Wales and Ireland in the 1160s
When William the Conqueror arrived in England and began parcelling out land to his friends and relatives you might suppose that those who benefited would have remained loyal to him and his descendants. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was not long before they were fighting among themselves.
So, too, were the conqueror’s own family. William’s oldest son, Robert, inherited his father’s title of Duke of Normandy, but the English crown went to Robert’s younger brother, William II and then to the next youngest brother, Henry I. Henry reigned for 35 years but on his death, instead of the crown passing to his daughter, Matilda, it was his nephew Stephen who claimed it. The problem was that, at the time of Henry’s death, Matilda was in Anjou. Stephen happened to be geographically closer to the seat of power.
The nineteen years of Stephen’s reign came to be called ‘the Anarchy’. Stephen was an ineffectual leader and the barons took advantage, fighting among themselves. Some wanted to unseat Stephen and place Matilda on the throne. By the end of Stephen’s reign Matilda’s son, Henry, was old enough to take on the role.
Stephen gave his blessing to the arrangement. No doubt many of his supporters were dismayed. With good reason; once in charge, Henry set about stripping land and other possessions from those who had ‘earned’ them in return for services rendered to Stephen.
One of these was the Earl of Pembroke. It’s easy to imagine how aggrieved the Earl’s son, Strongbow, would have felt at the discovery that he was not going to inherit Pembroke. What did he think when an elderly and, by then, desperate and dishevilled former king of an Irish province came to seek his help? Did he recognise someone who had suffered a similar fate to himself?
The man carried a letter bearing the seal of King Henry stating that the king would not stand in the way of anyone who chose to take on the Irish man’s project. Was this an opportunity to gain the king’s approval and, perhaps, have the Earldom restored to him? Maybe, if the expedition was successful. But, if it failed, how would the king react then?
The Irish man presented his daughter. Young and beautiful and, according to her father, in line to inherit the old man’s kingdom upon his death. Could such a promise be trusted? Was the land on offer as productive as Pembroke? Perhaps he had heard tales of a land of bogs and barren mountains. Was that something worth fighting for?
He decided to prevaricate. Give the Irish man something to keep him happy whilst deferring his final decision until after he had carried out what today would be called ‘due diligence’, discovering as much as he could about the nature of what was on offer.
He may not be the Earl, but he still had good contacts in Pembroke. By sending the Irish party there – it was, after all, on their route back to Ireland – he could kill two birds with one stone. There were men there who would welcome a foreign expedition. They could report back on the likelihood of such a venture achieving success. Among them were a whole clan of Anglo-Normans who had married into a princely Welsh family. And they, in turn, could call on a party of disaffected Flemish fighters.
I doubt that any reports they sent back were encouraging. The band of men that accompanied the MacMurroughs back to Leinster in the Autumn of 1167 were held in reserve until the following spring. And their first encounter with MacMurrough’s enemies was a disaster. Some switched sides, some went back to Wales. Only a few remained. It would be two more years before Strongbow finally took up the challenge.