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Henry II – a Right Royal Hypocrite

A Portrait of Henry II

A Portrait of Henry II

When Henry II of England came to Ireland in 1171/2 he came with the Pope’s blessing. Indeed, the Pope had issued a Papal Bull some years earlier authorising such an expedition with the aim of bringing the Irish Church into line with Rome’s teachings. So one of the first things that Henry undertook was to call and, later, to officiate at, a synod attended by the Irish Bishops. This took place at Cashel and the ordinance that emanated from it listed a number of rules defining the relationship between the Church and the other institutions of government.

Readers should not be misled by that phrase “institutions of government”. Ireland at that time did not have anything remotely like a national government. It had for some considerable time had a “High King” – literally someone deemed to be more powerful than several other kings. But this person did not rule the whole Island. In the anals – contemporary documents that record events in early Irish history – some of these High Kings are described as “with opposition”. Only a few carry the designation “without opposition”.

Legal framework

There was, however, a well defined legal framework, administered by the provincial kings and predating the arrival of Christianity. The Brehon laws defined the relationship between king and subject, established rules for ownership of land and for its distribution among heirs on the death of the owner and set out a clear hierarchy between ruler and ruled. It also defined marriage in terms very different from the Christian ideal of monogamy. In simple terms, so long as the appropriate price was paid for a bride it did not matter how many a man took.

The Church in Ireland at this time was divided. One faction was determined to remain independent from the Church in England which was then, as now, ruled from Canterbury. But a growing number of bishops had begun to forge relationships with Canterbury. The traditional faction maintained a close relationship with the provincial kings from whom it obtained material support. To do so it was inclined not to be over-critical of those aspects of Brehon law that conflicted with Church teachings.

Murder in the Cathedral

Henry meanwhile was fresh from his own conflict with Canterbury, specifically Arch-bishop Becket. Although acting without royal authority a small group of knights loyal to the king had brought an end to years of conflict by murdering the Arch-bishop in the cathedral. Henry needed to do something to appease an angry Pope. Worried about the way in which Strongbow, the man he had authorised to assist Dermot to repossess the provincial kingdom of Leinster, had begun to carve out large areas of the island for himself, he hoped to solve two problems at once.

So the synod of Cashel was an attempt to bring the whole of the Irish Church into line with Rome’s teachings by aligning it with, and making it subject to, the rule of Canterbury. This aim exactly paralleled the king’s other aim of making the governance of the Church subject to his direct rule. In this Henry was promoting the Church’s insistence on monogamous marriage. What makes him a right royal hypocrite is the fact that he was at the time estranged from his wife and conducting an affair with the Herefordshire heiress Rosamund Clifford.


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