Henry IV had bigger things on his mind then his western colony, and was more noted for campaigns against others then military activities in Ireland. His reign, and the reign of his son, saw the continuation of the fighting in and around the Pale region, with financial matters becoming increasingly critical in determining the state of the island.
At the start of his reign he received an intelligence report from Alexander de Balscott of Dublin, a leading Irish cleric, which laid out in simple terms just why the country was in such a state – there were few soldiers and those that were available were unwilling to march out and face the Irish, numerous English families (by which he meant the “old English”) were rebelling, the Statutes of Kilkenny were not being enforced, and revenue from lands nominally under the Crowns control were not being collected or paid to the right people. Further, he pointed out the stark truth that between MacMurragh to the south and the O’Neill’s to the north, the English position was very vulnerable. He also claimed that the Earl of Desmond was allying with MacMurragh against the Earl or Ormond, which, if true, demonstrates how fickle loyalty to the English crown was in Ireland when it came to local feuds.
A few years into his reign, Henry sent his younger son, Thomas, to Ireland as its Lieutenant, but he was barely into his teens. The Mayor of Dublin, Sir John Drake, achieved a notable victory over the O’Byrne’s of Wicklow during this time, killing 500 of them at Bray, securing the southern frontier for a time, presumably.
The issue of absentee landlords, taxes and a lack of revenue became far more marked in this period, with every other source mentioning it in some degree. Thomas and his advisors simply didn’t have the funds to adequately defend the Pale or expand its influence, especially in the face of the rampant Irish chieftains. In fact, Thomas had barely enough money to maintain a household worthy of a Prince, and soon returned to England in the face of such economic adversary. A noble named Sir Stephen Scroop performed the office in his absence.
A succession of Irish victories are recorded during Scroop’s tenure, with Art MacMurragh again going on the warpath through Wexford and Carlow, seizing several castles, while the Pale was also assailed from Kildare and Offaly. In 1407 Scroop rode out with an army to try and face MacMurragh, carrying with him support from the Earldoms of Desmond and Ormond. He retook some of the castles that had been lost – the common seesaw of the times – before travelling into the heart of MacMurragh’s lands.
MacMurragh was not as intimidated by this force as he had been of Richard’s armies before, and according to some sources had his own support from Irish in Munster. There would be no running or scorched earth this time. Two engagements were fought near the town of Callan, Kilkenny – the first saw MacMurragh defeated and forced to retreat after a hard fight, the second saw Irish reinforcements intercepted before they could affect the battle. MacMurragh lived, though some Irish sources fail to even mention his participation in these fights. Perhaps he himself was not actually present.
Whether he was or not, Scroop and his allies had managed to actually beat MacMurragh’s force in the field, something Richard II had failed to do twice. But, unfortunately for them, it made little real difference to the situation in Ireland. The English had essentially recovered only as much as they had lost, MacMurragh was still alive and still dangerous, and Scroop himself was dead from plague within a year.
In 1408 Thomas returned, older and more experienced, to take up the reins of command in Ireland once more. He had engaged in squabbling with his father and older brother over the matter of funds, and had secured a relatively stable income from home to finance his activities. Shortly after his arrival, he convened a Parliament, assembled his forces, and set out southwards to face MacMurragh and his allies, probably hopeful of repeating the exploits of Scroop. He was barely out of twenties, and may simply not have realised what he was getting into.
MacMurragh saw the blow coming, and outmanoeuvred Thomas, assembling his own forces and marching north, presumably evading the Prince’s army. He encamped somewhere around Kilmainham, north of Dublin, and it was there that he fought Thomas in a pitched battle, the size and scope of which is not really clear. Some Irish sources merely record that MacMurragh was “victorious” in war during this year, and this included a fight of indeterminate size in Kilmainham. It could have been a small scale skirmish, or a larger battle – either way Thomas was beaten, and wounded for his trouble, though he survived. MacMurragh seemingly retired back to his lands, unprepared to assault Dublin itself. The affair led to Thomas leaving Ireland again in 1409 once he had recovered, choosing to limit his future martial affairs to the likes of France.
Despite the apparent settling of the succession after Richard II’s abdication, all was far from rosy in England, which would explain why Thomas was so hard up for men and cash. Henry IV quarrelled with his sons constantly, with the heir, also named Henry, essentially running the country during his father’s many spells of illness, which led to disputes when the King would recover. A rebellion in Wales led by Owain Glyndŵr, possibly a veteran of Richard II’s Irish campaigns, occupied much of the younger Henry’s time, and it was there that he truly learned the craft of warfare.
As an aside, that Welsh rebellion had plenty of Irish connections, with Glyndwr once conspiring with older members of the Mortimer family and openly courting assistance from Ireland for his cause – assistance that did not arrive.
Henry IV died in1413, with his son becoming Henry V. Like his father, Henry had little time for Irish affairs, far more concerned with pressing his claim on the French throne. In 1415, he sent one of those who had fought with him in Wales to become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His name was Sir John Talbot.
All the time since Thomas’ departure had seen the expected pattern repeat: minor victories and defeats traded back and forth between the English and the Irish, with the Crown influence extending little more than outside the borders of the Pale, Ormond and Desmond. Talbot, renowned as a fierce fighter, was resolved to change this, if he could. Having arrived and assembled the forces available, he took off on a tour of the Pale’s borders, invading the O’More clans land in Laois (Leix as it was named at the time), capturing several castles, and basically destroying a large amount of whatever was in his path. His victory was so total that the O’More’s were compelled to deliver up hostages and fight under Talbot’s banner against other Irish chieftains, such as the MacMahon’s of Oriel, Monaghan, where similar results were achieved. He continued on this path, ignoring MacMurragh and the south in favour of targeting the west and north, for several years.
Talbot’s victory had the English of the Pale in a frenzy of gratitude for a time, but that was until the bill came in. The cost of keeping Talbot’s army in the field and supplied was high, and the man himself was not well known for paying his own way when it came to warfare. More than that, he engaged in feuds with the Earl of Ormond over matters related to administration and the giving out of religious positions, which Talbot wanted for his family.
Art MacMurragh’s last victory came in 1416 when he defeated an English force in Wexford, killing or capturing 340 men. Few details are recorded, but it was probably some manner of ambush or raid, with the casualties exaggerated. Art, who had reached the ripe old age (for the times) of 60, died the following year. As a figure in Irish history he is little remembered it must be said, though his effect on the country and the Kingdom of England was actually quite notable. He spent his entire adult life fighting it would seem, and his power and reach was a major reason for the stifling of the Pale during the latter half of the 14th century. He understood the nature of Irish terrain and the best way to make use of it, and twice survived encounters with gigantic English armies, the second time against one that had arrived with the express purpose of defeating him. His threat to English interests inadvertently paved the way for Henry of Bolingbroke to seize the throne, an aspect of his military activities that has gone largely unremembered. He was not a figure on a par with, say, Brian Boru or later revolutionaries, but the effect that he had on Ireland should not go so unnoticed by history.
Talbot had wisely decided to ignore Art, but found himself unable to ignore Art’s son and successor Donagh. In 1419, Talbot was able to capture Donagh through subterfuge, and such was the danger that he was thought to represent, Talbot had him shipped off to the Tower of London where he remained for nine years.
It was one of Talbot’s last acts in Ireland, as he soon after departed in order to attend Henry V’s needs in France. He left a legacy of bankruptcy, unfulfilled debts and destroyed land. He would go on to achieve great fame in France, fighting all throughout the remainder of the Hundred Years War, falling in its last recognised battle, Castillon, in 1453.
You might note that I have had little to say about the rest of Ireland for the last few entries. Well, the O’Neill’s and O’Brien’s were still the dominant forces in Ulster and Munster respectively, though the Earldom of Desmond had made significant inroads in the former. Limerick remained an English city, and Thomand was largely situated in Clare. The McCarthy clan dominated in Kerry, while the O’Connors held sway through most of Connaught, in competition with the various stands of the Burke’s. South Leinster remained largely under the control of the MacMurragh’s even after Art’s death. The Earldom of Ormond, under the Butler family, was, arguably, the main English force on the island, competing with the Fitzgerald’s in Kildare while other Anglo-Norman territory could be found on the eastern tip of Ulster. The O’Neill’s were rapidly becoming the most powerful native Irish family on the island, more than prepared to face down the English.
That presents a fixed view of Irish political borders, but things were much more fluid in reality. The O’Brien’s and O’Neill’s warred with themselves constantly, and the death of a patriarch was often accompanied with a violent disagreement regards a succession. Numerous smaller families and clans lived under those named above, often rebelling or acting autonomously. Castles, towns and other areas changed hands at “borders” constantly, where loyalty and submission to the English crown or Irish chieftain might change year to year. Famine, disease, poverty were large parts of life for most, with the difference between life and death being razor thin day to day.
In saying that, Ireland was, perhaps, no worse off than large parts of Europe. In fact, compared to the endless large scale fighting in France around the same time, it might have been a bit better, though not by much. Warfare was still small scale and dominated by the tactic of raid and pillage. Infantry and missile troops were the critical feature, the mounted knight’s importance largely faded. Set piece battles would have been short when they happened, sieges rare. Castles had sprang up everywhere and the difference between the Irish and English in military terms had never been less different.
The military nature of Ireland in this time would remain largely in place for the next hundred years, until the Tudors made the commitment to enlarge English control on the island. I may skip that far ahead in Ireland’s military story shortly. Before that, I will examine Ireland’s role in the series of bitter dynastic conflicts on English history, which have become known as the War of the Roses.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.