Story of Saint Patrick Cathedral, Part 3: Anglo-Normans, and the story of the 2 cathedrals.

The story of The Two cathedrals,


Background.  There are two bits of background we have to know to understand the twist. First of all, in 1163,  the Irish archbishop of Dublin Laurence O’Toole made Christ Church cathedral a Priory Order.  This essentially meant Christ Church became a sort of Abbey or Monastery, ruled by Augustan cannons, and the cathedral was its church.  This may not sound very revolutionary or even very political. But the significance will shortly become clear.

Secondly, and far more dramatically, Ireland was invaded.    And here begins the start  of the blog world longest ever digression.  Please skip down to …. “The story of The Two cathedrals, part 2.” if you just want the cathedral part of the story and not all the political, Gaelic, Norman, Continental, church and political background!

Norman Conquest.

In 1169 a small advanced party of Norman warriors landed in the Southeast of the country.    There they rendezvoused with some troops loyal to a local deposed king; the infamous Dermot MacMurrough.

Background to the invasion>  As every Irish school child knows Dermot MacMurrough, (Diarmid or Diramit Mac Muchadha in Irish) was king of Leinster.  A few years before the Normans however, Dermot made enemies of another ruler, Tiernan O’Rourke, king of Brefni, by the age-old method of stealing Tiernan’s wife.  Dermot then went one better, alienating the Ard Ri (the high-king) Rory O’Connor.

Rory and Tiernan had enough.  They combined to oust Dermot from Leinster.  Dermot lost his lands but was lucky to narrowly escape with his life.  But he was a tough, crafty and determined type, and not content to skulk about in exile.

Desperate to regain his possessions,  Dermot now went off to seek the help of the great Norman king Henry II.  Henry was a remarkable man, father of two English kings, husband of the equally extraordinary and strong willed Elenor of Aquitaine, and the one of the most powerful men in Europe.


Above, traditional images of the remarkable Henry II, and his equally remarkable wife, Elenor of Aquitaine. 

As Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, as well as the king of England Henry was immensely rich and powerful.    In fact, his lands in France alone were, bizarrely, even bigger than the king of France itself.   So, well I won’t bang on about it.  You get the general idea,  Henry really was a very powerful man.

A map of  showing the extent of Henry’s lands and realm in Europe, including his kingdom in England, his de facto control of Wales and his vast estates in France, where he was once a count and a Duke two times over.   From an Irish perspective this map is curious, as it shows his writ as extending right to the Shannon.  Depending on your interpretation, this is either too modest or far too optimistic.  To see what i mean read on.  

Beside this vast Angevin empire, Henry’s Norman warriors, with their chain mail and cavalry horses were the best of the time, famed for martial prowess.

Now all this of course, is exactly the kind of help a bitter & determined Irish king-in-exile tends to seek out, in times of need.      Accordingly Dermot traipsed far and wide across England, looking for Henry.   But at first to no avail.    Because culturally speaking, Henry was far more French than English, and seemed to prefer the former country.  So after a fruitless trek across Britain, Dermot eventually found Henry, king of England not in England but at his fabled court in Aquitaine, Southwest France.  (Henry’s famed son Richard the Lion-Heart incidentally was later much the same, living in France rather than England,  when not on crusade)

At Henry’s court, Dermot told his sorry tale of woe and dispossession and made his petition for aid.   And of course, he offered Henry his own feudal-style submission in return.

You can be sure the wily king Henry listened to all this with great interest.  Because, by extraordinary coincidence, it’s generally believed that Henry was already in possession of a letter from the Pope, giving him permission to conquer Ireland, andmhad been possibly as far back as 1155.

This reputed document  was known as “Laudibiliter”– if it really existed (it is has not survived but many historians believe in it)  Yet up to that poing, when Dermot arrived Henry had never acted on it.   Perhaps he preferred to keep it as a “card in reserve”.  Even now,  as this golden opportunity presented itself, Henry still did not in give Dermot any money or soldiers.   But he did give Dermot something else.  This was a kind of letter, giving Dermot written authorisation to recruit from among Henry’s Norman subjects.

Dermot may initially have been disappointed.  History does not record.   But clutching this letter he now went back to England.   He tried first to recruit a group of Norman knights in the city of Bristol but had no luck.   Then he went to Wales.

There at last,  on the Marches of Wales,  Dermot found a desperate, hard-up earl willing to gamble all.  He was called Richard de Clare, the 2nd earl of Pembroke.   But he is better known to generations of Irish childrens studying history  history  as Strongbow.


Again Dermot told his tale and now proposed a bargain. If Strongbow helped recover Dermot’s throne, then Dermot could promised him vast tracts of land; his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Fatefully, Dermot even promised to make Strongbow his own heir, as ruler of Leinster.

This was a tempting offer.   It is not given to many men to have a tilt a becoming a king.  Still less a minor petty baron.   Yet that effectively is what Dermot now offered Strongbow.  The Welsh-Norman Lord was not particularly well-off.  Nor was he in favour with his own king.  Strongbow had backed Henry’s rival in the civil war for England (Stephen)  Although he had managed (just)  to keep his small estates in Wales, Henry had not really forgiven him and Strongbow knew it.  He also knew therefore he could expect little in the way of favour, patronage or advancement from his powerful overlord.    With little or no other prospect for glory or advancement,  Strongbow soon made up his mind.   He said Yes to this adventure in Ireland.

So, the arrivals in the southeast in 1169 were of course the small vanguard of Strongbow’s Norman invasion force.  Although initially successful, they were badly outnumbered.  They were in fact lucky to survive the winter.  (They even hid in a forest for several months.)     But in April the following year,  they were reinforced, when Strongbow arrived with more knights, archers and men-at-arms.   This combined larger force first attacked and defeated Wexford.  Then they captured the much larger seaport of Waterford.

In this defeated city of Waterford Strongbow wed Dermot’s daughter Aoife.  In line with their agreement this marriage put Strongbow in succession to inherit Dermot’s kingdom, an event  immortalized in the enormous, and highly romanticized 19th century painting by Daniel MacLeish.

The artist depicts the smoldering ruins of Waterford,   In fact Waterford was a Hiberno-Norse town, there were no Gaelic warriors there.  But the wedding-in-a-defeated-city setpiece was just too good, too ladden with potent nationalist imagery, for MacLeish to resist. 

In the centre, Strongbow stands impassively in front a row of massed Norman knights. Dermot looks on as a bishop performs the ceremony.  His daughter, the bride Aoife bows demurely, thinking who knows what private thoughts? 


Defeated Gaelic warriors lie supine in defeat or death; an Irish woman laments; while a Celtic harper grimly stares into space. 


With Waterford defeated, and Strongbow now in succession, the Normans now marched on the big prize, also previously part of Dermot’s possessions- Dublin.

The Normans attack Dublin !

Guided by Dermot, and cleverly taking the hill passes through the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains, they evaded a much larger army marshaled by Dermot’s enemies Rory and Tiernan. By this route, to the surprise and dismay of the Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin, the mounted, mail-clad aliens arrived at the city walls, in September 1170.

Dublin’s archbishop of the time was Laurence O’Toole. Laurence was also brother-in-law to Dermot MacMurrough.   He came to the gates and attempted to facilitate a peaceful settlement between Norse and Norman- (neither people often noted for their gentle, placid nature).   But as negotiations dragged on some Norman knights lost patience. They broke into the city and started to attack.

Some Norse ran for the boats to escape by sea, planning to return and re-capture the city.  Others stayed and fought.  With the die now cast, the other Normans joined the attack.  The remaining defenders were forced into their stockade stronghold.  It became their last redoubt.    Overwhelmed now, the Dublin Vikings were as the Welsh Norman chronicler Gerald of Wales, or Geraldus Cambrensis coldly put it, the Norsemen were: “slaughtered in their citadel”.  (it is this mention of citadel, incidentally,  that makes me and others wonder about a fortress on the approximate site of Dublin castle, but anyway..)

Image of early medieval warfare by artist Cecil Duoghty.

The Normans had taken Dublin.  But perhaps more surprisingly, and against all the odds, and despite two counter-attacks in the next six months, one by much large Viking fleet then by a really huge Gaelic army under Rory o’Connor, the Normans would also hold the city.

During all that period one might have expected King Henry to send some help to the tiny Norman band.   He did no such thing.  Instead he calmly waited to see if Strongbow and his little band would survive the year.  It was frankly,  a matter of complete and utter indifference to him either way.   But when they did survive however, the political picture now changed.   The king was certainly not going to allow a group of his minor barons to carve out an independent kingdom right on his doorstep.  He decided therefore he now better come over to Dublin, to show everyone who was in charge. He arrived the following winter, of 1170-71.

Stage II of the Norman Conquest.

Strongbow was Henry’s vassal, so the earl quickly rushed off to meet Henry to make his submission and loyalty clear.  It was especially important for Strongbow to do this, because as we’ve seen, Henry did not like him and Strongbow knew it.

And there was another reason.  Even if Strongbow had contemplated defying Henry, one of the most powerful men in Europe, this was not the time to do it.  The king was carrying an very big stick, arriving at the head of the largest army ever seen in Ireland.

Most Gaelic kings and chiefs quickly reached the same conclusion as Strongbow.   Henry’s army was huge, and moreover wielded vastly superior arms, equipment and armour.   It was the medieval equivalent of having a nuclear bomb pointed at you.  The Gaelic chiefs and kings took looked at Henry’s vast military might,  the medieval equivalent of an atomic bomb pointing straight at you- and decided to submit.

But Henry was clever.  He had come prepared for this eventuality also   He had a second, additional army,  this one composed one of scribes, lawyers, clerks and clerics.  They carried tons of vellum paper and sealing wax;  precisely for documents like treaties, and sworn oaths of loyalty.

One by one the Gaelic Lords submitted.  Even the high king Rory O’Connor came around to this way of thinking.  In 1175 he went over to England to make peace with Henry, in the Treaty of Windsor.  In feudal terms, that treaty meant Rory recognized Henry as overlord, and owed him “fealty”  (allegiance) and tribute (of cow hides).   In return Rory kept all his lands outside the Dublin -Meath “Pale”.  Additionally the Irish outside the Pale were to be allowed maintain their customs and freedoms intact.

In the end, neither Henry nor Rory would keep their side of the deal.  Rory did not pay the stipulated tribute, and Henry -distracted by war in France- would not or could not stop Norman barons carving out additional small territories in ireland, (notably in Munster at that early stage).

Nonetheless, something very important had happened.  As far as all future kings of England were concerned, Ireland was now a crown possession.   In mainland Europe, to the feudal mind, sworn oaths of loyalty were sacred.  Local Gaelic kings lived in a distinct culture and they did not suffer from this European medieval mindset.  They took a far more liberal view of the new arrangement.   To them the agreement was convenient, but largely symbolic.  In any case, outside the Dublin area it made little practical difference.  Soon the Gaels acted as they always had.

As always Dublin was different to the rest of Ireland, as it had been under the Norse, and as it would remain for hundreds of years.

Nonetheless medieval kings of England legally at least, now had, some new territory.  They called their new possession the ‘Lordship of Ireland”.  Henry made his second son, John the Lord of Ireland, when John was only 12 years old.   John came over to ireland to view his new fiefdom.    This was the same Prince John. later of Robin Hood fame.  In contrast to his legendary older sibling Richard, the crusader and “Lion-Heart” history has not been kind to John.

Early Anglo-Norman Dublin.

John was of course much too young for his Irish mission, aged 12.  In political or diplomatic terms his trip was a fiasco.  He was most interested in hunting dogs and in teasing Gaelic chieftains,  pulling at their long beards.  However John did make some contributions.  He brought over with him some settler lords whose descendants would be central to the later medieval and early modern history of Ireland, notably the Butler and Fitzgerald families.

The young prince also made some important commands.   In particular he ordered the building of several major castles, including at Limerick, and of course, of Dublin castle.  Dublin Castle would be the centre of British power in Ireland for the next eight hundred years, right up to the 1921 foundation of the Free State.  The Normans, who were superb engineers and architects,  also began to replace the Viking wooden buildings and wooden stockade defenses with stone buildings, stone churches and high stone ramparts. Dublin became a walled city.

above:  a powerful image of medieval Dublin by Stephen Conlin, showing the walled city and the relative positions of the Castle and Christ Church Cathedral.  St Patrick’s lay outside the walls. “Image from the book ‘Dublin – The Story of a City’ by Peter Harbison and Stephen Conlin.  This book, a personal favourite of mine, shows Dublin in successive, richly illustrated pages as the city evolved through the centuries, and is a fantastic way for adults and young people alike to visualize the history and ever changing buildings, size and topography of Ireland’s capital.  A link direct to the book is available via this link.

Prince John a medieval depiction here later in life as King John of England.  Visited Ireland, and Dublin twice, unusually for an english crown prince or monarch of that time (although he was not heir to the throne on his first visit, he was Viceroy and Lord of Ireland

Following the Anglo-Norman conquest, for over three hundred years, English control in Ireland was ruled from Dublin castle.  Yet that rule was in reality restricted to that small area around Dublin, Kildare and Meath called the Pale.  Dublin was now an island, a small, isolated and colony, constantly under threat.   This threat was graphically illustrated when a several hundred townsmen went out to play a game (of what appears to hurling )in 1200.  That day they were ambushed and slaughtered by Gaelic soldiers, under the command of the Wicklow O’Toole family

There were other tiny pockets of Anglo-Norman landholding in Ireland, mostly in Munster, ruled by Anglo-Norman barons who claimed allegiance to the crown.  But these families gradually assimilated to Irish ways.  They were in any case isolated and thus almost entirely independent.   In the remainder of the Ireland, the vast majority of the country, traditional Gaelic rule, law, customs and language continued unchanged.  Nevertheless, the point remains, the kings of England were not going to forget whose country they believed this was.  So, by treaty and oaths of loyalty, the Angevin/Plantagent monarchs of England were at least Irelands rulers de jure, of the entire island, while in reality, on the ground outside the Pale and the small Norman pockets of landholding elsewhere, Gaelic kings remained  as de facto rulers of the land.  This incidentally is what I meant about that earlier map of Henry’s realms being either too modest, or far too optimistic.

But, before this little digression we were speaking of churches and cathedrals.  So now we must go back a few short years.   As you will remember,  just a few years before the Norman Conquest,  the archbishop of Dublin Laurence O’Toole changed Christ Church Cathedral to a Priory order.  You will also recall the Cathedral was then made of wood.

After the conquest, the victorious Strongbow ordered Christ Church to be rebuilt in stone, in an act of thanksgiving, for his miraculous triumph over the Vikings.

Laurence O’Toole stayed in place as Archbishop all this time, riding the waves of this momentous change  (and- no doubt- very pleased about his nice new stone cathedral)    Laurence eventually retired.  Only at that stage did the first Anglo-Norman arrive, to take up the vacant seat of Archbishop.   The senior cleric chosen by King Henry II to perform this powerful but sensitive job was a personal friend of his, the clergyman, judge and diplomat John Comyn.

(Here ends the political background, and world longest-ever digression !)  Back to…

The story of The Two cathedrals, part 2. … 

You will recall that the last Gaelic bishop of Dublin, Lawrence O’Toole,  had made Christ Church a Priory oreder in 1163, only eight years before the Normans arrived!    It badly cramped the new Anglo-Norman archbishops style.   He could not even live there !    Now, even “ordinary” bishops are generally based in Cathedrals of course.  So an Archbishop certainly expects a cathedral.  However, John Comyn now found that the situation at Christ Church did not suit him.  Not one bit.   Oh no.

Firstly, the City Provosts, the municipal government, had a say in Christ Church.  Archbishop Comyn could hardly tell them to butt out. Neither he nor Henry wanted to antagonize the townspeople of Dublin,  a city they hoped to build into a successful, mercantile centre, of busy guilds and loyal, prosperous citizens.

But even worse was the situation with the Priory cannons, put in place by Comyn’s predecessor Laurence.  Comyn could not remove these cannons any more than he could kick out the Provosts.  Because at this time Comyn’s boss Henry was particularly keen to avoid angering the church, after he had first squabbled with then alienated his old and former friend,  and the Archbishop of Canterbury,  Thomas á Beckett.  They had clashed violently over state or crown rights and prerogatives,  versus the rights and prerogatives of the church.  It had not ended well.

Henry disputing with Thomas á Beckett.  This dispute did not end well. 

The two men were forceful and powerful characters, and neither was prepaered to yeild.   The whole row went very badly wrong when Henry cursed Beckett in the company of some of his knights and they took his words as a demnd to to slay the clergy man.

Not only was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas á Beckett murdered and hacked to pieces, . but significantly this crime was done when the sanctity of a cathedral, Canterbury cathedral, was violated.  Much of Europe blamed King Henry for this shocking, outrageous crime.    The Pope in Rome was keeping a very close eye on him.    Henry came, was, very close to being excommunicated, a disaster for any medieval monarch.     The king was now on his very best behavior.   He was furiously building and endowing monasteries everywhere in atonement.  These included one great monastery in the west of central Dublin, now sadly disappeared. This was Saint Thomas’ – which of course gives us the name Thomas Street.

In short, think about this now from a Dublin perspective.  Clearly the king could not sanction booting out the cannons of Christ Church cathedral.  In fact Henry endowed the Priory there, the Priory of the Holy Trinity,  with more power and more land, making the Priors, like the monks of Saint Mary’s and in his own Saint Thomas’- wealthy and powerful landowners.

John Comyn’s Dilema.  

So the cannons and friars of Christ Church were not going anywhere.  Comyn quickly realized he could not base himself in the cathedral if he wanted to act with real independence.  Yet, and yet, he needed a free hand to implement his reforms.    You can see that there are wheels within wheels here, political and religious factors locally and internationally all played a part.  Internationally,  with Rome now in a dominent position,  reform of the once great, highly distinctive and highly independent Celtic, Irish church was considered crucial by lots of important people- by the crown and by the church in England,  and indeed the church and Pope in Rome.

In fact, it is more than that.  Many historians contend that Henry’s permission for the conquest of Ireland, (in that document called Laudabilter from Pope Adrian IV) was made specifically in order to enact reform.   In other words, reform was the cog of Henry’s quid pro quo with Rome.  Quite possibly, it was now also the only thing between him and excommunication.  Reform in short, was considered both urgent and vital.

Pope Adrian (or Hadrian) IV, the Pope back in 1155,  when Henry was given his blessing to invade Ireland, but over 15 years before Dermot’s petition andStrongbow’s ambition, presented Henry with the opportunity for easy and (for him) bloodless conquest, and a whole new Kingdom to add to his collection.   

Now however, all these competing and contradictory factors made a uniquely delicate situation for John Comyn.   A series of contradictory demands made a very serious dilemma for him.  He could not rule the cathedral-Priory,  yet he needed real control.  How could he make the necessary reforms?  Where could he base himself and compete as a political player, and opperate from a position of real strength?

John Comyn’s Solution.  

But the archbishop was a clever man.  With a diplomat’s eye for the lateral move, he found the answer.   In 1191 Comyn simply established a new seat.

His location was significant.  Aware of the rich resonance of the past, Comyn chose the site of Saint Patrick’s ancient little island church, by the River Poddle.                                                                          But the archbishop wasn’t going to perform mass in a tiny old ruin.    Oh no.   In keeping with his lofty status and authority, he built an impressive new church.  It was designed in the style of architecture invented by the Normans, the Romanesque.  For good measure , Comyn also constructed himself a splendid new Archbishop’s palace.  He named it Saint Sepulchre.

Sepulchre is one of the most sacred names in Christendom.  Because the original Sepulchre church, in Jerusalem, is on the very site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ himself.    Incidentally it is also the name of an Abbey in Cambrai, in Normandy. So again, Comyn’s choice of names was both powerfully symbolic and at the same time, very Norman.  We see other Norman names in Dublin foundations like Saint Audoen’s.  (Corrupted from the church’s original name Saint Ouen– the patron Saint of Normandy)

John Comyn’s Mighty Colligate Church.  

Finally, to really remind everyone who the archbishop was, Comyn raised his splendid new institution to the status of a Colligate Church.  This meant Saint Patrick’s had one body of clergy for worship and another dedicated to education and scholarship.  As this college developed it became one of the first universities in Ireland. *

(Saint Patrick’s has a unique relationship with education ever since. Archbishop Talbot founded a choral school there in 1431 that has operated almost continuously ever since, making it the oldest school extant in Ireland.   much later, in the 17th century, St Patrick’s would gain the wonderful Marsh’s Library- built by Archbishop Narcissis Marsh.  Once again, this is the earliest public library, not merely in Ireland but in Europe.)

The gated entrance to Marsh’s Library on Saint Patrick’s Close. 

Comyn’s Colligate Church becomes a…  

At a distance of over 800 years,  is not entirely 100% clear when Dublin’s new Anglo-Norman archbishops went the extra inch and made St Patrick’s into a full cathedral, but if it wasn’t Comyn himself, it was certainly his successor Henri de Londres,    (or simple “Henry of London”  if you’re not a French-speaking Norman.)      Like Comyn, Archbishop Henri was clearly vexed about the Christ Church issue.    At first he, Henri,  worked out his frustration with a lot of construction.          He even re-built Comyn’s church again, even bigger!   But certainly by 1213 if not before,  Henri lost or had lost patience.   Something radical, indeed unthinkable happened,  something Dubliners now take almost for granted.   Henri elevated St Patrick’s church to a full Cathedral.

Dublin now had a bizarre distinction.  It became the first and only city in Christendom with two cathedrals.   Yes,  Not Rome, not Jerusalem nor Constantinople.  Nope,  Dublin!    To give you an idea of just how odd this is,   even now, eight hundred years later, a second cathedral of the same faith remains unique.

As you’d expect this unprecedented situation caused much confusion.   There were long disputes between Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s, mostly over who had which precedents, rights and privileges.  Who would enthrone each new archbishop?   Where would he rest after death?  Who would make religious rulings over the capital?

Some of these disputes, if not the rivalry, were resolved in 1300 by a Papal decree called the Pacis Composito.   But you can be sure there is an element of rivalry to this very day, even if everyone is too polite to talk about it !

and that’s the end of the story of the 2 Cathedrals. ..

The End.

Thank you for reading and very well done if you got this far ! )

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9 thoughts on “Story of Saint Patrick Cathedral, Part 3: Anglo-Normans, and the story of the 2 cathedrals.

    1. Many thanks, for all your support. Absolutely delighted you enjoyed this one too. It was adapted from a chapter in an (as yet unpublished) book I wrote between 2008-12, and as you can imagine, the reading, research, synthesizing and writing all took months.

      Then that (book) material was adapted, and put up here as a sort of mega-post!

      Believe it or not, that first post was 3 times the length of this one!

      It stood like that for over year, but then finally, only yesterday, I realized it was just too gigantic and indigestible, so i broke it up into 3 separate sections. As I say, I’m absolutely delighted you enjoyed it. Thanks very much again for your support and for commenting.


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