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Maurice FitzGerald and the creation of a Dynasty.
In this biographical essay I intend to show how Maurice FitzGerald, a Cambro-Norman adventurer from Wales, founded a dynasty in Ireland, which would weave great influence over Irish affairs for centuries.
Maurice FitzGerald was an adventurer from Wales who accompanied the first Norman invaders to Ireland in 1169. His arrival in Ireland would herald the beginning of a dynasty whose name would become synonymous with the conquest and spread of Norman power in Ireland. The first Normans did not come to Ireland with a clear political goal, but were adventurers who arrived on the promise of great riches from the deposed Leinster king, Dermot MacMurrough. Dermot had sailed to Wales to recruit mercenaries for his campaign to regain his kingdom and overthrow the High King Ruairi O’Connor. Some Cambro-Norman barons in Wales, including Maurice FitzGerald, took up Dermot’s appeal for support. MacMurrough’s plan, however, began a chain of events, which would directly set in motion the Norman invasion of Ireland.1
A vital source for the arrival and settlement of the Normans in Ireland are the works of Giraldus Cambrensis, a nephew of Maurice FitzGerald. Giraldus made two visits to Ireland and wrote two works presenting a narrative of events in Ireland from the 1160s to the 1180s. He was keen to vaunt the deeds of his relatives and to justify their actions during the early stage of the Norman incursion. In particular the Expugnatio Hibernica was a paean of praise to Maurice who appears as the archetypical conqueror, valorous in war and peace-loving as a settler.2 It has been described as a chronicle in which the FitzGeralds are portrayed as the conquering heroes fighting to bring civilisation to a benighted land.
The Geraldines.
The Fitzgeralds emerged from relatively modest beginnings in Wales to become one of the most prominent dynasties in Ireland, spanning seven centuries. The Fitzgeralds, or Geraldines, were descended from the Anglo-Norman Gerald of Windsor and Nesta, the daughter of the Welsh prince Rhys ap Tewdwr. The first bearer of the name, Maurice FitzGerald, came to Ireland in 1169. Maurice’s pioneering exploits earned him the reward of a grant of land in the form of the middle cantred of Offelan in County Kildare.3 In so doing Maurice became founder of the Irish dynasty of the Geraldines, who were to play such an extraordinary part in the subsequent history of Ireland.4
The Geraldines were descended from the noble family of the Gherardini of Florence, some of whom had passed by way of France into England and Wales. In England the name became altered to Geraldini and the French prefix fils became, under English influence, Fitz, or son of.5 Maurice FitzGerald was born in 1101 the second son of Gerald de Windsor, constable of Pembroke, and Princess Nesta, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, prince of south Wales. Nesta, described as ‘the most beautiful woman in Wales’ had two other sons, William of Carnew, and David, bishop of St David’s, and a daughter, Angharad, for Gerald. Nesta had a previous relationship with Henry I from which she had bore a son, Henry, and would later have another son, Robert FitzStephen, for Stephen, constable of Cardigan. Angharad FitzGerald married William de Barri of Manorbier and bore him three sons, the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, Robert, who was among the invaders, and Philip, who received large estates in Cork.6    
Ireland in the eleventh century.
As Ireland moved towards the end of the eleventh century little had changed for the inhabitants over the previous centuries. Cattle formed the principal wealth of the community and a man was poor or wealthy, not primarily according to the amount of land he held, but in proportion to the head of cattle he possessed.7 Tribes or joint families held the land and all inhabitants adhered to the Brehon Law. The Brehon Law was really a body of customs which had no known commencement, but which had been observed, more or less, faithfully from the beginning of time.8 Giraldus, while noting that the inhabitants were ‘richly endowed by Nature’ found the Irish ‘are a rude people, living on animal produce and little advances from the pastoral stage’.9
The Church played a major part in the lives of the Irish. Brian O’Cuiv, in The Course of Irish History, described the Church in Ireland at the time:
… there was clearly a need for a spiritual renewal, and with it reform of the Church itself, for part of the trouble lay in the organisation, which was monastic rather than diocesan, a feature which resulted in a lack of priests engaged in pastoral work… At any rate reform was needed, and it came. Through the renewed contacts with Western Europe, established by the latest wave of Irish missionaries, and also through Irish pilgrims who found their way to Rome, Irishmen at home became aware of the vast church reform which was taking place on the Continent.10
It took another forty years before the reorganisation of the church was brought to a successful conclusion and in 1152 the Papal Legate reported that the Church in Ireland had the basic organisation now in place to look to the pastoral care of its flock. Pope Adrian, however, was not satisfied and in 1155 gave his blessing to Henry II to invade Ireland, reform its church, and bring the country back under the influence of the Church of Rome.11
Dermot and the foreigners.
In 1166 Ruairi O’Connor, of Connaught, became High King of Ireland. The new high king needed a friendly ally in Leinster, but was opposed by its ruler, Dermot MacMurrough. Dermot was the last of the provincial kings to stand in the way of O’Connor who marched into Leinster and roundly defeated MacMurrough. Dermot submitted to O’Connor and was deposed as king of Leinster, though he was allowed to keep his kingdom of Wexford. Dermot remained defiant, but was again defeated in a second expedition by O’Connor.12 MacMurrogh was banished and went into exile in Wales, where there were many intermarriages and alliances between the Irish, Welsh and Normans (Maurice FitzGerald’s wife Alice was the daughter of Arnulf, Lord of Pembroke, and Lafracoth, the daughter of Muirceartach O’Brien, King of Ireland).13 Dermot may have been banished, but he was not beaten.   He sought help from King Henry II, swore fealty and alliance to him, and got his permission to recruit volunteers among the Norman colonists in Wales to assist him in regaining his kingdom in Leinster.14 Dermot found many willing recruits among the warring Norman barons in south Wales. The most prominent was Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow. However, de Clare’s promise of assistance was not won easily. Dermot secured his agreement by offering his daughter Aoife in marriage and the prospect of the kingdom of Leinster in succession to MacMurrough himself.15
Dermot MacMurrough’s speculative grants of land to the Cambro-Norman barons spread rapidly. Due to a Welsh resurgence and King Henry’s efforts to constrain their ambitions, opportunities in Wales in the 1160s were rapidly diminishing for ambitious Norman barons. Robert FitzStephen was one of the earliest adventurers who agreed to go to Ireland and enlisted his half-brother, Maurice FitzGerald to accompany him. MacMurrough had agreed to give a grant of the town of Wexford and the two adjoining cantreds if they came to his aid. Since a cantred of land contained 100 manors or townlands, of 1,000 acres each, the prospects for such land-hungry barons were alluring.16 What we must bear in mind is that the first Norman invaders were really freelance adventurers, much like the earlier Vikings, and did not come as England’s official vanguard. Many of them, like Strongbow, were no longer in favour with their king, Henry II, nor were wanted by the Welsh whose lands they had appropriated.17 (Another thing the adventurers had in common was that they were nearly all descended from Nesta, either by her two husbands or through the son she had by Henry I of England.)
Giraldus, the chronicler, gives a flattering description of his uncle Maurice FitzGerald:
A man of dignified aspect and modest bearing, of a ruddy complexion and good features. He was of the middle height, neither tall nor short. In him, both in person and temper moderation was the rule … Maurice was naturally of a good disposition, but he was much more anxious to be good than to appear such … He was a man of few words, but his language was polished and there was more sense than sound, more reason than eloquence, in what he said … In war he was intrepid, and second to no man in valour … was sober, modest, chaste, constant, firm and faithful; a man not altogether without fault, but not stained by any great and notorious crime.
FitzGerald at this time was about sixty years of age, much older than many of the other invaders, but in his nephew’s eyes he was ‘the pattern and model of his country and times’.18
The FitzGeralds arrive in Ireland.
The first Normans arrived at Bannow, Co. Wexford, in the first week of May 1169. Robert FitzStephen, the younger half-brother of Maurice FitzGerald, led the 400 strong force. Linking up with MacMurrough’s forces they soon captured Wexford town.19 The third batch of Normans landed at Wexford, towards the end of 1169. They were led by Maurice FitzGerald and Giraldus says he brought with him in two ships ‘ten men-at-arms, thirty mounted retainers and about a hundred archers and foot-soldiers’.20 FitzGerald, no doubt, was intent on claiming his grant of Wexford town and the former Norse territory surrounding it. MacMurrough unfolded his plans for the takeover of all Ireland to his Norman allies FitzGerald and FitzStephen. They agreed that it would be easy if he had more men and that he should send to Wales for reinforcements.21 An advance party arrived in May 1170 to be followed in August by the biggest Norman task-force to date - 1,000 men led by Strongbow.22
Strongbow lost no time in attacking and capturing the Norse town of Waterford. Dermot MacMurrough arrived after the fall of the town on 25 August 1170. With him were FitzGerald and FitzStephen, and his daughter, Aoife. Here MacMurrough gave his daughter in marriage to Strongbow in fulfilment of his promise. Dublin fell to the combined forces in September, but by then Dermot had become an instrument of his allies.23 Richard Roche wrote in The Norman Invasion of Ireland, that ‘from now on (for the short remaining span of his life) he was in the power of the very forces he himself had brought to Ireland and unleashed’. Dermot MacMurrough died in May 1171 and his son-in-law, Strongbow, succeeded him as king of Leinster.24
The Irish and Norse united to drive out the new invader and laid siege to Strongbow at Dublin with 30,000 men under MacMurrough’s old nemesis, Ruairi O’Connor. Strongbow offered to submit to O’Connor and to hold Leinster under the high king if he would lift the siege. O’Connor offered to leave Strongbow in control of the three Norse centres of Dublin, Waterford and Wexford, but if de Clare spurned this offer he would storm Dublin immediately. Strongbow called a council of war to debate the terms. He was beginning to waver, but not so his daring barons, particularly Maurice FitzGerald, Milo de Cogan and Raymond le Gros. They advised instant action.25 FitzGerald, was even more worried by the distressing position of FitzStephen, who was under siege at Ferrycarrig. Two of his sons, Alexander and Gerald were with him in Dublin, but he had left his wife and younger children under the care of FitzStephen.26 Maurice rose and addressed Strongbow and the other Norman leaders:
Fellow soldiers, it is not a call to luxury and ease that has brought us to this land. Rather we have come to make trial of the vicissitudes of Fortune and to test the strength of our valour at the risk of our lives. For a while we were at the top of Fortune’s wheel. Now we are sinking towards the bottom, but by reason of its very mutability we are destined to rise again to the top…What then are we waiting for? Surely we do not look to our own people for succour? We are now constrained in our actions by this circumstance, that just as we are English as far as the Irish are concerned, likewise to the English we are Irish, and the inhabitants of this island and the other assail us with an equal degree of hatred. So let us breach the barriers of hesitation and inertia, for “fortune favours the brave”. While our already failing food supplies still give us strength, let us make a vigorous attack upon the enemy, and let our small force of brave and well-armed men, by dint of their wonted valour, and with their usual success in battle, overwhelm an ill-armed and unwarlike multitude.27
The Normans launched a surprise attack on O’Connor’s encampment. They caught the Irish in a relaxed mood, routing them, and nearly capturing O’Connor, who was bathing and fled the scene naked. The siege was lifted and O’Connor’s army dispersed. O’Connor retreated to Connacht, a high king in name only. With Dublin safely in Norman hands Strongbow marched to Wexford to relieve FitzStephen, who had already surrendered. However, the Norse-Irish soon abandoned Wexford and took refuge on Begerin Island in Wexford harbour, taking FitzStephen with them as a hostage. They sent word that if the Normans attacked they would send back the severed head of FitzStephen to his half-brother Maurice FitzGerald. Leaving a garrison in Wexford, Strongbow and FitzGerald marched to Waterford, which they reoccupied.28
In October 1171 Henry II, impressed by the success of his Norman barons – and also wary of them setting up a rival Norman kingdom – arrived in Ireland with an army of 4,500 men. Both the Irish and the Norman conquerors submitted to Henry in due time. He granted Strongbow the kingdom of Leinster, with the exception of Dublin, Waterford and Wexford, but passed him over as justiciar (king’s representative). This honour he gave to Hugh de Lacey and to make sure none of the Geraldines or ‘race of Nesta’ caused him any more trouble he placed Maurice FitzGerald, Robert FitzStephen, and others in the garrison of Dublin under de Lacey.29
Strongbow was more appreciative of his followers and parcelled out large areas of his kingdom to them. The middle cantred of Offelan, in County Kildare, which included Naas, and the cantred of Wicklow were given to Maurice FitzGerald. In 1185 King John confirmed this grant as regards the cantred of Offelan to William, eldest son of Maurice FitzGerald, and his heirs, who were known as barons of Naas. A few years later John confirmed to Gerald, middle son of Maurice FitzGerald, the lands of Rathmore, Maynooth, Laraghbryan, Taghadoe and Straffan.30 Maurice FitzGerald spent his old age in his castle at Wicklow but died in Wexford in 1176. He was buried in the abbey of the Gray Friars, which no longer exists. He was seventy-five and his death came ‘to the great grief of his friends’, according to Giraldus.31
From Maurice FitzGerald sprang two great Geraldine families, the FitzGeralds of Leinster and Desmond. Maurice’s son Gerald married Eva de Birmingham and gained the important centers of Lea and Rathangan. He also acquired the manors of Maynooth and Rathmore from his brother William. Finally, he took possession of Croom in County Limerick through his participation in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Thomond. By his death in 1204 he had gained possession of the manors and estates that subsequently formed the core of the FitzGerald’s landed interests. The FitzGeralds became prominent in the Norman colony’s affairs under the leadership of Maurice FitzGerald, second baron of Offaly. For the next four hundred years the ‘Kildare system’ practised by the ancestors of Maurice FitzGerald, the Cambro-Norman adventurer, dominated the Pale and Irish and English affairs. The success of the FitzGerald’s can be credited to their military qualities, their cultivation of personal relations with the king, their ability to operate readily in both Irish and Anglo-Irish society, and, above all, their ruthless opportunism.32 This was evident from the beginning when Maurice FitzGerald saw the opportunities to be gained by a fall-out between two rival Irish kings.
  1. Roche, Richard. The Norman Invasion of Ireland (Dublin 1995), p. 14.
  2. Colm Lennon. The FitzGeralds of Kildare and the Building of a Dynastic Image, 1500-1630, in William Nolan and Thomas McGrath (eds), Kildare. History and Society (Dublin 2006), p. 205.
  3. Duffy, Sean. Medieval Ireland. An Encyclopedia (New York 2005), p. 173.
  4. Roche, Norman Invasion, p. 76.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, p. 107.
  7. Orpen, Goddard Henry. Ireland under the Normans 1169-1216, (2 vols, Oxford 1911), i, p. 112.
  8. Ibid, p. 104.
  9. Ibid, pp 133, 135.
  10. Roche, Norman Invasion, p. 80.
  11. Ibid, pp 87-8.
  12. Ibid, pp 66-8.
  13. Ibid, pp 229-30.
  14. Ibid, p. 92.
  15. Ibid, pp 95-6.
  16. Ibid, p. 99.
  17. Ibid, p. 14.
  18. Ibid, pp 141-2.
  19. Ibid, p. 118.
  20. Ibid, p. 145.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid, p. 162.
  23. Ibid, pp 165-6.
  24. Ibid, p. 172.
  25. Ibid, pp 179-80.
  26. Orpen, Ireland under the Normans, p. 227.
  27. Scott, A. B., and Martin, F. X., eds. Expugnatio Hibernica. The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis (Dublin 1978), p. 81. The exact words are probably more Giraldus than Maurice FitzGerald.
  28. Roche, Norman Invasion, pp 180-3.
  29. Ibid, p. 194.
  30. Orpen, Ireland under the Normans, pp 379-80.
  31. Roche, Norman Invasion, p. 200.
  32. Duffy, Medieval Ireland, p. 175.
Duffy, Sean. Medieval Ireland. An Encyclopedia. New York 2005.
Orpen, Goddard Henry. Ireland under the Normans 1169-1216. Vol I. Oxford 1911.
Nolan, William and McGrath, Thomas. Kildare. History and Society. Dublin 2006.
Roche, Richard. The Norman Invasion of Ireland. Dublin 1995.
Scott, A. B., and Martin, F. X., eds. Expugnatio Hibernica. The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis. Dublin 1978.
Colm Lennon. The FitzGeralds of Kildare and the Building of a Dynastic Image, 1500-1630, in William Nolan and Thomas McGrath (eds), Kildare. History and Society (Dublin 2006),

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