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Armour and Conquest: A study of body armour worn by the Anglo-Normans and the Gaelic Irish at the time of the Conquest of Ireland

Armour and Conquest: A study of body armour worn by the Anglo-Normans and the Gaelic Irish at the time of the Conquest of Ireland

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill. Originally submitted for TSM History and English Lit at Trinity College Dublin, with lecturer Professor Terry Barry in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill. Originally submitted for TSM History and English Lit at Trinity College Dublin, with lecturer Professor Terry Barry in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Armour and Conquest:
A study of body armour worn bythe Anglo-Normans and theGaelic Irish at the time of theConquest of Ireland
 A
BSTRACT 
: In his history of the conquest of Ireland by the Anglo-Normans,Gerald of Wales contended that the Irish were technologically inferior tothe Anglo-Normans as they wore no armour. Gerald’s conclusion has been perpetuated by later historians, notably Edmund Curtis, often with ananti-Irish bias. In this essay, I critically examine this accusation of technological inferiority. The essay can be divided in two: (1) I attemptedto assess the kind of armour worn by both the Irish and the Anglo-Normans during the conquest by looking at sources such as stone effigies,literary and historical textual descriptions, pictorial depictions in theMaciejowski Bible and artefacts from the archaeological record and (2) Icompared the effectiveness of these types of armour in an Irish context.The conclusion reached in this essay is that the Irish were aware of chainmail armour, which was worn by many of the Anglo-Norman knights,and were able to produce it or acquire it through trade. However, it islikely that the majority of the Irish did not wear chainmail armour andinstead they wore other types of body armour, such as leather or paddedarmour. Furthermore, this choice of lighter armour was more suited to thewooded and mountainous Irish landscape. The guerrilla tactics of thenative Irish emphasised agility over strength, which proved relatively effective against the heavy cavalry of the Anglo-Normans. These findingssuggest that the ‘technological superiority’ of the Anglo-Normans wasnon-existent or, at least, ineffective in an Irish context and another reasonmust be found to explain the success of the conquest.
“But when [the people of Wexford] perceived thetroops to which they were opposed, arrayed in amanner they had never before witnessed, and abody of horsemen, with their bright armour,helmets, and shields, they adopted new plans…”
1
So Gerald de Barry, also known as Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, the primary chronicler of the Anglo-Norman invasion into Ireland,
1
Gerald de Barry,
Expugnatio Hibernica
in Thomas Right (ed.) and John Forester(trans.)
The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis
,
 
p. 191.
 
described the appearance of the Anglo-Norman army to the inhabitants of Ireland. He stressed that the Irish were unfamiliar with the Anglo-Normanarmour and that they were intimidated by the apparent strength thearmour signified. This emphasis on the technical inferiority of the GaelicIrish was just part of the propagandist message espoused by de Barry inhis two great works dealing with Ireland,
Expugnatio Hibernica
(‘TheConquest of Ireland’) and
Topographia Hibernica
(‘The Topography of Ireland’), wherein de Barry aimed to delineate the legitimacy and theinevitability of the Anglo-Norman rule in Ireland. De Barry’s interpretationof the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland was propagated by laterhistorians, particularly G. H. Orpen, who used the
Expugnatio
uncriticallyas a basis for his narrative of the conquest in
Ireland under the Normans
.
2 
However, it is necessary to critically analyse de Barry’s history as well asother sources, to attempt to define the armour worn by both the Anglo-Normans and the Gaelic Irish during this period and to attempt to assessthe effectiveness of the armour in the context of the conquest of Ireland.Any analysis of the body armour worn in twelfth-century Ireland isdifficult to undertake due to the relative scarcity of archaeologicalsources. Archaeological remains of chainmail, for example, are particularlyrare. Ian Peirce, a historian specialising in eleventh- and twelfth-centuryarmour, illustrates the rapid deterioration of mail armour by recounting adiscovery of “a knight buried face downwards” in a mail shirt, whichdeteriorated too quickly for even a photographic record to be made.
3
Only
2
G. H. Orpen,
Ireland under the Normans, vol. i
(1911).
3
Ian Peirce, ‘Arms, Armour and Warfare in the Eleventh Century’, in R. Allen Brown (ed.),
 Anglo-Norman Studies X: Proceedings of the Battle Conference, 1987
(1988), p. 239.
 
a few rings were recovered from the site. This paucity of remains can alsobe seen in an Irish context, as in the entirety of the Dublin excavations,only a small scrap of chainmail was found, dating from the eleventh ortwelfth century.
4
Other forms of body armour, such as leather or paddedarmour, would likely not appear at all in the archaeological record.However, the remains of weapons can often offer an insight into thearmour worn, either because the weapon was designed specifically to beused against the armour, or because the armour was designed to repelthe weapon.Due to the limited amount of archaeological evidence, it isnecessary to look to other sources to assess the likely body armour wornby both groups during this period. Stone effigies which depict a knight atrest are an important source of information about Anglo-Norman armour.
5 
However, all Irish examples date from the thirteenth century and as theyare works of art, they may not be entirely accurate depictions of thearmour worn by the knight in question: “the artist rarely attempted to domore than present an adumbration of what he knew existed.”
6
Similarly,the depictions of armour in illuminated manuscripts must be afforded thesame critical analysis. Such images are invaluable sources in the study of medieval armour as vivid representations of the armour worn during theperiod in which the images were painted. This essay will pay particularattention to two pictorial sources: The Bayeux Tapestry and theMaciejowski Bible. The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery probably
4
Andrew Halpin,
Weapons and warfare in Viking and medieval Dublin
(2008), p. 178.
5
John Hunt’s masterful book,
Irish medieval figure sculpture, 1200-1600: a study of Irishtombs with notes on costume and armour, vol. 2
(1974) is a mine of information on thetopic.
6
 
Ibid,
p. 21.

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