Or the tale of how Britain became entangled in the affairs of Ireland.

The invasion of Ireland was one of those things that was under consideration by Henry II, king of England; perhaps under more serious consideration than in the reigns of his predecessors given that Henry II was armed with a papal bull 1 authorising just such a venture, but just at the moment he had other pressing problems in France, for example, that demanded his attention.

Events were however, to conspire against Henry and force the issue of Ireland to the forefront of his agenda.

How it all began

It all started as a wrangle between two Irish chieftains; Dermot MacMurrough 2 who had been busy establishing himself as king in Leinster and his neighbour Tiernan O'Rourke prince of Breifne. The standard border dispute escalated when Dermot kidnapped Tiernan's wife for a time, an act that did little to improve relations between the two, and prompted thoughts of revenge by Tiernan.

In 1166 Tiernan concluded an alliance with Rory O'Connor, king of Connaught and the high king of Ireland, and the two men gathered an army, attacked Dermot and drove him out of Ireland. Dermot fled to England, landed in Bristol, and from Bristol he left for the continent to seek an audience with the English king Henry II and to request his assistance in recovering his kingdom. Dermot was, however, to be disappointed; Henry II had his own problems at the time and declined to get directly involved, but did issue Dermot with a letter that said,

Wherefore, whosoever within the bounds of our territories shall be willing to give him aid, as our vassal and liegeman, in recovering his territories, let him be assured of our favour on that behalf.

So armed with this letter Dermot returned to Britain and set out in search of anyone that would help him regain his kingdom.

Meanwhile in Wales

Rhys ap Gruffudd or 'the Lord Rhys' as he is better known, had been enjoying a certain amount of success in re-establishing the kingdom of Deheubarth. Between the years 1136 and 1166 he and his brothers had freed Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and much of Dyfed from the grasp of Richard Fitz Gilbert of Clare, earl of Strigoil, and perhaps better known under his nickname of 'Strongbow'.

The loss of a significant portion of his lands in south-west Wales was only a number of problems afflicting Richard Fitz Gilbert; he was out of favour with the king Henry II, who had seen fit to refuse to confirm his title as earl of Pembroke, and he was apparently deep in debt. When Dermot approached him, he was therefore eager to listen and agreed to help Dermot in return for the hand of Dermot's daughter in marriage and the promise of being named as heir to the kingdom of Leinster; but only on the condition that he obtained the approval of Henry II for the venture.

Thus encouraged but impatient to find a more immediate source of help whilst Richard Fitz Gilbert was sought permission from the king ,Dermot continued his search.

Now during the course of the above conquests Rhys ap Gruffudd had captured and imprisoned a number of Norman nobles, amongst which was a gentleman named Robert Fitz Stephen3. Rhys was willing to release Robert but only on condition that he swore an oath to support Rhys in any future confrontation with Henry II, a promise which Robert was unwilling to make.

Now the perfect solution presented itself; Rhys ap Gruffudd decided that he would release Robert from captivity on condition that he went to Ireland to assist Dermot, a proposal which from Rhys' point of view not only solved the immediate dilemma, but offered up the prospect of removing from Wales a good number of Norman knights who might otherwise be a future source of opposition.

Dermot rapidly concluded a deal with Robert Fitz Stephen, promising him the city of Wexford. 4

The First invasion

But even this did not satisfy Dermot; rather than wait for either Robert or Richard Fitz Gilbert, he made contact with one Richard Fitz Godebert, a Flemish settler from the district of Haverford in Dyfed who apparently commanded a small group of mercenaries. They set sail from St. David's in the August of 1167, landed in Leinster and were promptly defeated by the combined forces of Rory O'Connor and Tiernan O'Rourke. This time around Rory O'Connor was somewhat more magnanimous in victory and allowed the defeated Dermot to return to his tribal home in Ireland.

Dermot remained unsatisfied, he still wished to re-establish his position in Leinster and now eagerly awaited developments in Wales.

The Second invasion

Robert Fitz Stephen duly arrived in Ireland in the May of 1169 together with his half-brother Maurice Fitz Gerald and Hervey of Montmorency, an uncle of Richard Fitz Gilbert's 5 and a mixed force of Norman cavalry and Welsh archers.

He was soon joined by a force of Flemish mercenaries led by Maurice of Prendergast as well as a force of native Irish under Dermot himself. The combined force then launched an assault on Wexford; the first attack was beaten off, but the defenders seem to have been suitably impressed and decided to come to terms with Dermot rather than resist further.

The now expanded confederation of forces then raided the kingdom of Ossory where the incumbent king, one Donald MacGillipatrick 6 sought to drive the invaders away but was heavily defeated in the resulting engagement. This only encouraged further similar raids and soon much Leinster had fallen under the sway of the Robert Fitz Stephen and his Cambro-Norman army.

The Encounter near Ferns

Once again Rory O'Connor gathered together an army, once again Tiernan O'Rourke was at his side and this time he also had the support of Dermot O'Melaghlin, the king of Teamhair as well as the Hiberno-Norse of Dublin. The allied force marched into Leinster to confront the men of Dermot and Robert Fitz Stephen, now somewhat depleted by the defection Maurice of Prendergast.

But the expected battle did not occur. Rather than fight Rory O'Connor and Dermot reached an agreement. Rory recognised Dermot as king of Leinster in return for which Dermot's recognised Rory's position as high king and surrendered his son as hostage to the high king.

In the account of Giraldus Cambriensis this becomes a somewhat heroic episode in which the Cambro-Norman forces of Robert Fitz Stephen fearlessly stand their ground in the face of overwhelming odds and face down the Irish high king Rory O'Connor, forcing him to capitulate. Robert is even credited with a little speech as exhorts his forces to stand firm;

We derive our descent, originally, in part from the blood of the Trojans8, and partly we are of the French race. From the one we have our native courage, from the other the use of armour. Since, then, inheriting such generous blood on both sides, we are not only brave, but well armed.

The Irish Annals of the Four Masters however says that Rory O'Connor "set nothing by the Flemings" and implies that the incident was of no consequence. In which case that was a grave error on the part of Rory O'Connor as the small band of men led by Robert Fitz Stephen were merely a foretaste of what was to come.

So by the end of the year 1169 Dermot had achieved his aims, he was undisputed king of Leinster. But he had now seen how a comparatively small force of Cambro-Normans were capable of achieving in battle 7 his ambitions had grown, he now sought to seize control of Connaught and make himself High King of Ireland. But for that he would need a larger army. He needed Strongbow.

Enter Strongbow

Richard Fitz Gilbert of Clare, the earl of Strigoil, alias Strongbow finally decided to make his move. The increasingly ambitious Dermot had continued his urgings and Strongbow had now received what he believed to be king Henry's verbal assent to the expedition. So in the August in 1170, he set out from Pembrokeshire with a force of some 1,200 men and on the 23rd August 1170 landed near Waterford. On the 25th he attacked the city and on the third attempt on St. Bartholomew's Eve, the 28th August, he captured it.

Pleased with the rapid success of this new alliance Dermot kept his promise and in the autumn of 1170 Strongbow married his daughter Aife (or Eva in the English) at Waterford Cathedral. Afterwards Strongbow duly moved on to Dublin in September 1170 with an enlarged force of some 3,000 Cambro-Normans and 1,000 Irish troops, and took that city, forcing the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin, Asculf MacTorkil 10 to flee to the Hebrides with his remaining forces.

The Irish reaction

Rory O'Connor was not pleased, regarding Dermot's actions and his promotion of the invasion of Strongbow as a repudiation of the deal struck at Ferns. He had Dermot's son executed, and gathered together the largest army he could to capture Dublin.

In 1171 Asculf MacTorkil returned from the Scottish isles with fresh troops to reclaim Dublin, but the Cambro-Norman occupiers counter-attacked and drove him away again. When Rory O'Connor arrived with his army he simply sat down to lay siege to Dublin and to starve out the occupying forces.

Dermot the cause, some might say, of all this trouble, had died in May 1171 leaving Strongbow as claimant for the vacant throne of Leinster, Strongbow therefore sought to negotiate with Rory O'Connor, offering recognition of Rory as high king if he was permitted to hold Leinster. Rory O'Connor declined, perhaps he had finally woken up to the reality of the threat posed by these new invaders and was determined to drive them out of Ireland. If that was his determination, he was too late, as Strongbow sent out a mere 600 men to attack Rory O'Connor's forces, the besiegers were routed, Rory O'Connor fled back to Connaught and the siege was lifted.

Now all Ireland potentially lay at Strongbow's feet.

A rapid end to Cambro-Norman Ireland

Whatever doubts Henry II may previously have had regarding the wisdom of adding Ireland to his list of dominions, when it came down to it the last thing that Henry II wanted was to see was a rival Norman kingdom on his western flank.

He had earlier sought to recall Strongbow from his venture, only to find that Strongbow had already left, and his reaction to the capture of Dublin had been to order that the ports be closed to Irish shipping. The rapid success of the Cambro-Norman adventurers in capturing much of Ireland had rather forced his hand and therefore on 18 October 1171, Henry II landed in Waterford with a force of over 7,000 men ready to take charge of what he believed to be his by grant of the Papacy.

Henry II and Strongbow came to an arrangement, Dublin, Waterford and Wexford were surrendered to Henry, Strongbow got to keep Leinster, other territories were parcelled up and allocated to loyal Norman knights. The original Cambro-Norman conquerors were pushed aside in favour of those that followed in Henry's footsteps. Giraldus echoed their complaints when he wrote of the treatment of those "through whose attack we gained entry into this island, as if they were suspect, as if they were repudiated. "

In April 1172, Henry II placed the effective government of Ireland in the hands of his trusted supporter Hugh de Lacy. In 1175 by the Treaty of Windsor, Rory O'Connor, arguably the last High King of Ireland, accepted Henry as his overlord, abandoned his grandiose title and became simply the king of Connaught.

Ireland was thus conquered but not entirely subdued.


1 In 1155 Pope Adrian IV had issued the papal bull known as Laudabiliter granting Ireland to Henry II.

2Also known as Dermot MacMurchada.

3Robert Fitz Stephen was the son of the Norman castellan of Cardigan and of Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr and therefore a cousin to Rhys ap Gruffudd.

4An easy promise to make as the city of Wexford wasn't his to give away.

5 It is likely that Hervey of Montmorency was acting as Strongbow's official representative and agent on the expedition.

6 Also known as Donal MacGiolla Phadriag who had apparently previously captured and blinded Dermot's eldest son Eanna, and was therefore a sworn enemy.

7 The harsh fact is that the Irish were somewhat unsophisticated in military terms. The Cambro-Norman forces, based around a core of Norman heavy cavalry and Welsh archers, experienced in border warfare and well versed in the art of ambush and counter-ambush provided a combination of superior military technology and guile that the native Irish forces simply could not cope with.

8 Based on the notion, popularised by dear old Geoffrey of Monmouth that the Welsh were descended from Brutus of Troy.

9 Maurice decided the odds didn't look favourable, so decided to go home, Dermot sent orders to Wexford to deny him access, so as a good honest mercenary he promptly sold his services to Donald MacGillipatrick of Ossory. He was later kicked out by Robert Fitz Stephen.

10 Also named as Asgall MacTorquil.


The core of the above is derived mainly from;

The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 by Lynn H. Nelson (University of Texas Press, 1966)

and that account is based on the following original sources;

"Both accounts are relatively full, but their accuracy is often doubtful."

Together with the following additional sources,

  • An article on the career of Richard Fitz Gilbert by Catherine Armstrong from The Castles of Wales website at www.castlewales.com/strngbow.html
  • An article titled Henry II: An Imperialist King? by Dr Mike Ibeji at
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/henry11_empire05.shtml
  • An article entitled The Cambro-Norman Invasion of Ireland at http://pw1.netcom.com/~walshdw/invasion.htm.

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