The chronicler Gerald of Wales tells us that 845 years ago today, upon the eve of the Feast of St Bartholomew in 1170, a Welsh-Norman army of some thousand warriors landed at Passage East on the south coast of Ireland. At their head was a man whose name is synonymous with the Norman invasion: Strongbow.
The name conjures a picture of a gigantic warrior likely proficient with the war bow used by the men of Gwent during this period. However, Gerald of Wales describes him as a man of pleasing – almost feminine – appearance; modest in his bearing, delicate in features with a weak voice, tall with red hair, freckles, and grey eyes.
“In war Strongbow was more of a leader than a soldier … when he took-up his position in the midst of battle he stood firm as an immovable standard around which his men could re-group and take refuge. In war he remained steadfast and reliable in good fortune and bad alike …”
Strongbow was a scion of one of the most illustrious noble houses in England or Wales. His paternal great-grandfather had been Richard FitzGilbert, himself a great-grandson of Duke Richard I of Normandy (as was William the Conqueror).
As a kinsman of Duke William this Richard had been awarded a vast estate in East Anglia including the Suffolk castle of Clare. It was from this fortress that his descendants took their family name. One, named Gilbert de Clare, won great renown during the wars between Stephen de Blois and the Empress Matilda, and became known by his nickname, Strongbow. He was also awarded the Earldom of Pembroke and Chepstow Castle. When Gilbert died in 1148 his teenage son, Richard de Clare, not only inherited his lands but also his sobriquet of Strongbow.
Richard Strongbow steadfastly supported King Stephen throughout the latter stages of the civil war known as the Anarchy (1135-1154), but upon the ascension of the Empress’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as King of England he found himself very much out of favour. His declining fortunes saw him lose lands in England, Wales and Normandy, as well as his father’s earldom.
As Gerald wrote, Strongbow had become a man “whose past was brighter than his prospects, whose blood was better than his brains, and whose claims of succession were larger than his lands in his possession”.
By early 1167 Strongbow had suffered thirteen years of rejection by the new royal court and was at his lowest ebb. Suffering from financial hardships and severe debts (particularly to a Jewish lender called Aaron of Lincoln), he had been forced to sell off even more of his family’s lands to rich merchants such as Robert FitzHarding of Bristol.
However, Strongbow’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better when he was contacted by an exiled king from Ireland called Diarmait Mac Murchada who sought his help to reclaim the throne from which he had been deposed the year before. In return for Strongbow’s military assistance Diarmait promised to marry the Norman baron to his daughter Aoife and to name him as his successor. The chance of earning a kingdom was too good a deal to give up and Strongbow immediately began to concoct a plan that would allow him to achieve this aim without arousing the suspicions of King Henry II. Both his plans to raise an army and to marry without his liege lord’s permission were grounds that might’ve been used to declare Richard de Clare a rebel.
Having avoided or been denied access to the royal court for over a decade, Strongbow now volunteered his services to his king and was given the unrewarding role of accompanying King Henry’s eldest daughter Matilda to Germany for her marriage to the Duke of Saxony in February 1168. Upon his return he floated the idea of serving Diarmait as a mercenary with the turbulent king and, not receiving a definitive refusal, took this as permission to begin raising an army of invasion from amongst his remaining Welsh vassals.
Diarmait had quickly become impatient to return home to Leinster and, as seen in my first book, Swordland, he had hired another out of favour Cambro-Norman knight named Robert FitzStephen to accompany him back to Ireland. FitzStephen and his army of some four hundred had landed in Wales on 1st May 1169 and their campaign was filled with intrigue, adventure and no little success.
It took almost three years from his meeting with Diarmait for Strongbow to at last feel ready for his invasion of 1170. However, in preparation he sent one of his junior officers, Raymond de Carew, together with an advance force of ten horsemen and seventy archers to make a bridgehead on a small headland on the southern Irish coast.
That story – taking place between the end of spring and Strongbow’s arrival on August 23rd – is the subject of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle, which will be published by Accent Press in October 2015. This novel will see one of the most critical battles in Irish history, the Siege of Baginbun, where, as written by Richard Stanihurst in 1577, ‘Ireland was lost and won’.
Edward Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland which was published by Accent Press in February 2015. The second in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle, will follow within the year. The third book of the Invader Series, charting Strongbow’s arrival in Ireland, will be published in 2016.
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