A little more than a century after their conquest of England in 1066, the Normans began their invasion of Ireland. In 1169 an advance party of Anglo-Normans arrived from south Wales bringing with them followers from France, Flanders, and England. A year later, Richard de Clare (Strongbow), Earl of Pembroke, brought with him a stronger force and began the conquest which would result in an Anglo-Norman colony which dominated the island.
Setting the Stage for Conquest:
Ireland had never been a unified kingdom and by the eleventh century the island was divided into a number of kingdoms. The Irish kings had no formal system of inheritance and so succession to the title was sometimes a bit messy. Succession only concerned the family kingdoms, the position of High King was a bit different. While the High King was supposedly the most powerful man in Ireland at this time, the position had to be continually won anew. There was always a contender looking to take over this position and this might involve killing the current High King.
Turlough O Connor emerged as a contender for High King in the twelfth century. Turlough O Connor obtained a piece of the cross on which Jesus had been crucified, had it enshrined in the cross of Cong, and then wished upon this relict to become High King of Ireland. With his death in 1156, there were four contenders for the position: Rory O Connor, the King of Connacht; Muirchertach Mac Lochlain of Ulster; Dermot Mac Murrough of Leinster; and Tiernan O Rourke of Breffny. These four families battled with each other for supremacy.
Mac Lochlainn and Mac Murrough formed an alliance and O Connor and O Rourke formed a partnership. As a result, Ireland was divided into two blocks. With this two-way split, there was conflict, meaning that there were a series of battles and squabbles. In the end, the O Connor-O Rourke alliance triumphed, Rory O Connor proclaimed himself High King, and Dermot Mac Murrough sailed off to Bristol, England in exile.
A drawing of Mac Murraugh is shown above.
The Norman Conquest:
From Bristol, Mac Murrough went to France where he asked King Henry II for help in retaking Ireland. One of the figures who agree to help Mac Murrough was Richard de Clare, the Second Earl of Pembroke, who was also known as Strongbow. Along with Strongbow a whole group of other Normans agreed to help Mac Murrough. With the approval of King Henry II and the help of the Normans, Mac Murrough began his attempt to retake Ireland.
In 1167 Mac Murrough returned to Ireland with a small force but was quickly defeated. Two years later Mac Murrough accompanied by Norman mercenaries from England tried again. They landed in County Wexford and occupied Waterford and Ossory. However, Mac Murrough was again defeated and submitted to O Connor and O Rourke. His English mercenaries had determined that the pay was better on the other side and had deserted him to support the Irish lords.
A year later, in 1170, Strongbow with a force of 1,000 men and 200 knights began their invasion. This was one of the most technologically advanced armies of the time and they soon controlled Dublin. Unlike Mac Murrough’s invasion, this was an invading army rather than a group of mercenaries. This meant that they weren’t interested in going away in a hurry.
In order to gain Strongbow’s support, Mac Murrough had to offer his daughter, Aoife, as a part of the deal. As soon as Strongbow captured Waterford, he claimed his prize and Aoife and Strongbow were married in August 1170. Thus the alliance between Normans and Irish royalty was solidified by marriage.
In her 1868 book An Illustrated History of Ireland, Sister Mary Frances Cusack summarizes the Norman invasion of Ireland this way:
“In the reign of Henry II., certain Anglo-Norman nobles came to Ireland, and, partly by force and partly by intermarriages, obtained estates in that country. Their tenure was the tenure of the sword. By the sword they expelled persons whose families had possessed those lands for centuries; and by the sword they compelled these persons, through poverty, consequence on loss of poverty, to take the position of inferiors where they had been masters.”O Connor’s days as High King were over and Ireland was destined to be ruled by foreigners until 1922. The Norman invasion also marked a change in the Irish Catholic Church. The Irish kings had traditionally had a close relationship with the Church and the Irish Church often ignored rules and regulations coming out of the Vatican. The Norman invasion ended the isolation of the Irish Church and under the Normans the Vatican directed the Church more directly. With the arrival of the Normans, the significance and power of the Church in Ireland increased.
The Normans had come to stay, so Anglo-Norman towns were established most frequently in counties Meath, Kildare, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Limerick. One of the earliest of these towns was Drogheda: founded in 1186 at the crossing point known today as Oldbridge. The last of the Norman towns was Roscommon which was founded in 1270. In all an estimated 50-60 towns were founded by the Normans. With regard to Drogheda, archaeological investigations have confirmed that there was no settlement or town here prior to the Normans.
The typical Anglo-Norman town was defended by walls and entered through gates. The town would usually have only one main street within the walls with lanes and narrower streets branching off at right angles. The main street generally functioned as a market place and in some instances it might be expanded in the center or at one end to accommodate the additional stalls during the market days.
Burgage plots—individually owned plots of land—were arranged in strips along the streets of the town. On these plots there would be a house on the street frontage, usually built with the gables fronting onto the street. Outhouses, workshops, and gardens were placed behind the house.
The Anglo-Norman towns usually had one parish church. Religious houses, particularly friaries and hospitals, were usually located outside of the town’s wall. Occasionally other houses—a kind of suburb—would form around the religious houses.
Norman Rural Settlements:
The Norman invaders did not find an empty landscape, but rather a rural land settled by dispersed rural settlements. Unlike the earlier Irish rural settlements, the Normans established a network of nucleated rural settlements in which the houses were located around a central focus. They brought with them an English village model in which the tenants’ houses were grouped around a church and castle or manor house.
Redwood Castle, built by the Normans about 1200 and occupied by them until about 1350, is shown above.
Bunratty Castle shown above is an example of a Norman manor house. It was constructed about 1270.
The Norman fortresses and manor houses, such as that of Bunratty Castle, often took the form of a motte and bailey. The motte was a large artificial earthen mound with a wooden stockade at its summit. The motte, usually situated on a natural height, enclosed a wooden tower. The bailey was a low platform, usually rectangular in shape, located on one side of the motte. The bailey was usually separated from the motte by a ditch or fosse which surrounded both structures. The bailey was used to shelter servants and animals.
The motte (left) and bailey (right) of Clough Castle is shown above. Archaeological excavations at this site show that it was constructed in the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century. The small two-story stone keep shown in the photo was constructed later in the thirteenth century.
The sign describing the motte and bailey at Clough Castle is shown above.
One of the features found in many of the mottes are pits around the periphery which were used as emplacements for archers.
Between 1190 and 1310, the Normans constructed a number of castles in Ireland. These castles varied in size and layout, as well as in the skilled labor needed to build them and the local availability of good stone. One of the largest and best known of these Norman castles is Trim in County Meath.
The keep at Trim Castle is shown above. Trim was initially a fortified house enclosed by a trench and stockade. Initial construction was done in 1172, but the stone work that is seen today was started about 1200 and completed in 1220. The keep was erected after 1254. Archaeological excavations suggest that artisans were brought in from Wales to work on this site.
Many of the Anglo-Norman villages were granted charters of rights by their feudal lords. These charters were intended to attract additional settlers from over-populated England and Wales. Increasing the population was seen as a way of consolidating the Anglo-Norman conquest. The charters generally gave the villagers burgess status which allowed them their own court and the right to tax themselves. It also freed them from many of the onerous duties required under the feudal system.