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Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare
Earl of Pembroke

Copyright Catherine Armstrong 1999

Please note that the extensive bibliography for the essay below is found on this linked page.

Strongbow's father was Gilbert fitz Gilbert de Clare, lord of Orbec and Bienfaite, lord of Striguil (Chepstow), and earl of Pembroke. Gilbert was a younger son of Gilbert fitz Richard de Clare, earl of Tonbridge and Clare and lord of Ceredigion, the Marcher lordship of Cardigan. Strongbow's mother was Isabel (Elizabeth) de Beaumont, sister to Robert earl of Leicester and Waleran count of Meulan. Isabel had been the youngest mistress of King Henry I, and their liaison resulted in a natural daughter, Isabel (Elizabeth), born c.1129/30. When Isabel de Beaumont married Gilbert in 1130, she took this daughter with her. Strongbow was born before the end of 1130; thus he was raised with the natural half-sister of the Empress Matilda.

There has been debate about the name "Strongbow" ascribed to both Richard and his father Gilbert. In a charter in The Chronicle of Melrose issued by Richard's grandson, Richard Marshal, both Richard and Gilbert de Clare are named as "Strongbow". The men of Netherwent (Gwent) were known for their skill and use of an unusually long and strong bow; both Gilbert and Richard held the lordship of Netherwent. Since Gilbert de Clare's seal shows him holding a long arrow in his right hand, historians assume that the ability and skill to use this type of bow earned both Richard and his father Gilbert their nicknames.

Below: a view of the Garrison Tower at Usk Castle

Strongbow's father, grandfather, uncles and great-uncles were men favored by both King Henry I and King Stephen. On the death of Roger de Clare without legal heirs in 1130, King Henry I granted Gilbert de Clare his lands of Orbec and Bienfaite in Normandy. With the death of King Henry I in 1135, Strongbow's father, Gilbert, supported Stephen as king, and was an active military commander for Stephen during the "anarchy". When Gilbert's uncle Walter de Clare died in 1138, King Stephen granted Gilbert the lordship of Netherwent, including the castles of Chepstow and Usk. Stephen also granted Gilbert the comital title and lands of the earldom of Pembroke the same year. Gilbert and Strongbow supported King Stephen against Matilda until c.1146. In 1146 King Stephen held Gilbert fitz Richard de Clare, earl of Hertford, as a hostage for the "good behavior" of his uncle Ranulf, earl of Chester. (This Gilbert was also the nephew of Gilbert, earl of Pembroke.) When Ranulf changed sides and began to support the Empress Matilda, King Stephen forced Earl Gilbert of Hertford to surrender his castles and lands. This action immediately drove Gilbert to support Matilda, along with his uncle Earl Ranulf. Stephen, in anticipation of Earl Gilbert of Pembroke following his nephew, took the earl's lands and castles. This enraged the earl of Pembroke so that he also changed sides, following his nephew to the side of Empress Matilda and taking his sixteen-year old son, Richard, with him.

Gilbert earl of Pembroke died circa 1148, and at the age of eighteen, Strongbow inherited all of his father's lands, including Orbec and Bienfaite in Normandy, the lordship of Striguil and the earldom of Pembroke. Strongbow first appears in official records as "comes de Penbroc" in the Treaty of Westminster, November 1, 1153, but this is the last occasion in any royal document that Strongbow signs as earl of Pembroke. From this point in extant records, Strongbow signs his name as "comes de Striguil" or "comes Richardus". The records indicate that King Henry II refused to recognize Richard's right to the title and lands of Pembroke. The title of earl and the earldom of Pembroke did not come back into Richard's family until after the marriage of his sole heir, Isabel de Clare, to William Marshal in 1189. It was King John who "belted" William Marshal in 1199 creating him earl of Pembroke.

Historians have proposed different answers to the question of why King Henry II refused to recognize Richard's right to the title and lands of Pembroke. Some have believed that Henry did not trust Richard de Clare, or blamed him for holding too long to the cause of King Stephen. Some historians have stated that Henry II was determined to not recognize any claim to land based on tenure granted during the anarchy. The answer to this question may never be discovered, but the results of Henry's actions definitely contributed to Strongbow's reasons for accepting the offer of Dermot MacMurchada, king of Leinster. With King Henry denying Strongbow the title and lands of the earldom of Pembroke, and Strongbow finding himself in debt to Aaron the Jew of Lincoln, Dermot's proposal was a chance to reclaim fortune and glory.

Right: Tomb effigy at St. Davids said to be Rhys ap Gruffydd

Dermot MacMurchada, king of Leinster, had been deposed in Ireland, and he went to Henry II in 1168 to seek aid in reclaiming his kingdom. According to Gerald of Wales, Henry II issued a writ telling the men who held of him in any of his lands that they were free to aid Dermot in his quest. Dermot proceeded to Bristol to seek men, and he found them. Dermot offered Strongbow his daughter Eve (Aoife) in marriage as well as the kingdom of Leinster on Dermot's death, if Strongbow helped Dermot regain his kingdom. [For a complete discussion of the legality of this offer by Dermot, please see M. T. Flanagan's Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers and Angevin Kingship included in the bibliography.] The Anglo-Normans who participated in the invasion of Ireland with Strongbow were an inter-connected group of men. These men were bound together by family, land and fealty; many tied to Wales by family and fiefs. They were men used to war and trained to take and defend frontier lands. Many had fought for King Henry in the Welsh wars of 1164/65 and lost their lands and/or their office as a result of Rhys ap Gruffydd's successes. Maurice and William fitz Gerald, Meiler fitz Henry, Robert fitz Stephen and Raymond le Gros were all related through Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth. Hervey de Montmorency and Robert de Quinci were tied by blood and/or land to the de Clares.

The first contingent arrived in Ireland in May 1169; and with Dermot, who met them at Bannow, they took the city of Wexford. In May 1170 Raymond le Gros arrived, followed by Strongbow in August. Strongbow had collected men from Striguil, Gowerland and Haverfordwest, and he arrived at Waterford with 200 men-at-arms, and about one thousand archers. They met Dermot and the other Anglo-Normans and took Waterford on St Bartholomew's Eve (August 28, 1170). Strongbow and Eve were married in the Cathedral of Waterford, and after the marriage, the army immediately moved toward Dublin arriving September 21, 1170. They came with over 3000 Anglo-Normans and some 1000 Irish troops. While the city leaders were negotiating with Dermot and Strongbow through archbishop Lawrence O' Toole, Roderick (Rory) O'Connor withdrew his army and left the field. A small group of the besiegers broke the truce and took the city, causing Asgall Mac Torquil to take to his ships and flee to the Scottish Isles.

After the capture of Dublin, King Henry II, perhaps seeing the possibility of palatine lordships in Ireland, issued a writ. This writ ordered that no ships from any of the lands subject to Henry II could carry men or supplies to Ireland and that all of "his" men who had gone to Ireland must return by Easter (March 28,1171) or risk forfeiture of their lands. Dermot MacMurchada had died at Ferns in May 1171, and Strongbow had assumed the kingship of Leinster in right of his wife. Perhaps in reaction to Strongbow's action and the forays of Anglo-Normans into other Irish kingdoms, Roderick O' Connor, Domnall Mor O Brien of Munster and Magnus MacDunleavy gathered an army and besieged the city of Dublin. Strongbow, de Cogan and their men were trapped inside the city. When O' Connor would not accept Strongbow's offer to hold Leinster and all of his conquered lands in Ireland of O' Connor as high king, Strongbow sent 600 of his men out from Dublin to attack O' Connor's camp at Castleknock. The success of this strategy confused and routed the entire Irish army and freed Dublin.

Strongbow then turned to the problem of Henry and his writ and sent his uncle Hervey to King Henry II. Hervey returned and urged his nephew to go in person. Strongbow crossed over to England and met King Henry at Newnham in Gloucestershire (or at Pembroke as Henry was preparing to depart for Ireland according to Robert of Torigny). Strongbow and Henry settled their differences, with Strongbow giving up Dublin and all its adjacent lands, the maritime towns and castles to Henry. The rest of the lands that Strongbow held by conquest and marriage he gave to Henry and received them back as lands-in-chief of the king and his heirs. Henry II also acknowledged Strongbow's comital status, though not his right to Pembroke, and from this point Strongbow signed his name as 'comes Richardus' or 'comes de Strigoil'.

On October 18, 1171, Henry arrived in Waterford with 400 ships, 500 knights, 4000 men-at-arms and several thousand archers. With Henry were his own familiares and men of his household, including William fitz Audelin, Hugh de Lacy, Robert fitz Bernard, Philip de Braose, and Bertrum de Verdun. Henry placed Waterford in the custody of Robert fitz Bernard, and then he proceeded to Dublin taking the fealty and oaths of the kings of Cork, Limerick, and Ossory on his way. Henry spent Christmas at Dublin, organized the synod at Cashel for the ecclesiastical reform demanded by the Pope, and left on February 2, 1172 to return to Wexford. Between March 26 and April 16, 1172, Henry II moved to protect the royal interests in Ireland and limit Strongbow's power. He placed the city and land of Dublin in the custody of Hugh de Lacy and created Hugh lord of Meath. He gave the custody of Waterford and Wexford to Robert fitz Bernard and William fitz Audelin. Henry separated Strongbow from his most important military commanders by placing fitz Stephen, Maurice fitz Gerald, Milo fitz David, and Meiler fitz Henry in the garrison of Dublin. Henry put fitz Audelin, de Braose and de Hastings with thirty knights in charge of Wexford, and fitz Bernard, de Bohun and de Gundeville with forty knights in charge of Waterford. Though Henry recognized the value and need of his barons, he wanted no palatine lordships in Ireland as he had inherited in Wales.

In April 1173, Henry's sons began a rebellion, and Henry called Strongbow to aid him in Normandy. Strongbow defended Gisors for Henry II, was at Breteuil, and in August he was part of the relief of Verneuil. At Rouen August 10, 1173, Henry II named Strongbow governor (royal justiciar) of Ireland, gave him the city of Wexford, the castle of Wicklow, and made him constable of Waterford and Dublin. Henry II then sent Strongbow back to Ireland. On reaching Ireland Strongbow sent back fitz Bernard, fitz Stephen and others to aid the king in England and Normandy in Henry's war with his rebellious sons.

At the end of 1174, due to the rebellion of the Irish, Strongbow had been pushed from Limerick back to Wexford by David of Limerick. Strongbow sent for le Gros to return as commander of his armies; Gerald of Wales says it was because Strongbow's men would not follow Hervey and demanded the return of Raymond. (There had been a disagreement between Strongbow and le Gros earlier when Robert de Quency, husband of Strongbow's sister Basilia, had died.) Whatever the true reason, le Gros returned to Ireland and was given Basilia in marriage, custody and wardship of her daughter Maud de Quency, the constableship of Leinster, and lands in Fothard, Idrone and Glasskarrig. During this same time period, two more members of Strongbow's family married into the fitz Gerald family. Strongbow's daughter Alina married William, son of William fitz Gerald, and his uncle Hervey married Nest, daughter of Maurice fitz Gerald. (There are no known records of the mother of Alina; historians can only presume that Alina was a natural daughter of Strongbow because Flanagan states that Strongbow was not married before Eve MacMurchada.) This marrying of Strongbow's family to the Geraldines may have been an attempt to lessen the strife between their families and strengthen alliances of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland.

In October 1175 Strongbow was in England for the Treaty of Windsor between Henry II and O'Connor of Ireland, and this may have encouraged the Irish princes to begin another revolt. Strongbow returned to Ireland by the beginning of 1176. In April 1176, Strongbow sent le Gros to relieve Dermot Macarthy, prince of Desmond. After restoring Dermot to Desmond, le Gros headed for Cork. On the way he received a letter from Basilia saying:

" . . . that huge grinder which gave me so much pain has fallen out. . . ."
This was a coded message telling le Gros that Strongbow had died April 5, 1176 (June 1, 1176) of some type of infection ("a mortification of his foot" according to The Annals). After le Gros reached Dublin, Strongbow was buried with great ceremony at Holy Trinity Church with Lawrence archbishop of Dublin presiding. [There is no mention of Strongbow's widow or of his children for this time.]

Strongbow left a widow, Eve, a minor son Gilbert, and a daughter Isabel. According to records, Gilbert died a minor in 1185. On Strongbow's death Henry II took his lands into royal hands, with William fitz Audelin as administrator in Ireland and Eve holding dower rights, and possibily the lordship of Striguil, until as late as 1185/86. Strongbow's daughter and heir, Isabel, was protected by Henry II; one of Henry's last acts was to promise Isabel and all of her father's lands to William Marshal in 1189.

There are many years in Strongbow's life for which there are no known records. Little is known of his early years and of his life with his father during the wars between Matilda and Stephen. His time in Ireland is only seen through the eyes of a few sources and the charters and writs Strongbow issued and/or witnessed. Strongbow was generous in ecclesiastical grants; founding the preceptory of Knights Hospitallers at Kilmainham outside of Dublin, and helping to build the choir of the cathedral at Dublin with the two chapels of St. Edmond and St. Mary Alba and St. Laud. He gave charters and lands to St. Mary's in Dublin and to Dunbrody and founded the priory of Benedictine nuns at Usk.

Gerald of Wales describes Strongbow as a tall man with red hair, freckles, grey eyes and a soft (weak) voice.

"In war Strongbow was more of a leader than a soldier. . . . When he took-up his position in the midst of battle, he stood firm as an immovable standard around which his men could re-group and take refuge. In war he remained steadfast and reliable in good fortune and bad alike. . . ."
If a man who was Strongbow's contemporary and not overly fond of him could describe him thus, Strongbow must have been a unique man. Strongbow had the patience and intelligence to not openly defy King Henry II, despite being denied what he must have seen as his rightful inheritance. He had the military skills and abilities of a commander that enabled him to conquer great lands in Ireland and the sagacity of a diplomat that allowed him to offer those conquests to his king and vassal lord, Henry II. On Strongbow's death at the age of forty-six, King Henry II guarded and protected his widow, his heir and his vast fiefs which leads to the belief that Strongbow had earned Henry's respect and perhaps even his affection. When Isabel de Clare married William Marshal in 1189, she brought with her the inheritance of her father. Isabel brought to Marshal the lordship of Striguil (Chepstow) in Wales, the lordship of Leinster in Ireland, fiefs in some nine shires in England, and the claims to the earldom of Pembroke and one half the barony of Earl Giffard in England and Normandy. Richard Strongbow de Clare would have approved of King Henry's choice for his son-in-law, a man who made his own place in his world. William Marshal would have respected his father-in-law for the loyal knight and vassal he was to King Henry II and to the Angevin Crown.

Follow this link to view the extensive bibliography for this article.


This essay is part of a series (listed below) written by Catherine Armstrong focusing on the life and times of William Marshal and his father-in-law Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare.

William Marshal

John fitz Gilbert (Marshal's father)

Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, Strongbow (Marshal's father-in-law)

The parents of Isabel de Clare (Marshal's wife)

The Children of William Marshal and Isabel de Clare


Catherine Armstrong has Master's degree in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University. Her field is medieval English history. Her specific field is William Marshal, his fiefs and "familiares". Her concentration is on the lands and people bound to Marshal by blood and marriage, by feudal tenure, and by "affinity". She can be reached via e-mail at: seneschal@peoplepc.com.


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