ARMAGH (Medieval Ireland)

Armagh (Ard Macha) became the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland in the middle ages, its status based on its supposed associations with Patrick.


Historians have been tempted to associate Armagh’s emergence as Ireland’s premier Christian center with a pre-Christian cultic legacy reflected by a sizable collection of stone carvings at Armagh, though the provenance of some of the stones is poorly documented and certainty about their origins is elusive. At nearby Emain Macha, named after the same goddess as Armagh, archaeologists excavated a major religious structure dating to circa 95 b.c.e.


Annals claim that Patrick founded a church at Armagh in 444, but those annals were written retrospectively and are unreliable. In fact, apart from his Confession and his Letter to Coroticus, no documents survive from Ireland in Patrick’s time, and neither composition associates him with Armagh. The Book of Armagh, written in 807, incorporates the earliest records to connect Patrick with Armagh: the Book of the Angel, written about 640 to 650; a catalogue of "Patrician" churches compiled by Bishop Tfrechan circa 670; and a Life of Patrick composed by Muirchu maccu Machtheni in the 680s or 690s, though based upon earlier records.

Muirchu claimed that Patrick’s church was not founded on the hilltop at Armagh, where the Church of Ireland cathedral stands, but lower down the hill at Templenaferta. Excavations at that site uncovered a series of burials dating from circa 420-685 c.e., establishing it as a very early Christian foundation. Excavations nearby uncovered evidence of a substantial ditch, which surrounded the hilltop in the fifth century. That suggests that the church at Templenaferta was founded beside a secular power center at Armagh in the early fifth century. However, there is no independent evidence to confirm the claim that Patrick ever founded a church at Armagh, though Armagh was certainly within his mission field.

Seventh-century records show that Patrick already enjoyed a national reputation. Cummian’s letter of 633 referred to Patrick as "papa noster," recognizing him as the "father" of the Irish Church. Pope-elect John IV’s letter of 640 addressed to leading churchmen in northern Ireland, with Bishop Tommene of Armagh at the head of the list, points to Armagh being one of the leading ecclesiastical centers in the north of Ireland (if not the leading center) by that date. The works of Muirchu and Tirechan and the Book of the Angel amplified Patrick’s existing reputation and bound it with the church at Armagh.


Armagh’s subsequent rise to national importance was associated with the cult of Patrick, but also on the great wealth the church leaders at Armagh were able to command, both in terms of land and the tributes drawn from dependent churches and monasteries in its far-flung paruchia. Armagh claimed jurisdiction over many supposedly Patrician foundations, and churches like Sletty that placed themselves under Armagh’s protection. Political factors must have played a role in Armagh’s accumulation of such wealth and power, though the process is obscured by lack of evidence.

Certainly Armagh was at the center of the kingdom of the Airthir, a branch of the Airgialla federation. The churchmen at Armagh, as one can see most blatantly in Muirchu’s Life, looked to the Airthir and Ui Neill for patronage. The abbots of Armagh probably gained possession of their rich hinterland as discarded segments of the royal Airthir dynasty reprised themselves as ecclesiastical dynasties under the protection of the church. The successful courting of the Ui Neill meant that as they progressed towards a national hegemony (never fully realized), the church of Armagh’s claims to national primacy were promoted in their train. The close tie between Armagh and the Ui Neill is symbolized by Aed Findliath, the king of Tara, having a house in Armagh in 870.

Armagh’s monastery grew over time, as reflected in the growing number of church offices recorded in eighth- and ninth-century annals. It became a sizeable ecclesiastical settlement. A Viking raid on the city in 1020 destroyed the fort at Armagh and all the buildings in it, save the library, countless houses in and around Armagh, the great stone church on the hill and at least two lesser churches, and the students’ accommodations and "much gold and silver, and other precious things."


The first Viking raid on Armagh was recorded in 832, and they were frequent thereafter. The raiders came for slaves as well as precious religious objects and other portable wealth. A hoard lost by Vikings in the Blackwater River shows the high quality of metalwork being carried out at Armagh at the time. The church at Armagh survived repeated raids, apparently undi-minished, though the loss of manuscripts and ecclesiastical treasures, not to mention lives and mundane goods, must have been considerable over the years.

Twelfth-Century Reforms

Armagh’s claims to being Ireland’s primatial see were formally acknowledged at the synod of Raith Breasail in 1111. The synod was part of the "twelfth-century reform" which sought to bring the Irish Church more closely in line with that elsewhere in Latin Christendom. The reform movement is closely associated with Malachy of Armagh, though Malachy faced tremendous opposition to his reforming efforts from the Clann Sinaig, the hereditary abbots of Armagh. The reformers eventually prevailed, though Popes Adrian IV and Alexander III directed Henry II of England to launch the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the third quarter of the twelfth century to complete the reforms.

Later Middle Ages

Armagh and most of its hinterland remained the possession of the archbishops in the later middle ages. Archbishop Mael Patraic Ua Scannail (1261-1270) built Armagh’s medieval cathedral, which survives in a heavily "restored" guise. It was described in 1553 as "one of the fairest churches in Ireland." Ua Scannail also founded a Franciscan friary in Armagh whose ruins can still be seen. An Augustinian priory built around the same time to house the reformed monastic community of Armagh was described as "the best building in Armagh" by Bishop Chiericati, the papal nuncio to the court of Henry VIII. There was also a small Ceile De community in the city which survived into the sixteenth century. At the close of the middle ages, there was a convent at Templenaferta which boasted four carved panels in white alabaster of Italian cinquecento design.

Armagh remained a significant town throughout the later middle ages. English soldiers under Lord Deputy Sussex set fire to Armagh in 1557, though less than a quarter of the town was actually destroyed, which may reflect something of its size. However, by the end of the Tudor wars of conquest, Armagh had been all but completely wrecked. Bartlett’s map of Armagh in 1601 shows extensive ruins of stone houses, as well as ecclesiastical buildings in Armagh by that time.

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