INTERNATIONAL: Ireland in the Angevin empire

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Volume 27

It was not a foregone conclusion in 1169 that Ireland would become ‘England’s first colony’.

By Colin Veach

Above: Peter O’Toole as Henry of Anjou (King Henry II of England) in the 1964 film Beckett. (Alamy)

Although the invasion of Ireland in 1169 was broadly ‘English’ in its context and character, the political system presided over by its ultimate beneficiary, Henry of Anjou (King Henry II), stretched well beyond England to encompass much of Britain and two-thirds of France. Crucially, within this ‘Angevin empire’ (as modern historians call it) Ireland was no more constitutionally subject to England than England was to Normandy or Normandy to Anjou. Instead, the path that led Ireland from kingdom to colony was a circuitous one characterised by chance, opportunism and disaster. The process was neither smooth nor inevitable, and it often owed as much to the exigencies of Continental politics as it did to insular circumstances.

The Angevin empire

While the kings and church of England had long tried to claim varying degrees of imperium over their neighbours in Britain and Ireland, the roots of the 1169 invasion lay in Angevin dynastic politics. The counts of Anjou were originally established in the area surrounding Angers in the ninth century to block Viking aggression up the River Loire from Brittany. Over the years they enjoyed effective independence from royal oversight and engaged in a programme of expansion that brought them into frequent conflict with the similarly independent-minded and expansionist dukes of Normandy to the north.

A sequence of remarkable Angevin rulers culminated in Count Fulk V, who elevated the dynasty to international significance and was crowned king of Jerusalem in 1131. When Fulk departed for Palestine, he left behind his teenage son, Geoffrey ‘le Bel’ Plantagenet, who secured peace with the Angevins’ old rivals in Normandy (also by this point kings of England) by marrying King Henry I’s sole heir, Matilda, in 1128. The couple had three sons, with the eldest, Henry, being brought up as the heir to his namesake’s kingdom of England. When Henry I died in 1135, however, the English barons awarded the crown to Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, bypassing Matilda’s claim, which they (and Stephen) had sworn to uphold. Normandy quickly followed suit, and Matilda’s attempts to secure her inheritance were construed by her opponents as a war of conquest by the old enemy from Anjou.

While Geoffrey conquered Normandy and Matilda fought for England, their son Henry emerged as the acceptable face of their cause. In the space of three years, from 1151 to 1154, Henry was recognised as ruler of Normandy, Anjou, Aquitaine (in right of his wife, Eleanor) and England. Along the way he had made a number of enemies, not least his middle brother, Geoffrey. In 1152 Geoffrey made a bid to become count of Anjou himself and, we are told, even attempted to kidnap Eleanor to secure Aquitaine. Henry defeated his brother, but compensated Geoffrey for his loss by installing him as count of Nantes in Brittany. The Angevins had long coveted control of Nantes, which commanded the mouth of the River Loire and trade up to Angers, so Geoffrey’s appanage achieved a dynastic ambition while placating Henry’s rival.

The same was planned for Ireland. Just nine months after his coronation in England, Henry assembled a council at Winchester in September 1155 to discuss conquering Ireland for his youngest brother, William. A Flemish commentator even suggests that Henry had assembled an invasion army for the task. Although the invasion was then postponed until a more opportune time, Henry still sent to Rome for support and received the infamous papal bull Laudabiliter in reply. At the beginning of his reign Henry laid the ideological groundwork for a more conveniently timed conquest of Ireland.

Angevin overlordship

When Diarmait mac Murchada approached Henry for help in recovering Leinster in 1166, they were not strangers. Bristol had been the Angevins’ base in their war for England, and in the 1140s they used the well-established trade routes to import mercenaries from Leinster. In 1165 Henry even contracted the fleet of Dublin (which Diarmait controlled) to provide naval support for his attempted conquest of north Wales. This campaign was part of a three-year drive (1163–5) to consolidate Henry’s hold on Britain, and it drew on resources from throughout the Angevin empire.

Its dismal failure—due in no small part to the inhospitable Welsh weather—prompted a shift in Angevin policy away from direct military confrontation with England’s insular neighbours. For the next four decades Henry and his sons utilised a version of ‘divide and rule’, whereby they received oaths of homage and/or fealty from local rulers, received hostages to ensure their good behaviour and acted as arbiters in their disputes with English lords.

The Angevin empire was too large to allow Henry to linger in one region, and in 1165 this change of approach allowed Henry to turn his attention to matters of pressing importance on the Continent. Thus, when Diarmait finally tracked Henry down on the banks of the Loire in 1166, he found a king willing to accept his homage and countenance a recruitment drive but not to commit to personal involvement.

It is interesting to note that Henry entertained other such offers of overlordship at the time. Shortly after he met Diarmait, delegations from the Lombard cities of northern Italy reportedly offered Henry the ‘kingdom of Italy’ if he would support them in their war against the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. With the benefit of hindsight, English historians have tended to dismiss this as wishful thinking, but Henry took steps to facilitate southern expansion. As part of a broader strategy that also involved a claim on the county of Toulouse, Henry negotiated the marriage of his youngest son, John, to the heiress of Savoy-Maurienne, a strategic county guarding passes though the Alps into Italy. This alliance only fell through in 1174 after, among other things, Emperor Frederick marched an army through those very passes to reassert his authority over the northern Italian cities.

Returning to Diarmait, the change of royal strategy in Wales made his offer all the more attractive to Henry’s lords there. No longer enjoying wholehearted support against the Welsh from their king, many found themselves hemmed in. Henry provided Diarmait with a base in Bristol, and when an onomastic analysis of colonists is compared to provisioning records from Henry’s eventual 1171 expedition it appears that the invasion of Ireland was very much an enterprise of the Severn valley: the hinterland of Bristol and the Welsh march. Henry had already extended his theoretical lordship over Leinster through Diarmait’s homage on the Loire, yet he gained a further interest when Diarmait granted lands to his new recruits (who remained Henry’s vassals). Once Henry took over the invasion in 1171, he and his courtiers were able to build upon the ideological foundations laid in 1155 to present Angevin rule as the means to moral and religious reform.

From kingdom to colony

Above: Fourteenth-century illumination of King John hunting a stag. Henry intended his son John to be crowned king of Ireland, and a crown arrived from the pope in 1186. (British Library)

The collapse of the Savoy-Maurienne marriage left Henry’s son John ‘Lackland’ at a loose end. Having failed to use him to secure the Angevins’ southern interests, Henry deployed him to the west. Over the next three years, Henry granted John lands commanding the southern Irish Sea, including the territory of the lapsed earldom of Cornwall (1175), the earldom of Gloucester, with its Welsh lordships and port of Bristol (1176), and the kingdom of Ireland (1177). The sources are quite clear that Henry intended his son to be crowned king of Ireland, and when John went to assume his crown in 1185 he bore the pre-coronation title ‘lord’ of Ireland.

Despite John’s failure to be recognised as king on that expedition, a crown arrived from the pope in 1186 and all indications were that the kingdom of Ireland was to be ruled by a cadet branch of the Angevin dynasty. This would have been in keeping with Henry’s plans for the other Angevin satellite realms, Aquitaine and Brittany, which Henry had granted to two of John’s older brothers. This did not, however, mean a clean break. For one thing, Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence suggested that Henry might rule over his family ‘as emperor and king … without any change in sovereignty’. On a more basic level, the most powerful settlers in Ireland also held lands in England, Wales or Normandy, as did John himself.

Nevertheless, John enjoyed relative independence in his new realm, even when his brother Richard the Lionheart succeeded to the rest of the Angevin empire in 1189. His efforts to establish a more centralised structure of authority on the island were interrupted by Richard’s death in 1199, when John himself became master of the Angevin empire. Once again Ireland was but one of a number of provinces vying for attention. As a result, John returned to the days of ‘divide and rule’ but elected to consolidate his position by promoting his favourites on either side of the Irish Sea. Importantly, these men all held territories in England and Normandy, making it easy for John to discipline them for any misdeeds on the frontier.

Then, in 1204, disaster struck. Normandy and Anjou—the heartland of the Angevin empire—were overrun by forces loyal to the king of France. Their recapture was essential, and no expense was spared. England’s comparatively advanced system of revenue extraction, including profits of justice and local administration, made it the most profitable of the Angevins’ possessions. King John embarked upon ‘ten furious years’ of financial exploitation that eventually led to baronial rebellion and Magna Carta in 1215. Needing all the money he could get, John decided to export England’s system to Ireland. The heart of the Angevin empire had been torn away, so its periphery was equipped to fund its recapture.

John’s activities threatened the delicate balance of power that he and his father had sought to maintain in Ireland, and ran roughshod over four decades of custom as strong as law. In 1207 the leading English magnates in Ireland responded with a successful revolt that caught John off guard and forced him to compromise. A conspiracy then spread from Ireland to Wales (and possibly western Scotland), so that by 1209, with John facing excommunication thanks to his quarrel with the pope, those conspirators and the king of Scots were negotiating separate alliances with King Philip of France.

King John responded with a demonstration of Angevin might. In 1209 he marched north and began a process that reduced Scotland from a kingdom (regnum) to a land (terra) and eventually subjected it to his overlordship. He then demanded oaths of fealty and homage from every male over twelve in England and from all of the Welsh rulers.

In 1210 he called out the feudal host of England, demanded that everyone serve in person and sailed for Ireland. Gathering Irish kings and English settlers to his triumphal tour, John took the lordships of Limerick, Meath and Ulster and chased their lords into exile. The lord of Leinster, William Marshal, was presented with charges in Dublin but was saved by his ostentatious submission. John crowned his achievement with a grand council in Dublin, attended by both English and Irish élites. There he proclaimed that English law and custom were to apply to everyone in his kingdom (regnum) of Ireland.

The king’s court of Ireland that emerged in the 1220s was modelled on an ideal form of the royal court in England, and recent research suggests that both English and Irish people had access to English law there. All the while, ultimate control of these courts remained with the English government. Although Ireland continued to be called a kingdom (regnum) in official documentation into the mid-thirteenth century, this jurisdictional dependence made its development into an institutional kingdom far less likely. And so the twists and turns of Continental politics helped to ensure that what began as one of the more peripheral of the Angevins’ possessions—twice earmarked for a cadet line—became subject to their empire’s most enduring bond.

Colin Veach is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Hull.


M. Aurell, The Plantagenet Empire, 1154–1224 (trans. D. Crouch) (Harlow, 2007).

S. Church, King John: England, Magna Carta and the making of a tyrant (London, 2015).

J. Gillingham, The Angevin Empire (2nd edn; London, 2000).

W.L. Warren, Henry II (2nd edn; London, 1991).


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