King Dermot loses his crown but Strongbow can’t lift it / the Lia Fail / memento Mortimer / a Welsh pedigree
Barnard, Francis Pierrepont. (1910). Strongbow’s Conquest of Ireland Second Edition. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Crouch, David. (2002). William Marshal Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147—1219 Second Edition. London: Longman.
McCullough, David Willis. (2002). Wars Of The Irish Kings A Thousand Years Of Struggle, From The Age Of Myth Through The Reign Of Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Mortimer, Ian. (2003). The Greatest Traitor The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer Ruler Of England 1327–1330. London: Pimlico Random House.
Westwood, Jennifer. (1985). Albion A Guide to Legendary Britain. Salem, New Hampshire: Salem House.
In 1155, Pope Adrian IV gave King Henry II of England permission to invade Ireland. Adrian’s excuse was that the Irish church had fallen into moral decay and killing some Irish would bring them back to obedience.
Despite papal approval, Henry didn’t invade.
In 1166, a century after the Norman invasion of England, King Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, the third great-grandson of high king Brian Boru, fell afoul of his overlord Rory O’Connor. O’Connor stripped Dermot of the kingdom of Leinster for abducting Derbforgaill, wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breifne.
Dermot fled to England. Henry spurned Dermot’s plea for aid, but allowed him to raise an army. In exchange for help in winning back his crown, Dermot promised his daughter and kingdom to Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, called Strongbow.
In 1170 Strongbow arrived in Ireland. His marriage to Aoife (Eve) of Leinster was said to have taken place on a field so blood soaked it stained the hem of her bridal gown. Dermot died in 1171, one of the most despised figures in Irish history.
Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster.
(“Together they raised an army and reclaimed a kingdom—and changed the history of Ireland forever.” I’m a spoilsport to point out this cover bears little resemblance to the historical Aoife and Strongbow, but Aoife is a rather nice name for a woman, and a knight in shining armor astride a white horse is sure to quicken heartbeats in the supermarket checkout lane.)
Henry wasn’t happy.
Granted, Strongbow had brought Ireland to its knees without any funds from Henry, but one of Henry’s subjects declaring himself king didn’t fit in with his plans. So in October 1172, Henry himself landed at Cork intending to chastise the unruly Normans who’d done his dirty work for him. All of the Irish kings except high king Rory O’Connor submitted to Henry. O’Connor later made a separate peace, but as King of Connacht, and without obligating his subjects to Henry.
Strongbow did not make good his claim to the kingdom of Leinster. Henry forced him to do homage for Leinster and cede some of its territory. In 1176 Strongbow died, leaving a son named Gilbert who died a minor without issue. Strongbow’s daughter Isabel was heiress to his estates, but not to the kingdom of Leinster. Isabel married William the Marshal, who became Earl of Pembroke in right of his wife:
(This tomb in Christ Church cathedral in Dublin is allegedly that of Strongbow, though some accounts indicate Strongbow’s tomb was destroyed and this is a substitute. It looks old enough to be of Strongbow’s era.)
As a further slap in the face, in 1185 Henry decided Ireland would make a fine appanage for his son John (later to be King John of England). John and his retainers offended the Irish by pulling the men’s beards and laughing at them. Although Henry secured Pope Urban III’s agreement that John would become king of Ireland, John’s adventure ended after he’d squandered his father’s money in dissipation. He departed within a few months without a crown, and his unpaid mercenaries became marauders who terrorized the Irish.
Below is a photo of the “Lia Fail” stone at the Hill of Tara in Meath, where High Kings of Ireland were inaugurated. I agree with the view that it’s a relic of an ancient fertility cult. Some feel that this stone, which was installed at the site about 1824, is not the legendary “Lia Fail,” and that the true coronation stone has yet to be unearthed. Standing stones are found at many ancient Celtic sites.
Further, it’s been theorized that the Stone of Scone, or Scottish coronation stone, which King Edward I of England confiscated in 1296, was actually the “Lia Fail.” But Fergus son of Erc, traditionally considered to have founded the Scottish kingdom in the 6th century in what is now Argyll, and his descendants, seem not to be rulers with authority to remove so sacred an object. Fergus is thought to have migrated from a base in North Ulster. He was probably more a Rolf the Viking type, a colonizer but not a monarch. The settlement in Argyll would have been dependent upon links with Ireland for many years, for trade and defense. The Stone of Scone was probably not something originally brought with the colonizers, but perhaps sent for, presented to them, or authorized to be used at some point, and not necessarily within the lifetime of Fergus and his sons, or for generations thereafter.
(The Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish kings were inaugurated, may have been modeled after the Stone of Tara in Ireland. This is probably not the condition of the stone when it was confiscated from the Scots. It was stored in a tier beneath the seat of Edward I’s coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, and may have been altered to fit. The Scots may have altered the stone during the centuries prior to its removal, and a similar stone used by the Irish might also bear signs of human alteration.)
The stone presently installed on the hill of Tara, which bears no resemblance at all to the Stone of Scone, is obviously a pagan cultic object or talisman, which the church would have regarded as profane. Even granting the stone’s antiquity, once Ireland was Christianized, it’s doubtful the church would have sanctioned its use in the ceremony of royal inauguration. It’s a generic structure, common in the ancient world, that was meant to ward off evil and assure prosperity—not an object the community would associate with kingship.
(This is how the Stone of Scone is thought to have appeared in use. It would have been quite convenient that its dimensions fit so perfectly the tier beneath the seat of Edward I’s coronation chair. It may be that the actual Stone, which is the seat, would have originally extended outward from the sides of the supporting stones. Edward I may have mutilated the Stone as a further humiliation to the Scots.)
It seems unlikely coronation stones were selected from a natural rock formation simply because they physically suited the purpose. The Stone of Scone and its (presumed) model at Tara may have been re-purposed from a pagan structure with the blessing of the church, such as an altar, or fixture in an enclosure, that had deep meaning for the populace. So these stones are actually remnants of structures that pre-date the introduction of Christianity into the area, symbols of continuity from the pagan past. This theory is supported by the policy of Pope Gregory the Great (reg. 590–604), who told his missionaries to England not to demolish pagan temples but consecrate them and put them to Christian use. Gregory’s policy in Ireland and Scotland was probably the same. If the theory is correct, the re-dedication of the coronation stone at Tara in Ireland dates to the dawn of the 7th century A.D. at the latest, and could have been much earlier coinciding with Christian missionary activity in Ireland in the 5th century A.D. Was the Stone of Scone originally part of the coronation stone at Tara?
It’s possible Henry II destroyed the stone at Tara to emphasize the submission of the Irish kings, but that is conjecture not based upon any text of the period.
However, it’s not entirely clear how these coronation stones were used. The king may have merely stood on the stone, or placed a foot upon it. If the stone was not used as the seat for a bench, then the Stone of Scone as we have it may be an approximation of its intended shape. This painting shows King John of England seated upon a bench, giving an idea of the Stone as a seat:
The sources for this period give the general idea of an alien race, presumably from Ulster in Ireland, making an incursion into Argyll and coming into conflict with its neighbors, the usual tale in such circumstances. For all we know, they were mercenary warlords who turned on their patrons, as the Saxons are thought to have done to the Britons, subjugated an area, and brought in settlers from Ireland to stabilize the conquest and create a loyal base.
Anyone familiar with Dark Age monastic authors like Gildas and Nennius knows better than to take such sources at face value. Monks were known to interpolate events and probably even names when lacking, and coloring a history out of malice wasn’t unknown, either. Gerald of Wales, a prominent churchman in the retinue of Henry II when Henry landed in Ireland, and thus with first hand knowledge of the country, recounts tales so fantastic he might as well have stayed at home and made them up. Gerald said of the Irish: “This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice.” So much for ecclesiastical objectivity.
I understand the desire of historians to say something about the early history of Scotland, and there’s an temptation to apply scholarship to sources that are all that presently exist, but it’s a dangerous practice. The source of the information, which may have been only rarely firsthand, is almost never given, or the name of the author. Even accounts of saints, especially if they have an obvious moral theme, are suspect. I prefer archaeological evidence, and to match it if possible with written sources. History as practised in the past was frequently not fact-based, which sounds strange to the modern mind, and it would be nice if modern historians were more candid about that. Saying “I don’t know” is better history than trying to extrapolate truth.
The true coronation stone of Ireland may remain buried at Tara, its function long forgotten. Of course, this is conjecture and theory, and I’ve used the words “might,” “may,” “possibly,” and “probably” repeatedly. It’s only a hypothesis, and perhaps one day hard evidence will prove it up or down.
Dermot MacMurrough (or Diarmit Mac Murchada) is vilified in Irish history as a traitor who brought the Normans into Ireland. Strongbow’s daughter Isabel married William the Marshal, who became Earl of Pembroke in her right. From there Aoife of Leinster’s bloodline passed to the de Braiose family, Welsh marcher lords, and on to the Mortimers.
History would have a reckoning with the most notorious of Aoife’s descendants: Roger de Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, lover of Edward II’s queen Isabella, who found himself sentenced to death just three years after murdering Edward II.
(This heart-warming tableaux depicts Queen Isabella and Roger de Mortimer in the foreground, while in the top right corner Hugh le Despenser the Younger is losing his manhood, which will be tossed into the fire. A group of peasants or town folk have assembled to see Hugh disassembled.)
The romance between Isabella and Roger de Mortimer had begun by December 1325. They were openly amorous at the court of the French king Charles IV, Isabella’s brother. It was both a scandal and one of the great romances of the Middle Ages. Isabella, rejected by Edward II who was devoted to his two male favorites, first Piers de Gaveston, and then Hugh le Despenser the Younger, fell into Mortimer’s arms. They began to plot the overthrow of her husband. The dashing and ruthless Mortimer was the perfect man to engineer a coup.
On 24 Sep 1326, Mortimer and Isabella, accompanied by mercenaries, landed on territory controlled by Edwward II’s half-brother, Thomas, Earl of Norfolk, who was also Isabella’s first cousin. The invasion quickly turned into a revolution, and by mid-November, Edward II was in Mortimer’s hands. The Despensers, father and son, were brutally executed.
Isabella and Mortimer spent Christmas at Wallingford.
Edward II was persuaded to abdicate. It was convenient that he not be “deposed.” Isabella’s son was crowned king as Edward III. And by 23 Sep 1327, Edward II had died at Berkeley Castle. According to the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook:
“Firstly, [Edward II] was shut up in a secure chamber, where he was tortured for many days until he was almost suffocated by the stench of corpses buried in a cellar underneath. But when his tyrannous warders perceived the stench alone was not sufficient to kill him … they thrust a plumber’s soldering iron, heated red hot, guided by a tube inserted into his bowels, and thus they burned his innards and his vital organs. [Edward II] shouted aloud so that many heard his cry within and without the castle and knew it for the cry of a man who suffered violent death.” The murderers didn’t want visible wounds on the king lest the people be aroused to pity.
Roger de Mortimer wielded power as a king in all but name. But Edward III chafed at the rule of his mother and her lover. On the night of 19 Oct 1330, the king and a small band of companions surprised Mortimer and Queen Isabella in her bedchamber at Nottingham Castle. As Mortimer was carried off, Isabella cried: “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer! Do not harm him, he is a worthy knight. Our beloved friend, our dear cousin.” If Isabella didn’t utter these famous words, they were put into her mouth by someone who recognized a good story.
On 26 Nov 1330, Mortimer was gagged and found guilty of 14 charges and other unspecified crimes. Three days later, he was dragged by two horses from the Tower of London to Tyburn where, bones broken by the rough streets, he was hanged. After hanging on the gallows for two days and nights, Mortimer was buried in the Church of the Friars Minors at Coventry, Warwickshire, where his body remained despite an appeal by his wife Joan to have it moved to Wigmore.
Isabella was banished to loose confinement at Castle Rising in Norfolk. In an act of supreme irony, upon her death in 1358 she was buried at Greyfriar’s church in London, where also was buried her aunt Margaret, second queen of King Edward I, and placed beneath Isabella’s grave was the heart of her murdered husband, King Edward II.
Mortimer’s daughter Katherine (by his wife Joan, not Isabella) married Thomas de Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warwick. Their daughter Maud married Roger de Clifford. In one of the more curious phenomena of medieval England, the Mortimer family, along with the similarly disgraced Despensers, survived the execution of their traitorous ancestors.
[Tomb of Katherine (Mortimer) and Thomas de Beauchamp at St. Mary’s, Warwick.]
Davies, John. (2007). A History Of Wales Revised Edition. London and New York: Penguin Books
Before it connected with the royal bloodline of Leinster, the de Braiose family had a bloody history of its own. Maud de St. Valery, wife of William de Braiose, the 5th lord, and her son William were allegedly walled up alive in her castle by King John. They starved to death, so ravenous that Maud devoured William’s cheeks.
Why did John so hate Maud? Evidently Maud knew too much about John’s murder of his nephew Arthur, son of his older brother Geoffrey—who had a better claim to the English throne than John. Maud’s husband William de Braiose had handed Arthur over to the king. Or so the story goes. Her husband was merely exiled, but Maud and her son weren’t as fortunate.
Maud entered English folklore as Moll Wallbee, a giantess who built Hay Castle in a night—and who was condemned to join the Hounds of Hell and hunt the night during storms. Doubtless the Welsh threatened misbehaving children with the prospect of a visit from Moll.
Gen. 8: William de Braiose had a brother Reynold de Braiose, whose son William, the 6th Lord Braiose, married Eve Marshall. Eve Marshall was the great-grandmother of Roger de Mortimer, 1st Earl of March.
Gen. 9: Margaret, daughter of Llewellyn the Great, has been attributed to King John’s illegitimate daughter Joan, but the descent has two problems: (1) the Welsh didn’t differentiate between children of wives and those of concubines (2) there’s no proof Joan was John’s daughter. But here we’re concerned with Welsh royal descents, not Plantagenet offspring. Llewellyn’s pedigree to legendary Welsh ruler Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great, d. 878), like the pedigree of any medieval monarch to some heroic ancestor, was necessary, and in this case, true.
Gen. 11: William de Braiose’s first wife was Agnes (maiden name unknown), and his second wife was Elizabeth de Sully. His children were by Agnes.
By the end of the 13th century, Wales had ceased to exist as an independent principality, subsumed by English king Edward I. Marcher (or border) lords like the de Braiose and Mortimer families had been a line of defense against the Welsh.