The original con trick

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

Remember the dodgy dossier, the “sexed-up” document used by Tony Blair’s government to justify the invasion of Iraq? Parts of intelligence reports that didn’t suit Blair’s pro-war stance were omitted in order to influence public opinion and make the case for invasion.

Well, there was a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 last Monday night. The award-winning investigative series Document looked at a historical precedent of “sexing up” a document, one that had major implications for subsequent relations between Ireland and England.

In the 12th century, there was in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, rivalry and strife between competing dynasties, though politically the country was evolving towards a strong national monarchy.

In 1152, Henry II of England sought permission from Pope Adrian IV, who was also English, “to enlarge the boundaries of the church” in Ireland and “to proclaim the truths of the Christian religion to a rude and ignorant people”.

This was at a time when Ireland was not as “lawless and vice-ridden” as Henry had claimed but was one of the most learned centres in Europe and where the Catholic church had already reformed itself.

Regardless, Henry was granted a papal bull, the Laudabiliter, which commissioned him to enter Ireland and set about its religious reform.

However, he was too busy elsewhere with his other possessions and only acted on the bull in 1169. A few months earlier, one of Henry’s subjects, Strongbow of Wales, had invaded Ireland as part of an internal dispute and taken Waterford and Dublin. Henry was not about to let Strongbow become master of Ireland and perhaps pose a threat to himself.

So, Henry came to Ireland in 1169 with both an army and the papal bull and went on a charm offensive. He produced the document at a series of meetings with local bishops in Waterford and made agreements with the local lords and chieftains. He went to Cashel, the seat of the kings of Munster, many of whom were king-bishops (temporal and clerical authorities) and he showed them the bull from the Pope, praising Henry for his work for the church. He neutered Strongbow by bestowing large swaths of Ireland on him and his men.

On the BBC programme, Dr Conor Kostick of Trinity College, Dublin, explained that, in medieval times, there were two schools of thought on legitimising conflict. One was that legitimacy was proved on the battlefield (“to the victor the spoils”). The other required legitimacy from God.

In the 12th century, Rome, which had roots in every single European capital, was the only really unifying organisation that could accord legitimacy. Therefore, regardless of one’s military stature, papal approval supplied a powerful ideological legitimacy, which was particularly persuasive with a literate clergy (the “public opinion” of the day), as Ireland had back then.

Many historians now believe that the papal bull Henry produced had been considerably amended from the original, which had simply mentioned the spiritual life in Ireland and authorised him to carry out religious reform -- not to invade, confiscate land and conquer Ireland.

For centuries, it was thought that the version of the Laudabiliter held in the archives at Kew Gardens in London was the original document sent by Pope Adrian to King Henry but Professor Anne Duggan of King’s College, who has studied the handwriting, believes that it was not written until several centuries later. The document also lacks a date and a papal seal. She believes that not only is the document false but that part of the text of the original was omitted to give the document a different meaning.

The supposed text of the original appeared in a book by Gerald of Wales, a Catholic scholar and contemporary of Henry. He was an ambitious man of Norman descent whose ancestors, the Fitzgeralds, were among the first invaders of Ireland and owned vast plots of land there. He believed that, if he helped legitimise Ireland’s invasion, King Henry might repay him by backing his bid for a powerful religious post and by enlarging his family’s estates in Ireland.

Anne Duggan makes her case on the strength of her discovery of another contemporary letter from Pope Adrian, written a few years later and addressed to Louis VII of France, who had suggested a crusade to extend Christianity to Spain. Importantly, this letter sets down papal policy. She compared the letter to Louis with the letter to Henry and found that they were quite similar but that three or four paragraphs were missing from Henry’s Laudabiliter. In the letter to Louis, the Pope warns that it is a very dangerous thing to go into another land on such a mission without the approval of the people.

“We urge you by these letters, first to examine and ponder the needs of the area with the aid of the princes of that realm and carefully seek out the will both of its church and of its princes and people and take their advice as is fitting.”

Unless you have that approval, said Duggan, the papacy was not prepared to give its approval for even a spiritual crusade. She believes that Pope Adrian did give Henry approval to reform the church in Ireland but that Gerald, by excising from the letter the conditions laid down by the Pope, finessed its true meaning, so that it seemed Henry was authorised by the Pope to take over the country. Of course, whether the Pope had any jurisdiction over Ireland in the first place is a moot point.

Asked about the discovery, Ian Paisley laughed and correctly stated that it did not make a button of difference and would be far-fetched to raise the issue today.

“The Irish people shouldn’t be too sore on Ulstermen because it was the Pope that handed them over to English rule. The Roman Catholic church has never started a campaign saying to the people of Ireland: ‘We apologise for sending an English king in with all the authority of the Pope, who was also an Englishman, to do you down.’”

Sinn Féin, which has a vested interest in undermining any attempt by Britain to afford legitimacy to its rule, was asked to comment but appeared to have temporarily lost its instinct for plain speaking and said it did not wish to make any comment.

So, there you have it. The English invasion of Ireland was based on a false document, a con job. It might be 800 years ago but it seems like it was only yesterday.

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