Templars in Ireland: Colonialism and Conquest?

By Steve Tibble

The Templar presence in Ireland was far less nationalistic than has often been supposed – the international order had its own unique agenda.

Tellingly for those who took a cynical view about the depth of King Henry II’s enthusiasm for crusading, as soon as the Becket affair was concluded and he had rebuilt his relationship with the papacy, he decided … not to go on crusade.


Instead, in 1171, at almost the same time as Saladin’s coup in Egypt was coming to a climax, he chose to take his army to Ireland. This move had some logic – in the short term, the timing of the Irish campaign was probably dictated by Henry’s desire to stop his Anglo-Norman marcher barons, some of whom had established themselves in Ireland, from becoming too independent.

Regime change was also pleasing to the papacy, despite the way in which it distracted Henry from affairs in the East. The expedition got the full approval of Pope Alexander III, who was anxious to bring Ireland more fully into Catholic orthodoxy. Central to this approval was the pope’s desire to force Ireland to adopt a more ‘conventional’ diocesan organisation – one in which the church was led by bishops (who were, not coincidentally, appointed more directly by the pope) rather than the existing structure in Ireland, which was largely dominated by the more independently minded local monastic communities.


Henry’s campaign succeeded. Hugh II of Lacy was installed as the king’s vassal in control of Meath and made Justiciar of Ireland. Tellingly, the new justiciar was also the son of a Templar knight, the devout Templar military commander Gilbert of Lacy.

Perhaps not surprisingly under these circumstances, the Templars had a key part to play in Henry’s ‘pacification and modernisation’ programme in Ireland. They were granted large estates to control; they were given an active policing role in managing some of the newly conquered territories; and they played a vital part in bringing Ireland’s institutions more into line with the mainstream Western practices of the time.

This new Irish Templar presence was nominally semi-autonomous, but reporting lines were blurred. There was a master of the Temple in Ireland, but he was appointed by the convent in the East, and the king of England generally expected to have a say in the appointment too. It was still part of the Templar province of England and was never entirely independent.

The order ran their interests in Ireland (and Scotland) as what were, in effect, subsidiaries of their headquarters in London. In this they have sometimes been accused of being partisan and of favouring the ‘English’ invaders against the ‘Irish’ natives. The implication, of course, is that they were secretive, brutal operatives working for the English state, naturally cast as oppressors.

Drawing of de Lacy by Gerald of Wales – Wikimedia Commons

It is certainly true that there were clear parallels between the order’s involvement in Ireland from the 1170s onwards and the path they had already helped take towards more centralisation in Scotland under King David I – and in helping the central authorities in England. In neither case were the order’s actions accidental or a coincidence. But, as in Scotland, we need to be extremely careful how we interpret these actions.

Firstly, of course, nationalism was not what we think it was. For most medieval people, social class and religious preferences were far more important than ‘nationalism’. It is often misleading, therefore, to talk of an ‘English Templar’ or an ‘Irish Templar’ – it is certainly true, for instance, that there were, as far as we know, no ethnic Irish Templar brothers.

The fragmented native elite players in Ireland (many of whom were also, of course, ethnic Anglo-Norman or Welsh-Norman rather than Irish) were primarily competing with each other and pursuing their own interests – they were not pursuing any abstract or romantic ideas about the cause of Irish independence.


Similarly, the local ‘English’ barons, and many of the men Henry II brought over to fight alongside them, were hardly Anglicised in any sense that they would have understood. As their names and ancestry suggested, these were, like many of the ‘Irish’ leaders they were fighting, largely French-speaking Norman-heritage warriors. These were often men with interests and landholdings spread across several ‘countries’.

Baldongan was originally the site of a fortified church, rectangular in plan with towers on each corner, constructed by the Knights Templar in the 13th century on the site of an ancient dún. Photo by Broderick Mark. / Wikimedia Commons

Neither was religion the issue one might assume it to be. Everyone in the contest, whether English, Irish, Anglo-Norman, Welsh-Norman or Scottish, was, of course, more or less devoutly Catholic by faith. Even though the pope tended to support the Norman brand of rule rather than the more ‘Celtic’ power structures of Ireland and Scotland, this was primarily because of a desire to bring their religious hierarchies into line with more centralised European norms. He was neither siding with one ‘nation’ over another, nor specifically supporting the ‘English’ against the ‘Irish’ – the papacy had, after all, similarly supported the Normans against the Anglo-Saxon state in 1066.

The Templars, like everyone else involved, had their own agenda, but it was not a nationalistic one. They were there to help the papacy and, more specifically, to try to herd the disjointed political powers of Europe towards a coordinated defence of the Holy Land.

Their instinct was usually to side with the central authorities and to make themselves indispensable to them wherever possible. But this was a pragmatic decision designed to further the cause of the crusading movement, not a desire to oppress people in different parts of the British Isles. They would not have seen their efforts to improve agricultural production in Ireland as being significantly different to their building of new towns in East Anglia or chopping down woods in Herefordshire. Templars did not play our nationalistic mind games.


As in the case of Scotland under King David I, the Templars were comfortable in helping rulers of Norman heritage move into new lands.

They were happy to bring them closer to the mainstream model of a more centralised state. It was not what they necessarily wanted to do by choice but, if it was the next best alternative, they had the corporate experience and military muscle to help make it happen. Logic also dictated that the order should work very actively to rationalise the productivity of their estates in Ireland in much the same way as they had in England. And this doubtless upset many local interests.

Even so, some have been tempted to see Henry’s interventions in Ireland as a cynical ‘victory’ for the Templars – it did, after all, significantly increase their wealth and influence in the British Isles. It was, however, second best. As with the Becket affair, it was not the outcome that they ideally wanted. They would have preferred Henry to have led his armies eastwards, to help the Holy Land, rather than westwards, to intimidate fellow Christians (and Catholic Christians at that) in Ireland.

But that decision was ultimately out of their hands.

Once it had been made, the order, as always, made the best of the situation they found themselves in.

See also: The Templars in Britain: A Difficult and Ominous Beginning

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Yale University Press

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale) is due out in September 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.

He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

Further Reading:

Barber, M., The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge, 1994

Nicholson, H., ‘A Long Way from Jerusalem: The Templars and Hospitallers in Ireland. c. 1172–1348’, in Soldiers of Christ: The Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller in Medieval Ireland, ed. M. Browne and C. O. Clabaigh, Dublin, 2016, pp. 1–22

Tibble, S., Templars – The Knights Who Made Britain, London, 2023

Top Image: British Library MS Add. 19391, fol.19v