Battle of Faughart: Anglo-Irish Force Defeats Scottish Invasion of Ireland

 
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Battle of Faughart: Anglo-Irish Force Defeats Scottish Invasion of Ireland

Edward Bruce in action at battle of Faughart, artist unknown
Image courtesy of http://www.theirishstory.com/2013/02/25/7347/#.V_aUv-T6vqk
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 14, 1318

Today's stroll through military history is considered by modern historians as a side campaign in the First War of Scottish Independence. It occurred four years after the critical battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots under King Robert the Bruce defeated the English in June of 1314. [Readers interested in the details of that fight should read my post from June of 2010: Battle of Bannockburn: Robert the Bruce Routs English, Frees Scotland]

Background

In 1315, Edward the Bruce, brother of Scottish King Robert, landed in Ulster in northeastern Ireland, where he crowned himself "King of Ireland" and appealed to the common Celtic heritage of the two nations for a joint effort against their common enemy, the Anglo-Normans. This whole Irish adventure is often considered the most curious event in the "Wars of the Bruces." However, King Robert, fresh from his staggering victory at Bannockburn the previous year, had many reasons to send his brother to Ireland with 5000-6000 veteran warriors.

First, Ireland was an important source of supply, especially food and mercenaries, to the English in their wars with both the Scots and Welsh. Simply depriving the English of these vital supplies, while also controlling the Irish Sea, would be of inestimable value to the Bruce. Secondly, a closer look at who among the Scots were the major participants in the Irish adventure reveals that they came predominantly from the lands and clans that had not supported, or were outright enemies of, the Bruces.

Finally, Edward the Bruce – a very rash, temperamental, and arrogant man – was most of all insatiably ambitious. He painfully desired a kingly status  and a kingdom to match his brother's. He had considered the Western Isles [see map below; the areas in red] and even communicated with the Welsh on this matter before finally settling on Ireland as the realm to rule. King Robert was truly fortunate to rid himself of Edward while harrying the English at the same time.

Map of northern British Isles, c. 1100
Map of northern British Isles, c. 1100

The Irish of Ulster had long had close ties to Scotland and generally supported the Scots. However, many of the other Irish did not. The common refrain was that notwithstanding a common Celtic heritage, the Scots were foreign invaders nonetheless, and less noble than the ones they were accustomed to fighting, a begrudging compliment to the Anglo-Normans. [There was more than a little truth in this, as the Bruces, for all their pan-Celtic bluster, were actually descended from Anglo-Norman ancestors, making them closer in background to the English.]

The Irish had good reason to be displeased with the Scottish invasion: the Scots were poorly supplied and being inexpert – as were the Irish – in siege warfare, resorted to plundering and laying waste to the land in an indiscriminate scorched earth campaign. This only added to the misery of a cruel famine that plagued all of Europe for the three years the Scots ravaged the Emerald Isle. Chronicles also report that the famine and poor harvests forced the Scots, the Irish and the Anglo-Normans alike to indulge in cannibalism.

Initially things went well for the Scots and their Irish allies as Edward fought and won twelve consecutive battles. On May 1, 1316, Edward Bruce was crowned High King of Ireland. [This act was largely symbolic, as Edward Bruce never had the support of more than a fraction of the Irish nobility. It also fed Edward's arrogance, and convinced him – if only in his own mind – that he was a regal personage on the same level as his brother.] After a year-long siege, Bruce's forces successfully captured Carrickfergus Castle in September of 1316. He twice threatened but never attacked Dublin.

Map of Ireland, circa AD 1300 (before Bruce's invasion)
Map of Ireland, circa AD 1300 (before Bruce's invasion)

Over the course of the next two years, depending on local sources of supply, Bruce's campaigns began to resemble nothing more than large-scale plundering raids, carried on at the expense of an already desperate peasantry. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the supposed kinship of the Celts failed to materialize to any significant degree, and for most Irish the Scots were little better, if not worse, than the English settlers with whom they were familiar. An Irish tract of this time refers to "Scottish foreigners less noble than our own foreigners".

In the end, rather than acting as a true High King, Bruce's power was confined to parts of the north – in central and eastern Ulster – and held there by serious problems of provisioning and supply. The opportunity to attempt an extension had to wait until 1318, when the weather, and the harvest, improved.The lack of supplies, and the departure of many of the Highland Lords after the opportunities for plunder abated, found Edward in a very weak state when the resurgent Anglo-Irish and their allies attacked.

Scots-Irish Army

The size and composition of Bruce's force is a target of speculation. After beginning his campaign three years earlier with about 5000 Scottish knights, men-at-arms, and pikemen, at least half of these men had either died from battle wounds, hunger, or disease. Many returned to Scotland on their own when the opportunities for plunder diminished. Edward Bruce had attracted a number of northern Irish clans to his standard, supplying him with thousands of native troops. However, by the time of this battle, his allies had dwindled to only a fraction of those that had previously sworn fealty to him. One chronicle states that Bruce had only about 2000 Scottish troops at his command, and a few thousand Irish allies.

Anglo-Irish Army

According to John Barbour, Scottish chronicler and poet, the Anglo-Norman force which confronted Edward Bruce numbered 20,000 men. This force was a combination of mounted Anglo-Norman knights and men-at-arms, spearmen, and longbowmen, and native Irish soldiers.

Irish gallowglasses, c. AD 1300; Image courtesy of http://tabletop.magigames.org/
Irish gallowglasses, c. AD 1300
Image courtesy of http://tabletop.magigames.org/

The Irish portion of this army likely was composed mainly of gallowglasses, heavy infantry wearing suits of chainmail extending to the soldier's knees and wrists, an iron helmet, and armed with a brutal two-handed battle axe. Each was usually accompanied by a man to see to his weapons and armor and a boy to carry provisions. Another contingent of the army was the kerns, Irish light infantrymen armed primarily with javelins or slings, and seldom wearing any heavy armor, perhaps a leather coat. Irish nobility was often accoutered like an Anglo-Norman knight, while Irish light horsemen functioned as scouts before battle, harassed the enemy line during battle, and pursed the routed enemy afterwards.

This army was commanded by John de Bermingham, one of the many Anglo-Norman nobles whose forbears had probably intermarried with the Irish natives. Also present at this fight and commanding some portion of the army were Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick and Roland Joyce, Archbishop of Armagh.

Irish kerns, c. AD 1300; image courtesy of Gripping Beast https://www.grippingbeast.co.uk.html
Irish kerns, c. AD 1300; image courtesy of Gripping Beast https://www.grippingbeast.co.uk.html

Prelude to the Battle

Late in 1318, Edward Bruce gathered his forces, Scots and Irish, to make another attempt to take Dublin, even after four centuries the center of Irish culture and trade. However, as Bruce's army passed the town of Dundalk, scouts reported that a large Anglo-Irish army was approaching Ulster.

The Annals of Clonmacnoise recorded that "anxious to obtain the victory for himself, [Edward] did not wait" for reinforcements coming from Scotland. He took up position on the rising ground at Faughart, not far from Dundalk, on Sunday, October 14. When his Irish allies objected to facing a stronger enemy force in battle, Bruce responded by placing them in the rear, close to the top of the hill, leaving some 2000 Scots troops to face the enemy onslaught.

Battle of Faughart

The Lanercost Chronicle, one of the few contemporary histories that gives decent information about this battle, says that Bruce divided his force into three "columns" (probably divisions or "battles" as the medieval historians would call them). They were arranged one behind the other, with Bruce himself commanding the rearmost division. Each division was composed mainly of Scots, consisting of mounted knights and men-at-arms, pikemen, some swordsmen, and a few bowmen. Lanercost mentions two notable leaders of the first two divisions: the "King of the Hebrides" named Mac Ruaidhrí; and the "King of Argyll" named Mac Domhnaill. Despite the Irish-sounding names, these two leaders were probably clan leaders from the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) and from Edward Bruce's own earldom of Carrick in southwestern Scotland.

The Anglo-Irish force almost certainly mirrored the Scottish deployment, with three divisions – right, center, and left – though the composition of each is speculative. The center was likely composed mainly of Anglo-Norman knights and mounted men-at-arms, with spear- and sword-armed infantry behind them. Longbowmen were probably positioned on the flanks. The right and left wings were probably composed of the Irish allied troops, with Irish medium and light horse in the front, or possibly the gallowglasses taking the place of honor in the forefront. The light infantry kerns were probably stationed on the army's flanks to provide missile support and were prepared to pursue the retreating enemy. [The Anglo-Irish disposition is all speculation on my part, from my personal knowledge of battle set-ups from the Middle Ages.]

Apparently, the three Scottish "columns" attacked the Anglo-Irish line in a piecemeal and haphazard fashion, with none of the columns supporting each other. The more numerous enemy force ground down the Scottish units, leaving many dead and wounded on the battlefield. The Lanercost Chronicle gives the clearest description of the conflict:

The Scots were in three columns at such a distance from each other that the first was done with before the second came up, and then the second before the third, with which Edward was marching could render any aid. Thus the third column was routed just as the two preceding ones had been. Edward fell at the same time ...

Aftermath

As with most medieval battles, casualty figures are so much guesswork. The Scottish army was essentially wiped out; Scots that survived most likely made their way back to Scotland as best they could. Anglo-Irish losses were light.

Footnote #1: After Edward's death his body was quartered and his limbs sent to various places in Ireland, with his head being delivered to Edward II, the King of England, in London. Tradition holds that his torso was then buried in a nearby graveyard in County Louth, near Dundalk.

Purported gravesite of Edward Bruce, near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland; Image courtesy of http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/louth/faughart.html
Purported gravesite of Edward Bruce, near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland
Image courtesy of http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/louth/faughart.html

Footnote #2: The scribe of the Annals of Connacht felt no sorrow at Edward Bruce's death, memorably stating that Bruce "…was the common ruin of the Galls [Norse-Celtic peoples] and Gaels [the rest of the inhabitants] of Ireland … and never was there a better deed done for the Irish than this, since the beginning of the world and the banishing of the Fomorians from Ireland. For in this Bruce's time, for three years and a half, falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other throughout Ireland."

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