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Reference group
Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland (act. 1169–1172) were initially a disparate group of frontiersmen from west Wales, whose first expedition in 1169 was successively followed by one led by the impecunious and discredited baron Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, called Strongbow, in 1170, and then by Henry II's expedition in 1171–2.

Background in Ireland and Wales

The pivotal event engaging these men (described by contemporaries as English, or sometimes Flemish or Welsh) in Ireland was the mission in 1166 of Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, seeking help to recover Leinster in a struggle for the high-kingship of Ireland. He went first to Bristol, which long-established trading links with Ireland made a natural refuge for himself and his family. There his host was the powerful merchant Robert fitz Harding, who saw an opportunity to realize further Irish commercial potential by sponsoring an expedition led by his debtor and mortgagee, Strongbow. First, however, he sent his guest to France to solicit the support of Henry II, but this was not forthcoming and Diarmait returned to Bristol, where he met Strongbow, and offered him the kingdom of Leinster with the hand of his daughter, Aífe, in marriage. Connected in blood to the royal families of France and Scotland, Strongbow was a very suitable heir for Diarmait. Nevertheless, out of favour with his own king and deeply in debt, he declined the offer, perhaps fearing further royal anger and also because he might still have been married.

With little to show for his travels, Diarmait then turned to the Welsh prince of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Gruffudd, whose capture of Cardigan Castle in 1165 and the imprisonment of its castellan, his own nephew Robert fitz Stephen, demonstrated his burgeoning power in west Wales as well as constituting a significant strategic loss for the English there. But Rhys's initial response was muted and Diarmait returned to Ireland in late 1167 with only a handful of men, ‘hardly able to do any good’ (Song, 1, l. 416). In the winter of 1168–9, beleaguered and still desperate for military aid, he sent his latimer, Morice Regan, to west Wales with further promises of land, stock, and cash, in particular offering Robert fitz Stephen and his half-brother Maurice Fitzgerald the city of Wexford and two cantreds. Rhys now saw how the invitation gave him the opportunity to rid himself of turbulent and underemployed English soldiers by permanent exile. He released Robert fitz Stephen, who, taking his wife and children with him, now left Dyfed for good, leading the first substantial expedition from west Wales. In words put in his mouth by Gerald of Wales: ‘neither as pirates, nor as robbers do we come here … [Diarmait] has purposed to plant our people here and to root them permanently’ (Gerald of Wales, 242).

The composition of the earliest groups going to Ireland was thus determined by the different interests of their sponsors, Rhys and Robert fitz Harding, as well as by the inducements offered by Diarmait. These factors in turn helped to create profound tensions between the invaders, a development reflected in the principal sources for their activities. The Expugnatio Hibernica of Gerald of Wales is the Aeneid of his own Geraldine family, especially his uncles Robert fitz Stephen and Maurice Fitzgerald, all descendants of Nest, sister of Rhys ap Gruffudd, prince of Deheubarth, and either of her husband Gerald of Windsor or from her extramarital liaisons with Stephen, constable of Cardigan, and Henry I, and all firmly stitched into the uneasy frontier society of west Wales. On the other hand he accorded only faint praise to Strongbow, who was not a Geraldine, while Strongbow's uncle, Hervey de Montmorency, is ‘an envious, slanderous and duplicitous man … under whose tongue honey and milk were blended with poison’ (Gerald of Wales, 328). By contrast the Norman-French verse chronicle The Song of Dermot and the Earl, which was probably commissioned by Isabel de Clare, the daughter of Strongbow's eventual marriage to Diarmait's daughter, Aífe, and incorporated information provided by Morice Regan, reads like a hymn of praise linking Diarmait with his comrades in arms and chosen successors ‘the brave English barons’, Strongbow in particular (Song, 1, l. 882). Maurice de Prendergast, whose son married Maud, another of Strongbow's daughters, also emerges as an outstanding military leader. Loyalties within these two main groups were often primarily determined by familial and local ties.

Strongbow and his followers

The first group to arrive at Bannow in south-east Ireland in May 1169, led by Robert fitz Stephen, included his three nephews, Meiler fitz Henry, Miles fitz David, and Gerald's brother Robert of Barry, along with Hervey de Montmorency and Maurice de Prendergast. Neither Montmorency nor Prendergast was Geraldine, and Gerald accordingly reported that Montmorency ‘without armed followers and destitute went, on behalf of Earl Richard … to reconnoitre rather than to conquer … a fugitive from the face of fortune’ (Gerald of Wales, 230, 232). Of Prendergast nothing is known, except that he was a descendant of Henry I's plantation of Flemish mercenaries in west Wales. Maurice Fitzgerald only crossed in early autumn 1169, perhaps on hearing of Robert fitz Stephen's capture of Wexford and Diarmait's fulfilment of his promise of land. There was one further landing before Strongbow's arrival in August 1170, when Raymond fitz William Fitzgerald, another Geraldine but also a member of Strongbow's household, crossed with ten knights and seventy archers in May that year.

These early expeditions were essentially provincial in character. They were responses to the opportunity offered by Irish dynastic conflict to men whose prospects in Wales had been curtailed by Rhys's increasing power. For the men of west Wales locality was a powerful uniting factor as well as a spur to action. Their battle cries invoked St David. The Song describes Meiler fitz Henry encouraging his knights to follow him across the difficult ford at Limerick:
‘St David!’ he shouted loud and clear.
For he was his lord
Under God the Creator
[He] Invoked St David night and day.
(Song, 2, ll. 3443–7)
Similarly, in the campaign against the king of Ossory, Prendergast shouted an invocation to St David, and Robert fitz Stephen, Meiler fitz Henry, Miles fitz David, and Hervey de Montmorency hastened to follow him.

However, Strongbow's arrival in August 1170 changed the relationship between Diarmait and the first incomers, overriding Diarmait's earlier rewards. While he confirmed Montmorency in lands granted by Diarmait, and rewarded Prendergast for having joined him in August 1170, Strongbow confirmed nothing to Robert fitz Stephen, and initially nothing to Maurice Fitzgerald. Gerald was both bitter and clear that the interests of the Clares had been promoted at the expense of the Geraldines. Nevertheless, Strongbow was unable to establish his own English family in any strength in Ireland, partly because the family itself was diminished. His son-in-law, Robert de Quincy, replaced Montmorency in command of Strongbow's troops, despite their preference for Raymond, and when Quincy was killed in 1172 Strongbow refused Raymond the hand of his widowed daughter. He did grant Forth and Odrone to Raymond, to whom he reluctantly married his sister, Basilia, but neither Raymond's return to Wales ‘very suddenly in evil humour’ (Song, 1, l. 2852), nor the cryptic reference to Strongbow's death in 1176 by Basilia as the shedding of ‘that great molar which has given me so much pain’ (Gerald of Wales, 332), suggest a strong bond of loyalty to his lord.

Overall, evidence for where Strongbow's followers came from is very thin. On the evidence of their toponymic surnames his closest lieutenants were more likely to have originated in England than in Wales; indeed, with very few exceptions—Miles fitz David is one—he froze out the men of St David's. The most frequent witnesses to his charters included Raymond fitz William, Hervey de Montmorency, Walter and Richard Bloet, Gilbert de Boisrohard, and Richard and Miles de Cogan. The Bloet family provides an example of Clare tenants who went to Ireland with Strongbow, although Walter Bloet, mentioned in the Song as being with Raymond and Montmorency before Strongbow's arrival, was back in Wales as custodian of Raglan Castle after 1173. Gilbert de Boisrohard was briefly in charge of Waterford in 1171, but was replaced by Robert fitz Bernard, the king's nominee, in 1172. If the Miles de Cogan who held land at Penarth and occurs in a charter confirming a gift to St Augustine's Abbey, Bristol, the foundation of Robert fitz Harding, is identical with Strongbow's charter witness, then a link between Robert fitz Harding and recruitment to Strongbow's expedition is plausible. But in general Strongbow's followers seem to have been people of little substance. Gervase of Canterbury refers to them as ‘a few fellow-soldiers and squires’ (Gervase of Canterbury, 1.234), and those named by Gerald, the Song, or Irish charters very seldom appear in cartularies, exchequer returns, or other administrative documents as English or Welsh landholders.

The intervention of Henry II

Strongbow's slighting of Henry II's prohibition on his departure to Ireland led to the swift sequestration of his English and Norman patrimony. The writ of July 1171 also required ‘that he should render to him [the king] … the whole of the land in Ireland which he had received through his wife’ (‘Chronicle of Robert de Torigni’, 252). The demand was implemented later in the year, creating an important difference between Strongbow and his forerunners in that his immediate lord, in Ireland as well as in Britain, was now the king. Henry II also made an accommodation with Irish princes, again asserting his own overlordship. He further weakened Strongbow's position by placing a number of his leading subordinates under the command of Hugh de Lacy, whom he made constable of Dublin, and to encourage settlement there—and also as a prize for Robert fitz Harding—he granted the city to his men of Bristol, together with all the liberties and free customs they had at Bristol and throughout his kingdom. Raymond and Miles de Cogan, both important Strongbow lieutenants, departed with the king, thus detaching them from Strongbow's circle. The king also placed Humphrey (III) de Bohun and Philip de Briouze in the strategic garrisons of Waterford and Wexford respectively. Themselves marcher lords, such men were perhaps practical reminders of the control the king still held over Strongbow's English patrimony. However, in 1173, having been summoned by the king to help deal with rebellion in Normandy, Strongbow returned successful to Ireland as the king's lieutenant, a position he held until his death in 1176. Only then did the king grant the kingdom of Cork to Robert fitz Stephen jointly with Miles de Cogan.

Henry's intervention in 1171 had added another dimension to the English intrusion, even though royal administration was still rudimentary. A small group of experienced royal officers, men like William fitz Aldelin, Robert Poer, and, a decade later, Bertram de Verdon, with little military strength of their own, found themselves at a continual disadvantage in their dealings with English lords who had already put down deep roots in Leinster. But elsewhere things were different. Hugh de Lacy's arrival and ensconcement in Ireland, in sharp contrast to Strongbow's, is a case in point. He went not as a result of a dynastic struggle among Irish princes, but to reinforce Henry's overlordship of Irish princes and to rein in the overmighty Strongbow. Henry granted him Meath for the service of fifty knights. There he planted the country
With castles and with cities,
With keeps and with strongholds
(Song, 2, ll. 3204–5)
settling both household knights and some of his more substantial English tenants. The result was a different kind of landholding. Whereas in Meath and Louth, occupied by men acting under the ultimate authority of the English crown, many families maintained lands on both sides of the Irish Sea without fear of royal reprisal, most English tenants in Leinster, where the occupation had begun, had no residual interests in England. For the most part the very first incomers were landless men, younger sons in many cases, illegitimate in others, seeking employment in the kind of warfare they knew best. When it came to settlement they were ‘the actual lords of the soil’ (Empey, 30). They had no tenurial loyalties in England, and in Ireland their loyalties were essentially personal, to family and kin, rather than to any feudal superior. As the heirs of Strongbow, neither William (I) Marshal in 1207 nor Richard Marshal in 1234 found themselves able to count on the support of their Leinster tenants, who thus maintained their tradition of alienation, independence, and resentment at the intrusion of an outsider from the centre of Angevin politics.

The interaction of the interests of Diarmait, Rhys ap Gruffudd, and Robert fitz Harding with the local and kinship loyalties of the invaders themselves, and with the centripetal force of Angevin kingship, created tensions that militate against any broad, collective description of the incomers. They came from different backgrounds for different reasons, driven by different forces. What they principally had in common, to set against this diversity, was a restless energy, often tempered in marcher warfare, to build towns, encourage settlers, and create an infrastructure to exploit the rich economic resources of the lands they conquered. Their domination was ultimately entrepreneurial as much as it was military.

John Cottrell


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