What the 12th Century Brought: English Rule in Ireland


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

When an Irish king regained his land in Ireland with the help of the Welsh and married his daughter to one of the commanders, Ireland’s future faced a big change. The Welsh allies of the Irish king were vassals of the English king, and the newly conquered Irish land was inevitably connected to Henry II, who later brought English rule in Ireland. But how? And why?

Henry II tried to bring English rule in Ireland, as Irish rules were chaotic and unreliable, but he failed to do so. (Image: PHGCOM / CC BY-SA / Public domain)

As a result of internal Irish conflicts, King Diarmait gained a Welsh army with the help of King Henry II, and married his daughter to the Welsh leader, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, lord of Strigoil, known as ‘Strongbow’. Thus, the Welsh lord began to rule an Irish realm until Henry II decided to pay a visit to escape papal commissioners.

Murder of Thomas Becket

Henry II had a part in the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. In 1171, Henry II decided to invade Ireland with a big army to invoke the Laudabiliter, a bull passed some years ago to invade Ireland for church-reform reasons. He decided to do so after papal commissioners headed his way to issue a condemnation for Becket’s murder.

Upon Henry’s arrival, Strongbow submitted to his terms as the army was too big to fight. The church reformations were made, and the bishops of Ireland accepted Henry as overlord. In 1172, Henry was forgiven for Becket’s murder.

The secular leaders of Ireland were also happy with the reformation and started submitting to Henry to get grants of their lands. However, there was a little misunderstanding.

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The Submission of Irish Lords

The Irish lords thought Henry would protect their lands from seizure by the Norman lords. Henry believed he was making grants of what he already owned, as the Laudabiliter allowed him. This misunderstanding prepared the ground for a further clash.

When Henry went back home, the English invaders and the Irish lords immediately began fighting. They had fundamental misunderstandings, due to which treaties were almost impossible.

The Irish and English Mismatches

The Irish inheritance system was much less reliable than the Norman: inheritance went to the person with the strongest party to back him. The Anglo-Normans made one treaty and kept it, but the Irish had to negotiate everything every time.

The Anglo-Normans were fed up with the Irish rule, so King Henry decided to reorganize English rule in Ireland.

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The Necessity of English Rule in Ireland

Henry sent his youngest son, John, as a lord to Ireland, both to impose English rule and to give some land to John. John’s arrival in 1185 made no amendments, and the Irish and English remained divided in areas dominated by each.

There was one important outcome of John’s expedition: the first anti-Irish propaganda written by an Anglo-Welshman called Gerald of Wales, who accompanied John on his expedition to Ireland.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The History and Topography of Ireland 

Gerald was a cultural hybrid who wrote Wales, Ireland, and the invasion. He also wrote a well-received book called The History and Topography of Ireland, which described Ireland’s wonders from talking animals to eternal sacred fires.

The Irish were obviously stereotyped as the “others” since the target readers were English. He wrote how the Irish are “prone to anger and revenge” more than anyone, and concluded, “so in eternal death the saints of this land, that have been elevated by their merits, are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.”

Picture shows the Irish ritual of kingship, the sacrifice of a white mare and preparation of a stew, in which the king bathes and which his supporters eat.
The Irish were represented quite negatively in Gerard’s The History and Topography of Ireland, while Ireland was described as a wonderland. (Image: British Library / CC0/ Public domain)

The point is, Irish saints were not more warlike than other nationalities. Nevertheless, Gerald saw everything Irish negatively, except for their music and art. He wrote ultimately negatively about Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland, where he had never been to. He wrote that the king of that region had to copulate with a mare to be inaugurated. Next, the mare was slaughtered, and the king bathed in a broth made from the dead horse. English kings had different stories to tell.

English Kings in Ireland

John left Ireland, and it took him 25 years to come back, in 1210, only to punish his own rebellious barons. It took English kings another 200 years before they came back to Ireland. Henry II’s efforts to implement English rule in Ireland failed, but John left behind important impacts. His castle at Limerick survived quite well even to date. More importantly, he divided Ireland into counties that later became an inseparable part of Irish identity. Even today, the county matters significantly to the Irish people. Maybe English rule did not have much luck, but the counties remained forever.

Celtic areas had always been heavily influenced by external forces. Perhaps, one reason was their disintegrated ruling system. Even though Ireland was a tough destination, it still got affected by the English in different aspects.

Common Questions about English Rule in Ireland

Q: When did the English first invade Ireland?

In the 12th century, England invaded Ireland, and English rule in Ireland followed shortly after.

Q: Which English king invaded Ireland?

King Henry II invaded Ireland in 1171 to establish control and English rule in Ireland.

Q: How did Henry start English rule in Ireland?

King Henry II decided he would need to reorganize English rule in Ireland, and he decided to set up a lordship there for his youngest son, John.

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