Henry II. and Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


The grandson of William of Normandy, Conqueror of England, Henry the Second, was not an inattentive observer of the progressing wreck of the Irish Church and Nation. He inherited the Norman design of one day conquering Ireland also, and adding that kingdom to his English crown. He was not ignorant that at Rome Ireland was regarded as derelict. An Englishman, Pope Adrian, now sat in the Chair of Peter; and the English ecclesiastical authorities, who were in constant communication with the Holy See, were transmitting the most alarming accounts of the fearful state of Ireland. It is now known that these accounts were, in many cases, monstrously exaggerated; but it is true that, at best, the state of affairs was very bad.

The cunning and politic Henry saw his opportunity. Though his was the heart of a mere conqueror, sordid and callous, he clothed himself in the garb of the most saintly piety, and wrote to the Holy Father, calling attention to the state of Ireland, which for over a hundred years had been a scandal to Europe. But oh! it was the state of religion there that most afflicted his pious and holy Norman heart! It was all in the interests of social order, morality, religion, and civilization,[1] that he now approached the Holy Father with a proposition. In those times (when Christendom was an unbroken family, of which the pope was the head), the Supreme Pontiff was, by the voice of the nations themselves, invested with a certain kind of arbitrative civil authority for the general good. And, indeed, even infidel and non-Catholic historians declare to us that, on the whole, and with scarcely a possible exception, the popes exerted the authority thus vested in them with a pure, unselfish, and exalted anxiety for the general public good and the ends of justice, for the advancement of religion, learning, civilization, and civil freedom. But this authority rested merely on the principle by which the Acadian farmers in Longfellow's poem constituted their venerable pastor supreme lawgiver, arbitrator, and regulator in their little community; a practice which, even in our own day, prevails within the realms of fact here in Ireland and in other countries.

Henry's proposition to the pope was that he, the English king, should, with the sanction of the Holy Father, and (of course) purely in the interests of religion, morality, and social order, enter Ireland and restore order in that region of anarchy. He pleaded that the pope was bound to cause some such step to be taken, and altogether urged numerous grounds for persuading the pontiff to credit his professions as to his motives and designs. Pope Adrian is said to have complied by issuing a bull approving of Henry's scheme as presented to him, and with the purposes and on the conditions therein set forth. There is no such bull now to be found in the papal archives, yet it is credited that some such bull was issued; but its contents, terms, and permissions have been absurdly misrepresented and exaggerated in some versions coined by English writers.

The papal bull or letter once issued, Henry had gained his point. He. stored away the document until his other plans should be ripe; and, meanwhile, having no longer any need of feigning great piety and love for religion, he flung off the mask and entered upon that course of conduct which, culminating in the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, drew down upon him the excommunication of Rome.

Meantime events were transpiring in Ireland destined to afford him a splendid opportunity for practically availing of his fraudulently obtained papal letter, and making a commencement in his scheme of Irish conquest.


[1] Even in that day—seven hundred years ago—English subjugators had learned the use of these amiable pretexts for invasion and annexation!