Before jumping to more substantial military campaigns of the Norman era, today we will talk about a small but interesting clash that took place in Kildare in 1234, an extension of the civil struggles and disputes that could be found in England at the time.
Norman power in Ireland had expanded rapidly since the arrival of Strongbow, and the ruling caste of England now held the reins of power from coast to coast in Ireland, though plenty of the island remained free of Norman overlordship. Most major towns were in Norman hands. Prince (later King) John had done much of this expanding during his time, most notably around Limerick, building a famous castle there and being part of a major Norman effort to establish their own towns and fortresses. The Normans were constantly successful in battle against whatever native Irish dared to face them in the field.
But there was trouble as well, an extension of things happening at home. The English monarchy routinely quarrelled with those underneath it, and some all out wars had even been fought between those supporting the King and those supporting his barons. King John had fallen afoul of this in a large way, and it didn’t get much better under his successors. Henry III, King of England and Lord of Ireland in the early 13th century, had the same problems. His court was torn by a divide between a Baronial faction and a Poitevin faction, both seeking power and control over the King.
One of the leading members of the Baronial faction was Richard Marshall, the Earl of Pembroke, who just happened to be the grandson of Strongbow, which will explain his connection to Ireland. He clashed with what he viewed as the “foreign” advisors of Henry III, a confrontation that boiled over into open fighting.
Marshall was a powerful and popular man, with lands throughout the Norman Kingdom. The man he viewed as his main opponent was Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester, from France. In 1233, Richard was declared a traitor when he refused a summons to meet Henry, fearing for his life. The next year, under pressure from the barons, a truce was apparently reached between Henry and Richard, which involved the dismissal of des Roches from court. Such an episode is an example of the kind of stuff that happened constantly at the highest levels of English nobility at this time.
Before that truce was reached though, trouble had already started in Ireland, between brothers and supporters of Richard on one side, and favourites and supporters of Henry at the other. Among the leaders of the Poitevins was Maurice FitzGerald, Henry’s appointed justiciar of Ireland, along with the Lord of Meath and Earl of Ulster. Whether this explosion of violence was ordered or encouraged by Henry or his advisors is not known.
Richard hurried across the sea to aid his family. The clash between the two forces on the Curragh plains, Kildare is not recorded in any reliable way, probably due to Richard’s popularity. The contemporary accounts claim that Richard was lured to the spot under the false pretence of a peaceful meeting, only to be betrayed by his villainous opponents.
The resulting fight must have been small in scale, and the accounts say that Richard was badly outnumbered with 15 knights facing 140. Allegedly, when things turned violent, Richard urged his brothers and supporters to flee, and others had been bought off and left him of their own accord. The fight must have been short and in the end, Richard was easily defeated.
He wasn’t killed on the field, but was mortally wounded, dying two weeks later at Kilkenny castle. His death was widely mourned in England and the Poitevin faction grew more unpopular. But Henry must have been happy and those who had committed the deed were well rewarded.
This episode doesn’t really tell us much about Ireland of course, but is an example of how far the Normans had gone, no longer just grabbing territory in Ireland, but exporting their civil wars as well. They did not seem to take the factor of local Irish into their equations, an indication of the strength of their position. The Norman presence in Ireland was still about colonisation, nobles grabbing land, enlarging their own holdings. The attack on Marshall was a part of that process. And while the Normans were able to get away with such internecine fighting at that moment in time, such disputes would soon see them losing land and influence in Ireland, not expanding it.
The military aspects of the “battle” bear little study, beyond showing the obvious effectiveness of numerical superiority. Aside from that, I found this little bit of Irish history interesting, insofar that it is not really part of the popular consciousness.
Also, the clash occurred in the same fields where The Battle of Sterling Bridge scenes of Braveheart were filmed. Neat.
The Norman star in Ireland would be on a downturn soon enough for numerous reasons. An invasion from an unlikely Irish source would provide a startling example of that.
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