Friday, October 5, 2018

A Merchant Visits Waterford in the Summer of 1170

by Ruadh Butler

The sun is high in the sky, the wind is from the south-east and above you the square sail of your merchant vessel bulges like a bishop’s belly. It is the middle of April 1170 and you have a whole season of trading ahead. You are determined that this year will be your best year. This year is the one where you score a fortune. News of hostility between King Henry II and the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, means little to you, hardly more than the stories out of North Wales where a civil war is said to rage between the sons of Prince Owain of Gwynedd. For you are a trader, a merchant out of Gloucester, and your only concern is to get your cargo of that city’s famous iron, textile and leather products across the Irish Sea.

The ship below your feet is called Kittiwake and you have captained her for almost ten years. Wide bottomed and single-masted, she has seen you safely into ports all over Europe, from faraway Bordeaux to the dangerous waters of Flanders and Frisia. In the last week, Kittiwake has seen you and your six-man crew safely down the Severn to Bristol where you had traded wrought-iron for cheap wine, and to Cardiff where you bartered for sheepskins and ale. The wine you sold to the Lord of Oystermouth, the ale to a Flemish colonist in St Bride’s Bay. At the behest of your wife back in Gloucester, you paid for Mass to be said at St David’s Cathedral. And the next morning you knew that it had been money well spent for the squalls which had dogged your journey down the Welsh coastline had finally vanished thanks to the priests’ intercession.

Kittiwake is really more of a coastal vessel, but she has proven herself on the open ocean before, and the short crossing from West Wales to the south-eastern tip of Ireland takes only six hours thanks to perfect sailing conditions. You trim your sails, and point your bows towards a faint grey blur on the horizon. It is a mountain in the midst of Ireland that some amongst your crew call Mount Leinster. Several hours into your journey, you spot land. The nearest town to Wales, Wexford, is normally your overnight stop before you head north to the great market of Dublin. However, you’ve heard stories of a Norman knight from Ceredigion, Robert FitzStephen, and his violent takeover of Wexford the summer before, of disruptions to trade and his ejection of the Danish townsfolk, of your usual business contacts in the city. That all screams ‘lower prices’ and so you pull the steering board to your stomach and change course. Kittiwake is going west and you soon pass between the mainland and some little islands filled with squawking gulls. It is already late afternoon and ahead on a long thin peninsula you see a fire burning brightly. It is only as you draw nearer that you see the beacon out on Hook Head, warning sailors of the danger of the low lying landmass and maintained by the monks of St Dubháin.

As you round the cape and enter the estuary you feel the weight of the tidal race as it slams against Kittiwake’s hull. However, the wind is with you and although you are driven towards the western shore by the current you have the skill to keep her at a safe distance.

The river narrows as you sail northwards, the forests which hang heavy on both sides seem to close in around you. Your crew’s voices drop to barely a whisper as if they fear that to speak loudly will lead to attack from assailants unseen. There are muddy beaches with little coracles pulled up on shore. There are small settlements here and there, but each seems deserted of people. You pilot Kittiwake to the deepest parts of the river anyway. The wind has dropped and your men have taken to the oars. Ahead a lone hill guards the point where the river splits in two. You were told in Wales that the arm heading north is called the River Barrow while the other, bearing west, is the River Suir. It is on that western course where the great Ostman city of Waterford lies, but you are already wondering if you have taken a wrong route for surely you would have seen some hint of the city by now? You have travelled fully six miles from the sea. Evening is falling and you determine to keep going along the wide winding river. It is only as the Suir turns north-west four miles later that you breathe a sigh of relief for, above a vast marsh, Waterford has come into view.

Map of Waterford during the late medieval period
(Richard Roche, The Norman Invasion of Ireland; Anvil Books, 1970)

The first thing you see over the swaying mass of bulrushes and sparse trees is Reginald’s Tower. It is the most eastern point of the city and is at least thirty feet tall. Though made out of timber, it is covered from top to bottom in daub so that it looks like it might be made of stone. A long wall, similarly constructed from daub and wood, stretches for a fifth of a mile along the riverbank to where a second stronghold, Turgesius’ Tower, reaches skyward in the extreme north-west. Below this wall, numerous jetties extend into the midst of the Suir and you can already see that the wharf is crammed with shipping, the beach with merchants, tents and their wares. The opposite bank of the wide river is blanketed in heavy forest for as far as you can see inland.

Reginald's Tower was reconstructed in stone on the site of the Viking
building around 1200 by the victorious Normans (Ruadh Butler)

With all the jetties full of vessels, you spot a second landing point – a deepwater pool has been cut out of the marshland and a smaller wharf has been constructed under Reginald’s Tower. You push the steering board away from you and, still under oar, Kittiwake pulls towards the wharf below the tower. Ahead you see where the walls of the triangular city join and you call out the orders that bring you safely into a berth.

The man on the wharf shouts a greeting in several languages – Gaelic, Norse and Danish – none of which you understand. In dress he is little different to the Englishmen who work your ship, although his clothes bear a strange swirling Irish designs along the hem. At his hip is an axe. You call back questions in Norman French and then in your native English, but he does not understand. You try a third time, in stammering Latin and, somewhat surprisingly, he seems to comprehend, replying in equally poor Latin that there is a daily fee for using the port and that you have to pay it directly to the Jarl. It is not expensive and soon you and some of your crew are walking through the tight little streets made from splits logs inside the city walls. You estimate that in total Waterford covers around twenty acres. Each house bears the signs of commercial activity: a blacksmith, a silversmith, a leather worker, an inn – every abode in the city doubles as a shop. Every house has a garden too. Many have cattle or pigs or geese and the largest have high stone fences separating them. There are houses outside the walls of course but they are of less quality, the homes of the poor.

Picture of the Three Sisters river basin at Cheekpoint with the
River Barrow at the top and River Suir flowing to the left
(Irish Cruising Club Sailing Directions, tenth edition 2001)

Under Reginald’s Tower is the biggest of all the houses in Waterford, bigger even than St Olav’s Church which you pass on your journey. It is built like a feasting hall, and is obviously the home of the leading man in the city. It is in that direction that you walk. Being a man of Gloucester which still bears Roman walls, and having visited some of the greatest cities of Europe, Waterford doesn’t impress you much. But as you pass through you begin to understand its importance. Twenty different languages are spoken and you cannot mistake the jingle of coins as they swap hands. Commodities of every type are bartered, far more range than in Gloucester or any of the Welsh towns on the coast. Only Bristol or Chester could rival the range of products! You see Frankish and Flemish and Frisian men; men in great turbans from distant Outremer; you hear Portuguese and Spanish and see great vats of wine bearing the arms of Cadiz and Sicily.

A flimsy looking wattle fence divides the great hall from the rest of the city and you are searched for weapons as you enter the building. It is dark inside, but you have been in a feasting hall before and know all the customs. Up on the dais are three men and you are introduced to them in the Danish and Irish tongues. Jarl Ragnall is the oldest man and beside him sit two younger men both called Jarl Sihtric. Each is head of one of the leading families in the city, and each vies for supremacy over the other. Factional infighting breaks out often and it is only in times of crisis that these men come together as one. For more than a century that has been in order to face the might of the O’Brien Kings of Munster, to either accept their terms as overlord, or to fight them. Now, however, a different threat faces the city and all three men, upon hearing details of your journey, demand answers of you.

Ragnall himself asks about a Welsh baron called Sir Richard de Clare. You have heard of him of course and his castle at Striguil on the border with England, and you tell him all that you know. Ragnall is disappointed with your answers outlining Sir Richard’s military power. The two Sihtrics then begin their interrogation. They ask how long it would take Sir Richard to raise an army, how many ships he could assemble and where he would land if he were to journey to Ireland. They demand to know about the deal he struck with the King of Leinster. That strikes a chord in your memory. You do remember hearing how an Irish king promised his daughter in marriage to Richard de Clare! The deal was that the Norman baron would fight for the king and in return he would become heir to the land of Leinster.

"Will he come to Waterford," Ragnall demands, and you don’t have an answer for him.

Almost as an afterthought, one of the Sihtrics demands a few coins for your berth on the city wharf and then grants permission for you to trade in the market the next day. Dismissed, you leave the hall and walk back through the city. Tallow candles burn behind shuttered windows, but it is a clear night and the moon casts enough light for you to safely find your way back to Kittiwake.

Gloucester is famous around Europe for the quality of its iron products and you soon sell out of those. Your cargo of textiles and leather goods last longer but they are all sold by the time the market wraps up the next evening. You and your crew spend the night drinking and making merry in Waterford and leave, a little bit worse for wear, at dawn. Kittiwake’s hold is now stuffed with animal hides – cow to be made into vellum by Frankish monasteries; sheep, wolf, marten and otter skins to make clothes to guard against the winter cold; and bird skins, the most valuable of all. You also had three large Irish dogs and many sacks of wool. Your destination is Flanders where such commodities are in high demand. With the profits you will journey down the coast to Aquitaine where you will purchase wine to sell in Gloucester and Bristol.

The thought of all those profits warms you as you journey back down the River Suir towards the Irish Sea. No light burns in the Hook Head beacon as you round the cape. You follow the coast eastwards, hoping to make Wales by late afternoon, but you have only gone a few leagues when something catches your eye. On a little headland just a mile from Hook Head you see a ship pulled up on a beach. On closer inspection you identify it as Norman built. Above it is a vast pennant, blowing in the wind and you recognise the coat of arms: crimson chevrons and a golden field. They are the colours of Sir Richard de Clare. You tug on the steering board and direct Kittiwake further out to sea for you don’t want to be part of their sort of trouble. Strongbow has come to Ireland and the Norman conquest of Waterford will soon begin.


Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland and Lord of the Sea Castle. They tell the story of the 12th century Norman invasion of Ireland. The third in the series, The Earl Strongbow, will be published by Accent Press on October 4th.


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  1. Excellent article giving a real flavour of 'how it was'. Thanks.

  2. Very enjoyable, well told and well researched

  3. Evocative medieval travelogue, would love to visit Waterford and will at first opportunity


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