Raiding and Warring in Monastic Ireland

Raiding and Warring in Monastic Ireland

By Liz FitzPatrick

History Ireland, Vol. 1 no.3 (1993)

Introduction: The historiography of Irish monasticism emphasises the glory and piety of this enlightened era, with its myriad of saints espousing high art and learning, and not only moulding this island but also making a resounding impact on Europe. Raiding and warring might seem anathema to this ostensibly spiritual world, but the numerous references to plundering and pillaging in the annals from the seventh century onwards suggest that episodic violence was endemic to monastic settlement. Furthermore, it is clear that monasteries were not simply the victims of external aggression as the propagandist annalists and more romantic antiquarians would have us believe. In 1962 in his definitive essay, ‘The plundering and burning of churches in Ireland’, A.T. Lucas dispelled the notion that the Vikings alone were the despoilers of monasteries. He cited the fact that on the 309 occasions when ecclesiastical sites were plundered between the years 600 and 1163, the Irish were responsible for half of the attacks and in nineteen instances the Irish and Norse combined forces. Moreover, there is documentary evidence for inter-monastery wars, abbots taking up arms on behalf of provincial overlords and high kings, and for monastic enclaves being chosen as the stages for battles between warring dynasties.

The ‘church militant’ is also visualised in the many representations of weaponry on Irish high crosses and in illuminated manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries produced by monastic workshops. Among the more striking of these images is the seated chief bearing an upright sword, circular shield and spear under the arm on the south face of the cross at Durrow, County Offaly; the rude figure of a swordwielding warrior on the south face of the Castledermot cross, County Kildare; the engaging scene of four horsemen equipped with circular shields (or bucklers) and swords, riding in single file on the base of the market cross at Kells, County Meath. In the ‘Genealogy of Christ’ in St Luke’s Gospel In the Book of Kells (c. 800) a bearded warrior bearing buckler and spear rests at the bottom of the page, his right foot entwined with the final letter of ‘qui fait maath’. The Irish Penitentials also provide us with glimpses of this belligerent side of monastic life. The Penitential of St Finnian, for instance, stated that ‘If any cleric under the false pretence of the redemption of captives is found to be despoiling churches and monasteries, he shall be reprimanded until he is confounded’, while the ninth century Cain Adamndin advocated ‘full due’ for the violation of church emblems.

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