The Normans had first arrived in Ireland in the 1160s. They had been invited by the King of Leinster, Diarmait MacMurrough, who had been forced to flee his homeland by his rival Rory O’Connor, the King of Connacht.
MacMurrough recruited a number of Norman knights, including the Earl of Pembroke, Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare – also known as Strongbow – and their forces and went back to Ireland to reclaim his throne in 1169.
After regaining much of his territory, MacMurrough was not content with being King of Leinster and wanted to become the High King of Ireland.
Strongbow married MacMurrough’s daughter
He offered his daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage to Strongbow. The marriage strengthened the alliance between MacMurrough and Strongbow. In 1170, Strongbow and his men captured Dublin. They also captured the key towns of Waterford and Wexford.
MacMurrough’s plans of domination ended in when he died in 1171. Strongbow was unable to become King of Leinster because the Kingship could not pass through the female line of the family. Irish law also stated that a foreigner could not become king.
Strongbow was not going to let the law stand in his way and he forcefully took control of the kingdom. MacMurrough had wanted to expand his kingdom until he was High King, and following his death it was possible that Strongbow could have realised that ambition for himself.
Strongbow’s political conflicts in Ireland
It would not easy for him. The King of Connacht, Rory O’Connor, had a great deal of power and wasn’t willing to sit by and watch as a new force began to emerge in the east of the country.
After initially finding it difficult to stop the Norman’s expansion deep into the center of the country, he rallied his troops. In the summer of 1171, O’Connor and his men marched on Dublin and put the city under siege.
He was planning to starve the city into submission. Strongbow was worried that O’Connor’s plan was going to work and attempted to make a deal with the Connacht king.
He offered to submit to O’Connor in return for being allowed to retain the throne in Leinster. This went against Stronghbow’s obligation to King Henry, which infuriated the English king.
Strongbow and O’Connor couldn’t make a deal
O’Connor was not willing to accept Strongbow’s deal and instead offered him the three towns of Dublin, Waterford and Wexford. This wasn’t enough for Strongbow and the two men failed to make a deal.
Strongbow waited until the afternoon, which was the time of day that his enemy would be least expecting an attack, before sending his troops into action. They caught the Irish soldiers totally off-guard and were able to able to loot enough supplies to keep their town going for the foreseeable future.
Due to the success of the surprise attack, around 50 Norman knights were able to kill hundreds of Irish soldiers. Rory O’Connor had been bathing in the river at Castleknock when the attack began and was lucky to have escaped with his life.
Knowing that the people of Dublin were not going to starve anytime soon, O’Connor withdrew his troops. It was a demoralising defeat for O’Connor’s men and many of the Gaelic lords moved over to Strongbow’s side. O’Connor was significantly weakened.
English king was furious with Strongbow
Henry had been furious in what he saw as an act of treason from Strongbow, in initially offering to submit to O’Connor. Relations between the two men were very poor by this point as Henry didn’t trust Strongbow. They had to come to a business agreement that was in the best interest of both politically.
Strongbow presented himself to Henry and the King accepted his submission. Henry granted Strongbow the kingship of Leinster but Henry would be the head of other territories including Dublin, Waterford and Wexford.
This meant that Strongbow had less than he did to begin with but he agreed as he knew just how angry the king was at his proposed deal with O’Connor.
King Henry’s show of strength in Ireland
In October 1171, King Henry travelled to Ireland with the greatest fleet of ships the country had ever seen. There were 400 ships that made the trip across the Irish Sea. Henry was flexing his muscles and going over to secure allegiance from both the Normans and the Gaelic kings.
Henry was able to justify moving into Ireland because he had permission to invade from the pope in the form of a ‘Laudabiliter’ – a papal letter. The Pope hoped that a man of Henry’s power and influence would be able to reform the church in Ireland.
When Henry arrived in Ireland, the majority of Irish kings submitted to him. There was no real conflict, Henry was just making sure that the Irish knew he was in charge. He didn’t implement any major changes to the way the kings ran their kingdoms and went back home to England.
However, he did grant a large territory to his Baron, Hugh de Lacy, which covered the areas now known as Meath, Westmeath and Cavan.
Henry’s agreement with O’Connor
Rory O’Connor didn’t submit to Henry but the two kings reached an agreement in which O’Connor would remain King of Connacht and any area not claimed by Henry. In return O’Connor would pay a tribute to Henry.
However, when Henry went back to England, the leaders, both Irish and Norman, ignored the agreements and continued to look to expand. The Gaelic and the Normans didn’t have a problem in forming alliances together in order to seek an advantage over a local rival.
After a few years of fighting for territory between the Gaelic and the Normans, Henry II and Rory O’Connor were desperate to bring some stability to the country.
In 1175, Henry and Rory met at Windsor came to an agreement that Henry would forbid any more Norman expansion and Rory would keep the Irish kings under control. The agreement was known as the Treaty of Windsor.
Normans opened the door to British rule
However, it proved impossible to implement in practice. Neither King Henry nor Rory O’Connor were able to maintain the deal as both were busy fending off rebellions from their children and grandchildren. Leaders of smaller kingdoms or colonies, both Norman and Gaelic continued to look to expand their power.
The Gaelic dynasties continued to battle for territory as did the Normans. It wasn’t long before alliances were being formed between various groups of Irish and Normans.
One such allegiance occurred when Hugh de Lacy married the daughter of Rory O’Connor, in doing so both men secured the support of the other.
The Norman presence in Ireland had opened the door to British rule within the country. While the Normans would eventually integrate with the Irish, the British crown continued to increase its territory in Ireland and ruled over the country, in one form or another, for over seven centuries.