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|In May 1169 a small Anglo-Norman force of knights, foot soldiers and
archers landed in southeast Ireland after a sea crossing from South Wales. In August 1170 a second and much larger
Anglo-Norman army followed, under the leadership of the Earl of Pembroke, Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare. Better
remembered in Ireland as Strongbow, Gilbert de Clare was one of the most powerful barons of King Henry II. Both
invasions were invited by the king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, in pursuit of a quarrel with the high king
of Ireland - a quarrel which had seen MacMurrough exiled to England in 1166. In return for Strongbow's support,
MacMurrough promised marriage to his daughter Aoife and succession to the kingdom of Leinster.
The Anglo-Norman military machine quickly restored MacMurrough to his throne, but it was a short-lived success for he died in May 1171. Strongbow's triumph lasted not much longer. He died in 1176 after having been obliged to surrender the kingdom of Leinster to Henry II in return for its lordship as Henry's vassal. Leinster and Kilkenny were governed by royal appointees during the succeeding minority of his heiress daughter Isabelle who was only five years old in 1176.
In 1189 Isabelle married William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and subsequently lords of Leinster and Kilkenny. Marshall embarked on a short campaign in his new Irish territories and quickly imposed his lordship. By 1202 the medieval county of Kilkenny, corresponding to modern Kilkenny and southwest Laois (Fig. 1C), had been created out of the Irish kingdom of Ossory.13 For the next 120 years Kilkenny remained comparatively stable under the de Clares.
The story of Kells Priory has its proper beginning in the appointment in 1191 of William Marshall as Justiciar of Ireland by King Richard I. In the following year he removed the MacGillapatrick king of Ossory and his Irish vassals from the rich and militarily sensitive lands of south and central Kilkenny. In their place he put his household knights. Each received a modest but not insignificant land grant as reward for their past service, but carrying with it a feudal obligation to settle and defend the land as his vassals. An influx of English and some Welsh and Flemish settlers soon established flourishing towns throughout the central and richest part of Kilkenny. These included Callan, Kells, Kilkenny city, Knocktopher and Thomastown (Fig. 1C).
|An Anglo-Norman Settlement at Kells
Lordship of the cantred of Kells (one of twelve unequal subdivisions of medieval Kilkenny) was granted by William Marshall to one of his knights, Geoffrey fitz Robert, in 1192 or 1193. With a scattering of manors elsewhere in Kilkenny and the cantred of Grean in Limerick, Geoffrey received about 40,000 acres. The name Kells is anglicised from the Irish Ceanannas meaning 'head-abode', probably after a former residence of the Irish kings of Ossory. In the middle ages Ceanannas was first corrupted to Kenlis or Kenelis.
Geoffrey was a part of the Anglo-Norman establishment. He was brother-in-law to Strongbow through his first wife Basilia and he also had powerful connections through his second marriage to Eva de Bermingham. He served as Seneschal of Leinster for several years (Marshall's deputy in Ireland). During Marshall's bitter quarrel with King John in 1207-8 he was important enough to be taken as a hostage for his lord. Despite resolution of the quarrel Geoffrey was never released and he died around 1211 in Hereford Castle.
The cantred of Kells was Geoffrey's largest possession. It included the parishes of Kells, Kilree (with Shortalstown and Degenmore), Dunnamaggan and probably Kilmaganny. Geoffrey immediately established a new borough (a chartered town) at Kells. On an island in King's River alongside the town he erected a large motte-and-bailey castle. The privileges granted by Geoffrey to the burgesses (the citizens) of Kells were subsequently confirmed and extended in charters given first by his son, William fitz Geoffrey, and then by William's brother and successor, John fitz Geoffrey.
The medieval borough of Kells occupied much the same ground south of King's River as the village does today, falling under the protection of the town's castle (Fig. 1A). Rents amounting to over eleven pounds in 1346 suggest a modest town with a population of several hundred people at that time. Though the town was never walled in stone, it would have been protected along the two sides away from the river by a ditch and a bank (Fig. 1A). The bank was probably surmounted by a palisade, a wall constructed from timber posts.