10 things you didn’t know about the Norman conquest of Ireland

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Most people are familiar with the tumultuous events of England in 1066, but how much do you know about ‘the other Norman conquest’, launched a century after the Battle of Hastings?

In spring of 1169, a small band of Normans set sail from South Wales bound for Ireland, landing in May of that same year. This was a watershed moment in Ireland’s history, marking the beginning of direct English, then British, involvement in Irish affairs – so much so that the Norman invasion of Ireland might even be considered a deep root of Britain’s ‘Irish Problem’. Here, MHM lists 10 key facts about this forgotten Norman conquest.

1. The invasion was led by Robert FitzStephen

Image: WIPL

The initial invasion force comprised just 90 mounted knights and sergeants, supported by around 300 Welsh archers. It was led by warrior-knight Robert FitzStephen – a battle-scarred veteran of Henry II’s Welsh wars. He was instrumental in securing Norman control of Wexford in 1169, the invaders’ first major gain.

The image to the left is a romanticised depiction of Robert FitzStephen’s arrival in Ireland at Bannow on 1 May 1169. He is shown burning his boats – a gesture of commitment to the ensuing conquest.


2. But the man behind the invasion was Irishman Dermot MacMurrough

Henry II authorising Dermot MacMurrough’s expedition.

FitzStephen’s men came not as the vanguard of a conquering army, but as mercenaries in the service of Dermot MacMurrough, the deposed King of Leinster – an ambitious man, intent on recovering his lost territories. The invasion was sanctioned by King Henry II of England and Pope Adrian IV, and MacMurrough secured the services of several top Norman warriors.

3. The Irish put up a good fight

Durer’s drawing of Norse-Gaelic gallowglass mercenaries (left) and Irish kerns (right). Irish warriors relied more on speed of movement than defensive armour. Though some possessed iron helmets and mail shirts, the overriding impression from contemporary commentators is of the Irish fighting unprotected.

The fighting in Ireland between May 1169 and September 1171 is often dismissively described as simply an unequal contest between heavily armoured Norman knights and lightly armed Irishmen. This underestimates the difficulties faced by Norman commanders campaigning across forested and trackless terrain, and fails to take account of the substantially greater numbers ranged against them.

4. A key turning point was the Battle of Baginbun

As news of the Normans’ successes reached England, more Norman warriors made their way to Ireland. At Baginbun, the Normans were commanded by Raymond de Gros (left), who had been sent to Ireland by Richard de Clare ahead of his own, larger (and ultimately highly-significant) invasion force. Though vastly outnumbered, the Normans won the day through perseverance and trickery, and their opponents were brutally cut down. The Battle of Baginbun was the decisive moment in the Norman conquest of Ireland; had Raymond’s small Norman force been wiped out, it is conceivable that Richard de Clare might have lost heart in the Irish enterprise in which he went on to play a key part. So there is some truth in the famous phrase ‘by the creek of Baginbun, Ireland was lost and won.’

5. The Norman army included a significant number of Welsh mercenaries

Image: Sodacan/CC BY-SA 3.0

Used in large numbers, the Welsh were formidable bowmen, reputed to be capable of discharging arrows able to penetrate an oaken gate four fingers thick. Gerald of Wales, the main chronicler of the invasion, describes them as able to pin a knight’s leg to his horse through two layers of mail. In support of these bowmen were a small number of other infantrymen, probably also Welsh, who were armed with pikes, spears, and swords. Defensive armour probably consisted of a helmet made of leather, strengthened with iron, and also a stout leather jacket, or studded hauberk.

6. The Normans captured Dublin

Image: WIPL

Dublin fell in September 1170. Taken completely by surprise, the Norse King of Dublin, Asculf MacTorkil, sued for peace, but during the resulting truce, elements of the Norman army broke into the town and slaughtered the garrison and many of its inhabitants. King Asculf and his family barely had time to reach the safety of their ships and sail away.

Map: 1. May 1169: landing of Robert FitzStephen 2. May 1169: capture of Wexford 3. Summer 1169: Battle of Ossory 4. May 1170: landing of Raymond le Gros. 5. August 1170: landing of Strongbow 6. September 1170: capture of Dublin 7. Summer 1171: Siege of Dublin 8. October 1171: landing of Henry II 9. November 1171: Henry II’s entry into Dublin.

7. As at Hastings, the Normans employed ‘feigned flights’ to deceive the Irish

Norman tactical know-how played a decisive part during the campaign. Feigned retreats and surprise attacks won the day at Baginbun and Dublin. The feigned retreat at Hastings has been heavily scrutinised by historians, with some rejecting the veracity of the incident because of the intricate organisation required to carry out the operation. But given that the Normans had already used the trick at Arques in 1053, and at Messina in 1060, there is little reason to doubt the ability of the Normans to employ this tactic at Hastings. By the time they invaded Ireland, the ‘feigned flight’ had become a classic Norman manoeuvre.

8. The Normans had clear political motives for the conquest

Not only did Dermot want to reclaim his lost territories, but a number of Welsh and English dissenters had settled in Ireland, which at the time was almost entirely forested. The only towns were those founded by Norse settlers, with fortified encampments at Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Cork, and Wexford. Previously bases for Irish and Norse pirates, these towns now provided refuge for English and Welsh dissidents. It is little wonder, therefore, that successive Norman kings had contemplated their capture and occupation.

9. Key player: Richard de Clare or ‘Strongbow’

Strongbow’s seal.

Robert FitzStephen and his followers were not the only Normans whose services Dermot MacMurrough secured while visiting South Wales in 1167. Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, was another. Better known by the family nickname ‘Strongbow’, Richard de Clare’s estates had been confiscated by the Crown, and he was out of favour with Henry II. He was by far the most powerful and prestigious of Dermot’s supporters, and he brought an 1000-strong force to Ireland in August 1170, playing a key role in ensuring the surrender of Dublin and in establishing conquest.

10. Henry II reaped the rewards

King Henry II of England.

At a great council in 1155, Henry II had reopened the subject of invasion, apparently at the insistence of the English Church, which claimed ecclesiastical primacy over the Irish. Henry’s invasion plans were not progressed, however. The time was not right. England had just emerged from a long period of civil war, and his mother, the formidable Empress Matilda, insisted her son’s priorities should be to reconcile supporters of the former King Stephen (many still armed and dangerous) to his new Angevin dynasty, and to consolidate his hold over his vast continental empire. So, when approached by Dermot MacMurrough 11 years later, his plans were still on hold. Nevertheless, he allowed MacMurrough to lead the invasion privately. Given MacMurrough’s success, Henry decided to lead his own invasion of Ireland, to establish his supremacy over both the Normans and the Irish. The majority of members in both groups submitted to the Crown.


This post is based on an article by Jeffrey James, published in issue 17 of Military History Monthly.

Read more about the Normans

The Norman Conquest: 1066 timeline

10 ways to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

9 Kings Who Lost Their Thrones


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