The Statute of Kilkenny (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Statute of Kilkenny | start of chapter

It was the fear that Ireland might slip entirely from the grasp of the English Crown and revert to native conditions under lords of Norman descent but with Irish sympathies that brought over Richard II in 1394. Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March (1374–98), a member of this princely family which gave four Viceroys to Ireland in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, accompanied the King as Lord-Lieutenant. He was the direct heir to the throne. His father Edmund Mortimer had held the same position in 1379, as his vast estates, acquired in Meath and Ulster, partly through the forfeitures of the de Lacys and partly through his marriage with Philippa, had necessitated his presence in that country. Both kept up an almost regal splendour, though in later life, during his second term of office, Roger assumed Irish dress and horse trappings. These accoutrements were to prove the direct cause of his death, for he fell in a rash attack on some of the Leinster clans at Kells in 1398, his dress having prevented him from being recognized. His son, the younger Edmund, was also destined to die in Ireland, being cut off by plague in the midst of negotiations with the Irish chiefs in 1425.

The title of Justiciar, or Chief Justice, at this time begins to be dropped (except for temporary appointments in the interim between two Viceroys) and the more important title of Viceroy or Lord-Lieutenant was adopted. When, as frequently happened, the chief official was absent from his post, a Deputy filled the office, but these titles are loosely used; and the Deputy was frequently a more important personage than the nominal Viceroy, as being actually in residence in Ireland.

Richard came over on October 2, 1394, to study affairs on the spot. The result of his inquiries is contained in a letter written by him from Dublin to his uncle the Duke of York, stating that he proposes to hold a Parliament in that city. He writes that “in his land of Ireland there are three sorts of people, wild [i.e., unsubdued] Irish, his enemies; Irish rebels; and loyal English. The King and Council consider that the Irish have become rebels in consequence of the grievous wrongs inflicted on them, for which no remedies were afforded, but that if wisely treated and given hope of grace they would not join with the King’s enemies.” He has in the meantime taken them into his protection until Easter week in order that they may have time to come in and state their case.[30]

By Irish rebels he evidently means the ‘old English,’ who had become “more Irish than the Irish,” such as the Poers (or Powers), Geraldines, Berminghams, Barretts, and Dillons, who are stated a few years later to be in rebellion[31] and who during Richard’s visit showed none of the alacrity of the native chiefs to come in and acknowledge fealty to the King.

The wiser treatment of which Richard spoke was seldom applied, and the opinion of an old writer that the Irishmen were “enclined to Englisshe rule and order, where Englisshmen would rebelle and digresse from obedience of lawes”[32] was true, for most of the rebellions against the Crown up to Elizabeth’s day were organized by the descendants of the old English settlers, and not by the native Irish.

In the reign of Henry VIII we have this striking testimony as to the combined result of English policy and Irish social life on the English themselves. The Lord Deputy, writing in 1536 to the King, says:

“Your Highness must understand that the English blood of the English conquest is in a manner worn out in this land … some by attainders, others by persecution and murdering of [by] Irishmen and some by departure from hence into your realm of England. And contrarywise, the Irish blood ever more and more increaseth.”[33]

So far as Richard II was concerned, these Anglo-Norman “Irish rebels” kept prudently in the background during his stay in Ireland, though William de Burgh and Walter Bermingham resorted to the King’s ship in May 1395 and were knighted by the King. But of much more importance were the submissions of the Irish kings, again, as in the time of Henry II, led by the representatives of the four provinces, now once more almost independent, O’Neill of Ulster, O’Conor Donn of Connacht, Art MacMorrogh Kavanagh of Leinster, and O’Brien of Thomond, who are said to have submitted “by love and fayreness, and not by batayle nor constraynte.”

The most remarkable of these submissions was that of young O’Neill, who, acting for his aged father, made his homage to the King at Drogheda on March 16, 1395. He had already written to Richard on his arrival in Ireland, offering him welcome, and assuring him that nothing he had done was to be interpreted as renouncing Richard’s lordship, “for I have always recognized the same and do so now.”

The kings were received on honourable terms and once more restored to full legal rights and confirmed in their lands as holding of the Crown. They represented in their persons the great body of their underlords all over the country, and O’Brien even went so far as to declare that he had acquired no lands by conquest, but only by grant of the King’s predecessors to his ancestors.[34] The terms seemed satisfactory to both parties. The Irish kings henceforth had an indisputable right in English law to the lands now confirmed to them, and the English King could boast the allegiance of native Ireland.

The story of King Richard’s doings in Ireland is told in the graphic pages of Froissart and also in a French metrical history of Richard II. In Richard’s train there came a French knight named Henry Castide, who had spent many years in Ireland and knew the Irish tongue well. In after days he related his experiences to Froissart, who included the account in his chronicles. He describes the wild life lived by the Irish in the forests and the narrow passes where it was impossible to follow them.

So light were they of foot that no horseman, were he ever so well mounted, could overtake them. Castide remarks that they sometimes leapt from the ground behind a rider, grasping him so tightly that it was impossible to shake off the assailant. He himself had had a curious experience of this kind, for, his horse taking fright in the middle of a skirmish, a runner leapt on its back and pressed it forward at full speed into the woods, until they arrived at a village in a retired spot, surrounded by palisades. Here the Frenchman lived, separated from his friends, for seven years. He became much attached to his handsome host, Bryan Costeret, and married his daughter, by whom he had two children, and one of these returned with him to Bristol when at length he gained his liberty by exchange of prisoners. He tells us that the Irish language was always spoken in his family and that he introduced it among his grandchildren as much as he could.

The language proved of special use to him, for he was chosen on that account by King Richard to instil English ways and manners into the four Irish princes who had given in their submissions and whom he desired to create knights. Castide did his best to transform them into Englishmen in the short month allotted to him, but in spite of all his efforts “to soften their language and nature” he laments that very little progress had been made. They still insisted on dining with their retainers and minstrels around them, without any distinction of rank, “for they had everything in common except their bed.”

Nevertheless, they went through the solemn ceremony of knighthood, watching all night in the cathedral and being robed in magnificent silken cloaks lined with fur, in which they afterward dined with the King. Castide, relating the story to Sir John Froissart, says they were much gazed upon, “for it was certainly a great novelty to see four Irish kings.”

There is a touch of sarcasm in Froissart’s inquiry as to how it came about.

“You have said it was accomplished by a treaty and the grace of God; the grace of God is good, and of infinite value to those who can obtain it; but we see few lords nowadays augment their territories otherwise than by force.”

Neither a treaty nor the grace of God will suffice where the treaty is not founded on justice, and in one instance Richard had departed from the usual upright way in which he had dealt with the Irish kings. This was in his dealings with Art MacMorrogh Kavanagh who had recently submitted. He had been elected king of Kavanagh’s country, a district of thirty miles between Carlow and the sea, in 1357, when he was still a youth. Since the reign of Edward III the Kavanaghs had received from Government eighty marks a year in return for their protection to English settlers in these districts, and to keep the sept quiet. But this subvention was frequently unpaid, and disputes arose as to the non-fulfilment of the agreement. In addition to this, Kavanagh had married a daughter of the fourth Earl of Kildare, whereupon her vast estates were seized by the Crown, since she had, under the Statute of Kilkenny, forfeited them by marrying a ‘meere’ Irishman.

Naturally exasperated, Kavanagh wasted Leinster and took up an attitude of defiance. When Richard came over with his army of four thousand men-at-arms and thirty thousand archers it was chiefly with a view to chastising Art and recovering his lands for the Crown.

When the King had cut his way through Leinster to Dublin, and Kavanagh, following the example of O’Neill, came in to submit, the terms made with him were of a kind quite different from those entered into with the other kings. He was required “by the first Sunday of Lent to quit the whole land of Leinster with all the armed men of his following.”

They were given leave to conquer any other lands now occupied by the King’s enemies. His rent and the heritage of his wife were secured to him. This last provision, which had been the chief cause of quarrel, is the one generous point in the indenture. But the order to remove from his ancient inheritance could not be carried out. Hardly had Richard left the country when Art was ‘out’ again, renouncing his allegiance and inflicting a severe defeat on the English forces at Kells in Co. Kilkenny in which Richard’s young cousin, Roger Mortimer, whom he had left as Viceroy was slain. Furious at the news, Richard resolved on a second expedition to Ireland, to subdue his rebellious vassal. Again he gathered a formidable army, and men were pressed for Ireland wherever they could be found.

After ten days spent at Milford Haven the King crossed to Waterford. His chronicler says that the King’s courage was extraordinary, and indeed that unhappy prince never wanted in personal fearlessness; but those that saw him leave London judged truly when they said:

“Well, Richard of Bordeaux has taken the road to Bristol for Ireland. It will be his destruction; he will never return thence to joy.”

Richard’s expedition was from the first ill-fated. His supplies did not arrive, and MacMorrogh cut off those in the country.

“Some even of the knights did not eat a morsel for five days together.”

When at last three ships came into harbour from Dublin the knights plunged into the sea to seize the food from the boats.

"Many a cuff passed between them, and over a thousand were drunk that day.”

MacMorrogh’s uncle came in to surrender with a withy round his neck and his followers barefoot and stripped behind him. But when the King pardoned him and sent word to Art that he would admit him also to mercy, and give him castles and lands in abundance if he would do the same, MacMorrogh replied that he “would do no such thing for all the treasure of the sea.”

Finally, however, Art sent a begging friar to ask for a parley, as the King was slowly making his way north to Dublin. A place of parley being arranged, the King’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was sent with two hundred lancers and a body of archers to meet him. An onlooker describes the meeting. “Between two woods,” he says,

“at some distance from the sea, I beheld Macmore [MacMorrogh] and a body of the Irish more than I can number, descend the mountain. He rode a horse without housing or saddle, which was so fine and good, that it had cost him, they said, four hundred cows. In coming down it galloped so hard that I never in my life saw hare, deer, or sheep, I declare of a certainty, run with such speed. In his right hand he bore a great long dart, which he cast with much skill. He was a fine large man, wondrously active. To look at he seemed very stern and savage and an able man.”

The two leaders could not come to an agreement; “they took short leave and hastily parted.”

Art would give no terms other than that he should never be molested or interfered with. The King grew pale with wrath and swore that he would never depart from Ireland till he had Art in his power, alive or dead. He offered a hundred marks of gold to anyone who would bring him in. But Richard never got hold of MacMorrogh. When wind and storm permitted news to come over from England they brought tidings of a general revolt, which was to end only in the deposition and death of the King and the coronation of Henry IV.

Among those who accompanied Richard II on his expedition to Ireland was the young Duke of Lancaster, afterward to become king as Henry V; he had been knighted by Richard amid the blazing woods of Leinster. He was covered with shame and distress when the account of his father’s rebellion was brought to him, but though he was held in light confinement in Trim Castle as a hostage for his father, the good relations between him and Richard do not seem to have been disturbed. His first act on his accession was to pay funeral honours to the remains of the murdered king.

MacMorrogh continued fighting to the close of his life. He never submitted, and though living close to the Pale he succeeded in maintaining his independence. He died in New Ross during the Christmas season of 1417, after a reign of forty-two years. Tradition says that he and his chief brehon, who died on the same day, had been poisoned by a woman.