Historians have maligned King John from his time to the present. He lost the continental possessions of the Angevin Empire to France and warred with his barons; he rapaciously demanded money from his subjects; his mercurial moods and violent temper alienated his friends and lords; he never trusted the men he should have. Signing the Magna Carta in 1215, facing French invasion in the south of England and barely able to muster the troops to defend it, he ended his life a broken man. He left his son a kingdom much depleted from the glory days of his own father, Henry II. Yet his reign was not a failure on all fronts; for all his blunders elsewhere, he benefited Ireland more than any other medieval English monarch. His rule was marked by attention to land grants, the establishment of a Norman bureaucracy and a justice system that included rights for native Irish people, and reforms in the church. The infrastructure he established brought Ireland from the chaos of hundreds of fighting kings into an organized state. However, John's attention to Ireland was not altruistic; it resulted from his desire to gather revenue, survive the loss of the Angevin Empire, and gain support in his wars with the English barons.

King Henry II had received a papal bull, Laudabilter, from the one and only English pope, Adrian IV, in 1155 that conferred on him authority over Ireland. This bull was part of the Hildebrandian reforms initiated by Pope Gregory VII which sought to institutionalize all the churches of Western Europe. Rome was unhappy with the Irish churches because of their lax standards, especially concerning the private lives of clergymen, who often had several children, and also because of their lack of bureaucracy. 1

Henry, a proud and ambitious man, spent much of his reign consolidating his Angevin Empire and, later, fighting with his four sons and estranged wife. He had little time for the tiny island kingdom to his west; the task of setting the chaos of hundreds of feuding kingdoms in order would have cost more time and attention than Henry could spare. Instead, Norman intervention in Ireland arrived at the request of Dermot Mac Murrough, king of Leinster, who was fighting for his kingdom. Mac Murrough traveled first to Bristol, and then to France, finally arriving at Henry’s court, where he pledged fealty to the English king. Henry gave him permission to return to England and recruit barons and an army; Richard du Clare, earl of Pembroke, accepted the command of a force of Flemish archers and knights in exchange for a marriage to Mac Murrough's daughter. His victory over the Irish secured Mac Murrough's throne and earned him the name of Strongbow. Immediately, many of the other Irish kings submitted to Henry's rule; they not only recognized his superior military power, but also realized that a high king in England would be far enough away that they could continue their squabbling unopposed.

When Mac Murrough died a year later (he was over sixty when he knelt before Henry), Pembroke's marriage meant that he inherited Leinster2. Henry, perceiving a threat from the ambitious earl, decided to act upon the papal bull. Likewise, "in a synod at Dublin in March {of 1177} the legate Cardinal Vivian had proclaimed again the papal approval of Henry's conquest, and further measures on the King's part seemed called for."3 He had four sons by his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine; the youngest, John, was his father's favorite, possibly because John was, at the time, the only of Henry's sons who had not participated in open war against his father. As the youngest son, John's inheritance depended on the Anglo-Norman custom of parage: "inherited estates passed intact to the eldest son; once a father had provided for his first born, however, he could then divide his own acquisitions or 'conquests' among younger sons as he wished."4 At a royal council in Oxford in 1177, Henry named John Lord of Ireland, or Dominus Hibernaie. As Orpen explains, "the title Dominus Hibernaie expressed the feudal and territorial relation which it was desired to create,"5 meaning that John could now give away generous land grants wherever in Ireland he wanted.

Henry quickly recognized the need to "have a viceroy {in Ireland} to represent him and hold the feudatories in check"6 , and to that end he appointed Hugh de Lacy in 1177. However, by 1181, de Lacy was becoming far too powerful for Henry's taste, marrying an Irish woman in the hopes of becoming sovereign of Meath and raiding churches in Armagh7. For four years, the king tried to find new viceroys, but de Lacy continued to cause trouble. Finally, in 1185, Henry decided to send a force of men over to Ireland with his son John, then only ten years old, to suppress the dangerous baron. "On April 24, John sailed from Milford with a fleet of sixty ships, which carried some three hundred knights, a large body of archers, and a train of other followers."8 He also had approximately two thousand infantry troops.9 The journey across the Irish Sea took only a night, and they landed at Waterford the next morning.

Henry sent with John "Ranulf Glanville, Justiciar of England, who must have seen the need of a strong central government to check the greed of the {Norman} colonists,"10 who had been snapping up land from the native Irish ever since Strongbow arrived on the island. John wanted to sign treaties with the Irish kings, and a delegation of eighteen came to see him for just that reason; however, John's retinue ridiculed the Irish, mocking their long beards and their strange customs. Because John was so young, he had little control over his men, and the situation degenerated quickly; the Irish kings returned to their courts and spread the rumor that John was rude and unwelcoming. Glanville's hopes went unrealized, and John was unable to secure any treaties for the entire expedition. John then marched from Waterford to Lismore, leaving in both cities the beginnings of castles, and then from Kildare to Dublin. Throughout, "de Lacy seems to have been distant and uncooperative, and John was probably wise to avoid a confrontation with an older man"11 especially one who was already so familiar with Ireland. He left for England on December 27, 1185. Archaeologists have uncovered a small coin, a halfpence piece, engraved with "IOHANNES" and a side portrait of a young man, which is probably a relic from this expedition.

By exercising his title's rights and granting land that "greatly extended and intensified the English colony,"12 John dramatically altered land ownership in eastern Ireland. His endowments connected the existing Norman colonies to one another, so that there was a line of Norman control straight down the Irish coast from the River Bann in the north all the way to Cork in the south. The castles that John built "were to serve not only as strong points for holding down territories already conquered, but also as bases for an expansion".13 He also reinforced Dublin's Norman population by making "several grants of valuable plots of land and messuages outside the western gate {of the city} to members of his household and others."14

Only a year after John returned to England, de Lacy was murdered in a private quarrel; under feudal law, because his sons were not of age, his lands in Meath and Leinster became John's. This provided Henry with the perfect opportunity to petition Pope Urban III to grant John the title of King of Ireland and set the boy up on the island. The Pope's sanction was obtained, but the death of John's oldest brother Henry in 1183 and the death of another of his older brothers, Geoffrey in 1186 caused this plan to dissolve. Now the only man between John and the throne was Richard, "still a bachelor and disinclined to marry."15 Suddenly John needed to be educated in the politics of continental Europe, and to that end was sent to France. The role of viceroy of Ireland fell to John de Courcy, a friend of both Henry and John and former Justiciar of Ireland. As the first Norman to conquer Ulster, then the kingdom of Ulidia, in 1177, De Courcy was exemplary of the spirit of the Normans who first conquered the island: "he was rapacious for land and dreamed of conquest."16

John did not reappear on Irish soil until 1210, when he had been king of the Angevin Empire for eleven years. Those years were turbulent for the Empire and Ireland, as John vied for power with his archenemy, King Philip Augustus of France, losing Normandy and earning himself the surname Lackland. Norman and Welsh marcher lords expanded into Ireland, oppressing the native people and establishing kingdoms without John's permission.

The Normans had conquered Ireland very rapidly in the end of the 12th century, establishing the feudal system in much the same way that they had in England following Hastings: a small population of Normans became overlords, while the native people worked the land and tithed to the manor. Lydon writes that the Normans were able to conquer Ireland extremely quickly, and "while the initiative came from the remarkable personalities who dominated the history of that expansion, there were factors working their favor which made the whole thing possible. Chief of these was the military superiority which they enjoyed over the Irish."17 The Normans had at their command well armoured knights on horseback who could charge across open country, often terrifying the native Irish fighters who were without armour. In hilly terrain, where knights were useless, the Normans employed archers--not the longbow archers who won crucial victories over the French in the Hundred Years War, but well-trained Welshmen. They also brought mercenaries, who had no qualms about decimating the less-trained Irish forces. "A ready supply of fighting men was supplied by the feudal structure which the settlers imposed on Ireland. As the land was conquered it was parceled out in fiefs which were normally held by military service."18

In a pre-modern world where land was the greatest form of wealth, the monarch had to regulate land rights to prevent constant warfare. Many of John's problems in England stemmed from fights over land with his barons; the problem of who received land grants had been an issue since the reign of Henry II, but it came to a head with John. The barons, members of the nobility, assumed entitlement to land grants by the king; the king, in his constant struggle for power with the barons, sought advisors who were not nobility because they were more dependent on the king alone for their power and granted them land as rewards. These lower class men, often knights, formed the bureaucracy of the government, taking care of all the tasks the king could not. Thus the Norman settlers in Ireland--mostly barons--"Felt that they could recreate a truly feudal world for themselves, and their 'anti-bureaucratic sentiment' caused them to see the king's officials as hindering their work of carving out estates for themselves and their retainers."19

John, like his father before him, grew alarmed at the forces the barons could command in Ireland. He organized his expedition to discipline the most unruly of the lords, William de Braose and Hugh de Lacy the Younger. De Braose was a baron who had fled to Ireland from England, leaving behind great debts to the king. John realized that "feudal opposition, crushed in England, must not be allowed to look on Ireland as a safe retreat and place of defiance."20 He faced problems with his barons in both England and Ireland, but after losing Normandy, he needed Ireland for income and territory. Meanwhile, in 1199, the now recalcitrant John de Courcy, who expanded into Connacht and refused to pay homage to John for his kingdom in Ulster, had his lands taken away; they were given into the control of the younger de Lacy, who also tried to exert his authority without consent of the crown.

On June 20, 1210, John landed in Ireland for the second time in his life, bringing with him again a large force. He marched on the castles of all his baronial enemies, besieging them. All fell, including the mighty fortress of Carrickfergus in Ulster, and both de Lacy and de Braose fled to continental Europe. Then he turned and marched south to Dublin where he ordered a castle built that would become the seat of his government in Ireland. Lydon writes that, "His campaign, which lasted just about nine weeks, had been a tremendous success. The great lordships of Meath and Ulster, along with the lordship of Limerick, were now in his hands. All the feudatories had been forced into complete acceptance of him."21 The only baron left in Ireland was William Marshal, who followed the code of chivalry strictly and would not be disloyal to his king; he remained lord of Leinster.

John achieved two other main goals in Ireland in the summer of 1210. He thwarted any attempts at rebellion in Ireland that the barons may have been fomenting with Philip Augustus (a very real fear for him), and he gained the active support of many rulers of Gaelic Ireland. He accomplished this last goal because he dealt fairly with them and offered them protection from the barons, who were the main threat to their rule. Possibly this was "to use them as a counter balance, in favour of royal authority, against baronial power."22 The rebellious barons were quelled and the Gaelic kings were submissive; John was now free to enforce his vision for the government of Ireland.

John had actually been reforming the government in Ireland throughout his reign. "John aimed at an administration strong enough to stand between the two rival groups of Anglo-Norman settlers and native Gaelic nobility"23, and to that end he supplanted barons with churchmen for many of the high offices in the country. By doing this, he could not only stop barons from abusing the offices to gain more land, but also maintain contacts with Rome after England had been excommunicated due to a quarrel between John and the Pope. From 1208 to 1213, John's close friend John de Gray, the bishop of Norwich, served as one of Ireland's justiciars and as archbishop of Dublin. Unfortunately for the Gaelic kings, the office of archbishop did not have enough power to implement John's policy of "assimilating the native Irish kings into the baronage as equals beside the Anglo-Norman nobility."24 Although John fought for the rights of the Irish for several years, by 1213 he was preoccupied by his affairs with continental powers and allowed the Anglo-Norman barons power over the native rulers. He would soon need the support of the Norman barons in Ireland during the crisis of 1215. If he hadn't had to sacrifice the rights of the native Irish for political necessity, possibly the legacy of discrimination that continues to plague Ireland today would never have begun.

The most serious question of government that John faced in Ireland was "a question of how to exercise some degree of control over feudatories protected by customary law, a problem which every ruler in Europe had to face at one time or another."25 He needed to create a bureaucracy--much as he had in England--to exercise control even when he traveled outside the region. The office of justiciar, created by Henry II, was the first step towards this power. The justiciar served as the king in a region when the monarch himself was absent, on campaign or in another part of his empire. The justiciar had a council of the main landholders who advised him; from this council would grow the notion of a parliament. The justiciar also had many clerks who performed all the routine tasks of running a colony. John established an exchequer in Dublin to look after all of his financial interests in Ireland. The exchequer was located in Dublin Castle, which also began to print Irish coins with the image of a harp during John's reign. John included the regal right of 'treasure trove' into his description of the financial government of Ireland; this law allowed him, as king, to claim any buried treasure found in the island. As his financial situation became increasingly desperate, and he had to rely on mercenaries to fight his wars because the barons refused to cooperate and send him troops, he began to claim all the gold objects found buried in the country, and all ancient stores of gold, even if they were simply uncovered while plowing or located in a church. Naturally, this made him unpopular to the native Irish, who saw him taking the ancient wealth of their land.

John recreated the justice system in Ireland, replacing the Brehon laws with something more practical to centralized rule and more acceptable to the Norman lords settling on the island. Most of these reforms were also intended to consolidate the position of his leadership in Ireland, following the collapse of his Empire on the European continent and unrest in England. "In 1204... he ordered that all his writs were to run in Ireland just as they did in England."26 This meant that all English laws applied in Ireland, linking the governing and law-making of the two. He also envisioned more than just equal land rights for the native Irish people; he wanted them to have equal rights under all English laws. One law, written after Michaelmas in 1205, stated that one could not use the defense that a crime had been committed against a native Irishman and was therefore not offensive. Conversely, this statute implied that "after 1205 Irishmen might prosecute for injury to life, limb, or property, like Englishmen."27 John also extended rights to the Viking descendants who lived in Ireland's main towns.

John moved certain crimes' jurisdiction from baronial courts to royal courts, again moving to restrict the power of the nobility and increase his own influence. All land disputes were to be settled by the king himself, or a royal proxy. In order to spread his power further, and also to make Norman lords equal to their native Irish counterparts, John decreed that all land ownership prior to his reign was forfeit; if a lord wanted to keep his land, he had to come before the king and obtain permission for it. Two of the main crimes that would now come into the royal courts were rape and arson, some of the most heinous and important crimes in medieval times--rape because the feudal society was preoccupied with legitimacy, arson because most towns were built of wood and protected by wooden walls. John also established English Common Law in Ireland. Henry II invented Common Law during his reign to normalize the legal statuses of Normans and Saxons, so that neither group could be discriminated against. However, it is important to remember that "English law was only given to those who submitted to English rule. Those who did not were regarded as 'rebels' and could expect draconian punishment if they were caught." Because much of Ireland was outside of English rule, "English law in Ireland often appeared harsher and more unfair than in England,"28 once prosecutions took place outside of conquered Norman territory.

Finally, John reformed the Irish Church, fulfilling the decree of the Hildebrandian reforms that first gave the English crown authority over Ireland. As far as English power extended, the Irish church became a state church, just like the churches on the continent of Europe and in England. John expected his new bishops and abbots to be political allies with secular interests, and to this end actively discriminated against native Irish when it came to appointing positions in the Irish church. In 1216, "John positively directed the Justiciar not to allow Irishmen to be promoted to the chapter of a cathedral church, lest they should prevail to elect natives to bishoprics."29 Prelates now lived in opulent palaces where John could monitor their every move, and he did not hesitate to remove a churchman who disagreed with him. Naturally, tensions erupted as the native Irish felt control of their religion slipping away; because they were the majority they often won positions despite the king's wishes.

As John's life and reign ended, he found Ireland to be his most loyal ally in a world turned against him. Although he lost Normandy, he gained Ireland as a base of loyal support and financial gain. When his barons in England rebelled against him and forced him to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, his Irish barons swore an oath of fealty to him. The native Irish kings remained loyal as well. When strapped for monetary resources throughout his war, he was able to collect tallages (the revenue that any lord could demand at any time from his demesne) from Ireland. When, in 1215, a French invasion seemed imminent in England, the Irish immediately mustered five hundred knights to help him. Immediately after John's death, when England was invaded and partly in the hands of the French, the Justiciar of Ireland, Geoffrey de Marisco, even offered shelter to the Queen Mother and her sons.

John's effect on Ireland was greater than that of any other medieval king. Curtis describes him as, "'the founder of Anglo-Ireland', the man who implemented the conquest begun by Strongbow, and ended the aimless feudal age that had prevailed since his father acquired the land of Ireland."30 He ended the violence and cruel exploitation that marked the Norman barons' treatment of the native Irish (for a time) and attempted to give equal rights to both Normans and Gaels, as his father had done for the Normans and Saxons. He laid the foundations of government and a state run church that would exist well into the twentieth century; Dublin Castle, the seat of his government in Ireland, was still serving the same function seven centuries later.

1M. Dolley, Anglo-Norman Ireland (Dublin, 1972), p. 39.
2J. Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages (Dublin, 1972), pp. 30-37.
3E. Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland (New York, 1968), p. 81.
4R. Turner, King John (London, 1994), p. 64.
5G. Orpen, Ireland Under the Normans (Oxford, 1968), p. 31.
6K. Norgate, John Lackland (New York, 1902), p. 16.
7Norgate, John Lackland, p. 17.
8Norgate, John Lackland, p. 17.
9Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 88.
10Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 89.
11Dolley, Anglo-Norman Ireland, p. 90.
12Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 90.
13Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 54.
14Orpen, Ireland Under the Normans, p. 105.
15Dolley, Anglo-Norman Ireland, p. 93.
16Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 55.
17Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 58.
18Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 59.
19Turner, King John, p. 186.
20Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 111.
21Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 65.
22Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 67.
23Turner, King John, p. 144.
24Turner, King John, p. 145.
25Lydon, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 62.
26Dolley, Anglo-Norman Ireland, p. 106.
27Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 104.
28M. Richter, Medieval Ireland (New York, 1983), p. 141.
29Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 108.
30Curtis, A History of Medieval Ireland, p. 96.