by Ruadh Butler
When most people speak of ‘The Norman Conquest’ they are of course referring to the events that followed one of history’s most famous battles – Hastings.
Even though it was not the only Norman Conquest it is difficult to get away from 1066. The year has quite understandably become one of the most renowned; the cast are famous, the stakes never higher. And the incentive for the leaders was nothing less than the control of the kingdom of England. The outcome remained on a knife edge right to the end of the day. The Hastings campaign is simply chocked full of melodrama and even amongst the many battle honours of the Normans it still stands proudest.
So it is perhaps understandable that attempts have been made to compare the conquest of Ireland to that of England a hundred years before – that one great battle added unconquered Ireland to the Norman realm.
According to the famous medieval couplet: “At the creek of Baginbun, Ireland was lost and won.”
|A Baginbun – image of modern Baginbun Point in County Wexford.
You can still see the Norman earthworks running east-west between
the two beaches at the headland’s narrowest point.
It seems like a rather grand statement for such a little-known battle yet the rhyme has echoed down through the ages. But where is Baginbun? Who won Ireland? And who lost? Was Baginbun, like the Battle of Hastings, indeed a momentous turning point in history as the verse stated?
|Baginbun Point from above the eastern beach.
The Martello tower is a Napoleonic era fortification.
It was from the fighting frontier of Wales that the men who took part in the Norman invasion of Ireland hailed. While the independent Kingdoms of Gwent, Glamorgan, Brecknock and Deheubarth had fallen to Norman freebooters within thirty years of Hastings, they had been unable to extend their web of motte and bailey castles very far from the southern coast. Their hold over this territory was severely tested several times but in 1164 it was shaken to its very core through the efforts of Rhys ap Gruffydd. Many Normans lost their lands to the resurgent Welsh. This change in fortune created a generation of desperate men, shorn of their lands and trained from youth to kill. Some would’ve travelled to the Holy Land where the victories of Nur ad-Din threatened the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but others would not have had that opportunity. It is unsurprising that when an exiled king from Ireland arrived in Wales appealing for mercenaries to help him reclaim his throne that he found many willing to follow in return for plunder.
Promised an estate of 200,000 acres by King Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait Mac Murchada in Irish) in return for their help, the first Normans to venture to Ireland were led by Robert FitzStephen and his half-brother Maurice FitzGerald. Both were sons of the famous Princess Nest of Deheubarth and they commanded a multi-national and mongrel army of Normans, Flemings, Welshmen and Bretons comprising of forty knights, eighty esquires and around four hundred infantry and archers. It was a small force which nonetheless quickly forced Dermot’s many enemies into submission and allowed him to rise again as King of Leinster.
|Taken by Ruadh Butler standing between the two massive Norman earthworks at Baginbun. When crowned with a timber palisade they would’ve been incredibly intimidating.|
But this lofty position was no longer enough for Dermot. His mercenaries’ success had ignited a fierce ambition in him and one that would not be sated merely by sovereignty over one of the five major kingdoms of Ireland. He now set his sights upon the High Kingship. And for that aim to be realised he required an ally far greater than either FitzStephen or FitzGerald.
He needed the help of Richard de Clare. A Welsh baron from a powerful East Anglican dynasty, he became better known to history as Strongbow. His price for providing warriors for Dermot’s wars was steep. Similar to William the Conqueror, Strongbow wished to win a kingdom, although in his case he agreed to do this through marriage to Dermot’s daughter rather than bumping off the incumbent. Determined to see his own ambitions realised, Dermot agreed to the Norman’s terms and journeyed back to Ireland to await his new ally’s arrival.
But Strongbow did nothing. For three long years. The contents of one of Dermot’s letters survive through the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis and his frustration is obvious:
“Neither winds from the east or from the west have brought us your much desired and long expected presence. Let your present activity make up for this delay and prove by your deeds that you have not forgotten your engagements.”
|Signpost to Baginbun Point.|
Dermot’s rebuke finally forced Strongbow into action and in the summer of 1170 he despatched one of his chief warriors, the comically named Raymond the Fat, to Ireland to force a beachhead in advance of his own invasion of Ireland.
Raymond was a younger son of the Lord of Carew Castle and a nephew of both Robert FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald. Having little hope of inheritance from his father’s estate he had become a knight under Strongbow in Chepstow. Like his master he was desperate to win renown and wealth in Ireland. He could not have foreseen that his task in 1170, with only a small army of 120 at his side, would give him the opportunity to show his talent for war.
Giraldus Cambrensis describes Raymond as: “…very stout and slightly above the middle height, his hair was yellow and curly, and he had large, grey, round eyes. His nose was rather prominent, his countenance high-coloured, cheerful and pleasant. Although he was somewhat corpulent he was so active and lively that the encumbrance was not a blemish or inconvenience.”
Unlike the dominating and impressive Duke William who led the Normans at Hastings, it would be the largely unremarkable frontiersman Raymond the Fat who would lead the Normans at Baginbun.
The date on which he landed in southern County Wexford was probably around the first week of May. Then called Dun Domhnall (‘Donal’s Fort’), it now bears the name of Baginbun Point. The name itself – Bheag an Bun in Irish – is probably taken from the river inlet a little way south of the village of Fethard-on-Sea on the Hook Peninsula for it means ‘mouth of the small river’. Beaching their ship on the beach to the eastern side of the promontory, the Norman-Welsh army under Raymond – as had William at Pevensey – immediately began constructing an earth and timber fortification to defend the small headland. Behind their wall Raymond’s men corralled as many cattle as they could steal from local families in an area of about two acres. It was these activities that got the attention of Waterford.
Waterford had been occupied by Norse and Danes on and off since 853. Throughout its turbulent three hundred year history the inhabitants of the town had married into local native families and had taken on many of their customs including Christianity and the Irish language. They called themselves Ostmen – the men from the east. Like the other cities such as Dublin and Limerick, Waterford had become an economic centre for trade and had quickly attracted the greedy eyes of local magnates. On a number of occasions the sovereignty of the city had been lost to the most powerful families in Munster. By 1170, Waterford seems to have been vassal to the O’Brien dynasty, but their troubles with both the McCarthy and O’Connor families probably allowed the Ostmen to re-establish their independence to some extent.
What is certain is that they identified Raymond de Carew’s presence at Baginbun as a threat and under Ragnall Mac Giolla Mhuire they assembled an army of some 3,000 warriors to destroy his fort. The Normans found themselves outnumbered by at least twenty to one.
“Their small band of soldiers was unable to resist the attack of the multitudes to which they were opposed. Retreating to their camp, they were so hotly pursued by the enemy that some of them entered pell-mell with the fugitives before the barricade could be closed,” Giraldus wrote of the battle by the creek.
“Raymond, perceiving the strait to which his party was reduced, and that the peril was imminent, faced about bravely and cut down with his sword on the very threshold the foremost of the enemy who were forcing an entrance.
“Thus nobly retracing his steps while he dealt a terrible blow and shouted his war cry, he encouraged his followers to stand on their defence and struck terror into his enemy’s ranks. The enemy took to flight and, dispersing themselves over the country, were pursued and slaughtered in such numbers that upwards of five hundred quickly fell by the sword.”
|Metal plate noting the significance
of the site at Baginbun.
Giraldus had visited Ireland some fifteen years after the events at Baginbun and would have heard the story perhaps from some of those who had fought there. He did not mention part of the story which appeared in ‘The Song of Dermot and the Earl’, a later narrative from the early thirteenth century, which described how a herd of cattle was driven into the Waterford army by the Normans. Stunned by the impact of the stampeding mass of animals, it was this that allowed Raymond to set the enemy to flight.
At the creek of Baginbun, Ireland was lost and won.
While it was an incredible victory against all the odds I don’t believe that the Normans’ triumph at Baginbun was the significant moment that the couplet insists. Unlike Hastings (or even Bannockburn), the victory did not decide the future of a nation. Ireland could not be won be simply beating one city-state – there were over a hundred more petty-kingdoms in addition to Waterford and five provincial kings fighting to be recognised as High King.
When he finally did arrive in Ireland on August 23rd 1170, Strongbow – the man most closely identified with the conquest – did not even land at Baginbun. Instead he made straight for Waterford, alighting at Passage East on the far side of the River Barrow. From there he marched to the walls of the city and put it under siege. Raymond’s victory had weakened Waterford, but little else had been accomplished on a strategic level.
What the Battle of Baginbun did do was to give Raymond the Fat a victory. From that victory grew confidence in his skills and soon he would earn great renown amongst the desperate men who had crossed the sea to conduct the Norman invasion of Ireland. By 1174, Raymond had become an almost mythical warrior amongst the colonists thanks to his audacious victories in Strongbow’s name. There would come a time when armies would refuse to march unless it was under his command. He had gone from a minor knight under a disgraced frontier baron to a lord of war. Ireland was not lost or won at Baginbun, but the glory from its victory gave Raymond the Fat the opportunity to lead the campaign for the future of that nation.
Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland and Lord of the Sea Castle which is published by Accent Press on June 1st. The series tells the story of the Norman knights from Wales and their part in the first Norman invasion of Ireland. Catch up with Ruadh at www.ruadhbutler.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ruadhbutler.