Ireland’s Wars: Anarchy Under John

Having briefly discussed Ireland’s mostly unnoteworthy relationship with the Crusades in the last entry, we shall now press on with the narrative of the Anglo-Norman presence Ireland, beginning with the reign of the largely absent Richard I.

Ireland was marked by low-level conflict throughout his time on the throne, with a succession of Lord Deputy’s in Dublin, minor entanglements between the Anglo-Norman’s and the Irish in the north and the south, and wars between the Irish themselves. Or, to put it another way, business as usual. The English advance remained somewhat stalled. In Ulster, De Courcy found himself struggling to expand his influence in the north-east and west, facing numerous Irish enemies who had the strength to oppose his advances. In the south, on the borders of Thomond and the Irish territories in modern day Kerry, a constant level of simmering troubles ensuring a well scheduled amount of bloodletting, with the town of Limerick serving as the focal point of many of these conflicts.

In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John, the Lord of Ireland as decreed by his deceased father, eventually gained control of England, going so far as to rebel against his brothers authority in the closing years of the 12th century. The two were eventually reconciled though, and when Richard was killed at a siege of Chalons Castle in 1199, John succeeded him as King of England at the age of 30.

In Ireland, the new Viceroy appointed by John, a figure named Meyler FitzHenry, faced into the opportunities provided by a war of family strife on Connacht. Connacht remained one of the largest of the remaining Irish Kingdoms, though perhaps not the most powerful. Under the rule of Rory O’Connor it had enough influence and martial ability to be the preeminent Irish Kingdom, but since his retirement and the death of his son and heir, a constant cycle of family squabble over the succession had resulted, an extended conflict interrupted by periods of grudging peace between rival factions. Various Anglo-Norman nobles, including the powerful figure of William De Burgh and the governors of Limerick, intervened in this conflict at the beginning of John’s reign, seeking to place their backed candidate on the throne by strength of arms.

They eventually succeeded. Two Cathal’s – Carragh, the grandson of Rory and another nicknamed Crovderg – were the main rivals. The English initially backed Carragh, for whatever reason, and followed up on their support with troops and arms. Crovderg was driven out of Connacht, and when he tried to return with support from the Tyrone O’Neill’s, he was badly beaten and forced to flee once more, the combined might of Anglo-Norman military expertise and Irish troops proving too much for his ambitions.

Crovderg was undeterred by this failure, and perhaps saw some inspirations in the act of Carragh. He approached John de Courcy in eastern Ulster for support, and got it, with the noble all too happy to provide support for his candidate. So, the English in Ireland now became arraigned against each other in this proxy war, with different factions backing different candidates, perfectly happy to send their soldiers to fight against each other. But again, Crovderg was defeated when he tried an invasion of Connacht, after a battle at Kilmacduagh, with most of his force destroyed. What de Courcy thought about that is left unrecorded.

His actions appear to be on the side of the Crown’s opinions, for shortly after the Viceroy in Dublin was leading troops against Carragh, getting as far as Clonmacnoise, which was plundered. In the meantime, Crovderg, still alive and still seeking redress, travelled to Munster to try and get the English on his die again, meeting with William de Burgh. De Burgh controlled significant amounts of land in Limerick and Tipperary, and had carved out an imposing reputation for military skill. He was already interfering in wars between Desmond and Thomond, and was all too happy to lend support to Crovderg in his enterprises.

Why the support and the changing of sides? As stated, the various English nobles operating outside the Pale sometimes did not feel the need to follow the crowns policy, operating on the frontier as they did. They would choose to back whoever they liked in local disputes, as long as the result would enrich themselves, and were not liable to face much censure from Dublin because of it, or at least very little of substance. In a larger sense the Anglo-Normans seemed happy to promote and extend inter-Irish conflicts, for the simple reason that it kept the Irish busy with their own troubles and in a semi-permanent state of weakness.

In 1201, Crovderg and his army of Munster Irish and English marched into Connacht, eventually engaging Carragh in battle around the town of Boyle. Finally, things worked out in Crovderg’s favour, and Carragh was killed in the midst of several skirmishes. It did not take long for the alliance of Irish and English to fall to pieces, with annalists recording that de Burgh tried to have Crovderg killed, and that Crovderg’s troops soon turned on the English, killing many of them and forcing de Burgh to flee back to Limerick. The event simple previsaged more destruction, with de Burgh building up his strength and then devastating large parts of Connacht a few years later in a campaign of pillaging and plunder.

In the north there was further intrigue, as de Courcy power and independence in that region finally grew too much for John to bear. The King was engaged in a dynastic struggle with his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, who arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than him, a war that had led to severe difficulties in the English lands in France, especially Normandy. Arthur was eventually captured and possibly killed by John. De Courcy allegedly had backed Arthur claim to the throne and spoken of John as a usurper. This might have been an overt reason for his attaintment by John, but more likely is that de Coiurcy was considered too much of a renegade to the Anglo-Norman position in Ireland, seeking too much of his own power, perhaps even to the point of a crown.

John wanted those lands under better control, and turned to the de Lacy’s of Meath. Hugh, son of his father by the same name who had first conquered Meath for the English crown, was tasked with bringing de Courcy to heel. So, the army of Meath marched against de Courcy on behalf of John. De Courcy was evidently outmanned from the start, and sought the help and protection of his Irish neighbours, like the O’Neills to the west. It did him no good, with the rebellious noble captured after a siege of Downpatrick, sometime around Easter in 1204. He was sent to London in chains and would spend the rest of his life imprisoned. Hugh de Lacy on the other hand, was granted by John the Earldom of Ulster.

The whole affair, “in which many had been slain”, marked the start of a period of infighting among the Anglo-Norman nobles in Ireland, fighting that John eventually had to try and intervene in decisively. Throughout the later part of his reign, John had a fractious dispute with his noble subordinates, most notably the barons, which would erupt into all out rebellion and war on more than one occasion.

His policy towards Ireland was a mixed one, with the King treating Ireland as just another source of revenue on the one hand, and as a place for serious military expansion on the other. It was John who kickstarted a new wave of castle building, with more permanent structures ordered, especially in the west on or near the River Shannon. One of those, built in Limerick, still stands today, and remains one of the most pre-eminent examples of the periods castle-building craft still around and (mostly) intact. King John’s Castle, as the structure is still known, helped make Limerick the fearsome garrison town it became, and solidified John’s personal control over this vital point, a state of affairs that annoyed those Anglo-Norman nobles who controlled the land around the town. A similar state of affairs existed in the east, around the developing town of Drogheda, and further north, at Athlone.

John’s attitude towards his subordinates in Ireland, which involved playing favourites, harsh enforcement of debt payments and the denial of opportunities to increase personal power, inevitably caused conflict, even with those he had previously considered loyal to him. A critical dispute was with William de Braose, a former favourite, that John persecuted because of an unpaid debt. De Braose had been granted lands in the Limerick region, and so the conflict between the two spilled over into Ireland. De Braose found support among the de Lacy’s and William Marshal, and opposition from Meyler.

War soon followed, and chronicles at the time mention bloody fighting in both Munster and Leinster, as Limerick came under attack from Meyler and Irish chieftains and King’s choose sides, seeking to improve their own position. Fighting was, according to Irish sources, particularly fierce in 1207, where Meyler was pegged back. A siege at “Ardnucher” – the modern day town of Horseleap, Offaly – is especially noted as a great victory for the de Lacy’s.

By 1210, the situation had become intolerable for John, with large swathes of Ireland no longer under his authority in any form or in open rebellion. For the second, and last, time in his life, he made ready to lead an expedition back to Ireland.

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

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Anarchy Under John

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: John’s Second Visit | Never Felt Better

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