There was a reason why the expected peace and quiet was not forthcoming – and it wasn’t specifically John pursuing Marshal for personal reasons to be fair, though probably making Marshal smart was an added bonus for him. No, it was a matter of royal policy. John had decided that rather than rule through the Anglo Irish magnates, Ireland should have all the deep benefits of direct royal control and rule. Its a question that comes up continually until Elizabethan Ireland – English kings deciding they really need to make Ireland like Wiltshire, and then find out it’s really difficult, really expensive and just give up.
And to be fair to English kings, it was jolly complicated. John wasn’t king of Ireland in the way that he was king of Wiltshire; in fact he was only Lord of Ireland. Plus, the English magnates over there had often gone native to varying degrees – the Lacy family had gained control of Meath, just north of Leinster and Ulster, and had married local native heiresses, creating frighteningly complicated local relationships. So, although English magnates such as Marshal, Hugh de Lacy, de Courcy in Ulster carved out lordships that pushed native lords to the fringes in the late 12th century, that did not automatically mean possession by the English King.
So, John decided that it jolly well should mean that by Jove. To do that he needed to clearly establish the royal rights in Ireland – so land grants were often conditional, reserving some legal rights to the crown; or excluding jurisdiction over towns; and insisting on the sole right to control minting of coins. But he needed some sort of infrastructure or power base; the office of Chief Justiciar of Ireland had existed since the late 12th century and was effectively the king’s representative in Ireland. But there was no royal castle, no place the Justiciar could call home, but his slippers. So in 1204 John ordered the justiciar to build one, and Dublin Castle was born. The justiciar was one Meiler FitzHenry, and a character who was very tough as old boot.
So that’s great for John’s strategy, but the main thing of course is establishing lordship over the lords there, and for John this meant the Anglo Norman families who had gone over with Strongbow or in his wake, and carved out lordships for themselves – such as the Lacys, de Burghs and so on.
There was a problem, however. These Anglo Norman invaders didn’t take kindly to the idea of taking orders from anyone, other than possibly God, and that only on a good day. They wanted to be essentially autonomous – the king of England could think what he liked, say what he liked, as long as he left them alone for all practical purposes.
John had been over to Ireland once in 1185, his dad planned to make him king, and even got a crown from the Pope, but as Harold Macmillian once observed of politics the best plans were often destroyed by events, dear boy, events, and so it proved here until a much more effective politician came along in the portly form of Thomas Cromwell. John hadn’t found the time to go again since, once again the problem of royal English power in Ireland – kings rarely went there and when they did the lords, native and Anglo Norman, knew they’d soon be gone, and when the cat’s away we all know what the mice do. So John, like later kings worked through tools – and John’s tool was Meiler FitzHenry, justiciar.
John worked away then to turn Ireland from a model based on the baronial autonomy of the Welsh marches, to become another English county. In addition to establishing the base at Dublin, John sought to establish a group of lords sympathetic to him there – a process which was often fractious. So Theobald Walter for example was granted land in Leinster, right in Marshal territory – which was awkward, Marshal wise, and bit like finding out you have the same seat ticket as someone else on the plane. Established Barons though, the really powerful de Courcy’s and Lacys remained stubbornly independent. So, John ordered Meiler to bring them to heel.
I have described Meiler as tough as old boot. He appears in the pages of a contemporary scribbler, Gerald of Wales who describes him as squat, powerful and pugnatious. Meiler had been in Ireland since 1168, and had carved himself substantial lands in SW Ireland, in Munster, and also close to Dublin in Meath. He was a grandson of Henry I, so he had the lineage and prestige Marshal did not. When John granted Meiler Offally, which were in fact already Marshal lands, he became Marshal’s liegeman. Which sounds encouraging and above board but isn’t. Meiler had travelled to France with John, and knew his mission. Marshal was the greatest of the Irish Barons – Meiler planned to give Marshals guts a new job as his garters. Up to Marshal’s arrival in Ireland in 1207, Meiler and John made progress; de Courcy was violently overthrown and replaced by Hugh de Lacy. Which seemed a monumental success for Meiler – until Lacy proved every bit as cussed as de Courcy, which seems careless of John and Meiler honestly. John then introduced another royal bacillus into the Irish bloodstream to hem around Marshal’s power – he granted a baron called William de Briouze extensive lands in Limerick, though excluding the town itself.
Now I am not sure it’s a wise move, storytelling wise, to introduce another non essential name – but Briouze’s career is a perfect example of why kings like John are dangerous, and it’s a dramatic story so… . Anyway in the early 1200’s, Briouse was riding high; he’d been servant to both Richard and John, and been showered with gifts. I mean even better than the generation game, or Millionaire. Lands all over England, some torn by John from the breast of their rightful owners, extension of the Briouze’s power base in the Welsh marchers, centred on Radnor. And now this in Ireland. There has been a suggestion that it was not just that Briouze was close to John – but that he also knew something. That he had a bit of dirt on the boss – specifically, about what had happened to Arthur of Brittany, so had a hold on John.
Before Marshal arrived in Leinster with Isabel in 1207, John and Meilers’ aggression became clearer. Meiler executed a naked land grab of the lands of the wardship of Ui Failge, on the death of its lord, land which was on Marshal’s borders. Meiler launched an attack on Briouze in Limerick, depriving him of his lands there, and signalling a dizzying change of attitude by John towards Briouze – John claimed Meiler had been acting without orders which nobody believed.
When Marshal and Isabel arrived in Ireland, then, there was a certain level of mayhem. There was the political equivalent of teenagers standing around on malls and street corners looking mean. Marshal and the major barons felt seriously threatened by Meiler – Briouze was in freefall, Mailer’s land grabs seriously questioned the rule of law and John’s intentions. Marshal had been made painfully aware that John was deeply regretting allowing him to go to Ireland and escape court at all, which rather suggested John had designs on his Irish estates. Marshal also found signs of some discontent within his own retainers at Leinster. Some signally failed to welcome his arrival by any means, and even plotting to work with Meiler to remove Marshal. Meanwhile there was a fight back – Hugh de Lacy actually attacked Meiler in in 1207 and removed from him the land he’d taken illegally in Offally. So look listeners, the air in Ireland was thick with thrown bread products.
Still Marshal could take comfort in the attitude of the other Anglo Norman barons, who as I’ve said wanted nothing to do with an increase in royal power. So they, and other Irish knights, wrote a petition to John, protesting Meiler’s actions while professing their own undying love and deep, deep loyalty. Marshal’s name was not on the petition, but given his power in Ireland, its very likely he was involved – and John almost certainly believed he was. John’s reply was you know, reasonably dusty
I was astonished at the request you made of me in your letter
Know that I will look to my own rights in the proper place and time with God’s help
All in all, John’s response was a pretty clear rejection of the Barons’ objections, and a statement of support for Mailer. All it achieved was greater determination on the part of the king to reduce Marshal’s power to manageable proportions. This period now, in 1207 to 1208, is the closest Marshal would come to both crashing and burning in John’s reign.
Now, if the Irish situation was a flock of pigeons, this letter was the cat. John and Meiler took action, probably planned. First off John called many barons and knights back to England. There John would investigate the Leinster and Offally situation together with the protagonists, in an open minded fair, even handed spirit. Or alternatively in such a way as to mullah Marshal. The clever money was on the latter, but let’s see.
Marshal and Isabel were certainly worried. They called their knights and leading retainers together and they debated hard – should I stay or should I go asked Marshal? If he refused the king’s command of course he would be in rebellion – no small matter; and in the end they decided he must go. Marshal called a wider council of his tenants and passionately begged them to look after his lands in his absence. At centre stage here was Isabel, involved in councils and debate; and William stressed that it was her inheritance they would be defending, not his own, her family, that of Strongbow of blessed memory. Isabel suggested taking hostages from the knights to keep them honest while he was away – but this was not Marshal’s way. He would trust them, and left his best retainers and most of his mesnie privee to support Isabel, including two key councillors – Jordan de Saqueville and John of Early. And then left for England.
Well, at the meeting with John at Woodstock, it transpired that the selected strategy was the one entitle mullah the Marshal. There were two strands to what John planned. Firstly, he would leave Leinster without it’s lord and defender, the Marshal would be kept in England, while Meiler nipped back and carried war into his lands. Secondly John would bribe Marshal’s followers away from him with grants of land. That would never succeed! I hear you cry! All would remain loyal to the mighty Marshal! Well sadly not. Philip pf Prendergarst, David de la Roche and many others signed up – even Marshal’s nephew John Marshal was suborned with the title of Marshal of Ireland, although he soon returned to Marshal’s side, as it appens. There were plenty of others, including a couple from Pembrokeshire. Back returned these latest viruses into the body of Leinster – while Marshal was forced, largely cold shouldered, to follow John about at court around England, chafing furiously, desperate to get back to his Countesses’ side to fight his enemies.
Meiler and the bribed Leinster knights took war to Leinster almost immediately – raiding and burning a new town being built by Marshal. When Meiler arrived he had one more weapon from John – a letter signed from the king ordering Early and Saqueville to return to England and the king. Well, here we have it. Without Marshal’s strongest leaders, it seemed obvious that it would be toast-time in Leinster. And surely no knights could refuse the king’s direct command.
And yet that is precisely what John of Early and Jordan de Saqueville did – they refused to return at the king’s command. It’s an extraordinary risk they took an extraordinary display of loyalty, and for both the stakes could now not be higher.
Back at court over the next 6 months, John goaded Marshal when he could be bothered to notice him. At one point he sidled up to Marshal and told him that 3 of his finest knights, including John of Early had been killed. How had he not known, agonised Marshal, how he wished he could be back there!
John, though, was fibbing. Simply fibbing – no ships had made it back over the winter seas to carry a report. The truth was very different. Isabel and her captains not only fought Meiler off, they enlisted the Lacy family to the fight. As far as the Lacy’s were concerned it was time to make a stand against this naked attempt to extend royal power, and joined Isabel and the fight not just in Leinster, but carried it into Meiler’s lands of Munster. The final showdown came at Kilkenny where Meiler’s siege of the countess was broken. Meiler had lost his castles in Meath by this time and he himself was finally captured. It was all over and tough as old boot or not, he submitted to Isabel. It was a rather complete victory.
By March 1208 then, John was forced to accept the inevitable, and come to terms with Marshal. William had heard the good news at court – but when John came to him he gave him a way out by pretending to have heard nothing, allowing him to save some face. Now at last John allowed Marshal to return to Ireland, although he demanded a second child as hostage. The deal they struck confirmed Marshal in his lands of Leinster, including those of Offaly that Meiler had half inched, but in return transferred to the king some legal powers. It reduced Marshal’s autonomy a little, but all in all, it was clear points victory.
Marshal’s return was a victory march, mobbed by his relieved and happy lords. Re-united with Isabel, he also got to receive the abject submission of traitors such as Prendergast and David Des Roches
Then Philip and David wept bitterly saying ‘mercy sir in God’s name! Pardon us your anger!…When Marshal heard them speaking so tears of pity flowed from his eyes and he said kiss me I shall – but only because you beg me’
So all’s well that ends well then. Marshal was now in his sixties. Time maybe to chill out and manage his estates. At this point Marshal elected to stay in Ireland. While we can’t be sure this meant he’d checked out from the life of politics and of the courtier, staying in Ireland is exactly what he would have done if that was this his intent – it was safely far away, and his power confirmed as largely autonomous. But he had not figured with William de Briouze.
Thanks for listening and being members all. Don’t forget the omnibus is also out his week if you prefer that format. I might also tell you that there are but 4 more episodes of the Marshal left, good golly miss molly. The next instalment is in 3 weeks time because for the next two weeks we return to Scotland, to hear about France’s attempt to establish a Franco-Scottish empire, and to hear about the Reformation parliament there. In the meantime, thank you for being members, I shower you with love and kisses, and I will see you next week.