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Henry II, King John, and Anglo-Norman Ireland

by Tamara Mazzei

In 1014 the Irish royal army, led by Murchad, son of Brian, the last truly powerful high-king, defeated the Vikings at Clontarf. However, during the course of the battle, both Murchad and Brian were killed, ending a brief period of political unity in Ireland. By the middle of the 12th Century, Ireland was fraught with violence and turmoil. During this time, the king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada was driven from his kingdom and sought aid from Henry II of England.

Though Henry did not offer to personally help him, he gave Diarmait a letter granting permission to seek assistance among his vassals in return for allegiance to Henry as his overlord. Diarmait had the letter read in public and Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, offered him aid in regaining his throne. In turn, Diarmait offered his daughter Aife to the earl, also known as Strongbow, in marriage. Diarmait also recruited some of Strongbow’s kinsmen, known as the Geraldines.

Though Diarmait immediately returned to Ireland accompanied by some mercenaries, it was another two years before he was joined by Strongbow and his men, who landed at Waterford and subsequently took the city by assault. Following the battle, Dairmait’s daughter, Aife, was married to Strongbow in Waterford cathedral. Thus began the intermarriage between the Irish nobility and the Normans. Strongbow and the Geraldines were successful in restoring Diarmait to his kingdom.

Henry II was probably rather disturbed at the extent of their success and he ultimately sailed to Ireland accompanied by a large force to extract oaths of fealty from Strongbow and his followers, as well as from the remaining Irish kings. Though he undoubtedly wished to check Strongbow’s growing power, it was also a convenient time for him to absent himself from his kingdom due to the outcry following the death of Thomas a Becket, which he was said to have instigated with his hasty words.

Henry remained in Ireland for more than a year, leaving behind Hugh de Lacy as justiciar to counterbalance the power of Strongbow. After his departure, the lands of Ireland were held in the divided hands of Strongbow, Hugh de Lacy, and the Irish high king, Ruaidri Ua Conchobair. In the following years, many Normans with and without Henry’s permission carved out sections of Ireland for themselves, leading to further disorder.

In 1177 Henry, hoping to restore a strong rule, gave his youngest son, John (Lackland), the lordship of Ireland. John was only nine years old at the time, and it was another eight years before he would go to Ireland to obtain the homage of both the remaining Irish kings and the bickering Norman vassals. When John did go to Ireland, he and his foolish young friends offended the Irish nobles who came to meet them by laughing at their long beards. After this, the Irish chieftains formed a defensive league against him. He also, ignoring the counsel of the Normans who had been long settled in Ireland, gave away the lands of faithful Irishmen to his own followers. After hearing stories of his exploits, he was recalled to England by his father after only eight months.

Though his time in Ireland was considered a disaster, John’s actions had a lasting affect. The lands he granted were bestowed on Normans, rather than Irishmen, which further spread the Norman culture throughout the country.

When John succeeded his brother Richard I in 1199, the lordship of Ireland and the Crown of England were united. John instituted many favorable elements of government such as laws, courts, and coinage. And so it was that thirty years after their arrival, the Normans ruled a significant portion of Ireland. Ireland, however, was never conquered and the Normans increasingly intermarried with the native Irish nobility. One hundred years after the coming of the first Normans, their descendants had far more in common with the native Irish than with the nobility of England.


A History of Ireland by Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, Routledge, 1988

The Plantagenet Chronicles, ed. Elizabeth Hallam, CLB Publishing, 1995

Oxford History of Britain, ed. Kenneth O. Morgan, Oxford University Press, 1988

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