This post first appeared on the English Historical Authors' Blog on March 26th 2016 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
The Easter period takes on added significance in Ireland this year. 2016 is, in addition to the centenaries of the Battles of the Somme and Jutland, a hundred years since the Easter Rising. This was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by small number of revolutionaries to gain independence for Ireland from the United Kingdom. Quickly suppressed by the British Army stationed in Dublin, it was initially treated with scorn and even hostility by people who watched as large parts of their city were damaged by the fighting. However, the execution of fifteen rebel leaders saw a profound change in public opinion and, after another conflict, in 1922 a group of delegates with close links to the 1916 rebels, negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty and put Ireland (excepting the six northern counties) on the road to independence in 1949.
My own particular interest in Irish history is rooted, not in the end of the colonial period, but at its beginning and, while the Easter Rising began on Easter Monday, I’d like to take you backwards some 744 years from 1916 to the same day in 1172 when the first King of England to set foot in Ireland departed Wexford after claiming the island as his own.
The king in question is Henry II. As the first Plantagenet monarch of England and ruler of an empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Scottish borders you’d be forgiven for thinking that Henry would have had his hands full governing the lands he already possessed rather than entertaining thoughts of an invasion of the notoriously unruly island on the edge of the known world. But for Henry the great expense of a military enterprise across the Irish Sea was one that he gratefully paid to mollify two particularly pressing political foes that might’ve brought an end to his kingship.
In 1169 and 1170 two Norman adventurers from the Welsh Marches named Robert FitzStephen and Richard de Clare had crossed the Irish Sea to assist the exiled King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, to regain his throne. Their success saw FitzStephen awarded lordship over Wexford while Clare, better known as Strongbow, had claimed Waterford and Dublin. These settlements had hitherto been populated by the descendants of Norse and Danish invaders (known as Ostmen) and remained the financial centre of Ireland, equal in power to Chester and Bristol. Strongbow’s illegal marriage to King Dermot’s daughter also gave him claim to a throne and, in Henry’s view, the possibility of a Norman splinter state neighbouring his own borders was a threat too great to ignore. He immediately decreed that all shipping from England to Ireland must cease and he furthermore stated that every Norman had to return to his kingdom by Easter 1171 (April 4th) or face the future as an outlaw. This edict threatened to end Strongbow’s rule of Dublin, but events in England gave him hope that he could negotiate with the king. On December 29th 1170, Henry found himself in the middle of a political storm following the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury. While a series of delegates were despatched to the royal court to open negotiations, Strongbow faced a summer of crisis. In May 1171 King Dermot died and a number of his key allies rose against him. The former King of Dublin took the opportunity to raise an army of Ostmen and besieged the city in the hope of taking back his throne. Somehow Strongbow was able to emerge victorious despite facing daunting odds, but barely a few weeks passed before the High King and an army including many of the most powerful tribes of Ireland, arrived before the city walls and again placed the Normans under siege. Starving and with no hope of support, in July 1171 Strongbow could only pray that his offer to hand over all his territorial gains to King Henry had been accepted in return for immediate military assistance.
Henry’s position was no less desperate. Becket’s murder had left him facing excommunication and the possible collapse of his empire into disorder as a consequence. At the Council of Argentan, however, Henry declared his intention to invade Ireland as it suited him to absent himself from the backlash caused by Becket’s death until he could somehow conjure an understanding with Pope Alexander III. Travelling back to England, Henry closed all the ports of England so that no Papal Legate could follow him. Over the next few months he journeyed through his kingdom making his final preparations ahead of his invasion.
While FitzStephen’s Wexford had fallen to the Ostmen, Strongbow’s garrison at Dublin still survived. However, their food stores had diminished to almost nothing due to the High King’s siege. At the end of August 1171, forced on by imminent starvation, Strongbow’s army burst from behind their walls and attacked his enemy’s camp, routing the High King’s forces and capturing some much needed supplies. A month later Strongbow journeyed home where he threw himself on King Henry’s mercy, offering him fealty in return for confirmation to Dublin and Waterford. Their negotiations were long and, in the end, Henry took the cities for his own while granting Strongbow the Kingdom of Leinster in fief. To back up his claims, King Henry left Milford Haven at the head of a fleet of some 400 ships carrying an army of invasion, including 500 knights and around 4,000 infantry and archers. He landed just outside Waterford on October 17th and proceeded to journey around the south-west accepting the submission of many local rulers and chieftains. It may sound backwards but the Irish kings, while indeed awed by the size of his army, believed that King Henry would protect them from the depredations of Strongbow and his barons. Henry also called at the ecclesiastical centres at Lismore and Cashel to begin the process of reforming the Irish Church and to establish papal authority over the independent Celtic Church. His reasons could not have been more blatant, and he insisted that each bishop write to Pope Alexander to tell him of their submission to Henry on behalf of the Church in Rome upon the synod’s completion in February 1172.
However, the king was not present at Cashel. Instead he journeyed to Dublin, arriving on November 11th 1171. Rather than take up residence in the great hall used by the Kings of Dublin (the present site of Dublin Castle), he is said to have spent the winter season in a temporary structure of wattle and bough on the site of the old Norse Thing-Mote which was stationed on top of a hill just outside the city walls (and now the site of St Andrew’s Church tourist office). Over the Yuletide period he entertained many of his new Norman and Irish vassals at this house using provisions provided at great cost by the merchants of Bristol. Each was said to have left for his homeland suitably impressed by Henry’s great wealth and power. One of the dishes served was crane, a meat previously considered taboo in Ireland, but which the Irish kings ate nonetheless at Henry’s bidding.
In addition to entertaining and reorganising the largest overhaul in the history of the Irish church, Henry also busied himself with the imposition of a new legal and legislative system. Officials were appointed to administrative positions identical to those that oversaw his government in England. A knight named Hugh de Lacy, who had provided fifty knights, was named Constable of Dublin in place of Strongbow’s man, Milo de Cogan, and many more of the men who had led the first invasions, and had fought so furiously to conquer the Ostmen cities, were dispossessed and forced into Lacy’s employ.
It was King Henry who granted Dublin its first Royal Charter. He awarded the city to the merchants of Bristol who had kept him well fed throughout his many months in Ireland. Numerous merchants would cross the sea in the years after Henry’s ‘conquest’ to breathe new life into the city. They would replace the Ostmen who were ejected from the city to live north of the River Liffey in an area now known as Oxmanstown. Several Ostman landowners, including Hamund, the younger brother of the former King Hasculf, retained their estates, however, and were powerful landowners under the Normans for many generations on the outskirts of the city.
Ireland had been a slave society for much of its history, and Dublin had been at the very centre of the vile practice. Almost overnight, the slaves of Ireland were freed by the Normans. They joined a quasi-feudal system which saw them, and many Irish and Ostman freemen, become serfs under the rule of the new Norman nobility. I don’t believe that this change was for idealistic reasons. The Normans were an incredibly practical people who realised that slaves had to be clothed and fed by their owners whereas serfs were given land (of which they now had plenty) to support themselves. It was cost effective for the new lords of Ireland to grant them this ‘freedom’ before placing them under onerous financial obligations that made their existence little better than it had been before.
By February 1172 the great strain of keeping an army in the field – an army which had yet to raise a sword during the conquest – was starting to show. News from England put pay to any thought of a further campaign in the spring. In addition to the threat of interdict if he did not meet with the papal legates, Henry heard whispers of a rebellion fermented by Queen Eleanor and his eldest son, Henry the Young King. That month the king journeyed down to Wexford, sending his army to Waterford while he spent the entirety of Lent at Selskar Abbey, fasting and doing penance for Becket’s murder while living in the chapterhouse. Adverse winds kept him in Ireland and he celebrated Easter in Wexford, but ordered his army to depart Waterford that day. At sunrise on Easter Monday (April 17th 1172), Henry II left Ireland, landing in Wales in the early afternoon on the same day. He would never return, but his efforts during his six month sojourn ending that Easter Monday would establish the foundations for nearly 800 years of colonial government in Dublin until 1916 when that bedrock was shaken to its very core.