Strongbow and the Invasion of Ireland I

By the late spring of 1171, Dublin had been under siege for two months. Outside the walls, the Irish besiegers were happy to bide their time and starve the city into submission. Inside the walls, the English defenders were suffering. Food was running out, so was time, and their options were limited. They could stake everything on a charge out of the city gates. Their superior discipline, military techniques and equipment would give them a good chance in a pitched battle against the Irish, but it would be risky nonetheless. Meanwhile, there was little hope of any relief force coming to their aid. King Henry II had banned all voyages to Ireland from any of his lands, and he had also summoned all his subjects in Ireland to return to England and Wales before the following Easter or they would be exiled and disinherited. In this dire situation, with provisions left for only a fortnight, Strongbow (‘the valiant earl’, as one source called him) tried to negotiate with the Irish one more time, but his offer to accept their leader Rory O’Connor as his lord and to hold Leinster as his vassal was rejected out of hand. The English could keep Dublin, Wexford and Waterford, Rory said, but nothing more. And if they did not accept this proposal immediately, he went on, they would be attacked next day. Strongbow’s men reacted furiously and defiantly when Rory’s ultimatum was brought back to them in the city. Maurice Fitz Gerald spoke for them all when he said that they should ignore it and seize the initiative with an attack of their own. The Irish were poorly organised and poorly armed, and an assault by brave, well-equipped Englishmen was the last thing they would expect. And after all, what did they have to lose? ‘Just as we are English as far as the Irish are concerned, likewise to the English we are Irish, and the inhabitants of this island and the other assail us with an equal degree of hatred,’ Maurice declared. ‘So let us breach the barriers of hesitation and inertia, for “fortune favours the brave”.’ Strongbow then joined in. He shouted to Miles de Cogan, the governor of the city: ‘Baron! Get all your men armed: you will lead out the vanguard; in the name of the Almighty Father, you will lead out the vanguard.’

Miles had forty knights, sixty archers and a hundred men at arms. Behind him came Raymond le Gros (‘the Fat’), and then Strongbow himself, each with the same number of troops as Miles. At about four o’clock that afternoon, the English force slipped quietly and unseen out of the city. They forded the river Liffey, headed north and then turned south-west in order to attack the Irish camp from behind. Most of the Irish troops were relaxing before dinner and over a hundred of them, including Rory O’Connor himself, were bathing in the river. Miles de Cogan began the charge with his shout of ‘Cogan! . . . Strike, in the name of the Cross! Strike, barons, without delay, in the name of Jesus, son of Mary! Strike, noble knights, at your mortal enemies.’ Behind him, the contingents led by Raymond le Gros and Meiler Fitz Henry also acquitted themselves impressively. Meanwhile ‘Richard, the brave earl, also fought well that day; he fought so well that everyone was amazed.’ The English attack took the Irish (30,000 of them according to one dubious estimate, 60,000 according to another) completely by surprise and they were quickly overpowered and scattered. Most of the bathers were slaughtered, although Rory O’Connor managed somehow to escape, and over 1,500 Irish were killed in all. The sole English casualty was a wounded infantryman. There was plunder, too, mainly food that would feed the English and their horses for a year. ‘The field remained that day with Richard, the brave earl, and the Irish fled, routed and vanquished.’ Strongbow’s victory was total.


Few events in Anglo-Irish history have remained as disputed and controversial as the entry of the English into Irish affairs from the end of the 1160s. Even referring to them as ‘English’ in this context is problematic. For one thing, Ireland’s recent history means that the word is heavily loaded with political significance, and it can be a divisive distraction when discussing the Middle Ages. Another less contentious point, but just as important in many ways, is whether or not most of the men who came to Ireland from England in the mid-twelfth century regarded themselves as English anyway. Their first language was almost certainly French, and their family connections with Normandy and other parts of northern France remained strong and alive. Despite these reservations, however, two things are not in dispute about the newcomers. First, they did come to Ireland from England, or at least from those parts of south Wales conquered and settled by subjects of the English kings after 1066. And, second, they were usually called ‘English’ by those who wrote about these events at the time. For these pragmatic reasons, but with a recognition that there remains no single satisfactory modern way of describing them, that is what they will be called here.

The English victory at the siege of Dublin in 1171 is a crucial moment in this story. But the account of it given above, whilst it contains many elements common to contemporary descriptions of these events, highlights many of the problems of interpretation. The English are brave and efficient, whilst the Irish are lazy and incompetent. The English are far ahead of the Irish in terms of their military skills, technology and techniques. And in the war cries of Strongbow and Miles de Cogan, with their religious references and appeals for divine assistance, there are hints of crusading fervour as the barely Christian Irish are brought to heel by the loyal sons of the Roman Church. These are stereotypes, of course, rooted in deeply held twelfth-century prejudices; but, like many stereotypes, they also contain germs of truth. The English did succeed in Ireland in the second half of the twelfth century because, whereas the Irish had no armour, cavalry or castles, the English had all three in abundance. The English, at least during the early years after their arrival in Ireland, were a highly motivated and coherent fighting force, bound together by ties of family and locality. And there was indeed a religious impulse behind the arrival of the English in Ireland. The English Church, the English king and the English barons all had much to gain from bringing Ireland under English control and firmly into the mainstream of western European religious orthodoxy.

But there are myths about all of this, too, which need to be dispelled. It has been conventional over the years to characterise the coming of the English to Ireland as an ‘invasion’ and subsequent events as a ‘conquest’. Neither of these words really does justice to what happened after 1169 when a small number of Anglo-Norman barons and their followers crossed the Irish Sea, not to ‘conquer’ Ireland, but because they had been invited to come by a deposed Irish king who wanted their help to regain his throne. They were serving him and his successors, and their reward for this was land on which they settled men of their own. They were not pirates opportunistically seizing whatever they could get. Nonetheless, they were remarkably successful in a very short space of time, and arguably the most successful and important of them all was Richard Fitz Gilbert, more popularly known as Strongbow. He features in most of the main English and Irish sources for this period, and understandably so. But the two accounts of his career that give the fullest descriptions differ in their emphasis. The first of these, Gerald of Wales’s The Conquest of Ireland, written in Latin, was finished in 1189. Gerald was archdeacon of Brecon in south Wales and his relatives had played a leading role in Ireland from 1169. His primary aim in The Conquest was to give pride of place to the part played by his own brothers and cousins in the Irish adventure. As a result, his attitude towards Strongbow is sometimes rather cool, and he tends to ignore many of his contributions to events and to play down the earl’s achievements. The second source, the so-called Song of Dermot and the Earl, a poem in Norman-French, had been put into writing by 1225, but that version was based on earlier material, possibly from the 1170s. The writer of the Song (his identity is unknown, but it has been suggested that he wrote from within the circle of the king of Leinster himself) was noticeably more positive towards Strongbow than Gerald; Strongbow is frequently styled ‘brave’, ‘bold’, ‘noble’ or ‘valiant’ by the Song’s author. Nevertheless, despite their differences of tone and content, both The Conquest and the Song tell their stories from the point of view of the invaders, not the indigenous Irish, and both are clearly sympathetic towards the ambitions and the actions of the English.

Such an emphasis underpins the long-held notion that the Irish were the innocent victims of English aggression from 1169 and that they have remained so ever since. There is more than a little to be said for this idea, and the arrival of the English marked a turning point in the history of the British Isles. But to view these events in isolation only provides a limited explanation of a much more complex and diverse process. Indeed, the experience of the Irish at the hands of Strongbow and his men is just one example of trends that defined this period of European history more generally. The three hundred years between 1000 and 1300 saw rapid population growth, significant economic expansion and major social change across Europe. And as the pressure on available resources intensified from within, territorial expansion followed. On the periphery of Europe, in Scandinavia, the Baltic and northern Europe, in Spain, southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, territory was brought under the control of men, most of them from some part of France, who had moved out of their homelands to settle and make their fortunes. But they acknowledged the authority of the pope in Rome and they worshipped in Latin like him, and as their power grew so the structures and institutions of the western Church were imposed on the areas they now controlled – dioceses were constructed and monasteries were built to complement the more militaristic approaches of the pioneering settlers. England was not immune to these trends, and the Norman Conquest provides one case study of what was happening all around the edges of Latin Christendom at this time. The English intervention in Ireland, a century after the battle of Hastings, provides another.


‘The earl had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes, a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other respects he was of tall build.’ This is how Gerald of Wales begins his description of Richard Fitz Gilbert of Clare, earl of Pembroke, later called Strongbow. According to Gerald, he was also generous and easy-going; he could be persuasive in argument. But it was in wartime that he came into his own: ‘In civil affairs, removed from the sphere of arms, he was more inclined to obey than command. In peace time he had more the air of a rank-and-file soldier than of a leader, but in war more that of a leader than of a true soldier.’ Strongbow was probably born in about 1130. He was the son of Gilbert Fitz Gilbert, whom King Stephen had made earl of Pembroke in 1138, and Isabella (also known as Elizabeth), daughter of Robert de Beaumont, count of Meulan and earl of Leicester. When his father died in 1148, Strongbow succeeded him as earl of Pembroke and lord of Chepstow, which, in addition to lands in south Wales, gave him extensive estates spread across nine counties of England, as well as lordships in Normandy.

On 7 November 1153, Strongbow witnessed the treaty between King Stephen and Henry, duke of Normandy, which formally brought the war between them to an end. His own position was by no means secure, however. For some reason, probably because he had supported Stephen too loyally for too long, he was not trusted by Henry. By 1153, moreover, Strongbow’s Norman lordships were in the hands of his cousin, a result almost certainly of the Angevin conquest of Normandy in the 1140s. According to Gerald of Wales, Strongbow, whilst of noble stock, ‘up to this time had a great name rather than great prospects . . . and had succeeded to a name rather than possessions’. Another writer, William of Newburgh, gave a similar assessment of Strongbow’s circumstances: he had wasted most of his inheritance and wanted to get away from his creditors. This may have been an exaggeration, but Strongbow had lost out at the hands of the Angevins on at least one side of the Channel, and he may have owed money to the great Jewish lender Aaron of Lincoln. These were reasons on the face of it why Strongbow might have been keen to rebuild his career beyond the reach of the new English king and his administration. For a long time at the start of the new reign, to be sure, the two men kept their distance from each other. Strongbow is not found again in the king’s company until late 1167 or early 1168.

By this time, events had occurred in Ireland and Wales that were to dictate the course of the rest of Strongbow’s career. His tale, in fact, can only be understood in the context of what was happening on either side of the Irish Sea in the middle of the twelfth century. Ireland was a land of political instability and competing rulers. Such men liked to style themselves ‘kings’, although in reality they were little more than provincial warlords. Power shifted as their individual fortunes rose and fell. There was no single dominant ruler or ruling house, although from time to time one of the more successful kings might assert himself forcefully and long enough to claim the title ‘high king’ of all Ireland. By the 1160s three Irish kings were inadvertently preparing the ground for what was to follow: the king of Connacht in the west of Ireland, Rory O’Connor; his ally further east Tiernan O’Rourke, king of Breifne (an area covering roughly the modern Irish counties of Leitrim and Cavan); and their common enemy and rival in the south-east, the king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough. Such political volatility would have been attributed by Gerald of Wales to the innate character failings of the native Irish who were, he claimed ‘a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts.’ When they rode, they did so bareback; when they fought, they did so naked and unarmed, and when they did dress, their clothes were crude and contained ‘very little wool’. Their long hair and beards were further evidence that ‘all their habits are the habits of barbarians’. Their only estimable skill, Gerald conceded, lay in their flair for music. Gerald is unfair, of course, and bigoted. He was also wrong when he said, for example, that the Irish were lazy and had done nothing to develop their pastoral economy. In the ninth century the Vikings had attacked and settled in Ireland, and towns such as Waterford, Wexford and, above all, Dublin remained centres of Norse influence in the twelfth century. They were also major trading centres and had long-standing commercial connections with English towns such as Chester and Bristol, as well as with Wales and France. English and Norman influence in Ireland was not new in 1169.

Like Ireland, Wales was a land where native local rulers competed with each other for dominance and control. Across Wales, such men had taken advantage of England’s internal problems during Stephen’s reign to reassert themselves and reclaim some of the power and influence they had lost to the Norman invaders and settlers after 1066. By 1170, when he died, the ruler of Gwynedd (north Wales), Owain ap Gruffudd, was calling himself ‘king of Wales’ and claiming authority over all native Wales. Meanwhile, the ruler of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Gruffudd (the Lord Rhys), was taking steps of his own in the 1150s and 1160s to dominate south Wales. This, of course, brought him into direct contact, and sometimes conflict, with the descendants of many of those Frenchmen who had settled after 1066 along the coast of south Wales, in Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. South Wales had been a frontier zone at the turn of the eleventh century, a place for tough pioneers and hard-bitten opportunists. The new ‘marcher’ lords at places like Brecon and Chepstow were not exactly given a free hand by the English kings to do as they pleased, but even a notoriously strict ruler such as Henry I was only able to keep half an eye on what his subordinates were up to there. They fought with the native Welsh, took their lands and their tribute, built castles, and made many of their own rules. However, by the 1160s this era was over. The native Welsh recovery under Stephen had put pressure on the marcher lords, and Henry II was determined to rule all his subjects equally firmly and directly. These two forces combined to hem in the marchers and limit their prospects. In 1166, when the Lord Rhys took Cardigan and other lands, he did so at the expense of families with names like Clare, Clifford and Fitz Gerald. The keeper of Cardigan Castle, Robert Fitz Stephen, who was also Gerald of Wales’s uncle, was captured and kept in Rhys’s custody for the next three years. Rhys then consolidated these gains in 1171 by submitting to Henry II, who confirmed him in all his conquests in return for his cooperation. Rhys had become King Henry’s man with royally bestowed authority over all of south Wales. By this time, though, the marcher lords of the region had already realised that they would have to look elsewhere to further their fortunes. Ireland was the obvious place; and the invitation, when it came, was eagerly accepted.

It was Dermot MacMurrough, the king of Leinster, who brought the English to Ireland. According to contemporaries looking for the origins of the saga, it was all because of a woman. Dermot had abducted Dervorgilla, the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, king of Breifne. Dervorgilla herself was the daughter of another Irish king (of Meath), and one version of the story alleges that she was put up to soliciting Dermot’s attention by an ambitious brother with a grievance against Tiernan. More conventionally, Gerald of Wales claimed that Dermot had ‘long been burning with love’ for Dervorgilla and seized her whilst her husband was away on a military campaign. However, Gerald could not resist reinforcing the violently misogynistic views about women shared by other writers of the period (who were all men and usually clerics): as far as he was concerned, ‘no doubt she was abducted because she wanted to be and . . . she herself arranged that she should become the kidnapper’s prize’. After all, he went on, ‘almost all the world’s most notable catastrophes have been caused by women’. And in this case, just as Paris and Mark Antony had been destroyed by their infatuations (namely, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra), Dermot’s uncontrolled passions resulted in him being chased out of Ireland by a vengeful O’Rourke and his ally Rory O’Connor.

Enticingly scandalous as this story is, however, the political and military realities behind Dermot’s flight were certainly more complex than Gerald allows. For one thing, Dervorgilla was abducted in 1152 and returned to Meath in 1153, whilst Dermot did not leave Ireland until 1166. Secondly, there are hints that Dermot was not a popular ruler with all his subjects. Gerald of Wales alleged that many of his followers were quick to make common cause with Dermot’s enemies once it became clear he was in trouble: they ‘sought to pay him back, and recalled to mind injustices, which they had long concealed and stored deep in their hearts’. This may mean no more than that Dermot had been an efficient and effective lord, but vested interests may have felt excluded by his approach to government. In any event, what eventually prompted his departure was the assassination of Dermot’s ally, the high-king Murtough MacLoughlin. This event was followed by the launch of Rory O’Connor’s bid for the high kingship. Aided by Tiernan O’Rourke (who may still have felt some lingering resentment over the abduction of his wife), Rory managed to take Dublin from Dermot and turn enough of the men of Leinster, including his own brother, against him. At the start of August 1166, Dermot was forced to flee.

Dermot was not giving up, though; far from it. He had a plan to get his kingdom back, and central to it was Henry II. Dermot probably thought Henry owed him something, after the king had used some of Dermot’s ships in 1165 during a campaign in Wales. More than that, Henry was the most powerful ruler in western Europe and, with his backing, Dermot could feel confident of recovering his losses. Dermot’s determination to act quickly is clear from his willingness to seek out Henry. Finding him in the first place was difficult. According to the Song, Dermot and his wife crossed to Bristol and stayed there for a while with Robert Fitz Harding. He was a prominent and well-connected merchant in the city, who had given staunch support to Empress Matilda during the civil war of Stephen’s reign. The future Henry II had got to know him whilst he was based at Bristol in the years either side of 1150, and the strong trading links between Bristol and Dublin, which Dermot had controlled, meant that he and Robert were already well acquainted with each other by the time the deposed Irish king needed his support. Dermot then went to Normandy after it became clear Henry was not in England and, having no luck there either, he had to scour several other territories before finally pinning the king down in Aquitaine, perhaps in Poitiers, where Henry spent Christmas 1166. Finally, Dermot came face to face with the man on whom he pinned all his hopes. He explained his predicament, agreed to become Henry’s vassal if the king came to his aid, and waited.

This may not have been the first time that Irish affairs had attracted Henry’s attention. There is some evidence that he had contemplated a campaign in Ireland early in his reign, but this never seems to have been a realistic possibility given his other priorities immediately after 1154. However, Gerald of Wales later claimed that Pope Adrian IV had granted Ireland to Henry II in 1155, and that this donation was contained in the papal bull known as Laudabiliter, after its opening word. There is now much uncertainty about this document (the first surviving text of it is contained in Gerald’s own account), and it has been suggested that any papal support for Henry’s ambitions in Ireland was perhaps more cautious than Gerald made it sound. Indeed, Gerald may have falsified an original papal bull, which is now lost, in order to bolster English claims to authority over Ireland and the Irish Church. Nevertheless, it does seem probable that the papacy did endorse English claims to authority over Ireland in some way early in Henry II’s reign. No less a figure than John of Salisbury later took the credit for this. ‘In response to my petition,’ he claimed in his work Metalogicon, ‘the pope granted and donated Ireland to the illustrious king, Henry II . . . Through me the pope sent a gold ring set with a magnificent emerald as a sign that he had invested the king with the right to rule Ireland.’ And, according to Roger of Howden, Pope Urban III later sent Henry a crown made of peacocks’ feathers, embroidered with gold, which was intended for the king’s son, John, whom Henry planned to make king of Ireland.

Whatever theoretical rights he might have been able to claim, when Dermot MacMurrough appeared before Henry II in 1166 the king remained noncommittal about crossing the Irish Sea. He would help later, he said, when he had the time. Nevertheless, Henry was prepared to allow Dermot to recruit assistance from amongst his subjects, and he gave Dermot a letter, addressed to their mutual acquaintance Robert Fitz Harding in Bristol, ordering the merchant to give Dermot and his followers any help they needed as they prepared to return to Ireland. When Dermot later returned to Bristol, it is likely to have been Fitz Harding who suggested that he should approach Strongbow. The two may have had commercial ties of some kind: Strongbow may have owed Fitz Harding money and Nicholas, Robert’s son, subsequently held the manor of Tickenham, about ten miles from Bristol, which was attached to Strongbow’s honour of Striguil. If this is what happened, however, Strongbow was probably the last resort for Dermot, whose recruiting campaign seems to have been something of a failure by that point. When Dermot and Strongbow finally met, the latter agreed to help Dermot in Ireland and in return Dermot agreed to give Strongbow his eldest daughter, Aife, in marriage, as well as the succession to his kingdom.

Given his indebtedness to and his strained relationship with Henry II, the prospect of military glory and political power must have tempted Strongbow. However, he did not go to Ireland for another three years, by which time other men had begun to cross the Irish Sea without him. Henry may have frustrated him once again here, because in 1168 Strongbow was sent to Germany by the king, to accompany his daughter Matilda on her journey to marry Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. On the face of it, Strongbow was an odd choice as chaperone. There is no surviving evidence of him having had any direct contact with Henry since the latter became king, and their relationship was hardly friendly. It seems likely, therefore, that, whether because Henry was fearful of what Strongbow might achieve there, or just because he could, the king sent Strongbow to Germany simply to stop him going to Ireland.

Meanwhile, with little to show for his travels apart from Henry’s vague permission to recruit and Strongbow’s unfulfilled promise to help, Dermot MacMurrough had turned to the dominant figure in south Wales, the Lord Rhys. But Rhys’s initial response was also unenthusiastic and Dermot finally returned to Ireland late in 1167 with only a handful of men. In the winter of 1168/9, in hiding and still desperate for military aid, Dermot sent further requests for such help to west Wales with more promises of land, stock and cash, in particular offering Robert Fitz Stephen and his half-brother Maurice Fitz Gerald the city of Wexford as their prize. Rhys now saw a chance to rid himself of some troublesome English neighbours and he released Robert Fitz Stephen who had been in captivity since 1166, on the understanding that he would lead an army to Ireland and restore Dermot to power. However, it was to be another three years before Robert landed. Dermot had to hang on as best he could until then, and he just about managed to do so from August 1167, when he returned to Ireland and established a bridgehead around Ferns in the south-east, and in May 1169 when Robert Fitz Stephen finally led the first substantial expedition to Ireland from west Wales. This group of pioneers (three ships with thirty knights, sixty men at arms and 300 archers) set sail from Milford Haven and arrived at Bannow Island off the Wexford coast in May 1169. It included Robert’s three nephews, Meiler Fitz Henry, Miles Fitz David and Robert of Barry (who was also Gerald of Wales’s brother). Gerald proudly associated himself with these men and categorised them as ‘Geraldines’, as they were all descendants of Gerald of Windsor, his own grandfather. It would have been more accurate, though, to stress their common descent from Nest, Gerald of Windsor’s wife. Nest was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, prince of south Wales, and she had children with several men. One of her lovers had been Robert Fitz Stephen’s father and another, no less a figure than King Henry I, was the grand-father of Meiler Fitz Henry. The pioneers also included Hervey de Montmorency, Strongbow’s uncle, who was, according to Gerald of Wales, ‘a spy sent in the interest of earl Richard [Strongbow]’. There was another landing soon afterwards, in May 1170, when Raymond le Gros, a member of Strongbow’s household who later married his sister, crossed with ten knights and seventy archers and set himself and his entourage up near Waterford. So even if he was away on royal business whilst these events were being played out, Henry II’s plan does not appear to have extinguished Strongbow’s determination to maintain a stake in Irish affairs. He was almost certainly orchestrating events back in Wales. The trailblazers who went ahead of him to Ireland were, or soon would be, related to him in some way, and all had common interests and shared experiences from south Wales. In its earliest stages, therefore, the story of the English in Ireland was very much a family affair.