Monday, April 25, 2016

John 'Lackland', Lord of Ireland.

By E.M. Powell

I doubt if King John, youngest son of Henry II, needs much introduction. The 800th anniversary of his issuing of Magna Carta was celebrated only last year. Being referred to as Bad King John also tends to stick in people’s minds.  As for Robin Hood, I will say nothing.

Royal Mail Magna Carta Stamp.
© E.M. Powell

But I’d like to share one of the lesser known episodes in John’s life: his first campaign in Ireland. For on this day, April 25, in 1185, John landed at the port of Waterford on the south east coast with three hundred knights in tow. He hadn’t arrived as King John, but as the eighteen year old Lord of Ireland. No spoilers, of course, but John being John, all did not go well.

King John as shown on Waterford's Great Charter Roll c. 1370
© E.M. Powell

We need to rewind a little to understand why John went there in the first place. Because EHFA is such a wonderful, well-informed blog, you can read a detailed account of the reasons in this post from last month here. The short recap is that Henry II first visited Ireland in 1171. He had already sent troops there and he wanted to stamp his authority on it. But by 1185 it was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power.

One of those barons was Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath. De Lacy had turned into a major thorn in Henry’s side, being far too good at his job for the King’s liking. Yes, de Lacy had taken the ancient kingdom of Meath (Mide) from the Irish and constructed many castles. But he’d also married a daughter of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), the Irish High King. Some chroniclers suggest that de Lacy was lining up to take all of Ireland from Henry.

Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle in Co. Meath.
© E.M. Powell

The King looked for a solution and believed he’d found it in John. He’d made the nine year old John Lord of Ireland at the Council of Oxford in 1177. Now that John was an adult, it was time for him to assume responsibility for the troublesome isle. One would think John would have been pleased. After all, he’d borne the nickname of ‘Lackland’ (given to him by Henry) for some time. Trouble was, John possibly had his sights set on the Holy Land. Its ruler, King Baldwin IV, was stricken with leprosy and the Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in England looking for a prince to succeed him.

John’s desires were thwarted.  On the 18th March 1185, the Patriarch came before Henry’s Council at Clerkenwell for a decision. The decision was a refusal. John would not be going east, but west. He would be going to Ireland. Even worse news for John was that he would not be going as king. Yes, the title of Lord of Ireland was Dominus Hiberniae- dominus being the title accorded to a king before he was actually crowned. But Pope Lucius III would not sanction it. John would remain under the superior lordship of the Angevin dominions. He was not to be independent of his father. Henry knighted John at Windsor on March 31st and sent him on his way.

The port  of Waterford today.
© E.M. Powell

Happily for us, Henry also included his royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, in the entourage and Gerald wrote an account of the expedition in his Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). I did mention earlier that all did not go well and it was so from pretty much the moment John’s boots met Irish soil. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings.

Reginald's Tower, Waterford City
© E.M. Powell

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’

Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish King of Thomond, Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donal O'Brien), where they reported back to him and others on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him. Those ‘who had previously been enemies became friends for the first time.’


One of Gerald's depictions of the Irish.
British Library- Public Domain

Having alienated many of the Irish, John then began making grants of land to his own friends— land that loyal supporters of Henry already held. The result, according to Gerald, was that those who were dispossessed ‘went over to the side of the enemy.’ And John carried on. He set about establishing castles to take control of the land. We know from Gerald that there were three sites: Tibberaghny, in Co.  Kilkenny, Ardfinnan in Co. Tipperary and Lismore in Co. Waterford.

Slievenamon, Co. Tipperary, as viewed from the site at Tibberaghny.
© E.M. Powell

These speculative grants were a huge mistake, unleashing the ire of the likes of the powerful Ua Briain. Ua Briain had been one of the first to submit to Henry back in 1171, yet ‘the stripling’ John would receive nothing of the sort. Fierce fighting broke out and there were losses of life on both sides. John (or rather, his more able men) made a few gains, but his forces were well and truly routed in equal amounts by some of the native Irish kings. His less able men drank, caroused and fought with each other. When John failed to pay them, they deserted.

As with so many of his writings, Gerald can be accused of bias, for it was his Cambro-Norman kinsmen who made up the first wave of colonists in Ireland. Yet Roger of Howden is of the same view, listing selfish behaviour by John, non-payment of his armies and subsequent desertion and bad losses to the Irish.

The Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

One would have thought that John would have accepted some responsibility for his failings. But no. Instead, he accused one of Henry’s men of treacherous dealings with the Irish. And that man of course was Hugh de Lacy. There is no suggestion that de Lacy did anything to interfere with John’s campaign. He was by now immensely powerful: Constable of Dublin, and still holding his own vast lordship of Meath. De Lacy did join John for part of his travels through Ireland. What is interesting is that while de Lacy witnessed several of John’s charters, none of them are John’s grants of lands to his friends. It is possible that de Lacy, hugely successful on the battlefield as well as on the diplomatic front, wanted nothing to do with John’s cronyism.

Ninth Century High Cross, Durrow, County Offaly.
© E.M. Powell

John’s campaign ended in Dublin where he stayed until returning to Henry in December 1185, after only eight months as Lord of Ireland. He complained bitterly to the King about the Irish and Hugh de Lacy, and squarely blamed de Lacy for his failure. If de Lacy was poised to make a bid for Ireland, we will never know. De Lacy was assassinated at Durrow, Co. Offaly in July 1186 by an Irish axe-man. Henry is said to have rejoiced at the news and made preparations to send John back to Ireland to assume control. A new Pope had agreed to John’s coronation.

It was not to be. John was mid-journey when news came of his brother Geoffrey’s death. Now just two sons remained: Richard and John. John was needed elsewhere. It would be another twenty four years before John would set foot in Ireland again. And by 1210, he would no longer be Lackland: he would be King John. But he still would not be the English King of Ireland. That would take more than 300 years and another Henry- Henry VIII.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
References:
Church, S.D.: King John: New Interpretations, Boydell Press (1999).
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese: Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
McLynn, Frank: Lionheart & Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest: Vintage Books (2007)
Morris, Marc: King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta: Hutchinson (2015)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: King John/Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland, was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting www.empowell.com.

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4 comments:

  1. Excellent post. John had a particular genius for making trouble. Was it arrogance or stupidity I wonder?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Cryssa- so pleased you enjoyed it. As for figuring out what drove John, I would definitely agree with arrogance! For the rest, I found the book by Marc Morris that I referenced above to be an excellent take on John's complex and flawed personality.

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  2. I loved this post. What a story. And superb telling.

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