Bringing the 1318 Battle of Faughart and Edward Bruce back into focus

The Battle of Faughart on 14 October 1318 was fought between the Anglo-Irish loyal to King Edward II of England and an alliance of Scottish and Irish forces led by Scotsman Edward Bruce.
The Battle of Faughart on 14 October 1318 was fought between the Anglo-Irish loyal to King Edward II of England and an alliance of Scottish and Irish forces led by Scotsman Edward Bruce. Drawing of Edward Bruce being crowned high king of Ireland (source: “The Story of Ireland: a narrative of Irish history” by Alexander M. Sullivan, 1892 edition).

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Dean Litchfield provides a blow-by-blow account of the little-known 1318 Battle of Faughart in Co. Louth – a clash between the Anglo-Irish and an alliance of Scottish and Irish forces, which culminated in the demise of Edward Bruce, the purported high king of Ireland.

The Battle of Faughart took place on 14 October 1318 on the Hill of Faughart, just north of Dundalk, in Co. Louth. Here, the Anglo-Irish, mainly of Anglo-Norman descent, who were loyal to King Edward II of England, faced off against an alliance of Scottish and Irish forces under the command of Scotsman Edward Bruce.

The Bruce invasion of Ireland

Edward Bruce, younger brother of King Robert I of Scotland, spearheaded an invasion of Ireland in 1315 during the First Scottish War of Independence. The motives behind the Bruces’ mission in Ireland between 1315 and 1318 have long been debated.

It is commonly argued that Edward Bruce planned to create a diversionary front in Ireland in order to draw English military attention away from his brother’s campaign in Scotland and northern England following the Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

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Colm McNamee, an authority on the Bruces, offers further explanations, such as Robert’s strategic ambition to forge a grand “Celtic” alliance between Scotland, Ireland and Wales to oppose the English Crown, as well as his desire to exploit Ireland’s resources, which were being used to fuel the English war machine.

Professor Seán Duffy (Trinity College Dublin), another expert on the Bruce wars, considers that links between the Isles, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, dating back to the Hiberno-Scandinavian control of the “Irish Sea province” in the 11th century, laid the foundation for later alliances, such as that of the Bruces. However, he cautions against characterizing this as “Celtic”, emphasizing that the term is merely a convenient label for this four-sided set of relationships and does not imply that they all shared a sense of common origin or identity, let alone “Celticness’’.

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It is also likely that Robert, and those close to him, saw his younger brother – the heir to the kingdom of Scotland – as a threat and wished to appease him. Caroline Colvin, writing in 1901, claimed that Edward “considered himself entitled to a share in the government whose independence he had helped to establish”. This desire for power may have been partially satisfied when he was offered the title of high king of Ireland, partly on account of his royal Irish ancestry.

On 26 May 1315, Edward Bruce landed with 6,000 men near Larne in what is now Co. Antrim. Shortly after, he was inaugurated king of Ireland, although his title was never truly accepted outside his power base in Ulster.

Arms of Edward Bruce, High King of Ireland.
Arms of Edward Bruce, High King of Ireland (pic: © MyChevalier, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Scottish army was first occupied in eastern Ulster and Co. Louth. During their second campaign, they proceeded as far as Dublin but did not attack. On the third campaign, they moved through southeast Ireland and as far as Limerick, partially in the hope of connecting with Irish allies. Although a marauding army has to loot to feed, in some cases, subsistence was provided by Irish allies. The looting, coupled with a severe famine that ravaged Ireland and much of Europe from 1315–22, caused considerable devastation to the country.

The armies

Contemporary (or near-contemporary) sources present slight discrepancies regarding the participants in the Battle of Faughart, and the troop figures mentioned in these sources, in particular, should be treated with caution.

Present at the battle, according to the Annales Hiberniae – which was compiled in the early 16th century supposedly by James Grace of Kilkenny using an older text – were Edward Bruce’s loyal Scottish knights Philip Mowbray, Walter Soulis and Alan (or John) Steward, who were joined by members of the powerful de Lacy family of Meath, as well as Walter le Blund (White) and John de Caermarthen. Members of the Gaelic Irish community are also said to have made up part of Bruce’s army.

In his Scottish epic poem “The Bruce” – a biography of Robert Bruce written c.1375 – Archdeacon John Barbour suggests that the Scottish numbered less than 2,000. The Annales Hiberniae states that the combined Scots-Irish side boasted 3,000 soldiers. Similarly, the Dublin-born historian Goddard Henry Orpen estimates the number of Scots to have been between 2,000 and 3,000. His controversial work – Ireland Under the Normans, published over four volumes in 1911 and 1920 – offers a thorough overview of earlier accounts of the Battle of Faughart. The north of England Lanercost Chronicle tells us that the Scots-Irish army was organized into three battalions.

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Opposing Bruce was a hastily collected force of those loyal to King Edward II of England under the command of nobleman John Bermingham. He had been designated captain by the newly appointed chief justiciar of Ireland, Alexander Bicknor, Archbishop of Dublin.

According to Orpen, Bermingham was joined by “some of his relatives and some local lords and officials and their levies”. Knights and nobles such as Milo Verdon, Hugh Turpilton, Herbert Sutton, John Cusack, and William and Walter Bermingham are all said to have been present at Faughart, according to the Annales Hiberniae. Also present, according to this source, were Walter de la Pulle, Sheriff of Louth and Roland Jorz, Archbishop of Armagh, “who gave them all absolution”, as well as about 20 well-armed men from Drogheda. Barbour’s poetic account offers a hugely inflated figure for the Anglo-Irish side of over 40,000 men! This side was also supposedly made up of three divisions.

The Battle of Faughart

There are very few reliable sources on the course of the battle itself but we know that on 14 October 1318, the opposing armies met close to the Hill of Faughart, just 5km north of Dundalk.

According to Barbour’s pro-Scottish narrative, Edward Bruce’s advisers and knights counselled him not to engage in battle immediately but to wait for reinforcements that were on their way. On the other hand, the Lanercost Chronicle tells us that Bruce “came to the town of Dundalk with … a great army of Scots which had newly arrived in Ireland to enable him to invade and lay waste that land”, seemingly indicating that the reinforcements had already joined with Bruce and his comrades.

This account also mentions the presence of his “Irish adherents” but does not elaborate on their role during the battle. Barbour claims that the Gaelic Irish did not participate in the fighting but instead positioned themselves on top of the Hill of Faughart, where they watched the battle unfold. The implication is that the Scottish defeat was not due to tactical errors on their part but due to the treachery of the Irish. Barbour, a Scotsman, was, after all, writing for a domestic audience (most of all the King of Scots) and, therefore, needed to play up the reluctance of the Irish to fight.

Barbour and most other early sources are in agreement that the Scots were quickly overcome by their enemy during the battle. The Lanercost Chronicle’s account of the movements of Bruce’s army and his allies provides one of the clearest descriptions of the battle:

“they 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 …”

An Irish tract, the Cath Fhochairte Brighite, however, tells a different story. It claims that the Gaelic Irish army, positioned near the brow of the hill to the north, faced an initial bombardment of arrows, followed by a heavy cavalry charge on the “Galls of Meath and Gaels” – gall meaning foreigner in reference to the Norman origins of the de Lacys and Gael meaning Irish – positioned in the centre, on the slope. Subsequently, this central battalion, along with the Scottish battalion positioned at the foot of the hill nearest to Dundalk to the south, rallied and launched a counter-attack, driving the enemy back. Bruce’s men were then joined by another body of forces from the north, presumably the reinforcements, which enabled them to push the battered Anglo-Irish troops back even further.

According to this account, a lull in the fighting occurred and the Scottish soldiers, sure of victory, briefly stopped to rest. As Bruce walked among the dead strewn across the bloody battlefield, he was approached by

“a shameless idiot, enveloped in a bundle of straw ropes, instead of clothing … This demented fellow held in his hand an iron ball to which a long chain was attached one end of which was tied round his waist, and there displayed many frantic and very trifling tricks… until finding an opportunity of the King, he gave him a stroke of the ball on the head by which he scattered his brains around. After this act, he ran as fast as he could across the side of the hill, in the direction whence he came.”

Although this account in the Cath Fhochairte Brighite is certainly entertaining, serious doubts arise regarding its authenticity. Seán Duffy has made the compelling argument that the tract does not have a medieval origin, as previously assumed, but is instead a forgery composed c.1845. While some of its content was drawn from genuine medieval chronicles via modern published texts, other parts were deliberately fabricated.

The tale of Bruce’s early triumph, followed by his treacherous slaying while at rest, only emerged in the late 16th century. In contrast, all contemporary records indicate that Bruce was killed “honourably” during the fighting by John Maupas of the Drogheda contingent. The Annales Hiberniae add that Maupas’ dead body was subsequently found over Bruce’s body, suggesting he was quickly cut down by Scottish soldiers enraged at the felling of their leader.

Most of the nobles who had followed Bruce into battle are also reported to have been slain at Faughart, including Mac Ruaidhrí, king of Insi-Gall (the Hebrides) and Mac Domnaill, king of Argyle, according to the Irish Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Ulster.

Aftermath of the battle

The Annales Hiberniae and the Book of Howth both state that the head of Edward Bruce was brought to King Edward II of England by John Bermingham, who, in recognition of his victory at Faughart, was bestowed with the title 1st Earl of Louth, along with being granted the barony of Ardee.

The Lanercost Chronicle adds that Bruce’s body was quartered, his body parts being sent to “the four chief towns of Ireland”, while the Annales Hiberniae state that his heart and hands were carried to Dublin and his limbs to other places.

Once more, we get a very different account in the Cath Fhochairte Brighite, possibly reflecting a long-held local oral tradition. It says that Bruce’s body was interred in the burial ground in Faughart in the family plot of a local noble named O’Roddy (Ó Ruadacáin). The propagation of this narrative in the Cath Fhochairte Brighite might represent an attempt to elevate the status of the O’Roddys.

Reputed grave of Edward Bruce in Faughart, Co. Louth.
Reputed grave of Edward Bruce in Faughart graveyard, Co. Louth (© Dean Litchfield). The tombstone was laid over the grave in the 1960s.

Barbour provides further details regarding Bruce’s actions leading up to the battle, which are relevant regarding the ultimate fate of his corporeal remains. The archdeacon claims that Bruce refused to don his coat of armour, but that it was worn instead by Gib Harper. Consequently, the enemy, mistaking Harper’s dead body dressed in royal armour for Bruce’s, claimed Harper’s head for their king. Barbour also confusingly claims that it was Maupas who presented Harper’s head to the English king. Again, we must exercise caution when using this Scottish source, which undoubtedly aims to preserve the dignity of the Scottish military leader, even in death.

Marble plaque was placed at the head of Edward Bruce's reputed grave in Faughart (© Dean Litchfield).
In recent years, this marble plaque was placed at the head of Edward Bruce’s reputed grave in Faughart (© Dean Litchfield).

In Ireland, the contemporary reaction to the death of Edward Bruce, the so-called high king of Ireland, was far from mournful, even among the Gaelic Irish. For example, the Annals of the Four Masters deride Bruce as “the destroyer of the people of Ireland in general, both English and Irish”. It hails his death as an accomplishment and bestows credit on those who put him down “through dint of battle and bravery”.

“… no achievement had been performed in Ireland for a long time before, from which greater benefit had accrued to the country than from this; for, during the three and a half years that this Edward spent in it, a universal famine prevailed to such a degree, that men were wont to devour one another.”

The Irish annalists saw Bruce as a murderous and destructive figure and held him responsible for the famine. This viewpoint may be linked, at least in part, to the earlier excommunication of his brother Robert and directives from the pope, under English pressure, urging the Irish clergy to renounce their allegiance to Edward Bruce.

The Battle of Faughart should, therefore, be regarded as an important turning point in the story of the forging of the Irish nation. In the years following the Bruce invasion, resident Anglo-Irish lords of Norman descent began integrating themselves into the Gaelic way of life. For example, the de Burghs of Connacht aborted their loyalties to the English Crown, assuming Irish names and adopting Irish customs. However, the pace of these changes may have been much slower in Louth and throughout the Pale.

Some of the ruling class in Ireland began to embrace Irish dress and the Irish language so fervently that the English administration in Dublin was forced to pass the famous Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 to prevent their subjects from becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

Forgotten in the popular imagination

The 14 October 2018 marked the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Faughart. Despite the battle’s significance in Irish history, this milestone was largely overlooked outside the local area.

During the anniversary week, Seán Duffy delivered a lecture on the battle to the local historical society in Dundalk, while the Ulster-Scots Agency published a booklet in commemoration. In addition, Andrew Bruce, 37th Chief of Clan Bruce, arranged for a wreath to be laid on Edward Bruce’s reputed grave in Faughart.

Then, in 2023, during an event hosted by Faughart Community Group and the Ulster-Scots Agency, Lord Charles Edward Bruce officially unveiled the “Bruce Boulder” in Faughart graveyard.

The Bruce invasion of Ireland was not just a staging ground for the First Scottish War of Independence but a campaign that had a lasting impact on Irish history and deserves greater recognition. The Battle of Faughart should be given equal weight to other notable Irish battles, such as the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798, particularly in the primary and post-primary school curricula. Fortunately, the battlefield in Faughart has been added to the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR: LH004-147—-), which affords it protection under the National Monuments Acts.

Dean Litchfield, a native of Co. Louth, is an undergraduate student of history and geography at Dublin City University.

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One Response

  1. Being from Sandymount Dublin,I used see Judge O’ Flaherty regularly at Sunday Mass at Star of the Sea Parish….I haven’t seen him for some time now,and I wonder where he went?.

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