Monday, June 5

What if....the Norman Invasion of Ireland had never happened? Guest Post by Ruadh Butler.

It was my great pleasure to host Ruadh Butler, fellow author of historical fiction set in Medieval Ireland, to my blog last year. Ruadh's excellent post on the arrival of the Normans in Ireland has proved really popular with readers and, in case you missed it, you can find it here

Ruadh guested to celebrate the release of the first in his Invader series, Swordland, which was published by Accent Press. I'm delighted to say that book #2, Lord of the Sea Castle is now out and Ruadh has returned for another visit. This time, he's putting his speculative hat on as he looks at the Norman invasion and wonders how Irish and wider history might have changed if the invasion had never taken place. Over to you, Ruadh!

History is often the product of the slimmest odds. In Irish terms, few moments – save perhaps the coming of St Patrick – had greater consequences for the island than the Norman invasions of the 12th century. Few spent so long balanced upon a knife’s edge.

But what if the Norman incursions had been only that? What if there never had been a Norman conquest?

The events of 1169 were portrayed in my first novel, Swordland, and will continue in Lord of the Sea Castle which was released on June 1st 2017.

The first book outlined how a Welsh-Norman knight, Sir Robert FitzStephen, was sprung from imprisonment to lead a force of just four hundred on a campaign to put an exiled king back on his Irish throne. Despite having so few warriors, Robert’s command was central to Dermot MacMurrough returning to his position as King of Leinster.

Henry II grants Dermot MacMurrough permission to raise forces to take back the kingdom of Leinster.
As depicted by James William Edmund Doyle, 1822- 1892 (Public Domain)

He quickly conquered the Viking city-state of Wexford before conducting a fierce operation which forced all dissenting chieftains into submission. So successful was FitzStephen in his task that the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, was alerted to his and Dermot’s schemes.

Rory - Stone Carving of High King Rory O'Connor from Cong Abbey.  (Public Domain)
Might he have founded a great dynasty controlling all Ireland in the absence of the Norman invaders? 

With winter fast approaching Robert and Dermot retreated into the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains where they constructed fortifications behind which they hoped to survive the High King’s overwhelming army which marched against them.

The annals tell us that Rory O’Connor did not immediately launch an armed offensive upon his enemy’s defences but instead (and under pressure from the bishops) began to negotiate. The outcome was to confirm Dermot as king of one of the most powerful provinces in the land. Publically, Dermot acknowledged Rory O’Connor as High King and handed over hostages – including his own son – as surety for his good behaviour.

Secretly, however, there was another clause in his treaty with the High King: Dermot had to rid Leinster of his mercenary Normans.

IRELAND - The greater kingdoms of Ireland in the generations before the arrival of the Normans in 1169.
(Public Domain.)

Perhaps surprisingly, given his later reputation in Ireland, Dermot did not betray Robert FitzStephen. This was far from an honourable standpoint, however. Rather, he had set his sights on nothing less than the High Kingship itself and believed his only way of obtaining that office was with Norman blades. It would prove his and Ireland’s undoing.

To use the jargon of the alternative history, this will be my point of divergence. Dermot chooses to accept his return as King of Leinster, an alliance with the family of O’Connor, and the safety of his own son rather than allowing his ambitions to rule his better judgement. In order to do that he would have to kill Robert FitzStephen or drive him from his shores.

Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffydd in St David's Cathedral, Wales.
(Public Domain)

Forcing the 400 Normans from Ireland would’ve been difficult for Dermot. Return to Wales would’ve meant utter penury for FitzStephen or perhaps even imprisonment at the hands of his former captor, Rhys ap Gruffydd. For his men too it would’ve meant return to the never-ending and losing wars that threatened their very existence in Wales. FitzStephen and his army would’ve fought tooth and nail to retain their newly won lands in Wexford and, given how effective he had proven against Dermot’s enemies, it would’ve taken something rather special – or indeed underhand – for his former ally to destroy the Normans. Perhaps he could’ve brokered a deal with the Ostmen (the Gaelicised descendants of the Viking invaders) of Wexford, promising to return their independence under his kingship in return for their help. From his point of view, a Wexford controlled by the Normans or the Ostmen probably didn’t make much difference.

The marriage of Strongbow & Aoife.
(© E.M. Powell)

Having dealt with FitzStephen, Dermot’s next task would be to disappoint another Norman baron keen to come to Ireland and win new lands. Two years before FitzStephen’s invasion, Dermot had come to an agreement with Strongbow, the Lord of Chepstow, to swap Norman military help in return for marriage to his daughter, Aoife. Dermot also threw in a claim to the throne of Leinster after his death. Strongbow’s desperation for a crown was absolute and so perhaps he would still have crossed the sea in 1170 despite Dermot’s reneging on their agreement. However, rather than storming the walls of Waterford with Dermot’s support he would probably have faced a Viking city emboldened and strengthened by Dermot’s veteran warriors. I suspect that in those circumstances Strongbow would’ve quickly been forced to withdraw to Wales.

Henry II at Waterford.
As depicted by James William Edmund Doyle, 1822- 1892  (Public Domain) 

Without Strongbow’s conquests, there would have been no real reason for King Henry II of England to become embroiled in Irish affairs. He did not take an army across the Irish Sea in 1171 in order to extend his borders or to satisfy his greed for power over another nation. He wished to curtail the ambitions of Strongbow for he feared the rise of a rival Norman kingdom on his western seaboard. With that threat having never risen, King Henry could refocus his efforts towards his continental possessions.

There remains the question of a certain troublesome priest well-known to all who have read The Fifth Knight. ( E.M.: Yes, a plug for my book- this is why Ruadh gets asked back!)

The murder of Thomas Becket.
As depicted by James William Edmund Doyle, 1822- 1892 (Public Domain) 

Thomas Becket’s death in 1170 certainly had an impact on King Henry’s decision to invade Ireland. Up to that point the Irish church was beyond papal control and so Rome’s coffers received no income from the island. To impose his rule over Ireland meant that Henry could establish Rome’s authority in place of the independent Celtic system and in so doing ingratiate himself with Pope Alexander III who threatened excommunication and interdict as a result of Becket’s murder. If robbed of a safe port provided by Strongbow’s conquests in this alternative history, I don’t think Henry could’ve launched an attack on Ireland in order to toady up to Rome. Instead (and as later stipulated in the Compromise of Avranches) Henry might’ve been forced to go on Crusade to the Holy Land.

 The second Synod of Cashel was held in 1171/72, under the auspices of Henry II
and with the full backing of the Pope. (© E.M. Powell)

By early 1170 King Amalric of Jerusalem, Henry’s first cousin, was surrounded by the armies of Nur ad-Din in Syria and Saladin in Egypt, facing invasion from north and south. Such were his troubles that Amalric sent envoys to all the great kings of Europe to send military aid in his time of need. In our timeline he was let down, but given Henry’s own difficulties might he have negotiated a settlement with Pope Alexander in return for sending assistance to Amalric? I have no doubt that Henry would’ve dragged his feet for as long as possible to avoid the great expense of such an undertaking but I can anticipate one scenario in which he might’ve relented.

The cause of the 1173 Rebellion was a general disaffection with Henry’s rule stoked up by the King of France. Most serious was the involvement of the heir to the throne, Henry the Young King, and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In my alternative timeline Henry might’ve considered packing off his 18-year-old son and some of his most troublesome knights to aid Amalric. A crusade would’ve served as an answer to many of his problems.

I presume this would’ve gone a long way to making peace with the church following Becket’s death while, with the church’s help, his lands would’ve been protected from his rebellious subjects by the threat of interdict. Henry might even have been able to weaken the King of France by using his newly found favour with the pope to force him to accompany his army to the Middle East. In the absence of her eldest son, Eleanor of Aquitaine would’ve been isolated as would any remaining rebels, ready to have been picked off by Henry at his leisure. The Young King, meanwhile, would’ve been given the responsibility he so craved at the head of a great army.

Herbert Railton's 1891 illustration of  William Marshal's tomb.
(Public Domain) 

I will let people more at home with the politics of the Crusader Kingdom pick up the story of what have happened in those circumstances, but the idea of Sir William Marshal – the Young King’s tutor – in command of a royal crusading army in Outremer during the 1170s is tantalising. Might he and the Young King have saved Jerusalem? And what would the Middle East look like today if they had become involved fifteen years before Richard Lionheart’s Third Crusade and the rise of Saladin?

The picture in Ireland is rather more difficult to discern. The Ostman colony towns of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick would’ve continued to grow, if a little slower in the absence of Norman administrators who so advanced their commercial reach in the medieval period. Control of the towns would’ve become absolutely critical to the leading dynasties as the merchants grew in power. In the years around 1170, Rory O’Connor’s confederates had forced the submission of each of the five great cities of Ireland except Wexford. This was a very fluid situation, however, with fealty withdrawn and re-imposed almost on a yearly basis.

Reginald's Tower in Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

In the absence of the Normans I suspect Rory O’Connor would’ve retained the High Kingship using his proven strategy of partitioning the lands of challengers to curb their influence, setting up rival families to vie for their power on the local level, and to force the defeated to hand over loved ones as hostages. Given his own long life and the apparent talent of his son and heir, Conor O’Connor, I believe that sooner rather than later the dynasty would’ve unified Ireland in a meaningful way (as had the descendants of Alfred in England). The Irish method of succession and outlandish style of land ownership might have proved a real stumbling block for this process, but given that Rory was already well on his way to nullifying all opposition in 1166, I suspect his line would’ve accomplished the task and imposed a nascent type of feudal kingship upon Ireland.

Conflict between the families and septs would no doubt have remained a constant and not just for possession of the cities.

The further we get from the point of divergence the more questions arise and the more difficult it becomes to predict. Would the Latin rites ever have arrived in Ireland without the Normans? Might the Celtic Church have been targeted by a crusade as were the Cathars of France? How would a politically independent Ireland have impacted the evolution of the British, Scandinavian and continental nations? Would Irish ideas and culture have penetrated and influenced as widely as English and British notions? How would they have been affected by the rise of Spain during the sixteenth century? Would Tudor England have attempted to impose its will over Ireland? Might an independent Ireland have been better positioned to establish colonies in the New World than England?

Baginbun Point Co. Wexford, site of 1170 Norman landings.
© Ruadh Butler
Such was the impact of the Normans on the population that in their absence most of those alive in Ireland today would never have existed. That would have also affected millions around the world. There certainly would’ve been no Queen Elizabeth I. Would John F. Kennedy have been the same guy if he was missing the Fitzgerald part of his character?

The first Norman invaders may have gone to Ireland in small numbers but their affect was earth-shattering. They created reverberations that are still being felt today. The world might have been so different had Dermot simply chosen peace over war on a small island off the western shoulder of Europe.

Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland and the newly published Lord of the Sea Castle. The series tells the story of the Norman family from Wales and their part in the first invasion of Ireland. Catch up with Ruadh at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @ruadhbutler.

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