The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland: 850 years on

In the middle of the 12th century, England's King Henry II (seemingly with the permission from the pope) turned his attention to an invasion of Ireland. As the complex negotiations around the Irish border continue to dominate Brexit negotiations, Arthur Snell considers the start of English intervention in Ireland, 850 years ago in early May 1169

The Norman invasion of Ireland took place during the second half of the 12th century. This military intervention had the backing of King Henry II of England and was authorised by Pope Adrian IV. Here you can see Henry II landing at Waterford in 1171. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Debates rage over the division of authority between Westminster and Europe. A document of international law purports to regulate the relationship between England and Ireland, but nobody can agree on its true meaning. As tensions rise, imperialistic rhetoric becomes commonplace. European negotiators fail to quell tensions. Violence breaks out in Ireland. There is fighting between Gaelic Irish and the descendants of settlers who had arrived from Scotland. Soldiers of the English Crown join the battle and become an army of occupation.

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This may have strong echoes of a 21st-century ‘Brexit’ scenario. But in fact we’re talking about the late 12th century. And as we grapple with the complexities of the Irish border in 2019, we would do well to remember that the story of English intervention in Ireland began exactly 850 years ago, in May 1169.

In the 1160s, England’s king Henry II was at the height of his powers, arguably the greatest monarch of Europe. His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine had brought dominion over the Atlantic coast of France in addition to his existing lands in England, Normandy and Anjou. With a mixture of military force and shrewd matchmaking of his many children, he expanded his authority over Brittany and large areas of southern France. This ‘Angevin Empire’, named for Henry’s title as Count of Anjou, was England’s first imperial moment. It was an unprecedented projection of power by an English ruler into Europe.

Pope Adrian IV, born Nicholas Breakspear, is the only Englishman to have been pope. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Pope Adrian IV, born Nicholas Breakspear, is the only Englishman to have been pope. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Henry’s attention soon turned to England’s neighbouring island, Ireland. In 1155, the only ever English pope, Adrian IV, issued a papal ‘bull’ entitled Laudabiliter. According to subsequent accounts sympathetic to Henry, the bull gave the English king the right to invade and rule Ireland – and sought to enforce Roman church norms on Ireland’s semi-autonomous Gaelic church. The bull coincided with a proposed invasion of Ireland that Henry had discussed and then dismissed on the advice of his mother, Empress Matilda.

Internal tensions and divided kingdoms

After a false start in 1155, it was internal tensions in Ireland that facilitated the Anglo-Norman invasion. Gaelic Ireland was made up of a series of kingdoms, interspersed with settlements of mixed Norse-Scottish populations. The various kingdoms were often at war with one another and as a result, Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, was exiled in the 1160s and appealed to Henry for support. Henry offered little, but it was enough: in return for Diarmait’s loyalty, he was allowed to recruit Norman mercenaries.

On 1 May 1169, a small force of Anglo-Normans joined Diarmait to reconquer Leinster. Their first military engagement was against the Viking settlement in Wexford, but they soon confronted the combined Irish kingdoms under High King Ruaidri. In 1170, the Anglo-Norman nobleman Richard de Clare – better known as Strongbow – utilised a larger army against the Irish, but ultimately failed to defeat Ruaidri. In 1171, King Henry arrived in force – largely to prevent Strongbow from declaring himself king of Ireland. This is an important point: Henry invaded as much to control Strongbow, who looked increasingly powerful, as he did to take possession of the territory for himself. (The analogies with the British army’s initial deployment to Northern Ireland in 1969 to protect Catholic communities are striking.)

In 1171, many Irish and Norman leaders recognised Henry’s overlordship and Henry brought the Irish church into line with Roman authority. In return, the new pope Alexander III wrote letters confirming Henry’s rights over the “barbarous” land.

Did Laudabiliter exist?

Laudabiliter had done its job: the English king was Ireland’s overlord and the Irish church under Rome’s authority, with a tax for the papacy to be collected by the English crown. But was this a faithful execution of the original intention of Pope Adrian IV? There is no way of knowing: no verified copies of Laudabiliter exist. John of Salisbury, who met Henry in 1159, wrote of the existence of Laudabiliter in a contemporary account of his dealings with Pope Adrian. But John did not record the actual text. Despite its usefulness to Henry’s cause, Henry never used Laudabiliter to justify his invasion, nor is it quoted in the letters of pope Alexander III of 1172 confirming Henry’s rule over Ireland, an inexplicable oversight. There was no copy of Laudabiliter in the English crown’s archives and nor was it used by King John who, in the early 13th century, had a ‘Black Book’ compiled of all the crown’s precedents and privileges.

King Henry II of England presents the papal bull 'Laudabiliter' to the Archbishop of Cashel in County Tipperary, Ireland, 1172. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
King Henry II of England presents the papal bull ‘Laudabiliter’ to the Archbishop of Cashel in County Tipperary, Ireland, 1172. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

The earliest recorded version of the Laudabiliter text comes from Gerald of Wales, writing in 1188 and seeking to justify his own relatives’ role in Ireland, as well as to burnish his credentials with King Henry. Gerald’s account gives the English king and the Roman church everything they want, and has been treated as the foundation for English (and later British) rule over Ireland. But it has also been dogged by accusations that it is a forgery, or at least a heavily-edited version of Pope Adrian’s original document – its structure and wording are very different to other papal pronouncements from the same period. It seems reasonable to conclude that Laudabiliter may have existed, but whatever it might have originally said, it did not suit the Normans to publicise its contents.

Nonetheless, the text recorded (or created) by Gerald acquired credibility over time. By the 14th century, Laudabiliter was frequently cited as the document governing England’s rule over Ireland and it has come to have immense significance in the tangled history of England and Ireland. Its primary purpose may have been to reassert Roman control over the Irish church, but its lasting role has been as the English kings’ title deed to the kingdom of Ireland, the establishment of centuries of English intervention and domination. Even in the reign of Henry VIII, Laudabiliter remained significant: England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 led Irish nobles to argue they no longer owed allegiance to the English king whose power in Ireland depended on papal authority.

As Irish nationalism grew during the 19th century, the possibility that the original presence in Ireland of English invaders might have been based on a ‘dodgy dossier’ began to be explored by new generations of historians. One of the leading exponents of this view was Laurence Ginnell, who in 1899 published The Doubtful Grant of Ireland By Pope Adrian IV to King Henry Investigated. It is simplistic to lay the entire complexity of Anglo-Irish relations at the door of a questionable document of the mid-12th century. Undoubtedly, the specific complexity of sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland relates more directly to the Plantation of Ulster by Scottish settlers in the 17th century. And the longest shadow is cast by the Irish famine of 1845–1849 and the British government’s inadequate response. But all these events were ultimately shaped by that first invasion, exactly 850 years ago. And 850 years after the first Anglo-Norman invasions, the relationship between Britain and Ireland reminds us why history always matters.

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Arthur Snell studied history at Oxford before joining the Foreign Office in 1998. Since 2014 he has worked in consultancy. He tweets @snellarthur.