Ireland’s Wars: The End Of The Bruce Campaign

Ireland in 1318. An island in chaos.

In the north Edward Bruce was in control, holding the allegiance of the Ulster natives, only a hop, skip and jump from a supply base in Scotland. In the east, the Anglo-Norman position struggles to maintain itself, suffering from lack of money and manpower. In the west, native civil wars and bloody defeats leave the land in a mess that will take generations to recover from. In the south, the Munster Irish fight the English and each other in equal abandon.

And everywhere, famine, famine, famine.

When we last discussed Edward Bruce, he had just defeated the Anglo-Norman/Irish force at Connor, cementing his position in Ireland, and dealing a huge blow to his enemies in the process. Once the winter passed he went onto defeat the army of Justiciar Edmund Butler at the Battle of Skerries, in February 1316. This victory, which the English, typically, blamed on poor terrain and bad luck, allowed Bruce to capture Dundalk, perhaps only temporarily, where he was crowned High King of Ireland in a very official looking, but nominally decorative, ceremony.

But Bruce’s position rapidly became less solid, for reasons that were, partly at any rate, out of his control. Crucial allies in Connaught were soon dead in that province’s civil war and the subsequent disaster at the Second Battle of Athenry. As was the case throughout Europe, in years marked by a drastic lowering of temperature, Ireland suffered from several years of poor harvests and famine. The defended positions in Leinster and the uninterested natives of Munster meant that Bruce had run out of areas he could easily expand to, and only really had control in Ulster, where the castle of Carrickfergus was still holding out under siege (it would fall in September 1316).

It was the famine issue that really swung the Bruce campaign around. As the campaign wore on and 1316 turned to 1317, warfare with the Anglo-Normans became a secondary concern, as the procurement of food became the vital thing in order to keep his armies intact. To that end, Bruce’s “campaigns” of that time were little more than large scale pillaging raids of the Irish countryside, burning villages and abbeys, taking what food he could in order to keep his own soldiers going. He may once have marched into Munster, perhaps even besieged Limerick for a time, but soon marched back again when it became clear local support was not going to materialise.

Such tactics, inevitably, turned the local Irish, however many of them had been on his side, against him decisively. The peasantry of Ireland was hard-pressed enough without an additional set of “foreigners” poaching precious foodstuffs off them. Many of them began to look upon the Scottish invaders as worse than the Anglo-Normans, and so many of the Irish records dub Edward and his army “less noble then our own foreigners” (the English – how interesting is the possessive term used there?).

The truth is, before a sword had been swung in 1318, Edward Bruce’s pretensions of being High-King of Ireland were probably done. The natives either outright despised him or had no respect for his claim; his strongest Irish ally, Felim, King of Connaught, had been killed outside Athenry. He simply didn’t have the Irish support to make his crown anything other than a decoration.

Edward’s brother Robert, the King of Scotland, did arrive in Ireland in 1317, bringing a force of gallowglass to reinforce their army, but little appears to have been done productively with this force, and Robert departed back to Scotland shortly after. His dream of a grand alliance of Scotland, Ireland, and possibly Wales attacking the English was not coming to pass. The Scots lacked siege engines and the resources to besiege the larger, better defended Anglo-Norman settlements in Leinster, such as Dublin, and so the war in Ireland devolved into an endless series of raids and looting expeditions, the common people losing out the most more than any of the nobles with a political stake in the island. The chronicles of the time spend most of their pages for these years on the native conflicts, especially those in Clare (next week) rather then what was happening with Edward and his army, probably because there was little of major importance to report.

The famine was, in a strange sort of way, a break for the Anglo-Normans, who probably couldn’t have long withstood Edward’s forces in optimal conditions. While their armies had been defeated time and again by Edward, the English could still point to successes in Connaught as signs of their strength, and the failure of Edward to really threaten their bigger, walled towns. The English were, at one point, worried enough of an attack on Dublin that they made preparations, burning outlying suburbs, but the attack never came.

They also had good leaders to aid them. The Red Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, might have lost at Connor, but he was still breathing and still rebuilding his forces. Rickard de Bermingham had given the English a great victory at Athenry, from a position where he could easily have been overrun. Edmund Butler was still in the mix, still recruiting an army. And then, there was Rickard’s kinsman, John de Bermingham, soon to become famous in the last acts of the Bruce Campaign.

1318 came, and the weather improved. The harvest was better, and life in Ireland was no longer just one of survival from starvation. Edward, eager to continue his quest against the Anglo-Normans, prepared his move. We will never know for sure just what his objectives were, or if he really thought he could still be High King of Ireland.

What exactly Edward was doing in the lead-up to the decisive clash of the Bruce campaign is not rightly known. Considering where the battle took place, Louth, he may have been on the offensive and may have been striking towards Dublin. He almost certainly was trying to provoke a response, safe in the knowledge that he had yet to be bested on the field of battle while in Ireland. There is some evidence to suggest that reinforcements for his army were due to arrive from Scotland, but that he did not wait for them.

Or perhaps other sources are correct, and he was responding to the movements of the Anglo-Norman army, which had marched from Dublin to attack his position in Ulster.

The force that was assembled to face him was commanded by Edmund Butler, the Archbishop of Armagh and John de Bermingham, another noble from the Athenry area. Accounts are generally agreed that this force out-numbered that of Bruce.

Both sides supplemented their main force with gallowglass and contingents from the natives Irish, the Anglo-Normans presumably taking them from Leinster and perhaps Connaught, Bruce from Ulster.

The battle took place on 14th October 1318, near the town Faughart. It is likely that Edward, as was his style, took the initiative and attacked first.

Reading the surviving accounts, there are some things that are hard to square away with previous information. Edward appears to have acted in a blindingly stupid manner, seeking battle with his numerically inferior force, ignoring the advice of local allies, attacking when he was no position too succeed. It is quite possible that the chronicles may have altered the events to make Edward look worse, to dispel the notion of invincibility that he had built for himself.

Or perhaps Edward simply risked too much at the wrong time, was over confident. Maybe, if the English were the ones on the offensive, he was simply forced into fighting a battle in a bad position.

Whatever happened that day, accounts tend to be united on putting the blame for the result squarely on the shoulders of Edward, who was eager – too eager – to be about his business. His Irish allies expressed some reservations about the coming battle, which led to Edward placing them to the rear of his force, which had assembled on rising ground. With the Irish at the back, on top of the hill, the core of Edward’s army, possibly as many as 2’000 Scotsmen, were left to bear the brunt of what happened at the bottom.

According to the Lanercost Chronicle, the main English source, the Scottish army, for whatever reason, attacked the English piecemeal, in three waves. All of these were easily dealt with, to the extent that by the time the first two had been defeated and turned back, the third was already doomed. This does not really match with the tactically competent display Bruce had pulled off in earlier battles, but perhaps his martial skills simply failed him at Faughart. Some stories claim that Edward had a premonition of his death before that battle so did not fight under his actual banner; the Scottish noble that did was cut down by John de Bermingham, who is credited with the charge that routed the Scottish force.

The Scottish broke under a sudden Anglo-Norman/Irish onslaught, and Edward was cut down and killed in the process, possibly by John Mapas, a knight from Drogheda, who himself died in the act. Edward was beheaded after his death, the head sent to King Edward II. Edward Bruce’s body was buried at Faughart, and the grave can still be seen today. The Irish Chronicles, at any rate, do not mourn him, and actually cheer his death as one of the few decent things that Normans did for the native Irish.

The losses were heavy for the Scots, and lacking an able leader, their position in Ireland deteriorated rapidly. Those Irish that had previously allied with them slunk away. Carrickfergus Castle fell to advancing Anglo-Norman forces in early December, one of the last acts. The Bruce campaign was over. John de Bermingham was created Earl of Louth for his role in the victory.

What can Faughart teach us? If we take all of the details at face value, it is a lesson in overconfidence and hubris. Bruce’s initial success was undone by the famine that blighted the land, and other events outside his control also destroyed his chances of eliminating the Anglo-Norman presence in Ireland. Faughart, if what we are told of Edward’s movements, was a horribly mismanaged battle. The English, beaten so easily by Bruce in 1315 and 1316, were able to get revenge due to an uncharacteristically poor showing from the Scots. The English may also have pressed home an advantage in cavalry, against what was, for the most part, a Scottish army of infantry.

The Bruce campaign as a whole was an audacious scheme, which could easily have altered Irish history forever. If the famine had not hit, if Felim had prevailed in Galway, if Edward had been able to attack Dublin with force, things might have been very different.

Really though, the idea was never likely to succeed. The Bruce family appeared to be banking on a spirit of kinship with the Irish giving them all the support they needed, a union of the Gaels rising up together to overthrow their English enemies. In this, Robert and Edward badly overestimated their chances. Intervention in Ireland was fraught with risk, and may only have gone so far as it did due to the military skill of the Scottish commander (and the occasional incompetence of the English). The Irish were never the most trustworthy of allies to rely upon, the Anglo-Normans never the easiest of enemies to fight. The Bruce campaign accomplished its initial goal of a second front in the war against England, but would have needed many factors to be favourable if the accomplishment of a Bruce ruled Ireland was to be made a reality.

Some might have been forgiven for thinking that all was now well for the Anglo-Normans in Ireland. They had seen out a devastating enemy invasion, rebellious Irish Kingdoms and a famine that had left many dead and starving. Their main fortresses were still intact, and much of the chief Irish threat had been wiped out at Athenry. The Irish Parliament, established in 1297, was free to go about its business once more.  Now might have been the time to reclaim previous control throughout the country, such as in Ulster, and then further expand into Munster.

It was not to be. The English position in Ireland might have been saved from Scottish domination, but more and more over the following years, decades and century, the Anglo-Norman lands would be reduced and isolated. The native Irish, whether they were independent or nominally “loyal” to English overlords – overlords who had little to no real power over them – would continue a process of reclaiming territory and self-governance for the next while.

The usual problems for the English in the past while, especially lack of manpower, money and English commitments elsewhere, were made worse by better tactical decisions by the Irish in military terms, and increasing dissatisfaction with the homeland in the minds of some of the Norman gentry in Ireland.

Before that though, we’ll skip back in time a few months, to discuss the failure of the Anglo-Normans in military endeavours against Munster.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, Politics, War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: The End Of The Bruce Campaign

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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