Turtle Bunbury

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By Turtle Bunbury

This island is awash with castles, arising every which way you look and often when least expected - in wooded glens and on sleepy riverbanks, upon precarious coastal rocks and inaccessible mountain tops, in the dead centre of busy cities and even under the occasional motorway.

But few are more impressive than Trim Castle in Co. Meath which is not just the oldest stone castle in Ireland but also the largest of our Anglo-Norman castles.

In 2013, Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine, gave Trim Castle a significant boost by including it in their “100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life.” The 800-year-old fortress was given further cause for cheer when CNN fine-tuned Mr. Bellows list into a Top 10 and placed Trim Castle at No. 8.

“What amazing architects these people were, and how remarkably old this is,” wrote Mr. Bellows. “It’s the quintessential castle. It’s knights, bow and arrows and blood on the ground.”

Sprawled upon the banks of the River Boyne, Trim Castle owes its origins to the chainmail-clad Anglo-Norman invaders who cantered into Ireland on their gigantic Arabian steeds in the late 12th century. Commanded by the warrior Strongbow, they beat up just about anybody who stood in their path. Fearing Strongbow might set up a rival kingdom in Ireland, the Angevin king Henry II crossed the Irish Sea and obliged Strongbow and the other Anglo-Norman adventurers to submit to his greater power.

In the ensuing shake up of land ownership, Henry II converted the ancient Kingdom of Meath (which stretched from the Shannon to the Irish Sea) into the Liberty of Meath. e granted ownership and administration of this new liberty to one of his key allies Hugh de Lacy of the Welsh Marches. Hugh's father had been one of the most powerful Knights Templar of his generation.

Giraldus Cambrensis, a contemporary, described de Lacy as ‘a swarthy man with small, black, deep-set eyes, a flat nose, an ugly scar on his right cheek caused by a burn, a short neck and a hairy sinewy body … After his wife's death, he fell into loose moral ways. He was very covetous, and immoderately ambitious of honour and renown.’

Establishing the port of Drogheda at the eastern end of his liberty, de Lacy oversaw the construction of numerous castles throughout the region. Trim Castle was designed as the nerve centre of his empire, pitched on the site of an old church that overlooked a ford on the River Boyne.

Most Norman castles up to this point were built with timber hewn from the surrounding forests. However, the native Irish, disapproving of such military carbuncles, kept burning them down. To side step such inevitabilities, de Lacy adapted a revolutionary new architectural concept from Europe - stone. Nonetheless, construction was by no means easy. An assault by Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, High King of Ireland, destroyed everything on site in 1173. De Lacy himself was assassinated whilst visiting another castle at Durrow in Co Laoise. The massive three-storied castle was finally completed under the watch of his son Walter de Lacy in 1224.

Nearly eight hundred years later, the huge zig-zag bailey walls and castellated towers still conjure up a Camelot of such elegance that Mel Gibson chose it as a location for on of the key scenes in 'Braveheart'. The castle doubled as York Castle in the movie, defended by the King’s nephew. You might recall Wallace and his merry men smashing down the castle door with a battering ram shortly before Longshanks receives his nephew’s severed head in the post.

Trim Castle has plenty of its own history to relish. In 1208, Walter de Lacy gave refuge to his mother-in-law Maud de Braose and her son William at Trim Castle while they were on the run from King John. Maud had been heard speaking of King John’s alleged role in the murder of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, a rival for the throne. William, a former friend of John, apparently owed the king a whopping five thousand marks. The de Braose castles in Wales had already been seized by King John’s forces when Maud and her son sought refuge with Walter and her daughter Margaret de Lacy at Trim Castle. However, two years later, the mother and son were captured in Galloway by the Scottish prince Donnchadh, Earl of Carrick, who briefly held them at Carrickfergus Castle, before sending them on to England where they were placed in a dungeon at Corfe Castle in Dorset and literally starved to death. The hideous treatment of the House of Braose was one reason why so many nobles forced King John to sign Magna Carta in 1215. Margaret de Lacy founded a religious house, the Hospital of St. John, in Aconbury, Herefordshire in memory of her mother.

In 1241, it passed to Maud de Lacy, a granddaughter of Walter, who ruled over the liberty in equal partnership with her French husband, a formidable crusader called Geoffrey de Geneville. The de Genevills added several aspects to the present-day castle, including the great hall, the solar (or family living room) and the curtain tower. In 1308, Geoffrey de Geneville retired to the Dominican Friary in Trim where he died six years later. A team of archaeologists are currently (2015) trying to locate his skeleton in a patch of ground behind a supermarket in Trim, much as the Leicester archaeologists found Richard III’s remains in 2012.

The Dominican friary also got a nod from National Geographic as a place where “visitors can get a crash course in excavation and start digging and recording their findings side-by-side with archaeologists and geologists”, writes Bellows. “Younger children get to play at a camp, where they get to pick up heavy stone axes and run in chain mail.”

Before he died, de Geneville conveyed the vast de Lacy estates to his granddaughter Joan and her power-hungry husband Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. In 1316, Mortimer was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by Edward II, portrayed as the wimpy son of Longshanks in the ‘Braveheart’ movie. Within seven years, he had become the lover of Edward II’s estranged wife Queen Isabella. She’s the beautiful French princess (played by Sophie Marceau) whom Wallace canoodles with in ‘Braveheart’. As a historian, it’s my duty to state that Isabella was no more than nine years old when Wallace was executed. The film also suggests that Wallace fathered the future king Edward III who was, in fact, born seven years after Wallace’s execution.

The bottom line is that Wallace and Queen Isabella were never lovers. But Mortimer and Isabella were. And in 1327, they deposed and murdered Edward II and became the de facto rulers of England for the next three years, ruling on behalf of the child king Edward III. However, the young Edward proved stronger than they anticipated and, when opportunity knocked, he had Mortimer arrested and hanged at Tyburn. The impossibly wealthy Joan was initially imprisoned as the wife of a traitor and stripped of her lands, including Trim Castle. However, Edward III recognized her innocence and restored her lands with a full pardon in 1336.

In 1415, the liberty and castle of Trim was inherited by four-year-old Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, whose mother Anne Mortimer was born at New Forest, Tyrellspass, County Westmeath. Richard spent some time at Trim in the 1440s and 1450s when he served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Over the course of the 15th century, the Irish Parliament actually met in Trim Castle seven times. There was also a mint operating within the castle. This was the time of the War of the Roses and Richard was a rival claimant to the English throne. He became Protector of the Realm while Henry VI recovered from a nervous breakdown, but was ultimately slain at the head of a Yorkist army during the battle of Wakefield in 1461.

Just weeks after Richard’s death, his son ascended the throne as King Edward IV of England. As his father’s heir, Edward was also now owner of Trim Castle. And so Hugh de Lacy’s original Liberty of Meath had come full circle and was once more in the hands of the crown. Edward IV assigned Germyn Lynch of London to be his representative at Trim.

Trim was the veritable capital of Royal Meath during the Tudor and Stuart Ages, as seat of the county court, gaol and sheriff. The town also sent two representatives to the Irish Parliament.

The castle came to the fore again when the Irish broke out in rebellion against the English and Scottish planters in 1641. Trim Castle was occupied by Sir Charles Coote, a fearless, bloody-minded Englishman whose ambition was seemingly ‘to hang, to racke, to kill, to burne, to spoil / untill I make this land a barren soile.’ Coote’s militia had achieved a good deal of his aspirations by the spring of 1642 when a force of some 3,000 rebels attacked the castle. Sir Charles was shot dead as he led a cavalry charge.

The castle subsequently passed to the Wellesely, the family of the famous Duke of Wellington, who sold it to the Leslies. It later passed via the Encumbered Estates Court to the Dunsany Plunketts. The State purchased the castle in 1993, shortly before our current President Michael D Higgins (as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht) persuaded Mel Gibson to film ‘Bravehart’ in Ireland.

The Office of Public Works then embarked upon a major conservation programme, installing a protective roof and getting the original moat back on track. The castle re-opened to the public in 2000 and had been garnering praise ever since. A double-whammy thumbs up from both National Geographic and CNN should ensure this castle remains upstanding for many centuries yet to come.


Turtle Bunbury