Medieval warfare was traditionally thought to be the preserve of men. However 14th century records illustrate gaelic Irish women participated in warfare acting as spies moving between the Anglo Norman colony and Gaelic Ireland.

Background

Through the course of the late 13th century, society in Ireland became increasingly violent. Wicklow and the surrounding regions were one of the places worst affected. High in the mountains gaelic society had survived the norman invasion relatively intact. From the 1270’s onwards the Gaelic Irish O Tooles, O Byrnes and Mc Murroughs were driven to raiding the Norman colony by frequent famines. In the following decades the Norman Colony in the Vale of Dublin, Kildare and the Barrow Valley were often decimated by raiding. Accounts of settlements on the fringes of Wicklow at the time are reminiscent of Deadwood.

Despite the widespread violence intermarraige between the two communities was common and many Gaelic Irish men and women lived in the colony working as servants and peasants. This gave the rebels conducting raids information and logistical support within the Norman colony.  From surviving records it appears women in the colony worked as spies as they were easily able to move between the Gaelic Irish territory and the colony. Between 1302 and 1311 several women were convicted of spying or aiding rebels and the punishments were varied and harsh.

The Spies

In 1302 Isabella Cadel and her servant Fynewell Seyeuyn were accused and convicted of “coming from the felons of the mountains accused that [they art] (sic) and part with said felons and are spies for the country for them”1. The torn loyalties of people living between the Anglo Norman and Gaelic Irish worlds was revealed in the case when it emerged that Isabella’s husband was Gaelic Irish – Dermot O Dimpsi (Dempsey). This case was not isolated by any means. In 1311 Gaelic Irish women Fynyna Octouthy and her daughter Isabella who was married to Thomas La Valle an Anglo Norman were convicted of harbouring felons William and Tadg Octouthy, presumably relations. .2

Finally the case of  Grace le Deveyns originally an O Toole who had married an Anglo Norman shows the precarity of life in one of the most dangerous areas in medieval Ireland. In the early 14th century Grace was recorded as aiding other colonists as she “is accustomed…..at the request of faithful men of the peace to go the mountains to search for cattle carried off by her race”3

However it appears Grace also used her ability to move between the colony and the Gaelic Irish held areas to pass information. Eventually Grace was arrested, tried and convicted of having spied and that “by her spying the men of Saggart were robbed by the Irish of the mountains of divers goods”.

Punishments

The price for such activities were heavy. Grace le Deveyns, Fynyna Octouthy were hanged, Isabel Ocouthy was pregnant when found guilty and was given a stay of execution until the child was born after which she was also hanged. Isabella Cadel and her servant Fynewell Seyeuyn were spared because of the praiseworthy service of Isabella’s deceased father and because “simplicity of the women in this affair”. This is presumably an excuse not hang Norman women.4

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These cases are from a book I am currently writing on the 14th century in Ireland where famine warfare and the Black Death brought society in Ireland to its knees

1Cal Jus Rolls Vol 1 pge 368

2Cal Jus Rolls Vol III pge 231

3Women in Anglo Irish & Gaelic society pge 40

4Cal Jus Rolls Vol 1 pge 368

12 comments on “Female spies in 14th century Ireland…..

  1. Jim Monaghan on

    On inter marriage. Was there not a massacre of an Norman lord in Ardee because they thought he had gone native so to speak. A De Birmingham, I think

    Reply
    • Irish History on

      There was a massacre at Braganstown in 1329. The massacre was effectively the assassination of John de Bermingham the newly created Earl of Louth/Oriel. Along with de Bermingham several members of his family and retinue including the famous gaelic Irish tympanist Cam O Cearbhail were killed. The assassination was more to do with the tryanical nature of de Berminghams rule and complex relations among the colonial community in Louth. Intermarraige was not unusual and very acceptible among all levels of society. Indeed since the invasion the Normans had intermarried – Strongbow married Aoife Mc Murrough while Hugh de Lacy married Rose O Connor. Incidentally de Bermingham himself married a Norman – Avelina de Burgh the daughter of the Red Earl of Ulster Richard de Burgh. His loyalty was never in question – he was granted the earldom because of his victory at Faughart in 1318 which effectively ended the Bruce invasion of Ireland for all intents and purposes when Edward Bruce was killed.

      Reply
  2. Jim Monaghan on

    Not my area. My partner did a literature survey many moons ago. I got teh impression in one account that the Louth “settlers” had taken exception to De Bs almost Irish court. It sounded like whites in the American west. Attitudes like this do not exclude intermarriage.
    I am more into 20th century left history. Though I appreciate the work you do in bring this into debate and getting people interested.

    Reply
    • Irish History on

      Well his court was not Irish although you are right in that de Bermingham did have large numbers of Irish kerns who caused mayhem where ever they went and without doubt created tensions. De Berminghams assassination though must also be contextualised in in the situation that bonds were breaking down that once were far stronger. Louth had been to an extent been a territory at woar for decades and the sub tenants had a low threshold of what they would tolerate (as compared to the ideal feudal order if it ever existed) Its not a coincidence that the Brown Earl of Ulster is assassinated (albeit in very different circumstances) four years later by his extended family. De Bermingham though had not gone native, examples of this iilustrate that this was well underway in other – the marcher lords in Wicklow or perhaps even better still say the Barrets of Tirawley in Mayo. De Bermingham though was from a family with perhaps the worst reputation in Gaelic Ireland. His father Piers commited one of the worst massacres in 14th century when he lured dozens of the O’Connors to feast in 1305 and massacred them including his own foster son. I guess to confuse this post even more this illustrates how complex gaelicisation was – for example Normans could perhaps adopt gaelic custom but firmly believe they were not Gaelic.

      Reply
  3. arranqhenderson on

    Very interesting, brilliantly researched piece, really enjoyed it, thank you. Also enjoyed and impressed by the precision of your responses to our responses, such as the extra info on the de Bermingham massacre/assassination above. Like some of your other readers i was surprised at how wide the intermarriage you describe seems to have been. I would have assumed that marriages like the Strongbow/Aoife one (right at the start of course) and the de Burg/O’Coonor one were the exception, and also permissible precisely because they were great dynastic alliances, between great Norman and Gaelic families. ( i know Stongbow was only an earl , but from his conduct and actions I I think its safe to assume he was highly ambitious!) Was this also the case, this intermarriage was it acceptable slightly lower down the food chain? among normal barrons, “normal normans”, flemings, and old english all marrying regular local Gales? I also was under the impression that there were a host of laws, or customs albeit slightly later, designed to maintain medieval “english” identity. statues of Kilkenny and all that. Do I have the wrong end of the stick?

    Reply
    • Irish History on

      Hi Arran, thanks, Intermarriage appears to have happened among all levels of society. From the calendar of Rolls of Justiciar court which survive (1295-1314) there are literally dozens if not hundreds of cases. It was not always gaelic women marrying Norman men. There are several examples of Norman women marrying Gaelic men as in he case of Isabel Cadel mentioned above who married Diarmait O Dempsey. There were numerous laws brought in through out the 14th century even some at the 1297 parliament http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/2012/08/21/the-medieval-mullet/ to combat what the english called “degeneracy” coming from the word gens which roughly speaking “nation”. These statutes of which there were many y were abysmal failures leading to the fact that there was a large amount of truth (with some exageration) to the statement that the Anglo Normans became more Irish than the Irish themselves.

      Reply
  4. arranqhenderson on

    Thanks, great reply, again very interesting on Gaelic-Norman intermarriage. . Also fascinating to learn the origin of the word degenerate / degeneracy. I presume this must be of Roman/Latin origin. I wonder if the Roman used it, say for Governors in different provinces, especially in the orient, going Persian etc… Anyway, very nice post, excellent, highly informative blog in general. I am subscribed, and am becoming a regular reader. keep up the great work. -Arran.

    Reply
    • Irish History on

      Thanks Arran – the word gens in the the Ancient world – Rome etc had a very different meaning as far as I know it referreed more to an extended family group.

      Reply
  5. arranqhenderson on

    Thanks again, yes, hat is certainly true that the word Gens in ancient Rome referred to a large extended family group, almost “a clan” (and indeed I believe many of them even acted as political blocks in city voting.) But I was wondering about your observation: “to combat what the english called “degeneracy” coming from the word gens which roughly speaking “nation”. Did the Anglo-Normans change the word, to mean “Nation” rather than family, or had the Romans already used the negative prefix de-gen.. to mean a dilution (of family, or of an entire people/culture) I wonder. Anyway, keep up the great work.- A.

    Reply
  6. Marie Brennan on

    Hi – very interesting website. I’m just wondering if there are still groups out there who dress up and perform customs and traditions of Norman knights or Celtic chieftains. I’d love to get some contacts please. I look forward to hearing from you with regard to organising an event. Regards, Marie.

    Reply

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