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Strongbow – the Invader

Strongbow as depicted in the Dublinia exhibition

Strongbow as depicted in the Dublinia exhibition

Best known for his exploits in Ireland this distant relative of William the Conqueror is the common ancestor of several Queens of England. He was given the name Strongbow because of his prowess with the long bow. By the time he came to Ireland he seems to have learned that negotiation often proves more successful than violence. Nevertheless he allowed his closest ally to conduct some brutal actions against the native Irish, rewarding him with the hand of his sister.

Strongbow’s great-grandfather was a relative of William the Conqueror and accompanied the latter to England in 1066. Following the conquest he was granted 176 lordships, including those of Tonbridge in Kent and Clare in Suffolk. Usually styled Richard fitz Gilbert (of Tonbridge) he is referred to as Richard of Clare in the Domesday book. He served as joint Justiciar in William’s absence, making him one of the most powerful men in late eleventh century England.

Opposition to William II

When the Conqueror died Richard joined with a number of other barons to oppose the succession of William II to the English throne, supporting instead the claim of the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert Curthose. He retired to a monastery in 1088 and his English lands passed to his second son, Gilbert fitz Richard, Strongbow’s grandfather. The eldest son, Roger, received the Norman lands.

In 1110, Henry I’s former mistress, Princess Nest, by then married to Gerald of Windsor, was abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan. As punishment Henry stripped him of Cardigan and its castle, giving them to Gilbert. Another brother, Walter, was granted the lordship of Nether Gwent which included the castle at Striguil (Chepstow). When Gilbert died, his lands passed to his eldest son Richard.

Support for King Stephen

His second son, Strongbow’s father, also named Gilbert, inherited Norman lands from his uncle Roger and the lordship of Nether Gwent from his uncle Walter. King Stephen created him Earl of Pembroke and granted him lands around Pevensey in Sussex. This man was the first to earn the nick-name Strongbow in recognition of his prowess with the long bow. The sobriquet passed to his son Richard, the subject of this post.

The younger Strongbow’s mother, Isabel de Beaumont, was, like Princess Nest, a former mistress of Henry I. A number of sources suggest that she had a daughter, Constance, with Henry, and that she took this child, still an infant less than one year old, with her when she married Gilbert. Strongbow, Gilbert’s eldest child and only son, was born at Tonbridge in 1130. He and his younger sister Basilia were, therefore, brought up alongside the King’s illegitimate daughter.

Stripped of lands

Strongbow was 40 when he assembled the force that accompanied him to Ireland ahead of his marriage to the 17 year-old Aiofe MacMurrough. He had inherited his father’s lands and titles when the latter died in 1148 although he was stripped of several, including the Earldom of Pembroke, by Henry II on account of the family’s support for Henry’s cousin Stephen. The expedition to Ireland, which Henry supported, secured the restoration of the Earldom of Pembroke as well as adding new land holdings in Ireland.

Isabel’s fate, after the death of Gilbert1, is difficult to establish. I have seen one source which claims she died in 1146, 2 years before her husband. Elsewhere her death is given as 1172 and it is suggested that she married Gilbert’s younger brother Hervey de Montmorency, the man Strongbow sent to Ireland as part of the advance party and who later was appointed Constable of Ireland by Henry II.

Illegitimate daughters

According to Cokayne2 Strongbow had at least one and, possibly, two daughters by an unknown mistress before his marriage to Aiofe. Little is known about either. His legitimate daughter, Isabel, through her marriage to William Marshall, is the common ancestor of several subsequent Queens of England. Her husband governed England as regent to the young Henry III. In this role he masterminded the defeat of the French who had occupied a large part of southern England during the final years of King John’s reign.

Footnotes:

  1. The phrase “Isabel’s fate after the death of Gilbert” could be taken to refer to Strongbow’s children, named Isabel and Gilbert for his parents. Here, of course, it refers to the parents.
  2. George Edward Cokayne, The Complete Peerage; or, A History of the House of Lords and All its Members from the Earliest Times, Vol. X, eds. H. A. Doubleday; Geoffrey H. White; & Howard de Walden (London: The St. Catherine Press, Ltd., 1945)

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