The Normans in Ireland (5)

Eleanor Hull
The Normans in Ireland | start of chapter

The man whom Henry sent over to replace Raymond was of very different character. FitzAudelin[28] is said by Gerald of Wales to have been a smooth and courtier-like man, but crafty as a snake in the grass. Whom he honoured one day he calumniated the next; a man who never, in the course of his tours of inspection, neglected his own interests, or failed to collect all the gold he could lay hands upon.

Gerald displays a natural anger against a man who came over with the fixed intention of ruining the family of the Geraldines, but his prejudices are shown to have been well merited by all FitzAudelin’s acts. One of the first incidents recorded of him on his arrival at Wexford, where Raymond le Gros awaited his coming in order to hand over the Sword of State, shows him in his true character.

Seeing Raymond and Meiler on horseback surrounded by their followers all in polished armour and with the same Geraldine device upon their shields, he whispered to his friends, “I will bring all this bravery to a speedy end; those shields shall soon be scattered.”

Raymond, however, with apparent cordiality, offered him his congratulations, embracing him in a friendly manner and placing his official positions in his hands, retaining only his own personal baronies and those of Fotherd and Odrone in Carlow, which came to him with his wife. This is the last we hear of the most brilliant of the adventurers.

With FitzAudelin came a group of twenty knights, and John de Courcy, Robert FitzStephen, and Miles de Cogan were ordered to attend him, each with a train of ten knights.

About the same time Hugh de Lacy, who had long been sharing the King’s wars in France, seems to have returned to Ireland, and his grant of Meath was confirmed to him with additions in Offaly, Kildare, and Wicklow.

Hugh de Lacy was a great castle-builder, and his memory is chiefly preserved on account of the numerous moats, or forts, built by him to secure Meath and Leinster to the Norman lords. Castles were erected by him at Clonard, Kells, Kildare, and probably Drogheda; while Castleknock near Dublin, Granard on the borders of Breifne (Co. Longford) and other moats were the work of his feudatories. Among the later grantees he was the wisest ruler, a man of firm and steadfast character, very attentive both to his private affairs and to the administration of his province. He was not attractive in appearance, being short and ill-proportioned, with a swarthy complexion and black, sunken eyes; nor was he a successful commander. In private life he is said to have been avaricious and of lax morals. But, unlike the other Norman lords, he recalled the peasants who had been violently driven out, reinstated them on their lands, and ruled them with a firm and gentle hand. The unoccupied districts became cultivated and stocked with herds of cattle.

Quiet and order reigned in his territories, and he won the hearts of the Irish people and drew around him their native leaders, as none other of the newcomers had done. Like Strongbow, he showed his intention of throwing in his lot with his adopted country by marrying in 1180 an Irish wife, Rose, daughter of King Rory O’Conor of Connacht. He had previously been married to another Rose “of Monmouth” {Roysya de Monemue), by whom he had two sons, Walter and Hugh, who succeeded him in the Lordship of Meath.

As the marriage of Strongbow to Eva had aroused the anger and suspicions of Henry, so that of de Lacy to Rose O’Conor, which had been carried through without asking his licence, moved him to jealousy.[29] Again a whisper went about that Hugh intended to make himself King of Ireland, and the strong fortresses that he was building all over his territories gave strength to the rumour. He had been appointed Constable or Governor, of Dublin in 1178, but in the midst of his work of settlement he was twice recalled, being finally superseded in 1184, when the King sent his son, Prince John, to Ireland.

But he remained in the country, continuing the erection of castles at every point of vantage, until an abrupt end was put to his career. He was out inspecting a new castle that he was building at Durrow, near the borders of Westmeath, beside or on the site of one of St Columcille’s most famous monasteries when a youth whom he was superintending suddenly, as he stooped to show him how to work, struck off his head with one blow of his axe, having been instructed to perform the act by his foster-father, the chief of the O’Caharnys of Teffia. The desecration of so sacred a spot may have also inflamed the mind of the young peasant. Thus fell one of the best of the invaders, and we learn that Henry, on hearing the news, “rejoiced thereat.”[30] The result of Hugh’s efforts was that by 1186 “Meath from the Shannon to the sea was full of castles of foreigners,” and Grace’s Annals add that “the subjugation of Ireland went no further.”

Among other sweeping grants made by Henry quite irrespective of the claims of the ruling princes were those of “the kingdom of Cork from Cape St Brandon [in Kerry] to the river Blackwater [in Waterford],” for the service of sixty knights, to Robert FitzStephen and Miles de Cogan, except the city of Cork, which the King retained in his own hands; and the equally extensive grant of the kingdom of Limerick, again excepting the city, to Herbert FitzHerbert and others.

These grants did not take immediate effect, as the grantees declared that the country had not been conquered and was not subject to the King. They slowly set about taking possession of portions of these territories, but the fickleness of the King, who from time to time apportioned the same lands to different barons whom for the moment he wished to honour, made the settlement of the South impossible.

The city of Limerick, especially, was kept in perpetual turmoil by the family of de Braose, to whom it was afterward (1203) granted for a large annual payment, which was seldom forthcoming; the squalid story of his wrangles with the authorities ended in miserable tragedy.[31]

Miles de Cogan and Ralph FitzStephen retained some properties in Cork and Limerick, and endeavoured to extend them by speculative grants to their followers; but they fell victims to a treacherous assault upon their party by MacTire, chief of Imokilly, at a parley held near Lismore in 1182. The Barrys, de Prendergasts, and de Carews took land about this time, and the Geraldines, of whom Maurice FitzGerald was the head, were destined to become the great and unhappy line of the Earls of Desmond. Many of the massive castles which were to be scenes of sieges during the wars of Elizabeth’s reign date from the end of the twelfth and the thirteenth century, such as Askeaton, Shanid, and Croom, Adare and Grene (or Pallas Green). Eventually all belonged to the Desmond family.

In the North also matters were stirring. John de Courcy had returned to Ireland among the advisers of FitzAudelin. This man, whose great stature, strong and muscular limbs, and love of fighting, marked him out as a born warrior, became from his exploits the centre of the most extravagant legends, so that it is now difficult to disentangle truth from fiction. Men told how, in later days, after he had been captured by Hugh de Lacy the Younger in 1202, King John sent for him from the Tower of London, where he had been long immured, and brought him over to France to fight on his behalf against a chosen champion of the King of France, whom no one dared approach. But the champion, on seeing the immense frame and grim aspect of the man opposed to him, was seized with terror and took to flight.

De Courcy, in order to let off his ire, is said to have set up a helmet and coat of mail on a wooden block, and to have struck his sword clean through it, the weapon sinking so deep into the wood that no one could withdraw it. When asked by the princes why he had looked so terrible before he struck the blow, he replied “By St Patrick of Down in Ireland, if I had missed my purpose in striking this stroke, I would have slain both of you kings and as many as I could more, for the old sores I have felt at your hands.”[32]

Such a man was the conqueror of Ulster. The “stalwart doings” or gestes of this mighty warrior are related at length in the Book of Howth, and the narrative of the affection between him and the lord of Howth, Sir Amory St Laurent, and of their deeds together reads like one of the romances of the Round Table.[33] He was so eager for a fight that when he was in command he was apt to forget his duties as a leader, and to charge forward impetuously at the head of his troops; but in private life he was sober and modest, “giving God the glory of his victories.”

It was natural that two men so unlike as FitzAudelin and de Courcy should not agree well together. The guile and smooth speech of the Governor, at once a bully and a coward, revolted the blunt soldier, and he determined to carve out an independent career for himself. Recalling Henry’s former grant to him of Ulster “if he could take it,” he gathered around him a little band of twenty-two men-at-arms and three hundred common soldiers, who were complaining in the garrison of Dublin of want of pay and provisions, and boldly set out on his raid upon Ulster.

The attempt to force his way into a country which had hitherto resisted all efforts of the English to set foot in it, and which had maintained an independent position even in the native wars, seemed like an act of knight-errantry, but in spite of its hardihood it was destined to succeed. Men recalled the old saying:

“A white knight sitting on a white horse and having birds on his shield shall be the first to enter Ulster by force of arms.”

John fulfilled the prophecy in every detail. Fair, and riding a white steed, he bore on his shield the device of three griphs or geires gules, crowned or. The resemblance was possibly not wholly accidental; de Courcy may have heard the tradition.[34] On the morning of his fourth day’s march he entered the city of Down without opposition, the King, Roderick MacDonlevy, who was taken completely by surprise, having made a hasty flight before him.

Down was an important ecclesiastical centre, the burial-place, as was commonly supposed, not only of St Patrick, but of St Brigit and St Columcille. It was the capital of Eastern Ulster, and quite independent of the princedoms of Tyrone and Tyrconnel. Its cathedral stood on a height, and below lay the marshlands of the river Quoile, west of Strangford Lough.

At the moment of de Courcy’s raid the Papal legate, Vivianus, had arrived in the city from Scotland and the Isle of Man. He attempted mediation between the combatants, but, all efforts failing, he advised the Irish to fight for their native land and heartened them with his blessing and prayers. Thus encouraged, the King of East Ulster sent to all parts to assemble forces. Within eight days ten thousand warlike men gathered round him, the men of the North being, as Gerald says, more truculent than those of the South.

Distrusting the weak fort which was all the defence the city offered, de Courcy descended to the swampy marshes near the seashore. The battle must have been fought almost on the same spot as that on which King Magnus Barelegs fell seventy-four years before. A terrific struggle ensued. John was seen on every part of the field with flourished sword, “with one stroke lopping off heads, with another arms.”

As with the Norse in the earlier battle of Down, the vast multitudes of the Irish troops found it difficult to manœuvre in the narrow dykes between the bogs, and great numbers fell as they tried to make their escape along the shore; they sank in the quicksands as their pursuers pressed them forward through water dyed with blood. Report said that this also had been foretold. A superstitious dread accompanied every action of de Courcy’s little force, no doubt tending to ensure its victory. The battle was fought in 1177, and the Normans were completely victorious.

In another battle contested shortly afterward on the same spot, in which the O’Neills joined the Irish forces, accompanied by the Primate of Armagh and many clergy with their sacred relics, the same result followed, even the precious Book of Armagh falling into de Courcy’s hands. The book was restored, but the relics were captured and many of the clergy slain.

De Courcy showed his interest in the Irish traditions of Down, which became his capital, by inviting Jocelyn, a monk of Furness Abbey in Lancashire, to write a life of St Patrick. This work is still extant. Gradually, in spite of some checks, de Courcy pushed forward his conquests, till nearly all Eastern Ulster was in his hands. His territory included Down and Antrim, which he ruled like an independent prince, free from the interference of king or viceroy. He strengthened his position by his marriage with Affreca, daughter of Godred, King of Man; and when in 1204 he was driven out by Hugh de Lacy the Younger the King of Man came to his assistance. He coined his own money, extended his moat-castles over the country, and made munificent benefactions to the churches and abbeys which he founded. For twenty years Uladh seems to have been at peace under his strong rule.

But though de Courcy succeeded in establishing himself in Eastern Ulster he was by no means uniformly fortunate in the field. His worst defeats were in his wars in Connacht, and to understand them we must take up the history of that province from the date of King Rory’s submission to Henry at the Council of Windsor in 1175. Having sent his son to England as hostage for his fidelity and wedded his daughter Rose to Hugh de Lacy, Rory might well have expected quiet in his old age. But revolts in his own family put an end to all hope of this. Already, in 1177, his son Murtogh had led an army into Connacht with the help of Miles de Cogan and the English, but they had been driven out with the loss of their men. Now his eldest son, Conor Moinmoy, headed a rebellion against him and succeeded in driving him into Munster. This may have been the determining cause of Rory’s retirement from the throne into the monastery of Cong, where, except for a short interval when he attempted to regain his kingdom, he remained till his death in 1198. His retirement was the signal for a general war among his sons and grandsons on the one side and his brother, Cathal Crovdearg “of the Red Hand” on the other.

Each party was supported by one of the rival Norman barons, who hoped to reap advantages for himself. Cathal of the Red Hand was aided by John de Courcy, and the opposite party, of whom another Cathal, grandson of Rory, was the head, by William de Burgh of Limerick with the O’Briens of Munster. The war between these cousins went on for years, William de Burgh changing sides with surprising facility. Twice Cathal of the Red Hand was banished from the province, but on the death of Cathal Carragh in 1201 he assumed the kingship. At this juncture we find William de Burgh fighting on his side. The story of Cathal Crovdearg is so characteristic of the times that it will be well to tell it more at length.[35]