1 May 1169: Anglo-Normans land in Ireland for the first time
Troops cross the Irish Sea to help a disgraced king regain his throne
Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster has not had a good press. According to the historian Gerald of Wales, he was “a man who liked better to be feared by all than loved by any. One who would oppress his greater vassals, while he raised to high station men of lowly birth. A tyrant to his own subjects, he was hated by strangers; his hand was against every man, and every man’s hand against him.”
Dermot was even accused of kidnapping the abbess of Kildare and killing more than a hundred people who tried to stop this “wanton and sacrilegious outrage”.
In 1166 an alliance of rival Irish kings rose against Dermot and kicked him out. But he was not a man to stay down for long. Having fled across the Irish Sea into exile, Dermot then begged for help from England’s king, Henry II. “Henceforth, all the days of my life, on condition that you be my helper so that I do not lose everything,” he promised, “you I shall acknowledge, as sire and lord.”
Ireland and Britain had always been part of the same world: the Vikings who ravaged England’s shores had also founded Dublin, and there had long been trading contacts across the sea. But on 1 May 1169, Dermot’s entreaties produced a fateful result.
At Bannow Bay, in County Wexford, the Anglo-Norman adventurers Robert FitzStephen and Maurice Prendergast landed with 40 knights, 60 men-at-arms and more than 300 archers. These were the men who were going to recover Dermot’s throne – and in return, they wanted Irish lands of their own.
They made quick progress, not least because many of the Irish were armed only with stones. Wexford fell within weeks, and by 1170 Dermot had recovered his throne. But the bigger story was the arrival of the English – the first chapter in a long and bloody saga. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
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