Strongbow’s Gamble: Richard de Clare and the Norman Invasion of Ireland
In early medieval history – especially English history – landed gentry and aristocracy played a significant role in the political and social development. Following the Norman invasion of England by the powerful William the Bastard , the concept of feudal lords reached the British Isles in earnest. Lords and knights rose to great heights, ascended by their deeds and political influences. One such Anglo-Norman nobleman was Richard de Clare, 2 nd Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster, and Justiciar of Ireland. A very powerful figure of medieval England, Richard Strongbow was one of the leading figures of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12 th century, an event that was a crucial turning point in the history of both England and Ireland. Today we are learning about the life of Richard de Clare and the exploits that made him the unavoidable part of any significant history book.
Noble Origins of Richard de Clare
Upon his remarkable conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, William the Conqueror was quick to solidify his rule over the large country. Even though that process took more than 10 years, William almost immediately granted lordships and noble titles to his closest and most reliable followers. One such nobleman was Richard fitz Gilbert, the son of an influential nobleman from Normandy in France. Richard fitz Gilbert was one of many who were involved in William’s invasion and also one of his closest kinsmen.
After the successful invasion, fitz Gilbert advanced greatly in wealth and honors, receiving numerous land possessions. Post-conquest, he became known as Richard de Bienfaite, de Clare, and of Tonbridge . Henceforth, a prominent noble family emerged in Norman England : de Clares were amongst the most powerful nobles of the era. It was his great-grandson that would become a key figure in the Anglo-Norman expansion: Richard de Clare, who earned the epithet “Strongbow”.
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Upon the death of his father, Gilbert the Clare, Richard inherited the holdings of his family, and thus became the 2 nd Earl of Pembroke and Count of Strigoil. The latter meant that Richard de Clare was from a line of powerful Marcher Lords , who held holdings and guarded the boundaries between Wales and England. Strigoil was a name of modern Chepstow, Monmouthshire, in Wales, where the de Clares held an indomitable castle.
However, when he was only 24 years old, Richard was stripped of his titles as 2 nd Earl Pembroke by the King of England, Henry II Curtmantle. This was due to the fact that Richard mistakenly sided with King Stephen of Blois during the period in English history known as the Anarchy . Thus it was, that for a certain period of time, Richard de Clare was in opposition to Henry II due to these events. But luck would have it that Richard’s fortunes were to quickly change for the better, after he met a unique figure from Ireland: the deposed King of Leinster, Diarmaid mac Murchadha (Dermot MacMurrough).
Diarmaid mac Murchadha of Ireland fled to England to beg King Henry II to help him recover his throne. Unable to aid him, Henry II granted him permission to raise forces in England to help his cause. ( Public domain )
Helping an Irishman in Need: Diarmaid Mac Murchadha and Richard de Clare
Diarmaid mac Murchadha was a unique character in Irish history. Accused and deposed by the High King of Ireland, Ruaidrí mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), for abducting the wife of another Irish King, Diarmaid fled to England, seeking help from King Henry II in order to return to his throne and recover the kingdom he lost. However, Henry II himself was in France, and Diarmaid had to travel to Aquitaine to ask for his help. As it was clear that Henry could not help, he gave Diarmaid the freedom to find in England those men who would help him. Richard de Clare was one of those who agreed. And for offering the Irishman his aid, Richard would gain a lot. He made a deal with Diarmaid: in return for his army, Richard would receive Diarmaid’s eldest daughter’s hand in marriage. And with that, he would gain succession to the Irish Kingdom of Leinster.
The deposed Irish King found a great deal of support in England. Richard de Clare was not the only Lord to aid him, although he was most likely the most powerful. Numerous barons and marcher lords also agreed to help, and in no time, Diarmaid mac Murchadha and Richard de Clare were at the head of a substantial army. In 1169, this army landed in Ireland, at the Bay of Bannow, led by Murchadha. From there, they made way to Wexford, which fell in May of that same year, after a short siege. This was a major town of the Kingdom of Leinster. Afterwards, they conducted numerous raids in the neighboring Kingdom of Osraige (Ossory), eventually conquering their major town of Waterford.
In 1170, Richard de Clare also arrived, at the head of additional forces, and the city of Dublin fell to them soon afterwards. It was during these events that he married the promised eldest daughter Aoife. Things were going all too well for Richard Strongbow. This was clear in 1171, when Diarmaid mac Murchadha died, leaving the Kingdom of Leinster for Richard to claim.
The Rising Power of Richard de Clare
However, it was becoming quite noticeable that Richard de Clare was becoming one of the most powerful noblemen in England, a fact that came to the attention of King Henry II. Richard knew that this could spell his undoing, so he preemptively sent an envoy to the King. He was willing to appease the King in order to retain power and once more return on his good terms, after choosing the wrong side in the Anarchy period.
The King’s terms were clear and highly favorable. Richard was allowed to retain all his holdings in Wales, England, and France, as well as to keep the lands in Ireland which he inherited. However, in return, de Clare was to give to the King the major towns and fortresses that were conquered, including Dublin and Waterford, and to also provide necessary aid to the King’s war in France. He readily agreed. Afterwards, Henry II himself came to Ireland, and placed his most trusted lords on high positions, gradually asserting control. The rule over the whole of Ireland slowly passed over to the Normans, with the title of the Lord of Ireland appearing in 1177, signifying its complete occupation.
After the successful Norman Invasion of Ireland, Richard de Clare, aka Strongbow, married Aoife, the daughter of Diarmaid mac Murchadha, in 1171. He thus gained succession to the Irish Kingdom of Leinster, becoming one of the most powerful men of the medieval era. ( Public domain )
Short-Lived Success: The Death of Richard de Clare
Through this unexpected turn of events, Richard de Clare was one of the instrumental figures that allowed the English King to invade and seize Ireland, a fact that Strongbow quickly used to his favor. It was a big gamble for both the deposed Irish King, and for the young Marcher Lord in a bad situation. But it was also a gamble that gained both men a whole lot. Alas, death cannot be staved off: Diarmaid mac Murchadha only had a short time to witness their successes before dying, and Richard de Clare was not far behind.
De Clare married the young princess Aoife in 1171 and fathered a son and a daughter. From a previous marriage he only had two daughters, who were already married off: thus the son from this new marriage was to be his heir. Probably clutching to that belief, Richard de Clare died in 1176, only five years after his marriage and conquest of Ireland. He was roughly 46. History mentions the cause of his death as being some sort of an infection in either his foot or his leg. It could be that it was an infected wound. Either way, Richard had only a short amount of time to enjoy his successes. And his line was not to be as successful as he would have hoped: his young son, who was to be his heir, died just 9 years after his father, in 1185. And his widow, Aoife, died in 1188.
This fact meant that the only heir to the Earldom of Pembroke and her father’s estates was his remaining unmarried daughter, Isabel de Clare, 4 th Countess of Pembroke. In just a few short years, Isabel became one of the most sought after ladies in England. Her powerful inheritance was a highly juicy prize for any would-be suitor.
In the end, the prize went to one Sir William Marshal , a minor nobleman, highly successful tournament competitor, and widely regarded as one of the best knights that ever lived. The hand of Isabel de Clare was promised to Marshal by the King himself. And when Henry II died, his heir Richard I the Lionheart fulfilled the promise. Thus the lands of Richard de Clare, and all of his success, passed into the hands of a different man altogether. Such was the way of things in the medieval world.
Having been one of the most powerful men of medieval England, the de Clare name would soon be extinguished. Surprisingly enough, his ancestors made it all the way to colonial America. None other than George Washington, the First President of the United States who can be seen in the image presiding at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, is descended from the de Clare family. ( Public domain )
From Medieval England to Colonial America
Richard de Clare was buried in the Christ Church Cathedral (Holy Trinity Church) in Dublin, where his effigy was raised. Alas, the latter was destroyed in 1526 by accident, when the roof collapsed on it. The death of Richard de Clare was not the end of the de Clare’s as a noble family. Some of their lands would once again return to the de Clare family, when the daughter of the abovementioned William Marshal and Isabel de Clare – also named Isabel – married her distant cousin, Gilbert de Clare, 4 th Earl of Hertford, and 5 th Earl of Gloucester. Even so, the de Clare noble name would eventually be extinguished in 1321.
One of the more unique facts connected to Richard de Clare is surely his nickname: Strongbow. There are numerous accounts as to how the nickname came to be, but one thing seems to be certain - he wasn’t called thus during his lifetime. Historically, Robert de Clare was most likely always known as Count of Striguil. The nickname Strongbow, possibly came about much later, after his death. Interestingly enough, this was the result of a typo.
One key evidence for this is a Latin translation of Richard’s name, recorded in the Domesday Exchequer annals. This translation was written well over a century after he died. In it, he is mentioned as “Ricardus cognomento Stranghose Comes Strugulliae (Richard known as Stranghose earl of Striguil)” . Curiously, Stranghose translates to “Foreign Leggings”, and is most certainly a mistake by the translator. Further contributing to this fact is the many traditional names of Striguil – Strangboge, Stranboue, or Stranbohe . Judging from this, we can understand that the medieval “typo” was easy to make. By the 14 th century, this turned into Strongbow, most likely as a by-product of continuous mispronunciation of his many names, all of which ultimately stem from the Welsh word ystregwyl.
Another interesting fact that relates not just to Richard de Clare, but to the entire de Clare family, is one of their famous descendants. Did you know that George Washington, the First President of the United States, is descended from the de Clare family – more precisely from Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, 3 rd Lord of Clare, who was the uncle of the Richard de Clare discussed in this article! As time passed, the family tree of the de Clare family ended in colonial America, and all the way to its first president.
Richard de Clare was without a doubt one of the most powerful men in medieval England . However, he did not come by that privilege with ease. His rise to power was thanks to a lot of struggling, fighting, and luck. Much like his father and grandfather before him, and many of his uncles, he too had to fight to expand the influence of his family. With a stroke of luck and a willingness to gamble and accept the risks life threw at him, Richard de Clare managed to snag a hefty prize: an entire Irish Kingdom. His gamble was capitalized by others and his daring “jump to the chance” was the opening of the Norman conquest of Ireland, one of the major events in Irish history.
Top image: The role of Richard de Clare, aka Strongbow, in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, cemented his short-lived place as one of the most powerful men in medieval England. Source: Lightfield Studios / Adobe Stock
Barnard, F. P. 1888. Strongbow’s Conquest of Ireland. Putnam.
Booth, T. 2007. “George Washington 1st US President's 23 Generation Line of Descent from (Sir) Richard DE CLARE Lord of Clare (1094 - 1136)”. Ancestry Register . Available at:
Glenn, J. 2014. The Washingtons: A Family History: Volume 3: Royal Descents of the Presidential Branch, Volume 3 . Savas Publishing.
White, J. 1789. Earl Strongbow: Or, The History of Richard de Clare and the Beautiful Geralda, Volume 1 . J. Dodsley.
This period of history is little known to me, the history textbooks in my country do not describe it so precisely, which is a pity.
So the first president of the U.S. who was descended from high nobility close to royalty rebuked the idea of making himself the king of the U.S. which came close to happening.