“Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland

Published in Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 15

Trim Castle, Co. Meath, de Lacy's principal stronghold. The present stone structure was built (and rebuilt) after Hugh de Lacy's death in 1186. (OPW)

‘He paid much attention to his own private affairs, and was most careful in the administration of the office entrusted to him and in his conduct of public affairs. Although extremely well versed in the business of war, he was not a success as a general, for he often suffered heavy losses on his expeditions. After the death of his wife he was a womaniser and enslaved by lust, not just for one woman, but for many. He was avaricious and greedy for gold, and more ambitious for his own advancement and pre-eminence than was proper.’

Such was the description Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) bestowed upon the Anglo-Norman magnate Hugh de Lacy in his famous book Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). De Lacy was a man of truly international character, ruling over an impressive transmarine aristocratic honour, and though his more spectacular exploits found their expression in Ireland, to ignore his other interests is to misinterpret his career.
Early career in England and Wales
From 1066, the de Lacy lands consisted of territories in the west midlands of England, along the Welsh marches and in Normandy. A century later they descended to a man possessed of the acquisitive drive that had led his forebears to cross the channel in search of increased wealth and status. Hugh, second son of Gilbert de Lacy, succeeded to the honour after his elder brother Robert died without heirs. Younger sons had little to look forward to in the way of inheritance, and Hugh’s reaction to his assumption of lordship is evidence of one determined to fully exploit his unexpected position. He was fined several times for making illegal assarts—that is, clearings of the king’s forest farmed for personal gain. In addition, he intruded on the rights of a neighbouring monastic house, and even went so far as to deny the full service he owed the bishop of Hereford for lands in Herefordshire and Shropshire. Grabbing more than was his due and denying what he owed, Hugh de Lacy was just the type of gadfly who could prove troublesome if left alone.
It is little surprise, therefore, that he was a regular in royal armies. Warfare provided an outlet for Hugh’s ambitions and restless nature in a way that served the king’s interests. Indeed, his position along the Welsh marches allowed him constant combat against the Welsh, benefiting both magnate and king. Subsequently, when Henry II mounted his expedition to Ireland in 1171, Hugh de Lacy was in his company.

Irish expedition, 1171–2

Henry was in Ireland to curb the ambitions of Richard de Clare (Strongbow), who had married Aoife, daughter of the late king of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, and was making great strides towards realising that kingship as his inheritance. Unsurprisingly, the establishment of a fully sovereign power base by one of his magnates was unacceptable to the king of England. While in Ireland, Henry II not only succeeded in bringing Strongbow to heel, gaining the Norse towns of Dublin, Waterford and Wexford for his royal demesne, but also secured the submission of nearly every Irish king.
Though they were compliant in the presence of an impressive royal army, Henry II thought it wise to take precautions lest his newest supplicants forget their oaths upon his departure. Unfortunately he did not have much time to deliberate, for pressing matters on the Continent called him away from Ireland earlier than he had planned. Consequently, the king was forced to cast about quickly for an effective and convenient solution.
Of paramount importance was the preservation of the royal enclave at Dublin. Dublin, one of the pre-eminent trading centres in northern Europe, also had well-established ties with the English ports of Bristol and Chester and would therefore have been a valuable addition to the royal demesne. In addition, Dublin had acquired a domestic significance as the symbolic capital of all Ireland. For almost two centuries no high king had ruled without Dublin. The current high king, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair of Connacht, had only recently lost the town to the Anglo-Normans under Strongbow and was desperate to get it back. In reserving Dublin for himself in 1171–2, therefore, King Henry II was not only harnessing the commercial power of the port but also taking on the trappings of the Irish high kingship.

Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, from the margins of Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales-the marriage of his daughter Aoife to Strongbow created the possibility of a fully sovereign power base unacceptable to King Henry II of England. (National Library of Ireland)

Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster, from the margins of Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales-the marriage of his daughter Aoife to Strongbow created the possibility of a fully sovereign power base unacceptable to King Henry II of England. (National Library of Ireland)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry’s solution was to place Dublin and the disputed territory of Meath in the hands of the same man. It was a risky but ingenious plan. Rather than sitting within the walls of Dublin waiting to respond to attacks from the Irish, the custodian in charge of its preservation would busily carve out his own lordship along the main western approaches. In essence, he would be taking the fight to the Irish, attacking them before they had a chance to attack Dublin, and keeping them perpetually off guard and incapable of mounting a concerted attack. It would also solve once and for all the problem of Meath, which had been ripped apart in the preceding decades by those who sought its economic and strategic rewards.
The problem lay in deciding who should receive such an important and influential post. One can imagine Hugh de Lacy petitioning Henry II, as they rode through Ireland, to give him the chance to try his fortune in Meath. To an acquisitive and warlike baron, the ease with which his fellow marcher lords had been able to carve out lordships in Ireland must have been quite exciting indeed. Though it took some time, de Lacy was finally able to prevail upon his king. Two weeks before Henry set sail for England, Hugh received his grant. Meath and Dublin were his.

Blood and treachery—the conquest of Meath, summer 1172

From the outset, de Lacy had much work to do to secure his new lands. Meath was a speculative grant—that is, it had not yet been brought under Anglo-Norman control. One may indeed question Henry’s right to grant away the Irish kingdom. Although the commonly held view of the Uí Mael Sechlainn kings of Meath as the victims is inaccurate (the contemporary evidence shows that they had been superseded by Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Bréifne as ruler of Meath), the claim of treachery remains, as Ua Ruairc had also submitted to Henry II. The change of victim goes a long way towards explaining why the grant was made, however, because Tigernán Ua Ruairc was as great a threat as there was to be found in Ireland. Too bellicose to be contained, too determined to be appeased, his only constancy was in his willingness to switch allegiances at the turn of the tide. A formal submission would have meant little from a man who had changed allegiance approximately sixteen times in the half-century preceding the arrival of the Anglo-Normans.
Henry II must have known that with two aggressive and warlike men, Hugh de Lacy and Tigernán Ua Ruairc, seeking to rule the same territory a showdown was inevitable. Subsequently, at an arranged meeting between the two at the hill of Tlachtgha (Hill of Ward), near Athboy, that summer, an altercation resulted in the beheading of Ua Ruairc. Both sides blamed the other for the assault: the Anglo-Normans claimed that an inspired vision roused one of their number to action just as Ua Ruairc rushed to murder de Lacy, while the Irish claimed that they were ambushed on their way to the parley. Whichever the case, there could not have been a better result for de Lacy or Henry II.

Strongbow's seal-the establishment of de Lacy with an alternative power base was designed to curb Strongbow's ambitions. (National Library of Ireland)

Strongbow’s seal-the establishment of de Lacy with an alternative power base was designed to curb Strongbow’s ambitions. (National Library of Ireland)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ua Ruairc’s death opened up vast stretches of Meath to Anglo-Norman settlement and, more importantly for the English king, removed a very persistent thorn from Dublin’s environs. In a display of relief and bloodthirsty jubilation, de Lacy had Ua Ruairc’s body mangled and gibbeted upside down to the north of Dublin, and his head set above the gate of Dublin Castle before ultimately being sent to Henry II.

The conquest falters, 1173–4

De Lacy was unable to exploit the new situation in Ireland because he was soon called to aid Henry II’s struggle against his rebellious sons. Hugh left Ireland late in 1172 to administer his English lands, and was with the king at Canterbury on 29 December. Royal service then led Hugh to Normandy, where his worth was proved in his vital month-long defence of the town of Verneuil against the French king, Louis VII. While in Normandy, Hugh found a further outlet for his territorial ambitions. Although he already held lands in the duchy, he purchased the Norman honour of Le Pin in the summer of 1173. If Hugh had been at all satisfied with his lands in England, Normandy and Ireland, then the purchase of another Norman honour would have been unthinkable. He had more than enough to contend with in conquering and settling the lordship of Meath, and needed all of the wealth he could muster in order to pacify the region. But instead of concentrating on the consolidation of his vast new lordship, Hugh took advantage of his time in Normandy to further extend his landed wealth.
Unfortunately for de Lacy, his enemies in Ireland also took this opportunity to extend theirs. In 1174, while Hugh was still attending his king, Meath was devastated by a coalition of the kings of Leth Cuinn (the northern half of Ireland) under the leadership of High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. Henry II’s representative in Ireland, Strongbow, was preoccupied with fighting native uprisings within his own lands, and the forces left behind for Meath’s defence were inadequate to even engage the enemy. In the face of the approaching army, Hugh’s steward, Hugh Tyrell, abandoned de Lacy’s principal castle of Trim and fled. The Irish, wisely deciding not to leave an empty Anglo-Norman castle to their rear, razed it to the ground. This saved Dublin. By halting, however briefly, to dismantle the fortifications they found in their path, the Irish allowed Strongbow enough time to race to the relief of the royal town, which was the army’s ultimate aim. Though undefended, Meath had still accomplished its primary mission of protecting Dublin.
Hugh de Lacy returned to Ireland after hearing of Ua Conchobair’s raid; he set about repairing damage and resuming the programme of conquest and settlement begun in 1172. He did not linger, however, and was back in England the following year. He was able to leave, in part, because Ua Conchobair had proven his point. He had shown Henry II that, whatever their oaths to him, the Irish kings would follow Ruaidrí into battle. In 1175, through the Treaty of Windsor, Henry II sought to placate the high king and to clarify their respective positions. The treaty tied Ruaidrí to Henry II and allowed de Lacy to leave his Irish lands without fear of overt hostility from Ua Conchobair. Hugh spent the next two years overseeing his English and Norman lands, and though he was in touch with his representatives in Meath he did not visit Ireland.

Confined to Ireland, 1177–9

All was to change at the council of Oxford in May 1177. Much has been made of this council, for it was here that Henry II named his son John king of Ireland. The real and immediate importance for Ireland lay not in Henry’s plans for his nine-year-old son, however, but in the tripartite division of the Anglo-Norman enclave effected at the council. Strongbow had just died, leaving Leinster unguarded and open to attack. William fitz Audelin, the erstwhile chief governor of Ireland, who had custody of Leinster during the interim, was to administer his third from Wexford; the other two thirds would be administered by Robert le Poer from Waterford and by Hugh de Lacy from Dublin. This was all part of a more general strategy of Henry’s, aimed at the curtailment of baronial influence at the local level and the restructuring of royal custodianships. Consequently, while he gained significant authority in Ireland, de Lacy was forced to hand over his strategic castle of Ludlow in Shropshire.

The extent of the lordship of Meath at the death of Hugh's son, Walter, in 1244, the earliest date for which we have documentary evidence. (Sarah Gearty)

The extent of the lordship of Meath at the death of Hugh’s son, Walter, in 1244, the earliest date for which we have documentary evidence. (Sarah Gearty)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By confining de Lacy’s actions to Ireland, Henry II hoped to recapture the conquering impetus present in 1172 but too often disrupted thereafter. De Lacy took up his new task with all the gusto of an international aristocrat finally and forcibly confined to one arena. Henry II should have been thrilled. Under Hugh’s direction, the frontier in Meath was pushed towards the Shannon, and prudent encastellation ensured that the disaster of 1174 would not be replayed.
Unfortunately, Hugh did his job too well. Whether it was because of his prolonged separation from the royal court or because of the relative ease with which he was able to gain victories in the frontier region, de Lacy’s ambition soon overstepped his bounds. In 1179 he was reprimanded after a delegation of Irishmen, likely sent by Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, appealed to Henry II for help against his harsh rule.

A dangerous alliance, 1179–84

In sending this delegation Ua Conchobair had proven himself to be a wily opponent. By complaining to Henry II of the actions de Lacy carried out while ostensibly acting as a royal official in Ireland, and securing from the English king a reprimand of his official, Ua Conchobair had gone over de Lacy’s head and severed any claim to legitimacy his actions might have had. Faced with the hostility of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair and abandoned by his own king, Hugh de Lacy was forced to capitulate. He sought a truce. This came in the form of a marriage alliance with Ua Conchobair. Hugh was a widower, having previously been married to Rose of Monmouth, and his new marriage to Ruaidrí’s daughter was a purely diplomatic move aimed at securing his western frontier. Although undoubtedly successful on the ground, the alliance only served to undermine his position with the English crown.
The ostensible problem with the marriage from the Anglo-Norman standpoint was that it had been undertaken without King Henry II’s permission, but there was more to it than that. It had been the marriage of Strongbow to the daughter of the king of Leinster, and his subsequent succession to that Irish kingdom, that had prompted Henry’s involvement in Ireland in the first place. The English king would have been very suspicious of a similar merger between the houses of Ua Conchobair and de Lacy. While Mac Murchada had been an ousted king in search of a reversal of fortunes, and Strongbow a disgraced magnate possessed of few real prospects, Ua Conchobair was the high king of Ireland, and the well-established lord of Meath an international figure. The alliance of these two men, and the possible succession of de Lacy to Connacht (unlikely though it might have been), was neither unprecedented nor ignored by contemporaries.
Henry II moved to reprimand his recalcitrant magnate, removing him from his royal post in May 1181. Intractable though he may have been, Hugh was also apparently invaluable to the Anglo-Norman administration of Ireland, for by that winter he had been promoted to chief governor of Ireland (though a trusted administrator was appointed to report on his activities). If this seems an odd punishment for insubordination, it was not without reason. Ireland was a frontier in need of strong leadership. Henry II was only too aware through past difficulties that a royal administrator without significant personal resources was doomed to fail in the extension and even maintenance of the king’s authority. So, as much as it may have galled him, Henry had little choice but to place the authority of the crown at Hugh’s disposal, for in so doing Henry placed the military might of de Lacy at his own disposal.

The height of de Lacy power, 1185–6

Hugh’s position at the head of the royal administration blended well with his hold on Meath, important diplomatic ties and aggressive forays into the frontiers of Anglo-Norman domination, imbuing de Lacy with a virtually regal status in the eyes of his contemporaries. Henry’s suspicions, which had never been fully assuaged, were eventually stoked by de Lacy’s prominence to the extent that he deemed it necessary to send his son John in a show of strength to personally take charge of the administration of the island as ‘Lord of Ireland’. Lord John’s expedition of 1185 is well known and, whether one sees it as an unmitigated disaster or as the work of an able administrator, John returned to his father blaming the expedition’s failures on Hugh de Lacy.
That Hugh was opposed to the new direction that the government of Ireland was to take—the outright subjugation of the claims of the native Irish to the ambitions of John’s new men—was to be expected. The hard-nosed marcher lord had made his own way in Ireland through a pragmatic mixture of conquest and diplomacy. The new lord of Ireland claimed that de Lacy prevented the native Irish from flocking to his standard, but others blamed John’s own arrogance. It seems clear, based on the available evidence, that Hugh’s opposition was passive. He simply did not actively support John’s new initiatives.
We can never be sure what King Henry II’s next move would have been, for an Irish axe removed the issue from consideration. Hugh de Lacy was killed at the instigation of ‘The Fox’ Ua Catharnaigh, one of the Irish lords whose lands he had annexed, as he oversaw the construction of his new castle at Durrow. The English king was said to have rejoiced at the news.

Artist's impression of the motte and bailey structure built by de Lacy at Trim (Uto Hogerzeil)

Artist’s impression of the motte and bailey structure built by de Lacy at Trim (Uto Hogerzeil)

The second son of a not-insignificant Welsh marcher lord, Hugh had managed to increase both his territorial wealth and his political significance through a combination of ambition, political pragmatism and willingness to fight. His military adherence to Henry II was the fundamental basis for his advancement, and the edifice that his rivals sought desperately to crack. While it served him well in his early career, his ambition led him to fall foul of his king and strain the relationship that brought him such reward. In the end, however, it was his ability as an administrator and conqueror that ensured his prominence in Ireland and proved him to be immovable from his position. As he bent to help construct yet another castle, Hugh de Lacy was at the head of a vast and impressive transmarine aristocratic assemblage of lands but, true to his nature, was relentlessly striving for more.

Colin Veach is a PhD student in the Department of Medieval History, Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:
M.T. Flanagan, Irish society, Anglo-Norman settlers, Angevin kingship: interactions in Ireland in the late twelfth century (Oxford, 1989).
G.H. Orpen, ‘Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath, 1172–86’, in Ireland under the Normans 1169–1333 (4 vols, Oxford, 1911–20), vol. II, chapter 3.
W.E. Wightman, The Lacy family in England and Normandy, 1066–1194 (Oxford, 1966).

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