The Battle of Hastings And The Irish Exile Of The English Princes

Today is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the military contest in the autumn of 1066 which saw England and its besieged king, Harold Godwinson, fall to the Norman-French armies of William the Conqueror (or, Bastard), the ambitious Duke of Normandy. In fact that year saw two great armed clashes on the island of Britain, one at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in the north-east of England where Harold and a northern English host defeated an invading Scandinavian force led by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and Godwinson’s estranged brother, Tostig Godwinson, the rebellious Earl of Northumbria. Some nineteen days later most of that same victorious army, exhausted by conflict and travel, would suffer virtual annihilation at Hastings on the south-eastern coast of England.

When Harold Godwinson faced the Norman-French on the 14th of October 1066 he did so with an almost entirely English force. In contrast the armed hosting led at Stamford three weeks earlier had included a significant number of Scandinavian-Irish and Irish mercenaries who helped sway the battle his way. Those auxiliaries had come through the English ruler’s personal connections with the Irish seaport of Dublin and its overlord, Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó, the formidable king of the Uí Cheinnsealaigh and ruler of the province of Laighin. Many years earlier in 1051 a younger Harold had followed his father, Godwin the Earl of Essex, into temporary political exile, choosing Ireland as his place of refuge along with his brother Leofwine (later Earl of Kent and Essex, who fell by his brother’s side at Hastings) and some of his children, while the rest of the Godwin family fled to Bruges. There he seems to have struck up a friendship with Murchú mac Diarmada, the youthful king of Dublin, and his father Diarmaid, who reigned at the populous fortress-town of Fearna Mór Maedhóg, over a hundred kilometres to the south. In 1052 Harold led a small Dublin naval fleet back to Britain in support of his father’s return from the Continent with Diarmaid’s approval. Meanwhile his sister, Edith of Wessex, the later wife of Edward the Confessor, the penultimate king of England, became a noted speaker of Irish, the lingua franca of the Irish Sea region.

Following the crushing defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings, three of Harold Godwinson’s adult sons by his common law wife – Godwin, Edmund and Magnus – sought refuge in Ireland at the court of the family’s old sponsor, the king of Laighin and his aristocratic kin. They may have been proceeded by Harold’s legal wife, Edith of Mercier, the possible if unproven mother of his infant son and likely heir, Harold, born some months after the king’s bloody death. With Diarmaid’s support they organised several unsuccessful seaborne expeditions from the Scandinavian-Irish towns of Dublin and Wexford to liberate England, raiding some distance into the south-west of the country in the summers of 1068 and 1069 to the great alarm of the new and still insecure Norman-French occupiers (Magnus is never mentioned again after the first expedition perhaps indicating his loss). One of their main targets was the affluent seaport of Bristol, whose mercantile classes would later become associated with the Norman-British campaigns against Ireland in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. 

With the unexplained death of Murchú in Dublin during the winter of 1070 and Diarmaid’s slaying in battle in early 1072 (while upholding his contested claim to be the “King of Ireland”), the surviving sons of Harold seem to have lost much of their Irish support. The last firm reference to the two siblings was in 1074 when they are said to have been present in the company of Sweyn II Estridsson, king of Denmark, presumably seeking his aid. After that date their fate is unknown, some speculating that they returned to Ireland, possibly blending into the Medieval aristocratic families of the island. Their much younger half-brother, Harold, was also mentioned in relation to Scandinavia in the 1080s before he too disappeared from the pages of history.

Given the later relationship of Ireland and Britain there is some irony to be derived from the thought that the descendants of the last recognisably English king of England may be still living in modern Ireland, albeit in ignorance of their illustrious ancestry.

 

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14 comments

  1. So the High King of Ireland sent multiple expeditionary forces to liberate England from foreign invaders? Irony doesn’t even begin to cover it…

      1. The Wikipedia page for Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó says in the header that he was High King “with opposition.” Yet under Biography, we get “…he was able to make a bid for the High-Kingship.” A bid, and nothing else? You’re right, we need Séamas to sort this out.

        1. Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó was recorded in the annals as a Rí Éireann go freasabhra “King of Ireland with opposition”, meaning that his claim to be the supreme ruler of the island was disputed. It was a common expression in the Medieval period applied to several contenders for the position. He was generally recognised as the king of Ireland by his followers and allies, and most annalists, but others contested it. A universally recognised holder of the national title was extremely rare, as elsewhere in Europe.

  2. I knew about these lads…but never knew their forenames. Years ago I visited the village of Battle , supposed site of the clash. It is further inland than I imagined. I went into the church… my first proper experience of an Anglican one. It was lovely , though I was a bit shocked at all the regimental/military memorials and flags. How different history could have been if the Haroldsons had reescued England with Irish assistance….

    1. The only time I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a good few years ago now, I was struck by how militaristic and genuinely alien it felt to me. I’ve visited two mosques and a synagogue and I’ve never felt as uncomfortable as I did while walking around an Anglican church in my own country. It was mid-November and the building itself, all those British regimental flags, poppy wreaths and imperial monuments seemed to know I didn’t belong there. A very disconcerting hour or so. My then girlfriend said she imagined that this was what it must have felt like to be an Irish peasant in the 19th century if you had to go up to the Big House.

  3. Go raibh maith agat for this. Very interesting.

    When we say “English” for that time, I think we need to think “Saxon” and that is origin name by which the English came to be remembered in all the Celtic languages (see for example, ‘Sacsannach’, now ‘Sasannach’ in Irish). The Saxons were themselves invaders and colonists of the lands of the Celtic Britons and had wiped out Celtic culture and in many areas the actual Celts themselves in a process begun six hundred years earlier (and still proceeding in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland).

    Those we think of as “English” today are essentially descendants of a Norman invader mix with Saxon invader. The English language is primarily a mixture of Saxon language and the French of the Normans. There are only tiny traces of the medieval Celtic language of the Britons in it.

    Diarmuid Mac Maol may well have entertained members of the Saxon royal house and given them refuge and he may have approved or given permission for invasion from ports under his control, which is interesting and I didn’t know. But that is different from actually participating in the invasion. The ports from which the invasion fleets and allies went were under Irish control since the Battle of Clontarf but they were not really Irish, being instead Norse-Irish polities.

    I’d be interested to hear of Irish clan chiefs of any stature participating in the Battle of Hastings.

    Of course, we had our own Norman invasion just over 100 years later and the Irish-Norse polities were the first to succumb, with a gradual process over centuries to follow for the Gael and later for the Norman-irish (Gall-Ghael) and the Gael, as the Normans became “English” and that language replaced French. In Irish, we still retain the French “de” (‘from’) in many of the Norman invader surnames, such as ‘de Paor’ (Power), ‘de Búrca’ (Burke), ‘de Róiste’ (Roche).

    1. Modern English has been described as the language used by a Norman man-at-arms trying to get off with an Anglo-Saxon barmaid.
      It’s likely that “the actual Celts themselves” weren’t wiped out: intermarriage and the influence of a dominant culture would anglicise and blend the two groups. DNA analysis seems to confirm this. It’s interesting how many people don’t move from their birth-place, regardless of the events of history: The remains of a man who died about 9000 years ago near Cheddar were found a few years ago. Tests on twenty local people found that three of them were direct descendants through their mothers.

    2. Agree with most of that, though the Jutish-Frisian-Anglo-Saxon (and Anglo-Danish) inhabitants of England very much thought of themselves as “English” by 1066, albeit with considerable regional variations and loyalties. So I think it fair to use “English” as a catch-all term.

      I agree that Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó would not have participated directly in the expeditions to England. They were more of a side-show to his ambitions in Ireland as he contested the position of “king of Ireland”. Aiding the English exiles served his geo-political interests in the Irish Sea region. If successful it would have given him ruling allies in England and boosted his standing at home. Even if unsuccessful, the booty from the raids on England would have been useful (the first “invasion” seems to have been particularly profitable).

      His son, Murchú, was the king of Dublin on his behalf, and he seems to have been relatively young and ambitious so he could have been with the expeditions though there is no mention of it (which the gossipy annals would probably have noted had he gone). He died somewhat mysteriously in 1070. His death is at the centre of a historical detective novel I have written (in the style of the Falco books by Lindsey Davis) which will probably never see the light of day.

      The Norman-British invasions of 1169 and onwards were very closely related to the events of 1066-1069 and the Irish reactions to it. The Norman rulers of Britain did not forget – or forgive.

  4. Visited Bayeux in the late80s Purchased illustrated book on the tapestry which detailed the many scenes of the epic battle with a few comments on some e.g the relevance of why an axe was used instead of a bow and arrow and for instance howlarge numbers of Norman archers are everywhere whereas in reality the “English” had a similar complement of archers Not much info on what “firing skill “mighty have contributed to the “upper hand” No mention of Irish in any of cartoon type narrative .Knut or Canute was the only outsider who gave Harold “a hand ” One interesting detail is the cartoon showing Halleys Comet.I was so taken by the article that in the semi darkness I went looking for theBayeux tapestry guide .I would be very interested in works that should hopefully see the light of day

    1. The tapestry is on my (ever expanding) list of must-sees. The Irish presence at Stamford Bridge is rarely mentioned since they are just lumped in with the generic term of “Viking component” or classified as English. It would have been a small company, a hundred men more or less, but such numbers counted.

      1. Start eating carrots now.Very subdued lighting to protect the wonderful natural dyes .As I recall the direction of viewing the exhibit while it wasn’t one way made reversing and recapping bit challenging especially when great numbers of Italian schoolchildren were discovering that som people find it objectionable to walk in front of somone in a queue The true Might of William TheConquerer is to be seen in the city of Caen

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