Normans invade ireland in the 12th century


What was it like on the Island of Ireland in the 12th century? In the 12th century, there was no unified nation in Ireland, Viking and Celtic descendants both lived on this island. Several kingdoms co-existed here and free cities established by Viking descendants scattered all over the island. Everything was in perfect order, and there was even tacit division of labor.



When did the Normans come to Ireland?

In 1169 AD, the Normans from Northwestern France began to land in Ireland. Before that, they had conquered the Britain Island, a neighboring island of Ireland, for over a century. Who are the Normans? Normans are the Viking descendants who were enfeoffed in the Northwestern France, in a sense, they came from the same place as the Viking descendants in Ireland. Why did the Normans invade Ireland? Actually Normans did not come unasked, they were invited by Diarmait Mac Murchada, the king of Leinster who lost his power. After being dethroned, this unlucky king escaped to France and asked help from the Henry II of England.

Diarmait returned to Ireland


After Diarmait pledged allegiance, Henry II permitted him to recruit mercenaries anywhere in his territory. His first army consisted of 30 knights, 60 heavy cavalrymen, and 360 archers equipped with horses. This was the standard composition of a mobile unit of Norman knights, which had been tested in previous wars. With this small amry, Diarmait Mac Murchada and 500 Irish soldiers loyal to him fought a way back to Eastern Ireland.

Norman army landed on the eastern coast of Ireland

Norman army

In the next year, more Anglo-Norman soldiers landed on the eastern coast of Ireland, including the ambitious Richard de Clare, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. This nobleman warrior nicknamed as Arc-Fort (which means strong bow) commanded 200 knights and 1000 infantries. The earl wanted to earn himself a new fief. As for the soldiers under him, they were from fiefs and free cities on the both sides of the English Channel, and they also came to this strange island for lands, military pays and spoils of war.

Irishmen and Vikings formed an alliance

Facing the alliance between traitors and Normans, the Irishmen and Vikings in Ireland immediately formed a united front. However, as they had never met Norman knights before, they were defeated in several battles. Taking this opportunity, the invaders looted many villages and tribes, and even captured the significant harbor city, Dublin.

What was it like in the 12th-century Dublin?

12th-century Dublin

Dublin was a very typical colonial city at that time. The most noblemen and upper-class people in the city were descendants of Vikings who came to Ireland two or three centuries ago. They were not only allied with local Irish monarchs, but also recognized by the Norwegian Royal Family. Owing to the status of trade center, Dublin became one of the richest cities in Ireland. Therefore, there certainly would be strong resistance when the Normans took this city.

The formation of a bigger anti-Norman alliance

Diarmait, the man who brought Normans to Ireland, died in 1171. Richard de Clare, Diarmait’s new son-in-law, proclaimed that he was the new king of Leinster soon after the death of his father-in-law. As it was not conforming to Irish tradition, the whole island opposed him. A big anti-Norman alliance was soon formed for the purpose of recapturing Dublin by force.

The Viking monarch, Ascall mac Ragnaill

Ascall mac Ragnaill, a Viking monarch who was exiled from Dublin, made the first move. As a vassal of the king of Norway, he went to Scandinavia for help, and was lent a troop of Norwegian soldiers. On the way back to Ireland, Ascall passed by Orkney Islands and the Hebrides in the Northern Scotland, there he recruited among local Viking descendants. Finally, he also received military support from other Viking cities in Ireland and the Isle of Man, and thus formed an army of thousands of Viking soldiers. In more than 60 Norse long boats, Ascall’s army arrived at the gate of Dublin.

The action of Vikings


The Vikings were divided into two parts: 30 warships sailed by Norwegian mercenaries cruised in the waters to the east of the city, so as to stop the enemy reinforcements from England. The other 30 warships sailed to the north of Dublin city along the River Liffey, Viking soldiers onboard landed and encamped there. Due to the limited load capacity of Viking warships, the timbers for siege weapons had to collected locally. Ascall’s army soon began to prepare for a siege.

At that time, there were only about 2000 Norman soldiers defending Dublin. Among them, there were English and French knights, as well as mercenaries from Bretagne and Flanders. Some Vikings and Irishmen who were loyal to the new king also stayed. Richard’s attempt to be the king of Leinster led to the contradiction between him and the Henry II. Henry II ordered to stop the delivery of mercenaries and supplies, leaving the Norman army in Ireland trapped and helpless.

Facing Ascall’s siege, Richard did not want to sit still and wait for his doom. A knight unit moved out of Dublin from the north gatee, lined up and challenged the Vikings. Despite the size of it, this small unit almost drew the attention of the whole enemy troop. The Normans concentrated knights and heavy cavalries in the middle, and deployed archers and heavy infantries at the both flanks, just like the old days when they conquered England. Vikings made their classic shield-wall phalanx, and slowly advanced under the cover from archers behind them. Viking phalanx withstood the charge of a small number of knights, and drove them back after a fierce battle.

The Vikings lost the battle

The sortieing Norman unit had no choice but to retreated back to the city, and resisted the Viking shield-wall phalanx with the support from archers on the city wall. Richard sent out 30 knights who stayed in the city, ordered them to move out from the south gate, made a detour and attacked the Vikings’ riverside camp. This action made the undefended camp in panic and chaos, and the Vikings had to stop attacking and return. Taking this opportunity, the Normans regrouped and made a strike back. When Viking infantries were changing direction, the Normans launched deadly charges from both the front and rear.

Ascall died in battle, the Viking-Dublin royal family extincted

This action worked miraculously well. In the chaos, the Vikings began to escape while a few elite warriors stayed behind to make unavailing resistance. As a result, most Vikings escaped back to the riverside camp, got aboard the ships and left Dublin. Ascall was taken prisoner after all his retinues were killed. As a warning to others, Richard had him executed unhesitatingly. Following the death of Ascall, the Viking-Dublin royal family completely extincted.

However, it was not the right time for Anglo-Normans to celebrate their victory. They soon found out that, Ascall’s army was just an overture of the whole counter-offensive. A bigger army from inland Ireland was about to arrive, while the Norwegian fleet outside the harbor continued blockading the city.

The action of local Irish monarchs

Ireland in the 12th century

In the July of 1171, An Irish army of 30000 soldiers arrived at the gate of Dublin. Their supreme commander, O’Connor, was the High King elected by local Irish monarchs. The army he commanded was also a coalition force of elites from all the tribes on the island. It even included noblemen from Leinster who did not want Richard to be their king. A cooperation agreement was also reached between O’Connor and the remnants of Viking army who survived the last battle, including 30 ships of Norwegian soldiers.

The combat style of Irish army

Irish army

Unlike the Vikings, Irishmen could not make siege weapons, but they had the absolute advantage of force. Therefore, O’Connor deployed his army outside Dublin, and almost completely blockaded the city. Facing the threat of Irish army and Viking warships on the sea, the Normans could foresee their imminent mortality. They ran out of food in the past two months. The local archbishop who stayed in the city, had been trying to contact with the outside via the church, calling upon more Irishmen and Vikings to join the sieging army. In the end, Richard had to send out a messenger to the Irish High King and sued for peace.

The negotiation between Irishmen and Normans broke up

Based on his past experience of dealing with Vikings, O’Connor laid out generous terms. He required the Normans to confine their territory to the city of Dublin and a few enclaves. As for Richard’s demand of the throne of Leinster, it would not be granted. The Normans were not allowed to expand their territory either. However, O’Connor did not realize that, as typical feudal militarists, the Anglo-Normans were totally different from Viking colonists. Vikings were content with their coastal settlements, but the Normans could not accept the reality that they could not acquire more lands.

The negotiations finally broke up. O’Connor’s army stayed at the camps outside Dublin, waiting for Normans to give in due to hunger.  But Richard still refused to give up resistance. After the negotiation broke up, he soon had a military meeting and developed a daring plan to make a raid on the enemy. He divided his troops into three independent units, the knights led the way while archers, Viking infantries and Irish retinues followed them.

O’Connor’s Irish coalition army was actually consisted of different troops, and were separated at different camps. These camps were far from each other, but all close to the city wall of Dublin. Being unqualified for siege combat, this army did pooly in disciplines and guarding measures. The long-lasting siege made many soldiers very slack, they just wanted the war to end soon so as to return home for harvest. Viking warships also could not always keep watch on the sea, they often docked at nearby coast for rest and supplies. All these situations provided Richard a great opportunity to break out of the siege.

The battle between Irishmen and Normans

In an afternoon of September, Richard ordered his whole army into action. The right-flank unit led by 20 knights moved out of city from the south gate, while the left-flank unit moved out from the north gate which was close to river bank. The central unit which had the largest size, was led by Richard and 40 knights, they left the city from west gate. The left-flank unit would cross a bridge on the River Liffey, made a detour and attacked the enemy rear.

As the Norman knights began to charge, the unprepared Irish soldiers were stunned by the sudden attack. Most of them were light infantries with little armor, and only suitable for making ambushes in mountain area. Their festinate resistance could not stop the Norman cavalries at all. Once the cavalries made a gap on the enemy defense line, the Viking and Irish infantries fighting for their Norman monarch would follow the cavalries and break through.

Some elite Irish warriors were equipped with horses, or heavy axes under the influence of Vikings. But they were few in number, and therefore not able to withstand Normans’ charges in group. Many of them escaped when the battle began, while those who stayed behind chose to hide into the camp. But there they had to face Norman archers and infantries. The lack of fortifications in the camp also prevented the defenders resisting the attackers.

The Irish leader OConnor was taken prisoner

When the battle started, O’Connor, the supreme commander of the Irish coalition army, was bathing in the River Liffey. Richard’s sudden attack made his troops instantly broke down. A group of knights rushed up to him and captured this Irish leader before he made any decision. And his men were all slaughtered in the chaos.

The siege of Dublin was raised

The Normans did not returned to Dublin until the night fell. And they did not only smashed the sieging army, but also seized a large quantity of supplies and wealth in enemy camps. The siege of Dublin city was raised. And the Norwegian fleet returned by the way they came, while the rest Vikings went back to their settlements all over the British Isles.


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