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Battle of Faughart (14 October 1318)

The Battle of Faughart was fought on 14 October 1318 between a Hiberno Norman force led by John de Bermingham and Edmund Butler, and a Scots-Irish army commanded by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland. It was a battle of the First War of Scottish Independence and more precisely the Irish Bruce Wars. The defeat and death of Bruce at the battle ended the attempt to revive the High Kingship of Ireland. It also ended, for the time being, King Robert's attempt to open up a second front against the English in the WAR OF Scottish independence.

A united Gaelic realm

Although King Robert's victory over Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn had effectively secured the independence of Scotland, it did not bring the war with England any closer to an end. Even repeated Scots raids into the northern counties of England had little effect on a king seemingly blind to political and military realities. Something more decisive was needed to end the stalemate. It came in 1315 with an invitation from Ireland, too tempting to resist.

Since the time of Henry II, the kings of England had also claimed to be the lords of Ireland. English settlers had taken root in Ireland, chiefly along the eastern seaboard, north and south of Dublin. But the native Gaelic chieftains still enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, especially in the north and west, and English control was often of a fluctuating nature. With the opening of the war with Scotland Edward II had made heavy demands on the Irish, both for men and materials, pushing the country close to the point of financial ruin. King Robert, who long maintained political and personal contacts with the men of Ulster, decided that Irish discontent could be usefully employed against his enemy. He sent envoys to the native Irish kings and clergy with letters invoking the common ancestry of the two nations, and offering to help them recover their liberty. A response was received from Domnal O'Neil, king of Tyrone, asking for aid against the English and offering in return the crown of the ancient High Kings of Ireland, to his brother, Edward Bruce. The Bruce brothers are believed to have been related by blood to the O'Neill clan through their maternal line.

It might be thought that this was a perilously narrow base for a new military adventure: for as always in Gaelic politics, the enemies of the O'Neills would be bound to be friends of the English; but it was good enough for the aims Robert had in mind. Edward landed with an expeditionary force at Larne near Carrickfergus Castle, ready to conjure up the spirit of 'Gaelic Internationalism'.

High King

Bruce was joined by a number of local chieftains and gained some early successes against the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. He won his first engagement at the Moyry Pass in South Armagh, Jonesborough and sacked Dundalk on 29 June. Bruce was able to exploit disputes between his two leading opponents-Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster and Edmund Butler, Justiciar of Ireland-and defeat them piecemeal. De Burgh, King Robert's own father-in-law, was routed at the Battle of Connor in County Antrim on 10 September, and Butler at the Battle of Skerries in Kildare on 1 February 1316. Edward was then secure enough to proceed to Dundalk, where he was crowned as High King on the hill of Maledon on 2 May 1316.

By the spring of 1316, it looked as if the Irish venture was set to be a strategic success. It came, however, at the worst possible time. In Ireland, as elsewhere across much of Europe, the weather was so bad that the whole period was subsequently likened to a mini ice-age. Historians refer to the "Great Famine of 1315–1317". Crops failed and people began to starve. Dependent of 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 materialise 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. A Connaught 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, 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.


Unfortunately, the sources provide little in the way of detail and background for the Battle of Faughart. According to John Barbour, the Scottish chronicler, Edward Bruce was the architect of his own defeat, deciding to engage a larger enemy force (20,000 strong in his account) without waiting for reinforcements from Scotland, a view which finds some support in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it is recorded that "anxious to obtain the victory for himself, he did not wait for his [Sir John Stewart's] brother." He took up position on the rising ground at Faughart, not far from Dundalk, on 14 October. 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.

In contrast to Barbour, the Lanercost Chronicle, the chief English source, says that Bruce approached Dundalk "with a great army of Scots which had already arrived in Ireland." It would seem that the three English commanders — John de Bermingham, Edmund Butler and Roland Joyce, Archbishop of Armagh — were themselves attacked, though in a somewhat impetuous and haphazard fashion. Lanercost gives by far the clearest description of the action that followed:

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

We have no precise figures for the number slain, though they also included Alexander MacDonald, described in the annals as 'King of Argyll', and Alexander MacRuari, 'King of the Isles.' This would suggest that most, if not all, of the Scottish force was drawn from the Gaels of the Western Isles and from Bruce's own earldom of Carrick in Ayrshire. Defeat was followed by the almost complete collapse of the Scottish position in Ulster: Carrickfergus castle was recaptured on 2 December. John de Bermingham received most of the credit for the victory, and was created earl of Louth by a grateful king. It was not to be the end of Scottish involvement in Ireland; but there were to be no more High Kings.

While in some ways a failure, the Scottish adventure in Scotland did serve the purpose of Scotland's King Robert the Bruce, as never again were the English able to use a base in Ireland to mount an attack on the western seaboard of Scotland.