The Norman invasion was inevitable. They had had amazing success in England and the rest of Britain since the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and, despite Henry II’s disinterest in Ireland, the rest of the Normans were hungry for lands and titles. So what led to the invasion in 1169? Why were they so successful, despite shorter numbers? Why didn’t the Irish unite against them and drive them out when they had the chance?
What led to the Invasion in 1169?
Ireland was a Christian country for well over 6 centuries at this stage and it existed in a world set-apart from the institutionalised church in mainland Europe and Britain. Christianity in Ireland was a mixture of old and new. The old ways of Celtic pagan rituals mixed with the new ways of Christian teachings and learning. It was it’s own unique form and there was nothing like it in the rest of the world. So things didn’t make sense for the church in Ireland when it came to be that the Bishop of Canterbury was for some reason granted imperialism over the Irish church.
The bishops of Ireland held a meeting known as “The Synod of Kells” in 1152, and agreed to secede from the English church and form their own system, seeing as Canterbury had no idea how things were done in Ireland. Canterbury was none too pleased. Within two years of the Synod of Kells, the Norman clergy had devised a plan to get Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical dominance in Ireland – by using an all out military assault. A meeting was held in Winchester where it was discussed. There was an army prepared and ready to carry out an invasion. But, despite all the eagerness, Henry II wasn’t interested and nothing came of it at this point. The English clergy were frustrated but they weren’t finished yet.
Fortunately for their cause, Hadrian IV was the pope at the time. He is special because he was the only English pope that ever was – and what a friend to have at a time when you want to invade another country! John of Salisbury managed to obtain from him full papal approval for the invasion of Ireland by England. Even with this, Henry II wasn’t interested in the crusade, he had other things on his mind. So the clergy had to bide their time and wait for their chance. This came more than a decade later, through the invitation of an Irish King, no less.
Diarmuid MacMurchadha, King of Leinster
Ruaidhrí Ó Conchubhair (Rory O’ Connor), King of Connacht, became the High King of Ireland in 1166. This absolutely did not suit Diarmuid Mac Murchadha (MacMurrough) as he was on the worst terms possible with the Ó Conchubhair family. Not only that, but Ó Ruairc (O’ Rourke), a bitter enemy, had helped Ruaidhrí take the throne. They were enemies mainly on the grounds that Diarmuid eloped with Ó Ruairc’s wife. It sounds like a soap opera.
Ó Ruairc advanced into Leinster in 1166 and Diarmuid fled the country. During the next year, Henry II granted him permission to canvass throughout England and Wales for Norman leaders to take a chance with him in Ireland. He found his success in Wales where he met Richard de Clare (Strongbow) and others who were interested in the promise of land and titles.
Diarmuid returned to Ireland the following year with a small number of Normans, Flemings and Welshmen and took back his old territories. The Normans that accompanied him were there to see what kind of resistance would be put up. Testing grounds for an invasion. When Diarmuid tried to take back the title of King of Leinster, the High King, Ruaidhrí, moved against him. Diarmuid was defeated again but in the agreement that followed, he was allowed to keep his old lands on condition that he recognised Ruaidhrí’s supremacy and abandoned his plans for recovery of Leinster.
Needless to say, Diarmuid bided his time until the following year when the scouting continued and more Normans came over to help him. Once again, Ruaidhrí moved against him and Archbishop of Dublin, Laurence O Toole, stepped in to carry out negotiations to bring peace. This resulted in the treaty of 1169. Diarmuid was recognised as king of Leinster on the understanding that he would recognise Ruaidhrí as high-king. Diarmuid also undertook, in a secret clause by Ruaidhrí, to send his foreign allies back whence they came – something the Normans had no intention doing.
Diarmuid, surprise, surprise, was a little lying snake once again. He contacted Richard de Clare (Strongbow), earl of Pembroke and Striguil and urged him to redeem his promise of aid from the negotiations of help when Diarmuid had been in Wales. It’s a wonder he kept trying, despite Ruaidhrí’s punishments.
Diarmuid offered Strongbow the succession to the throne of Leinster through the marriage of his daughter, Aoife. This wasn’t how Irish law worked (Ireland was under Brehon Law while England was under Feudal Law. Marrying a woman in Brehon law did not put you in line to inherit her father’s possessions), but Diarmuid likely knew that Strongbow didn’t know that. In fact, as Diarmuid’s ultimate aim was the High Kingship, Strongbow would think he would be in line for succession to that as well! As you can imagine, Strongbow was very impressed by these offers. And the Normans who had already gone over to Ireland informed him it was ripe for the taking. King Henry II had also given him cautious permission to venture over but he would be keeping a close eye on proceedings. So, Strongbow set sail for Ireland.
Richard de Clare, Strongbow
He landed in 1170 and immediately took the town of Waterford. He married Diarmuid’s daughter, Aoife, and then they marched on Dublin. They were on Dublin’s doorstep before word of what was going on could reach Ruaidhrí and Dublin was stormed and taken. Winter was then on the country and Strongbow retired to Waterford and Diarmuid to his winter quarters in Leinster. This was all Diarmuid would get to see done because he died the next May at Ferns and left Strongbow king of Leinster. King of Leinster, and heir to the programme of a complete conquest of Ireland. Their success in autumn and the capture of Dublin made the arrival of the Normans a matter of general concern.
“Hang on, how did Strongbow become King of Leinster if that’s not how Brehon law worked?” Good question. Strongbow had absolutely no legal right to take the kingship. However, that’s not always what matters. What mattered here was that he had an irresistible force at the time. The Normans were far, far more militarily advanced than the Irish armies due to better steel and better armour. So Strongbow was king purely by force.
High King Ruaidhrí launched a siege on Dublin with the aid of his vassals. Strongbow offered the re-submission of the 1169 agreement but Ruaidhrí had had enough of negotiations with liars and counter-offered that Strongbow could keep Dublin, Wexford and Waterford but forgo all other lands and titles. These terms were unacceptable to the Normans, so the siege continued. That is until a sortie of Strongbows men routed a larger but carelessly organised group of Ruaidhrí’s at an auspicious moment. Apparently a huge number of Ruaidhrí’s men were caught bathing in the river outside of town. A lot of the Irish army were slain and provisions enough for a whole year were captured. So ended the last united military stand in the face of the Normans.
King Henry II
By now Henry was getting worried. Here was another Norman country being set up right on his doorstep. The incredibly quick ascension to the throne of Leinster was enough to spur him into action. He came to Ireland in 1171. Strongbow wisely saw that Henry was angry and met him at Newham in Gloucestershire. Henry was not appeased by his independent ways until Strongbow offered him his Irish gains. Henry landed at Waterford and immediately started consolidating for the English monarchy. Remember, he wasn’t going to reprimanded by the likes of the Christian powers. Thanks to the English clergy he had that papal writ in his back pocket. He gave Leinster to Strongbow as a fief but the towns of Dublin, Waterford and Wexford he retained for himself. In 1171 on November 11th, he made Dublin the official capital of Ireland.
To the worrying Irish Kings of the time, Henry was a welcome party as he strategically aligned himself to their interests. He had them believe he was there to stop the underling rascals of his from setting up shop in Ireland, which was partially true. He even publicly imprisoned a number of the invading Normans that had invaded to show his good faith. (They were, of course, later released and left go back home in secret.) Henry distributed the conquered lands to lords of his choosing to avoid any uprisings against England.
Henry organised a council of the bishops of Ireland and there he laid out a “study” that “documented” the state of affairs in Ireland. Basically, that Ireland was a cess-pool of vice, barbarianism and debauchery and Henry was spreading civilisation and sunshine. There had been no such study but the bishops of Ireland had no choice but to sign it and it was used to bring an acceptable view to the Norman invasion. Alexander III, the now Pope of the church, basically saw Ireland’s only hope of salvation to be the actions of Henry II. So Henry regained faith with the church, absolved of his past sin (he had some bad faith due to the fact that he killed the arch bishop of Canterbury), got his liege men under control in a new country and for the most part, fooled the locals into accepting him as their king. The invasion was complete and now the settling could begin.
He left in April the same year and never returned to Ireland.
Why didn’t the Irish unite against the invaders?
A good question. Unfortunately, foreign steel wasn’t uncommon in Ireland. Local kings often called in aid where they could, to strengthen their positions. As far as the other kings of Ireland were concerned, this was a matter between Ruaidhrí and Diarmuid. The fact that Diarmuid had hired steel from over seas meant little. It was only when Strongbow ascended to the throne of Leinster that they realised something serious was happening. And by then, it was far too late.
How were the Normans so successful with so few numbers?
Not difficult that. The Normans had mail armour, armoured cavalry, trained men of arms and the dreaded longbow as well as steel helmets. The Irish mainly fought with leather armour or no armour at all and often didn’t follow anything approaching a strict formation in battle. So, in essence, the Normans were fighting against a far, far inferior army and often came out victorious in scenarios where they were outnumbered 5:1 because of it.