Making Medieval Ireland English

An audacious plan to install an English saint as the patron saint of Ireland.

Thomas Becket before Henry II, English manuscript, 14th century © Bridgeman Images.

In October 1171, Henry II of England landed at Waterford with an army, claiming to be ‘Lord of Ireland’ and changing forever the course of Irish history. Officially, Henry’s justification for invading Ireland was religious: the ‘reformation’ of the Irish church (although historians remain divided on whether Pope Adrian IV really issued the bull Laudabiliter authorising the annexation of Ireland). In the violence and upheaval that followed, it is easy to lose sight of the fact  that the Anglo-Norman adventurers who carved out fiefdoms for themselves in Ireland engaged in a religious as well as a military and political project. However, the religious dimension of Henry II’s invasion evolved into a comprehensive attempt to impose a kind of ‘devotional Englishness’ on those areas of Ireland under English control – long before the Tudor attempt to turn Ireland Protestant. Like that later project, the attempt to impose English devotional styles on Ireland was ultimately without extensive success, but it reveals much about how the English crown tried to maintain control of Ireland.

In reality, on the eve of the Anglo-Norman invasion Ireland was already in the throes of religious reform.  The Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111 moved the country from the dominance of territorial monasteries to a more conventional system of diocesan bishops, while the efforts of the reforming Archbishop of Armagh, Malachy, began to regularise Irish monasticism. Then, in 1152, the Synod of Kells made the bishops of Dublin archbishops and ended the tradition of the diocese of Dublin’s dependence on Canterbury. This was an anomaly that had come about when the Norse kingdom of Dublin converted to Christianity in the 11th century under the influence of the English church. Yet the removal of England’s only ecclesiastical foothold in Ireland provided one pretext for Henry’s invasion almost 20 years later.

Handily, Henry II’s holy invasion of Ireland coincided with his efforts to atone for the recent murder of his troublesome Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The Irish expedition allowed Henry to avoid a penitential pilgrimage as part of his personal reparation. In 1177 Henry’s seneschal in Ireland, William FitzAudelin, founded an Augustinian abbey at Donore, just outside Dublin, which would be dedicated to Thomas Becket and may have housed relics of the martyred archbishop. St Thomas’ Abbey remained Ireland’s sole royal monastic foundation, transplanting the cult of an English saint into the newly conquered territory. Although there would be no more royal foundations in Ireland, the Anglo-Norman barons began to found churches and religious houses dedicated to promoting the cults of English saints – St Werburgh in Dublin; St Wulfstan of Worcester at Celbridge, Co. Kildare; St Edmund at Athassel, Co. Tipperary; St Edward the Confessor at Limerick and many more. In a reversal of what occurred in Anglo-Saxon England, when Irish missionaries imported cults of Irish saints, Norman lords now imposed the cults of English saints on Ireland in a kind of sacred imperialism.

In this earliest attempt at the anglicisation of Ireland, the Anglo-Normans imposed shires on the Irish landscape (which still survive as today’s counties), appointed sheriffs and instituted knighthood and the use of charters, as well as introducing Benedictine monasticism. In the towns, the new overlords encouraged the settlement of English merchants who formed guilds – institutions of profound religious as well as commercial importance in the Middle Ages. However, the project of Anglo-Norman Ireland was a fragile one that began to disintegrate in the 14th century. Faced by threats from both within and without Ireland, the English regime pulled back to the coastal towns and an area around Dublin known as the Pale, while the Anglo-Norman lords elsewhere in the island increasingly adopted native Irish manners and customs, becoming scarcely distinguishable from Gaelic Irish kings. The English language foundered, as did some of the Anglo-Norman monastic foundations, while dioceses once controlled by the English fell back into the hands of Irish prelates.

The last – and most audacious – attempt to impose English devotions on Ireland was the project in the reign of Richard II to make the East Anglian martyr St Edmund patron saint of Ireland. When Richard made his favourite Robert de Vere ‘Duke of Ireland’ in 1386, he granted him the arms of St Edmund as the emblem of his new lordship and, at Athassel Priory (which was dedicated to St Edmund), the saint was lauded as ‘the protector and defender of that whole land [of Ireland]’. In the 15th century the three crowns of St Edmund appeared on coins minted in Dublin as the emblem of the Lordship of Ireland.

In the embattled world of late medieval ‘English Ireland’ the distinctiveness of English devotional preferences took on a new significance. Devotion to English saints became a hallmark of the cherished Englishness of the descendants of the Anglo-Norman invaders. The citizens of Dublin adopted St George as their patron saint, ostentatiously celebrating his feast day and displaying the cross of St George, while Dublin’s archers, fletchers and bowyers claimed the patronage of St Edmund. Dublin acquired a holy well dedicated to St Werbugh, while old Anglo-Norman families claimed to be in possession of relics of English saints, such as the Butlers  (who cherished the drinking horn of St Thomas Becket) and the De Burghs (who claimed a miraculous statue of St Edmund). Saints’ cults that had once been imposed as a strategy of English dominance became a strategy of English survival.

Although the English attempt to impose an English style of religiosity on Ireland ultimately failed, it has left lingering traces – the popular Irish name Éamon, for example, which is a medieval gaelicisation of Edmund or Edward. When the House of Tudor renewed attempts to change the religious complexion of Ireland, it would not be by imposing new devotions but a new form of Christianity – with tragic sectarian consequences that endure today. But the attempt to turn Ireland Protestant was anticipated by a much earlier medieval campaign – now largely forgotten – to populate Ireland with English saints.

Francis Young is the author of Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland (Four Courts, 2020).