The Story of the White Merchant and the Battle of Clontarf

The Book of Howth is a sixteenth-century manuscript compiled over a decade by Christopher St Lawrence, the seventh Baron of Howth.  It has an interesting and substantially different account of why the battle of Contarf occurred.  The extract below is reproduced below complete with sixteenth-century spellings.

The Cause and the Field of Clontarf

There was a merchant in Doubling called the White Merchant, and had a fair wife, and he, minding to travel in other realms for merchandise, came to Brene Borowe, then chief and principal King of Ireland, and desired the King to take the charge of his wife in his absence, for her beauty was such that he feared all men; which he promised to do in his absence; and so the merchant departed.

And while the merchant was in his merchandise, Morcke McBren Borow, the King’s son, made suit to her, and wan her love, and lay with the merchant’s wife.; And by chance and fortune the merchant arrived after his long voyage in other realms with seven great ships upon the sudden at Pollbeyeg, by Doubling, in a great fog and mist, in the morning early, and so came to his house, and found the doors set, and did open these same secretly with a privy key, and found Morhewe McBrene in bed with his wife, and did nothing, and after a while paused, and saw them in arms, and said nothing, but took the sword of Morhow, and put it in his scabbard, and put his own sword in Morhowe’s scabbard, and so departed.

And after, the White Merchant went to Bren Boro the King, to complain … and demand judgement; who willed the White Merchant to give what sentence or judgement he would, seeing he was his son.

The White Merchant said, this was his judgement, and none other, that he would be in the field of Clontarff by that day twelve-month, to fight there a field with Morhe and all his that would take his part, and there trusted to be revenged on that wrong, and so departed, and went to seek his friends to Denmark, from whence his generation came; and by the day appointed brought a great number of stalworth soldiers out of Denmark, and landed at Clontarff, and there proclaimed a field, and after fought a terrible battle for all the forenoon.

The Irish wan, and drove the strangers to seek aid to their ships, and found them borne to Collis.; When they saw that they returned again to the battle, and so wan the field by very force of fight, and killed both Bren and left his son Morhowe for dead, be-north the stynging stream, lying upon his shield; …

Lambeth Palace Library Manuscript 623, folios 20 verso – 21 recto

Who was the 7th Baron Howth?

Christopher St Lawrence was born in the 1520s into an established English family in Dublin whose ancestors had taken part in the twelfth-century invasion of Ireland. In 1554 he attended Lincoln’s Inn in London to train for the law where he was threatened with expulsion for daring to wear a beard, which was frowned upon by the Inn authorities.   

Howth Castle

© JP, Wikicommons

Back home, he became the Lord of Howth in 1558 on the death of his brother and became involved in the administration of the English colony in Ireland.  Working closely with the lord lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Sussex, on many occasions, he also participated in military campaigns in Ulster against the Irish leader Shane O’Neill.  Actively campaigning against the imposition of the ‘cess’ tax in the 1560s and 1570s, he ended up in prison along with a number of other gentry and nobility from the English colony who objected to the tax.  In 1579 he was in trouble with the crown administration again, as he was prosecuted for violence against his wife and daughter, and ordered to pay a crippling fine.  It is unlikely that the fine was ever paid in full.  

St Lawrences in Howth

The modern Howth castle has many non-medieval additions, but the St Lawrence family claim to have acquired land in Howth, county Dublin when their ancestor, Almerick (or as he is called in the Book of Howth: Amore), was granted land in Howth by John de Coursy.  De Coursy, renowned as leader of the English in the twelfth-century campaign in Ulster, first arrived in Ireland with Amore off the coast of Howth and, while de Coursy was sick and had to remain on the ship for this initial battle, Amore took charge and won a great victory.  His success persuaded de Coursy (also his brother-in-law) to gift him with the land around Howth.  The St Lawrence family were proud of this story, and included it in the section of the Book of Howth which discusses the twelfth-century English invasion of Ireland.  

Howth Abbey / St Mary's Church was built on land granted by the founder of the St Lawrence family in Ireland, Almerick/Amore.  The building depicted dates from the late middle ages and is built on top of an earlier 11th century church. 

Howth Abbey contains the tombs of the St Lawrence family. The tomb above and below is that of an earlier lord of Howth, also named Christopher St Lawrence (d. c. 1462) and his wife.  The arms depicted are those of the St Lawrence family and other related Pale families.

© Brian T McElherron.


© Brian T McElherron

This sketch shows the top of the St Lawrence tomb shown in photos above.


Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 2, No. 61 (Aug. 31 1833), p. 72.




St Lawrence:

Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts Preserved in the Archiepiscopal Library at Lambeth, 6 vols., (ed.) by John S. Brewer and William Bullen, (London, 1871), vi.

Valerie McGowan-Doyle, The Book of Howth: the Elizabethan re-conquest of Ireland and the Old English (Cork, 2011).

Sparky Booker, 'The Knights Tale' in Sparky Booker and Cherie N. Peters (eds), Tales of Medieval Dublin (forthcoming 2014).


The Book of Howth's representation of the battle:

Lenore Fisher, ‘How Dublin remembered the Battle of Clontarf’ in Medieval Dublin XIII, Seán Duffy (ed.), (Dublin, 2013), pp 70-80.

(Seán Duffy discusses Leonore's article and others in Medieval Dublin XIII on 'Talking History' on Newstalk - beginning at 34 mins).

Unlike any other source, the 'Book of Howth' blames the battle of Clontarf on a figure called 'the White Merchant'.