Diarmat Mac Murchada (Dermot) King of Leinster, had been dispossessed
by the High King of Ireland. He sought assistance from Henry II, King of
England to regain his kingdom. Henry gave his knights permission, if they
wished, to join Dermot’s cause. Richard “Strongbow” Fitzgilbert De Clare,
Earl of Striguil took him up on it.
Dermot even threw his daughter Aoife overboard, metaphorically speaking;
as an incentive, he gave her as wife to Strongbow. There is a famous painting
in the Irish National Gallery, “The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife”
which depicts this event.
In 1170 Strongbow sent an advance party of ten men-at-arms and 70
archers, led by Raymond le Gros, to Ireland. Near Waterford, at Dundonolf, about 3,000 men of Waterford engaged Raymond’s small band and, due to the
inopportune tactics employed by the Irish, amazingly, Raymond’s contingent won the day. It was a long fight and Raymond and his men grew so weary of cutting people down with their swords that they finally resorted to just throwing the Irish off a cliff into the sea where they drowned.
But they also captured 70 Irishmen and there was a public debate about
what to do with the captives. The noble Raymond pleaded eloquently for their lives, but a more practical knight, Hervey de Montmaurice, was of another mind. The debate is relevant and apropos today, given the issue of terrorism and the war on it. Here is how the debate went.
“RAYMOND, contending earnestly for the liberation of the prisoners, spoke
…Their enterprise was honourable, and they are not to be treated as thieves,
insurgents, traitors, or freebooters. They are now in such a position that
mercy ought rather to be shown them for example’s sake, than cruelty to
torture them. …
…Let our clemency, therefore, procure for us the noble distinction that we
who have conquered others can conquer our own fury and wrath. …
…How worthy is it of a great man, in the midst of his triumphs, to count
it for sufficient revenge, that vengeance is in his power? …
…It is the part of a brave man to consider those as his enemies with whom
he is contending for victory, but to consider the vanquished as fellow-men;
that while courage brings war to an end, humanity may add to the blessings
of peace. Mercy is, therefore, much more worthy of a noble man than
victory; the one is a virtue, the other the effect of fortune. …
…but as they were made prisoners, their lives were granted, and they have
been readmitted from the rank of our enemies to the common fellowship of
men, it would be a great stain on our honour, and bring us to great disgrace,
if we were now to inflict on them the punishment of death.
“His discourse…was received by a murmur of applause from the people”
Then Hervey had a go at it.
…Was that the way by which Julius Caesar and Alexander of Macedon
conquered the world ? Did the nations voluntarily flock together from all
parts to such spectacles of mercy, or were they not rather compelled to
submit to the yoke by force of arms and the terrors of cruelty? …
…Raymond argues with wonderful mildness, as if we had already
subjugated these nations, and we had only to do with treating them kindly,
or as if our enemies were so few, that, with such valour as ours, it matters
not that we augment their numbers, whereas the whole population of Ireland
are leagued for our destruction, and not without reason. …
…Tell me, I pray you, whether Raymond’s acts are not inconsistent with his
words. Let him answer me whether, if the enemy should advance to storm
our camp, and by any chance should succeed, they would deal mercifully
with us. …
…We must so employ our victory that the death of these men may strike
terror into others, and that, taking warning from their example, a wild and
rebellious people may beware of encountering us again. …
How did it work out?
“Hervey’s opinion was approved by his comrades, and the wretched
captives, as men condemned, had their limbs broken, and were cast
headlong into the sea, and drowned.”
So much for “The quality of mercy is not strained”.
The account is taken from The Conquest of Ireland, by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), a 12th century historian and tutor to two kings, Richard the Lionheart and his brother, John.