The Treaty of Windsor, signed between Rory O’Connor and Henry II of England, did not last long. Anglo-Norman colonists in Ireland were still hungry for power and land, liable to undertake their own ventures into Irish territory, and Henry was not of a mind to put too much of an effort into stopping them, distracted by more import events elsewhere in his vast holdings. While the situation in Ireland remained more finely poised than subsequent remembrance like to state, the English were still expanding.
Raymond de Gros, the beloved leader of so many Norman expeditions, was at the forefront of this. He was continuing to lead troops into Munster, attacking the forces of Thomond and interceding in the constant squabbling of other Irish chieftains, most notably the McCarthy’s of Kerry, who in 1175/76 were struggling with internal division between leaders and their sons: a common Irish problem as we will soon see. With an established base in the recently captured town of Limerick, de Gros was able to exert more pressure than before, without the need for constant resupply and reinforcement from the east.
That all came crashing down in April of 1176, when Strongbow died in Dublin. Irish sources like to claim that divine retribution did him in, through a festering ulcer on his foot, or maybe a painful battle wound whose issues were reoccurring. But the truth is that, aged 46, De Clare was already far along in years relative to the times, and his death was not some surprising event, not that much.
Strongbow’s role in the Norman invasion is a bit exaggerated really – he was more of a politician than a soldier, and most of the initial expansion was undertaken by others, like de Gros – but his part was still gigantic. His marriage to Aoife helped solidify the English claim to parts of Ireland, and the reconciliation with Henry ensured that it was no temporary engagement. This down on his luck Welsh noble found a way to better his circumstances spectacularly, and has occupied a place in Irish history of considerable fame (or infamy if you prefer) ever since because of it.
De Gros, hearing of Strongbow’s death, hurried back to Dublin. Unwilling to leave a small garrison behind when they would be left weak and easy prey, he essentially abandoned Limerick to the O’Brien’s once more, who retook the town and burned a large part of it in the process. After Strongbow’s funeral, de Gros, through his military power and marriage to De Clare’s daughter, took temporary charge in Dublin, but was soon superseded by Henry II’s choices for a new Irish government, most notably William Fitzaldhelm, a favourite noble who had previously accompanied the King on his expedition to Ireland.
Fitzaldhelm’s administration did not last long. There was open quarrelling with other elements of English power in Ireland, with de Gros a much reviled figure among the new arrivals. The Irish were pressing back in the Meath region, with the castle at Slane captured and its garrison slaughtered, provoking a limited flight of colonists from the area. Fitzaldhelm’s stuttering efforts to enforce the terms of the Treaty of Windsor made him more unpopular, and he as soon being flat-out ignored by his nominal subordinates.
John De Courcy was one of those. An ambitious young noble, he had been among the first wave to land in Ireland with Strongbow, and now wanted to establish his own lands. Taking 22 knights and a contingent of foot soldiers, he marched north in early 1177, seeing to stake a claim to an area of Ulaid, an old Irish Kingdom in the east of what we would recognise as Ulster today.
His men reached and stormed Downpatrick, the chief town of the region, and then awaited a response. The leading families of the area refused attempts at clerical negotiation, and gathered as many men as they could, but were badly defeated by de Courcy in battle twice, once in February and again in June, though we have little details about what actually took place. De Courcy held onto the lands he had taken, began building a castle, and beat back all comers, even advancing on raids as far away as Derry. Ulster and its chieftains had been able to stay aloof from the larger issue of Irish/English interaction up to that point, not even offering Henry the most empty kind of submission like others had done. That was now changing.
Miles de Cogan attempted to match de Courcy’s exploits that same year, only heading west instead of north. Giving support to Murrough O’Connor, a rebellious son of Rory, he led knights and troops into Roscommon seeking plunder and land. The expedition was a failure: the native Irish initiated a scorched earth policy and fled west, leaving de Cogan and his knights nothing to take or to subsist on. Forced to withdraw after a time, they were then pursued by the forces of the elder O’Connor. Irish sources claim O’Connor inflicted a bloody defeat on the retreating Normans on the banks of the Shannon, though it is little mentioned elsewhere. De Cogan was able to withdraw safely, though Murrough was not so lucky, captured and blinded by his revengeful father. O’Connor remained one of the most powerful men in Ireland, and this episode helps to illustrate that. If the Irish could be organised enough, with a strong enough figurehead, then they could do some serious damage.
By now, the Windsor agreement had totally broken down, and Henry continued to grant tracks of land to his favourites that were not really in his power to give. Large swaths of Munster were granted to noblemen, who then had to travel to Ireland and take it by force. Future Earldoms in Desmond and Thomond began their existence as nominal lands of the King when they were still being controlled by Irish chieftains. Efforts to establish English rule in these areas were tricky, with only small portions of land, most notably around the town of Cork, recently seized, coming under firm English dominance. There wasn’t, yet, enough English settlers to enforce the claims, these areas being so far from the established foothold in the east, and surrounded by hostile Irish. There are plenty of cases of noblemen turning down gifts of land in Ireland, or essentially letting the claims lie dormant after a failed or expensive attempt to take them. Such is the progress of colonialism, but the English were still creeping ever outward.
Henry had his own personal issues, with a fractious relationship with his sons threatening his plans for his own succession. The lands he controlled were extensive, but he also had numerous offspring, who all wanted a piece of them. These disputes erupted into rebellion and war on several occasions, and were a constant source of stress and pressure on Henry. Largely because of this, he had fond feelings for his youngest (legitimate) son, John, nicknamed “Lackland” by some contemporary commenter’s due to his apparent deficit of title. Seeking a way to grant John some land, Henry had him declared, at just ten years old, to be the first “Lord of Ireland”, setting in motion a title that would stick to English monarchs’ until the time of Henry VIII. For the moment, the title held little actual power, given John’s age, and Fitzaldhelm remained in power in Ireland. But it would not be so for much longer.
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