Saturday, March 23, 2013

Eight Centuries of Life and History in an Irish Castle

By Arthur Russell

Trim Castle on the River Boyne in in Co Meath was the largest castle built by the Norman adventurers who came to conquer Ireland in 1169.  It was built by Hugh deLacy who accompanied King Henry II on his visit to Ireland during the winter of 1171/72.

The purpose of the Royal visit was twofold. Henry was anxious to absent himself from London where the murder of Thomas a Becket had recently occurred, with accusing fingers being pointed at him. After all, it was known that he had often expressed the desire to rid himself of “this troublesome priest”, and England was being threatened to be placed under interdict by the Pope.

Henry's second purpose was to put shape and organization on the two year old conquest of Irish territory, which he feared might be going in a direction not to his liking, and which might threaten his Empire.

His main worry was the ambition of the leader of the invasion, Sir Richard “Strongbow” deClare, who had gone to Ireland without his permission and had just married the daughter of the King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, also without his permission.

This raised the possibility of Strongbow becoming an Irish king in his own right. As such, he might not acknowledge allegiance to King Henry, who had years earlier snubbed his advancement in Wales.  Henry came with a huge army, not just to impress his own subjects, but also Gaelic chieftains whom he hoped to overawe into accepting his overlordship.

Between October 1171 and March 1172, Henry held court in Dublin and accepted the submission of all his knights and of any Gaelic chieftain who felt inclined to give it. The presence of such an overwhelming army on Irish soil forced even Ard-Ri (High King) Rory O’Connor to bend the knee for the first time in history for an Irish Ard-Rí to do this to a foreign power.

Grant to Hugh deLacy

To set limits to the power of Strongbow in the South East (Leinster), Henry granted the central ancient Kingdom of Meath to Sir Hugh deLacy, who was a trusted and well regarded administrator in his retinue. This grant was made in spite of the fact that the Gaelic MacLochlainn kings of Meath, among others, had pledged loyalty to Henry. This should have assured them of his care and protection, but clearly Henry had other ideas in mind for their territories.

The ambitious deLacy set about the task of making good on the grant with a will, and over a period of 5 years filled the territory “from the Shannon to the sea” with castles and fortifications manned with mail-clad soldiers which he brought with him from his Welsh marchland castles of Ludlow and Woebley.

After several setbacks, which saw his first fortifications on the River Boyne at Trim being destroyed by the Irish under Rory O’Connor, Trim was eventually established as the centre of his new Irish Lordship. The huge stone castle which was built to replace the initial wood and earthen fortifications after 1175, soon became the administrative centre for the entire English colony in Ireland.

DeLacy had to borrow large sums from Jewish financiers in England to pay for all his building projects. These transactions caused considerable difficulties for his heirs right through the following century.

DeLacy’s success in Meath came at a price too as the ever jealous Henry constantly worried about his liegeman’s ambitions. This came to a head when deLacy married the daughter of the Irish Ard-Rí, thereby raising the possibility that Hugh might think to add to his title of Lord of Meath that of Ard-Rí of all Ireland. No wonder Henry celebrated when he heard in 1186, that deLacy had been killed by an Irish workman as he oversaw the building of yet another castle in the Irish midlands.

The Lordship of Meath and Trim castle passed to Hugh’s son Walter who, because he was a minor, brought it under Royal control until he reached his majority. After reaching his 21st birthday, Walter sided with King Richard Lionheart against his brother Prince John.

John subsequently declared Trim, among other key strongholds in Ireland, to be “Royal”. John stayed in the castle during his second visit to Trim in 1210, after he was crowned. Trim was henceforth called King John’s Castle.

But it was subsequently restored to Walter deLacy in 1214. Nine years later (1223), he had to subject the castle to a seven week long siege after it had been occupied by his brothers, Hugh and William, both of whom disputed his claim to the Lordship.

After Walter died without male heir in 1238, the title once more reverted to the Crown.

In 1254, the Lordship of Meath was divided between his two deLacy daughters, Matilda and Margery. Matilda and her second husband Geoffrey deGeneville (from Vaucouleur in France) took possession of the castle as part of their share. Geoffrey’s many commitments did not allow him to spend much time in Ireland, though he retired to Trim towards the end of his life. Matilda died in 1304, after which Geoffrey became a monk at the nearby Dominican monastery of St Mary’s in Trim.

In 1283 Matilda and Geoffrey had settled Trim and estate on their eldest son, Peter deGeneville, who died nine years later. This led to the castle and estate being settled on Peter’s eldest daughter, Joan, who married the up and coming Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and later Earl of March.

The Mortimer family and Trim Castle

Thus in 1308, Trim Castle came into the possession of the influential Mortimer family, an association which lasted for the next 120 years.

Roger Mortimer’s main rivals were two deLacy cousins who felt they were rightfully entitled to inherit Hugh deLacy’s estates.

The invasion of Edward Bruce (1315-18) gave the cousins what initially seemed like a glorious opportunity to make good on their claim. As the Scottish armies swept through Ireland and almost put an end to English rule and influence, the cousins allied themselves to Bruce.

Walter Cusack, Mortimer’s constable, managed to hold onto Trim Castle during the period, even after Mortimer was defeated at the Battle of Kells in late 1315 and had to flee to England to try to raise an army to roll back the invasion.

After the defeat of Bruce at Faughart in October 1318, Roger Mortimer spent 2 years settling his own as well as Irish affairs as Lord Lieutenant of a greatly reduced English colony in Ireland. This included his revenge against the renegade cousins and the imprisonment and starving of one of them in the dungeons under Trim castle. (A medieval example of in-laws not being nice to each other!)

In 1332, during Mortimer’s difficulties with King Edward II, his wife Joan was forced to surrender Trim Castle, but had it restored after Mortimer deposed Edward. Despite Mortimer’s execution in 1330 by Edward III and the forfeiture of all Mortimer estates, Joan was reinstated and awarded the titles of Lady of Trim and Countess of Meath in 1347. She died aged 70 years in 1356, having survived the Black Death of 1348-50.

By then she had bequeathed Trim castle to her grandson, another Roger Mortimer, who had served bravely at the battle of Crecy, France in 1346. Roger died in 1360 leaving the estate to his 8 year old son, Edward Mortimer who, when he reached his majority, became the largest landowner in Ireland.

He was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland by King Richard II and died while campaigning in Munster in 1381.

Between 1381 until 1403, Trim was under the care of Constable John Reyne until the next Roger Mortimer, Edward’s son, was old enough to take over. This Roger accompanied King Richard II on his abortive Irish campaign during the 1390’s and lived at Trim castle for over 4 years.

He was actually named as Richard’s successor to the English throne, but this possibility ended when he was killed in a skirmish with a Gaelic raiding party in nearby Kells in 1398.

Before King Richard II left Ireland to meet his own fate, he left two young hostages prisoner in Trim Castle. One of these was Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, and Humphrey, the son of the Earl of Gloucester.
The next in the Mortimer line, Edward, was just 6 years old and had to wait until 1420 before he assumed title to his estates. The young man was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1424 but contracted plague and died a year later. He was the last of the male Mortimer line connected with Trim Castle.

War of the Roses

During the Wars of the Roses, Trim Castle, now a Royal castle, became a bolt-hole for princes and pretenders depending on how their fortunes were faring in England.

In 1449, Richard of York lived in the castle while he was Lieutenant of Ireland after the Battle of Ludford (1459). He was subsequently killed at the Battle of Wakesfield in 1451 and his son Edward was crowned Edward IV after the Battle of Towton in 1452.

The castle continued to be regarded as a Royal bastion for the remainder of the 15th century and along with Dublin, was refurbished and upgraded to reflect its royal status.

In 1521, Lord Lieutenant Garret Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, was ordered to carry out repairs to both royal Irish castles by King Henry VIII. Three years later, Garret’s son, the man nicknamed Silken Thomas (from the flamboyance of his attire) attacked and captured Trim castle on hearing the false rumour put about by Kildare’s enemies that the Earl had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by the King.

The defeat of that rebellion resulted in the breaking of Kildare’s power and could be regarded as the first phase of the eventual total English conquest of the entire island of Ireland at the beginning of the reign of James II in the first decades of the 17th century.  

Decline of Trim Castle

The introduction of gunpowder during the 15th century reduced the effectiveness of stone castles so strongholds such as Trim began to be neglected in favour of buildings where comfort and elegance was considered ahead of defence.

During the upheavals of the middle 17th century, while being used as a barracks by the Cromwellian commander, Sir Aidan Loftus, some of Trim Castle's walls and timbers were pillaged by soldiers and townspeople. At the end of the century, Williamite forces also used the structure as a military base, but the dilapidation of the buildings continued.

By the beginning of the 18th century the ruined castle and its surrounding lands had become the property of the Wellesley family, whose most famous son, Arthur, Duke of Wellington, victor of the Peninsular War and Waterloo, was born in 1769, and grew up in the family seat near Trim.
Note - An interesting quote reputedly made in the House of Commons in 1843 by the Irish member, Daniel O’Connell, suggests that O’Connell disowned Wellington and all Anglo Irish “gentry” as not being truly Irish or capable of representing Irish interests. The poor old Duke! What shall I say of him? To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.

There is however a conflicting theory about the authorship of the remark which attributes the last part of the quotation to the Duke, anxious to distance himself from his Irish origins. Whatever, the present day citizens of Trim are rather proud of the “Old Duke” and claim him as one of their own. An obelisk with a statue of the Duke on top, erected after the Duke's death, still stands proudly in the centre of their town.

In 1859 the ownership of Trim Castle passed to the Leslie family from Co Monaghan before they sold it to the Plunkett family of nearby Dunsany Castle.

During the 1930’s the local town Council became quite concerned about the safety of the ruined building which stands in the very centre of Trim, a busy market town. Access to the castle was restricted and it was eventually closed to the public. A proposal made at the time, which happily did not find any support among council members, was to demolish the ruins and use the stones as road metal!

The recently deceased Lord Dunsany sold the castle to the Irish state in 1993 who invested heavily in rendering it safe for visitors and opened it to the public. It is now a must see target venue for anyone interested in Ireland’s medieval history.

Trim Castle – a twentieth (and 21st) century film star

In recent years, Trim castle has acquired a new role in its eight centuries long life. It has been used as the setting for major historic films--the most notable being “Braveheart” where the inside of the central castle keep was used to depict the English court of King Edward I (“Longshanks”), while the outside of the castle and its ambience depicts the country around York castle where many of the film’s siege and battle scenes take place.
The picture shows the window on the third floor of the castle keep from where the enraged Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) defenestrated the hapless Philip, friend, lover and self proclaimed “adviser” to his son, Prince Edward (later King Edward II).

After all the events witnessed and experienced by Trim Castle’s halls and porticos over the centuries, the old Norman pile clearly still has a lot of life and history to witness and experience in the years ahead. Eight centuries from now, I am sure there will still be interesting things going on in Trim Castle.


Trim castle, its constable Walter Cusack and its Lord, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and Lord of Meath, feature in my historic fiction novel, Morgallion, which is set in early 14th century Ireland during the Scottish invasion led by Edward Bruce.
See more on website  Or visit me on my Facebook page.


  1. This was a great article. I learned so much history from it. Thank you for such a thorough treatment.

  2. Oh, mediaeval politics! No wonder Henry II was worried! Fascinating life of a castle. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Talk about built to last! I am so impressed with how those old castles have stood for centuries as history happens around them.

    Thanks for sharing!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.