like a decent interest rate, you are imposing some discipline on how money is spent: an investment must yield a better return that a savings account.  When interest rates are near zero, money sloshes around the global system and virtually any investment looks good.  Savings – normally a sign of prudent household manage – are discouraged.  Pension funds find it difficult to make a return.  In the allocation of resources, putting some price on money is a good thing.

Above all, those in charge of monetary policy in central banks like the BoE, ECB and US Federal Reserve – safely out of the reach of direct government influence and protective of their autonomy – want to guard against runaway inflation and while mindful of governments’ concerns, will ultimately choose to increase interest rates if they detect inflation heading above the target rate.  Moreover, increasing the interest rates when times are good gives central banks some leeway to reduce rates when things slow down, helping to even out the highs and lows of the business cycle.

By now looking to a series of interest rate increases, the US Treasury is betting on a return of inflation. All the classical economic theories say we can expect this.

Yet inflation theory has become unstuck.  All that quantitive easing should have engendered price inflation.  The fall in unemployment should have added to this momentum. That would have allowed central banks to justifiably pull back on the money supply and increase interest rates.  Inflation however has stubbornly refused to make its appearance.  The ECB is repeatedly disappointed that the inflation target consistently recedes. No one appears to know why.  Deflation has been held off but inflation has virtually disappeared and no amount of employment or quantitative easing appears to summon it into existence.  That is the enigma of inflation today.  Where did it go?

One theory is that the answer to the enigma lies in globalisation. And one test of that theory is Britain’s Brexit experiment in what its own Governor of the BoE has characterised as “de-globalisation”.  More anon.




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Leinster Road Trip: Borris and St Mullins

I happened upon St. Mullins while on a day trip from Dublin.  I had a vague idea of where I was going but nothing really definite other than finding Borris House, ancestral home to the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, descendants of the kings of Leinster (including infamously Dermot MacMurrough, he who invited in the Normans).

We found the narrow arched gateway to the demesne after a quick spin down motorway and along the kind of untroubled winding undulating country road you find in the Irish countryside.  It was a glorious sunny fresh day.  Borris House was stunning, set airily on a low bluff overlooking pastoral fields and distant mountains, mature trees standing at a respectful distance so as not to block the fine proportions of the house.  It was reminiscent of Downton Abbey, without the TV kitsch. We’ll have to come back for the tour as the house itself was closed for a private wedding.

One of the more notable occupants of the seat at Borris was Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, born with severely shorted or deformed arms and legs in 1831. His mother, Lady Kavanagh, treated him as a normal child, teaching him to write and draw with his mouth and engaging local doctors to fit him out with a wheelchair and saddle.  She did a good job as evidenced by his adventurous travels as a young man.  More than a good job in fact for she eventually cut off his income when she learned that he was being entertained by odalisques in Anatolia.

This should not have come as a surprise to her for the bold Art had been something of a local Lothario according to local legend; when he succeeded to the The MacMurrough seat back home, he assured a reluctant local bride that their offspring would be fully formed by pointing out his progeny among the local peasant population.  Such lore I learned from one of a number of plaques at the delightful cafe by the banks of the Barrow, of more anon.

Lady Kavanagh was herself an impressive woman, seizing her widowhood with gusto and sweeping off on travels to Europe with her daughter and two of her three sons when they were young teenagers.  Her appetite for adventure whetted, she made her way to Egypt and the Middle East, haggling transport from locals to bring her by boat up the Nile and by camel around the Holy Land, penetrating as far inland to reach Petra (see my blog on my own visit there here).  In fact her collection of artefacts forms the core of the National Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection today.

Maybe the spirits of Lady and Art Kavanagh still loom within Borris House for a local told me in hushed breath that the entrance hall is always markedly chilly, even on the warmest day.

Just outside Borris, we went for a walk along the Barrow Way, the river turned to a stately canal by a series of twenty three locks.  The Barrow is one of Ireland’s great river systems, second only to the Shannon.  At one end it is connected to the Grand Canal in Dublin.  At the other it connects with New Ross, joining its sister rivers the Nore and Suir, before entering the sea.  Almost 90 km of the Barrow’s length is tidal.

We resumed our travels to Graiguenamanagh to see the enormous Cistercian Abbey of Duiske there, built by the great Norman knight, William Marshall, Lord of Leinster through his marriage of Dermot MacMurrough’s granddaughter Isabel (herself daughter of Strongbow and Aoife). In fact New Ross owed its origins to Marshall when he built a bridge there and fostered his new borough as a port to serve his Leinster capital Kilkenny via the very navigable Barrow.  Duiske Abbey has had a number of restorations, more recently an oaken roof constructed using Medieval techniques.  The Abbey is swallow up by the town now but in its medieval prime Cistercian buildings and fields would have swept down to the Barrow creating a great centre of learning but also of agriculture, river management and crafts.

After an indifferent lunch which filled the stomach but not the spirits at a riverside cafe, we decided to head to St Mullins, marked in the red icons as a place of historic interest on the Ordnance Survey map.  We had seen St Mullin himself in Duiske Abbey in a lively statue complete with an ox’s head between his legs.  This bovine addition derives from his famous accomplishment of ending the Leinstermen’s tribute of ox to the High King of Ireland.  St Mullin was of royal blood, a ‘rí-deamna’ or king-in-the-making.  Not to take away from the man’s vocation but becoming a monk was a smart move in those days because it meant that your brothers were less likely to blind or even castrate you to disqualify you as competition in the vicious regnal wars that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years.

What a delight St Mullins turned out to be.  Perched on a rise in a bend in the Barrow, it comprises a cluster of early Christian ruins, including the circle of foundation stones for a round tower, and Church of Ireland chapels (one houses the interpretative centre).  It’s graveyard is home to heroes of 1798.  And beside it is a dramatic knoll, part of a man-made mote and bailey constructed by the first Normans to invade Ireland.  This mote and bailey belonged in fact to Raymond Le Gros, the pre-eminent battlefield warrior in the taking of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin at the outset of the Norman invasion of Ireland between 1169 and 1170.

A short walk down a boreen takes you to the Barrow river itself and a cluster of buildings by the idyllic river’s edge, including the ruin of a large grain store testifying to the river port’s commercial life up to the nineteenth century. St Mullins marks the reach of the tidal portion of the river. Today St Mullins is the terminus of the Barrow walk, a 190 km meander from Dublin that can be cycled or walked. Rental cottages are available at http://www.oldgrainstorecottages.ie. People basked in the spring sunshine on outdoor tables, dining on lunch provided by the Mullicháin Cafe as a nearby cherry tree waved its blossoms gently in the air.  Now this was the place we should have had lunch! Another reason to return.


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Before Anglo-Irish Relations, there were Angevin-Irish Relations

Ireland’s absorption into the Angevin Empire reminds us to be careful about taking at face value Ireland’s shorthanded origin myth of eight hundred years of oppression. Our story is richer and more nuanced than that. It involves more complicated motivations than simple imperial oppression. We had more agency as well as more complicity in our fate. And our story as part of the Angevin Empire played out within the arena of European affairs whose influence on our fate has often been marginalised by the focus on our relationship with England.

The fact that Ireland’s status within the Angevin Empire is not widely recognised is certainly a reflection of the passing nature of that strange entity. This also demonstrates our fixation on the Anglo-Irish relationship and how that perspective influences our hindsight. Yet the arrival of the Normans in Ireland was very much rooted in the politics of the Angevin Empire, not of England. Angevin intrigues defined the Norman presence in Ireland, defined Angevin-Irish relations as it were.   Angevin-Irish relations set and defined the nature of the Norman presence in Ireland and its relationship with the English crown for the following four hundred years.  What then was this Angevin Empire?

The Angevin Empire stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, embracing England, Wales and a seizable chunk of what would become France. It was centred on Normandy and run by a powerful Norman lineage that ran from William the Conqueror to Richard the Lionheart and King John.

During the late 11th and throughout the 12th centuries Western Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages in the lee of the Viking raids. 1066 had been a pivotal year for England when the fortunes of war determined whether it would be consolidated as part of a Nordic entity centred on the North Sea or be taken over the Normans. William the Conqueror settled the matter at Hastings and imposed Norman rule on England and most of Wales. The Franks were emerging as a dominant political force that would eventually forge France. Surnames were coalescing into their modern forms. The Christian Church had preserved reading, writing and learning and its educated officers served as the seedbed for the bureaucracy of the emerging secular governments. Papal authority in Rome sought to centralise and bring order to Church affairs through the Gregorian reforms, pushing monasticism to the sidelines. The Church understood that its future depended on strong centralised secular government and took great pains to encourage this while preserving its own power and influence. Indeed much of European history up to the modern age would be shaped by the dynamic between the papacy and the emerging nation states. In short, this is the ur-period of modern Europe.

The Angevin Empire was a fleeting but highly consequential construct built around one of the most remarkable figures of early medieval European history, namely Henry II.  His titles included Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and king of England. He was also a vassal of the king of the Franks, Louis VII of the House of Capet. Henry’s father was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, hence the ‘Angevin’ appellation. His mother was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, King of England and son of William the Conqueror.

Henry II was then a great grandson of William, the first Norman king of England. Had his mother claimed the throne as Henry I intended, Henry himself might simply have succeeded to the English throne. However, Matilda was not a popular woman in England and women in general were not strong claimants. That left an opening for Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, to claim the kingship.

The succession dispute split the English nobles into two warring camps. Stephen had neither the support nor the acumen to impose his will on the entire country. The ensuing period of civil conflict was destructive enough to be dubbed the ‘Anarchy’ by later historians. In his mid-teens, Henry led two excursions to England in support of his mother’s claim (his father Geoffrey of Anjou remained aloof from the conflict). On his return to France, he secured his title as Duke of Normandy by paying homage to Louis VII.

Henry’s next move was a bold one. In May 1152 he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the richest, most beautiful and most charismatic women in Europe. And bold indeed it was; Eleanor had been Louis’ wife and Queen of the Franks. When she married Henry it was only two months since the annulment of her fifteen-year marriage. She was also eleven years older than Henry, with two daughters by Louis. That she had failed to produce a son convinced Louis reluctantly to agree to the annulment from a woman about whom it was said he was passionate (though she did not reciprocate by all accounts). On annulment, in secrecy and high drama, Eleanor made it to Poitiers (evading a kidnap attempt by Henry’s younger brother), for a simple marriage ceremony to Henry.

Henry had not sought Louis’ permission for the marriage as he ought to have done and while relations between the two men were patched up it was unlikely that the sting of this humiliation was ever fully drawn. Eleanor went on to produce a bevy of sons for Henry. In fact Louis and later his son Philip would play on the tensions between Henry’s sons to incite open rebellion by and among them against their father.

Entrancing as Eleanor was, Henry’s marriage made strategic sense for in gaining control of Aquitaine he not only secured about half of France but got control of the castles that could have threatened his other lands had Eleanor married someone else. The marriage made sense for Eleanor too: Henry was not only young and passionate but also one of the leading lords of Europe with a claim to the throne of the England. Unlike her colourless marriage to the increasingly ascetic Louis, her union with Henry would produce eight pregnancies and some of the most famous sons in western European history in Richard the Lion Hearted, King John and Henry the Young King.

Having established such a powerful base on the continent, Henry turned his attention to claiming the throne of England. That he did so with relative ease was due to a number of factors. The ‘anarchy’ was rapidly burning itself out with local peace deals increasingly evident on the part of financially drained and tired nobles. There was simply little appetite among the barons for a major conflict and much of the Henry’s maneuvers between the winter and summer of 1153 were skirmishes.

Secondly, the Church was keen to broker a deal and settle matter, the better to bring order to its own affairs there in consort with a stable monarch. Thirdly, Stephen’s first son died so succession from him was under doubt. Without a major battle being fought, a deal was struck to pass the throne to Henry on Stephen’s death. Stephen obliged sooner than expected, dying in October 1154. In December, accordingly, Henry and Eleanor were crowned at Westminster.

Thus was born the Angevin Empire under Henry II, a cross-channel conglomeration of domains held in the person of Henry through inheritance, marriage and artful opportunism. Henry was twenty-one years of age.

To solidify his hold on the throne, Henry invoked not only his descent from Henry I and William the Conqueror but in particular recalled Henry I’s commitment to the rule of law.  This became a consistent theme of his reign.  It also reflected Henry’s own “tidy mind”, as his biographer, W.L. Warren, described it.  For though Henry was a man of restless physical energy he was also well read and devoted to imposing law and arbitration.  He did much to lay the foundation for English common law, both through the system of travelling royal justices and new structures at the court.  He struck a careful political balance between the rights of the crown and of the barons.

Henry held his empire together through constant and astonishingly speedy travel; much listening and politicking; a knack for quickly seizing castles; and a commitment to imposing his authority through the rule of law. His court followed him and were forced to do so often at short notice and chaotically; Henry’s travels, like his intentions, were hard to predict and done at short notice. Henry kept his own counsel.

Occasionally Henry would convene a great Council to resolve matters of state. He convened one soon after his coronation at Winchester in 1155. It was there that an invasion of Ireland was discussed, the same year that the English pope Adrian IV issued Laudabiliter, the famous or infamous papal edict authorising an invasion of Ireland, its governance under Henry II, and the imposition of Gregorian reform on an Irish church stubbornly clinging to its old ways in regard to marriage, celibacy and land holding.  No copy of this document exists but it is clear that it was in Rome’s interest to extend its reforms to the Irish Church: That could only really be done on the foot of conquest by Henry.

It is difficult to say how serious were the discussions about Ireland at Winchester.  Henry’s mother reportedly counselled against it, arguing that the Irish were barbarous and immune to governance, a headache not worth the effort.  Whether such a fateful decision would have rested on her view alone is doubtful.  Conscious of the difficulties faced by the marcher lords in Wales against a nascent native rising, Henry may well have concluded that an attempt to subdue Ireland would prove both difficult and expensive.

Yet the issue of the Papal bull Laudabiliter suggests more serious intent. Had Henry solicited this one might indeed conclude he was looking for cover for an invasion of Ireland. Certainly Irish nationalists have long taken a dim view of England’s only Pope issuing such a license. To them, naturally enough, it smacked of a conspiracy by the rapacious English. Goddard Henry Orpen in his venerable Ireland under the Normans (1911), suggests that Henry’s eventual return to Ireland with a large invasion force some sixteen years later suggested the fulfilment of a long held ambition. While Irish nationalists rejected Orpen’s characterisation of Ireland as endemically anarchic and bloody before the arrival of the Normans, they embraced the idea that possession of Ireland was a prize long nursed by Henry.

This interpretation is challenged forensically and I think convincingly by Henry’s biographer W.L. Warren (Henry II, Yale English Monarchs: 1973/200). According to Warren, it seems more likely that Laudabiliter was procured by the English Church to encourage Henry to invade Ireland. For they understood that only military force could set the context for the imposition of Gregorian reforms on what they regarded as the disgrace of the Irish Church. The See of Canterbury regarded Ireland as falling within its remit and it had therefore an obligation under God to bring reform and renewal to Ireland.

Warren writes: “That Pope Adrian was ready to support such a move by Canterbury is not surprising: besides being an Englishman, he was the pope who revived the high-Gregorian programme for the reform of church government after half a century of doubt and muddle at Rome. The revolutionary effect of this programme was to dethrone monasticism as the pace-setter of Christendom and to give the bishop of Rome real powers for the direction and control of the Church’s life-powers which were to be exercised, in the first instance, through the local bishops” (pp 196-7).

Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury met with a polite rejection of this bid at Winchester, attributed by chroniclers to Matilda’s objection but in reality most likely reflecting Henry’s lack of interest. Had he been seriously interested, his mother’s objection would hardly have dissuaded him alone, much as he valued her advice.   Henry’s continental domain was far more in need of his attentions and he would in fact spend more of his life there than in England. In the following years England was left for long periods to the ministrations of Eleanor as effective regent.

Ireland next comes to Henry’s attention in 1167 when Dermot MacMurrough arrived at his peripatetic court, probably in Aquitaine. Dermot had had to search and high and low to find the busy and fleet king. In soliciting Henry’s help Dermot had nothing to lose. His enemies in Ireland had invaded this stronghold in south Leinster and forced him to flee. Sailing from Youghal, he had found shelter and support in Bristol from Robert FitzHarding, an eminent man who had sided with Matilda during the Anarchy and was a trusted mentor and friend of Henry II. At Aquitaine, Dermot made his pitch; with an Angevin army at his back he could conquer Ireland and hold it as king offering loyalty to Henry.

What Dermot got from Henry were many gifts and a letter offering permission to Norman lords to support him in his efforts in Ireland. While not exactly what he wanted, Dermot converted this eventually into Strongbow’s successful expedition to Ireland in 1170. With remarkably few men and resources, the Normans confounded the Irish with tactical speed and martial prowess, seized Leinster, captured Dublin, and put the High King’s besieging army to flight. Married to Dermot’s daughter, Strongbow was poised to become a local king in Ireland.

Quite why such few men could wreck such havoc and secure such speedy success is knotty story. Suffice to say that without centralised authority and the kind of resources that go with it (from fortified cities to bureaucracies and revenues) the Irish were uniquely vulnerable to the precise and organised application of force that was a specialty of the Normans. With their relatively primitive methods of warfare, the Irish were little match for the most formidable warriors in Europe, warriors who were moreover familiar with the tactics of Celtic societies thanks to their experiences fighting the Welsh.

The stunning and rapid success of Strongbow no doubt came as much of a surprise to Henry as to the Irish. It was undoubtedly a distraction from his main concern to hold his nascent Angevin Empire together. But he had a more immediate need to avoid being in continental Europe. He was being held accountable for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

To understand how Henry had been so instrumental in this act, one must put it in the context of Henry’s efforts to forge the Angevin Empire. Had it endured as a true empire might, Henry himself might rank more prominently in the pantheon of great European leaders.  Eventually however it would be occluded by the rise of France under Louis VII and then Philip, Henry’s rivals from the House of Capet. Henry was in fact a vassal of these kings and there is no real sign that he seriously contemplated a direct challenge.  In fact he backed down from such when he retreated from the siege of Toulouse in 1160.  Had he forced the issue and seized Toulouse, Henry’s domain would have stretched from the Scottish borders to the Mediterranean, through the most fertile and rich lands in Europe, a wedge through England and France that linked up with the ports and trade on the Mediterranean coast.  It would have represented one of the greatest trade routes with all of the taxes and impositions flooding Henry’s treasury.  With this wealth, he would have been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Capetians and their stronghold in Paris. Europe’s future had turned on Henry’s decision to respect his feudal obligations and withdraw the siege.

An unexpected consequence of Henry’s withdrawal was a breach with his Chancellor and bosom friend, Thomas Becket.  Becket, who had raised and led a large force of knights in the campaign, had urged Henry to press home his attack on Toulouse, even with Louis inside the citadel.  Louis had come to the aid of the Count of Toulouse, daring his vassal Henry to break faith with his solemn feudal oath of loyalty.  With his advice so publicly rejected, it was only a matter of time before Becket would have to quit as Henry’s chief advisor.  Yet in easing Becket out by granting him the Archbishopric of Canterbury in April 1161, Henry fashioned a rod for his own back.  Becket turned from glamorous and powerful member of the court to an ascetic religious devotee who put himself forward as a champion of the Church against the State’s incursions on their traditional rights.

Over the better part of a decade, Becket’s pointed obduracy did neither the Church nor the State any favours and Becket managed by his unrelenting defiance of Henry to upset both sides.  Evidently Beckett may have changed in appearance and commitments but one aspect of his character did not change, however much the outward form did – his pride.

It is not a recorded fact of history that Henry actually uttered the famous imprecation “who will rid me of this turbulent priest!” But whatever he said that December 1170, a group of knights took it literally as an invitation to assassination and travelled post haste to England.  Henry realised their fatal mission too late to stop them.  There were some comic-tragic scenes as the four knights waited in the Cathedral with other petitioners looking for the Archbishop’s advice and support.  Words were exchanged between the haughty Becket and the apparently hapless assassins. Becket could have disappeared into the stony labyrinth of corridors and chambers but he did not hide.  With a defiant and dramatic gesture he knelt to pray.  A sword  swung, slicing off his cranium. Another sword pinioned his brain and threw its delicate pulp to the floor.

Henry would never really escape the shadow of this murder, though the Church was not long in absolving him.  There is no doubting his remorse at the death of this friend, at the awful personal alchemy that had turned their friendship to animosity.  A papal interdict was on its way to impose a punishment on Henry. Against the backdrop of condemnation across Europe, Henry prepared to travel to Ireland and deal with Strongbow.

Henry assembled a formidable force at Pembroke. If Strongbow’s success in Ireland was a distraction, it seems in the circumstances to have been a welcome one. The outcry in Europe needed to settle down. Moreover, in going to Ireland Henry appeared to offer the kind of intervention that was essential to reforming the Irish Church. Indeed Pope Alexander III warmly welcomed Henry’s intervention there. Warren: “He wrote to the Irish bishops, to the Irish ‘kings and princes’ and to Henry himself hailing it as the will of God.” Henry’s Irish adventure was currying favour just when and from where he needed it.

By including siege equipment, Henry’s preparations signalled his real intentions. He meant to take Dublin, the castles and the ports if the Normans holding them were unwilling to hand them over to royal control. Strongbow arrived in Pembroke from Ireland and told him what he wanted to hear. He would surrender everything in return for being allowed to hold Leinster as a fief (Warren, p 200). Henry travelled to Ireland determined to ensure this outcome. He met with no opposition from either Normans or Gaels. Save for Rory O’Connor, the High King, and the kings of the north, the Irish kings, Irish clergy and Normans alike offered submission and recognition to Henry as their lord. Henry focused on imposing order on the Normans. He brought over Hugh de Lacy to control Meath and Dublin, making him effectively viceroy. Along with Dublin, Waterford and Wexford were brought under royal garrison. Strongbow was to hold Leinster as a lord.  Henry was intent on ensuring that on one Norman would emerge as a dominant force in Ireland.

Henry’s arrangements in Ireland were consistent with his policies throughout the Angevin Empire in ensuring royal control over cities, ports and castles. He had greatly reduced the number of castles held by barons in England as part of his pacification for castles represented resistance to central control. Any lord could hold land but only trusted lords could hold power. Strongbow’s old allegiance in the Anarchy still haunted and poisoned his relationship with Henry.

In terms of the Irish, Henry proceeded with very considerable delicacy. He did not demand homage but rather loyalty and tribute, an obligation that was personal and without feudal significance in terms of land tenure. Warren interprets this as a lesson from his attempt to exert control over the Welsh with as little force as possible (pp 201-202).

Thus it was that when Henry made terms with the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, in the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, Rory offered his loyalty not his homage and recognised Henry as Lord of Ireland. In not becoming a vassal of Henry, Rory was free to be High King. Henry hoped that this model would be as successful in Ireland as it had been in Wales where the native kings, having offered loyalty to the English crown, had been able to exert their dominance as local rulers over their kin.

Alas not so in Ireland; Rory was High King in name only and his lack of dominance in Munster threatened a return to the kind of free-for-all land grab that offered rich pickings for adventurous Norman lords. Henry wished to avoid this but he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. To exert full control of the situation, he would need to launch a full-scale invasion. He was not willing to undertake that expense. On the other, he was not prepared to let the Normans loose and potentially create a rival kingdom. Between these options Ireland was effectively partitioned between the lands held by the Normans and the rest of the country under the Irish kings. The Irish kings were so intent on their internal regnal wars that they were happy to engage the support of Normans in their conflicts. And the Normans were happy to do so because it provided them with opportunities to seize land, which they did frequently, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. Though distrusted by Henry, Lords like Hugh de Lacy and Strongbow, attuned to native ways, were able to balance Norman and Irish interests when discharging their duties as Henry’s viceroy but the situation was inherently unstable.

Henry’s last attempt to resolve the situation in Ireland was to end the partition by establishing an Irish kingdom under his son John. Ireland was an opportunity to help sort out Henry’s succession as between his rival sons. John arrived in 1185 and was so effective at alienating both the Normans and the Irish that he had to withdraw within nine months, just before papal approval for his reign had arrived from Rome. This failure was highly consequential for it left Ireland balanced between its Gaelic sphere and swathes of Norman domain that demanded the protection of the crown if and when threatened by the native Irish. It also left Rome unhappy for Henry had made little serious effort to reform the Irish Church.  John though kept the title of Lord of Ireland so when he became king of England in 1199, the title passed to the crown, passed down to his successors.

Warren judges that if Henry’s policy in Ireland was a failure, he is at least absolved of the charge of “acquisitive ambition”. Yet he cannot be absolved of the consequences of his intervention both in granting Dermot the original license to recruit Norman mercenaries and in his subsequent hapless attempts to manage their presence.

For the Normans in Ireland, as they famously and ruefully understood, they were English to the Irish but Irish to the English. Crown control in Ireland would be exercised as economically as possible through the kind of skilful diplomacy pioneered by Hugh de Lacy. The family that would most successfully balance the partition between Norman and Irish were the FitzGeralds, exploiting the uneasy existence of both Norman and Gaelic laws to expand their own territorial holdings. They had landed as one of the core family groups in the original invasion in 1169 and 1170. The success of the FitzGeralds over the next four hundred years would make them the most influential family in Ireland and absolve the English crown of much expense or concern about Irish matters while they held sway.

However, the limitations on the Norman presence in Ireland meant that as a group they were in turn vulnerable to absorption by the wider Gaelic society in which they operated and into which they married; becoming as was famously described ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. By the time Tudors emerged, the Normans in Ireland had become the Old English and their commitment to their Catholicism damned them in New English Protestant eyes as disloyal and treacherous as the native Irish. When the Tudors launched a major effort to conquer and colonise Ireland, the Norman Irish would suffer much as the native Gaelic did in the wars and dispossessions that ensued.

The arrival and enduring presence of the Normans in Ireland was shaped then by the politics of the Angevin Empire.  Certainly they seized vast tracks of land but given the prevalence of wars among the petty Irish kings it can hardly be said that they disturbed any kind of prevailing peace. Where Norman influence was strongest, greater peace and stability tended to prevail.  Moreover, the Normans brought much to Ireland that could not be found in a Gaelic polity that was tribal, rural, and pastoral in its makeup.  They  brought cities, towns, castles, harbours, villages, cottages, manors, markets and new farming.  They vastly boosted Irish overseas trade.  They endowed Abbeys and increased exposure to European culture at a time when Europe was undergoing something of a renaissance in learning.

Did the Normans then interrupt and effectively thwart a nascent Irish state as nationalists argued? Can the Normans be held accountable for something that did not happen?

I am not sure that they can.  There is really little evidence in Ireland of the centralising forces shaping their European neighbours.The incessant regnal wars in Ireland continued with little evolution toward a nation state that could ultimately resist the invasion of the Normans or the predations of the Tudors centuries later.  This was in no small measure due to land tenure: in feudal Europe land tenure was contingent on loyalty and this acted as a serious incentive to fulfil obligations and duties and a disincentive to rebellion.  Irish kings, whether at the local, provincial or national level, had little or no such leverage relying instead on Brehon laws and customs, enforced by hostage taking and raids.  The higher up the chain of kingship one went, the weaker the obligations became.  Another key weakness was inheritance: the failure of primogenitor to emerge as an accepted method for succession as it had done in Western Europe during the 12th century.  Absent primogenitor, succession in Ireland was determined by force, a combination of personal and military power in virtual ceaseless competition within and between extended families. And so too consequently did the practice of sibling blindings and other mutilations to reduce the competition within families, not to mention the killing of hostages.

Instructively, Brian Ború may have defeated the Danes in 1014 but Dublin stayed a Viking settlement rather than become capital of a Gaelic Irish society.  The Irish seemed as indifferent and diffident about cities in 1014 as they were in 1170 when Strongbow tenuously held Dublin. Again this points to a critical distinction between Ireland and her neighbours: the Romans never came to Ireland.  Unlike her nearest neighbours England and France, for example, Ireland had no palimpsest of urbanity and Roman laws and organisation to force the pace of centralisation and state building.

Ború’s family had quickly disintegrated as a political force after his death at the scene of battle.  In the one hundred and fifty five years between Clontarf and the arrival of the Normans, no subsequent contender for the High Kingship really came close to making that title meaningful.  Had one done so he might have quickly repulsed the small band of Normans and eliminated the need for Henry to assert Angevin control over his Norman lords in Ireland.

Even here there is room for doubt: the High King Rory O’Connor mustered a large force outside Dublin which even if not the reputed 30,000, it would have vastly outnumbered the Normans.  Yet it was put to flight by well timed sallies from three small companies of Normans and Rory slinked home westward to his Connaught fastness. As we have seen, when Henry II arrived in 1171, he was met with something like relief by the Irish who sensed an opportunity to put order on the ferocious and successful Norman adventurers that Dermot had invited into their midst.

It is still fascinating to conjecture what Ireland might have been like without the Normans and inclusion within the Angevin Empire.  Orpen offered this as a neat summary of this counter-factual fancy, the better to dispose of it: “Had Ireland been allowed to go her way unheeded by Europe, she might in time, and after much suffering, have evolved a better ordered system with some hope of progress in it, and the world might have seen a Celtic civilisation where Celtic imagination and Celtic genius, free and unfettered, would assuredly have contributed something towards the solution of human problems, which, as it is, mankind has missed forever.  But it was not to be.”


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