1169 doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as 1066 does. That disappoints me.
1066 is one of the most famous years in Europe, perhaps THE most famous, and in its shadow 1169 has been all but hidden.
The cast of characters in the story of 1066 are renowned: thuggish Duke William and poor old King Harold with an arrow in his eye; beautiful Edith Swanneck, venerable Edward the Confessor, and the despicable Earl Tostig. And the stakes were never higher! Nothing less than the control of the kingdom of England was up for grabs. And the outcome would be decided in one great battle on a muddy ridge in Sussex. It’s a wonder that they haven’t made a movie out of it.
By comparison 1169 has struggled for the limelight.
The outcome of that year is equally immense, the consequences just as long-lasting. 1169 is chocked full of melodrama and incredible characters and in this, the 850th anniversary of their arrival in Ireland, it is time for us to recognise the ‘other’ great Norman conquest.
It was from the fighting frontier of Wales that the men who took part in the initial invasion hailed. While the independent Kingdoms of Gwent, Glamorgan, Brecknock and Deheubarth had fallen to Norman freebooters within thirty years of Hastings, the invaders had been unable to extend their web of motte and bailey castles very far from the southern coast. Their hold over this territory was severely tested numerous times but in 1164 it was shaken to its very core through the efforts of Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deuheubarth. Many Normans lost their lands to the resurgent Welsh. This change in fortune created a generation of desperate men, shorn of their estates and trained from their youth to kill. Some would’ve travelled to the Holy Land where the victories of Nur ad-Din threatened the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but others would not have had that opportunity. It is unsurprising that when an exiled king from Ireland arrived in Wales appealing for mercenaries to help him reclaim his throne that he found many willing to follow him.
King Dermot MacMurrough had been ejected from the Kingdom of Leinster in 1166 by the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, and an alliance of all the other Irish kings. Dermot was determined to recover his lands and travelled the length and breadth of Europe to find military support for his enterprise. Denied the King of England’s help and growing more desperate, Dermot travelled into war-torn Wales where he met three ambitious brothers who declared an interest. Bishop David of St David’s and his siblings, Sir William and Sir Maurice FitzGerald, promised to raise an army in return for lordship over the Viking city of Wexford and 200,000 acres. Dermot agreed but there was one problem: the brothers were all in their late 60s and did not feel able to lead such a gruelling campaign. Neither did they believe that their sons had the experience to lead an army of invasion. They needed another to skipper the enterprise, a trusted man of great martial prowess and energy who had seen war and had held high command. The three brothers had someone in mind. Unfortunately, he was at that time the prisoner of their enemy.
During Rhys ap Gruffydd’s great uprising of 1164 he had captured Aberteifi Castle (today’s Cardigan) thanks to the help of the Norman garrison who had betrayed their captain. This man, Robert FitzStephen, had been thrown into Rhys’ dungeon in Dinefwr Castle. Over the next three years Rhys had tried to get FitzStephen to abandon his loyalty to the King of England and to fight alongside him to free Wales.
It is likely that FitzStephen was tempted. King Henry of England would’ve meant little to any knight living on the Welsh March. But to have taken up Rhys’ banner would have meant fighting against his three half-brothers, Bishop David, Sir William and Sir Maurice, and his many cousins and nephews. Although much younger, Robert shared the same mother, the famous Welsh Princess Nest, as David, Maurice and William, and was counted amongst the clan of doughty fighters called the Geraldines. It was FitzStephen who Bishop David wanted to lead his family’s expedition to Ireland.
At some point in 1167 Rhys held a conference with the three brothers and Dermot MacMurrough and after many days negotiating they came to an accord. In addition to a ransom (I believe), Rhys would release FitzStephen on the solemn promise that he depart Wales and never return. If he did reappear he would have to return to Rhys’ captivity. The four brothers agreed and returned to their base at Pembroke Castle to continue their preparations.
We know that the Geraldines borrowed money from a Jewish moneylender in Gloucester named Josce, but it still took them another two years to organise their invasion. Four ships were either hired or built and they then raised a multi-national army of Normans, Flemings, Welshmen and Bretons. This force comprised of just forty knights, eighty esquires and around three hundred infantry and archers.
In the early hours of 1st May 1169 they cast off from the dock at the small Norse settlement now called Milford Haven, making for the open sea. And later that day, probably just about dinner time, 850 years ago, they made land on a small island in the Bannow River estuary.
And to find out what happened after that date you are just going to have to read my three novels, Swordland, Lord of the Sea Castle, and The Earl Strongbow!
Suffice to say that major changes were on the way and, just over a year later, half the island’s kingdoms had submitted to the King of England. By 1171, three of Ireland’s greatest cities were occupied, Dermot MacMurrough was dead, a Norman was claiming the throne of Leinster, and the High King had been chased naked from the walls of Dublin along with the remnants of his army.
Not much grows on the sandy, salt-spray-swept southern shore of Ireland. But on that evening on 1st May 1169 something had taken seed in the unforgiving and unfriendly terrain. It would grow and spread to every corner of the island and eventually, 850 years later, it would become indistinguishable from that which had been here before it.