Dreams of the Past: A United Celtic Kingdom

Throughout the late 13th to early 14th century, the British Isles were the scene of bloody conflict. The Scottish wars of Independence, initiated with the rebellion of William Wallace and Andrew Moray – and completed by Robert Bruce – were arduous, brutal conflicts that tore at the very fabric of medieval Britain.

Scotland had long been prized by the English, who dominated both mainland Britain and Ireland. Although an independent Kingdom, Scotland was easily controlled as the smaller, weaker kingdom, often engulfed by petty rebellion, famine & poverty. King Edward I had maintained a firm grasp on the Scots through the puppet king John Balliol, who attempted to rebel but found himself in the Tower of London for his petulance.

King Edward I is the archetypal authoritarian ruler of the Medieval period. Unrelenting, intelligent and cruel to those who oppose him. He viewed the Scots, Irish and Welsh with an enormous contempt, believing them lesser. He crushed the rebellion of William Wallace, had him hung, drawn and quartered. A frightening taste of his vengeance were you to challenge his rule. His death however, marked a downward spiral in Britain that would see war and famine rule supreme. His son Edward II was not of the same cloth – Often portrayed as a gentile, perhaps weak man, incapable of the strength or cruelty his father possessed.

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With Scotland’s sovereignty firmly secured after Bannockburn in 1314, it would be safe to assume that Bruce would solidify his rule in Scotland and prepare for any future attacks from England. A Medieval defense strategy, utilising Scotland’s natural barriers; Its mountain ranges, glens, rivers and turbulent coastline. However that was not the case. In a very much unacknowledged period of British history, Scotland was on the front foot and could even claim to have been the dominant player in the game.

Edward Bruce, under the orders of his brother, King Robert, launched an offensive in Ireland to unite the two regions under the crowns of both Robert and Edward. The former would retain control of Scotland, and the latter would adopt the mantel of High King of Ireland. This bold strategy would have the potential to completely change the dynamic of Medieval politics in the British Isles, and forge a kingdom formidable enough to match England, and other nations in mainland Europe.

The reasoning behind this is quite clear; Open up a second front against the English, stretch their capabilities and capitalise on the weakness of King Edward II, who appeared to be completely blind to the military and political reality of the situation he found himself in post-Bannockburn.

Support for this action in Ireland was welcomed by some in the North. Historically the Bruce family had ties to the Ulster region through their mother Marjorie, the Countess of Carrick. With both Celtic and Norman heritage, the Bruce’s had ample opportunity to create a lasting, cross-cultural dynasty. However, as with the cultural self-determination of the Scots, the Irish had long been wary of foreign interference – regardless of shared heritage between the Scots and Irish

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In May 1315, after being declared the rightful heir to his brother’s kingship, Edward Bruce landed in Ireland with a force believed to be around 5,000 men. At this time, Ireland was divided into a series of smaller, petty kingdoms, many of whom initially opposed Edward. However in June of 1315, King Donall O’Neil of Tyrone swore fealty to Edward, along with a dozen other northern kings, proclaiming Edward as King of Ireland.

Irish accounts of the time state: “they consented to him being proclaimed King of Ireland and all the Gaels.”

With this act, Edward had secured a significant foothold in Ireland, ruling much of middle and eastern Ulster. This plunged the English nobility into a frenzy. English control of Ireland had been secure for a number of years, and was highly profitable to the kingdom. With such a disastrous defeat a mere 12 months before at Bannockburn, and now the establishing of a united kingdom in Northern Ireland, many in England were losing what little faith they had left in the monarchy.

After seizing Carrickfergus, Bruce marched south, taking Dundalk. In a quintessential Medieval fashion, Bruce laid waste to the town, raising virtually all of the buildings and massacring indiscriminately both the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish people’s there. Although an act of shocking barbarism, it is clear the Bruce did so to intimidate the opposing Irish dominions that he would later encounter. Instilling fear into the enemy of the present – and those he would meet further on, would prove to be an effective move on his part.

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In July, Bruce would face his greatest test thus far of his budding kingship. At Sliabh Breagh, near Ardee, he was faced with two opposing forces. Led by Richard Og de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster and his ally, Felim mac Aedh Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht, Bruce faced a formidable challenge to his advance. The second opposing force, led by Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick, looked to surround Bruce and hamper his supplies and potential retreat.

Rather than face off against a numerically superior force, Bruce decided to withdraw, sacking the town of Coleraine during his retreat, and isolated De Burgh’s forces after burning the bridge passing over the river Bann. In a second act of genius, he parlayed with rivals to Felim, King of Connacht, who then invaded his kingdom, forcing him to withdraw and suppress the rebellion at home.

After crossing the river Bann, fresh with supplies and troops, Bruce defeated De Burgh near Connor in September.

English dominion in Ireland was on the ropes. Could the Bruce’s be defeated? Was this the beginning of the end or the Plantagenet dynasty and the heralding of a new dominant name in the form of the Bruce’s?

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Prophetical tales of Robert Bruce being King Arthur reborn began to circulate around the English kingdom, and Edward II went so far as to execute those who were proliferating these prophecies.

The idea of this is particularly interesting. Dating back centuries, the tale of King Arthur points toward a resurgence of the subjugated Celtic people’s in the British Isles. The deposition of the largely Saxon & Norman based culture now prevalent on the island, and the ascension of Celtic culture would completely alter history as we know it.

From an English perspective, this was absolutely unacceptable. Were Ireland to fall entirely into the hands of The Bruce’s, then by rights, Wales would likely follow suit on accounts of their Brythonic heritage. Additionally, England had claim to Irish holdings through Papal Decree. If the Papacy decided to abandon this in favour of Edward, the outcome was bleak.

This exact scenario almost came to fruition in 1317. After two years of tentative but successful campaigning in Ireland, supporters of Edward Bruce requested that Pope John XXII delegitimise the English claim to Ireland in support of Edward. Fortunately for King Edward II, this request was ignored.

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This proved to be the perfect opportunity through which Edward II could re-establish his rule. He called upon the Anglo-Irish Council – an institutional method of regional control – to begin preparations for a joint effort against the Scots-Irish alliance. Reinforcements were dispatched to Ireland in light of recent losses, which saw a joint force against Edward Bruce beaten back and the sacking of Kells.

After wintering in Loughswedy, Edward Bruce began preparations to move further toward his ultimate goal. However support was beginning to dwindle. The denial of Pope John XXII dented his pride and legitimacy. Furthermore, Edward’s supply methods were beginning to tire among the Irish population. A continual supply chain from Scotland was not viable at the time, and so they resorted to pillage and plundering the regions through which they traveled. With their logistics strained, Edward failed to completely control the regions he had conquered thus far, and his lack of popularity grew further.

History is often cruel, and we see that events are shaped by the circumstances under which they arise. This occasion is no different. From 1315-17 Europe suffered through what became known as the Great Pan-European Famine, and Ireland shared in this turmoil. With a lack of food, no army can survive, disease will spread and the numbers will dwindle over time. Edward, it seems, fell victim to the tumultuous nature of a primitive era, and he was finally defeated and killed at the Battle of Faughart in 1318.

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Not much is known of the Battle of Faughart, other than that Bruce was the architect of his own defeat. After making a series of safe plays previously, he may have been over-confident in his ability to outwit the Anglo-Irish forces he faced. His Irish allies are said to have refused to engage with the enemy outside Dundalk, and as such he placed them at the rear, in a strategically ineffective stance, choosing his Scottish troops to lead the vanguard.

In addition to this, he decided not to wait for reinforcements from home. Scottish chronicler John Barbour, as well as the Annals of Clonmacnoise both correlate their claims when stating

[He was] “anxious to obtain the victory for himself, he did not wait for Sir John Stewart’s brother.”

Contrary to these accounts, English chronicles of the time point toward Edward’s confidence in battle, and, a level of naivety and incompetence.

“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 and was beheaded after death; his body being divided into four quarters, which were sent to the four chief quarters of Ireland.”

With a final hammer blow, this sounded the end of Robert Bruce’s master plan for a united Celtic kingdom. Scotland’s security was assured to a degree, however the risk of their powerful English neighbours seeking revenge was ever present. Scotland did have successes on mainland Britain in the years following however. In 1322, the Battle of Byland in Yorkshire lays claim to Scotland’s most significant victory over England since Bannockburn, albeit on a smaller scale. In the centuries to come, peace was never assured, and both Scotland and England regularly made plays throughout the border regions of both respective kingdoms.

One must ponder the impact upon British and European history this would have had, were it successful. The combined area, population, wealth and might of Scotland and Ireland may have proven a buffer against English aggression during the period. Had victory been achieved, the Welsh may have also taken up arms against English dominion and joined this kingdom. With defeat, often comes blame, and it would likely be placed solely at the feet of King Edward II. His deposition would have been inevitable, and civil war likely.

A weakened England would be unable to compete with the French on mainland Europe, and the British Isles may have seen a dominant military, political and cultural force in the form of the Scots-Irish Kingdom, rather than Anglo-Norman, thus massively changing history as we know it.

 

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