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1171: The English invasion of Ireland

Part four in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1150–1199. Here, John Gillingham looks back at the year when the expansionist ambitions of a troubled English king changed the course of Irish history forever

Part four in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1150–1199
Published: December 27, 2021 at 7:04 am
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On 17 October 1171 an armada of 400 ships put in at Crook on the south coast of Ireland. That day, for the first time ever, a king of England set foot on Irish soil. Henry II landed in force, intending to make the Irish recognise him as their overlord. He stayed six months, long enough to change the course of Irish history. Writing only 25 years later a Yorkshire historian, William of Newburgh, in a chapter that he entitled “The Conquest of the Irish by the English”, summed up the impact of Henry II’s expedition thus: “a people who had been free since time immemorial, unconquered even by the Romans, a people for whom liberty seemed an inborn right, were now fallen into the power of the king of England”.

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Not surprisingly the whole episode has given rise to fierce controversy. Was it, as Irish nationalist tradition held, an invasion by a malevolent English king? Or had Henry II gone to Ireland, as the late Victorian historian JH Round put it in 1899, “because her people were engaged in cutting one another’s throats; we are there now because, if we left, they would all be breaking one another’s heads”. Or had he been reluctantly drawn in because he needed to retain control over his own most turbulent subjects – a number of lords of the Welsh marches who were on the point of carving out independent territories for themselves in Ireland? One English chronicler reported that the Irish themselves asked him to come to their help against the most powerful of those lords, Richard de Clare, later known as Strongbow.

Three things are certain. The first is that 1171 had begun disastrously for King Henry II. He was at Argentan in Normandy when a New Year present reached him in the shape of the news that as darkness fell on 29 December 1170 four of his knights had killed the archbishop of Canterbury. Stunned by the knowledge that his own angry words had precipitated the murder of his one-time friend, for three days Henry refused to eat anything or talk to anyone. Whether genuine or feigned, this display of grief reveals Henry’s awareness of the damage done to his reputation by the widely held assumption that the killers had acted on his orders. During the following months he sought to save his honour, even offering to submit to the judgement of Pope Alexander III and, if need be, in person. It soon became clear that one of the cleverest moves he could make was to play the Irish card. By going to Ireland, he could both create a cooling-off period and pose as the church’s champion, bringing ecclesiastical and moral reform to a backward province.

1171 in context

It was the rebranding of Ireland as the ‘island of barbarians’ that gave Henry his opportunity to strike
Henry II was certainly not the first king of England to turn his eyes towards Ireland. The first two Norman kings, William the Conqueror and William II Rufus, were rumoured to have contemplated taking it over, the latter allegedly toying with the idea of building a bridge of boats from Wales. Henry II himself thought about it as early as 1155, probably at the request of the church of Canterbury. Archbishops of Canterbury had been claiming to be primate of the whole of Britain and Ireland since the 1070s, but this claim took a severe blow in 1152 when a papal legate restructured the Irish church with no reference to Canterbury whatsoever. It was probably as a result of lobbying from Canterbury that Adrian IV, still the only Englishman to have ever become pope, sent Henry II a letter giving him Ireland. But in 1155 other matters intervened and Henry dropped the idea – supposedly on his mother’s advice.

Although Adrian’s readiness to grant Ireland to the king of England has often been regarded as just the kind of thing an English pope would do, it probably reflected his zeal for church reform much more than his Englishness. He shared the view of the French Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential European churchman of his generation, who described the Irish as: “shameless in their customs, uncivilised in their ways, godless in religion, barbarous in their law, obstinate as regards instruction, foul in their lives, Christians in name, pagans in fact”.

By the time Henry II came to the throne, profound economic and social changes in much of Europe, including England, had led to those regions in which little had as yet changed, being seen in a new and highly critical light. The Scots and the Welsh found themselves tarred by the same brush, but it was the Irish who suffered most. According to William of Malmesbury, “whereas the English and French live in market-oriented towns and enjoy a cultivated style of life, the Irish live in rural squalor”. The acceptance of new laws of marriage in most of Europe – when in Ireland divorce and remarriage continued to be lawful – led to Anselm of Canterbury accusing the Irish of swapping wives “in the same way that other men exchange horses”. Ireland, formerly thought of as “the island of saints”, was being rebranded as the “island of barbarians”. It was the pope’s duty, as he saw it, to bring the Irish to a better way of life, a truer Christianity, and if that meant invasion and regime change, then so be it. This was the atmosphere in which Henry II calculated that even he could present himself as a good son of the church.

As early as the tenth century, kings of England had liked grandiloquent titles such as “king of the English and of all other peoples living in the ambit of the British island”. But until 1171 these had remained just empty words. Now they had been given a new kind of reality – and this just when those peoples whose lands were being invaded had been stereotyped as immoral and primitive savages.

A massive undertaking

The second certainty is that the logistical preparations for Henry’s expedition were massive. Supplies for the fleet arrived from all over England, including enormous quantities of food for the troops, and luxuries such as silks and no less than 569 pounds of almonds for Henry and his courtiers. Gloucestershire alone sent 5 carts, 4 wagons, 3,000 spades, 2,000 pickaxes and 60,000 nails, while Winchester provided 1,000 pounds of wax for candles and to seal documents. Economic development in England meant that its king disposed of military hardware – ammunition, armour and castles – on a scale that none of his Celtic neighbours could match. As a consequence, Henry II approached the conquest of Ireland with confidence.

The third certainty is that Henry’s preferred solution to the problems posed by men such as Strongbow was to take the whole of Ireland into his lordship, irrespective of the views of the Irish themselves. After all the Irish, in Henry’s eyes, were both thoroughly uncivilised and in no position to make their opinions count. In truth, Ireland in 1171 was a deeply divided society.

Learned Irish scholars taught that their land was divided into two halves, northern and southern; into five provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht and Meath; and into more than a hundred peoples (tuatha), each one ruled over by a chief (toisech) or by a king (rí). A mini-kingdom with a radius of 10 miles was by no means impossibly small. Each rí túaithe owed tribute and military service to more powerful neighbouring kings. They in turn owed allegiance to kings who were, or claimed to be, supreme in one of the provinces.

When a powerful king died, a struggle for kingship within the family ensued while more established kings in other kingdoms took full advantage. In this state of flux scores of kings competed to be the strongest in a province, or even to be the greatest king in all Ireland, sometimes known as rí Erenn, king of Ireland, or the “high-king”. The competition for resources and prestige took the form of war, of cattle raid and counter-raid, in which casualties were often high.

The promise of rich rewards

In one of these struggles for power, Diarmait, king of Leinster, had been driven out of Ireland in 1166. With Henry II’s permission, he recruited a small band of soldiers and managed to regain a foothold in his family’s homeland in south Leinster. In 1169 and 1170 more mercenaries crossed the Irish Sea, lured by Diarmait’s promises of land and money. To Richard de Clare, Diarmait promised the hand of his daughter Aífe and, in flagrant breach of Irish custom, the succession to Leinster. In August and September 1170 Diarmait and Strongbow won some striking successes, capturing the two biggest towns in Ireland: Waterford and Dublin. When Diarmait died in the spring of 1171, Strongbow became de facto king of Leinster. It was at this point that Henry II decided to intervene. Strongbow travelled to England to come to terms with Henry and do homage to him for Leinster. But the king of England had no intention of calling off his invasion plans.

On 18 October Henry entered Waterford, and there began the process of taking the submissions of Irish kings. Some of the “modernisers” among Irish ecclesiastics welcomed the king of England as an ally in their attempts to reform the Irish church. Letters from them led Alexander III to express his joy at the news that “a barbarous and uncivilised people has been made subject to the noble king of the English”.

Henry assumed the title “Lord of Ireland” – which was retained by all subsequent kings of England until 1541, when another bruiser, Henry VIII, decided it would be nicer to be called king of Ireland too. In November he went to Dublin, where he had a new “Irish-style” palace built. Here he celebrated Christmas 1171, holding court and trying to impress the invited Irish with a demonstration of nouvelle cuisine. By now many Irish kings had submitted. But not all of them. The high-king, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), king of Connacht, kept his distance.

According to one of Henry II’s clerks, despite the wet weather and the mountainous and boggy terrain, it would have been easy to defeat O’Connor, had not other urgent business meant that the king had to leave Ireland in a hurry in April 1172. That business was the arrival of papal legates in Normandy, who had come north, Henry had been informed, to settle the question of his responsibility for the murder of Thomas Becket on terms favourable to him.

Before Henry II left, he confirmed those conquests that the newcomers had already made. His decision to have Dublin, Wexford and Waterford administered by royal officials meant that the English crown kept the richest prizes for itself. When Laurence O’Toole, the last Irish archbishop of Dublin, died, he was replaced by John Comyn, one of Henry II’s chancery clerks.

Despite Henry’s burgeoning influence, most of the island remained in the hands of Irish kings. In 1175 Henry recognised O’Connor as their overlord in return for O’Connor’s recognition of him as his overlord and a payment of tribute measured in cattle hides. But this agreement – the treaty of Windsor – soon lapsed. Nothing stopped Henry II and his successors from granting as yet unconquered Irish kingdoms to English favourites. As a result, Ireland remained, as it had always been, a land of war, no longer just between Irish and Irish, but often now between Irish and English.

For a hundred years or so Ireland remained a land of opportunity, and while Britain’s population continued to grow, thousands were willing to emigrate. By founding towns and villages, building mills and bridges, these colonists almost turned south and east Ireland into another England overseas. In King John’s reign, the “anglicisation” of Ireland was made official government policy. But when the movement of settlers ran out of steam, c 300, a Gaelic resurgence drove the English back behind the Pale (the fortified area around Dublin).

Not for many centuries would it be possible to say that the conquest of Ireland started by Henry II had been completed. Irish tradition identified 1169 as “the year of destiny”, but it was by going there in 1171 and leaving again in 1172, that Henry II set a pattern for that catastrophic mixture of force and neglect that was to characterise the English government’s treatment of the Irish for centuries to come.

History facts: 1150–1199

Number of English towns founded between 1150 and 1199: at least 30

Number of times English coinage was recycled 1150-1199: twice, in 1158 and 1180, more than doubling the amount of money in circulation

Key years: other important events in the second half of the 12th century

1152 – Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The divorce of French King Louis VII and the 30-year-old duchess of Aquitaine in March was followed, just eight weeks later, by her marriage to the most ambitious young ruler in France, the 19-year-old Henry, duke of Normandy and count of Anjou. This marked the beginning of the Plantagenet connection with Bordeaux – and its wine trade – that was to last for the next 300 years. Henry was now set to rule greater dominions than any previous king of England.

1153 – The Angevin invasion of England. In January, despite the threats from enemies jealous of his recent good fortune, Duke Henry dared to sail to England to claim the kingdom which had belonged to his grandfather, Henry I. By August he had still made little progress when the unexpected death of King Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace, so disheartened the old king that he came to terms with Henry, recognising him as his heir in return for his own life possession of the throne and a guarantee that his second son, William, could keep the family estate.

1166 – The creation of a public prosecution service. Henry II ordered sheriffs to empanel juries whose job it was to name those whom they suspected of serious crime. The sheriff was to bring suspects to trial before the king’s judges when they visited the shire. Those found guilty were punished by the “crown”. This legislation – the Assize of Clarendon – helped establish Henry’s reputation as a founder of the Common Law.

1173 – Queen Eleanor’s rebellion. The greatest threat to Henry II came from his own wife when she led their three eldest sons, Henry, Richard and Geoffrey, into revolt and into alliance with Kings William of Scotland and Louis VII of France (her own ex-husband). After Henry’s eventual victory (summer 1174), he was reconciled with his sons, but Eleanor was kept a prisoner until he died. Her rebellion had challenged the authority of husbands everywhere.

1174 – Canterbury and Scotland. On 12 July Henry II was flogged by the monks of Canterbury cathedral, his public penance for his involvement in the murder of Thomas Becket. The dead saint (Becket had been canonised in 1173) quickly accepted his apology. On 13 July Henry’s great enemy, King William of Scotland, was captured while leading an invasion of England. William was forced to accept the treaty of Falaise (8 December) by which Scotland was subject to the king of England, whose troops now occupied Edinburgh, Berwick and Roxburgh.

1176 – The First Eisteddfod. Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth held what a Welsh chronicle called “a special feast at Cardigan, and he set two kinds of contests: one between the bards and the poets, and another between the harpists, pipers and players of other instruments. He set two chairs for the victors... and rewarded them with great prizes”.

1187 – The fall of Jerusalem. Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem on 2 October, the anniversary of Mohammed’s night journey into heaven from the holy city, shocked the Christian world. The kings of England, France and Germany vowed to go on crusade and, to fund the expedition, Henry II imposed a tax called the Saladin Tithe, but died before departing. It was left to his son, Richard I, to lead the Third Crusade.

1189 – The restoration of Scottish independence. After his father’s death in 1189, Richard I decided that it was time to make peace with King William of Scotland. In December he restored both castles and Scottish independence in return for a hefty sum. In the words of the earliest Scottish historian, John of Fordun, Richard was “that noble king so friendly to the Scots”. When Richard was later held prisoner in Germany, King William even contributed to his ransom.

1199 – A reforming chancellor? John was crowned king of England on 27 May, and on the same day Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly Richard I’s most trusted minister, was appointed chancellor. As a result of his work as director of the royal secretariat, the first year of the new king’s reign saw an explosive proliferation of government records. This was to persuade many 20th-century historians that King John must have been an unusually businesslike ruler.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1215: Magna Carta

Go back: 1141: Stephen v Matilda

Part five in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1250–1299

Professor John Gillingham taught at LSE for over 20 years. His books include Richard I (Yale, 1999), The Angevin Empire (Hodder, 2001) and Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (with Ralph Griffiths; OUP, 2000)

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This article was first published in the July 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine

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