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Strongbow, Leinster, and the Norman Invasion of Ireland

Strongbow, Leinster, and the Norman Invasion of Ireland

Posted by Justine Mikaloff on 17th Jun 2019

Once upon a time, a man responded to a king’s request for help—and found himself becoming king. Although he was forced to walk a fine line between honoring the king of his homeland and fulfilling his responsibilities to his new land, he managed to hang on to power and thwart his enemies. This man was Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, alias Strongbow. The name “Strongbow” actually came from his Welsh roots—his Welsh army relied heavily on the power of its archers, and Strongbow’s army was exceptionally successful in their endeavors in Ireland. However, Strongbow was not just a Welsh lord meandering through Ireland. He managed to bring about the beginning of a whole new era of Irish history, with Anglo-Norman influence in Irish affairs.


Early Ireland was ruled by war and unrest. Chieftains of local tribes and clans fought over land, fought for supremacy, and fought for control. When the Normans conquered England under William the Conqueror in 1066, there is no sense that the Irish rulers understood the implications. The Normans had garnered a reputation for being thorough, ruthless, and efficient conquerors, with a talent for gaining and consolidating power. Norman knights were hardened products of wealth, specialized training.

In the meantime, the Irish clans had not managed to create a unified national identity. The chieftains still fought one another for land and power, but allegiances were determined largely by which family had the strongest hold over an area. By 1150, four powerful clans had consolidated power and finally had control over most of Ireland. In Ulster, to the north, the O’Neills were kings. To the west, in Connacht, the O’Connors ruled. Munster was under O’Brien dominance, and Leinster, in the east, was the territory of the McMurrough clan. But this arrangement of loosely organized, tentative kingdoms would not maintain its tenuous balance like this for long.


Rory O’Connor succeeded to the leadership of Connacht in the mid-1100s, and he brought with him a great ambition. He managed to grow his power and eventually extended his traditional territory into Munster, seizing lands that had been held by the O’Briens. In the meantime, Dermot McMurrough and the O’Neill clan in the east had a loose alliance. With the assassination of the leader of the O’Neill clan, the resulting power struggle left in his wake left McMurrough vulnerable. After fighting to maintain his lands, he eventually left Ireland in 1167 as Rory O’Connor marched on Dublin and wound up taking control of the rest of Leinster. With this, Rory O’Connor was effectively recognized as the High King of Ireland.

McMurrough found himself in exile in England, where he met Richard de Clare, also known as Strongbow—a Welsh lord and Earl of Pembroke. Strongbow was born around 1130, and had succeeded his father to his title and estates by 1149. However, by the time he met McMurrough in the late 1160s, Strongbow had wasted his position through great extravagance, and found himself out of favor with the King of England (Henry II). Rather than get directly involved in McMurrough’s quest to re-establish himself as King of Leinster, Henry gave McMurrough permission to see whether any of the English barons would be willing to get involved. He approached a number of English noblemen with pleas for help, and some found his offers too good to turn down. Strongbow, along with Robert FitzStephen and Maurice Fitzgerald, agreed to fight to help McMurrough win back his throne in exchange for land holdings in Ireland. They brought with them Norman soldiers—knights who were well trained, well-armed, and more than what the Irish clansmen were prepared for.


Strongbow came to Ireland in 1170 with a skilled, well-armed, and professional army to support McMurrough’s bid to topple O’Connor’s stranglehold on Ireland. Strongbow’s army, along with forces supplied by other English allies and McMurrough’s still loyal Irish supporters, won handily. Strongbow and his men took control of Dublin, Waterford, and Wexford, and McMurrough was shortly reinstated as King of Leinster. The alliance between Strongbow and the King of Leinster was sealed when he married McMurrough’s daughter, Aoife, and was promised that he would be McMurrough’s successor to the throne—which happened the very next year, in May 1171.

Unfortunately, things were not all calm after McMurrough’s return and Strongbow’s rise. Irish law indicated that the kingship could not pass down a female bloodline, plus Strongbow was a foreigner. His claim to McMurrough’s throne was not without serious opposition. However, he and his forces were powerful, and able to deal with any challenges to his authority.

King Henry of England was less than pleased with the accomplishments of his subject. He had only intended that his barons help McMurrough reclaim his kingdom. Henry had not intended for his license to his barons to aid McMurrough to lead to establishing Norman colonies in Ireland and become powerful authorities in their own rights.

Strongbow’s rise to power in Ireland was perceived as a growing threat to Henry’s authority, so Henry began making plans to come to Ireland to face and tamp down the threat. Strongbow met the king to intercept the potential drama, offer his submission, and pledged his renewed allegiance to Henry. This seemed to pacify the English king, who accepted Strongbow’s renewed oath of fealty. Strongbow was subsequently confirmed in his Irish estates (although Henry reserved Dublin and the seaport towns for himself), and in his English possessions (which had been confiscated).

While the other Irish kings were under the impression that Henry could be a valuable ally in limiting Strongbow’s power, and had greatly hoped that he would put a stop to this interloper in Irish affairs, they were sorely mistaken. While Henry required Strongbow to help with his conflict with the French, he retained the title of King of Leinster. In 1173, Strongbow returned to Ireland from his service in France as Lord-Warden, or Justice of Ireland, and he walked a difficult position between the Irish and the Normans in Ireland.


In 1175, the Treaty of Windsor was put in place. The treaty made Henry the overlord of all Irish territory that was occupied by the Normans (mostly lands in Leinster). Most of the remainder of the lands would be held by Rory O’Connor as High King of Ireland (although this title was really just a nominal one by this point). O’Connor was required to swear loyalty to the English crown and pay an annual levy. Strongbow held onto his lands in Leinster, although he was still a subject of Henry’s. This arrangement, however, would not remain in place for long.

Henry appointed Norman military commanders to enforce the treaty and rewarded them with land—and then left them to do their jobs without supervision. It was only a matter of time before the Normans were expanding their lands, their territory, and their influence throughout Ireland. By 1178, the Normans had taken control of a significant swath of territory across Munster and Connacht, and had attempted to take over Ulster (although Ulster never succumbed to the Norman influence to the degree that the rest of Ireland did). By the mid-13th century, the Normans had taken control of most of Ireland, with some pockets of non-Norman dominated territory.


Prior to the arrival of the Normans, Irish land was generally held as common space. Chieftains may have controlled territories and expected the people living on the land to contribute food and fighters for the common good. However, there was no real land ownership as we know it today. With the growth of Norman influence came the belief that the Normans owned the land—and the common open space began to dwindle. Under the Norman rulers, Irish farmers were reduced to the status of tenant farmers, paying rent and tithes to their Norman lords for the privilege to farm the land they had occupied for centuries.

The Normans sought to establish their leadership in Ireland by building large castles to defend their land holdings. Some of the most famous castles in Ireland were built around this time as the Normans sought to prove their belonging in the area, and trading towns and commercial centers began to spring up around the castles.


As for Strongbow himself, he died in 1176, shortly after Henry put the Treaty of Windsor in place. Strongbow is buried in Christ Church, Dublin, and his monument is still there today. His daughter, Isabel, married knight William Marshall, who is said to have built the Hook Head Lighthouse in County Wexford from a small warning beacon to a full-fledged lighthouse tower.

Perhaps his greatest legacy is the effect of Norman influence in Ireland as a whole. Strongbow’s arrival in Ireland at McMurrough’s request ushered in an Anglo-Norman presence in Ireland that affected Irish history for centuries to follow. Effectively, it was the beginning of English influence in Irish affairs, and Strongbow’s kingship was the starting point of what would eventually become British rule in Ireland.