Control of the wealthy coastal kingdom was bitterly contested during Ascall's floruit, with members of his immediate family, as well as Islesmen and Irishmen, all securing power for brief periods of time. Throughout much of this period, however, the overlord of Dublin was Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster. In 1166, after the death of his close ally Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, High King of Ireland, Mac Murchada was beset by his enemies. At this critical point of his reign, Mac Murchada lost the support of the Dubliners, which contributed to his expulsion from Ireland that year. Not long afterwards, however, he made his return with significant military assistance from mercenary English adventurers. In the latter half of 1170, Dublin itself fell to the combined forces of Mac Murchada and the powerful English magnate Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke.
With the collapse of the Norse-Gaelic kingdom, Ascall and the Dublin elite were forced to flee into what one source calls the "northern islands", a reference to either the Kingdom of the Isles or the Earldom of Orkney. About a year later, not long after Mac Murchada's death, Ascall attempted to regain his patrimony from the English. Unfortunately for himself, his invasion of Dublin ended in utter failure, and he was executed by the English governor of the town. Immediately following his fall, Dublin was besieged by a combined force of Irishmen and Islesmen. The town, however, remained firmly in the hands of the English; and before the end of the year, Dublin passed into the direct control of Henry II, King of England, who converted it into an English royal town.
The record of events during the mid part of the twelfth century suggests that Leinster-based overkings of Dublin enjoyed the cooperation of the indigenous leaders of Dublin, and the emergence of the Meic Torcaill during this period may well fit into such a context. When an indigenous ruler was not to be found, however, the Dubliners seem to have sought leadership from the Isles, rather than endure a non-Leinster overking, as evidenced by the attempt to install Gofraid.[note 5] Mac Murchada's considerable authority in Dublin at this point is evidenced by several ecclesiastical grants, foundations, and appointments. Furthermore, two major military operations undertaken by Dublin's forces in 1164 and 1165 were almost certainly conducted under Mac Murchada's authority. The latter campaign, recorded by the Annals of Ulster, and the thirteenth/fourteenth-century texts Brut y Tywysogyon and Brenhinedd y Saesson, concerned naval manoeuvres off Wales, in the service of Henry II, King of England. The former campaign, recorded by the Annals of Ulster, consisted of involvement in the ill-fated invasion of mainland Scotland, launched by Somairle mac Gilla Brigte, King of the Isles.
Mac Lochlainn was slain in 1166, leaving Mac Murchada to fend off his own enemies alone. Other than Mac Murchada himself, another man making a bid for the high-kingship was Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht. Within the same year as Mac Lochlainn's demise, Ua Conchobair and his allies expulsed Mac Murchada from not only Dublin, but Ireland altogether; and Ua Conchobair himself was duly recognised as High King of Ireland.
According to the seventeenth-century Annals of the Four Masters, he had secured the cooperation of Dublin, and perhaps gained the kingship of the town itself, through a stipend of 4,000 cows.[note 6] In consequence, Dubliners formed part of Ua Conchobair's forces when he marched to Drogheda and Leinster, where he forced the submissions of the kings of Airgialla and Leinster respectively. In fact, Dublin appears to have formed a key part of Ua Conchobair's arsenal, and it is apparent that Mac Murchada was doomed without the support of this coastal-kingdom. Certainly, the twelfth–thirteenth-century La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande relates that Ascall ("MacTurkyl de Diveline") had abandoned his former overlord, and the eleventh–fourteenth-century Annals of Inisfallen specify that Mac Murchada was only expulsed from Ireland after the Leinstermen and Dubliners had turned against him. Although Ua Conchobair appears to have allowed Mac Murchada to retain his patrimonial lordship of Uí Chennselaig, the Annals of the Four Masters reveals that the Leinstermen and Dubliners assisted Tigernán Ua Ruairc, King of Bréifne in forcing Mac Murchada from this final vestige of authority and into exile.
The following year, Ua Conchobair convened a great assembly at Athboy. The Annals of the Four Masters states that 13,000 horsemen attended the meeting—1,000 of which were supplied from Dublin. One of the many rulers recorded to have attended this gathering is a certain Ragnall mac Ragnaill, styled tigerna Gall ("lord of the foreigners"). The latter's name and title suggest that he was either an otherwise unattested brother of Ascall, or else an annalist's mistake for Ascall himself. Meanwhile, after his expulsion from Ireland, Mac Murchada sought out Henry on the Continent, and gained permission to recruit military aid from the latter's subjects. In the autumn of 1167, Mac Murchada and his English allies arrived in Ireland, where they established themselves at Ferns. Ua Conchobair responded by penetrating Uí Chennselaig in a campaign, recounted by the fourteenth-century Annals of Tigernach, that included military support from Dublin. With Mac Murchada temporally kept in check, a preoccupied Ua Conchobair allowed him to hold onto at least part of his patrimony.
The situation in Ireland remained relatively unchanged until the arrival of a significant force of mercenaries in the summer of 1169, after which some of Mac Murchada's former vassals began to come over to his side. According to La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande, however, the kings of Uí Fáeláin and Osraige, and Ascall—described by this source as the "lord" of Dublin—stubbornly refused to support Mac Murchada's cause. In an apparent show of force that may have been designed to keep the Dubliners onside, the Annals of the Four Masters states that Ua Conchobair led an army to Tara, where he was joined by the forces of the kings of Ulaid and Airgialla, after which the combined army marched upon Dublin. The following year, however, saw the arrival of even more English support for Mac Murchada; and in August 1170, Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke landed in Ireland and took Waterford by storm. Soon after, Clare married Mac Murchada's daughter, Aífe, and effectively became heir to kingship of Leinster and the overlordship of Dublin. Unsurprisingly, later in September, the combined forces of Mac Murchada and Clare marched on Dublin, where they confronted Ua Conchobair and his forces.
If the account of the Annals of the Four Masters is to be believed, the Dubliners switched sides at this point, deserted the cause of Ua Conchobair, and further suffered an act of divine justice as their town went up in flames.[note 8] On the other hand, the twelfth-century Expugnatio Hibernica specifies that, whilst negotiations were under way between the forces of Ua Conchobair and the coalition of Mac Murchada and Clare, an English force under the command of Miles de Cogan and Raymond le Gros successfully assaulted the town, and caused considerable carnage amongst the inhabitants. Although the Annals of the Four Masters specifies that the Dubliners were slaughtered in their fortress, after which the English carried off their cattle and goods,Expugnatio Hibernica instead states that the majority of the Dubliners escaped the massacre and retained most of their possessions. The same source states that Ascall and the Dubliners managed to escape into the "northern islands". This term could well refer to Orkney.[note 9] On the other hand, it is also possible that the term refers to the Hebrides or Mann; if so, this source would appear to be evidence that the Dubliners had retained close links with the Isles. According to the version of events preserved by La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande, the coalition's conquest of Dublin took place on 21 September.
Final defeat and death
A rook gaming piece of the so-called Lewis chessmen. The near contemporary Expugnatio Hibernica describes the men who followed Ascall in his ill-fated final attack as "iron-hearted as well as iron-armed".[note 10]
Within weeks of Mac Murchada's death at the beginning of May, Expugnatio Hibernica reveals that Ascall made his return to Dublin. The account of events recorded by Expugnatio Hibernica and La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande indicate that Ascall's forces consisted of heavily armoured Islesmen and Norwegians. The former source numbers Ascall's forces at sixty ships, whilst the latter gives one hundred. According to both sources, Ascall's followers included a notable warrior named "John the Mad", a figure who may or may not be identical to the Orcadian saga-character Sveinn Ásleifarson.[note 11]
According to La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande, the invaders made landfall at the "Steine", located on the southern bank of the River Liffey, and proceeded to encamp themselves outside the town's walls.Expugnatio Hibernica relates that they assaulted the walls of the eastern gate, a location that corresponds to St Mary's Gate, the focus of assault identified by La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande. Unfortunately for Ascall, the operation was an utter failure that resulted in his capture and death. Both sources relate that the town's defenders, led by Cogan and his brother Richard, successfully repulsed the invaders, slew John, and captured Ascall as he fled to his fleet. Although Expugnatio Hibernica reveals that Ascall's life had originally been reserved for ransom, both this source, and La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande, report that he was soon beheaded on account of his recalcitrance.[note 12]
The successive deaths of Mac Murchada and Ascall appear to have left a power vacuum in Dublin that others strived to fill. Immediately after Ascall's fall, Ua Conchobair had the English-controlled town besieged.Expugnatio Hibernica records that he and Lorcán Ua Tuathail, Archbishop of Dublin sent for Gofraid and others in the Isles, asking them to blockade Dublin by sea. According to the aforesaid source, "the threat of English domination, inspired by the successes of the English, made the men of the Isles act all the more quickly, and with the wind in the north-west they immediately sailed about thirty ships full of warriors into the harbour of the Liffey". Unfortunately for the Irish, Islesmen, and Dubliners, the blockade was ultimately a failure, and Dublin remained firmly in the hands of the English. Ascall was the last Norse-Gaelic King of Dublin; and before the end of the year, Clare relinquished possession to his own liege lord, Henry, who converted it into an English royal town.
There is evidence post-dating Ascall's fall revealing that he gifted the church of St Brigid, and its surrounding lands, to the priory of the Holy Trinity (Christ Church Cathedral). A gardha or garð—Gaelic and Old Norse terms for a peasant settlement—is stated to have belonged to Ascall by Dublin's western gate. In about 1190, the city gate at Nicholas Street was known as porte Hasculf.
^Since the 1990s, academics have accorded Ascall various personal names in English secondary sources: Ascall,Asculf,Asgall,Áskell,Askulf,Askuluw,Askulv,Hasculf, and Höskuld. Likewise, academics have accorded Ascall various patronyms and surnames in English secondary sources: Ascall mac Raghnaill mic Thurcaill,Ascall mac Ragnaill,Ascall mac Ragnaill meic Torcaill,Ascall mac Ragnaill mic Turcaill,Ascall Mac Torcaill,Ascall Mac Turcaill,Ascall mac Turcaill,Asculf mac Torcaill,Asculf Mac Torcaill,Asgall mac Torcaill,Asgall Mac Turcaill,Áskell Ragavalsson,Askulf Mac Turcaill,Askulf mac Turcaill, and Hasculf Mac Thorkil. The various forms in which Ascall's name is recorded in primary sources, such as La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande and Expugnatio Hibernica, may be evidence that his name corresponds to the Old NorseHöskollr or Askülfr, rather than Áskell. For example, the former source gives "MacTurkil Esculf", and "Hesculf", whilst the latter source gives "Hasculphus". Another possibility is that the names recorded in the two sources represent the Old EnglishÆscwulf.
^It was likely Mac Murchada's domination of the Norse-Gaelic enclaves of Dublin and Wexford that earned him the sobriquet Diarmait na nGall ("Diarmait of the Foreigners"), rather than his later employment of English troops.
^On the other hand, this episode concerning Gofraid and the Dubliners may have taken place in 1156/1157.
^The Dubliners, therefore, appear to have preferred rulers of Norse-Gaelic descent. Scholars sometimes use the term "Ostmen" to denote the Dubliners and other Norse-Gaelic people of Ireland. The earliest form of the term in an Irish context dates to about 1173, several years after the English conquest of the Ireland's Norse-Gaelic settlements. The term, therefore, may well have been originally introduced by the conquering English incomers. In any case, the name still exists today as Oxmantown, an area of modern-day Dublin.
^The following passages from a mid twelfth-century poem appear to encapsulate the sentiments of the contemporary Irish who endured the substantial financial burdens required for the sustentation of the warbands of their kings: "... iniquitous law and great arrogance in kings ... wicked lords likewise ... the needy, transitory king will subdue the miserable husbandman".
^According to the twelfth-century Topographia Hibernica, the Irish utilised battle-axes in warfare, having originally adopted them from the Norse. This claim is backed up by archaeology, since contemporary Irish specimens are clearly based upon Norse axes. At one point, Expugnatio Hibernica advises the English that they "must never grow careless of the axes of the Irish".
^Similarly, the Annals of Tigernach also note the firing of Dublin, although this source states that the Norse-Gaels assented to the burning, and sided with Mac Murchada against Ua Conchobair, whereupon the latter retired to Connacht without having battled.
^Orkney is located in a chain of islands known as the Northern Isles. In Old Norse, these islands were known as Norðreyjar, as opposed to the Isles (the Hebrides and Mann) which were known as Suðreyjar ("Southern Islands").
^The Lewis chessmen depict warriors armed with kite shields. This type began to replace circular shields in the eleventh century, although the date of its adoption in Ireland is uncertain. According to Expugnatio Hibernica the troops who supported Ascall's cause in this action were "armed in the Danish fashion, some having long breast-plates, and others shirts of mail; their shields were round, and coloured red, and were bound about with iron". Such shields may have been favoured for maritime operations.
^La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande names Ascall's commander as "Johan le devé", which translates to "John the Wode" or "John the Mad".Expugnatio Hibernica describes him as "Johanne agnomine þe Wode, quod Latine sonat Insano, vel Vehementi, viri bellicosi ...", in which the nickname has also been interpreted as "mad". The Annals of Ulster name him as "Eoan Mear", which likewise translates to "John the Mad". According to the twelfth–thirteenth-century Orkneyinga saga, Sveinn was slain whilst raiding in Ireland at some point between 1165 and 1180.
^Ascall's capture and execution are not documented in the Irish sources that mark his downfall. Sources such as the Annals of the Four Masters, the Annals of Ulster, the sixteenth-century Annals of Loch Cé, the Annals of Tigernach, and the fifteenth-century Mac Carthaigh's Book. These sources, instead, briefly report his demise in the context of defeat.
^In contemporary or near contemporary sources, the incoming warriors recruited by Mac Murchada are overwhelmingly described as English. For example, Expugnatio Hibernica almost always describes them as English; so too does La Geste des Engleis en Yrlande, a source which uses the term "English" about eighty times, whilst using "French", "Flemings", and "Normans" in only one particular line. Despite the modern employment of terms such as "Normans", "Anglo-Normans" (itself an eighteenth-century construct), and "Cambro-Normans", contemporary sources virtually never use "Norman" in an Irish context. In fact, the term Normannaigh is never used by the Irish annals. Irish sources usually describe the men as "foreigners" and "grey foreigners", or else as Saxain ("Saxons" or "English"). In consequence, it is apparent that contemporaries regarded the incomers as English. In the nineteenth century, however, during a period of intense and sensitive political debate, the term was dropped by historians and replaced with ahistorical terms. Even amongst modern historians there is still a reluctance to use "English".
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