On the 850th anniversary of the Norman invasion of Ireland, Ruadh Butler, author of the Invader series of novels and descendant of a leading Anglo-Norman family, looks at the impact of this ‘other conquest’.
No matter your take on Brexit, or your hopes for the future of the United Kingdom (or its constituent parts), one thing has been made abundantly clear: the fractious relationship between the islands of Britain and Ireland, and the status of that bothersome land border between the EU and UK, has cast a long shadow over proceedings.
It is perhaps fitting then as we edge towards Brexit (orderly, otherwise or, whisper it quietly, even at all) that it happens in a ‘big’ anniversary year of the events that would begin that complicated history between the two island neighbours and lead inexorably towards the creation of the border which would so frustrate the efforts of the British government to exit the European Union.
850 years ago, in the early evening of 1 May 1169, three small square-rigged and single-masted longships pulled into Bannow Bay on Ireland’s south coast. They made land on a small island at the mouth of the estuary. On board were some four hundred warriors speaking at least three different languages – Norman-French, Welsh and Flemish – and who were packed in alongside a couple of hundred horses, supplies and a huge cache of weaponry.
As they harboured overnight in a small cove in the bay, they couldn’t have known that within a few months, their motley band would go on to conquer the ‘Viking’ longfort of Wexford or face down a huge army led by the High King of Ireland. Within a year they would overwhelm every major native family in the provincial Kingdom of Leinster, put an exiled king back on his throne, and storm the walls of Dublin and Waterford, beginning an 800-year hold over the two cities. Within a decade they would be part of armies that would invade and conquer over half of the country.
The Emerald Isle would never be the same again because of those 400 men. The Normans had come to Ireland.
For centuries preceding 1169, Ireland had been made up of around 150 petty kingdoms, each with its own political, judicial and economic bureaucracy. Each state fought with their neighbours to be recognised as one of five provincial rulers, an outcome rubber-stamped by the taking of hostages and cattle tribute. The provincial rulers also clashed so that one would be acknowledged by the others as the dominant king (sometimes called High King).
This process led to almost continual warfare with rulers constantly facing challenge on a local, regional and country-wide basis. Often the most vicious challenge to a king’s authority came from within their own family unit.
In 1166, one provincial ruler, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, was expelled from his kingdom by his rival, Rory O’Connor of Connacht. Having forced the submission of every other opponent, Rory then declared himself to be High King. Dermot, however, refused to fade into obscurity, and journeyed to Aquitaine to meet with the King of England, Henry II.
There, Dermot offered his allegiance to Henry in return for military help in reclaiming Leinster. Henry, being then committed to his own conflicts with the King of France, his rebellious subjects, and Archbishop Thomas Becket, refused. But he did grant Dermot a licence to engage any baron as a mercenary.
The 400 who landed at Bannow Bay in 1169 were merely the first group of mercenary warriors to come to Dermot’s aid. They were led by the half-brothers, Robert FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald, but they would soon be joined by an even bigger force in August 1170 under Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke – better known as Strongbow.
In October 1171, King Henry crossed the Irish Sea with a 4,000-strong army after reneging on his licence and deciding that he must subdue FitzStephen and Strongbow before they could become rivals to his authority.
It would be the beginning of a relationship which still affects the political landscape of Britain and Ireland today and has given us some of the most ‘Irish’ elements of modern Ireland.
One of the most obvious lasting contributions of the Norman invaders was their development of towns in Ireland. Cities such as Dublin and Limerick had been founded by Danish and Norse settlers in the three centuries before 1169, but these quickly expanded and were rebuilt by the Normans.
Following his arrival, King Henry II received the submission of many Irish kings in Leinster and Munster. He quickly began granting parts of these estates to his Norman followers. Motte and bailey castles soon popped up across the country alongside new churches, bridges, cathedrals and monasteries.
Within a few years these were rebuilt in stone, and the Norman barons had to bring in craftsmen to assist them. Castles peppered the land and walled towns like Kilkenny, Clonmel, Galway, Buttevant and Fethard began to appear, and this in turn stimulated trade and settlement and growth.
The Gaelic economy was based primarily on the raising of cattle and the trade of products such as milk, butter, and cheese. Arable agriculture did exist, but on a small scale in comparison to dairy and beef farming. Under the Normans production of wheat, oats and barley grew enormously to meet the demand of the new settlers. So, the modern view of Ireland with green, bountiful fields could be understood as the work of the newcomers.
Before the Norman arrival, Ireland had been a land of slaves and Dublin had been at the very heart of the European slave trade for several centuries. The Normans abhorred slavery and began ‘freeing’ them and granting them small parcels of land. Feudalism for those at the bottom of society was little better than slavery, but it did provide these serfs with hope of improving their lot and that of their families.
On a social and cultural level, the invaders were changed by Ireland. The generations that followed became a ‘middle-people’ – not quite Irish and not quite English, but a mix of the two. They embraced the Irish language and Brehon Law, intermarrying with the Gael and trading with them as often as they fought them, but they still retained elements tying them to England.
By 1366, King Edward III’s son, the Duke of Clarence, decided that this process of cultural exchange had gone too far, and he enacted laws to reverse their descent into barbarity (as he saw it). The Statutes of Kilkenny were unsuccessful in preventing families such as Walsh, Burke, Fitzgerald and Butler from becoming highly Gaelicised. By the same token, the Normans had the effect of Anglicising many of the native families into whom they married with families such as O’Brien and Fitzpatrick prime among them.
Henry II had been confirmed to the title of Lord of Ireland by Pope Alexander III in 1171. Not bad for a chap who was still being blamed for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Pope Alexander’s reason for this munificence was, of course, money.
The Irish Church had evolved separately to that of the rest of Europe and had rarely, if ever, sent tithes to Rome. Henry’s invasion allowed him to force conformity upon the Irish Church and soon riches began flowing into the coffers of the Papal See from her newly subjugated province. Everywhere in Ireland the Latin rite became the norm.
It is strange that it was the influence of the invaders from Britain which led the Irish to become more staunchly tied to the Papacy than they had been before. Defence of their Catholic rights would become a clarion call for rebels following Henry VIII’s break from Rome.
King Henry II’s six months in Ireland saw him set up a skeleton political framework which would become one of the most long-lasting effects of the Norman invasion. Aligned with the new governmental and judicial administrations which he had developed in England, Henry began the process of centralising the fractured Gaelic system into a parliament based in Dublin (which first sat in 1297).
Brehon Law – the ancient Irish legal system – continued to be practiced for many centuries (even by the descendants of the invaders) but politically his foundations would mature and eventually grasp power away from the warring Norman barons and Gaelic kings and give it into the hands of the centralised parliament in the Royal enclave of Dublin. In fact, it was this most Irish of cities that would remain the most steadfastly loyal to the English crown through the years, continuing to resolutely claim allegiance when the rest of the country – Irish and Anglo-Norman alike – ignored royal commands.
And while it was this foothold in Ireland that opened the door for all the history that followed in Ireland, it was perhaps the influx of new blood and new ideas that is the most lasting consequence of 1169 and those 400 men who arrived on the Irish shore on this day 850 years ago.
Bannow Bay: supplied by the author
Dermot MacMurrough and Strongbow (both from Expugnatio Hibernica by Gerald of Wales): supplied by the author
Town walls, Galway : via Wikimedia
Trim Castle by David Dixon: via Geograph
Read Ruadh’s Historia feature about how Norman military prowess relied on adopting and adapting ideas from conquered cultures.