Thursday 15 June 2017

What Ruadh Butler learnt writing Lord of the Sea Castle

Today's guest blog post in the "What I Learnt..." series comes from historical fiction author, Ruadh Butler. Ruadh as born in County Derry at the height of the Troubles. A degree in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ulster, as well as study in Virginia and London, couldn't entice him into a life of scientific research, but to keep the wolf from the door he worked in laboratories, in newsrooms, and in bars. He even tried his hand as a soldier, musician, security guard and lifeguard during his twenties. Ruadh lives in Northern Ireland and Lord of the Sea Castle is the second novel in his Invader series.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Lord of the Sea Castle. It's a great read. Here's what I said about it:

"From tourneys to treachery; from Welsh Marches to Irish marauders, Ruadh Butler propels us into the tumultuous times of the twelfth century. The clangour of swords and battle cries of knights echo from the pages of 'Lord of the Sea Castle', as Butler tells a gripping tale with skill, verve and gusto."

What Ruadh Butler Learnt writing LORD OF THE SEA CASTLE

1. You can still visit ruins built by the Normans in 1170.

My new novel, Lord of the Sea Castle, takes place in the summer of 1170 and follows directly the events of Swordland. This book charts the activities of a small advance force of some 120 men (and one woman) that cross the Irish Sea in order to build a bridgehead and prepare the way for an invasion by a Welsh baron named Strongbow. Led by the wonderfully named Raymond the Fat, the historic figure upon whom my lead character is based, they immediately began constructing a defensible position on a headland called Dun Domhnall in south County Wexford. I had the pleasure of visiting the site (which is now called Baginbun) a few summers ago as part of my research and was amazed to find that the earthworks his men had built almost a millennia ago were still visible. And what a construction! The wooden palisade which had once topped the double entrenchments would’ve disappeared or been stolen soon after 1170, but the bulwarks still soared over my head, running between the sea cliffs for two hundred yards or so. It was not difficult to stand atop those dramatic ruins, in that wind swept place, and imagine what it might’ve been like to be a Norman invader beset on all sides by enemies and pounded by the weather off the ocean. Given the importance of the campaigns that followed I admit to wondering if the site deserved better than a mere sign noting the date of Raymond’s arrival.

Baginbun Head with the Norman earthworks running east-west between the two beaches at the narrowest point in the headland.

2. Irish names can be tough!

While Ireland was an easily accessible place for traders from across Europe in the Age of Invasions it nonetheless remained, culturally at the very least, an alien place to those from the Romanised world of Christendom (as well as to us now in the western world). This is perhaps most readily seen in the difficulties pronouncing the non-Anglicised versions of places and people. Where does one start when attempting Máel Sechlainn Ua Fhaolain, Donnchadh Ua Riagháin and Máelmáedoc Ua Riagain?! They are certainly confusing, but to go with ‘Connor’ rather Conchobar or ‘Rory’ rather than Ruaidhrí would be for me to lose an immediate and easy access to what the Normans experienced when they first arrived in medieval Ireland. That is the distinct and very real feeling of unease with the unfamiliar. My desire is to transport and immerse the reader in the twelfth century and I hope that this small ruse helps that cause! In Lord of the Sea Castle, the second instalment of the Invader Series, readers will be introduced to the world of the Ostmen. They were the descendants of the Viking Norse and Danes who had founded the great cities of Ireland such as Waterford and Dublin in the ninth and tenth centuries. A three hundred year old and unique culture by 1170, the Ostmen retained many of the customs of their Scandinavian ancestors, mingling them with Gaelic beliefs adopted from the natives. It was against them that the full force of the Norman war machine would be directed. So rather than names like Diarmait we will have to contend with Sigtrygg and instead of Osraighe we visit places as easy to remember as Veðrarfjord and Strangrfjord!

3. The Normans were the first proponents of Ikea-style self-assembly wares.

They were the descendants of Scandinavians after all! However, the Norman version of Ikea products was less about furniture for inside the house and rather more about exteriors. They brought ready-to-assemble wooden castles with them whenever their sights settled upon a new land to conquer. Many of these fortifications were subsequently rebuilt in stone, but when they first took England, swarmed across Wales, and later invaded Ireland they erected motte and bailey castles. Speed of assembly was essential. The castle was the greatest weapon that the Normans had to help them survive beyond the frontier in hostile terrain and so in preparation they cut and numbered timber boards and trunks to bring with them. With these they formed the lower portion of the castle, the bailey, bringing all they had with them inside and secure. The longer process – the building of the high earth hillock, the motte, and the digging of a defensive ditch – could then begin safe in the knowledge that their horses and supplies were behind a sturdy barricade. While it is not recorded whether the men who invaded Ireland brought a ready-made castle with them to Ireland, they did leave remnants of their work for us to see. In a bend of the River Slaney at Ferrycarrig just outside Wexford Town, the first invader of Ireland, Robert FitzStephen, built his castle. While that fortress has long since disappeared, you can still visit its location and the castle reconstruction at the Irish National Heritage Park.

4. It was the Welsh bow, rather than the Norman lance, that really conquered Ireland.

From the very early days of their invasion of Wales the Normans had fallen in love with the natives’ most deadly weapon, the longbow. The Lords of the March soon began employing Welshmen into their armies and quickly found out how effective they could be when deployed in combination with Norman cavalry. Needless to say when the time came for a new adventure across the Irish Sea the Norman lords made sure they had archers from Gwent on their side.

At the Siege of Baginbun in 1170, Raymond the Fat’s force of 120 was almost two-thirds made up of archers with only a handful of the heavy cavalrymen we consider so characteristic of the Normans of the period. The remainder, usually treble that of the heavy cavalry, was made of ‘half-armoured’ horsemen believed to be esquires or apprentice knights. The same structure would continue to be used by the Cambro-Normans throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and would remain all most irresistible even when the invaders were outnumbered many times over in a hundred different battles against the Gael and the Ostmen.

Picture taken looking down between the earthworks at Baginbun Head in Wexford. They were constructed by Raymond the Fat in 1170.

5. The final conquest of Ireland by the English crown came as a result of the murder of Thomas Becket.

The invasion of Ireland began as a private enterprise undertaken, not by the state or a king, but by individuals. The first to try their luck in 1169 were the Geraldines, a family from west Wales linked through their shared kinship to the famed Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, and led by Robert FitzStephen. This clan had been considered all but outside the control of the centralised state created by King Henry II of England. In Ireland they no longer felt the need to make even token acknowledgement to the throne as overlord. They found freedom beyond the frontier. The Geraldines were followed to Ireland by Strongbow. Though a rich landowner in Wales, he had been exiled from the royal court for fifteen years and was suffering under the financial and social constraints imposed by his disgrace. In Ireland he sought a crown of his own. King Henry feared that he might succeed and raise a rival Norman state in Ireland. He feared the potential drain on his warriors and the threat to his western borders. He feared losing control. But Henry II was not the sort of man to waste money on military escapades. His campaigns were more often led by lawyers and justices and fought with court decrees rather than sword and steed in glorious battle. His first attempt to derail Strongbow and the Geraldines was to ban shipping to Ireland from all English ports. Without supplies or hope of reinforcement from their homeland, the Norman adventurers only just managed to maintain their hold over their new lands. Little did the adventurers realise, but the murder of Becket in December 1170 would bring about an end to their, and by extension Ireland’s, independence.

According to some sources, Pope Adrian IV had issued a Papal Bull in 1155 granting governance of Ireland to Henry II in return for his enforcement of Papal reforms on the island. However, the king, having only just taken the throne, had his hands full imposing control over his unruly subjects in England and put a pin in the idea. Fifteen years later, when Henry found himself under the threat of excommunication by Pope Alexander III following Becket’s murder, and with a sudden and very real need to absent himself from England, the king remembered Pope Adrian’s Bull. Bringing the hitherto self-governing Irish Church (particularly all the associated revenues and profits) back under the auspices of the Church of Rome was, Henry considered, something that might just put in back in the good graces of the pope. It was even worth the great expense of putting an army in the field overseas, the miserly king reckoned. But of course there remained another reason for him to take a force of 4,000 men across the sea: Strongbow and the Geraldines. The price of appeasing King Henry in October 1171 was a heavy one for the insubordinate adventurers to pay. Strongbow was forced to give up the cities of Waterford and Dublin in order to retain the rest of Leinster. The Geraldines fared worse. They lost all their hard won Irish estates while their leader, Robert FitzStephen, was imprisoned for several months by the king. The Irish princes and chieftains probably thought that they had a good deal when they made their submission before the might of King Henry. Little did they know that in the decades to follow Henry and his sons would use this compliance as an excuse to award their kingdoms to Norman knights in need of reward.

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