As the 14th century drew to a close, a century that had seen English control over Ireland fluctuate wildly, gradually decline, then stabilise in the core region in the Pale and partly around it, two great figures of the two islands would clash in two brief wars that illustrated the weakness of the Anglo-Norman position, and the power that events in Ireland had to influence events in England.
In 1394, the 27 year old Richard II was King of England. Having succeeded his grandfather Edward at age 10, Richard is characterised quite negatively in history as a young, easily influenced man (“woe to the land where a boy is King” is the Bible phrase William Langland used to describe Richard’s early life), with most of his reign essentially being done by regency councils and close advisors. Richard’s court was a den of machinations and scheming: he faced several revolts and attempted usurpations during his reign, from those who felt someone else should be in the top seat, or at the least be the power behind it. His military activities before he became involved in Ireland were a succession of disasters, in France at first and later Scotland. The famous “Peasants Revolt” of Wat Tyler took place during his childhood.
His reign wasn’t all turbulent: following a coup that destroyed some of his favourite courtiers (referred to, generally, as the “first crisis” of his reign) Richard reigned over a peaceful England for nearly a decade. In the mid 1390s he turned his attention to Ireland, from which calls for his assistance had been growing.
Things were not much better in Ireland for the English then they had been when Lionel of Antwerp departed. The Statutes of Kilkenny were empty of application, and the skirmishes continued apace on the borders of the Earldoms and the Pale. The most notable threat of this period from the native Irish came in the form of a man, briefly mentioned in the last entry, named Art Mór Mac Murchadha Caomhánach, perhaps better known in anglicised form as Art MacMurragh.
MacMurragh claimed the title of King of Leinster, controlling a substantial portion of what we would recognise today as south Leinster, especially in Wexford, Wicklow, and Waterford. Art was a warrior King, having been fighting the English and his Irish neighbours since the age of 16 and was noted in all sources as a very powerful figure. He extracted tribute from some Anglo-Norman lords, and was in such a position of power as to be unassailable by any military force the English in Ireland could muster.
The Irish annals do tend to exaggerate – they essentially place Art on a pedestal with the likes of Brian Boru – but it is clear that MacMurragh and the forces he commanded were considered a serious threat by the English. He was no uniter of the Irish, like Boru had tried to be, but he seems to have been a ruthless, effective warlord.
Art claimed the whole province as his by right, being a descendent through tangled lines from Dermot MacMurragh, the man who had invited Strongbow into the country centuries before. Further, Art had taken an English noblewomen, Elizabeth Calfe, as his wife. She had claims to land in Kildare, in the Barony of Norragh, claims that would heavily influence the course of events to follow.
The Statues of Kilkenny forbade Art to marry Elizabeth, let alone to control her estates. In response to learning of this legal fact, Art went on a destructive rampage throughout English controlled lands in Carlow and Kildare. He had done it before, by most accounts, and the English colonists did not have the power to effectively oppose him, the outlying towns and keeps being sparsely defended. MacMurragh was considered “the most dreaded enemy of the English”, and it was clear to those in control of the English lands that outside support would be required to stop him.
The English monarchy had heard such appeals before of course, and had never exactly come running. But the situation at the time was more hospitable to an Irish enterprise then it had been before – the lack of military operations in France and Scotland, no major internal dissent to be guarded against, a treasury capable of paying for a large force – and Richard determined to raise and lead an army to the island in order to try and destroy the threat that Art and his subjects represented. It is doubtful that Richard, considering his future conduct, had wider aims of greatly expanding English control beyond the Pale, but he at least was determined to secure its borders. In so doing, he would become only the second reigning English monarch (after Henry II, whose son, later King, John had visited the island as a prince) to set foot on the island. He would be the last for over 300 years.
His army was huge for the day, coming close to 10’000 men by most estimates (with others being far larger). Cavalry, infantry and most importantly archers (all sources note the huge contingent of missile troops but the claim that 30’000 of them took part is more than likely excessive) all took to the seas to take part in Richard’s expedition. They landed at Waterford on October 2nd 1394. Its exact size is debatable, but it was undoubtedly the largest English army to land on Irish soil at that point in history.
Art and the native Irish who fought for him took one look at Richard’s force and balked. Though Richard probably sought one, no decisive engagement took place. When the English went looking, Art’s armies and allies melted away, seeking refuge in forests, valleys and mountainous areas, places where Richard’s army could not follow. Ambush and raid were the methods of this war, as the countryside was stripped bare of supply by both sides. Art and the Irish couldn’t stand up to the numbers of cavalry that Richard had, or the shower of arrows that would accompany them in battle. So, they fought their own war, their own way.
Art’s guerrilla tactics, while not recorded in any great detail, were certainly effective. It should be remembered how difficult it was to conduct large scale military operations in Ireland, especially in the south. The land was, in different parts, heavily forested, boggy, or extremely hilly and rugged. The season was rapidly turning the weather poor as winter approached. The Anglo-Norman army, for all its great size, was unable to be effective in such terrain, and was stuck chasing shadows. Worse, supply issues soon reared their head, as Richard’s force began to suffer shortages of food. Art made sure to worsen and capitalise on that weakness, burning and plundering the Wexford town of New Ross before Richard could go there to resupply. In so doing, Art made good on that key maxim of war: fight the enemy where he is weak, avoid him where he is strong.
The English commanders, many of them in Ireland for the first time, were baffled by the Irish tactics, perhaps being more used to direct engagements and set-piece battles. Some of the Anglo-Irish, such as the Earl of Ormond, attempted to rectify the situation by copying such tactics, attacking Irish territories in Offaly or leading raids of their own, but these were failures – they are recorded as losing “far more then they gained”.
Faced with such a scenario, Richard made for Dublin with his army, where they could be more easily supplied and where future moves could be planned out. They were likely harried all the way by raiding bands and guerrilla groups. Art was pulling a Fabian, and it was working. He was intelligent enough to not play the game that Richard wanted to play. Now, while the Pale was heavily reinforced with a great amount of troops, very little had actually changed.
Richard installed himself in Dublin, setting up a court away from home. Several Irish lords, some of high repute like the O’Neills of Ulster, the O’Brien’s of Thomond and the O’Connor’s of Connaght, paid homage to him, probably in awe of his armed forces. They, perhaps unlike Art, had easier territory to move in, more specific strongholds to target. They did not want the possibility of the young King marching his army west or north, so choose to pledge an empty allegiance simply to get the King to leave them alone. Certainly, they had no intention of being in thrall in any substantial manner to a King who may as well have been from the moon for how far away he was usually from the west and north of Ireland.
Richard proceeded to run an extravagant and spectacular court in Dublin which draws much comment in sources from the “entertainments” provided. Richard was certainly no miser when it came to such things. But the situation in Ireland had not gotten any better under his watch so far. In surviving letters to nobles at home, Richard acknowledged that some of the Irish that he was fighting against actually had legitimate grievances, which if dealt with, might lead to a positive outcome. With a military option no longer feasible, and with many Irish lords already bending the knee to him, Richard turned to diplomacy.
He sent some of his higher ranking nobles, like the Earl of Nottingham, to meet face to face with MacMurragh in order to try and strike a deal. The terms were simple enough. In return for bending the knee to Richard and ceasing his attacks on the Pale and its allies, Art would receive the lands he was entitled to through his wife, as well as others he could take off Irish “rebels” not to mention a royal pension. He was, along with other Irish natives who swore allegiance, pardoned for past indiscretions. MacMurragh took the deal, giving Nottingham the kiss of peace.
Some of the residents of the Pale would have been quite annoyed at this outcome, seeing as how one of their chief tormentors was let of the hook. But Richard had little choice. To fight was not practical. His army was simply doing nothing, aside from being a drain on his monetary resources. The only way forward, in the King’s eyes, was to try and make friends. Getting the homage of so many high-ranking Irish lords was no mean feat, and Richard was thought well of in some circles for his diplomatic solution.
But it was never going to be enough. “The honour was great, but the advantage small” as chronicler Jean Froissert says. Richard spent nine months in Ireland, most of it encamped in Dublin. When his diplomatic wrangling was complete, he headed home with his army, in mid-1395. Roger Mortimer, grandson of Lionel of Antwerp (Richard’s uncle) and the then actual heir to the English crown as a result (the King being childless and, at the time, wifeless), was the man Richard left in charge of Ireland. The situation was poised on an uneasy truce. It wouldn’t last.
In fact, several Irish lords had already started fighting the English again before Richard left, with Ormond clashing with the O’Byrne’s of Wicklow and other English forces being engaged in Munster. Whatever web of loyalty Richard spun was quickly disintegrated and Art MacMurragh was among those who soon cast off whatever show of allegiance they had made. In Art’s case, the issue of his wife’s estates, which never came into his possession, remained paramount.
Richard’s first trip to Ireland is a classic example of a sledgehammer being the wrong tool to hit a nail. His army was impressive for its size and probably would have steamrolled over any Irish force that dared to oppose it in the field, but the Irish knew exactly how to deal with such a problem. Ambush, raid, denying resources were all tactics that the Irish were used to using. In combination with effective use of the terrain, they were able to negate Richard’s numerical and military advantage. All the longbowmen in the world aren’t going to help you if they have nothing to shoot at.
And while Richard took the only course open to him by treating with MacMurragh and others, much like the Statutes of Kilkenny, such negotiations were hollow and toothless. Few were going to abide by the terms set, and the generosity Richard showed could well be seen as a sign of weakness.
Some others, like Trevor Royle, have argued in more positive terms about Richard’s first trip to Ireland, suggesting that he has his army were able to “bottle up” Art’s forces in the Wicklow mountains and “confined” them to ambush attacks. Such an assertion ignores the incapability of Richard to militarily defeat Art, and places too much of an emphasis on the “submission” of the Irish chiefs. If they were so intimidated by Richard and his military strength, they would hardly have reneged on the terms of their homage so quickly.
Richard would come back to Ireland again before the end of the century, leading an expedition against MacMurragh that would have far reaching consequences beyond Ireland.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.