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Gerald of Wales:
The Norman Conquest of Ireland (12th Century)


Gerald of Wales (1146-1223), bishop of noble extraction, in his histories, left an account of the Norman invasion and conquest of Ireland. The Irish conquest was an extension of the conquest of Wales - an activity of Norman lords in the marches who were acting more or less independently of the crown. Once successful, their conquests were adopted by Henry II. account of this event, of which the following excerpts tell us something of its earlier phases. It was a Norman not an "English" effort, and it is interesting to note that the Fitzgerald family, here represented by Maurice Fitzgerald, who are the ancestors of John and Robert Kennedy, first appeared in Ireland as Anglo-Norman invaders and conquerors of the native Irish population.

For additional discussion of this text, see the notes at the end.

Dermitius [Dermot], the son of Murchard, and prince of Leinster, who ruled over that fifth part of Ireland, possessed in our times the maritime districts in the cast of the island, separated only from Great Britain by the sea which flowed between. His youth and inexperience in government led him to become the oppressor of the nobility, and to impose a cruel and intolerable tyranny on the chiefs of the land. This brought him into trouble, and it was not the only one; for O'Roric, prince of Meath, having gone on an expedition into a distant quarter, left his wife, the daughter of Omachlacherlin, in a certain island of Meath during his absence; and she, who had long entertained a passion for Dermitius [Derrnot] took advantage of the absence of her husband, and allowed herself to be ravished, not against her will. As the nature of women is, fickle and given to change, she thus became the prey of the spoiler by her own contrivance. For as Mark Anthony and Troy are witnesses, almost all the greatest evils in the world have arisen from women. King O'Roric being moved by this to great wrath, but more for the shame than the loss he suffered, was fully bent on revenge, and forthwith gathered the whole force of his own people and the neighboring tribes, calling besides to his aid Roderic, prince of Connaught, then monarch of all Ireland. The people of Leinster, considering in what a strait their prince was, and seeing him beset on every side by bands of enemies, began to call to mind their own long-smothered grievances, and their chiefs leagued themselves with the foes of Mac Murchard I and deserted him in his desperate fortunes.

Dermitius [Dermot], seeing himself thus forsaken and left destitute, fortune frowning upon him, and his affairs . being now desperate, after many fierce conflicts with the enemy, in which he was always worsted, at length resolved, as his last refuge, to take ship and flee beyond sea. It is therefore apparent from many occurrences, that it is safer to govern willing subjects than those who are disobedient. Nero learnt this, - and Domitian also, while in our times, Henry, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, was made sensible of it. . . .

Meanwhile, Mac Murchard, submitting to his change of fortune, and confidently hoping for some favorable turn, crossed the sea with a favorable wind, and came to Henry II, king of England, for the purpose of earnestly imploring his succor. Although the king was at that time beyond sea, far away in Aquitaine, in France, and much engaged in business, he received Murchard with great kindness, and the liberality and courtesy which was natural to him; and having heard the causes of his exile and coming over, and received his bond of allegiance and oath of fealty, granted him letters patent to the effect following: "Henry, king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to all his liegemen, English, Normans, Welsh, and Scots, and to all other nations subject to his dominion, Sendeth, greeting, Whensoever these our letters shall come unto you, know ye that we have received Dermitius [Dermot], prince of Leinster, unto our grace and favor, -Wherefore, whosoever within the bounds of our territories shall be willing to give him aid, as our vassal and liegeman, in recovering his territories, let him be assured of our favor and license on that behalf."

Dermitius [Dermot], returning through Great Britain, loaded with honorable gifts by the royal munificence, but encouraged more by hope for the future than any aid he had yet obtained, reached at last the noble town of Bristol. Here he sojourned for some time, making a liberal expenditure, as on account of the ships which made frequent voyages from Ireland to that port, he had opportunities of hearing the state of affairs in his own country and among his people. During his stay he caused the royal letters patent to be read several times in public, and made liberal offers of pay and lands to many persons, but in vain. At length, however, Richard, surnamed Strongbow, earl of Strigul, the son of earl Gilbert, came and had a conference with him; and after a prolonged treaty it was agreed between them that in the ensuing spring the earl should lend him aid in recovering his territories, Dermitius [Dermot] solemnly promising to give him his eldest daughter for wife, with the succession to his kingdom.

***

In the meantime, Robert Fitz-Stephen, [another Norman leader]...had mustered thirty men-at-arms, of his own kindred and retainers, together with sixty men in half-armor, and about three hundred archers and foot-soldiers, the flower of the youth of Wales, and embarking them in three ships, landed at the Banne, about the calends of May [AD 1170]. Then was the old prophecy of Merlin the Wild fulfilled: "A knight, bipartite, shall first break the bonds of Ireland." if you wish to understand this mysterious prediction, you must have respect to the descent of Robert Fitz-Stephen by both his parents. On the father's side he was an Anglo-Norman, on the mother's a Cambro-Briton, being the son of the noble lady Nesta.

In his company there also came over a man of fallen fortunes, Harvey de Montmaurice, who, having neither armor nor money, was a spy rather than a soldier, and as such acting for earl Richard. whose uncle he was. On the following day, Maurice de Prendergast [Maurice Fitzgerald], a stout and brave soldier, from the district of Ros, in South Wales, following Fitz-Stephen, and having embarked at the port of Milford, with ten men-at-arms, and a large body of archers, in two ships, landed also at the Banne. All these forces having disembarked on the island of the Banne, and finding themselves in a position far from secure, the news of their landing having been spread abroad, they sent messengers to Dermitius [Dermot], apprising him of their arrival. Meanwhile, some of the people who dwelt on the coast, although they had deserted Dermitius [Dermot], when fortune frowned upon him, when she changed her aspect flocked together to support him. . . .

Mac Murchard, as soon as he heard of their coming, sent forward his natural son, Duvenald, who, though not legitimate, was a man of consequence in his country, to join the English expedition, and followed himself, without loss of time, and in great joy, at the head of five hundred men. Having renewed their former engagements and confirmed them by many oaths mutually exchanged for security on both sides, they joined their forces, and the combined troops of the different races being united in one common object, marched to the attack of the town of Wexford, distant about twelve miles from the Banne. The people of the town, when they heard of this, were so confident in their wonted good fortune, having been hitherto independent, that they sallied forth, to the number of about two thousand men, and meeting the enemy near their camp, resolved on giving them battle. But when they perceived the troops to which they were opposed arrayed in a manner they had never before witnessed, and a body of horsemen, with their bright armor, helmets, and shields, they adopted new plans with a new state of affairs, and having set fire to, and burnt the suburbs, forthwith retired within their walls.

Fitz-Stephen lost no time in preparing for the attack; and lining the trenches with those of his troops who wore armor, while the archers were posted so as to command the advanced towers, an assault was made on the walls with loud cries and desperate vigor. But the townsmen were ready to stand on their defense, and casting down from the battlements large stones and beams, repulsed the attack for a while, and caused numerous losses. Among the wounded was Robert de Barri, a young soldier, who, inflamed with ardent valor, and dauntless in the face of death, was among the first who scaled the walls; but being struck upon his helmet by a great stone, and falling headlong into the ditch below, narrowly escaped with his life, his comrades with some difficulty drawing him out. . . . Upon this repulse, withdrawing from the walls, they gathered in haste on the neighboring strand, and forthwith set fire to all the ships they found lying there. Among these, a merchant-ship, lately arrived from the coast of Britain with a cargo of corn and wine, was moored in the harbor; and a band of the boldest youths rowing out in boats, got on board the vessel, but were carried out to sea, the sailors having cut the hawsers from the anchors, and the wind blowing from the west; so that it was not without great risk, and hard rowing after taking to their boats again, that they regained the land.

Thus fortune, constant only in her instability, almost deserted not only Mac Murchard, but Fitz-Stephen also. However, on the following morning, after mass had been celebrated throughout the army, they proceeded to renew the assault with more circumspection and order, relying on their skill as well as their courage; and when they drew near to the walls, the townsmen, despairing of being able to defend them, and reflecting that they were disloyally resisting their prince, sent envoys to Dermitius [Dermot] commissioned to treat of the terms of peace. At length, by the meditation of two bishops, who chanced to be in the town at that time, and other worthy and peaceable men, peace was restored, the townsmen submitting to Dermitius [Dermot], and delivering four of their chief men as hostages for their fealty to him. And the more to animate the courage of his adherents, and reward their chiefs for their first success, he forthwith granted the town, with the whole territory appertaining to it, to Fitz-Stephen and Maurice, according to the stipulations in their original treaty. He also conferred on Hervey de Montmaurice two cantreds lying between the towns of Wexford and Waterford, to hold to him and his heirs in fee.

***

These matters being settled, and fortune appearing again to smile upon them with a more favorable aspect, behold, Maurice Fitz-gerald, of whom I have already spoken . . . and who was half-brother by the mother's side to Robert Fitz-Stephen, landed at Wexford with ten men-at-arms, thirty mounted retainers, and about one hundred archers and foot-soldiers, who came over in two ships. This Maurice was a man much distinguished for his honor and courage, of an almost maidenish modesty, true to his word, and firm in his resolution. Mac Murchard was much delighted and encouraged by the tidings of this new arrival, and calling to mind, with the desire of vengeance, the deep injuries which the people of Dublin had done both to his father and himself, he assembled an army and prepared to march towards Dublin. In the meantime, Fitz-Stephen was building a fort upon a steep rock, commonly called the Karrec, situated about two miles from Wexford, a place strong by nature, but which art made still stronger. Maurice Fitzgerald, however, with the English troops, joined the army under Dermitius [Dermot], who took the command and acted as guide. In a short time, the whole territory belonging to Dublin, with the adjacent districts, were almost laid waste, and reduced to the last extremity, by the ravages of the enemy, and by fire and sword; so that at length the townsmen sued for peace, and gave security for keeping their allegiance to their prince in time to come, and paying him due homage and service.

Meanwhile, quarrels having broken out between Roderic of Connaught and Duvenald of Limerick, as soon as Roderic with his troops made an irruption on the borders of Limerick, Dermitius [Dermot] dispatched Fitz-Stephen and his followers to the relief of Duvenald, who was his son-in-law. Duvenald thus supported, after several battles, in all of which he was victorious, compelled Roderic to retreat with disgrace into his own territories, and freed himself altogether from any acknowledgment of his supremacy. In this expedition, as in all others, Meyler and Robert de Barri distinguished themselves by their extraordinary valor.

***

Dermitius [Dermot] having received intelligence that the citizens of Dublin had summoned the people from all parts of Ireland to succor them in defending the place, and that all the roads through the woods and other difficult passes were beset with armed men, was careful to avoid his father's mischance, and leading his army by the ridges of the mountains of Glyndelachan (Glendalough), he conducted it in safety to the walls of the city. Dermitius [Dermot] had a mortal hatred for the citizens of Dublin, and not without reason; for they had murdered his father, while sitting in the hall of the house of one of the chief men, which he used for his court of justice; and they added insult to the foul deed by burying his corpse with a dog.

Now, however, on their sending envoys to Dermitius [Dermot], and through the powerful mediation of Laurence, of blessed memory, who was at that time archbishop of Dublin, a truce was agreed upon, during which the terms of a treaty of peace might be settled. Notwithstanding this, Raymond on one side of the city, and on the other a brave soldier, whose name was Milo de Cogan . . . rushed to the walls with bands of youths, eager for the fight, and greedy of plunder, and making a resolute assault, got possession of the place after a great slaughter of the citizens. The better part of them, however, under their king Hasculf, embarked in ships and boats with their most valuable effects, and sailed to the northern islands. . . .

The earl then, having spent a few days in settling order in the city, left Milo de Cogan there as constable, and at the instigation of Mac Murchard, who had not forgotten an ancient feud with O'Roric, king of Meath, made a hostile irruption into the territories of that prince, and the whole of Meath was plundered and laid waste with fire and sword.

Roderic, king of Connaught, perceiving that he was in jeopardy, when his neighbor's house was on fire," sent envoys to Dermitius [Dermot], with this message: "Contrary to the conditions of our treaty of peace, you have invited a host of foreigners into this island, and yet, as long as you kept within the bounds of Leinster, we bore it patiently. But now, forasmuch as, regardless of your solemn oaths, and having no concern for the fate of the hostage you gave, you have broken the bounds agreed on, and insolently crossed the frontiers of your own territory; either restrain in future the irruptions of your foreign bands, or I will certainly have your son's head cut off, and send it to you." Dermitius [Dermot], having received this message, made an arrogant reply, adding also that he would not desist from the enterprise he had undertaken, until he had reduced Connaught to subjection, which he claimed as his ancient inheritance, and obtained with it the monarchy of the whole of Ireland. Roderic was so indignant at this reply, that he caused the son of Dermitius [Dermot], who had been delivered to him for an hostage . . . to be put to death.

From The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambriensis, ed. Thomas Wright, trans. F. Forester (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1863; George Bell and Sons, 1891), pp 184-87, 189-92, and 202-204, repr. in Archibald R. Lewis, ed., The High Middle Ages, 814-1300, (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970)

Kevin J. Fitzgerald [fitz@htc.net] added this note on the above text and how it should be interpreted.

29-AUG-1996
On Gerald of Wales' "The Conquest of Ireland"

The excerpt above has been edited [by Lewis] in a manner which contradicts other historians. Specifically, the material added in brackets appears to be in error. Maurice de Prendergast and Maurice Fitzgerald are identified as the same man, arriving in Ireland on May 1, 1170. Edmund Curtis, in his book A History of Ireland (London: Methuen & Co. 1936, Reprinted as University Paperback, 1978, p. 50) indicates that de Prendergast was a separate individual who arrived May 1, 1169 with Robert FitzStephen. Fitzgerald followed one year later with Raymond leGros de Carew. Strongbow arrived shortly thereafter, on August 23, 1170. Separate sources discuss de Prendergast and Fitzgerald with no hint that they are the same man nor even related. See for example http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/Mayo/Towns/MayAbbey/HistMAbb/HistMAbb.htm which mentions the domination by Maurice de Prendergast of Mayo, and the establishment of a base in Brize, east of Mayo Abbey. A linked page identifies Prendergast as a common Mayo name, but does not mention Fitzgerald.

The reader of Gerald of Wales's account may also be interested to know that the whole account must be taken with a grain of salt, especially the descriptions of the Norman heroes. Gerald was a close relative of nearly every man mentioned. Gerald's mother was Angareta, sister of Maurice Fitzgerald. Raymond leGros de Carew was his cousin, and a nephew of Maurice Fitzgerald. LeGros' father was William Fitzgerald. The Carew surname derives from the castle built by his Grandfather Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor after his marriage to the Welsh Princess Nesta. Robert de Barri was Gerald's brother and the de Cogans his half brothers on his father's side. In this context, anything less complimentary would have been surprising.

 


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Feb 1996 [updated 11/23/96]
halsall@murray.fordham.edu