800th ANNIVERSARY: King John († 1216) and the origins of colonial rule in Ireland

Published in Anglo-Norman Ireland, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2016), Volume 24


By Colin Veach and Tadhg O’Keeffe

Above: Seventeenth-century portrait of King John by an unknown artist. (Google Art Project)

Above: Seventeenth-century portrait of King John by an unknown artist. (Google Art Project)

John has long split historical opinion. Some see him as an evil tyrant, through whose presence Hell itself is defiled (to paraphrase a near-contemporary). Others see him as an administrative genius who succeeded to a weakened position and fell victim to a smear campaign emanating from the French court in Paris. Whatever their opinions of his kingship in England, however, almost every historian of John’s reign has considered him a success in Ireland. For instance, F.X. Martin argued in 1987 that ‘John, so often described as the worst of the kings of England, was, paradoxically, the best for Ireland’. In this (as in much else) he was following W.L. Warren, who had declared in 1981 that John was ‘the most successful high king Ireland had ever seen’. Edmund Curtis, writing in 1927, captured succinctly the basis for such high praise: ‘as the founder here [in Ireland] of a central government, and as the repressor of an overgrown feudalism, [John] must be counted one of the best foreign kings’. John’s role in establishing a central government in Ireland, something that none of his predecessors, Angevin or Irish, had managed to do, lies at the heart of the hagiography. It is only in recent years that historians, led by Robin Frame and Seán Duffy among others, have challenged the cast-iron confidence with which John’s achievements in Ireland have been acclaimed, and have introduced much-needed nuance into the conversation about John’s relationship with Ireland and its people. Still, the significance of John’s actions on this island cannot be underestimated. As in England, he asserted his rights in a way that provoked rebellion against his government. If the legacy of his conduct in England was the Magna Carta, celebrated so earnestly in 2015, it is one of history’s ironies that, when the Magna Carta was sent to Ireland in 1217, the English ‘foundation of freedom’ underscored Ireland’s subordination to the English polity.

The would-be king of Ireland
Had all gone according to plan, King John would not be known as one of the worst kings ever to sit on the English throne. Less than a decade into the English invasion of Ireland, in 1177, King Henry II looked to reorganise his newest acquisition. The leader of that invasion, Richard fitz Gilbert (Strongbow), had died the previous year and the conquest threatened to falter. A new leader was needed, and Henry used the opportunity to provide for his youngest son, John ‘Lackland’. At a council at Oxford, Henry declared that the nine-year-old boy should be crowned king of Ireland. This decision was perhaps more about Angevin court politics than it was about the situation in Ireland, but it nevertheless began an association between John and Ireland that would span almost four decades. John had three surviving older brothers, one of whom had already been crowned king of England in order to secure his succession there, so in 1177 there was every indication that John and his descendants would rule an independent kingdom of Ireland.

What sort of youth was the would-be king of Ireland? His early childhood was spent with the nuns of Fontevraud Abbey, who gave him an excellent education. He read and spoke both French and Latin (and probably a bit of English), and as an adult came to own and enjoy a personal library that was large by the standards of the age. As John waited (in vain) for a succession of popes to sanction his Irish coronation, his teenage years were spent in the household of the great English administrator and jurist Ranulf de Glanville. There his young mind was exposed to the most advanced administrative practices of Angevin England. But it would also have been exposed to contemporary clerical characterisations of the Irish as uncivilised barbarians, not the least of which was written by the well-connected Gerald of Wales.

Above: In his youth John would have been exposed to contemporary clerical characterisations of the Irish as uncivilised barbarians, by, amongst others, Gerald of Wales, who claimed that a Gaelic king mated with and then ate a horse, as illustrated here from the margins of his Topographia Hiberniae. (NLI)

Above: In his youth John would have been exposed to contemporary clerical characterisations of the Irish as uncivilised barbarians, by, amongst others, Gerald of Wales, who claimed that a Gaelic king mated with and then ate a horse, as illustrated here from the margins of his Topographia Hiberniae. (NLI)

From the moment he set foot in Ireland in 1185, the seventeen-year-old John displayed a self-assured arrogance towards his intended subjects. Even Gerald of Wales understood the need for discretion in face-to-face dealings, and chastised John for his treatment of the previously loyal Irish kings who came to render him service. In a well-repeated passage, Gerald claims that John and his companions mocked the Irishmen’s outlandish dress and pulled their unfashionably long beards. True or not, the story is at least in keeping with the disregard for property rights, loyalty and diplomacy that John showed when dealing with the Irish.

His disdain stretched beyond the Irish to take in the entire political system that Henry II had allowed to flourish in Ireland. Henry was ruthlessly expansionist, forging an ‘empire’ comprising Britain, Ireland and two thirds of France. Yet the relentless expansion had left little time for the consolidation of central authority. Moreover, Henry was far too preoccupied with matters in France to pay much attention to Ireland. Consequently, Henry devolved much of his authority in Ireland to his chief barons, trusting them to rule in his stead. Such an arrangement was a pragmatic solution to the problem of a distant lord, but it was anathema to the style of kingship that John had grown up to expect. No Glanville-trained man could allow his central administration to be so weak.

Unfortunately for John, his ambition outstripped his ability. The would-be king alienated many of the island’s resident élites (Irish and English), lost most of his army in battle or through desertion, and limped back to England, uncrowned and penniless, less than eight months after his arrival. A golden crown set with peacock feathers reportedly arrived from Rome the following year—he had his papal approval—but his father, unimpressed by reports from Ireland, reversed his decision of 1177. John was, and remained, simply ‘lord of Ireland’. Yet in his failure John had managed to influence the structure of lordship on the island through grants in Munster and Louth, territories that in 1185 were not as heavily colonised as Leinster, Meath and Ulster.

Above: By the end of his reign John had lost Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Maine.

Above: By the end of his reign John had lost Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Maine.

A king at last
On Ascension Day (6 April) 1199, the unthinkable happened. Having outlived his father and three elder brothers, John became king of England and master of the Angevin Empire. From this point on, the day-to-day governance of English-controlled Ireland was not high on his list of priorities. Consequently, from 1199 he fell back on his father’s old policy of working with his chief barons to govern Ireland. These men had the political clout and military muscle to keep the colony in order. With his attention elsewhere, John sacrificed control in Ireland for security. Lack of oversight—and, indeed, lack of control—did not sit well with John, however. As the Anonymous of Béthune later wrote, ‘[John] always wanted his barons at odds with each other and was never happier than when he saw enmity among them’. When dealing with his barons, John adopted the policy of ‘divide and rule’. He was able to support his barons’ individual ambitions when and as it suited him to maintain a balance of power in his island lordship, but trouble came when he attempted to assert his own authority more directly.

The first step on the road to confrontation was John’s loss of Normandy in 1204. From then on, the overriding imperative of his reign was the reconquest of his Continental inheritance. This required vast amounts of money, which encouraged John to exploit more fully the territories he still held. In Ireland, that meant moving ever closer to English-style royal administration, which did not allow for the aristocratic freedom of action he had so cultivated to this point. About August 1204, John ordered the construction of a strong castle at Dublin to be the financial and judicial centre of his realm; the tower known today as the Record Tower is likely to have been the first structure built under this mandate. Minting of coins was centralised to Dublin and taken entirely out of the hands of private individuals. On 2 November 1204, John introduced several English judicial writs and mandated that they run throughout Ireland. By centralising administration, justice and finance within Ireland’s most prosperous city, King John was creating a little Westminster on the River Liffey.

But John also cast his eyes towards Munster. With Dublin already the centre of his Irish government, Limerick and Waterford were identified as the hubs from which royal control might radiate into the rich agricultural lands of Munster. He sought to harness the two cities’ potential by bringing his government’s local administration more into line with the English model. At this point the royal enclave at Dublin was Ireland’s only shire, but in 1206 he began preparations to divide Munster into two shires based on Limerick and Waterford. Crucially, his initiatives involved confiscating territories in the region belonging to his recent grantee, William de Briouze. John’s mistreatment of his professed friend shows his single-mindedness when pursuing his own perceived rights in Ireland.

Matters came to a head in the winter of 1206–7, when John’s Irish justiciar attacked and took the honour of Limerick by force. John quickly distanced himself from such an overt act of aggression, but the majority of his barons in Ireland saw through his duplicity and banded together against him. As a result, open conflict raged between royal and baronial forces throughout 1207 and into 1208. The situation was such that it required a show of force in the form of a royal expedition to Ireland, but circumstances forced John to delay his mission until 1210. In the meantime, he made peace with the lords of Meath and Leinster, asserting his judicial supremacy in revised charters for their lordships. When the lord of Limerick, William de Briouze, refused to negotiate, John used William’s unpaid debt to the crown as a justification for confiscating all of his possessions, including those in England. William was driven into exile in Ireland. When the lords of Meath, Leinster and Ulster resisted John’s authority by not delivering the fugitive and his family to justice, John finally mounted his expedition to Ireland.

John and the making of royal government in Ireland
When John came to Ireland in 1210, it was to finish the business he had started in 1204. Landing in Waterford, John swept all opposition before him. Irish kings flocked to show their loyalty by joining his army as it marched through Leinster and Meath to the rebels’ final stronghold in Ulster. The lords of Meath, Ulster and Limerick fled to France and saw their lordships confiscated by the king. The lord of Leinster was threatened with a trial in Dublin and only narrowly escaped a similar fate.

Having crushed baronial opposition to his state-building measures in Ireland, John could proceed as he pleased. On the eve of John’s expedition, his old companion from 1185, Gerald of Wales, wrote to him suggesting two possible courses of action: John could either make his younger son, Richard, king of Ireland (and thus assert the island’s independence under his dynasty), or he could make Ireland more explicitly subject to England through a ‘perpetual indenture and indissoluble bond’. John chose the latter. The victorious king decreed that English Common Law was to be the only law in Ireland. There was to be no separate body of Irish law suited to the frontier, no pragmatic accommodation with the native Irish. From 1210 the law of Ireland was to be made in England.

By introducing a binary definition of law in Ireland, King John’s 1210 decree reinforced a legal separation between native and settler populations. John had declared one law for Ireland, but in practice all of the colonists were corralled under one legal category and shut off from the Irish (who were to retain their own law). Denied access to English law, the vast majority of the Irish (unlike their Welsh counterparts) could not participate in the royal government. That government became increasingly controlled from Westminster, as justices learned in English law were sent to head the Irish judiciary. The king’s court of Ireland that emerged in the 1220s was thus modelled on an ideal form of the royal court in England, and analogues to the Common Bench, Judicial Eyre and King’s Bench all evolved in Ireland by the mid-thirteenth century. All the while, ultimate control of Irish courts remained with the English government. In this way, John’s rule marks the beginning of Dublin’s colonial dependence upon Westminster.
John’s achievement in Ireland was immediately recognised. A year after his expedition, in 1211, an English chronicler declared:

‘At this time there was no longer any rival in power to the King of England in Ireland, Scotland or Wales; which was not something one could have said about any of his ancestors.’

Above: Dublin Castle’s Record Tower today—the only surviving part of the original structure, built by King John in 1204.

Above: Dublin Castle’s Record Tower today—the only surviving part of the original structure, built by King John in 1204.

Only four years later, in 1215, an outraged English baronage would force King John to issue the Magna Carta. His great offence in England was the same thing as his great achievement in Ireland: the single-minded pursuit of central authority.

Tadhg O’Keeffe is Professor of Archaeology at UCD; Colin Veach lectures in medieval history at the University of Hull.

S. Church, King John: England, Magna Carta and the making of a tyrant (London, 2015).
S. Duffy, ‘John and Ireland: the origins of England’s Irish problem’, in S.D. Church (ed.), King John: new interpretations (Woodbridge, 1999), 221–45.
M. Morris, King John: treachery, tyranny and the road to Magna Carta (London, 2015).
C. Veach, ‘King John and royal control in Ireland: why William de Briouze had to be destroyed’, English Historical Review 129 (540) (2014), 1051–78.


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