Henry II.'s Treaty with King Roderick O'Conor

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


SOON the Irish began to learn the difference between King Henry's friendly courtesies and mild adjudications and the rough iron-shod rule of his needy, covetous, and lawless lieutenants. On all sides the Normans commenced to encroach upon, outrage, and despoil the Irish, until, before three years had elapsed, Henry found all he had won in Ireland lost, and the English power there apparently at the last extremity. A signal defeat which Strongbow encountered in one of his insolent forays, at the hands of O'Brien, prince of Thomond, was the signal for a general assault upon the Normans. They were routed on all sides; Strongbow himself being chased into and cooped up with a few men in a fortified tower in Waterford. But this simultaneous outbreak lacked the unity of direction, the reach of purpose, and the perseverance which would cause it to accomplish permanent rather than transitory results. The Irish gave no thought to the necessity of following up their victories; and the Norman power, on the very point of extinction, was allowed slowly to recruit and extend itself again.

Henry was sorely displeased to find affairs in Ireland in this condition; but, of course, the versions which reached him laid all the blame on the Irish, and represented the Norman settlers as meek and peaceful colonists driven to defend themselves against treacherous savages. The English monarch, unable to repair to Ireland himself, bethought him of the papal letters, and resolved to try their influence on the Irish. He accordingly commissioned William Fitzadelm De Burgo and Nicholas, the prior of Wallingford, to proceed with these documents to Ireland, and report to him on the true state of affairs there. These royal commissioners duly reached that country, and we are told that, having assembled the Irish prelates, the papal letters were read. But no chronicle, English or Irish, tells us what was said by the Irish bishops on hearing them read. Very likely there were not wanting prelates to point out that the pope had been utterly misinformed and kept in the dark as to the truth about Ireland; and that so far the bulls were of no valid force as such: that as to the authority necessary to King Henry to effect the excellent designs he professed, it had already been pretty generally yielded to him for such purpose by the Irish princes themselves without these letters at all: that, for the purposes and on the conditions specified in the papal letters, he was likely to receive every co-operation from the Irish princes; but that it was quite another thing if he expected them to yield themselves up to be plundered and enslaved—that they would resist forever and ever; and if there was to be peace, morality, or religion in the land, it was his own Norman lords and governors he should recall or curb.

Very much to this effect was the report of the royal commissioners when they returned, and as if to confirm the conclusion that these were the views of the Irish prelates and princes at the time, we find the Irish monarch, Roderick, sending special ambassadors to King Henry to negotiate a formal treaty, recording and regulating the relations which were to exist between them. "In September 1175," we are told, "The Irish monarch sent over to England as his plenipotentiaries, Catholicus O'Duffy, the archbishop of Tuam; Concors, abbot of St. Brendan's of Clonfert; and a third, who is called Master Laurence, his chancellor, but who was no other than the holy Archbishop of Dublin, as we know that that illustrious man was one of those who signed the treaty on this occasion. A great council was held at Windsor, within the octave of Michaelmas, and a treaty was agree on, the articles of which were to the effect that Roderick was to be king under Henry, rendering him service as his vassal; that he was to hold his hereditary territory of Connaught in the same way as before the coming of Henry into Ireland; that he was to have jurisdiction and dominion over the rest of the island, including its kings and princes, whom he should oblige to pay tribute, through his hands, to the king of England; that these kings and princes were also to hold possession of their respective territories as long as they remained faithful to the king of England and paid their tribute to him; that if they departed from their fealty to the king of England, Roderick was to judge and depose them, either by his own power, or, if that was not sufficient, by the aid of the Anglo-Norman authorities; but that his jurisdiction should not extend to the territories occupied by the English settlers, which at a later period was called the English Pale, and comprised Meath and Leinster, Dublin with its dependent district, Waterford, and the country thence to Dungarvan.

The treaty between the two sovereigns, Roderick and Henry, clearly shows that the mere recognition of the English king as suzerain was all that appeared to be claimed on the one side or yielded on the other. With this single exception or qualification, the native Irish power, authority, rights and liberties, were fully and formally guaranteed. What Henry himself thought of the relations in which he stood by this treaty toward Ireland, and the sense in which he read its stipulations, is very intelligibly evidenced in the fact that he never styled, signed, or described himself as either king or lord of Ireland in the documents reciting and referring to his relations with and toward that country.

But neither Henry nor his Norman barons kept the treaty. Like that made with Ireland by another English king, five hundred years later on at Limerick, it was "broken ere the ink wherewith 't was writ was dry."

I am inclined to credit Henry with having at one time intended to keep it. I think there are indications that he was in a certain sense coerced by his Norman lords into the abandonment, or at least the alteration, of his original policy, plans, and intentions as to Ireland, which were quite too peaceful and afforded too little scope for plunder to please those adventurers. In fact the barons revolted against the idea of not being allowed full scope for robbing the Irish; and one of them, De Courcy, resolved to fling the king's restrictions overboard, and set off on a conquering or freebooting expedition on his own account! A historian tells us that the royal commissioner Fitzadelm was quite unpopular with the colony. "His tastes were not military; he did not afford sufficient scope for spoliation; and he was openly accused of being too friendly to the Irish. De Courcy, one of his aides in the government, became so disgusted with his inactivity that he set out, in open defiance of the viceroy's prohibition, on an expedition to the north. Having selected a small army of twenty-two knights and three hundred soldiers, all picked men, to accompany him, by rapid marches he arrived the fourth day at Downpatrick, the chief city of Ulidia, and the clangor of his bugles ringing through the streets at the break of day was the first intimation which the inhabitants received of this wholly unexpected incursion. In the alarm and confusion which ensued, the people became easy victims, and the English, after indulging their rage and rapacity, intrenched themselves in a corner of the city. Cardinal Vivian, who had come as legate from Pope Alexander the Third to the nations of Scotland and Ireland, and who had only recently arrived from the Isle of Man, happened to be then in Down, and was horrified at this act of aggression. He attempted to negotiate terms of peace, and proposed that De Courcy should withdraw his army on the condition of the Ulidians paying tribute to the English king; but any such terms being sternly rejected by De Courcy, the cardinal encouraged and exhorted Mac Dunlevy, the king of Ulidia and Dalariada, to defend his territories manfully against the invaders. Coming as this advice did from the pope's legate, we may judge in what light the grant of Ireland to King Henry the Second was regarded by the pope himself."

It became clear that whatever policy or principles Henry might originally have thought of acting on in Ireland, he should abandon them and come into the scheme of the barons, which was, that he should give them free and full license for the plunder of the Irish, and they in return would extend his realm. So we find the whole aim and spirit of the royal policy forthwith altered to meet the piratical views of the barons.

One of Roderick's sons, Murrogh, rebelled against and endeavored to depose his father (as the sons of Henry endeavored to dethrone him a few years subsequently), and Milo de Cogan, by the lord deputy's orders, led a Norman force into Connaught to aid the parricidal revolt! The Connacians, however, stood by their aged king, shrank from the rebellious son, and under the command of Roderick in person gave battle to the Normans at the Shannon. De Cogan and his Norman treaty-breakers and plunder-seekers were utterly and disastrously defeated; and Murrogh, the unnatural son, being captured, was tried for his offence by the assembled clans, and suffered the eric decreed by law for his crime.

This was the first deliberate rent in the treaty by the English. The next was by Henry himself, who, in violation of his kingly troth, undertook to dub his son John, yet a mere child, either lord or king of Ireland, and by those plausible deceits and diplomatic arts in which he proved himself a master, he obtained the approbation of the pope for his proceeding. Quickly following upon these violations of the treaty of Windsor, and suddenly and completely changing the whole nature of the relations between the Irish and the Normans as previously laid down, Henry began to grant and assign away after the most wholesale fashion the lands of the Irish, apportioning among his hungry followers whole territories yet unseen by an English eye!' Naturalists tell how the paw of a tiger can touch, with the softness of velvet or clutch with the force of a vice, according as the deadly fangs are sheathed or put forth. The Irish princes had been treated with the velvet smoothness; they were now to be torn by the lacerating fangs of that tiger grip to which they had yielded themselves up so easily.