“I have not thought it part of my duty to pass moral judgements on anybody….To understand an action he must regard it from the point of view of the actor and with reference to the circumstances in which the actor stood.”
Gooddard H. Opren, Preface to Ireland Under the Normans 1169-1333 (1911, 1920)
I’ve written before about Strongbow’s reputation in Ireland. If it amounts to much – and it doesn’t really – it is a portrait of an indecisive and hesitant man who belatedly joins the invasion a year after its begun, marries the local princess Aoife, and then fades from the scene.
I think this is a misreading. I’d argue that Strongbow was an archetypal Norman lord, a man who found himself in a very tricky situation and boldly extricated himself. He showed the qualities that made the Normans such a formidable force from Western Europe to the Middle East – vision, preparedness, calculation, and audacity deployed with great precision.
Strongbow as a sobriquet had nothing to do with bows and arrows: nobles trained as mounted cavalry with lances and swords. It may have been one inherited from his father, Gilbert de Clare, or indeed imposed by posterity, even perhaps a corruption of his seat, Strigoil or Striguil, now Chepstow.
Strongbow’s name was Richard de Clare and his title Earl of Strigoil. Like his father, he was a marcher lord, meaning that he lived and warred at the borders of the realm, between England and Wales. Marcher lords enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy, acting as local judicial figures and pretty much at war or at least on guard constantly. Richard’s domaine Pembrokeshire, southern Wales (Deheubarth to the Welsh). He craved his father’s title, Earl of Pembroke. In feudal society, an earl was second only to a duke, the highest rank short of royalty.
However, the king, Henry II, was unlikely to grant it to him. Henry II had come to the throne via his mother, the Empress Matilda, Henry I’s daughter. When Henry I died without a male heir, the crown was contested between Matilda and his nephew, Stephen of Blois. Matilda had grown up in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor and her heavy German accent and apparent lack of charm didn’t win her many allies, not enough to secure the throne. Nor could Stephen accrue enough support for an outright win. The ensuring civil war, dubbed the Anarchy by Victorian historians, lasted from virtually the start of Stephen’s reign in 1135 until his death in 1154. By prior agreement, Matilda’s son Henry (Duke of Normandy via his father Geoffrey from whom the Plantagenets descend) assumed the throne on Stephen’s death.
The problem for Strongbow was that his father, Gilbert, had supported Stephen. Stephen had in fact made Gilbert the First Earl of Pembroke. Henry II then had two reasons not to recognise Richard as the Second Earl; the earldom had been created by Stephen and had been occupied by those who had sided against his mother. Henry was not a man likely to admit Strongbow into his favour, though he would tolerate Richard as a marcher lord on the edges of his realm.
Strongbow faced local pressures too. The Welsh were resurgent under the Lord Rhys (Princess Nest was his aunt), pushing back against the Norman colony. The threat was serious enough for Henry II to mount several expeditions but the campaign of 1165 ended ignominiously under drenching rain and Welsh aggression. In a rare military setback, Henry II sued for terms and returned most of Rhys’s territory. Their compact turned into an alliance with Rhys even being granted the role of Justiciar in 1171, effectively the governor of south Wales. This was all very bad news for the Cambro-Norman colony.
As the wheel of fortune turned against Strongbow, another local magnate, in Ireland, was in trouble. Dermot MacMurrough, king of Uí Chinnseallagh (Southern Wexford) and sometime king of Leinster, found himself uncharacteristically isolated when Rory O’Connor became High King of Ireland. Dermot had been allied with his father, the great Turlough Mór O’Connor, but father and son had been at odds. Dermot’s bitter enemy, Tiernan O’Rourke, allied with Rory, seized his chance and Dermot was sent into exile in 1166. Rory was now in a powerful position and poised to be Ireland’s first High King in more than name only since Brian Ború. He faced a strategic weakness in that his base in Connaught was on the other side of the island to Dublin, the emergent capital.
Meanwhile Strongbow met with Dermot who bore a letter patent from Henry II approving aid in Dermot’s quest to regain his kingdom. The temptation was as sweet as it was dangerous for Strongbow. Dermot’s offer of fertile land aplenty in Ireland for Strongbow and his men was enticing for a colony under such pressure. Yet Strongbow could not be sure of military success is the wilds of Ireland, however much experience he and his followers had of fighting the Welsh. Nor could he be sure that Henry would tolerate his reach for a new lordship. The costs of failure would likely mean a precipitous fall in status from which recovery would be unlikely under the cold eye of the king. Yet success could also mean the ire of the king, annoyed at Strongbow’s boldness is seeking a virgin lordship beyond his realm.
Clearly, Strongbow could see the possibilities. Leinster, unlike most of Ireland, was well known across the sea, particularly in Wales, Bristol and Chester which traded with the settlements of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin. While urban settlements were disregarded by the Gaelic Irish and not well fortified, the Normans understood that cities were the key to conquest and sources of revenue to pay for war, debts and trade.
The Norman approach to warfare was in its professionalism formidable: disciplined formations aided by archers and heavy cavalry won engagements decisively; this was followed by the quick erection of fortifications to hold land seized in battle; and then settle it with followers.
In contrast, the Irish fought wearing little armour, bareback on horses, used darts and stones rather than archery, and moved quickly to raid and return home.
With marriage to Aoife, Strongbow would have a claim under feudal law, to the title of Lord of Leinster. With the Cambro-Norman colony under such pressure, he would likely not be short of followers to enfeoff lands won by the sword.
The sequence of events testifies to Strongbow’s stealthy approach. Dermot goes back to Ireland first, re-establishes his rule in Uí Chinnseallagh, and raids around Dublin without much response from Rory. The Cambro-Norman FitzGeralds lead the way in seizing Wexford and then the headland of Baginbun near Waterford. The forces they bring with them are small but elite and prove devastatingly effectively against the far looser style of Irish warfare. Risking the ire of Henry II, Strongbow goes ahead with the invasion of his main force and once he lands in Ireland, almost two years after Dermot’s return, his forces lose no time in seizing Waterford and marching on Dublin. Strongbow clearly knows what he’s about; with these three cities under his control, he is master of Leinster. Once seized, Dublin remains in foreign hands for 750 years, from 1170 until January 1922, with the short exception of Easter week, 1916.
Henry II follows up with his own arrival in Ireland in 1171, accompanied by a mighty force that has more pageantry about it than military intent. Strongbow submits to him and surrenders the cities to the crown: Strongbow can have Leinster but not the means to power in Ireland. Henry woos the Irish kings who mostly submit to him as their Lord. Henry imposes his own men in authority over Strongbow, like Hugh de Lacy. In his Connaught fastness, Rory O’Connor holds out until he agrees a treaty with Henry II. He will be the last Gael to aspire to the kingship of Ireland.
Despite conspiracy theories and beliefs, the Norman invasion was not an ambition of the English crown. In fact, a proposal to invade Ireland had been put to Henry some years previously and he had passed up on the chance. When he did come to Ireland, he did so to ensure that Strongbow would not contend to create his own rival kingdom. He was also ducking the censure of Rome for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Henry II settled with the partial invasion of Ireland he had found there, content to have Irish kings submit to him, and then returned to England and the trials of holding his Angevin domain together.
How does the Norman invasion fit into the broader developments in Europe? It is important to see it in this wider context.
The fall of the Roman Empire and the dissolution of order that came in its wake allowed the Viking age. Defeat at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 frustrated the creation of a Viking kingdom in Ireland. The Anglo-Saxon defeat of Harald Hardrada in September 1066 under the leadership of Harold II put paid to the last chance of a new Viking kingdom in England and indeed brought to a close the Viking Age. The following month, Harold II faced a formidable new foe in the form of the Normans under William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings. Norman victory was a pivotal event for it meant that the centre of European influence moved decisively from the north to the south, to Rome, the spiritual and very often political centre of the Normans. Western Europe and its nation states as we know them began to take shape under the dual influence of kings and popes.
The engagement of Ireland in this wider narrative in Western Europe lurched forward with Strongbow, Henry II and the Normans arrival in Ireland. The partial invasion that followed, often facilitated by rival Irish kings using Normans to sway battles in their favour, created two Irelands, a Norman and Gaelic. Their interaction would drive politics until the hammer of the Tudors fell on the island.
Yet this is not the full story. There were other forces at work in both Ireland and England that were moving to bind Ireland into the revolution and reforms underway in 12th century Europe. They were driven by a belief that Ireland was violent, unstable and morally degenerate.
Its tempting to think that Dermot McMurrough saw himself as a harbinger of a more Europeanised Ireland, with he as king of Ireland under the benign and somewhat removed suzerainty of Henry II. Dermot died in Ferns in May 1171, too soon to realise his grander ambitions. So Strongbow stands alone as the decisive figure whose audacity pivoted Ireland toward England and the mainstream of European developments. Indeed, the Norman colony he founded in Ireland would have its ups and downs but its influence was decisive in shaping our modern history.
Yet its drama conceals the work of those other forces at work which conspired to dramatically change Ireland and its relationship to Europe. More anon.