Author note: For simplicities sake, I’m going to start using anglicised versions of names from this point on, as well as greater use of the term “English”.
Ireland in the later stages of 1171 had seen the invaders position in the east of the country, especially around Dublin, come under a repeated attack, but Strongbow and his forces had survived, maintaining their foothold, and his claim over the Kingship of Leinster. But now he had a different kind of situation to deal with.
Having come to a compromise agreement with King Henry II, where Strongbow let go of any royal pretensions and some towns, in exchange for royal recognition of his lands on either side of the Irish Sea, de Clare now accompanied his sovereign on his journey to Ireland, to inspect the new holdings which nominally answered to him.
Henry landed in Waterford with a fairly substantial force of men – maybe 4’000 infantry with 500 archers to supplement – but his goal was not military confrontation. It was a display of strength with which to encourage submission, the King seeing his role as one of securing the borders of the land he now directly controlled, and making vassals of the Irish chieftains beyond.
His mission was a partial success. Scores of high ranking Irish did indeed pay homage to him, including the McCarthy’s from Kerry, the O’Brien’s of Thomond, the O’Carroll’s of Oriel and the O’Rourke’s of Briefne. Even Rory O’Connor, through an intermediary, paid homage to Henry, through he kept his own lands ready to resist any military attack. The Irish, always caught up in conflicts and wars with each other, might have welcomed the possibility of support and protection from an outside King as powerful as Henry II was, and fully understood what they were getting into. Or, perhaps ignorant of how the Plantagenet’s operated, they were simply paying lip-service to a powerful man they intended to forget as soon as he had gone, unknowing what their homage represented to Henry.
Henry spent the rest of the year in Ireland, celebrating Christmas in Dublin and busying himself with issues of administration and Church reform. He also started the process of handing out land to favoured subjects, some of which was not even in his power to give, still being held and controlled by Irish Kings and chieftains, who may not have understood that Henry now felt he had the right to take it from them. Strongbow’s claim on Leinster was upheld, with the title of Lord Marshal of Ireland also conferred to him. Hugh de Lacy, was made Chief Justice of Ireland, the governor of Dublin Castle, and was granted the Lordship of Meath. Maurice FitzGerald was granted a great deal of land in the south-west of Ireland, that which would become, in time, the Earldom of Desmond. Constable’s, high stewards, town governors and royal butlers were also set up, the beginnings of the first true English government in Ireland. Henry left Ireland six months after he arrived, never to return, but left instructions to those who remained: to build castles on their land and solidify his rule.
It did not take long for conflict to erupt, as the newly entitled Lords set out to take ownership of the lands that had been granted to them, and grab a bit more besides. Hugh de Lacy, seeking to begin administrating the ancient Kingdom of Meath, clashed with Tiernan O’Rourke of Briefne, who also claimed those lands, and whose own Kingdom was on the borders. The two resolved to have an unarmed discussion on the matter at the Hill of Tara. Claims and counter-claims of treachery on both sides have been made, but whatever the exact circumstances were, O’Rourke was killed there, his head taken back for display purposes in Dublin.
At the same time, Strongbow began to push out, emboldened by the reinforcements that had arrived with Henry, and a steady stream of new colonists that sought land and opportunity in Ireland. Strongbow had a royal mandate to expand English power now, and in 1172 he took around a thousand men into what we would now call Offaly, seizing plunder and targeting specifically the O’Dempsey family, one of those who had refused to kowtow to the new regime. The operation was a partial success: Strongbow seized plenty of spoils and burned plenty of land. But he never got the standard fight he probably sought. The Irish were learning. Instead, his rearguard was ambushed by O’Dempsey forces as they marched back to Dublin, with Strongbow’s son in law among the casualties, though there was little loss otherwise. It is a classic example of Irish forces playing to their own strengths.
The English advance now continued in a similar fashion for the next few years, with a series of raids, burnings and castle building. Among the most notable are the campaigns of Raymond de Gros, a figure gaining in power all the time thanks to his popularity with the Anglo-Norman rank and file. In 1173, he was able to penetrate all the way into the lands of the McCarthy’s in Munster, carrying away plunder and livestock as a reward, and dealing Irish control in the area a serious blow. All the time, the colonists made better defences for their towns, continually building strong stone castles and adding to their numbers with new arrivals from across the sea.
Things did not also go the way that the Anglo-Normans would have wanted though. Following de Gros’ retirement from Ireland after a dispute with Strongbow, the Lord of Leinster decided to chance his arm in a larger way, organising a large scale campaign to tackle the O’Brien’s of Thomond, who were proving less agreeable with their previous submission than before. What happened on this campaign is a bit muddled, but we can piece together the basics. Strongbow advanced in 1174, but became wary after discovering that a temporary alliance had been set up between the O’Brien’s and the O’Connor’s with Rory still alive and well, and still wishing to reclaim in position of High King in actuality. Facing larger numbers of enemy soldiers than he was prepared to engage, Strongbow sent word back to Dublin for reinforcements, which marched west in the form of several hundred “Ostmen” , a generic term for a mix of Irish and Scandinavian peoples. These Ostmen, living under Anglo-Norman rule now that their own Kings and chieftains had been driven out, were more than happy to ingratiate themselves with their new rulers.
The Ostmen were heading towards Cashel, there to rendezvous with Strongbow and his army. It’s what happened next that is unclear. According to pro-English sources, the Ostman regiments were ambushed and killed by O’Brien forces while they were resting on the march, slain largely in their sleep. According to pro-Irish sources, the defeat of the Ostmen occurred in actual battle, fought near the modern day town of Thurles in Tipperary, where a combined O’Brien/O’Connor army defeated them with great slaughter, somewhere between 700 and 1700 killed. Naturally, each account must be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless of what actually occurred, Strongbow’s planned attack into Thomond was largely scuppered, and he was forced to withdraw to the protection of Waterford, there to consider his next move. The Irish were doing the same.
This Irish success seems to have been a call for a general unrest across the country, with chieftains turning against English control in Leinster, Strongbow left somewhat beleaguered in Waterford and Rory O’Connor assembling a force to march into Meath. The garrisons there, in newly constructed castles at Trim and Duleek, retreated rapidly, badly outnumbered and not wanting to get cut off.
Desperate, Strongbow sent word to Raymond de Gros, patching up their dispute by offering him the hand of his widowed daughter Basilia. Raymond gleefully accepted, arriving in Waterford with reinforcements, enough to break out and head into Leinster proper. But he need not have worried too much. O’Connor’s army marched into County Dublin, doing plenty of damage along the way, but there appears to have been no serious attempt made on the city this time, the Irish breaking up and heading home after a time without causing much more of a threat to the Anglo-Norman position. When Raymond led troops to Dublin, he found only a small rearguard of Irish to fall upon, the rest having gone back towards the Shannon beforehand. The castles and forts in Meath were rapidly reoccupied, and the entire situation in Ireland settled down for a time.
The next year Raymond was on the march himself, seeking a degree of revenge for the reverse the O’Brien’s had inflicted upon his overall forces at Thurles. He aimed in the general direction of Limerick – with no castle at the time, not as impressive or valuable as it would one day be, but still important – and managed to sack and capture the town after a daring effort to ford the Shannon and attacking the rear of the enemy defences.
The capture naturally provoked a reaction from Thomond, who were soon besieging their former holding. Continued dispute among the Anglo-Norman leadership over Raymond’s fitness for command delayed a response, but eventually de Gros was allowed to lead another force to the area, this time with significant numbers of Irish troops from the regions of Offaly and Wexford joining him, attempting to prove their loyalty to Henry or just seeing a means by which they could strike at Thomond. The O’Brien’s retreated to Cashel and a battle was fought there where the Anglo-Norman/Irish alliance was victorious. At the same time, it is alleged that Rory O’Connor attacked Thomond from the north, causing great devastation in the country. Such reports, if true, are typical of the opportunistic approach many Irish nobility partook in at the time.
The entire affair offers a continual illustration of the pattern in Ireland. The English could sally out, inflict defeats, capture towns and prove superior. But they had to keep doing it, with de Gros marching into Munster for the third time in just a few years, and presumably aware that he would have to keep doing so. The English desire for expansion and land was going too far – a place like Limerick was not a position that was easily supported and maintained, as they would find very soon.
O’Connor, seeking a way out of what must have seemed like a pointlessly destructive cycle, sent emissaries to Henry in England, seeking an agreement that could stabilise the country. This agreement – the Treaty of Windsor – recognised Rory as the most pre-eminent King in Ireland, with direct authority over Connacht and recognised authority over other Irish King’s and Princes. Rory would act as Henry’s enforcer in Ireland, organising tribute and homage from his own subordinates, and dealing with disputes as he saw fit. The Anglo-Norman lands in Dublin, Leinster and the Waterford region were recognised by Rory, essentially the boundaries of the early Pale coming into being.
The treaty and its terms would not last long. Nothing between the Irish and the English ever did. But it is an example of how elements of both sides were still willing to engage with the other and approach the Irish issue from a standpoint away from total conquest. Henry II would not be taking over the entire island. But the fighting between both sides would continue.
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