Earthlore Ireland Historic Sites

King John's Castle

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Earthlore Ireland: King John
King John
Sovereign of England
From 1199 to 1216

John was the youngest son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitane. The conflict and betrayal which marked this family would be reflected on into John's own reign.
When John was only eighteen, Henry II sent him to Ireland to represent the crown and learn the duties of rulership. John proved ill suited for the task and not only worsened the relationship with the Irish but created troubles with English landholders as well.
Within less than a year John returned to England, his efforts in Ireland a disaster.

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Ireland Historic Overview

Limerick, Ireland

Irish HistoryKing John's Castle lies at the very heart of Limerick's medieval core, the old English town on The King's Island, just north of Limerick's City center. Today, an extended riverside section of English town is known as the Heritage Precinct, and is undergoing major restoration, becoming, once again, the administrative and visitor center of the city.

The Welcoming Shannon

Irish HistoryLimerick City is magnificently sited on one of Europe's finest rivers, the Lordly Shannon, here where the soft bog and fresh water meet the salt of the sea. Today, it is difficult to picture the 9th century scenes, when fleets of Viking vessels sailed upriver to plunder and terrorize the Monastic Midlands. In later centuries these Norsemen settled and founded the trading port of Limerick.

Earthlore Ireland: Vikings on the River
A nineteenth century romantic depiction of Viking warriors.

Irish HistoryKing John's Castle was built to defend the river frontier between the Gaelic west and Norman Leinster and Munster. This was the original Thomond bridge. Today, at Limerick, three bridges span the winding river, as it spreads itself towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Irish HistoryThe River Shannon and King John's Castle live side by side, a little above the Curraghour Falls, at Thomond Bridge. This majestic river, the longest in Ireland or Britain opens its tidal waters to welcome the international fleets of the world, just as it has done for the mariners of countless years.

Earthlore Ireland: King John's Castle on the River Shannon
King John's Castle at Evening
Guarding the Shannon

Irish HistoryMany have sailed on its hospitable waves from the sea inland to the very heart of Ireland, very often pausing awhile on the now walled banks of this wondrous city of Limerick. In the past, King John's Castle acted as a watchdog on these sailors and their diverse cargoes, both human and otherwise. But, today, it can throw caution to the wind, and warmly welcome all.

Irish HistoryThe King's Island, approximately 80 hectares in extent, created by a loop of the River Shannon, locally called the Abbey River, is connected to the city mainland by four bridges: Thomond, Matthew, Baal and O'Dwyer. Sited, as this island is, at the lowest fording point of the River Shannon above the estuary, its strategic location attracted Viking colonies from the 9th century on. Then the O'Briens, Kings of Thomond, held sway, endowing St. Mary's Cathedral in the late 12th century. Subsequent Anglo-Norman occupation fortified the fledgling city, erecting King John's Castle as its administrative center, and walling what became known as English town.

Earthlore Ireland: The Towers of King John's Castle
The gate towers of King John's castle.

Earthlore Ireland: Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth
18th Century Painting

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    Earthlore Ireland: Portrait of General Patrick Sarsfield
    General Patrick Sarsfield

    A Most Impressive Fortress

    Irish HistoryKing John's Castle was built to guard the Shannon frontier, and to serve as an administration center for the kingdom of Limerick in the Shannon Region of Ireland. It was uniquely built for its day, without a keep and with high curtain walls to withstand the awesome power of the new siege machines. Its massive gate towers and drum comer towers were state-of-the-art features for the beginning of the 13th century.

    Irish HistoryKing John's Castle remains a most impressive Anglo-Norman fortification, even after 800 years. This five-sided, keepless castle was erected in the early years of the 13th century, probably between 1200 and 1216, during the reign of King John. The structure served as a royal fortress for the most westerly city of the Angevin empire, ruled by the Plantagenets from Anjou of France. Because of its strategic position on the River Shannon, the castle doubled as an administration and military center for the region.

    Irish HistoryIts corner towers and double-towered gatehouse reflect the architecture of castle building around the year 1200. And, as the archaeological excavations have shown, the castle was built on the site of an early fortification, incorporating some of the earthwork defenses into the castle plan.

    Earthlore Ireland: King John's Diorama
    The Siege Machines
    Terror of the Castle Dwellers

    Irish HistoryImproved siege techniques and machinery necessitated higher castle walls which, in turn, demanded strong outer defenses. This led to the development of the round comer towers and, particularly, a formidable gatehouse. At Limerick, only part of the gatehouse survives. It seems likely that a barbican or foregate was linked by drawbridge to the double towers, and also further protected by a portcullis.

    Irish HistoryDuring the 17th century sieges the castle suffered badly. In 1651 it was surrendered with the city to Cromwell's army. Patches of brickwork show hasty repairs after the siege bombardments of the early 1690s. Many alterations and repairs were carried out in the succeeding centuries. The domestic buildings of the courtyard do not survive, except for remnants of a 13th century hall and the site of what could be the castle chapel.

    Sarsfield Rides Out

    Irish HistoryFew figures in Irish history capture and hold the imagination as vividly as General Patrick Sarsfield. This 17th century cavalry commander, with 600 troopers and one Galloping Hogan, rode 70 miles overnight from King John's Castle to Ballyneety, to blow up a siege train which was coming to augment the Williamites forces besieging Limerick in 1690. That exploit, its speed of execution and its daring is recounted as one of the great feats of 17th century Ireland.

    Irish HistoryToday, with the aid of signposts, you may follow Sarsfield's route, which starts at King John's Castle and continues through the unspoiled countryside of Clare, Limerick and Tipperary, exploring a magical landscape of bog, forest, mountain and green pastures well off the beaten track.

    Earthlore Ireland: Saint Mary's Church, Limerick
    Saint Mary's Church
    Limerick City

    Regional Index:

    Province of:
    Ireland Clare
    Ireland Cork
    Ireland Kerry
    Ireland Limerick
    Ireland Tipperary
    Ireland Waterford

    Together, Northern Ireland and the Republic are comprised of four provinces, which consist of thirty two counties.

    Earthlore Ireland: Castle Display
    Display at King John's
    Museum Exhibit

    Earthlore Ireland: Irish Hearth Tale


    Excavations Reveal the Past

    Irish HistoryRecent Archeological excavations at the castle revealed new aspects of pre-Norman Limerick. These features remain on site underneath the new building for the visitor to experience and examine at close quarters. Excavations at the castle commenced in February 1990 with the aim of defining the line of the original curtain wall along Nicholas Street, and the extent of the comer bastion so as to allow for their restoration.

    Irish HistoryAs expected, these features were quickly revealed, but in addition there were exciting discoveries of pre-Norman features, and evidence of the traumatic siege of 1642. The need to preserve this primary evidence of old Limerick, and practical reasons of catering for the modern visitor, resulted in a brilliantly conceived, modern two story structure, designed on eight widely spaced foundation columns. This allows the archaeological evidence which forms the basement of the new building - to become an integral part of the Visitor Center. The significance of the finds is explained graphically on site, and a short audiovisual presentation has highlights of the actual excavations in progress.

    Irish HistoryThe pre-Norman features discovered are both defensive and of settlement. Extensive evidence of an earlier defense system of a strong earthen rampart, supported with limestone boulders and protected by a deep ditch, showed that King John's Castle was built on an existing fortification, and that this defense was incorporated on the southern side into the new stone castle; indeed the earlier earthworks influenced the overall ground plan of the castle.

    Earthlore Ireland: Riverbank in Limerick, Early Nineteenth Century
    Riverbank in Limerick, Early Nineteenth Century.

    Irish HistoryTo the south of this early defensive enclosure, two sunken-floored houses, a large stone-lined entrance passage to a third, and remains of post and wattle fences were discovered. Pottery shards place these structures towards the end of the 12th century. The excavators have postulated that they may well represent a suburban expansion northwards of the Ostman population, which had its center in the southern span of the King's Island. Similar house-types have been found in the Viking levels of Waterford City.

    Irish HistoryFrom the limited reconstruction of the houses, visitors will be able to glimpse a real way of life some 800 to 900 years ago. The excavation also turned up evidence of the siege of the castle during the summer of 1642. Mines sunk from Nicholas Street, and countermines to destroy them were exposed. In one clay-cut tunnel a period pistol was found. A reconstruction of one of the siege mines, also on site, as an added attraction, enabling the visitor to experience something of the fear of that summer of 1642. The eastern curtain wall is not rebuilt to its original height, as its foundation lies beneath the new building, but its length is clearly defined.

    Irish HistoryFuture excavations will concentrate within the courtyard of the castle. Who knows what will be revealed? As the Limerick archaeologists have said,'What has emerged in the course of the recent work proves that, however strange the new structure may look at first glance, strange things have happened in bygone days at King John's Castle!'

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    Irish Historic Overview: 'Early Age Ireland'Ireland Content DirectoryIrish Heart Tale: Niam and Oisin

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