Every English schoolchild learns about the battle of Hastings in 1066. It represents in many ways the start of modern British history. But how many know of Ireland’s role in assisting Harold Godwineson or of a subsequent alliance that brought an army of Norman mercenaries to Ireland a century later?
English historians like Simon Schama tend to view these events as little more than a footnote to the history of the period. The following summary is based on “Diarmait King of Leinster” by the Irish writer Nicholas Furlong who provides a long list of primary sources at the end of each chapter.
King of Leinster
Dermot MacMurrough was for many years the ruler of Leinster “and the Norse”. This meant that he controlled not only the fertile south-eastern quarter of the island of Ireland but the three principal ports giving access to southern Europe and mainland Britain. The Norse – or Vikings – had occupied Dublin, Wexford and Waterford for some 300 years and generally remained within the walls of those cities whilst the native Irish farmed, hunted and fought for control of, the remainder of the island.
Dermot’s grandfather had been High King and Dermot believed that he was destined for that role. But he had a bitter rival – O’Rourke, a man who not only had the ear of the current High King but could never forgive Dermot for the latter’s defeat of O’Rourke in a bloody battle and the abduction of his wife. By 1166 the High King, O’Connor, assisted by O’Rourke, had reduced Dermot to a small area around Ferns in modern County Wexford.
The Bristol Connection
Dermot had a friend in Bristol. More than a century earlier, even before the battle of Hastings, Dermot’s grandfather had helped the young Prince Harold when he and his brothers had to flee England as the result of a dispute with Edward the Confessor and, again, when Harold’s sons rebelled against William I in 1068. As a result a long-standing friendship developed between the MacMurroughs and the FitzHardings of Bristol. Over the years the FitzHardings ended their opposition to the Norman Kings and Robert FitzHarding became a friend of King Henry II.
In his desperation Dermot decided to capitalise on that friendship and set sail for Bristol to seek help in restoring his position. At first he was not well received. It took a year of traveling in England and at least one trip to Normandy, to petition Henry II.
Henry reluctantly agreed and gave Dermot a letter of support which he took to, among others, Richard de Clare alias “Strongbow”. The latter had been dispossessed, as had many other barons, of his Welsh border lands. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but the fact that the de Clare’s had supported Henry’s uncle Stephen’s ascent to the throne in preference to Henry’s mother Maud probably played a part.
Daughter Offered as Reward
As a reward for his assistance Dermot promised Strongbow his daughter Aoife in marriage as well as lordship of Leinster. Strongbow initially sent a small party of warrior knights. These had limited success in battles with O’Connor and O’Rourke. Dermot was forced to beg Strongbow for more men. Still Strongbow was reluctant, presumably wanting to be assured of success before committing himself to the enterprise.
When Strongbow eventually arrived in Ireland in August 1170, he immediately married Aiofe and, with Dermot, re-captured most of Leinster. Dermot however paid a heavy price for this victory. A year earlier he had made an agreement with the High King under which the latter took three hostages. These were young men dear to his heart and included one of his sons and his grandson. Now the dismembered bodies of the hostages were delivered to him in a sack. Dermot was a broken man and six months later, on the first of May 1171, he died.
The Role of a “Turbulent Priest”
Henry II, meanwhile, had angered the Pope by his treatment of Thomas Becket and needed to demonstrate his allegiance to the Church. The Pope, for his part, was concerned that the Church in Ireland was turning a blind eye to the widespread practice among Irish leaders of taking more than one wife.
In the autumn of 1171 Henry arrived in Ireland determined to achieve two things. Firstly he wanted to ensure that the barons understood that when they occupied lands in Ireland, they did so only by virtue of his grant of permission which could be withdrawn at any time. Likewise the Irish kings must also recognise Henry as their sovereign. Secondly he wanted to bring together the Bishops and other leading Churchmen to enforce the Christian religion and end the Irish reliance on ancient laws that were at variance with Church doctrine.
Men who had been unable to effectively control Wales and the Welsh border country were now given the equally difficult task of pacifying the Irish.