Richard II arrived in Waterford on 19 October 1394 as the first English king to visit Ireland since the reign of John almost two hundred years earlier. He brought with him his household and an army of c. 8,000 men. It was the largest English army to serve in Ireland in the later middle ages. For the next six months, he would fight, feast and negotiate with English magnates and Irish kings across the island. His aim? A new political settlement. Image: Richard II, portrait from the 1390s in Westminster Abbey. (Wikimedia Commons)
The first part of Richard’s expedition was spent fighting Art Mór Mac Murchadha Caomhánach in Leinster. Art was the king of Leinster who had successfully pushed back English control in the Barrow Valley, linking Dublin with Waterford and Carlow. His marriage c. 1390 to the English heiress Elizabeth Calf of Norragh barony (county Kildare) had given him profitable lands very close to Dublin, and he was seen as a serious threat. Richard’s army chased him north from Waterford, destroying Irish settlements as they went. Art surrendered on 28 October 1394 and was taken prisoner. Image: Detail from Jean Creton, La Prinse et mort du roy Richart, showing Art in battle (British Library Harley MS 1319 f. 9r)View this item
John Colton, archbishop of Armagh, was a long-serving English administrator in Ireland who had also worked in the papal court in Avignon. He had come to Ireland in 1372 and then held a variety of roles in the Dublin government before becoming archbishop in 1383. By 1394, he had long experience of border negotiations between the English colonial administration and the Irish kings. His encouragement would be crucial in the submissions of the Irish kings to Richard II, and he sent letters to many kings who then came to submit in the winter and spring of 1394-5. After the submissions had been made, if the agreements were broken, the Irish kings were bound to pay fines at the papal court, which by then had returned to Rome, and face judgement and excommunication from the Irish bishops led by Colton. Image: St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where Colton was a canon when he was working in the Dublin government (Wikimedia)
Probably influenced by Colton and the other churchmen around Richard II, the method used for authenticating the agreements between the Irish kings and Richard was to have a notary public, an official with designated legal authority, write up instruments and draw his own mark on the bottom. This is the notarial mark of Robert Boleyn, one of the clerks with Richard’s household. He was one of two notaries who produced these documents on the 1394-5 expedition. His mark was unique to him and vouched for the accuracy and authority of this document, the copy that was retained by Richard. Another copy would be kept by the Irish king, and probably a third in the records in Dublin. Image: Notarial mark of Robert Boleyn, notary public and a clerk of King Richard II (1377–99), authenticating a submission from Art Mac Murchadha Caomhánach (TNA C 47/10/25/2).
One of the most important of the Irish kings was among the first to negotiate with and then submit to Richard II, Niall Óg Ó Néill, the king of Ulster. He initially wrote to the English king in early January agreeing to talks with Roger Mortimer, the English earl of Ulster and lord of Connacht, and then sent his father Niall Mór to meet with the king. Eventually, he himself, partially against the will of his people, submitted in person to Richard on 16 March 1395 at Drogheda, along with Muirchertach Mac Aonghusa and other Ulster lords. Some of these lords, including John MacDonald, also had strong connections to western Scotland and the Hebrides. Image: Four Irish kings feast with Richard II after their submissions (British Library Royal MS E II f. 241r)
In addition to Art Mac Murchadha Caomhánach, it was important for Richard II’s diplomacy to bring the other Leinster kings and lords into the agreements. Ó Broin and MacMurchadha first agreed peace terms at Balgory on 16 February with Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham. Other kings, including Ó Tuathail and Ó Mórdha, later also swore to uphold this agreement, where they were all to become the English king’s mercenaries receiving his pay. By April, however, they were writing to Richard to ask that he rein in James Butler, the earl of Ormond, who was trying to expand his territories in Wicklow. Image: Leighlinbridge Castle, near Balgory, where Thomas Mowbray stayed for the negotiations. © Mike Searle (cc-by-sa/2.0)
In the 1390s, control of Connacht in the west of Ireland and the title of its king was contested between two cousins, Toirdelbach Ó Conchobhair Donn and Toirdelbach Ó Conchobhair Ruadh. The conflict had brought in allies from across the Irish and English communities in Ireland outside of Connacht, as well as wider alliances with Gaelic lords in the west of Scotland and the Hebrides. Toirdelbach Ó Conchobhair Donn would submit to Richard II at Kilkenny in April and later bring with him some of his English allies, including Walter Bermingham, a former sheriff of Connacht. Image: The Black Abbey, Kilkenny, which is still a Dominican friary today. (Wikimedia)
The king of Desmond in the southwest of the island, Tadhg na Mainistreach Mac Carthaigh Mór, submitted to Richard II in the late spring of 1395. When he wrote to the English king in early March, he was referred to as ‘prince of Desmond’, one of the few times the Irish kings were given royal titles in the English sources. Tadhg was well connected in English Ireland as his wife was Joan, the daughter of the earl of Desmond, Gerald Fitzgerald. He was known as Gearoíd Iarla and composed important poetry in Irish. Despite Tadhg’s connections, he had to be persuaded by Niall Óg Ó Néill to give up his ambitions to expand his control in Desmond and negotiate with Richard II. Image: Text of Gearoíd Iarla’s poetry from the seventeenth-century Book of the Dean of Lismore (National Library of Scotland, Adv.MS.72.1.3).
Brian Ó Briain, duke of Thomond, met Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham at Mag Adhair, near Quin, co. Clare, on 24 March 1395. Mag Adhair was the traditional inauguration site of the kings of Thomond. Ó Briain had already submitted on 1 March. But the agreements needed to reach deep into both English and Irish society if they were even possibly to be kept. The answer to this problem was to send out an English noble, Thomas, earl of Nottingham to receive the submissions of the Irish nobles, the king’s vassals, in places that were important to Irish kingship. This must have been intended to have had a powerful psychological effect and attempted to wrap Irish kingship within the bonds of servitude to a higher authority. We know he also did this in Leinster. At Mag Adhair, Richard II’s commission to the earl of Nottingham was read aloud and translated. In front of his own people, Ó Briain swore his oath again and then was followed by his most important followers. A notarial instrument was written up as confirmation. Image: The site of Mag Adhair today (Wikimedia).
In early May, Richard II prepared to leave Waterford harbour. Toirdelbach Ó Conchobhair Donn unexpectedly arrives with the English “rebels” William de Burgh and Walter Bermingham. What do they want? They fling themselves at Richard II’s feet and offer their obedience. Toirdelbach had already submitted to the king along with many of his Irish nobles, but here he brought English rebels back - a major political victory. Richard doesn’t want to let this unexpected and very welcome visit go unrewarded. Maybe this means that Ireland will accept his rule. What can he do on such short notice? He can knight them and bring them within the cult of chivalry at Richard’s court! So he makes them knights and gives them each a sword and golden spurs. Image: Richard II’s ships in Waterford Harbour from Jean Creton’s history (British Library Harley MS 1319 f. 18r).
On 28 May 1395 Richard II arrived back at Westminster. His six-month expedition to Ireland was over. He has fought, negotiated, corresponded and feasted with Irish kings and English magnates. What has he achieved, if anything? He brought with him the records of the eighty agreements with the Irish kings and their men to be loyal subjects and hold the peace in Ireland. Will there be peace? Already at this time, Roger Mortimer was in dispute with Niall Óg Ó Néill over the earldom of Ulster. Art Mac Murchadha in Leinster will begin to recover his authority rapidly after Richard’s departure. Elsewhere, conflicts start to emerge. Roger Mortimer raided the Ó Néill kingdom of Ulster in 1396, which ended all hopes that Niall Óg Ó Néill would visit Westminster. Richard will be back in Ireland in 1399 after Mortimer is killed in battle at Kellistown, near Carlow by Feidhlim Ó Tuathail and Ó Broin in July 1398. Even if the peace broke down quickly, the memory of the agreements signed in 1395 did not totally fade. In the fifteenth century, when more limited agreements were made between the Irish kings and the English lieutenants, they referenced these older ones. Image: One of the documents brought back by RIchard II and deposited in the English treasury, showing how its readability has been enhanced by recent multi-spectral imaging at The National Archives (UK) (TNA C 47/10/25).