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The Anglo-French (Norman) Invasion
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Historians are agreed that English and French involvement in Ireland was an historical inevitability, but the surprising manner in which it actually happened could not have been foreseen at the time.

Strongbow in Ireland:
As discussed in the previous section, Dairmait Mac Murchada the King of Leinster had been expelled from Ireland after being defeated by King Rory O'Connor of Connacht and the Dubliners. A ruthless warrior now humiliated by defeat, Mac Murchada's only goal was to win back his Kingdom. With this in mind, he sailed to Britain and sought a meeting with King Henry 2nd of England in 1166, in the hope that Henry might help him in his quest.


Historians are divided as to what to call the people who came to Ireland in 1169. Although many came from England, many other barons came to Ireland from France. The Normans (from northern France) had taken over English government only 100 years before. Therefore, historians variously use the terms "Cambro- Norman", "Anglo- Norman", "Anglo- French" or simply "Norman". Here we use "Anglo- French", but any of the above terms is acceptable. As time went on, and England evolved, the term gets replaced with the more modern word "English".

King Henry met Mac Murchada, but was reluctant to help him. He had just become King, and his hold over England was still weak and he did not wish to start an expensive war. Nevertheless, he had been given permission by the Pope shortly before to claim Ireland as part of his kingdom in order to reform the Church. As a compromise, he authorised Mac Murchada to privately recruit anyone he could from the English populace but had no more to do with the matter himself.

Mac Murchada then travelled to Bristol, on the west coast of England, where he recruited the Earl of Pembroke, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare (better known as Strongbow) as well as a handful of lesser Anglo-French barons including Robert FitzStephen, Richard FitzGodebert, Maurice FitzGerald, Raymond le Gros and Milo de Cogan. (See a note on Norman names.) Strongbow was no friend of King Henry, and the feeling was mutual - he had opposed Henry's bid for the throne and was paying for it by being ignored. In return for helping him win back his kingdom, Mac Murchada promised Strongbow his daughter Aoife in marriage and the Kingdom of Leinster upon Mac Murchada's death. The lesser barons were promised land, including the Viking city of Wexford. Since he had little future in England, the prospect of inheriting an entire kingdom in Ireland must have been very appealing to Strongbow.

Returning to Ireland in 1167, Mac Murchada had to wait two years for his reinforcements to arrive. In May 1169 the lesser barons that had been recruited in Wales arrived with 600 archers and cavalry, and recruited 500 Irishmen loyal to Mac Murchada to swell their army further. With this they managed to force the Viking city of Weisfjord (Wexford) to submit once again to King Mac Murchada. He gave Wexford and the surrounding area to these lesser Welsh barons as payment. After further successes which saw him regain much of his kingdom as well as the allegiance of Dublin, he signed a treaty with O'Connor that allowed him to be restored as King of Leinster, provided he recognised O'Connor as High King.

Ireland in 1171 [14kB]However, Mac Murchada had grown greedy and began to plot how he might use his new Welsh allies to usurp O'Connor and become High King. He sent a message to Strongblow asking for further reinforcements, Strongbow himself landed near-present day Waterford in August 1170 with 1000 men. They attacked and defeated the Viking city of Vadrefjord (Waterford), thereby breaking the treaty with O'Connor. Mac Murchada kept his word to Strongbow and gave him his daughter Aoife as wife, and thereby Strongbow became heir to Leinster's throne. Strongbow's men then went north, attacked and defeated Dublin expelling its Norse leader, Lord MacTorkil, in a boat.

The situation changed suddenly in May 1171 when King Dairmait Mac Murchada died and Strongbow was crowned King Richard of Leinster, after suppressing a short-lived revolt, and became the first non-native to be King of an Irish province. The other Kings in Ireland were astounded at how quickly and successfully an Anglo-French Lord had become legitimally established in Ireland. After mustering an army of 60,000 and aided by the exiled Lord MacTorkil of Dublin, King O'Connor laid siege to Dublin. However, Strongbow turned the tables by storming out from the city walls and defeated O'Connor with the superior Anglo-French military technology and tactics. O'Connor retired humiliated to Connacht, High King only in name. Meanwhile, other Anglo-French Lords continued to harry Leinster's old enemies, invading Mide (Meath) and sending raiding parties as far as Bréifne. The map above shows the situation in 1171 with the restoration of the Kingdom of Leinster under King Richard (Strongbow) and the continued attacks northwards. The Orange area is the extent of Anglo-French rule in Ireland.

The Ireland Story

The Anglo-French in Ireland are discussed in detail in:
"The Oxford History of Ireland"

A note on Anglo-French names: In Anglo-French custom, children were given a new first name and a surname that was their father's first name. So, for example the surname of a man who is the son of Maurice FitzPatrick would be FitzMaurice. Simiarly, the son of Gerald FitzMaurice would have the surname FitzGerald. In later times this custom stopped and people began to keep the same fixed surname.

The English King Intervenes:

When word got back to King Henry of England that the man who he knew as the Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow) had established himself as King of a province in Ireland, he was furious. The way he saw it, he had given permission for his citizens to help Mac Murchada militarily, not to rival his authority as King. Henry, rather pointlessly, issued a decree forbidding Strongbow to go to Ireland, cut off the supplies from England and set out for Ireland himself with large army arriving in Waterford in October 1171. Realising that the King could and would defeat him, Strongbow intercepted Henry before he had even arrived offering apologies and begging forgiveness.

Henry's anger must have relented for he let Strongbow remain Lord of Leinster, provided he submitted authority to the King of England. Realising that King Henry was their only hope against Strongbow's expansionism, the less powerful Irish kings decided it would be in their best interests to have him on-side. Henry thus spent quite a period receiving delegations from the Irish Kings of Munster, Bréifne, Airgialla and Ulaid (see map above) all of whom submitted to King Henry as their overlord and agreed to pay him tribute. Only the former High King, Rory O'Connor of Connacht, and the Kings of the Northern Uí Néill did not submit to Henry.

Henry carefully divided the parts of Ireland for which was now overlord. He set aside Dublin which was no longer to be part of Leinster, but rather owned by the King and chartered to the city of Bristol. The province of Meath (Mide) which had already been invaded by Strongbow's men, was instead given as a liberty (a semi-autonomous lordship) to Hugh de Lacy, a loyal supporter of Henry, which must have angered Strongbow. Henry returned to England in April 1172 leaving the provinces of Meath and Leinster ruled by two Anglo-French Lords, with Irish kings loyal to King Henry in all the remaining kingdoms other than Connacht and the northern Uí Néill. The Treaty of Windsor in 1175 between King Henry 2nd and King Rory O'Connor of Connacht recognised O'Connor as High King of all lands outside Meath and Leinster, and in turn O'Connor would collect tribute payments from those areas.

Dundonald Motte [13kB]The next few years saw de Lacy and Strongbow devote much of their energies to containing resitance across their new liberties. They established Motte-and-Bailey castles (fortified mounds with a courtyard beside them) in all troublesome areas and established the feudal system (of peasants working on lands owned by the lord) as an investment. The picture on the left shows the remains of an Anglo-French Motte-and-Bailey castle which can be seen today in Dundonald in county Down. Dozens of examples survive across Ireland.

When Strongbow died in 1176, the liberty of Leinster passed into the hands of King Henry who granted all his rights as Lord of Ireland to his youngest son Prince John. Prince John was Lord of Ireland until he became King of England in 1199, but in that time he showed little respect for the remaining Irish Kings. His courtiers famously tugged the beards of Irish Kings who came to see him.

In the lands that had been secured by the Anglo-French, an extensive process of colonisation took place. Agricultural estates were established, and market towns established to sell the goods locally, nationally and to the rest of Europe. English, Welsh, French and Belgian settlers arrived to settle the lands of the Anglo-French Lords, while the Irish who remained were reduced to the status of serfs working on the estates. For most poor Irish this was largely academic: there wasn't a noticeable change to their quality of life. But things were different for the old Irish aristocracy, practically none of whom was able to retain their status and lifestyle. For more details of life under the Anglo-French, see the Everyday Life section below.

Anglo-French Expansion and the Irish Reaction:

The expansion of the Anglo-French colony in Ireland continued under the Lordship of Prince John in the period 1170 to the end of the 1200s. The response of the Irish Kings was largely to submit to the more powerful invaders. However, the general populace was less enthusiastic and a whole area of folklore developed with retrospective predictions about the invasion and promises of a liberator who would come and free Ireland from the Anglo-French. The Anglo-French, in turn, had their own prophecies of the invasion and their destiny to succeed. The story of the expansion of the colony is largely made up of the actions of individual barons, with occasional input from the King.

By 1177, the Anglo-French ruled Leinster and Meath. The Lordship of Leinster was ruled by the King ever since Strongbow had died the previous year. The Liberty of Meath was ruled by Hugh de Lacy. The Carrickfergus Castle [11kB]expansion of the colony took off that same year when John de Courcy invaded and took over Ulaid (modern day Antrim and Down). The region became known as "Ulster", probably derived from the word "Ulaid" with the "-ster" appended to make it sound like the more prominent areas of Munster and Leinster. De Courcy founded the town of Carrickfergus the next year and began work on an elaborate castle there (see picture on the right of Carrickfergus Castle as it looks today).

To the south, in 1185, O'Brien's kingdom in eastern Munster was granted to Theobold Walter (who would found the Butler dynasty that was a key to many events in the years to come), Philip of Worcester and William de Burgh. This region of Ireland became known as "Ormond". Their armies took 8 years to subdue the region. Shortly afterwards, in 1201, William de Braose was granted land in Limerick. Meanwhile, back in Ulster, de Courcy fell out of favour with King John, who gave permission to Hugh de Lacy to invade, which he duly did, becoming Earl of Ulster himself. This title he retained apart from the period 1210-1227 when he himself fell out of favour with the King. His brother Walter de Lacy, who had inherited Meath, lost control of that lordship from 1210 to 1215.

The period 1226 to 1235 saw a protracted war in western Ireland when Richard de Burgh invaded the Irish Kingdom of Connacht. Perhaps surprised by how much the Irish had developed their military technology since the time of Strongbow, it was a hard war to win and while de Burgh did emerge with most of Connacht in his hands, it was not an easy victory. The conquest of Connacht was a famous event for several centuries. In this same period, another prominent family of the future - the FitzGeralds, or Geraldines - took possession of north Kerry and Waterford. In the 1240s they gained further land in the newly conquered lands of Connacht, Kerry and Fermanagh. They built a castle at Belleek in Fermanagh but they did not truly control the area and the local Irish lost little time in asserting their authority by burning the new castle. After that, Fermanagh reverted to Irish control.

By the middle of the 13th century, Hugh de Lacy of Ulster was dead and the Irish kings of Tyrone and Donegal stopped paying tribute entirely. When this caused little response from the English King, the Kings gained confidence and formed an alliance with the humiliated King of Connacht. In 1255 they launched a series of raids into Ulster, killing colonists and burning their towns. By 1259 the revolt had become more widespread, with the Irish of Munster revolting against the Anglo-French Lords there. In fact, in 1261, the Irish defeated an English army sent to avenge atrocities committed against colonists. However, the revolt fizzled out after this as some of the key leaders were killed. It was to be a century before the Irish would have another successful revolt against the English.

After the revolts had died down, the vacant Earldom of Ulster was granted to Walter de Burgh, who was also Lord of Connacht. When the Geraldines agreed to cede Sligo to de Burgh in 1296 it confirmed de Burgh as ruler of all of Connacht and all of Ulster, second only to the King of England in power. The territory of Thomond was granted to Thomas de Clare in 1275, the man who would eventually give his name to the modern county there. In the south, the two prominent families that were emerging were the Geraldines of Desmond (modern Cork and Limerick) and the Butlers of Ormond (modern Tipperary). The former territory of Leinster was by this stage divided into a multitude of smaller Lordships as families divided their land between heirs. Meath was divided into two - the two halves being called Trim and Meath. The Lordship of Leinster was divided into four, forming the liberties of Wexford, Kilkenny, Carlow and Kildare.

The map of Ireland around 1250 is shown by the map below. The map makes a strong distinction between Irish and Anglo-French (Norman) lands. However, it would be a mistake to believe that these regions were anything like modern frontiers, with border guards peering warily across no-mans land. In practice, the borders were blurred, with a lot of everyday movement of trade and persons to-and-fro. Anglo-French and Irish lords routinely signed agreements with each other against common foes. In later centuries, this interchange was to become so pronounced that it would be legislated against.

Ireland circa 1250 [18kB]

Anglo-French Government:
As with almost everywhere else in Europe, the Anglo-French followed the Feudal system of government. This differed from the Irish method of government in fundamental ways. Under feudalism, the King owned all land. He granted this land to Lords in return for annual tribute in the form of money, soldiers or goods. Some Lords paid their tribute by becoming a Knight, an armed nobleman, to ride with the King into battle. The Lords, in turn, granted parcels of their lordships to Peasants (ordinary people) in return for money, a soldier at time of war or some goods. Many lords set up market towns in their lordships to encourage trade and to convert goods into money. At the bottom of the hierarchy were landless peasants who were granted a plot of land on another peasant's plot in return for manual labour on the farm. The Irish system, by contrast, saw no overall ownership of land, but rather each individual Lord had absolute ownership of their land. The commoners worked on the Lord's land in return for accommodation and food.

The Anglo-French introduced feudalism to Ireland, but the administration of government evolved with the expansion of the colony, and thus different parts were ruled in different ways. In Anglo-French society, rich landless men recruited armies and conquered land for their King, in the hope that the King would reward them by making them a Lord of some land somewhere, often the same land they conquered. This was the only way they could make themselves in the world and this was the motivation for much of the expansion of the colony in Ireland. It was a form of capitalist expansionism - privatised warfare.

The status of Ireland was clarified in 1199, when the Pope gave permission to King John of England to make Ireland into a Kingdom and to declare himself as King of it. In 1210, a decree was issued that made all laws passed in England valid in Ireland also, thus uniting the two legal systems.

At the head of government there evolved a "Great Council", which met in Dublin, where the King's royal officials and the chief noblemen met to make decisions concerning Ireland. The country itself was divided into a series of administrative units that had different degrees of autonomy. The liberties exercised a lot of self government, being governed by a seneschal (chief officer) who operated the courts and treasury. They had to swear loyalty to the King but the King's officials were not allowed into the liberty and the King could not collect taxes. Most liberties appeared towards the start of the Anglo-French period when there was not much financial stake in the colony. As the colony grew, the King increasingly created counties in preference because he could collect taxes there. Key liberties in 1250 included Meath, Trim, Kildare and Ulster. The counties (also known as shires) operated like liberties except that they were under Royal control. The King appointed a Shire Rief (origin of the word sheriff) to manage the county, its treasury and its court. The King took opportunities as they arose to get rid of the liberties and eventually, but not until the 1600s, all of Ireland's administrative units had become counties. The map above shows the liberties and counties that existed in 1250. The chartered territories were lands not under Anglo-French control, but rather under Irish Kings and Lords. These men and the King of England signed a charter that let them keep their lands as long as they submitted to the Anglo-French and collect taxes. Connacht was a chartered territory until it was invaded.

Changes in the Church:
Throughout the medieval period, and indeed until the twentieth century, the church was of pivotal importance in Irish society and culture. With the church now divided across lands ruled by native Irish Lords and lands ruled by Anglo-French lords, it became difficult to administer the whole. Keen to assert control over the church as well as the land, the King of England repeatedly attempted to ensure that all dioceses in their lands should have Anglo-French bishops. A law passed in 1217 banning Irishmen from the post was abandoned after the Pope expressed his outrage at such discrimination.

The reform of the Irish church in the century before the Anglo-French came helped usher in the new monastic houses that were springing up across Europe. The Cistercians founded 33 monasteries across Ireland between 1142 and 1230 and also established a large number in Britain. They were very different from the preceding Irish monasteries, and reached the height of their success in the 1200s, before Monastic Changes in Ireland [24kB]declining after this time due to financial difficulties and general stagnation. Augustinian and Benedictine orders founded a large number of monasteries of their own. All of these orders had a lot of land but, unlike the earlier monasteries, they let the land out to members of the public. Such lands were called granges, a term that can still be found across Ireland.

As the diagram on the right shows, one of the most obvious differences with the new monasteries was their layout. While a 10th century monastery was quite spartan with a small church and individual huts, a Cistercian monastery had a huge, cross-shaped church along with a much more comfortable arrangement of rooms for relaxing and working. The remains of both of these monasteries can still be seen today.

Everyday Life in Anglo-French Ireland:

Athough at the start, the Anglo-French were in Ireland to acquire power, this soon turned to a desire to make money. They had no overall plan, and each baron largely pursued whatever plan came to mind. Faced with a population explosion across medieval Europe, the Anglo-French barons intended to use Ireland to grow food to sell and, thereby, become rich and powerful. They established a feudal system of agriculture, under which peasants were employed in, and lived on, the estate as tenants. Some barons who had larger amounts of land tried a more adventurous approach. They set up a town with a market, and granted between 3 to 10 acres of land to each tenant. They used these market towns to sell their agricultural surplus. Many of these towns thrived and exist to the present day, for example Kilkenny, Trim and New Ross.

Towns A medieval town in Ireland had walls. Few of these have survived to the present, with the exception of Carlingford in county Louth whose medieval walls and gates are well preserved. Other walls, such as Derry's, date from much later and are not medieval. The wall was not really for defence, more as a status symbol although they did come in useful when the Irish raided them. Inside the town, people would have live in wooden two- or three-storey houses with wealthier merchants having stone houses. Streets were narrow and winding - today there is often not enough room for two cars to pass on these streets! The towns thrived on their markets, which were crowded, bustling and exciting affairs and most people would have had a trade, such as bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and shoemakers. Sanitation was a major problem, as people threw their waste onto the streets below and there was no sewering other than a drain in the road which only worked when it rained. A fabulous experience of what it was like to live in a town in Ireland around 1300 can be had by visiting the Geraldine Experience in Tralee, county Kerry. Visitors to the centre ride in small vehicles through a reconstruction of 14th-century Tralee complete with sights, sounds and even smells! Well worth travelling to visit.

Countryside A medieval villein (peasant) and his family lived in a one-room house made from a wooden frame with a thatched roof and wattle-and-daub walls. There were no windows. Cooking was done in an open fire in the middle of the house and the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. A fence in the middle of the house separated the animals from the people, because animals usually spent the night indoors. The concept of sleeping people and animals separately was a post-medieval idea, so this did not seem odd at the time. Some houses had a platform in the roof space for sleeping on. People slept on straw-stuffed mattresses and the only other furniture would have been a table with stools. Surrounding the house were perhaps 20 to 30 other houses. Surrounding this community (called a village because it was occupied by villeins) were two or three large fields, up to 200 acres in size, where the villeins grew crops. Each villein was allocated a number of strips in each field which they could farm. Most of the crop was given to the lord as rent, with the remainder being kept for food. Usually the village had a forest where fallen wood could be collected for fires and pigs could be grazed. An area of land that nobody owned (called a common) could be used by everyone for grazing. The people were not rich and their coarse clothes were holey and must have been cold.


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References / Sources:
[1] RF Foster: "The Oxford History of Ireland", Oxford University Press, 1989
[2] "The Times Atlas of World History", Times Books, 1994
[3] Sean Duffy, "Atlas of Irish History", Gill and Macmillan, 2000
[4] G. Stout and M. Stout, writing in the "Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997, pp31-63
[5] Various authors, "The Oxford Companion to Irish History", Oxford University Press, 1998
[6] N Johnston, "The Norman Impact on the Medieval World", Colourpoint Books, 1994