The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Europe | The Cambro-Norman Society of South Wales

7: The Cambro-Norman Society of South Wales

<< 6: The Welsh Reaction || 8: The Cambro-Norman Society of South Wales >>

WE HAVE SEEN that frontier conditions came to an end for the Cambro-Norman society which had developed in South Wales. Opportunities for conquest, and for increased power and independence, diminished and in time disappeared. This society, based ultimately upon expansion and conquest, faced a future in which its primary function would be that of garrison duty. It was a future in which there was little hope of rewards which would be commensurate with the heavy task to be performed. By and large, the society accepted its future and performed its specialized function until such time as it, and the Welsh society it faced, began to be absorbed into the main stream of life in Tudor Britain.

A society, however, is made up of individuals, and, for this reason, one should not expect any society to react monolithically. In the Cambro-Norman society of the mid-twelfth century, there were varied reactions to the relatively ordered and humdrum way of life that was slowly replacing the turbulent days of old. The old virtues and talents had no place in this new order of things. The ambitious barons and restless knights who would have been, a half-century earlier, in the forefront of conquest and glory, were now failures, misfits, and troublemakers. A peaceful and regulated society had no room for such men. Many, no doubt, accepted their lot and lived out their days as relatively useless anachronisms; but some refused to adapt, and cast about for new frontiers. They found one close at hand.

In effect, the Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland represents the

131 The Normans in South Wales

last gasp of the Norman frontier in Wales. The closing of this frontier squeezed out those men who found it impossible to relinquish the ideals and attitudes which had made the frontier what it was. They carried their way of life to a new area of conquest, and, for a time, the Welsh frontier was reborn in the fens of Ireland. We are fortunate that two relatively full accounts of this period have survived. One, The Song of Dermot and the Earl, is a chanson de geste, composed in the mid-thirteenth century but partially based upon oral tradition and on an earlier poem of similar character.1 The other prime source is provided by Giraldus Cambrensis' Expugnatio Hibernica, probably based, at least in part, upon personal interviews with some of the principals, to whom Giraldus was closely related.2 Both accounts are relatively full, but their accuracy is often doubtful. What is important is that, because of the sources upon which they ultimately rest, the Song and the Expugnatio present this frontier experience somewhat as the participants saw it. Although the first generation of Cambro-Norman conquerors is silent, the last generation does speak, and what they have to say is well worth hearing.

The occasion for the Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland stemmed from the conflict between two Irish chieftains, Dermot MacMurrough and Tiernan O'Rourke. Dermot had been successful in extending the power of his small tribe to the point where he was recognized as paramount king of all Leinster. This expansion had brought him to the borders of Meath, where friction developed between him and Tiernan, the prince of Breifne. Antagonism between the two deepened when, in 1152, Dermot took advantage of Tiernan's temporary absence to abduct his wife. Although the lady was returned the following year, the event sealed a bitter enmity between the two chieftains. Tiernan's opportunity for full revenge came in 1166, when he was able to conclude an alliance with the king of Connaught, who was, at that time, high king of Ireland. The two allies attacked Dermot, and, in the face of such powerful enemies, he was forced to flee Ireland. On August 1, 1166, he sailed from an Irish port and directed his voyage to Bristol. This rising city had long enjoyed cordial relations with the Dansk cities of Ireland's eastern shore, and Dermot

1The Song of Dermot and the Earl: an Old French Poem from the Carew Manuscript No. 598 in the Archiepiscopal Library at Lambeth Palace, ed. and trans. G. H. Orpen. Also see J. F. O'Doherty, "Historical Criticism of the Song of Dermot and the Earl," Irish Historical Studies, I (1938 ), 4

2Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, eds. J. S. Brewer et al. Part V (Expugnatio Hiberniaa).

133 The Cambro-Norman Reaction

no doubt established contacts with some of the merchants of BristoL The end of his voyage found him hospitably received by Robert Fitz- Harding, the reeve of the city and a close friend of Henry II. After a short stay in the city, Dermot departed for the continent to seek aid from King Henry. His motives for this action seem somewhat obscure. A more natural course would appear to have been for him to have sought support from amongst the Welsh as so many dethroned Welshmen had done in Ireland. It may have been that he had learned of Henry's contemplated extension of English power to Ireland, and had been advised by Fitz-Harding that the king might not be adverse to espousing his cause as an excuse for intruding into Irish affairs.3 If this were the case, Dermot was disappointed. The Irish chieftain visited Henry's court on the continent in the winter of 1166 and made his plea for support. Whatever Henry's intention had been earlier, his ardor for an invasion of Ireland had by now cooled. Problems in France, and those arising from his conflict with Becket, had involved him too deeply. He listened to Dermot's case and, in exchange for his act of homage, simply provided him with a letter authorizing him to recruit allies from among the king's subjects. With this poor prize, Dermot returned to Fitz-Harding's hospitality in Bristol.

He remained in this city for some time, attempting to arouse interest in his proposed venture, but apparently with little success. Finally, however, he established contact with Richard Fits-Gilbert of Clare, earl of Strigoil, and today better known as Strongbow. Strongbow was only too ready to listen to Dermot's offer, since such a desperate plan seemed the only way to repair the lost fortunes of the Clares. Richard's father, Gilbert, had been one of the greatest lords of England. He had held large tracts of ancestral lands in Kent and Sussex, and had greatly extended his power under Stephen. In 1138, he had been made earl of Pembroke by Stephen, and in the same year acquired the earldom of Strigoil through the death of his uncle. Gilbert had broken with King Stephen in 1147, but his son apparently continued his allegiance to that monarch and succeeded to his fa-

3 G.H. Orpen, Ireland under the Normans, 1169, I, 79-84. Henry had contemplated an Irish conquest as early as 1155, and Pope Adrian IV had been persuaded to give official approval to the scheme. A considerable body of literature has grown up concerning the bull Laudabiliter which purports to embody this approval. A good resume of this material may be found in H. W. C. Davis, England under the Normans and Angevins, 1066-1272, pp. 532-533.

134 The Normans in South Wales

ther's estates upon the latter's death in the succeeding year. Little is known of Richard's activities between this date and his conference with Dermot in 1167, but it is clear that in the intervening twenty years his fortunes had declined considerably.4 It is difficult to perceive the course of the decline of the Clare fortunes, but it is probable that a number of factors contributed. During the period of Welsh resurgence, the great Clare estates of Wales had slipped from his hands. Ceredigion was lost as early as 1136, Carmarthen and Llanstephen fell in 1146, Tenby in Pembrokeshire was taken by the sons of Gruffydd ap Rhys in 1153, and the years following 1159 saw the steady increase in the power of the Lord Rhys. By 1166, all of Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywy and a large part of Dyfed lay in his hands, and Clare fortunes in southwest Wales were at low ebb.

This was not the only source of Richard's troubles, however. He had been ill advised in his continued support of Stephen and, after the accession of Henry II, he began to experience the consequences of his error. It is probable that his title to the earldom of Pembrokeshire was extinguished soon after the latter's accession, along with the other earldoms of Stephen's making.5 More than that, that normally suspicious monarch was exceptionally watchful and unfriendly toward Richard, who was forced to act with the greatest circumspection in order to avoid incurring any more active an indication of royal disfavor. He was ill suited to be a courtier, and his warlike proclivities were thwarted by the powerful figures of the Lord Rhys and the suspicious King Henry. Neither England nor Wales held any opportunity for him, and he was quite ready to try his fortunes in another, less restricted, environment.6

Despite the attractiveness of the proposed venture, Richard hesitated. Fearing that Henry would take advantage of any unauthorized

4Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 247.

5See J. H. Round, "Richard de Clare, or Richard Strong bow," in The Dictionary of National Biography, X, 390. Round disagrees with this view, stating "It appears that he was allowed to retain his title even after the accession of Henry II, when so many of Stephen's earldoms were abolished." No record exists of his possession of the title after Henry's accession, and he certainly did not hold it in 1167. The only mention of Richard in the intervening years is his witness of a royal charter of January 1156. He appears on this document simply as Richard Fitz-Gilbert. Considering the disfavor in which he found himself, it is unlikely that the loss of his title was delayed much after Henry's succession.

6William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, ed. H. C. Hamilton, Book II, Ch. vi. William says of Richard "exhausto fere patrimonio, creditoribus erat supra modum obnoxious; atque idea procivius ad majora invitantibus acquievit."

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 135

action to confiscate his few remaining estates, he stipulated that any arrangements on his part would be conditional upon the acquisition of proper license from the king.7 With this stipulation understood, Richard proceeded to drive a hard bargain with Dermot. The Irish chief was forced to promise Richard the hand of his daughter in marriage and the eventual succession of the throne of Leinster.8 In exchange, Richard gave Dermot his conditional promise to gather his forces and to come to Leinster the coming spring.

The tentative nature of these arrangements apparently left Dermot unsatisfied, for he next directed his steps to St. David's. Here he no doubt hoped to find more immediate support, either from some of the triumphant followers of the Lord Rhys or from the hemmed-in marcher barons of Pembrokeshire.9 He was successful in this endeavor, finding some advantage in a rather peculiar dilemma which faced one of these barons, Robert Fitz-Stephen.

Robert was the son of the Norman castellan of Gilgerran and of the famous Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr. He had followed his father as castellan of Gilgerran until it fell before the attack of the Lord Rhys, Robert's cousin by virtue of their common grandfather, Rhys ap Tewdwr. Robert was captured and placed in Rhys' prison, where he remained for three years. The price of his release was his promise to aid Rhys in the latter's struggle against King Henry. This promise placed Robert in an intolerable position. To honor his agreement would have meant betrayal of his Norman heritage and betrayal of his King, and would have ultimately led him into war against the barons of Pembrokeshire, many of whom were his half-brothers, by virtue of their common mother, Nest. Not to honor his agreement, on the other hand, would have meant betrayal of his Welsh heritage and of his kinsman who championed that heritage, and would have eventually led him back into a Welsh dungeon. The simple fact of the matter is that Robert was a half-breed, and had now to face the problem of divided loyalties which have so often plagued such men.10

Dermot's arrival offered Robert an escape from his dilemma. Lord

7 The Song of Dermot and the Earl, ll. 353-361.

8The value of this promise is somewhat dubious, since, in theory at least, Irish monarchies were elective.

9It must he remembered that Strongbow was well-acquainted with this area and had many supporters there. It is quite possible that Dermot's actions were done at Richard's request.

10Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 229.

136 The Normans in South Wales

Rhys was not adverse to the suggestion that his cousin be released from his promise and be allowed to accompany Dermot. In the first place, Rhys had less need of Robert now, since the danger which had faced the Welsh in 1166 had disappeared with Henry's growing involvement in the controversy with Becket. Secondly, Rhys foresaw that such an expedition would attract the attention of many of the more adventurous of Robert's Norman kinsmen, and Pembroke would be weakened by the loss of its best warriors. Under license from the Lord Rhys a bargain was quickly struck between Dermot and Robert. Robert was joined by his half-brother Maurice Fitz-Gerald in his decision to escape the confining atmosphere in Wales and to seek his fortune in a land where the strength of the enemy was the only limitation upon success. Their resolve earned them the promise of the city of Wexford and the two cantrefs adjoining it.11 Robert and Maurice began their preparations to embark for Ireland in the coming spring.

Thus, by the summer of 1167, Dermot had achieved the promise of substantial aid. Evidently, however, the prospect of waiting a year for the recovery of his position was too much for the Irish chieftain. After concluding his agreement with Robert Fitz-Stephen, he immediately contacted Richard Fitz-Godebert, a Fleming from near Haverford who apparently commanded a small body of mercenaries. At any rate, Dermot and Fitz-Godebert and his small body of troops sailed from St. David's in August, and landed in Leinster. Dermot and his allies were attacked by a large army under the leadership of O'Conor of Connaught and Tiernan O'Rourke. Dermot's force was overwhelmed in the skirmish that followed, but the victors were generous. Dermot was allowed to retain the chieftainship of his own small tribe, and retired to Ferns. The small mercenary band returned to Wales,12 where they no doubt spread the word of Dermot's defeat and the terms of the peace he had accepted.

The spring of 1168 came and went, and none of the Cambro-Normans who had prepared to sail made a move to leave. Dermot remained in Ferns, licking his wounds and making no effort to re-

11As in his agreement with Strongbow, Dermot granted what was not his to give. Wexford, like the other Dansk towns, was independent. Surely Robert and Maurice knew this.

12The Song of Dermot and the Earl, II. 414. Here it is stated that this force did not remain in Ireland long. The most reasonable time for their departure was after Dermot's defeat, since such a mercenary force, however small, would have been of some value to Dermot in battle.

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 137 assure his foreign allies. Apparently his grandiose plans had been abandoned. With the coming of winter, however, his energy and ambition returned. Dispatching Morice Regan, his personal interpreter to Wales, Dermot had him circulate an appeal to mercenaries, and to the poor and land-hungry of that country.

Que tere vodra u deners,
Chevals, harnes, u destres,
Or e argent, lur frai doner
Liuereson asez plener
Que tere u herbe voidra aver,
Richement lus frai feffer
asez lur durra ensement
Estore riche feffement13

In response to this appeal, Robert Fitz-Stephen began organizing an expedition which was to embark in the following spring, 1169. The make-up of this small force deserves considerable attention in that it illustrates the character of the other Cambro-Norman contingents which were to follow. Also, Fitz-Stephen's group represents in miniature the type of military machine which the marchers had developed to meet the rather stringent requirements which a century of frontier life had laid upon them. Fitz-Stephen's force, like the smaller group of Fitz-Godebert before him, was tripartite in character. According to The Song of Dermot, the contingent was composed of "Chevalers, archers, e serianz,"14 Giraldus Cambrensis states that the group consisted of milites, arcarii or sagitarii, and loricati.15 The identity of these men is clear, but some further discussion of the terms is desirable.

The milites, it must be understood, were not "knights" in the more restricted sense of the term. Their very number on this small expedition makes this obvious. Fitz-Stephen numbered thirty such milites in his contingent, drawn mainly from his kinsmen and their retainers. These men were not necessarily members of the nobility, but were rather the fully armored horsemen who performed the "knight-service" which formed the basic obligation of feudal land-tenure. One commentator states that "this class of military men represented what we should now call the landed gentry of the country; a class

13Ibid., ll. 431-438.

14Ibid., L 412.

15Gira1dus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), pp. 230 1.

138 The Normans in South Wales

below barons and knights but of sufficient substance to provide themselves with a war horse and complete armour."16 The milites formed a company of heavy cavalry which represented the core of Fitz-Stephen's organization. Included within this group were three of Fitz-Stephen's nephews, all members of the Geraldine clan: Miles Menevensis, Meiler Fitz-Henry, and Robert of Barri.17

The milites each possessed two or three retainers, mounted but more lightly armed, who formed a supporting light cavalry corps.18 These were the loricati, of whom Fitz-Stephen was able to field sixty. The nature of their armor is difficult to establish. One commentator suggests that the loricati were "half-armoured,"19 but this term seems scarcely definitive. It must suffice to say that the loricati represented a light cavalry force, usually about double the number of the heavy cavalry group with which it operated.

The remaining group, the sagitarii, constituted perhaps the most distinctive feature of the marcher contingents. Certainly the attachment of a body of archers to a basically cavalry force was no innovation in Norman warfare.20 The innovation lay rather in the character of the force, its skill, and the close coordination with which it was employed. The body of sagitarii which accompanied Fitz-Stephen numbered three hundred, a number in accordance with the normal Cambro-Norman ratio of ten archers for each miles. The most surprising thing about Fitz-Stephen's archer force is that they were Welsh. Giraldus describes the group as "de electa Gualliae iuventutae."21 This says much for their skill. The bow had long been the national weapon of the men of South Wales, and they had developed their equipment and techniques through over a century of frontier skirmishes and ambushes. The arrows of the Welsh could penetrate three-inch oak slabs and could inflict mortal wounds through the

16Giraldus Cambrensis, The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis..., eds. and trans. T. Forester and T. Wright, pp.202-203, n. 1.

17Miles was the son of David Fitz-Gerald, bishop of St. David's. Robert of Barri was the brother of Giraldus Cambrensis. Meiler Fitz-Henry was not, properly speaking, a member of the Geraldine clan, but was the illegitimate son of Nesta by Henry I.

18These men were possibly similar to the servientes francigenae often encountered in Domesday Book.

19Giraldus Cambrensis, The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p. 203.

20This is amply illustrated by the Bayeux Tapestry. Also see R. Glover, "English Warfare in 1066," The English Historical Review, LXVII (1952), 1-18.

21Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 230.

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 139

armor of the heavily armored cavalryman.22 It is only natural that the Norman marcher lords adapted this peculiarly effective weapon to their own purposes. It is most probable that this process of assimilation began quite early, and that the seal of Earl Gilbert of Clare (d. 1148), which depicts him holding an exaggerated arrow, was intended as a tribute to his proficiency with the national arm of South Wales. Indeed, considering the invaluable role which this weapon played in the endemic strife of the Welsh frontier, it is likely that Welsh "friendlies" were employed at a date much earlier than the redoubtable earl. At any rate, by 1170, Welsh archers appear to have been thoroughly integrated into the Cambro-Norman military organization, and their longbows were recognized as an essential element for military success.

These archers provided the key to the impressive victories which the Cambro-Normans achieved in the difficult terrain which was characteristic of Leinster. The rational use of flexible contingents of cavalry and archers in combination uniformly proved too powerful even for Irish levies of overwhelmingly superior numbers. The Irish were foot soldiers, disdaining armor, and employing spears, javelins, and the battle-axe which they had borrowed from the Dansk warriors of the coastal towns. Only when hard pressed would they employ slingers as missile troops. Although their impetuous tactics, characteristic and obligatory for lightly armed troops, served them well in broken country, they were no match for cavalry in open terrain. Hence, when possible, the Irish would choose broken and forested terrain in which to fight their battles. In their chosen terrain, however, the Irish now had to face the undoubted superiority of the Welsh archers. Throughout the Cambro-Norman campaigns in Ireland, archers and cavalry were combined, and with devastating results.23

The core of the invading force, however, was still the heavy cavalry so basic to the typical Norman plan of battle. Here, too, the Cambro-Normans had developed special characteristics which better enabled them to wage successfully the type of warfare with which they were faced. Giraldus contrasted the Anglo-Norman and Cambro-Norman milites at great length. His analysis was clouded in some measure by his desire to exalt the role which his kinsmen had played, and in the future could resume, in the subjugation of the Irish. In some

22Both instances may he found in Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, eds. J. S. Brewer et al. Part VI (Itinerarium Kambriae), p. 54. 23Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 397.

140 The Normans in South Wales

measure, too, his comments no doubt reflected the natural antagonism which the Cambro-Norman "pioneers" must have felt toward the recently arrived Anglo-Norman royal "regulars." The essence of Giraldus' remarks is worthy of consideration, however. He pointed out that the conditions of warfare in France, and in Wales and Ireland, were vastly different, and that each set of conditions had developed its own type of warrior.

Warfare in France consisted of massive battles fought in open country between closely marshalled bodies of heavily armored horsemen. In such battles, the best warrior was the one who was the most heavily armored, had the firmest seat, and was the most skilled in close fighting. The equipment and training of the Anglo-Norman knights were designed to secure exactly these qualities. On the marches of Wales, however, warfare consisted of sudden attacks launched or suffered under a variety of conditions, interspersed with long periods of uneasy quiet. The primary virtue of the marcher warrior, therefore, lay in his flexibility. As conditions warranted, he must needs be a mounted knight, an archer, or a light infantryman. These stringent requirements were reflected in his lighter armor and his peculiar saddle.24

These differences in equipment and tactics were paralleled by an equally great difference in psychology. Warfare in France was normally restricted to a definite season; campaigns proceeded along previously determined lines; there was little element of surprise; and the troops were usually well supplied. Between campaigns, there was generally the security and luxury of the winter months. The Anglo-Norman troops in Ireland preferred to be stationed near administrative and supply centers, not only where they could enjoy plenty and hope of advancement, but where there was some measure of collective security and camaraderie.25 The marchers, on the other hand, were well accustomed to the decentralized and desultory nature of frontier warfare. They were prepared to undergo the privations and boredom which attended frontier service, because this was their way of life. In effect, the Cambro-Norman warriors were willing to face the hard, dull, and brutal facts of frontier warfare in a way the Anglo-Normans could not. There was little honor, less glory, and no sportsmanship here; fighting was neither a profession nor a mystique on

24Ibid., p. 386. Giraldus notes that this enabled him to mount and dismount unaided and more quickly.

25Ibid.. pp. 394

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 141

the Welsh frontier - it was a necessity made into a way of life.26 Such was the character of the small force which Robert Fitz- Stephen landed on the coast of Ireland near the town of Wexford in May of 1169. The next day the 400 Cambro-Normans were joined by two additional contingents. One, led by Maurice of Prendergast, consisted of a body of about 150 Flemings from Wales, probably mercenaries with whom Dermot had reached a special arrangement.27 It was maintained as a separate corps, and The Song of Dermot and the Earl generally accords Maurice equal dignity with Fitz-Stephen. To these forces, were added 500 native Irish who arrived under Dermot himself. The allied force, numbering less than 1,100 men, marched immediately upon the town of Wexford.

The Cambro-Norman assault upon Wexford reflected little credit upon their ability, for they were quickly beaten off. The Dansk of Wexford, however, were sufficiently impressed to avoid a second attack, and came to terms with Dermot. The Irish chief immediately fulfilled his promise to Fitz-Stephen by granting him the town. At the same time, he granted two nearby cantrefs to Hervey of Montmorency, a knight who had accompanied Fitz-Stephen. Montmorency's role in the expedition is difficult to ascertain, but the size of the grant indicates that Dermot considered him of some importance. Since he was an uncle of Richard Fits-Gilbert, and since Giraldus terms him an "explorator," and states that he acted "ex parte Ricardi comitis,"28 it seems likely that he was Strongbow's official representative. In any event, Hervey was, like most of the others, a failure at home quo que fugitiuus facie fortunae, inermis et inops..."29

With the capture of Wexford, the Cambro-Normans had secured a port which assured them a safe haven for reinforcements and supplies, and a possible route of escape if misfortune befell them. Their numbers were swelled by the Dansk axemen of the town and by the growing number of Irish who chose to support a successful cause. Under Dermot's direction, they expanded their range of operations, especially inland, into the kingdom of Ossory, ruled by an old foe of

26 Ibid., p. 396. 27This assumes that Maurice's force was similar in make-up to that of Fitz-Stephen. Maurice commanded ten milites. This would mean twenty loricati and one hundred archers.

28Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica). p. 230. 29 Ibid., p. 230.

142 The Normans in South Wales

Dermot. A massive raid was organized which spread wide destruction in the heart of the little kingdom. As the Cambro-Normans returned through the heavily forested highlands lying above the river Barrow, they were set upon by the armies of MacGillipatrick, king of Ossory. Here the Irish first experienced the devastating effects which the Cambro-Normans could achieve through the coordinated use of cavalry and archers. Hard-pressed by the Irish, Maurice of Prendergast posted his small force of archers in the cover lying along the pass leading into the uplands and then ordered a feigned retreat by the cavalry down into the valley floor.30 The Irish were completely deceived and pursued in disorder. They found themselves completely unable to cope with the regrouped cavalry on the valley floor and equally unable to regain the uplands in the face of the sharp-eyed archers. Caught between the two forces, the army of Ossory broke, and the Dansk and Irish axemen finished the bloody work. That evening, over two hundred heads were piled before an exultant Dermot.

Flushed with this success, Dermot began directing his army in similar raids which extended throughout Leinster, apparently with uniform success.31 Soon, however, the Cambro-Normans were faced with a more formidable opponent than the local levies of the small kingdoms of Leinster. The men of Connaught under the high king, Rori O'Conor, joined with the armies of Tiernan O'Rourke and Dermot O'Melaghlin, and with the Dansk of Dublin, and marched into northern Leinster. This was the same combination of enemies that had toppled Dermot in 1166, and now, as then, his supporters rapidly began to fall away from him. Numbered among these deserters was Maurice of Prendergast and his Fleming contingent. For some time now Dermot had been pursuing a program based upon raids directed against the primitive kingdoms of the Irish inland. Such a policy could not have been very popular with the mercenary troops whom Maurice led. These areas held little promise of plunder commensurate with the dangers and difficulties which such operations entailed. To their dissatisfaction was now added the news of the approach of an immense host bent upon their destruction. About two hundred men, or one-third of the Cambro-Norman force, left for Wexford, where they intended to embark for Wales. Dermot,

30For Maurice's tactical dispositions, see The Song of Dermot and the Earl, ll. 664-703.

31For details of these raids, see ibid., ll. 864.

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 143

with whom Maurice had parted on bad terms,32 sent word to Wexford that Maurice was not to be allowed passage. Maurice quickly reacted by offering to sell his services to MacGillipatrick, king of Ossory. Having had ample demonstration of the worth of these Cambro-Norman troops, MacGillipatrick quickly accepted, and Maurice began the march inland to join his forces to those of Dermot's enemies. Dermot was forced to deplete his own forces yet further by dispatching five hundred men to obstruct Maurice's passage into Ossory, an attempt which completely failed. The Cambro-Normans under Robert Fitz-Stephen now found themselves in desperate straits. The armies of their Irish ally were sadly depleted by defections and by the ill-fated expedition against Maurice, and their own forces had been reduced greatly by the withdrawal of the Flemings. Advancing on them from the north was a vast host led by O'Conor, and to the west lay the men of Ossory, now strengthened by the addition of a dangerous Cambro-Norman force under a skilled leader. Fitz-Stephen and Dermot withdrew to a position of some natural defensive strength near Ferns, and, under the former's direction, the Cambro-Normans constructed additional defenses while they awaited the advent of O'Conor's host.

The events that followed were exhaustively described by Giraldus Cambrensis.33 His handling of the events, however, is rather confusing, for his Cambro-Norman bias led him to misjudge completely the significance of what was occurring. And yet, his account is not without a peculiar worth. His materials and prejudices were drawn mainly from the actual participants, no doubt including his uncle, Robert Fits-Stephen himself. He received uncritically, and perhaps embellished a little, the memories which these old warriors proudly treasured of the critical time of the conquest. What Giraldus wrote in these passages was not history; it was the earliest stages of a frontier epic, a legend in the making.

He described a time when the small group of original settlers waited in their rough fortifications as an entire nation in arms marched against them. Though they were few, the far-sighted O'Conor, high king of Ireland, had seen that they were but the advance guard of the whole Cambro-Norman race. If they were to be stopped, it must be

32Ibid., ll. 1092-1093.

33Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), pp. 236-243.

144 The Normans in South Wales

then. O'Conor first made an attempt to separate the settlers from their barbarous but loyal ally. A message sent to Fitz-Stephen offering rewards and safe-conduct if he were to abandon Dermot, was curtly refused. A second message was sent to the latter, offering him the kingdom of Leinster if he were to abandon his allies, and help exterminate these dangerous foreigners. True to his faith, Dermot refused, even with defeat and death confronting him. O'Conor realized that only battle would solve the issue, and so called his troops together, and called upon them to embark on a national crusade, saying, in part:

Wherefore, defending our country and liberty, and acquiring for ourselves eternal renown, let us by a resolute attack and the extermination of our enemies, though they are but few in number, strike terror into many, and by their fate forever deter foreign nations from such nefarious attempts."34

On the other side, Fits-Stephen also made a speech to his Cambro-Norman troops. His words, as reported by Giraldus, probe deeply into the mentality of these early conquerors, the "old warriors," then in their youth. He made it clear that the Cambro-Normans considered themselves a special, and superior, breed of men, when he said:

We derive our descent, originally, in part from the blood of the Trojans, and partly we are of the French race. From the one we have our native courage, from the other the use of armour. Since, then, inheriting such generous blood on both sides, we are not only brave, but well armed.35

It is clear from these words that the archers and men-at-arms of this Cambro-Norman expedition had developed a sense of nationality, an amalgam of Norman and Welsh traditions created in the peculiar conditions on the frontier in South Wales. But the frontier was gone, and their talents no longer found any scope there. These were men for whom conditions in Wales had grown too restrictive; they were losers at home. Fits-Stephen made this clear, not only in his own life, but when he stated, "we have left behind in our native land ample patrimonies which we lost through domestic frauds and intestine mischief."" But it was not adversity at home that had caused

34Ibid., p. 240; translation from The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p. 199.

35Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 242; translation from The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p. 200.

36Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 242; translation from The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p. 200.

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 145

them to leave South Wales. They had come out voluntarily, seeking a land where, with bravery and determination, a man could carve out new patrimonies and find new opportunities. "Wherefore, we are come hither not for the sake of pay or plunder, but induced by the promise of towns and lands, to be granted to us and our heirs forever."37 They had found their new land of scope and opportunity. They were planting a new race in a country in which the sky was the limit. Their sons might rule the land, and the prophecies of their own ancestors might be fulfilled." This was a land of promise, but they were also aware that it was a land of danger. They might fail in their endeavor, but that was a matter of little consequence would die with honor in a good clean fight, and fighting was their business. "One must die, since this is unavoidable and common to all. And yet, if you avoid dishonor, either glory will illuminate your life or the memory of praise will follow your death."39

Despite the speech-making, the fight never occurred. When O'Conor found himself facing the steadfast Cambro-Normans, he began to have second thoughts about the advisability of an attack. Instead, he entered into secret negotiations with Dermot offering him the possibility of an honorable peace. The latter agreed, gave his son to O'Conor as a hostage, and recognized O'Conor's position as high king. In return, O'Conor confirmed him as king of Leinster, and promised him his daughter in marriage. In pursuance of his primary objective, O'Conor extracted a secret promise from him that he would send the Cambro-Normans back to Wales at the earliest possible opportunity. Having achieved this compromise, O'Conor and his force withdrew, and the danger was past Never again would the Cambro-Normans be so weak They had faced an entire nation in arms bent upon their destruction, and, by steadfastness and courage, had forced their enemies to falter, temporize, and lose their opportunity. The moment of crisis had come and had passed.

Such at least was the legend which Giraldus Cambrensis preserved for us. These are memories, aided by the passage of two decades, and embellished by the rhetoric of a masterful romanticist. What was the historical actuality? Our other Norman source, The Song of Dermot and the Earl, is of little help, for it chooses to ignore

37Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 242; translation from The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p. 200.

38Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), pp.242-243.

39Ibid., p.243. Author's translation.

146 The Normans in South Wales

the entire series of events. This in itself, however, is indicative that Giraldus' account may be somewhat distorted. There can be only two explanations for the Song's omission of this episode. Either it represents an attempt to suppress an affair which was a defeat for Dermot, the hero of the account, or else the entire series of events was of little real significance. Although the former interpretation appears the more likely, either is in poor accordance with the heroic account contained in Giraldus.

The Irish Annals of the Four Masters contains an account of the encounter near Ferns, but with a far different emphasis. Here was no nation in arms bent upon the destruction of the hated foreigners, but only one of a series of expeditions which O'Conor led into various parts of Ireland in that year. At the end of a long passage describing the events of the year 1169, the annalist summarized the Leinster affair as follows:

The King of Ireland... O'Conor... afterwards proceeded into Leinster, and... [with] Tiernan O'Rourke and Dermot O'Meaglaughlin, king of Teamhair. . . and the foreigners of Atha Cliath Dublin, went to meet the men of Munster, Leinster, and Osraigh; and they set nothing by the Flemings; and... Dermot MacMurrough. . . gave his son as hostage to...O'Conor.40

The brevity with which the annalist records the event gives some indication of the true significance of the expedition into Leinster and of Dermot's subsequent capitulation. Viewed as part of the broad sweep of Irish events, the expedition against Leinster was but a single episode in O'Conor's governmental policy. In G. H. Orpen's opinion, O'Conor's object, primarily at least, was not to get rid of the handful of foreigners, in his eyes almost a negligible quantity, still less was it to expel Dermot, but to obtain his submission, exact more important hostages, and regularize his position in Leinster. These objects he for the moment obtained.41

In some measure, however, the legend contains more truth than the historical actuality. This was a critical episode, not only for the

40Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616..., ed. and trans. J. O'Donovan, II, 1172. 41Orpen, Ireland under the Normans, I, 173.

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 147

beleaguered Cambro-Normans, but for the Irish themselves. At this moment, O'Conor could have expelled or exterminated the handful of intruders and indefinitely postponed the massive invasions which were to follow. Against the broad background of Irish politics, however, it was difficult for the Irish king to gauge the true significance of the presence of this small group. If he had been able to do so, he would no doubt have bent every effort to exterminate them. The Cambro-Normans were saved, but not by their strength and determination; rather they were protected by their weakness. Giraldus and the Cambro-Normans erred in crediting O'Conor with a great deal more insight than he in fact possessed.

With danger from O'Conor past, at least for the moment, Fitz-Stephen and Dermot turned to the threat posed by the alliance between MacGillipatrick and Maurice of Prendergast. By the fall of the year they were successful in this area: the men of Ossory had been thoroughly cowed and Prendergast and his Flemings had returned to Pembrokeshire. Thus, by the close of the year 1169, Dermot had achieved all those aims which had originally impelled him to seek foreign aid. He had been confirmed as king of Leinster, and all major areas of this kingdom had been pacified. The time had now come when, according to his agreement with O'Conor, he was to send his Cambro-Norman allies home. Dermot's ambitions had increased, however, as he became better aware of the power with which the possession of these foreign troops had endowed him. He now resolved to increase the size of his Cambro-Norman contingent as much as possible and, through them, to seize Connaught and the monarchy of all Ireland.42

To do this, he soon saw, he must persuade Richard Fitz-Gilbert to end his procrastination, and to take an active part in the expedition. According to Giraldus, he sent a letter to Strongbow, which stated, in part, "if you come in time with a strong force, the other four parts of the kingdom will be easily united to the fifth....43 Needless to say, this new proposal was extremely attractive to the earl. Dermot had promised that he should be heir to the kingdom of Leinster; he now offered all of Ireland. The offer also presented the earl some diffi-

42Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 246.

43Ibid., pp. 246-247; translation from The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p.205.

148 The Normans in South Wales

culties, however. The original letter of patent which Henry had granted Dermot had stipulated:

Wherefore, whosoever within the bounds of our territories shall be willing to give him [Dermot] aid, as our vassal and liegeman, in recovering his territories, let him be assured of our favor on that behalf.44

Dermot's new proposal went far beyond the terms of Henry's original grant Far from merely recovering his own territories, he now contemplated the conquest of all Ireland. The prospect was alluring, but it became doubly necessary for Strongbow to receive specific permission from his monarch. It also was necessary that he hide from Henry how favorable his prospects were. He went to the court, assuming the role of a man driven to desperation, and petitioned the king either to grant him those lands which were his by right of inheritance, or to give him permission to depart the country and seek his fortune in other realms. Apparently Henry refused to give a direct reply, but Strongbow seized upon a chance remark the king made and interpreted it as the permission he had sought." He departed the court and made preparations for an expedition to Ireland.

About the middle of August in 1170, Strongbow began to move along the old coast road, heading for Milford and gathering recruits along the way. In Pembrokeshire the addition of Maurice of Prendergast's force brought his total strength to about two hundred milites and a thousand infantry. It must be noted that the symmetry of the earlier Cambro-Norman contingents here breaks down. This was a more cosmopolitan group, numbering among its members groups of javelin men and of English infantry. Meanwhile, Henry had been reconsidering his rather hasty words, and, even as this force was prepared to embark, a message came from the king forbidding the expedition.46 It was too late for Strongbow to yield, and, on August 23, 1170, he landed his force near Waterford. On the 25th, they moved

44Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), pp. 227-228; translation from The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, p. 186.

45Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 248. Giraldus states that Richard "accepta igitur quasi licentia, ironica namque magia quam vera. .. ." Also see Gervase of Canterbury, The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, Edited from the Manuscripts, ed. W. Stubbs, Part I, p. 234. Gervase states clearly, ". . . unde praedictus comes tristis effectus licentiam abeundi petiit et abtinuit

46Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, Part V (Expugnatio Hibernica), p. 259.

The Cambro-Norman Reaction 149

against the town and, after having been twice repulsed, effected a breach in the walls. The troops entered, and a general slaughter took place.

A few days later, Dermot arrived and, under the watchful eyes of the Cambro-Norman garrison, consummated his alliance with Richard Fitz-Gilbert by wedding his daughter, Eva, to the Cambro-Norman leader. This wedding marks the high point of Cambro-Norman hopes in Ireland. Their recognized leader was now heir to the entire kingdom of Leinster, and was ready to lead them to the conquest of the rest of Ireland. Great accomplishments lay behind them, and vast opportunities lay ahead.

Even at that very time, however, their period of high hopes was drawing to an end. Their Irish frontier was to be denied to them, much as had been Wales. King Henry, hearing of the Cambro-Norman successes, began to fear the effects of an independent or even semi-independent kingdom in the hands of these turbulent and untamed warriors. He took immediate steps to halt their progress and to bring them to heel. An edict was issued ordering the adventurers to return home upon pain of confiscation, and, at the same time, Irish ports were closed to all English shipping. The Cambro-Normans were thus cut off from their sources of supply and reinforcement. Strongbow took the only course open to him, and dispatched a lieutenant to the royal court, humbly offering Henry immediate overlordship of all lands which had been won.47

On the 18th of October, 1171, King Henry landed at Waterford, and commenced the task of regulating and ordering the realm which he had so easily won. The details of this process are irrelevant; the Cambro-Normans were robbed of their frontier, and the repressive and restrictive royal authority which they had sought to escape had followed them across the sea. Courtiers, sycophants, politicians, and other johnnie-come-latelys followed in the wake of the king, and it was by these people that Ireland was carved up and divided. The frontiersmen were forced to step aside, and see a new order of things instituted; an order in which they had no part. Giraldus is bitter in his denunciation of this injustice:

... therefore we treated the old soldiers of the land, through whose attack we gained entry into this island, as if they were suspect, as if they were

47 Ibid., p. 259.

150 The Normans in South Wales

repudiated. Taking counsel only with newcomers, having faith only in newcomers, we considered only newcomers worthy of honor.48

There was no place further for the old warriors to go, and so they settled down to the thankless task of garrison duty along a frontier which no longer meant opportunity, but toil. Their frontier had come to an end. As these men passed away, so, too, did the last generation of the Cambro-Norman conquerors.

48Ibid., p. 395 (Author's translation).

<< 6: The Welsh Reaction || 8: The Cambro-Norman Society of South Wales >>