EM Powell Blog Post - Hugh de Lacy: Anglo-Norman King of Ireland?

Below is a fascinating blog post October 13th 2015, about the life of Anglo-Norman Knight Hugh de Lacy and his links to Trim Castle and it is a must-read for anyone with an interest in history. The blog was written by EM Powell Author, (#1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia)while researching her forthcoming book, The Lord Of Ireland, available from April 2016. 

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Hugh de Lacy: Anglo-Norman King of Ireland?

The 26th of July marks the anniversary of the death of one of Henry II's most successful lords, the Anglo-Norman Hugh de Lacy. De Lacy died on that day in 1186 at Durrow, now part of County Offaly, in the Republic of Ireland. His obituary in the Irish annals calls him "King of Meath, Bréifne and Airgialla".

De Lacy did not meet a peaceful end or even one in the heat of battle, where he might have been prepared. His was a brutal and sudden end, even by medieval standards: he was beheaded as he inspected his new castle at Durrow. So why was this Anglo-Norman knight referred to in such lofty terms, and what caused him to be so viciously cut down?

De Lacy was originally Lord of Weobley in Herefordshire. His father had joined the Knights Templar and had signed his lordship to Robert, his eldest son. Robert died childless, so Hugh inherited the title, which he had not expected to do, and became an important tenant of the crown. That wasn't enough to satisfy him. He married Rose of Monmouth, the widow of the powerful Baderon, increasing his prosperity. And he liked to acquire land, whether in England Wales or Normandy. he also had a rather unfortunate tendency to just take it.

We know quite a lot about de Lacy as a person, as Gerald of Wales, the famous chronicler at Henry II's court, wrote extensively of him. He was probably not the most handsome of men. Gerald's description certainly does not flatter: "What Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark, sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. He was a short man. His build- misshapen.'"Gerald even included a picture of him in his Conquest of Ireland. 

As for personality, Gerald tends to bounce from one opinion to another (and Gerald was always good for an opinion). He describes de Lacy as "resolute and reliable...restrained from excess by French sobriety. A man of great honesty and good sense." But less favourably when "after the death of his wife [Rose of Monmouth], he was a womanizer and enslaved by lust, not for just one woman, but for many."

In 1171, de Lacy went with Henry II to Ireland. The Norman grip on the country was in the very earliest stages and there was a lot of what de Lacy liked up for grabs: land. The kingdom of Mide (Meath) was a particularly attractive prize and de Lacy made sure he won it. In a fight with the native Irish ruler, Tigernan Ua Ruairc, de Lacy was the victor. He achieved that victory through the beheading of Ua Ruairc, in an ominous foreshadowing of his own terrible end. Henry granted him Meath and gave him Dublin as well.

De Lacy proved to be an invaluable asset in Ireland. Even Gerald is pleased: he says de Lacy 'made an excellent job of fortifying Leinster and Meath with castles." Trim Castle, his seat in Meath, still stands today and is remarkable in its size and scale.

The trouble was, de Lacy was a bit too good at what he did- certainly as far as Henry was concerned. The King tried to clip de Lacy's wings, recalling him to England several times and granting the lordship of Ireland to Henry's own son, John, who was just nine years old at the time. But de Lacy was one step ahead. His first wife, Rose, had died around 1180. He married again, but this time he took an Irish wife, a daughter of the High-King Rory O'Connor (Ruaidri Ua Conchobair) of Connacht. Some records name this woman as Rose also, but this is likely to be a confusion.

This marriage was not well received by Henry. He had suspicions that de Lacy was attempting a strategic marriage in the same way that another of his men, Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (Strongbow) had done a decade earlier. Gerald certainly had a dim view of de Lacy's ambitions: "He was avaricious and greedy for gold and more ambitious for his own advancement and pre-eminence than was proper."

Henry's solution was to send his son, John, now nineteen, to Ireland in 1185 to assert his authority as Lord of Ireland. John's mission, which started with him pulling the beards of the Irish dignitaries who came to greet him at Waterford, was not a success. He came back after nine months, complaining to his father that de Lacy had been conspiring against him. This is highly unlikely. John was more than capable of failures of his own making.

Whether de Lacy had designs on taking Ireland from Henry, we will never know, for his life was brutally cut short. On July 26th, 1186, de Lacy was inspecting his new castle at Durrow when he was murdered by a single assassin. Contemporary accounts tell us that the murderer had concealed an axe beneath his cloak, and he took de Lacy’s head off with one savage blow, and his head and body fell into the ditch of the castle.

The murderer was sent by a chieftain of Meath, Sinnach Ua Catharnaig, a man known as The Fox. Sinnach claimed that he ordered the murder to atone for the wanton destruction of land sacred to the great saint, Columcille, on which de Lacy had built his castle at Durrow. It's more likely that is was simple revenge. One of Sinnach’s sons was slain by Henry’s men some eight years ago, when Hugh de Lacy was the King’s representative in Ireland. Sinnach had always vowed to avenge that death.

Whatever the real motive, it solved a problem for Henry. The powerful threat that was Hugh de Lacy was no more. Chronicler William of Newburgh recorded that 'the news was gladly received by Henry.'

I visited various sites that relate to Hugh de Lacy when researching my novel of medieval Ireland, The Lord of Ireland. Durrow is a very quiet, beautiful place. I can see why anyone would chose to live there, as de Lacy did. And the well and the ancient high cross are still standing, just as they were the day he died, 829 years ago.

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This post first appeared on the English Historical Authors Blog on 25th July 2015. I wrote it to coincide with the anniversary of Hugh de Lacy's death.