Strongbow's Recall to England

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


STRONGBOW having now assumed the sovereignty of Leinster, King Henry's jealousy burst into a flame. He issued a proclamation ordering Strongbow and every other Englishman in Ireland to return forthwith to England on pain of outlawry! Strongbow hurriedly dispatched ambassador after ambassador to soothe Henry's anger; but all was vain. At length he hastened to England himself, and found the English sovereign assembling an enormous fleet and army with the intent of himself invading Ireland! The crafty knight humiliated himself to the utmost; yet it was with great difficulty the king was induced even to grant him audience. "When he did, Strongbow, partly by his own most abject protestations of submission, and partly by the aid of mediators, received the royal pardon for his contumacy, and was confirmed in his grants of land in Wexford.

Early in October, 1171, Henry sailed with his armada of over four hundred ships, with a powerful army; and on the 18th of that month landed at Crooch, in Waterford harbor. In his train came the flower of the Norman knights, captains, and commanders; and even in the day of Ireland's greatest unity and strength she would have found it difficult to cope with the force which the English king now led into the land.

Coming in such kingly power, and with all the pomp and pageantry with which he was particularly careful to surround himself—studiously polished, politic, plausible, dignified, and courtierlike toward such of the Irish princes as came within his presence—proclaiming himself by word and act, angry with the lawless and ruthless proceedings of Strongbow, Raymond, Fitzstephen, and Fitzgerald—Henry seems to have appeared to the Irish of the neighborhood something like an illustrious deliverer! They had full and public knowledge of his strong proclamation against Strongbow and his companions, calling upon all the Norman auxiliaries of Dermot to return forthwith to England on pain of outlawry. On every occasion subsequent to his landing Henry manifested a like feeling and purpose; so much so that the Irish of Wexford, who had taken Fitzstephen prisoner, sent a deputation to deliver him up to be dealt with by Henry, and the king imprisoned him forthwith in Reginald's tower to wait further sentence!

In fine, Henry pretended to come as an angry king to chastise his own contumacious subjects—the Norman auxiliaries of the Leinster prince—and to adjudicate upon the complicated issues which had arisen out of the treaties of that prince with them. This most smooth and plausible hypocrisy, kept up with admirable skill, threw the Irish utterly off their guard, and made them regard his visit as the reverse of hostile or undesirable. As I have already pointed out, the idea of national unity was practically defunct among the Irish at the time. For more than a hundred years it had been very much a game of "every one for himself" (varied with "every man against everybody else") with them. There was no stable or enduring national government or central authority in the land since Brian's time. The nakedly hostile and sanguinary invasion of Strongbow they were all ready enough, in their disintegrated and ill-organized way, to confront and bravely resist to the death; and had Henry on this occasion really appeared to them to come as an invader, they would have instantly encountered him sword in hand; a truth most amply proven by the fact that when subsequently (but too late) they found out the real nature of the English designs, not all the power of united, compact, and mighty England was able, for hundreds and hundreds of years, to subdue the broken and weakened, deceived and betrayed, but still heroic Irish nation.

Attracted by the fame of Henry's magnanimity, the splendor of his power, the (supposed) justice and friendliness of his intentions, the local princes one by one arrived at his temporary court; where they were dazzled by the pomp, and caressed by the courtier affabilities, of the great English king. To several of them it seems very quickly to have occurred that, considering the ruinously distracted and demoralized state of the country, and the absence of any strong central governmental authority able to protect any one of them against the capricious lawlessness of his neighbors, the very best thing they could do—possibly for the interests of the whole country, certainly for their own particular personal or local interests—would be to constitute Henry a friendly arbitrator, regulator, and protector, on a much wider scale than (as they imagined) he intended. The wily Englishman only wanted the whisper of such a desirable pretext. It was just what he had been angling for. Yes; he, the mighty and magnanimous, the just and friendly, English sovereign would accept the position. They should all, to this end, recognize him as a nominal liege lord; and then he, on the other hand, would undertake to regulate all their differences, tranquillize the island, and guarantee to each individual secure possession of his own territory!

Thus, by a smooth and plausible diplomacy, Henry found himself, with the consent or at the request of the southern Irish princes, in a position which he never could have attained, except through seas of blood, if he had allowed them to suspect that he came as a hostile invader, not as a neighbor and powerful friend.

From Waterford he marched to Cashel, and from Cashel to Dublin receiving on the way visits from the several local princes; and now that the news spread that the magnanimous English king had consented to be their arbitrator, protector, and liege lord, every one of them that once visited Henry went away wheedled into adhesion to the scheme. Among the rest was Donald O'Brien, prince of Thomond, who the more readily gave in his adhesion to the new idea, for that he, as I have already mentioned of him, had thrown off allegiance to Roderick, the titular Ard-Ri, and felt the necessity of protection by some one against the probable consequences of his conduct. Arrived at Dublin, Henry played the king on a still grander scale. A vast palace of wicker-work was erected [1] for his especial residence; and here, during the winter, he kept up a continued round of feasting, hospitality, pomp and pageantry. Every effort was used to attract the Irish princes to the royal court, and once attracted thither, Henry made them the object of the most flattering attentions. They were made to feel painfully the contrast between the marked superiority in elegance, wealth, civilization—especially in new species of armor and weapons, and in new methods of war and military tactics—presented by the Norman-English, and the backwardness of their own country in each particular; a change wrought, as they well knew, altogether or mainly within the last hundred and fifty years!

Where was the titular Ard-Ri all this time? Away in his western home, sullen and perplexed, scarcely knowing what to think of this singular and unprecented turn of affairs. Henry tried hard to persuade Roderick to visit him; but neither Roderick nor any of the northern princes could be persuaded to an interview with the English king. On the contrary, the Ard-Ri, when he heard that Henry was likely to come westward and visit him, instantly mustered an army and boldly took his stand at Athlone, resolved to defend the integrity and independence of at least his own territory. Henry, however, disclaimed the idea of conflict; and, once again trusting more to smooth diplomacy than to the sword, dispatched two ambassadors to the Irish titular monarch. The result was, according to some English versions of very doubtful and suspicious authority, that Roderick so far came in to the scheme of constituting Henry general suzerain as to agree to offer it no opposition on condition (readily acceded to by the ambassadors) that his own sovereignty, as, at least, next in supremacy to Henry, should be recognized. But there is no reliable proof that Roderick made any such concession, conditional or unconditional; and most Irish historians reject the story.

Having spent the Christmas in Dublin, and devoted the winter season to feasting and entertainment on a right royal scale, Henry now set about exercising his authority as general pacificator and regulator; and his first exercise of it was marked by that profound policy and sagacity which seem to have guided all his acts since he landed. He began, not by openly aggrandizing himself or his followers—that might have excited suspicion—but by evidencing a deep and earnest solicitude for the state of religion in the country. This strengthened the opinion that estimated him as a noble, magnanimous, unselfish and friendly protector, and it won for him the favor of the country. As his first exercise of general authority in the land, he convened a synod at Cashel; and at this synod, the decrees of which are known, measures were devised for the repression and correction of such abuses and irregularities in connection with religion as were known to exist in the country. Yet, strange to say, we find by the statutes and decrees of this synod nothing of a doctrinal nature requiring correction; nothing more serious calling for regulation than what is referred to in the following enactments then made:

1. That the prohibition of marriage within the canonical degrees of consanguinity be enforced.

2. That children should be regularly catechized before the church door in each parish.

3. That children should be baptized in the public fonts of the parish churches.

4. That regular tithes should be paid to the clergy rather than irregular donations from time to time.

5. That church lands should be exempt from the exaction of "livery," etc.

6. That the clergy should not be liable to any share of the eric or blood-fine, levied off the kindred of a man guilty of homicide.

7. A decree regulating wills.

Such and no more were the reforms found to be necessary in the Irish Church under Henry's own eye, notwithstanding all the dreadful stories he had been hearing, and which he (not without addition by exaggeration) had been so carefully forwarding to Rome for years before! Truth and candor, however, require the confession that the reason why there was so little, comparatively, needing to be set right just then, was because there had been during and ever since St. Malachy's time vigorous efforts on the part of the Irish prelates, priests, princes, and people themselves, to restore and repair the ruins caused by long years of bloody convulsion.

The synod over, Henry next turned his attention to civil affairs. He held a royal court at Lismore, whereat he made numerous civil appointments and regulations for the government of the territories and cities possessed by the Norman allies of the late prince of Leinster, or those surrendered by Irish princes to himself.

While Henry was thus engaged in adroitly causing his authority to be gradually recognized, respected and obeyed in the execution of peaceful, wise and politic measures for the general tranquillity and welfare of the country—for, from the hour of his landing, he had not spilled one drop of Irish blood, nor harshly treated a native of Ireland—he suddenly found himself summoned to England by gathering troubles there. Papal commissioners had arrived in his realm of Normandy to investigate the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, and threatening to lay England under an interdict if Henry could not clear or purge himself of guilty part in that foul deed. There was nothing for it but to hasten thither with all speed, abandoning for the time his Irish plans and schemes, but taking the best means he could to provide meantime for the retention of his. power and authority in the realm of Ireland.

I do not hesitate to express my opinion that, as the Normans had fastened at all upon Ireland, it was unfortunate that Henry was called away at, this juncture. No one can for an instant rank side by side the naked and heartless rapacity and bloody ferocity of the Normans who preceded and who succeeded him in Ireland with the moderation, the statesmanship, and the tolerance exhibited by Henry while remaining here. Much of this, doubtless, was policy on his part; but such a policy, though it might result in bringing the kingdom of Ireland under the same crown with England many centuries sooner than it was so brought eventually by other means, would have spared our country centuries of slaughter, persecution, and suffering unexampled in the annals of the world. There are abundant grounds for presuming that Henry's views and designs originally were wise and comprehensive, and certainly the reverse of sanguinary. He meant simply to win the sovereignty of another kingdom; but the spirit in which the Normans who remained and who came after him in Ireland acted was that of mere freebooters—rapacious and merciless plunderers—whose sole redeeming trait was their indomitable pluck and undaunted bravery.


[1] On the spot where now stands the Protestant church of St. Andrew, St. Andrew Street, Dublin.