The Sacking of Waterford

Reginald's Tower. Waterford. Scene of a massacre in August 1170
Reginald’s Tower. Waterford. Scene of a massacre in August 1170

In the last week of August, 1170, events took place in Waterford which would have a profound effect on the future of Britain and Ireland.

Three years earlier a man called Dermot MacMurrow had made an agreement with one Richard De Clare. De Clare was to raise a force to invade Ireland and help MacMurrow to restore his position as one of the most important men in the island. In return MacMurrow would give his daughter Aiofe to De Clare in marriage.

A small force had arrived in 1168 under the command of De Clare’s uncle. This force had limited success and in the autumn of 1169 a frustrated MacMurrow sent an envoy to De Clare urging him to make good his promise. In May another small force arrived, led by Raymond Fitzgerald, nicknamed ‘Le Gros’. About 80 men landed and set up camp on a promontory a few miles east of Waterford.

500 killed

According to Giraldus a band of Norsemen and Irish about 3,000 strong was gathered and crossed the River Suir to confront these invaders. Raymond’s much smaller party took advantage of their location to hold this much larger force at bay. It is easy to imagine the scene: a narrow promontory, surrounded on three sides by sea, a barrier erected across it capable of admitting only a few potential enemies at a time. There would be no possibility of the small force being surrounded. All they had to do was fight of the small number that faced them at any one time. The hopelessness of their situation would quickly have become apparent to the thousands mustered behind the leaders and they quickly dispersed, pursued by Raymond’s men who, it is claimed, killed 500 of them.

Inhuman cruelty

About 70 were captured. Raymond and his colleagues deliberated about the wisdom of holding these men as hostages. The fear that they might break their bonds and mount an attack from within won the day. The prisoners were thrown into the sea, their limbs first having been broken to prevent them swimming to shore. Giraldus describes this as an act of ‘evil … and inhuman cruelty’. No further attempt was made to remove Raymond’s force as they waited for Strongbow’s arrival.

De Clare had recruited a total force of about 1200 men as he traveled along the south coast of Wales through Cardiff,

Strongbow as depicted in the Dublinia exhibition
Strongbow as depicted in the Dublinia exhibition

Swansea and Carmarthen. This army arrived in Ireland on 23rd. August. Two days later they began their assault on Waterford. The city’s walls were strong, typical of Viking defences, the city having been a Norse stronghold for three centuries. No doubt the weeks since Raymond’s arrival had been used to further reinforce the ramparts. There should be no surprise, then, that the first two assaults by Strongbow’s force were repulsed.

Eventually Raymond spotted the weak spot in the defensive structure: a small wooden building attached to the outside of the wall. He ordered a small party to demolish the building. This caused the part of the wall to which it was secured to fall. In Giraldus’s words, ‘the assailants … rushed into the town, and, slaughtering the citizens in heaps along the streets, gained a very bloody victory.’

Shortly afterwards Strongbow and Aiofe were married and the forces, now under the joint leadership of MacMurrow and Strongbow, marched on Dublin. Strongbow and Aiofe are the ancestors of several british queens. Their daughter’s husband was regent to Henry III.

Read my book Strongbow’s Wife to discover what it was like to live in such times.

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