MacMurrough, Dermot, and the Anglo-Norman Invasion

views updated

MacMurrough, Dermot, and the Anglo-Norman Invasion

The origins of the Anglo-Norman invasion lie in the conquest of England in 1066. William the Conqueror and his sons, who ruled England until 1135, held no fear of frontiers, manmade or natural, and within years of the Conquest were thrusting into Wales where, at least figuratively, the shores of Ireland beckoned. The closeness of Irish-Welsh contacts led to occasional friction, and it was probably only the English civil war after 1135 that prevented the Normans from taking earlier action regarding Ireland. Things changed with the accession to the English throne in 1154 of Henry II, who within a year held a royal council at Winchester to discuss the conquest of Ireland. The plan had the backing of the archbishop of Canterbury, still reeling from the decision of the papacy in 1152 to acknowledge the independence of the Irish church, ending Canterbury's dubious claim to primacy. The archbishop's secretary, John of Salisbury, was sent off to Rome, where an English abbot had been installed as Pope Adrian IV, and he obtained a letter, Laudabiliter, authorising Henry to invade Ireland to reform its church. This gave Henry his pretext and Canterbury its opportunity.

Unfortunately for Canterbury, Henry's influential mother advised against it, and in the following years King Henry was fully occupied in trying to keep intact an empire that stretched from Hadrian's Wall to the Pyrenees. Ireland would have to wait, and a full decade passed before there is evidence of contact. In 1165 the king was campaigning in Wales and, having spent his youth in Bristol, would have known the reputation of Ireland's Viking towns as suppliers of warships and warriors. Therefore, ships and troops were recruited from Dublin and probably Waterford and Wexford, but not in sufficient numbers to help force the Welsh into submission, so that Henry had to abandon his campaign. The overlord of these towns was the king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough). As his vassals, it is unlikely that they were free to campaign without his assent, and he presumably lent his support to Henry's Welsh expedition. Perhaps he knew Henry, since Bristol was a port with trading links with Ireland's east-coast towns. In any case, it seems that after 1165 Henry owed Diarmait a favor, a return on which was soon sought.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was an ambitious ruler who had enjoyed since 1132 a successful reign in Leinster, lording it over the province's lesser rulers, although his power rarely extended further afield. He would have liked to breach Leinster's northern border, formed by the Liffey, and to conquer lands in Meath belonging to the declining southern Uí Néill dynasty, which had ruled for centuries as kings of Tara but were now gravely weakened. His problem was that the O'Connors were seeking to do the same from across the Shannon, while Tigernán Ó Ruairc, the relatively minor king of Bréifne, had similar aspirations. Conflict between them was inevitable, ongoing, and made more bitter by Mac Murchada's abduction of Ó Ruairc's wife Derbforgaill (Dervorgilla) in 1152, a slight to his honor that demanded retribution. There was little prospect of revenge while the high kingship was occupied by Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn of the northern Uí Néill dynasty, with whom Diarmait was allied; but his overthrow and death in 1166 left the high kingship in the hands of Ruaidrí Ó Conchobair of Connacht, no friend of Mac Murchada's. It would not be long before Mac Murchada felt the brunt of his enemies' assault, especially since his own vassal kings within Leinster now rose against him.

Diarmait was fifty-nine years of age, and a lesser man might have had thoughts of retirement. Instead, when Ó Conchobair, Ó Ruairc, and the rebel Leinster kings rounded on him, Mac Murchada gathered his immediate family and on 1 August 1166 set sail for Bristol. The city fathers made him welcome and, undeterred by news that Henry II was off in Aquitaine, Mac Murchada headed for his court. Once there, he did fealty to the king, becoming his feudal vassal, holding Leinster as a fief. The potential of that act for Irish history was enormous, but first Diarmait had to recover his kingdom. He got little practical assistance from Henry—merely letters of introduction to vassals elsewhere, authorizing them to go to Mac Murchada's assistance. The latter would have known the Normans who had been in south Wales since the 1090s, and the Flemings whom Henry I had settled in Pembrokeshire a decade later, and of their thirst for adventure and skill at arms, and so headed directly for the area. Together with a small force of Flemings, led by Richard fitz Godebert (ancestor of the Roche family in Ireland), he returned to Ireland a year after his exile and recovered a foothold in his ancestral lands in Uí Chennselaig in southeast Leinster. That winter his old enemies came after him. Ó Ruairc received substantial financial compensation for the earlier insult to his honor, and Diarmait was allowed to retain possession of Uí Chennselaig, his enemies doubtless believing him suitably humbled.

It was a grave error as, in May of 1169, two fleets put ashore at Bannow Bay, Co. Wexford, the first led by the Norman-Welsh Robert fitz Stephen, as well as Maurice FitzGerald (ancestor of the Geraldines) and Robert de Barri (founder of the Barry family), the second by the Fleming Maurice de Prendergast, altogether consisting of about one hundred cavalry and at least three hundred infantry and archers. Together they conquered Wexford town and the surrounding area, which Mac Murchada bestowed on his new vassals, before proceeding to the task of recovering all Leinster. The high king, Ruaidrí Ó Conchobair, acquiesced in this, following Mac Murchada's promise to send the foreigners packing as soon as his position was secure. But the latter had no such intention, as was made plain in May 1170 when fresh Norman troops under Raymond le Gros (ancestor of the Carews) landed at Baginbun, Co. Wexford, and in August when there landed the most prominent figure yet, Richard "Strongbow" de Clare, lord of Pembroke and Chepstow. In return for his promised aid in securing all of Ireland for Mac Murchada, Strongbow was given Diarmait's daughter Aífe in marriage and the right of succession to the kingdom of Leinster. Shortly afterwards, in September 1170, the combined Norman and Leinster army marched on Dublin, by then effectively the capital of Ireland, which in spite of Ó Conchobair's best efforts they managed to storm and conquer. Their successes were so rapid and so far-reaching that few contemporaries can now have been in any doubt but that the Normans were in Ireland to stay.

SEE ALSO Norman Conquest and Colonization; Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence


Duffy, Seán. Ireland in the Middle Ages. 1997.

Flanagan, Marie Therese. Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship. 1989.

Orpen, Goddard Henry. Ireland under the Normans. 4 vols. 1911–1920.

Orpen, Goddard Henry, ed. The Song of Dermot and the Earl. 1892.

Scott, Alexander Brian, and Francis Xavier Martin, eds. Expugnatio Hibernica. The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis. 1978.

Seán Duffy

About this article

MacMurrough, Dermot, and the Anglo-Norman Invasion

Updated About content Print Article