This is the fifth installment of my Irish History Week series.
In 1155, Pope Adrian IV gave the blessing of the Catholic Church to the English King Henry II to invade Ireland. The idea was to strengthen Rome’s control over the church in Ireland. In addition to being King of England, Henry was also Duke of Normandy. The Normans had invaded England a little less than a century before, beginning with the pivotal Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now, in the mid 12th century, it was Ireland’s turn.
About eight and a half centuries later, in 1998, Reverend Paul Mooney, who ran St. Mary’s, the ancient parish church of Ros, Ireland, came up with an idea: why not document the history of the town of Ros (now called New Ross) and its church in a medieval-style tapestry, deliberately imitating the style of the great tapestries of the Middle Ages? Indeed this would be a massive undertaking, requiring years of planning as well as thousands of hours of effort by dedicated volunteers practicing a highly specialized and difficult craft. But the hard work has paid off. Envisioned as containing 15 panels each showing a different aspect of the history of Ros, the colossal project is now complete, and you can go and see the magnificent tapestry in its new permanent exhibition center on the Quay in New Ross.
The Normans first hit the beaches of Ireland in 1169, although Henry himself didn’t waddle ashore until 1171. As with the Norman conquest of England, the invasion of Ireland was more than just a one-off maneuver: it was a very large-scale, long-term population migration, less military than demographic and cultural in nature. The town of Ros was taken over by the Norman knight William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, and the town was given a royal charter in 1207. Three years later William’s wife, Isabel, the Countess of Pembroke, is said to have founded St. Mary’s Church in the town. The Normans built a lighthouse there and eventually the thriving port of Ros grew up around the Norman mot-style castle. Most of these events are depicted in the colorful panels of the Ros Tapestry.
William Marshal (this is the effigy over his grave) not only built up the town of Ros, but was also involved–on King John’s side–in the fracas that resulted in the promulgation of the Magna Carta in 1215.
The story of Ros, so ingeniously portrayed in the modern tapestry, demonstrates how medieval “invasions” often worked. Today when we think of an invasion we think of an army assembling, entering some foreign place and conquering it for the purpose of changing its political structure or achieving some sort of political objective. Whether it’s Napoleon in Russia in 1812, Hitler in France in 1940, or George W. Bush in Iraq in 2003 we tend to think of invasions as rather surface-level conflicts between militaries. This just wasn’t true in the Middle Ages. Despite the brutal violence of medieval battles, European states in the Middle Ages simply didn’t have a lot of military power to throw around. The way to gain control of another territory was either to settle it or marry it. Both happened in Ireland in the 12th and early 13th century. The fact that military conflicts occurred on the vanguard of this demographic shift is almost incidental.
Indeed, the Norman assimilation–that may be a more accurate term than “conquest”–changed Ireland’s society far more than it did its political structure, which continued to remain a patchwork of kingdoms and fiefdoms. It was just that the new kings and fiefs tended to be Normans, or at least related to them. But, as it did in England, the Norman influx brought a lot of new ways of life to Ireland–new forms of commerce and economic organization, most notably, as well as land ownership patterns that reflected what was going on in England at the same time. The eventual subjugation of Ireland by England and the splitting up of the island into estates and plantations, usually owned by Englishmen and rented back to the native Irish, rested on the foundations of the land ownership system originally put in place by the Normans. This form of “conquest” is not nearly as exciting as the clash of medieval armies, but it tends to be much more permanent and effective, at least in the eyes of the conquerors.
This illustration of a panel from the Ros Tapestry illustrates the founding of St. Mary’s church, a pivotal event in the history of the town.
Yet the experience of Ros indicates that there were many positive aspects to this assimilation as well. New Ross has been a thriving and prosperous town for 900 years now, and St. Mary’s church, whose history stretches back unbroken to the foundation by the Countess of Pembroke, is a vibrant part of that history. The artists and craftspeople who dedicated so many hours to the creation of the magnificent Ros Tapestry demonstrate the positive importance this history has for a community like this. And the making of the tapestry itself is a terrific example of the new and different ways we can sometimes experience history; finding it in a dusty old book is one thing, but seeing it laid out in a quilt, the way people told the stories of history 1000 years ago, strikes a common chord with our collective medieval past.