4. The Siege of Wexford

Ros Tapestry Panels - The Siege of Wexford


In this panel Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster and Robert Fitzstephen, with their combined forces of Irish, Norman, Welsh and Flemish combatants bear down on the first target of their campaign, the Norse town of Wexford.

The Leinster town had been promised by Dermot MacMurrough to the Norman leader Robert Fitzstephen and his half brother Maurice Fitzgerald during negotiations in Wales. But  Dermot did not own the town. It had for 300 years been a Viking town,  quite independent and owing only token dues to the Irish Kings of Leinster. Its economical and religious life was rooted outside Ireland to a great degree. The bishops of the town were consecrated in Canterbury and their trading routes included old Viking towns and settlements across Europe. Their main link in Ireland would have been with the Norse cities of Dublin and Waterford. The town, moreover, had never been overrun, the people living peacefully behind their wattle battlements, the centuries of ferocity put behind them. The town had been alerted to the advance of Dermot and Robert and lay ready to defend itself.

In the main panel, Dermot and Robert Fitzstephen halt on high ground above the town and discuss the tactics to be adopted. At this point, Robert may have realised that it was not simply a matter of receiving the keys of the promised town. A siege would appear to be required since it was obvious that the Norse were not going to come out on open ground and fight. Dermot’s absolute confidence in his new Norman allies may have blinded him to the fact that Robert’s experience in siege-making could well have been quite limited.  Trebuchet and Mangonels may not have featured among the war trappings brought over from Wales.

The first attempt to take the town was not met with great success. The Norse rained down arrows, resulting in considerable losses among Dermot’s men. Robert de Barry, Fitzstephen’s half brother, sustained a broken jaw. It was not the debut which Dermot – knowing that the watchful eyes of his enemies were everywhere – had been anticipating.  But luck was on his side. On the following day, after Dermot’s army had retired to reorganise, it transpired that Dermot’s own Bishop of Ferns was within the town paying a courtesy visit or so it would appear. The bishop persuaded the Norse to accept a settlement with Dermot. The outcome was seen as a success for Dermot’s army and reputations were saved.  It is possible that Fitzstephen’s unwavering devotion to Dermot was based on this episode.

In the upper border, are scenes from Viking life.  It shows that the ships had remained the same for decades, because they were an extraordinarily successful design.   They traded in skins and had their own coinage.  There is also an image of a stave church, a church made out of wood in the Norse style.

The lower border shows the wattle battlements behind which the Norse are keeping the Normans at bay.  It also shows Geraldus Cambrensis  writing his account of the siege, where  Robert de Barry climbs the battlements.  The two Bishops share some wine.  And Princess Nesta of Wales, who was closely related to many of this Norman family,  holds up banners with profiles of her lovers.