Setting Course for Ireland

In my previous post about Strongbow’s preparations I discussed the difficulties of recruiting his army. Another important task he undertook was that of obtaining enough ships to carry the “200 knights and 1000 soldiers”, as well as the knights’ horses and supplies, for what might have been expected to be a long campaign. How many would he need?

According to English heritage, when William of Normandy invaded England with an army of around 7,000 men he needed at least 700 ships. So we can conclude that, to carry 1200, Strongbow would have needed at least 120 ships, perhaps more.¹

From his base around the Bristol Channel and the Pembrokeshire coast he would probably not have found it too difficult to assemble such a number. Bristol was an important centre of trade in which many vessels would have been based. Prior to the Norman invasion Bristol had been the centre of an unsavoury trade: the carriage of young men and women from around England to Ireland where they were sold on as slaves by the Vikings. By the early twelfth century that trade had ended, thanks to the intervention of St.Wulfstan.

In 1125 William of Malmesbury described Bristol as “most celebrated, . . . with a port, which is a commodious and safe harbour for all vessels, into which come ships from Ireland and Norway and from other lands beyond the seas.”² And, in 1138 another chronicler says: “Bristol is well-nigh the most opulent city in the country; admitting merchandise by shipping both from the neighbour­ing and foreign parts.”³

Viking Longship. Image from Most shipping throughout the middle ages used vessels modelled on this design

What kind of ships would the ones assembled by Strongbow have been? Almost certainly they would have resembled Viking longships, a tried and tested design that was copied throughout northern Europe. On a ship between 20 and 30 metres long and 3 or 5 wide, having a single mast and sail with up to 30 oarsmen to steer the ship and propel it in shallow waters, the task of keeping the military personnel out of the way of the crew would not have been an easy one.

Another key determinant of the date of departure would have been the weather. A century before, William of Normandy was delayed for up to six weeks waiting for a favourable wind. According to the English Heritage article previously referred to, after four weeks a storm drove the fleet East, “[from] the river Dives, north-east of Caen, . . . to St. Valéry at the mouth of the Somme.”

I have found no record of the weather in west Wales in August 1170. Had there been a storm like the one that has raged though Ireland over the past 24hrs it would likely have caused considerable delay, driving the fleet north from where ever it had been assembled, perhaps detaching some ships from their moorings.

What we do know is that by 23rd August he deemed the conditions right to set sail, setting not only the course of his ships, but that of his subsequent career and the history of Ireland and her neighbour for centuries to come.

¹ The article actually says: “One chronicler says he had 3,000. But chroniclers often exaggerated, and from more precise records the real total was probably somewhere between 700 and 800 ships.” I have taken the lowest of these estimates in arriving at my suggestion that Strongbow would have needed at least 120.

Of course, not all ships were the same size, so the actual number depends on the ratio between large and small ships. I imagine that the knights and their horses would have been accommodated in the largest ships he could find, perhaps 20 of them whilst the soldiers and all the materiel would have been distributed around 100 or more smaller vessels.

² N E S A Hamilton, ed., William of Malmesbury’s De Gestis PontificumAnglorum, Rolls Series, 1870, p.292. quoted in:

³ K R Potter, ed., Gesta Stephani, 1955, p.37, ibid.

2 thoughts on “Setting Course for Ireland

  1. I see the Viking ships and the ships the Polynesians bounced around from island to island in and am amazed that they would put themselves in one, much less trading goods, livestock and “soldiers.” Crazy. But then I am reminded that the phones we carry are each 1000’s of times more powerful than the ones on the Apollo spacecraft. Back when a whopping 64k of RAM was a gift. I suppose it’s down to that “well, there’s the horizon. I wonder…”

    Liked by 1 person

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