Analysis: the first king of England to set foot on Irish soil, Henry II was here for more than just sightseeing

By John Marshall, TCD

'There came into Ireland Henry, most puissant king of England and also Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou and Lord of many other lands’ (Annals of Ulster, 1171).

Towards the end of 1171, Henry II, the first king of England to set foot on Irish soil, landed at Crook, Co. Waterford. His visit to Ireland served two purposes. Firstly, it allowed Henry to bring his adventurous English barons to heel and put the royal seal on their conquests in Ireland. Secondly, it meant he could avoid meeting the cardinal legates who had been dispatched from Rome to investigate Henry’s complicity in the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170.

When the king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, found himself exiled in the late 1160s, he quickly found help across the Irish Sea. Diarmait found Henry II on the banks of the Loire in 1166, and was then pointed in the direction of south Wales by a Bristol merchant to find Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare –more commonly known as Strongbow – who was then out of royal favour due to his prior support of Henry II’s competition for the kingship, Stephen of Blois.

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From RTÉ Archives, Sinéad Crowley reports for RTÉ News in 2011 on the restoration of Daniel Maclise's painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife

Bolstered by English forces, Diarmait returned to Ireland and re-took his kingdom with Strongbow’s help, the latter earning the hand in marriage of Diarmait's daughter, Aífe, in return. None of this had greatly concerned Henry II, until Diarmait died and Strongbow seized the kingdom of Leinster for himself in 1171. Leinster encompassed not only the counties of Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford, Kildare, and parts of Wicklow, Laois, and Offaly, but the kings of Leinster were often the overlords of the flourishing Hiberno-Norse ports of Wexford and Dublin, both of which had considerable trading links with England and wider Europe.

Concerned with the growing power of Strongbow in Ireland, Henry II decided to head across the Irish Sea. He had originally intended to arrive in Ireland in September 1171, but unfavourable winds on the coast of south-west Wales had delayed his journey for 17 days. He finally embarked from Pembroke on October 16th and arrived on the Co. Waterford coast on the next day.

Naturally, Henry did not come alone and was at the head of an estimated 4,000 strong army comprised of 500 knights and their esquires and a large body of archers, all of which were carried, along with horses, in 400 ships. The undertaking was vast, and a large quantity of supplies were gathered to provision this considerable force. These ingredients included salted meats and fish (the salt was crucial for preservation), 1,000 lbs of wax to ensure that Henry could seal charters and mandates, and, of course, the oil on which the medieval war machine ran, wine.

Henry's visit and departure marked the beginning of absentee lordship over Ireland

With the arrival of Henry II in Ireland, Strongbow surrendered the kingdom of Leinster and the Hiberno-Norse towns of Dublin, Wexford, and Waterford. Henry II regranted Leinster to Strongbow as a lordship, and he later granted him Wexford also, but Waterford and Dublin became, and remained, royal ports.

Henry then toured Ireland, showing the clergymen and native kings who their new lord was. First up was Lismore and Cashel, then back to Waterford for a brief rest, before journeying by way of Kilkenny to Dublin, where Henry II arrived around November 11th. At all of his stop offs Henry II collected the submissions of the Irish kings, with the probable exception of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), who was the claimant to the high-kingship of Ireland at that time.

Outside the city walls of Dublin, Henry II constructed a palace at the present-day southern side of Dame Street, where he celebrated the winter festivities until February 2nd. At this time, Henry also granted Dublin its first charter, on a piece of parchment measuring only 121 x 165 mm, which, extraordinarily, has survived to this day. Henry’s charter to Dublin granted the right to live in the city to the men of Bristol, with whom the men of Dublin had enjoyed pre-existing economic relations.

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From Timeline World History Documentaries, why Henry II murdered Archbishop Beckett

About March 1st 1172, Henry II made his way to Wexford, before finally departing for England on Easter Sunday, April 17th, after celebrating mass. It is probable that Henry II had intended to stay in Ireland for longer than he did, but events in England and Normandy diverted the king’s attention. In Normandy, Henry II’s son, Henry, had gone into rebellion against his father, while in England, the cardinal legates were threatening to interdict (place an ecclesiastical ban on) Henry’s lands unless he came to meet with them regarding Becket’s murder.

The circumstances which led to Henry II’s departure were more telling for Ireland’s future than any member of contemporary society could have realised. Now, Ireland had to compete with the other segments of a vast transnational realm, with lands stretching across England, Wales and France. Although Henry II was the first king of England to arrive in Ireland, his visit did not mean that royal visits would be a routine occurrence. Throughout the Middle Ages, the kings of England only directly visited Ireland in 1185, 1210, 1394–5, and 1399. As such, Henry’s visit and departure marked the beginning of absentee lordship over Ireland.

John Marshall is a PhD student in the Department of History at TCD

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ