Ruadh Butler explains how Norman military prowess relied on adopting and adapting ideas from conquered cultures.
Thanks to a 12th century ancestor I find myself an Irishman bearing an English version of a Norman word for a Frankish court position as a surname.
While identity in Ireland always makes an interesting subject, the background to the Butler surname should give something of an idea about how complex the cultural make-up of the Normans had become by the 1170s, when my ancestor assumed the name in the aftermath of their invasion of Ireland.
The perennial bad guys, my paternal ancestors come with a reputation of imposing their iron will upon the defeated nations without mercy. Yet, more rapidly than any other, this was a people who proved willing to adapt, adopt and remould ideas taken from those countries where their conquering spirit took them. Diversity of ideas was vital to their success. They were magpie-like in their willingness to change.
Their readiness to adopt new ideas plays a major part in my new book, Lord of the Sea Castle, when a tiny army of Welsh-Normans took on the might of Viking Waterford in the summer of 1170. Outnumbered by perhaps twenty to one, their use of disciplines, lessons and manpower drawn from all the lands through which their ancestors had passed would be all that stood between them and annihilation.
By the twelfth century the Normans had been on the move for almost three hundred years. While others were constrained by national borders, they saw a frontier as little more than a challenge. They had arrived in France as seaborne fortune-hunters from across Scandinavia in the late ninth century and had won lands based around Rouen.
“Without laying aside that dauntless valour which terrorised every land from the Elbe to the Pyrenees, the Normans rapidly acquired … the knowledge and refinement which they found in the country where they settled,” wrote Brian Fitzgerald in his book, The Geraldines.
Triumph in battle was followed by marriage alliance with local leading families and it was by this path that the transfer of knowledge between immigrant and native was chiefly conducted.
Even the son of Rollo, the Northmen’s first leader, was admonished by his father’s followers for becoming too French in his outlook – speaking their language, embracing Christianity, and even acting chivalrously. The second generation were no longer simply Scandinavian, but had become something different.
By the time they pushed northwards into Anglo-Saxon England, alongside William the Conqueror, another five generations of new concepts had been adopted from various continental nations neighbouring the duchy. When they landed in Sussex in October 1066, they did so in longboats which their Norse and Danish forefathers would’ve recognised. Contained within those vessels was something the Vikings would’ve thought quite strange: two thousand warhorses. Their use is indicative of ideas picked up and adapted from the French model. The warhorse and the castle supplemented their already considerable skill as infantry and sailor.
England, of course, could not constrain these men of boundless energy and greed. Within twenty years they had started their conquests across the Severn into Wales, taking estates across Dyfed, Deheubarth and Glamorgan. They married into royal Welsh lineages almost immediately, learning their mothers’ language and customs as quickly as they had those of the Franks.
“Nationalism was scarcely known to these men who come over a century ago as Frenchmen and had not yet become English,” Edmund Curtis wrote in his History of Ireland. “Adaptability was their genius, and proud as they were of their own blood, speech and traditions, they were ready to treat as equals any race that they could respect and freely to intermarry with it.”
Their deployment in Ireland should give some idea of just how much the Normans and their tactics had adapted to suit new challenges in Wales. While only a quarter of William the Conqueror’s force at Hastings had been archers, the early Norman armies in Ireland were two-thirds bowmen. Their eighty-year struggle to subdue the independent kingdoms of South Wales had shown them the power of the weapon and they had quickly adopted it, moulding it to their own ideas. The Normans of 1066 had used archers merely as skirmishers to soften up strong Anglo-Saxon formations so that they could be cut down by heavy cavalry. Fighting a hundred years later, the Normans in Ireland – led by the little-known but brilliant Raymond de Carew – reversed this tactic, using horsemen to threaten the enemy’s flanks and force them to bunch up. It would be Raymond’s Welsh archers who would deliver the killing blow.
Raymond de Carew had only a hundred men with him on the southern Irish coast and so, like William’s castle at Pevensey, he quickly fortified a defensible position with high walls and ditches. Castle building, learned in France, would create a safe haven from which to launch Norman offensives. They probably conversed through a mixture of languages – Welsh, French, Breton, Flemish, and possibly even Cornish and English. All that united them was their common goal of conquest.
I started this piece by talking about my descent from a Norman. It is what inspired me to write. Yet throughout I have talked about ‘the’ Normans rather than ‘we’ Normans and of course this is a result of that same inclination of theirs to adapt. The Butlers followed the pattern set down by their forefathers and sought marriages with influential women in Ireland. Within a few generations they had famously become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. Their ability to adopt culture and ideas was critical to their success and led to their absorption into the very culture into which they had first gone as invaders.
Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland and Lord of the Sea Castle, published on 1 June 2017. The series tells the story of the FitzGerald family from Wales and their part in the Norman Invasion of Ireland.
- Trim Castle, Ireland © Anna & Michal, Flickr
- Plaque commemorating the events of 1170 at Baginbun Point in County Wexford when Raymond de Carew defeated at army of 3,000 Vikings with just 100 men © Ruadh Butler
- Raymond de Carew from Expugnatio Hibernica by Gerald of Wales, National Library of Ireland