“Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis” is a line attributed to the Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift. It refers to the descendants of the Norman invaders of Ireland who had become, according to the famous satirist, “More Irish than the Irish themselves”. It is true that nowadays surnames such as FitzGerald, Burke and Walsh are considered quintessentially Irish, but their origin is in the 12th century invasions of Ireland from Britain.
They came as conquerors. They became native.
The story of the Norman Invasion begins in 1166 when an Irish king called Dermot MacMurrough (or more accurately Diarmait mac Murchada) was exiled from his homeland by his enemies. Ireland at this time was made up a large number of petty-kingdoms and Dermot had been King of Leinster, one of the most powerful, since 1126. He had formed a powerful alliance with the King of Tyrone against the Kings of Connacht and Breifne, but his ally’s death left Dermot exposed and isolated. In 1166, a coalition of the Connacht, Breifne, Dublin, Meath and Oriel invaded Leinster and forced him to flee his homeland for Britain. There, he sought help to recapture his throne. He sought mercenaries.
One of those who agreed to accompany Dermot was a warrior called Robert FitzStephen. Most have never heard of him but he should, in my opinion, be remembered alongside the other great Norman adventurers of the age.
While little is known of Robert’s father, his mother remains one of the most famous women to appear from Wales during the medieval period. Her name was Nest and she was the only daughter of the last ruler of the southern Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth. When her father died in 1093 Nest became a hostage of the invading Normans. However, she grew to become a famous beauty and soon made Henry I, the King of England, her lover. Around 1103, she even had a son with the king named Henry FitzRoy. Already married to a Scottish princess, King Henry decided to use Nest to secure the loyalty of a well-connected if wayward knight named Gerald de Windsor. In 1105 Nest was married to Gerald and her new husband was appointed Constable of Pembroke, one of the most powerful fortresses in Wales. Their eldest son, William FitzGerald, is the progenitor of the Devonshire family of Carew, while the third son, Maurice, is the ancestor of the great Irish houses of FitzGerald, FitzMaurice and FitzGibbon. Through their daughters, Angharad and Gladys, Nest and Gerald are also the founders of the Irish Cogan and Barry dynasties.
When Gerald died in 1118, Nest was probably still only in her mid-thirties. Her royal birth and close relation to some of the most powerful men in Wales and England made her a political commodity to those surrounding her. She was soon after married to the Constable of Aberteifi with Robert FitzStephen the product. It is not known when Nest or Stephen died, but certainly by 1157, when Robert first appears in the annals, he had already succeeded his father as constable.
Between 1135 and 1154 a civil war had raged across England and as the feuding factions had fought over that country, the native Welsh princes had taken the chance to rise in rebellion and expand their control over large areas once annexed by the Normans. While Deheubarth was refounded by Nest’s nephew, Rhys ap Gruffydd, in the north Gwynedd was also threatening the English city of Chester. It was only in 1157 that the new King of England, Henry II, was able to raise an army with the aim of invading and subduing Gwynedd. While the King advanced overland, Robert FitzStephen and his half-brother, the aforementioned Henry FitzRoy, were despatched by sea to land on Anglesey with the objective of attacking Owain from behind. However, instead of marching to their king’s aid, Robert and Henry plundered Anglesey. To make matters worse they were defeated in battle with Robert being very badly wounded and Henry killed. King Henry had fared little better, being almost killed in a minor skirmish before retreating back to England.
Having recovered from his wounds, Robert returned to Aberteifi and in 1164 founded the famous monastery at Strata Florida (perhaps as penance?). However, his entreaties to God did not have the desired affect and when his first cousin, Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth, invaded his lands Robert’s castle was placed under siege. He was reputedly betrayed by his own men and imprisoned by Rhys. Despite his defeat, Robert remained a knight of great renown and even his captor wished for him to join his efforts to oppose King Henry II. Robert refused each request even though it meant that Robert remained a prisoner.
The great chronicler of the age, Gerald of Wales, was a kinsman of Robert and described him as being: “stout in person, with a handsome countenance, and in stature somewhat above the middle height; he was bountiful, generous, and pleasant, but too fond of wine and women. An excellent man – the true pattern of singular courage and unparalleled enterprise.”
Too dangerous to be released and unwilling to break his oaths to Henry II, it is perhaps fortuitous for Robert that some three years after his capture there appeared in Wales an Irish king named Dermot MacMurrough who sought mercenaries to help him reclaim his throne.
Desperate to escape his confinement and with all hope of success in Wales seemingly over, Robert and his half-brother, Maurice FitzGerald, agreed to assist Dermot in return for 100,000 acres of land and control of the merchant town of Wexford. With the agreement of Rhys ap Gruffydd, Robert was released and this news prompted many more footloose and ambitious Norman warriors to show an interest in the enterprise. When he sailed for Ireland in three ships from Milford Haven on May 1st 1169 he had an army of thirty mounted milites (men armoured as would have been a knight of the time), sixty “half-armoured” horsemen (esquires), as well as three hundred archers and infantry.
Gerald of Wales even invoked an old prophecy said to have been made by the legendary figure of Arthurian fame, Merlin the Wild, which said: “A knight, bipartite, shall first break the bonds of Ireland.” With both Welsh and Norman blood and his being the first to have success on Irish soil, this mysterious message could indeed have been written for Robert FitzStephen.
Robert’s army made land at Bannow Island in south County Wexford and were soon joined by Dermot, his son Donal, and around a thousand warriors. Together this army made for Wexford Town and, following a small engagement at Duncormick, put it under siege.
Wexford was one of a number of port-towns which had been founded on the Irish coast by the Norse and Danish ‘Vikings’ during the ninth and tenth centuries. Surrounded by high timber walls and backed onto a wide bay, Wexford had become a merchant hub for the neighbouring area with links across the sea in Britain as well as on the continent. Although in Dermot’s own kingdom, like Dublin, Wexford was almost a petty-kingdom in its own right and was largely left to its own devices as long as it declared its submission to Dermot’s kingship. The inhabitants were of mixed stock, having both Nordic and Irish blood, but were of neither people being called ‘Ostmen’ (East Men) as well as ‘Dubhgall’ (Dark Foreigners) and ‘Fionngall’ (Fair Foreigners).
Robert FitzStephen attempted to claim the town by escalading its wooden walls, but faced stiff opposition and was unable to force victory. He did, however, cause enough destruction and disorder for the town to begin negotiations the next day. The townsfolk quickly reaffirmed Dermot’s overlordship and agreed to send warriors to help him reclaim his position as King of Leinster as long as he did not continue his attack. Dermot, for his part, lived up to his part of the deal struck back in Wales and awarded possession of Wexford to Robert.
The Norman didn’t have a great deal of time to enjoy his new found wealth. Instead he accompanied Dermot in a series of short campaigns around Leinster, making sure that each tribe and local king submitted to Dermot’s overlordship. These triumphs inevitably led to the King of Connacht – now High King of Ireland – hearing that his enemy had returned. In the autumn of 1169 he again assembled the alliance of kings that had previously forced Dermot from power and pushed into Leinster. With his allies again slipping away and a vast army moving on Ferns, it seemed that Dermot must again be forced from his throne. But Robert FitzStephen thought differently. He led Dermot and his armies into the Blackstairs Mountains and constructed defences in the midst of some of the most difficult terrain in Ireland. He dug pits and built entrenchments. He felled trees to construct walls. He closed paths and made secret passages for his men to use. When the High King arrived he was baffled by what he saw and, rather than waste his army upon FitzStephen’s defences, he tried to bribe both Robert and Dermot to betray the other. Neither took the bait and as a result the High King was forced to negotiate. In return for Dermot’s acknowledgement of him as High King, he agreed to allow Dermot to remain as King of Leinster.
Short but successful operations in County Laois and Dublin saw winter upon Robert FitzStephen and he returned to his new Lordship of Wexford where he applied himself to the settlement of the town. He even felt safe enough to bring his wife and children to Ireland and began building a fortress just to the north from which to rule the area. It was called Ferrycarrig and is now the site of the Irish National Heritage Park where you can still see where the first castle built in Ireland was situated.
Robert FitzStephen did not rest on his laurels. With his castle complete and Wexford safe (despite a grumbling and persistently rebellious population), he set out on a new campaign in early 1170 to aid Dermot’s son-in-law, the King of Thomond, in his conflict with the High King. What happened during this series of battles is largely unknown other than the fact that Robert again bested the most powerful man in Ireland, forcing him to retreat back to his own country of Connacht.
Robert received a summons from Dermot in early September of 1170 to attend upon him at Ferns. Another Norman baron named Richard de Clare had arrived in Ireland just a few weeks before and had conquered the Ostman city of Waterford after a short siege. Dermot now desired Robert to lead his army to claim Dublin from its ‘Viking’ inhabitants. News soon arrived that the High King had his army in the field and was awaiting his enemy in the Liffey Valley. Giving the High King the slip by secret paths through the Wicklow Mountains, Dermot’s army arrived at Dublin and had stormed the walls before the High King knew what was happening. What part Robert FitzStephen played in this fighting is unknown, but the main thrust on September 21st 1170 was led by two of his nephews, Raymond de Carew and Milo de Cogan. Keen to return to Wexford and re-establish his control over his unruly new estate, Robert left Richard de Clare to claim Dublin as his prize and Dermot to take his army into Kildare on campaign. It was probably the last time that Robert ever saw the Irishman who had sprung him from prison in Wales and had made him lord of a small kingdom of his own. In May 1171, Dermot died at Ferns.
No sooner was Dermot cold than all hell broke loose in Leinster. Richard de Clare, as per his agreement with Dermot, declared himself King of Leinster which caused a general uprising against the foreigner. To make matters worse, a Viking army made up of Dublin exiles and warriors from the Isle of Man laid siege to Strongbow’s capital. Robert FitzStephen despatched thirty-six men (presumably including his sons) from his castle at Ferrycarrig to help the beleaguered Dublin garrison. When the townsfolk of Wexford heard that Robert kept only five knights and a handful of archers in his castle, they rebelled and put him under siege. Outnumbered and without hope of support, Robert nonetheless resisted all attacks. It was then that two bishops came to Robert to tell him that the Dublin garrison had fallen, that all within were dead, and that an army was marching upon his small force. They swore on relics that their information was true and that he and his few remaining warriors would be given safe passage back to Wales. Under these circumstances, Robert agreed to surrender and opened his gates only to see his enemy rush in and slaughter everyone but him. Clapped in irons, Robert had again been made prisoner by deception following a siege.
However, to the north Dublin had not fallen and had, in fact, emerged victorious from two sieges, first by the Vikings and then by the High King. Such was Robert FitzStephen’s reputation amongst the Normans that just a day after their great victory, Richard de Clare ordered his army south to rescue Robert. Overcoming a fierce attack as they journeyed, the army discovered Wexford aflame. The inhabitants had set it on fire and had retreated to Beggerin Island with their captive. Any attempt by the Normans to cross, they promised, would result in Robert’s execution. With regret, the army pulled back to leave Robert, now in his fifties and considered an old man, in chains.
He would remain a prisoner until October on 1171 when he was hauled from his cell and force marched across the south coast to Waterford. There, filthy and in chains, he was presented to King Henry II of England who had just arrived in Ireland at the head of a huge army. Called a traitor and a criminal by his king in the public gallery of the royal court, Robert was handed over to the king by the entourage from Wexford who believed they could curry favour with Henry as Robert had never sought a licence to invade Ireland. He was committed to incarceration again in Reginald’s Tower. For many weeks Robert must’ve feared that the king would keep him indefinitely jailed but in early November he was suddenly brought before Henry again and pardoned “at the intercession of some persons of rank about his court”.
It is probable that Robert accompanied King Henry on his triumphant progress towards Dublin where he spent Christmas 1171 and remained until April 1172, accepting the submissions of the Kings of Ireland. Henry also began dividing up his new dominion. Dublin, Waterford and Wexford were declared crown lands and, while he let Richard de Clare hold the remainder of Leinster in fief, he forced his two greatest lieutenants, Raymond de Carew and Milo de Cogan, into his own retinue. To curb further expansion by his errant subjects he further granted the Kingdom of Meath to his loyal baron, Hugh de Lacy. Robert FitzStephen, having been lord of a huge estate, was demoted to little more than a hearth knight, forced to serve under Hugh de Lacy on garrison duty on Dublin’s walls.
Upon completion of this service and with nowhere else to go, Robert joined the service of Richard de Clare. He may have served during a campaign to force Dermot O’Dempsey into submission and no doubt was furious when his old rival Hervey de Montmarisco was made Constable of Leinster, the military leader of the army, in 1173. When Richard de Clare was ordered to hold the strategic castle of Gisors in Normandy by King Henry in spring of that year, Robert was one of those who remained in Ireland as part of a skeleton garrison. The king was facing crisis: the Kings of France and Scotland had allied with Henry’s wife and three older sons as well as with most of his most powerful noblemen in a major revolt against his rule.
It was only in the autumn of that year that the ever more desperate King Henry appealed for more of the Irish-based Norman barons to assist him in France. With Richard de Clare back in Ireland, Robert and Maurice de Prendergast were despatched to aid him. Their arrival in England could not have been more fortuitous for, with King Henry committed to the fighting in Normandy, few loyalists remained free to meet the rebellion of the Earls of Leicester and Norfolk. Robert and Maurice immediately stopped their journey towards Normandy and deployed against the rebels in East Anglia. They joined an army under Richard de Luci, the Justiciar, who no doubt was glad to have the support from the veterans of the Irish campaigns as his army was said to have been outnumbered by four to one. Nevertheless, at the Battle of Fornham the loyalists caught Leicester’s army as it forded the River Lark near Bury St Edmunds. The rebels were utterly routed. Robert and Maurice’s contemporaries noted that victory was brought about “through help brought from Leinster, and through the strength of the Irish”. The rebellion continued and in the spring of 1174 the King of Scotland invaded Northumbria at the head of a huge army. Robert and Maurice de Prendergast again answered the call, travelling north to link up with the loyalist army under Ranulph de Glanville which emerged victorious over the King of Scotland at the Battle of Alnwick. King Henry, having finally arrived in England, believed he was journeying to face a major crisis only to discover that most of his enemies were in fetters.
What happened to Robert over the next few years is unknown but following the signing of the Treaty of Windsor in 1175 between the High King and King Henry, Robert returned to Ireland in the company of William FitzAldelm, who became Governor of Leinster during the wardship of Richard de Clare’s daughter. This government didn’t prove effective with a number of unlicensed invasions of other areas of Ireland causing uproar. The next year, at the Council of Oxford, King Henry made his youngest son Lord of Ireland, laying down plans to have him named king at a later date. He also began making further grants of land to loyal knights and barons: Philip de Broase was granted the Kingdom of Limerick while the right to the Kingdom of Cork was given jointly to Robert FitzStephen and Milo de Cogan.
Beginning that same year and accompanied by many of the men who had been involved in his original invasion in 1169, Robert pushed into Munster, capturing the ‘Viking’ city of Cork and expelling its inhabitants. Milo and Robert took possession of seven cantreds (700,000 acres) while handing over the city to royal governance. They exacted tribute from the King of Desmond for the remaining twenty-four cantreds. For five years they vied for superiority in Cork with Robert claiming the region of Olethan to the east of the city.
In 1182, however, Milo set out to parley with the men from Waterford alongside Robert’s illegitimate son Ralph and five knights (with presumably ten esquires and fifty or a hundred archers). They aimed to meet up at Lismore and settled for a rest at Mogeely. According to one source they were treacherously cut down “with axes from behind” by the King of Imokilly. Both Milo and Ralph were killed and the whole of Munster was thrown into disorder as the Irish rose in opposition to Robert. We don’t know precisely when Robert FitzStephen died, but we are told that peace was only restored when Raymond de Carew, Robert’s nephew and heir, arrived with twenty knights and 200 archers to take charge of the city in 1183.
Robert FitzStephen’s lands first fell to Raymond, and when he died without legal issue (at some point around 1198), they became the property of Robert’s half-sister’s son, Philip de Barry. His descendants would become one of the greatest landowners in the region, created Earls of Barrymore in 1628, until their ultimate extinction in 1823.