Sir Armoric de St. Lawrence

DIED A. D. 1189.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

IT is one of the conditions of a period—of which the record that remains, approaches nearer to the character of tradition than regular history—that its persons are rather to be seen through the medium of the events in which they were the actors, than in the light of distinctly personal memorials. When in our transition down the current of time we come to the worthies of our own period—we must ever find the deepest interest in that portion of our inquiry, which brings our curiosity nearest to the person—and makes us best acquainted with the moral and intellectual constitution, the feelings and the motives of the object of our admiration or contempt. The earliest indications of the philosopher, the poet, the orator, or the statesman—the Boyle, the Goldsmith, or the Burke—are not too simple for the rational curiosity which would trace the growth and formation of that which is noble and excellent in the history of consummate minds. Nor will the personal fondness with which enthusiasm, is so apt to dwell on the simplest record of that which it admires or venerates, be easily contented with the utmost effort the biographer can make to infuse into his persons that characteristic reality, which like faithful portraiture ever depends on the nice preservation of minute and nearly evanescent lineaments.

It is with a painful consciousness of the unsatisfactory nature of our materials, to satisfy this condition of successful biography, that we have laboured through the heroes of this eventful period. Of these some, it is true, are to be regarded but as links of history, only important for the facts that carry on the tale; and of these the biographies are to be read, simply as the narrative of the public movements in which their fortunes or their vices and follies render them the prominent agents. Thus, while we are compelled to expend pages on the base Dermod, a scanty page will deliver all that we are enabled to add, to the facts already mentioned in the last memoir, of Sir Armoric de Valence. United inseparably with his valiant brother in arms, so that to relate the achievements of either, was necessarily to give the history of both; we have, in our memoir of De Courcy, been compelled nearly to exhaust the scanty materials for the biography of the noblest and most chivalric hero of a romantic age. The original name of Sir Armoric's family is said to have been Tristram: the subsequently assumed name of St Lawrence is not very clearly accounted for. A member of the family which he established in Ireland, is said to have gained a battle near Clontarf on St Lawrence's day; and from that event to have taken the saint's name, in consequence of a vow made before the battle. The sword of this warrior yet hangs in the hall at Howth. We have already mentioned the first battle gained by Sir Armoric on his landing near Howth, and the consequent grant of the lordship of that district, still in the possession of his descendants who bear the title of earl and baron of Howth. His subsequent career, as the companion of De Courcy, we cannot here repeat without needless repetition. Through the whole of these years of imminent peril, and fierce exertion, and formidable escape, he was as a guardian and guiding spirit to the more fierce and headlong impetuosity of his redoubted brother-in-law. In the moment of dangerous extremity, his faithful rescue; in perplexity, his wise counsellor—as remarkable for the caution of a leader, as for the heroic fearlessness of a knight: in those awful moments of defeat when all but life and honour seemed lost, the ever wakeful and sagacious discoverer of the redeeming opportunity, or the daring last resource, which turned the fortune of the field. Enthusiastic like his heroic brother in arms, but without his impetuosity; as daring, without his grasping ambition; as scornful of baseness, without his harsh and stern rudeness: Sir Armoric's whole course, shining even through the blurred line of the meagre annalists, conveys a resistless impression of high knightly valour and faith, calm, resolute, and devoted. He showed, in his last heroic field, one of the most noble on record; the same calm intrepidity in resigning his life to a high yet punctilious sense of honour, that brave men have been often praised for exhibiting in self-defence.

In the reign of Richard, while De Courcy was superseded by his rival De Lacy, and anxious to strengthen himself in Ulster against the rising storm which in its progress so fatally overwhelmed his fortunes, he sent a messenger to Sir Armoric who was engaged in some slight enterprise in the west. Sir Armoric returned on his way, to come to the assistance of the earl, with a small force of thirty knights and two hundred foot. The report of his march came to Cathal O'Conor, who instantly resolved to intercept him, and collected for this purpose a force which left no odds to fortune. He laid his measures skilfully; and this, it will be remembered, was the science of the Irish warfare. He took up a concealed position, and by the most cautious dispositions for the purpose, prevented all intelligence of his intent or movements from reaching Sir Armoric. He came on unsuspecting danger and having no intimation of any hostile design; his scouts went out and brought no intelligence, and all seemed repose along the march, until he came to a pass called the "Devil's mouth." Here it was at once discovered, that a vast force lay in ambush to intercept his way. That there was no alternative left but a soldier's death for the two hundred foot soldiers which composed his army, was instantly comprehended by all present: for these, flight was impossible and resistance hopeless. The force of O'Conor was at least a hundred to one. The fatal inference seemed to have different effects on the little force of Sir Armoric: the foot, with stern and calm desperation, prepared for their last earthly expectation of vengeance; the thirty knights, seeing that there was no hope in valour, expressed their natural desire to retreat. Their hesitation was observed by the devoted company of foot, who looked on their more fortunate companions with wistful sadness. Their captain, a brother of Sir Armoric's, came up to him, and in pathetic terms remonstrated against the intended movement of his cavalry to desert their comrades in this trying hour.

Sir Armoric's high spirit was but too easily moved to follow even the shadows of honour and fidelity; and he resolved at once to share in the dark fate of his unfortunate soldiers. He instantly proposed the resolution to his thirty knights, who yielded to the energy of their leader's resolution and consented to follow his example. Sir Armoric now alighted from his horse, and kneeling down, kissed the cross upon his sword; the next moment he turned to his horse, and exclaiming "Thou shalt not serve my enemies," he ran it through with his sword: all followed the example of this decisive act, which placed them at once in the same circumstances with their fellow soldiers. Sir Armoric, lastly, sent two youths of his company to the top of a neighbouring hill, enjoining them to witness and carry a faithful account of the event to De Courcy.

The knights now took their places among the foot, and the devoted band advanced upon the Irish host. The Irish were astonished. Altogether ignorant of the more refined barbarism of chivalric points of honour, they knew not how to understand the spectacle of devoted bravery which passed before them, but imagined that the English came on in the confidence of a seasonable reinforcement. Under this impression they hesitated, until the scouts they sent out returned with assurance that the whole enemy they had to encounter consisted of the little band of foot who were in their toils. They now gave the onset: the English were soon enclosed in their overwhelming ranks. With their gallant leader, they were slain to a man; but not without giving a lesson of fear to the enemy, which was not soon forgotten. Cathal O'Conor, some time after, described the struggle to Hugh De Lacy. He did not believe that any thing to equal it "was ever seen before:" the English, he said, turned back to back and made prodigious slaughter, till by degrees, and at great sacrifice of life, every man fell. They slew a thousand of his men, which amounted nearly to five for each who fell in that bloody fight. Such was the death of Sir Armoric Tristram de St. Lawrence, ancestor of the earl of Howth.