The Battle of Kells
Seven hundred and one years ago, in November of 1315, the famous/infamous Sir Roger Mortimer suffered a rare early defeat. At the time a Scottish army led by Edward Bruce (Robert’s less successful and more impetuous brother) was involved in an invasion of Ireland. This side-conflict to the First War of Scottish Independence had begun in May of 1315 and by November was still going well. The Scots were riding wave of victories that stretched back a year and a half to the battle of Bannockburn and their Irish adventure had yet to become enmired in the series of defeats that led the BBC to recently describe the war as “Scotland’s Vietnam”.
Edward’s army had just defeated the forces of the “Red” Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, at Connor, a heavy defeat for the locals. According to the near contemporary poet John Barbour, “In that bataill wes tane or slane All hale the flur off Ulsyster” (in that battle was taken [prisoner] or slain all the flower of Ulster [the civalry/knights]). The road to Dublin lay open and the Scots were keen to push south towards the seat of power.
Mortimer had yet to rise to the apex of his power, though he was still an important noble and a man to be reckoned with. Grandson of the famous Roger, First Baron Mortimer, he had inherited substantial estates in the Welsh Marches. He played an active role bearing robes at the coronation of Edward II of England, the King he would later first cockold, then depose, replace and possibly later murder. Through his marriage (at the age of 14) to Joan de Grenville, Mortimer became Lord of Meath, adding large tracts of Irish land to go with his territories in Wales.
Probably because his own lands were so directly threatened, Mortimer was one of the few English nobles to realise the threat to England that a successful Scottish invasion of Ireland would prove. Shortly after Edward Bruce landed his army at Larne in May of 1315, Mortimer crossed the sea to Ireland, determined to take an active role in kicking to Scots back out.
Re-enforced by the recent arrival of fresh troops under the Earl of Moray, Edward Bruce marched his army south to Dundalk. Mortimer, having provisioned his castle at Trim, marched his own troops to meet the Scots and the two sides met in battle outside Kells, in County Meath. Like a lot of encounters in this brutal war, there was probably an element of personal spite in the encounter. Much of the tone of the conflict saw families divided in their loyalties with different branches fighting on both sides. The Earl of Ulster, for example, was also Robert Bruce’s father-in-law. Mortimer had inherited his Irish lands in opposition to his wife’s cousins, the de Lacys, a powerful Anglo-Irish dynasty whose fortunes had recently been on the decline. With perhaps questionable judgement, perhaps through local necessity, Mortimer had made an alliance with the two De Lacy brothers he had effectively disinherited and their additional forces meant meaningful opposition to the Scottish army was possible.
Three hours into the fighting, however, the de Lacys decided this was not their fight and withdrew, leaving Mortimer heavily outnumbered by the Scots. Mortimer’s army was destroyed and the Scots took and burned the town, the start of an onslaught of devastation they wrecked across the midlands of Ireland and which brought them much condemnation (and probably loss of support) by both English and (Gaelic) Irish alike.
Mortimer himself was lucky to escape with his life, fleeing with only a few surviving knights to Dublin. He would later get his revenge but for that day victory on the battlefield belonged to Edward Bruce and Scotland.