The Anglo-Normans in Ireland were rebelling and fighting with each other pell-mell, damaging wars that left the English effort to expand against the natives neutered. King John’s second expedition to Ireland was just a larger part of his repeatedly fractious final years, as he endlessly quarrelled with his nobles over the correct extent of royal powers and the freedoms afforded to the men who were his, nominal, subordinates. These disputes would eventually result in a fairly devastating series of civil conflicts that swept England north to south, and would ensure John’s terrible reputation in history.
John arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1210, landing near Waterford with a substantial force carried by a large navy – though maybe not the 700 ships that some Irish sources claim carried him. With over a thousand infantry and several hundred horse, this expedition would be far more militant than the last. His goals in Ireland were essentially threefold: to deal with rebellious nobles decisively, to bring as many of the native King’s to heel as he could and to administer legal and land reform to the country. But, as in England, he would find the task to be a more difficult one than it at first appeared.
The first of his problems was largely solved before he had to lift a finger, with most of the remaining de Lacy’s, his key opponents in Ireland at the time, fleeing abroad rather than face him or his armed forces. John marched into Leinster without any opposition, seeking and getting the submission of various Irish chieftains, including Cathal Crovderg, the King of Connacht and one of the most powerful of the Irish. With Crovderg John made a more firm alliance, and soon a combined army of Irish troops and Anglo-Norman settlers was marching north to deal with the last of the de Lacy’s.
They had set up shop in Carrickfergus, but were apparently no match for the enemy army sent against them, which captured the castle after a short siege, seemingly ending the power of the de Lacy’s in Ireland permanently (surprise, surprise, they would be back before too long). Little detail about this campaign remains, aside from its result. But, despite the victory, things were already turning against the King.
John was already stumbling, botching his negotiations with the native Irish over the issue of hostages. John wanted sons of Crovderg and others, like the O’Neill’s, as surety for their good behaviour in future, but failed to get the in the case of the northern chieftains and only very unwillingly and after a lengthy time in the case of Connacht. Such an act belied John’s naivety and ignorance of Ireland, where primogeniture did not exist in most parts of native society, and at this time stem more stories of John’s crude relationships with the Irish leaders, with the English King accused of mocking the Irish custom of riding barebacked when confronted with Crovderg doing just that. The Irish of Tir Eoghain would remain firm enemies of England for a time, with a constant border conflict occurring there long after John had departed.
But, for the moment, John was free of military concerns, and turned to administration. New land division in the form of a number of newly created countries, new writs for the introduction of common law and a new Viceroy in the form of John de Gray, the Bishop of Norfolk, all helped to stamp John’s authority on Ireland, even if he had largely failed to pacify the Irish beyond the border of the Anglo-Norman territories. When he left, John was presumably satisfied that he has achieved everything that he could in Ireland, but only insofar that it would now become a more productive source of revenue for him: he had more deadly enemies to fight elsewhere, at home and in France, and those wars would not pay for themselves, Ireland being an a convenient place to exploit for income.
De Gray, ultra loyal to John and derisively dubbed the “foreign Bishop” by Irish accounts, was left to institute John’s policies, which involved more castle building and expansion into Irish lands, most notably into Connacht. The Shannon remained a key barrier to expansion, but with its mouth overlooked by Limerick, the focus was now further up on its course. The castle and fortifications at Athlone were expanded and shored up during this time, turning them into a very threatening point overlooking the river, while Anglo-Norman forces were also directed at the northern territories of the O’Neill’s.
That family spent its time either fighting their neighbours, the O’Donnell’s of Tyrconnell, or allying with them against the English, and were able to hold their own, going as far as capturing and destroying an enemy castle at Carlingford at one point. It was an illustration of the kind of threat that the northern Irish Kingdoms could pose if they could put aside their own squabbles for a time, something that would eventually result in the alliance that formed the core of the Irish side in the Nine Years War several centuries later. As for Connacht, Crovderg found himself hard-pressed at times, from Anglo-Norman intrusions from the east and Anglo-Norman backed invasions from Thomond in the south. But, he did survive in his position.
The rest of John’s reign had little impact on Ireland, the King focused on his violent disputes with the French, his barons, the Papacy and the quandary of the Magna Carta, that most famous of English medieval documents. He died, probably of dysentery, in the midst of a campaign of his Baron’s Wars, at Nottingham in October 1216, largely reviled by many of his subjects and doomed to a historical remembrance of unrelenting negativity. His impact on Ireland was notable in many different ways, but not really in a military sense: he failed to make any kind of lasting alliance with the Irish and his efforts to purge the land of those families who were not loyal to him would not long stand after his death. Numerous castles and other fortifications, most notably at Limerick, owe their existence due to John’s policies though, and it is perhaps for this reason that his legacy in Ireland was slightly (slightly) better than it was in England.
John was succeeded by his son Henry, only nine years old, who ruled as Henry III. With threats from the Barons and a pretender in the form of the French King, few would have expected Henry to have a productive reign, but the young King would prove many of his doubters wrong. Ireland, a land divided and struggling under a burden of constant dispute and war, would see that as well.
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