Ireland’s Wars: Prince Lionel And The Statutes Of Kilkenny

Ireland in 1361 was an island in two halves. One half, centred around the “Pale” region with some loyal Earldoms surrounding it, was under English control to a recognisable extent. The other half had fallen back into the hands of Irish Kings (or had never left their control, the O’Neill’s of Ulster essentially becoming monarchs of the province), with what was left in the possession of the Anglo-Irish or “Old English”, those descendents of the initial Norman conquest who had been in Ireland so long that they had, essentially, become Irish themselves (though, it should be noted I am applying the term , for the sake of  a simple definition, a bit earlier then its first proper historical usage).

Much of Connaught and Ulster, as well as parts of Munster and south Leinster were in the hands of such people, who while not completely “native”, were falling more and more into the habits and culture of the Irish. Many English holdings were those of absentee landlords, who had residence in England and cared relatively little for the territories they had responsibility for across the Irish Sea.

The disasters of the early part of the 14th century were just prelude to the devastation that was brought by the Black Death, which wiped out so much of the European population. The impact of the disease cannot be understated, as it simply wiped numerous villages and towns from the map (the death toll of the plague is disputed, but at least one quarter of the European population was killed). Ireland would, naturally, have been one of the last places it would have reached, but considering the effect it had in England (30-50% is the estimated death toll for England) it must surely have been just as devastating for Ireland as it was for most of Europe. The recovery in terms of population took generations.

With manpower at a premium, the English colony in Ireland was largely bereft of support from Edward III. Moreover, the English King had commenced a number of large scale military expeditions into France, essentially the beginning of what we know today as the “Hundred Years War”. Such conflicts occupied much of his attention.

Warfare in Ireland continued in its haphazard fashion. The Irish Kingdoms fought each other in Ulster and Munster, they fought with the Old English families like the Burke’s, the Old English families fought each other. The borders of the Pale and English Earldoms were assailed by raiding parties and sometimes forces of greater strength, which seized towns and castles, frequently to be counter attacked and driven out. English Earldoms and lands would sometimes pay tribute to native Irish Kings in order to avoid attack and vice versa in other places. Equilibrium of a kind had settled, due in no small part to the lack of cohesion among the Irish, the ever present characteristic throughout the time period. It is important to note that beyond the Pale and territories like the Earldom of Ormond was the very edge of the world for the Normans, their wild west.

Edward was not completely ignorant of the needs of his lands to the west though, and in 1361 he resolved to attempt a solution. Edward’s elder son, his namesake known as “the Black Prince” is easily his most famous child historically, due largely to his exploits in France, but Edward had a younger son as well. It was this son, aged 23 in 1361 that he sent to Ireland to be the Lord Lieutenant, with a mandate to bring the island, the natives and the Old English, under control.

His name was Lionel, known in history as “Lionel of Antwerp” from his birthplace. He had never set foot in Ireland before 1361, but he had a strong connection to the island through marriage, having taken Elizabeth de Burgh as his wife in 1352. Elizabeth, as discussed in the last entry, was the sole heir to the Earldom of Ulster when her father was murdered, but had fled the province with her mother in the aftermath of that act. The flight meant that her title as “Countess of Ulster” was just a name with no authority, but her marriage to Lionel meant that the claim passed to him, making him the Earl of Ulster and giving him nominal control over vast estates in Connaught as well.

This was all a theatre of the mind of course, as those lands were now far outside English control. But the reclaiming of them must have been foremost in Lionel’s mind when he arrived in Ireland to begin his task.

The sources for this period of time are very limited. Lionel’s impact on Ireland was far less than the grand expectations that may have arrived with him, and his impression on the island was as such that many native sources do not even give him a name, referring to him only as “the son of the King of England”. Lionel’s parentage gave him a degree of power and notability, but it could not overcome the inherent problems in the English position. They were stretched thin defending their borders, had little monetary support, and were in no real position to begin offensives.

In terms of actual military manoeuvres, Lionel did not have any great success. He apparently set out into Irish lands shortly after his arrival to take on the O’Byrne clan, perhaps situated around Wicklow, but was surrounded and forced to retreat with some loss. He apparently banned any native Irish or Old English from being part of his armed forces, but was forced to re-appraise his opinions after his opening failures. He had some small success along the eastern coast of Ulster, but too often found himself distracted with the politics within the Pale, of unhappy lords, Earls and rebellious colonists. Keeping them in check may have taken up much of his time. There were other failures as well, as the Annals of Ulster record Limerick being sacked by native Irish forces of Thomand during his time as Lord Lieutenant.

He may also have engaged in battle with Art MacMurragh-Kavanagh, an Irishman who later held the native throne of Leinster. Art will feature more prominently in the next entry of this series, but for now it is enough to know that he was a native royal with a great degree of power, controlling a large portion of the Leinster province in the south and west, garnering tribute from English nobles and could claim numerous military successes. The day that he met Lionel in battle Art was seemingly defeated and withdrew, escaping alive. That story comes from one source, Sir John Thomas Gilbert’s History of the Viceroys of Ireland and considering that Art is not counted as being King of Leinster until later in his life, may not be so reliable.

That account provides some reasons for optimism, as it relates how the native Irish could not, like the French and the Scots, stand up under the attack of the English longbowman, the missile weapon that was often the trump card when it came to English military endeavour. With long range and power, the longbow was a very English/Welsh weapon, as the country was one of the only ones to really instil the life-long discipline and training it took to truly master the weapon (it required immense strength to actually draw). Lionel had a number of them under his command, and it is not hard to believe that they could very well have been the difference between partial success and complete disaster at times.

Lionel suffered in Ireland, and it is clear that he quickly became displeased with his position. He was incapable of expanding English control via military means and spent considerable amounts of time outside of the country. Elements within the Pale, from the Church to fractious nobles, began to influence him and began calls for greater attempts to control the Old English, who were easily blamed for the collapse of the Anglo-Norman position.

Lionel seemed to agree with them, and in 1366 he held a Parliament in the town of Kilkenny. From this came his most notable achievement: a 35 article series of laws known as the “Statutes of Kilkenny”, probably the most famous legal document of the age that pertained to Ireland.

The Statutes were an attempt to legally curb the spread of Irish customs and society among English colonists, making it a crime for English settlers to speak the Irish language, partake in Irish customs, marry the Irish, play Irish sports and so on. It has been for these kind of grandiose proclamations that the Statutes are most remembered, even though they make up only a handful of the 35 articles. There were many portions of the document that also dealt with manners of a military nature.

Article Four essentially banned conflict between the English nobles without recourse to English law in order to solve disputes, and further banned terms distinguishing between those English born in England and English born in Ireland. This article appears to have been meant for the more personal of disputes between individuals rather than political units, and could well have been inspired by the assassination of William de Burgh (Lionel’s deceased father-in-law) in 1333, which had such awful consequences for the Anglo-Normans.

Article Ten banned the paying or receiving of tributes to/from the native Irish in order to end conflicts, insisting that all such wars between English and Irish must be pursued to the destruction of the natives or their complete financial enfeeblement. Further, any wars commenced could only be done so on the order of the King. The article was aimed at ending the cycle of tribute that kept warfare so limited in scope, perhaps in the hope that with royal direction a more powerful committed thrust could be made against the Irish in future.

Article Seventeen banned the holding of private armies during peacetime for the purpose of looting the subjects of the King. Probably directed at the Old English, a not so subtle way of ordering them to cease maintaining their own military force – one of the major signs of sovereignty – and to stop attacking loyal English subjects.

Article Twenty was a common defence clause, necessitating that neighbouring counties come to the aid of another that had been attacked, whether it was by native Irish or rebellious English. This NATO-type arrangement was especially weak, as neighbouring lands had hardly the power to intervene in other conflicts, even if they had the political motivation.

Article Twenty Six stated that peace between Irish or English that was broken by the English party would result in imprisonment for the English subject until restitution could be made. This article seems to have been little more than a sop to the Irish who were discriminated against so severely by the Statutes, and is unlikely to have been ever really enforced.

Article Twenty Seven again banned conflict between two English parties, this time adding the additional illegality of drawing in other peaceful English or Irish as soldiers in such a dispute. Unlike Article Four, this one was meant as a deterrent to more large scale fighting and the hiring of mercenaries with which to carry it out.

Of course, it was all for show. The Statutes were worth little more than the paper they were written on and were largely unenforceable. The Old English ignored them and continued their lives as they previously were. The Statutes made for good reading if you were a citizen of the Pale, but did not impact on Ireland in the way that Lionel and the English establishment would have hoped they would.

Shortly afterwards, Lionel had enough. Elizabeth had died a few years before, severing any of the ties he may have had to the island. He left sometime after the Statues were made law, and never came back, dying only a few years later while in the process of celebrating his second marriage to an Italian noblewoman.

The Statutes had no material impact and if anything simply highlight the ineffectiveness of the Anglo-Normans in pursuing a more solid control of the country. The English had been reduced to writing about implementing control while they continued to lose territory and power to native Irish and Old English. The Statutes were a clear signal that the English were determined, some of them at least, to control the island utterly. If not, they wanted the English and the Irish to be kept separate. It was not to be. They make for an interesting read, but they were very toothless.

The previously mentioned Art MacMurragh never seemed to have been too threatened by the Statutes and was to be one of the more notable threats of the time period, to the extent that he would soon draw the direct attention of the English monarchy.

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, Limerick, Politics, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Prince Lionel And The Statutes Of Kilkenny

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The First Plantation | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of Glenmalure | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of Glenmalure | Never Felt Better

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