The Story of Ireland – Strongbow

This (and one on the same story for children) is now available as a Kindle eBook. Click HERE. If you would like to buy the whole book, The Story of Ireland as an eBook (mobi for Kindles, epub for Apple and other devices, and most other formats) for just $5, click HERE.

Below is an extract from chapter in The Story of Ireland on Strongbow.

Chapter 4. 1166 – 1366. Strongbow and the Normans.

As every English student knows, in 1066 the Normans arrived in England and defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. Saxon Harold was out with an arrow in his eye, and Norman Duke William was in as King William I of England. And Normans rapidly took over the country. By 1166 they had gone through three more kings, William II, Henry I, and Steven, not counting a civil war with another claimant Countess Matilda, and now Henry II was on the throne.

Dermot McMurrough, the Once and Future King. In Ireland things were not materially changed since the death of Brian Boru 52 years earlier, save that only slight authority was exercised from time to time by the current High King. There were lots of petty fights and cattle raids, but little more. There were four Kings involved in the McMurrough affair and it all got very complicated. Essentially, King Dermot had been kept in his job as King of Leinster by the late High King, and now that he was gone the others, incensed by Dermot’s abduction of one of their wives whom he coveted, all attacked him together and Dermot had to flee. He went to Wales, and thence to Henry II in England – it was 1168 by now – and asked for help in reclaiming his kingdom.

Henry had his own problems, but he authorised Dermot to recruit his help in the west of England and in Wales. This Dermot proceeded to do and soon reached agreement with the impoverished Earl of Pembroke, Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, to provide the help he needed. The De Clares had been fighting a long running war in Wales, and Richard de Clare was in need of money as a result. He was known, like his father, as “Strongbow” after the renowned Welsh longbow men from Gwent whose skill made them pre-eminent in the wars of the times. The longbow was a truly remarkable weapon. In the hands of a good archer it could fire ten to twenty long arrows a minute with such force that they could penetrate chain mail –  and were normally fired at well over two hundred yards. It took a lifetime to become a good archer, and he had to be able to draw the bow with a pressure of up to 180 lbs (80 kgs). Allied to armoured knights, they were very hard to beat. And with his knights mounted on destriers and his Welsh longbows, Strongbow was confident of carving himself another Earldom, if not a kingdom, in Ireland. And in Ireland there were no Welsh Princes, or so he had been told. The Irish had no longbows. The Welsh Princes had.

The Norman Invasion. The broad terms of the deal involved the marriage of King Dermot’s daughter Eve to Strongbow. Eve, sometimes known as “Red Eva”, seems to have been a forthright woman, even leading troops in battle. That would have been impossible in Norman society, but was not at all abnormal among Celts, where women’s rights were much the same as those of their men. But the proposed marriage had another aspect to it. Under Anglo Norman law, Strongbow’s law, it gave Strongbow succession rights to the Kingdom of Leinster. Under Irish Brehon law, the marriage gave him no such rights. One wonders if both parties were aware of the dichotomy.

The following season Strongbow’s troops came. There are a number of different reports as to precisely what happened next, who fought who and where and when. What seems certain is that an initial advance party arrived at the mouth of the Barrow River, some fifteen miles to the south west of Wexford. Here they met with the once and future King Dermot, and between them they took Wexford City from the Vikings in the spring of 1169. The main coastal centres like Waterford and Wexford were in Viking hands at this time – indeed they were originally Viking forts. The Normans and Vikings had a wholly different idea of war from the cattle raids of the Irish. When they won, they usually slaughtered their opponents.

Strongbow himself did not arrive until August of the following year, 1170. He sailed up the Suir estuary, at the head of which lies Waterford. And he came in force, not only with 200 men-at-arms, but with 1,000 of the fearsome Welsh longbow men.  They duly met up with Dermot and the other Anglo Normans and took Waterford from the Vikings on St Bartholomew’s Eve (August 28th 1170). Strongbow was quick to claim his reward, and he and Eve were married in the Cathedral of Waterford almost immediately.  Thus making him, to alarmed Anglo Norman eyes in England, heir to the throne of Leinster.

The army then moved toward Dublin, another Viking town, evading an Irish ambush set by Rory O’Connor and Tiernan O’Rourke, arriving at their destination three weeks later. They came with over 3,000 Anglo Normans and some 1,000 Irish troops. These Vikings were prepared to surrender to the Anglo Norman army besieging them, and were in fact negotiating terms to do so when a pair of Norman chiefs, le Gros and Milo de Cogan, finding a breach in the walls, entered with their warriors and took the city easily – loot and rapine were the recognised rewards for the victorious medieval soldier. The Viking King of Dublin, Hasculf Thorgillsson, fled by sea, swearing to return……  (Click HERE for the Kindle book).

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