Ireland’s Wars: How Art MacMurragh Brought Down The English Monarchy

Richard II had left Ireland in a precarious state in 1395, and his diplomatic attempts at solving the problems there quickly unravelled. His deal with Art MacMurragh was not honoured, and so the King of Leinster could not be relied upon to refrain from his usual activities. Again the Pale and the surrounding Earldoms were the subjects of raids and attacks, again they lacked the strength to adequately defend themselves and their holdings. The Earldoms and the Irish clans simply restarted their endless war.

On the borders, but especially in Wicklow and Carlow, English lords found themselves, once again, having to fight the Irish. Art had grown no less powerful since he swore allegiance to Richard, while the Pale just seemed to get weaker. Left in the control of Roger Mortimer, who was only 24, the English position came under weak administration, much like the monarchy itself across the water. A further comparison could be traced back to Roger’s great Grandfather William Donn de Burgh, whose mismanagement of the Ulster Earldom led to his death and the collapse of Anglo-Norman rule in the north.

Roger was not the best ruler, and quickly lost control of the situation in Ireland, if he ever really had in hand. Art himself may well have kept to the bargain for a time, but the continuing refusal to hand over the estates he was due through marriage combined with other Irish attacking the English soon brought him back into conflict with the Pale.

This culminated in the Battle of Kenlis, Carlow, in 1398, when Roger rashly led out a force of Anglo-Normans to face the O’Byrne and O’Toole clans. Roger is recorded as leading from the front and dying in foolish circumstances, indicating that he had gotten in over his head. A “great number” of English also fell in this battle, yet another military disaster, but the death of Mortimer was the critical point. Aside from throwing the administration of the Pale into crisis – Roger’s heir Edmund was only a child – Roger had also been the heir presumptive to the English crown itself. Now that honour passed to the seven year old Edmund along with all of the Mortimer’s estates in Ireland.

Things had not been going to so well for Richard either since his return to England in 1395. The previous peace between himself and his more fractious nobles had run its course and the “second crisis” of his reign was in full swing, with the King trying, exiling and executing many of lords who had previously held power in the country. Richard was not a forgiving King, and may have planned such moves long before, holding bitter memories of the “first crisis”.

One of the more crucial disputes involved the House of Lancaster in the north. The heir to that family, Henry of Bolingbroke, had been exiled by Richard in 1398 over a quarrel with another noble, with the King not wanting Henry around. Henry happened to be another grandson of Edward III, leading Richard to fear that another noble revolt against him from that direction could lead to a new body on the throne. This period of Richard’s reign, a “tyranny” as some have dubbed it, was marked by a succession of such actions, as the King seemed to lose control over events.

The death of Roger Mortimer, with his infant son now being Richard’s heir, prompted the King to plan a new expedition to Ireland, this time with the definitive aim of ending the problems caused by Art MacMurragh. Richard may also have hoped to draw away attention from the misrule at home by launching such an endeavour, and perhaps to rally support behind him, much as the first expedition had done.

The campaign initially followed much the same course as the first. Richard’s army was smaller than it had been in 1394 – probably due to a lack of volunteering nobles – but was still massive for the country he was essentially invading. Again it is likely that longbowmen made up a great deal of the force. They landed at Waterford in June 1399. This time Richard was determined to be more aggressive in seeking out a decisive engagement with Art.

He marched to Kilkenny first, there to await reinforcements from Edmund, Duke of Aumale, reinforcements that never arrived. Richard didn’t know it just yet, but events elsewhere were already overtaking him.

Frustrated after two weeks of waiting, and perhaps mindful of how such a wait in his last expedition had grown to more than nine months, Richard moved his army off without Aumale’s men. The aim was very clearly the destruction of MacMurragh’s armed force.

But nothing had changed in the last five years. MacMurragh saw the size and strength of Richard’s force and retreated, refusing open battle, resorting again to the tactics of raid, ambush and scorched earth. The terrain of mountains, forest and bog still did not suit large armies. Though Richard had some partial success, forcing relatives of Art to surrender and swear him allegiance he could not do the same for the King of Leinster. After a time, supply started to become an issue for Richard’s army.

At some point Richard actually managed to corner Art, possibly in a stronghold at the Idrone Barony, Carlow. This was in a heavily wooded area where Art had command of 3’000 or so men (say Irish sources). Though heavily outnumbered, the terrain and supply situation favoured Art. Richard resorted to trying to cut his way through the wood and burning nearby villages, all to no avail – Art refused summons to surrender and swear allegiance again as he once had. According to some of the more dramatic accounts, he replied to such demands by claiming that “not for all the gold would he submit”.

All the while, Richard’s army felt the pinch from raids and guerrilla attacks, unable to force Art to fight a proper battle in the terrain. Between Art’s moving of resources, burning of others and sweeps of the countryside by the English, little provisions remained. Hunger began to severely affect Richard’s army, just as it had five years previously. Soon, they were starving, the armies size now being more of a drawback then an advantage. Resupply by sea was attempted, but could never be enough to keep the army going.

All the while, Richard was exhibiting behaviour that could be viewed as concerning. His mental health has long been a subject for historical debate, and his second campaign in Ireland was marked by previously unseen angry flashes and some detachment from reality. While his starving army was trying to find and defeat Art, the King amused himself by knighting nobles in the field. One of them was his young cousin, named Henry, only 13.

When it became clear that Art was not going to throw himself at Richard’s mercy, that a large scale military confrontation would not occur and that feeding the army in the environment of south Leinster would become impossible within days (some were already dead from starvation), Richard was forced to march his army to Dublin before complete disaster occurred. It must have been an utter humiliation for the young King, to see his designs torn asunder in Ireland again. For Art, his reputation was sealed, the man who had faced down the military might of England, not once, but twice. The open defiance of Art was a morale killer for the English, who no longer had the capability, physically or mentally, to campaign in the Irish wilderness. The English were harried all the way to the safety of Dublin by the Irish, who were probably doing so with glee.

Not long after they had reached the English capital in Ireland, Art sent word requesting a conference with the King. Such an event was received with great joy from the English, which illustrates just how bad things had gotten. Richard must have hoped that he could affect another compromise agreement with Art as he had in 1395, and leave Ireland with a semblance of dignity intact.

The Earl of Gloucester was the King’s representative for the talks. They did not go well, with Art rejecting whatever terms the King of England offered. The issue of his wife’s estates was still paramount, and Richard had already given them away to a supporter, the Duke of Surrey. This time around, having sent the King of England running, Art appeared to be no mood to compromise. The discussions came to nothing, and Art rode away still in conflict with the King.

Richard was, apparently, furious when he heard the news, vowing to do everything in his power to destroy Art, to not leave Ireland until this task was done. Such open anger was rarely displayed by the King, perhaps move evidence of a destabilisation in his mental health.

To fulfil his oath, Richard devised new plans, now with the added reinforcements of the Duke of Aumale. Such details that remain to us are sketchy, but it seemed to involve splitting his army into three sections to scour the countryside in different places at once. Such a tactic was unlikely to have worked any better than previous ones, and would simply have made it easier for the native Irish to deal with the English force in detail. But, as it happened, it didn’t matter.

It was now July. Richard, much like his previous visit, was enjoying himself with “revels” in Dublin before the resumption of the campaign against Art when catastrophic news arrived from England.

Henry of Bolingbroke had been living in France. The peace policy that Richard pursued during his latter reign led him to believe that the French monarchy would have little interest in supporting a pretender, so it was not worried by this. He should have been. Changes in the higher echelons of France’s political world meant that some would be happier with a new King in England, and soon Henry was on a boat back home. Landing in June, he found a country that had been largely emptied of Richard’s strongest supporters – they were mostly in Ireland with him.

Before too long, Henry had amassed a considerable following of nobles. Whether his aim was a play for the crown or simply became that after a period, Henry had gotten the jump on the King.

Richard, when he finally learned what was happening back home, delayed briefly before taking what must have seemed the only choice open to him. He cut his losses in Ireland and returned home as fast as he could, perhaps hoping that his mere presence could stem the tide that now was firmly against him. His army would have gone with him, but perhaps its leaders could see where things were going.

It was too late. By the time Richard had moved inland, Henry had already won, with most of the higher ranking nobles supporting him, having had enough of Richard’s rule. Richard was forced to place himself in Henry’s custody, abdicated, and was dead within a year, probably of starvation while a prisoner in Pontefract Castle. Henry of Bolingbroke, through his direct male connection to Edward III (over Edmund Mortimer, whose link to Edward went through female lines) became Henry IV, King of England.

Henry’s second son, Thomas, would soon become the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Art’s position remained as strong as it had been, stronger even, because now he could claim to be the man who defeated the King of England.

More than that, he indirectly played a huge part in bringing down Richard’s Kingship. Richard would not have been in Ireland at all if it had not been for the singular threat that Art represented. Richard may well have seen it as a personal matter after the events of 1395, inspiring him to take so much of his strength to Ireland, leaving his homestead exposed to the normal intrigues of the time.

But it just could not be done. Art continued to use the classic Irish tactics, and they continued to work. As a result, Richard was left stranded in Ireland fighting a war he could not win while his crown was slipping from his grasp. In capturing Richard’s attention so well, Art’s defiant resistance paved the way for the easy takeover of the Lancaster family. It would not be the last time that MacMurragh faced the English in martial conflict.

As for Richard, he was unsuited to the commanding of armies. His tactics and strategy in Ireland were poor. Not only did he fail to beat Art in 1394/5, he failed to grasp the lessons of that first conflict, failed to adapt during the second war. He continually fell back to diplomatic solutions that all and sundry knew could not achieve a permanent peace. He went to Ireland to consolidate his rule and lost everything – his dignity, his support, his crown and his life.

One other interesting aspect of the whole affair was that of the young cousin that accompanied Richard in Ireland. That Henry was the namesake of his father, and the teenager who Richard had knighted in Ireland while hunting for MacMurragh, would one day be Henry V, the victor of Agincourt, one of the most praised military leaders of his day. He first saw war in Ireland.

While surveying the might of the French army that his, by comparison, meagre force faced in 1415, he may well have remembered the Irish Chief who bested a King despite numerical inferiority, using better tactics and making better use of the terrain. When it came to early influence, it is not difficult to surmise that he may have learned more from the King of Leinster than the King of England.

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

This entry was posted in Counter Insurgency (COIN), History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: How Art MacMurragh Brought Down The English Monarchy

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

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

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  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: COIN In The Nine Years War | Never Felt Better

  5. Jessica McKinnon says:

    As I understand it, King Richard II’s forces were on the move against MacMurragh’s rebels before Richard returned to England. Not sure what the results of their operationswere though…

  6. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ireton’s Autumn Offensive | Never Felt Better

  7. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Yellow Ford | Never Felt Better

  8. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: COIN In The Nine Years War | Never Felt Better

  9. John says:

    Thanks for this – do you have a bibliography by any chance for further reading/sources you could recommend on Richard in Ireland? Thank you!

    • NFB says:

      At the time I believe I was mostly reliant on the Annals of the Four Masters, a number of History Ireland articles, some small access to Emmett O’Byrne’s “War, Politics and the Kings of Leinster” and some general online writing on the reign of Richard II. However, four years after this went up Darren McGettigan published his “Richard II and the Irish Kings” which I believe is now considered the authoritative text on the subject (and is reasonably priced compared to some of the other books on the period). Thanks for your comments!

      • John says:

        Wonderful – and thanks for such a speedy response. Yours is the most comprehensive piece I’ve found online. Will certainly chase up McGettigan book! J

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

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