Robert FitzStephen

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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FitzStephen, Robert, son of Nesta and Stephen, constable of Cardigan [See NESTA], the first Anglo-Norman invader of Ireland, in the 12th century. He was one of those who with Strongbow entered into Dermot MacMurrough's plans, upon his return from his interview with Henry II. in Normandy. He had been confined in prison by Rhys-ap-Griffen, a feudatory of Henry II., and was released so as to be able to join in the invasion of Ireland, on the intercession of his half-brothers the Bishop of St. David's and Maurice FitzGerald. Dermot agreed to grant him and Maurice FitzGerald the town of Wexford and two adjacent cantreds of land. Accordingly, while Earl Strongbow made his preparations for invasion on a more extensive scale, in May 1169 FitzStephen embarked at Milford 30 men-at-arms, 60 men in half-armour, and 300 archers and foot-soldiers, in three ships, and after a favourable passage landed at Bannow, or Baginbun Head, on the south coast of Wexford "on the calends of May."

He was accompanied by his nephews, Miler FitzHenry and Miles of St. David's, and by Hervey de Marisco, his son-in-law. Maurice de Prendergast joined them next day with two ships containing 10 men-at-arms and a body of archers. They were immediately waited on by Dermot's son Donal, "a valiant gentleman," with 500 spearmen. Dermot himself followed with a large force of horse and foot, and the united armies immediately marched to the assault of Wexford. The town was bravely defended, and did not surrender until it had sustained an assault for seven hours, and the citizens had been advised to submit by two bishops. FitzStephen and FitzGerald were immediately put in possession of the town, and Hervey de Marisco was given two cantreds lying between Wexford and Waterford. "These things having been accomplished according to their desires," says Cambrensis, "and their troops having been reinforced by the townsmen of Wexford, they directed their march towards Ossory, with an army numbering about 3,000 men." Roderic O'Conor, monarch of Ireland, now led a large force against the Anglo-Normans and their allies, and the latter were obliged to entrench themselves near Ferns. Terms were ultimately agreed to: Dermot acknowledged Roderic paramount king and monarch of Ireland, and Roderic confirmed Dermot in the sovereignty of Leinster.

FitzStephen appears now to have applied himself to the settlement of his newly-acquired territory, and to have brought over his wife and children, and next year, while Strongbow and FitzGerald were engaged at Dublin, "he was," says Cambrensis, "building a fort upon a steep rock, commonly called Karrec [Ferrycarrick], situated about two miles from Wexford, a place strong by nature, but which art made still stronger." There he was shortly beleaguered by the townsmen of Wexford, who had thrown off his authority, and had been joined by the men of Kinsale, to the number of 3,000. The castle was only in process of construction; he had to depend upon an ill-fortified hold built of turf and stakes; and he and the garrison were obliged to surrender to the overwhelming numbers of their assailants. Upon the arrival of Strongbow from Dublin, Wexford was given to the flames, and the Irish retreated with their captives to Begeri, then an island in Wexford harbour. FitzStephen must have been detained prisoner nearly a year by the Irish, for we are told by Cambrensis, that on the arrival of King Henry II., "the men of Wexford, to court his favour, brought to him in fetters their prisoner FitzStephen, excusing themselves because he had been the first to invade Ireland without the royal licence, and had set others a bad example.

The King having loudly rated him, and threatened him with his indignation for his rash enterprise, at last sent him back loaded with fetters, and chained to another prisoner, to be kept in safe custody in Reginald's Tower." After Henry's return from Lismore, FitzStephen "was again brought before him, and being touched with compassion for a brave man, who had been so often exposed to so great perils, and pitying his case, at the intercession of some persons of rank about his court he heartily forgave and pardoned him, and freely restored him to his former state and liberty, reserving to himself only the town of Wexford, with the lands adjoining." On Henry II.'s departure for England, in April 1172, FitzStephen was appointed joint Warden of Dublin with FitzGerald. King Henry granted him and Milo de Cogan the southern part of Munster, west of Lismore, excepting the city of Cork. Having taken possession of this district, they proceeded north with De Braosa, to put him in occupation of Limerick and the surrounding country. On their approach, the inhabitants of Limerick fired the city, and the confederates retreated, "rather than run the risk," says Cambrensis, "to which they would be exposed in a country so hostile and so remote from all succour."

The same writer attributes their failure to the pusillanimity of De Braosa and the pack of "cut-throats, and murderers, and lewd fellows" who accompanied him from Wales. FitzStephen's latter days were clouded by misfortunes. His son and many of his bravest companions fell in battle with the Irish; he was himself beleaguered in Cork, and when the siege was raised by his nephew, Raymond le Gros, it was found that the first and the bravest of the little band of Anglo-Norman adventurers had been deprived of reason. He died shortly afterwards, in 1182. His memory is thus spoken of by Giraldus Cambrensis: "O excellent man, the true pattern of singular courage and unparalleled enterprise, whose lot it was to be obnoxious to fickle fortune and suffer adversity with few intervals of prosperity. . . Thou wert indeed another Marius; for if you consider his prosperity no one was more fortunate; if you consider his misfortunes, he was of all men most miserable. FitzStephen was stout in person, with a handsome countenance, and stature somewhat above the middle height; he was bountiful, generous, and pleasant, but too fond of wine and women."

Sources

5. Anglo-Normans, History of the Invasion of Ireland by the: Gerald H. Supple. Dublin, 1856.

148. Giraldus Cambrensis: Topography, and History of the Conquest in Ireland: Forester and Wright. London, 1863.

196. Irishmen, Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished, Rev. James Wills, D.D. 6 vols. or 12 parts. Dublin, 1840-'7.

202. Kildare, The Earls of, and their Ancestors: from 1057 to 1773, with Supplement: Marquis of Kildare. 2 vols. Dublin, 1858-'62.

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