King John’s expedition to Ireland, 1210: the evidence reconsidered

King John’s expedition to Ireland, 1210: the evidence reconsidered

By Seán Duffy

Irish Historical Studies, Vol.30 (1996)

Introduction: The valiant efforts of certain professional historians to redeem the reputation of King John of England have had a limited impact on the public imagination: there he remains a cruel tyrant, the oppressor of his subjects’ liberty. Even within the profession, it must be said, John has never managed fully to endear himself, and while there is general acknowledgement that he was an innovative king who paid meticulous attention to the day-to-day workings of his civil service, this is hardly likely to overcome the lingering and firmly fixed impression that he was a nasty individual, an unpopular ruler and, ultimately, a failure. Curiously, apart from his reputation for administrative innovation, John’s Irish policy is one of the few areas of either his public or his private life which has not been viewed unfavourably and where approval by modern historians approaches unanimity.

The accepted view is that John got off to a bad start with regard to Ireland in 1185, when his first visit to the country as a youthful lord of Ireland (though not yet king of England) went disastrously wrong, but that he mended fences with the Irish to such an extent that he recovered all the ground earlier lost, so that his return to Ireland in 1210 was an unqualified success. It cannot be denied that the campaign of 1210 entered into the folk memory in some quite extraordinary way, if one may judge from the number of historical monuments around the country which later bore his name.  However, the aspect of the visit which most recent accounts tend to stress is that John, in his anxiety to bring certain of his more troublesome Anglo-Irish barons to heel, showed `marked favour’ to the native Irish kings, found, as a result, `a general readiness among the Irish to accept him’, and went on to develop `close relations with their leaders’. The essential assumption here is that King John’s negotiations with the Irish kings in the summer of 1210 were concluded successfully in his favour, and that he left Ireland on good terms with them; but it is an assumption which does not do full justice to the evidence of the Irish annals and which, furthermore, ignores an important eye-witness account of the expedition preserved in a continental chronicle known as the Histoire des dues de Normandie et des rois d’Angleterre. It is my intention in this paper to examine both of these neglected strands of evidence and to offer a modification of the received view of the expedition (and, specifically, this question of the success or otherwise of John’s dealings with the Irish provincial kings) in light of it.

Sailing from south Wales, King John landed at Crook, near Waterford, on 20 June 1210. Although he was to remain in Ireland throughout the rest of the summer (arriving back at Fishguard on 26 August), we are largely in the dark about his activities there. This is because the English chancery rolls for this part of John’s reign have been lost. The implications of this loss for our understanding of the scope and significance of the king’s actions while in Ireland are great, since we know that he brought with him no fewer than fifty-three dozen skins of parchment, `sufficient to record a new enfeoffment and an exhaustive survey of his Irish dominion’, though we have no record now of how the bulk of it was used. The Dublin government, of course, kept its own records, modelled on the English, but again little has survived – the last seven medieval rolls went up in smoke in the Four Courts in 1922. What we do have in greater abundance are transcripts of the early Irish records. The classic example for John’s reign is the famous pipe roll for his fourteenth year (1211-12), from which we can learn a great deal, though it does not help greatly in reconstructing the events of two years earlier. One English exchequer record that still survives is the praestita roll. This records prests, payments made to royal officers and others as advances or loans while they were in the king’s company or on the king’s business, and in so doing it provides us with a long list of those who accompanied the king to Ireland in 1210. Because it also supplies the date and place at which these monies were disbursed, we can plot the royal itinerary fairly accurately.

The problem is, however, that although we can pinpoint John’s where-abouts on almost any given day in the summer of 1210, frequently we cannot say exactly what he was doing there. In the absence of official records, this is where the unofficial comment comes into its own. Naturally enough, contemporary English chroniclers refer to the expedition, but usually only the barest details emerge. There are at least a dozen such notices.12 Pieced together, they tell us that in June King John sailed from Pembroke, landed at Waterford, subjected the country to his authority, instituting when he came to Dublin what we would call a government reshuffle, strengthened English laws in the country, regulated the coinage and such matters, received the submissions of some of the Irish but not all, seized lands and castles (Carrickfergus in particular) from his baronial enemies, expelled the de Briouze and de Lacy families, punishing the inhabitants of the Isle of Man for helping them, and returned victorious to England in late August. Cumulatively, this seems like quite a lot of detail, but these are just bare matter-of-fact statements with very little elaboration and, with one or two exceptions, the English chroniclers dispose of the expedition in a couple of lines. King John, it seems, was so unpopular that chroniclers who revelled in his misfortunes could not bring themselves to write glowingly of his triumphs.

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