Robert le Poer


I want to summarise what is known about the life and times of my 18th great-grandfather Robert le Poer, who took part in the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century and was granted substantial lands in County Waterford by Henry II. To begin with, I will simply quote all the references to him that I have found so far; then I will describe the background to his life.

My first source was a Victorian family tree inherited by my family. This was commissioned around 1880 and was possibly designed to flatter. The original family name is called `de Poher', which means someone from the Poher region of Brittany.

We now return to Sir Robert de Poher, son of Bartholomew de Poher, Lord of Blackborough. He was Knight Marshal of Ireland, and in A.D. 1177 (Henry II) was granted that portion of the present Co. Waterford extending from the river Suir to the sea, excepting the City and the Cantred of the Danes, a district thence called `The Poer or Powers Country'. He was Governor of Waterford and Wexford, and was, A.D. 1179, joined in Commission with Lord Hugh de Lacy in the Government of Ireland. (Power family pedigree)
More reliable sources (cited below) contradict some parts of this passage. First, although Robert was one of Henry II's marshals (i.e., a military adviser), I have not found evidence that he was `Knight Marshal of Ireland' or even that this was a meaningful title. Second, it was in 1177 that Hugh de Lacy became Governor General, and that Robert was appointed to serve under him as Governor of Waterford and Wexford. Third, by 1179 Robert was already dead: he was killed during 1178 in South Kildare. The following passage from an article on Power surname history suggests that Victorian members of the family tried to rewrite the actual history of the name for reasons of snobbery:

His surname [le Poer], meaning `the poor man', may have been the result of taking a vow of holy poverty rather than just being impecunious. In the last century [i.e., the 19th century], when poverty was considered a stigma, the head of the Power family changed his name to de Poher de la Poer and made a valiant but unconvincing attempt to trace his descent from the fifth-century counts of a district in Brittany called Poher. (Julian Walton, `Power Surname History', Belgrave Publications 1992)
Walton actually uses the word `Polier' rather than `Poher', but I have not found this anywhere else and it looks like a copying error.

The Genealogy Resource Centre at confirms the view that the original form was `le Poer', and gives some information about the current distribution of the surname Power:

It is estimated that there about 11,000 Powers in the country [Ireland] today. The name, now one of the most numerous in Ireland, came with the Normans in Strongbow's 12th century invasion. It is derived from the Old French word `povre' (poor) and was first written le Poer, a form still retained by one or two families ...The Norman Powers settled in Co. Waterford where they are still more numerous than anywhere else: in fact nearly half their total is in that county and Power heads the statistical list for Co. Waterford. (Genealogy Resource Center,, 2000)
A historical memoir of the family by Gabriel Desmond (1891) goes along with the name `de Poher' and mentions Robert in several passages.

A.D. 1066. A branch of the Pohers settled in Devon ...Sir Bartholemew de Poher was Lord of ...Blackborough in the reign of Henry II, and by his wife Elenor left a son Robert de Poher, whose son Bartholomew de Poher was living in the tenth year of Henry III.

Sir Robert de Poher ...was a son of Sir Bartholemew de Poher, Lord of Blackborough, Devon ...and his wife Elenour. He accompanied Henry II himself in 1172, was Knight Marshal to that Monarch, and was granted by him in A.D. 1177, `In custodium, the City of Waterford, with all the circumjacent province; and appointed that the following lands should, for the time to come, belong to the service of Waterford, viz., all the lands which lie between Waterford and the water beyond Lismore (which comprehend the greatest part of the County of Waterford), and also the lands of Ossory.' He obtained a grant of that portion of the present County of Waterford extending from the River Suir to the sea, excepting the City and cantred of the Danes, a district thence called the Poer, or Power country, thus dispossessing the O'Flanagans, the ancient Celtic proprietors. From Sir Robert de Poher have descended ...the Barons of Donoyle, the Barons of Iverke, the Barons of Kells in Ossory, the Lords Power and Curraghmore ...When William Fitz Adelm de Burgh was recalled to England, the king appointed Hugh de Lacy Governor-General of Ireland, and joined with him, in commission, Sir Robert de Poher, Governor of Waterford and Wexford.

Sir Robert, by his wife Katherine, had issue four sons: Sir John de Poher, Baron of Donoyle, eldest son; Sir Eustace de Poher, a benefactor to the Dominican Monastery of St Saviour's, Dublin, A.D. 1224; Walter de Poher, Lord of Dunbratyn; and Bartholomew de Poher, living 10th Henry III, who continued the line of Blackburg or Blackborough, Devon.

Sir John de Poher, Baron of Donoyle, eldest son of Sir Robert, succeeded his father as baron by tenure. It is extremely probable that Sir Robert himself, or this John, his successor, built the Castle of Donoyle, which was the `caput baroninae', all the other families of the name in the county of Waterford branching therefrom. We find the barons of Donoyle mentioned at a very early period, and I think it may be regarded as certain that this feudal fortress dates its foundation from the close of the twelfth or first years of the thirteenth century ...This Sir John is mentioned as follows in Sweatman's `Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland', vol. i.: `No, 1635, Nov. 17, 1228. The King to the Justiciary of Ireland: Richard Duket and Henry de St Florence have offered to the king on the justiciary's behalf 100 marks [1 mark = 13s 4d] for the marriage of John, son and heir of Robert le Poher ...' (Gabriel O'Connell Desmond `An historical memoir of poher, poer, or power', Dublin: Office of `The Irish Builder', 1891)
Perhaps Desmond's memoir was the main source for our family pedigree: some of the wording is the same, the name `de Poher' is preferred in both documents, and the mistake of dating Hugh de Lacy's appointment in 1179 instead of 1177 is repeated. However, Desmond gives much more detail, including the names of Robert's wife and all his sons (our pedigree mentions only the eldest son John). Desmond seems unaware that Robert was killed in 1178, and implies that he was succeeded by John, who would have probably been a child. From Orpen's history (cited below), it seems that William Poer took over as Governor; his relation to Robert is unknown, but he was not a son.

The most important contemporary history of the Norman invasion is `Expugnatio Hibernica' (The Conquest of Ireland) by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales). This work, written in Latin, mentions `Robertus Poerius' several times, on one occasion in very unflattering terms. Gerald was an admirer of the warriors who pioneered the invasion (e.g., Strongbow and Raymond le Gros, members of the Welsh FitzGerald family), and was therefore hostile to the `new officials' (including Robert le Poer) sent over by Henry II in an attempt to curb their influence. The first reference comes from 1176, when Henry II sent four envoys to Waterford to instruct Raymond le Gros to abandon his efforts to make further conquests in the south of Ireland.

But as is usually the case, the king believed the informer, for rumour is always more readily believed when it brings news of wrong committed against one than when it tells of services rendered, and the former rather than the latter is remembered. [This refers to rumours against Raymond.] So when winter was over [i.e., spring 1176] he [Henry II] sent four envoys across to Ireland, namely Robert Poer with Osbert de Herlotera, William de Bendinges and Adam de Gernemes. Two of them were to return with Raymond, who had now been recalled to England, while the other two were to stay in Ireland with the earl [i.e., Strongbow] ...

Meanwhile [1177] FitzAldelin was recalled to England. [FitzAldelin was Governor General, and another `new official' despised by Gerald of Wales.] He had done nothing of any note in Ireland, except that he arranged for the miracle-working staff, which they call the staff of Jesus, to be moved from Armagh to Dublin. Miles de Cogan and FitzStephen were also recalled. King Henry then appointed Hugh de Lacy as his general deputy in Ireland, and gave him Robert Poer to act as governer of both Waterford and Wexford ...

In the meantime, while these events were taking place in Desmond, Hugh de Lacy, a man possessed of great honesty and good sense, made an excellent job of fortifying Leinster and Meath with castles. Among these he built the castle of Leighlin on that noble river, the Barrow, on the Osraige bank. It was situated beyond Ui Drona in a naturally well-protected position. This was the castle from which Robert Poer, to whom the king had entrusted it, had previously decamped. What splendid borderers this Robert Poer and FitzAldelin made, having been sent into a country that needed real men! `Whenever Fortune wants to have a joke, she raises men like these from humble circumstances to the lofty heights of power.' For they were the sort of soldiers who got more pleasure from `lying in bed, holding a girl close, and strumming the Thracian lyre with their fingers, than bearing shields on their shoulders, and the sharp-pointed spear and thick-plumed helmet.' It amazes me that a prince who was himself so noble and courageous should have made a practice of appointing to command remote border areas men who were so lacking in courage and nobility. (Gerald of Wales, `The Conquest of Ireland', c. 1189)
Some notes by Scott and Martin (1978) to their edition of `Expugnatio Hibernica' also refer to Robert Poer:

Poer was one of the king's `new officials' who were used to oust the Geraldines and other Cambro-Normans from control of affairs in Ireland. As a royal marshal he was given custody of Waterford and the surrounding territory as far as Lismore and Wexford in 1177 ...According to Giraldus he lacked drive and bravery, and was responsible through cowardice for the loss of the castle at Leighlin ...He was killed in 1178 during an expedition against the Ui Tuathail of Ui Muiredaig (of what is now south Kildare) ...

The frog [apparently not previously observed living in Ireland] was found near Waterford and brought to the court of Robert Poer, then governor of the city. Domnall Mac Gilla Patriac, king of Osraige, who was present, took it (or pretended to take it) as a portent of disaster. Giraldus regarded frogs as reptiles and alien to Ireland.

Giraldus's comments on Poer, as on FitzAlden, must be treated with caution.

Orpen...states that William [Poer] succeeded Robert as governor at Waterford, and cites Giraldus his source, but Giraldus does not make this statement. (Edition of Expugnatio Hibernica, A.B. Scott and F.X. Martin, Dublin Royal Irish Academy 1978)
There are several references to Robert le Poer in Orpen's four-volume history `Ireland under the Normans' published in 1911.

The town of Waterford, as we have seen, was, from the time of Henry's visit to Ireland [1172], retained in the king's hand, and in 1177 `the city with all the surrounding province' as far as Lismore, was given into the custody of Robert le Poer, the marshal. (Orpen, volume 1, p. 371)

Henry next appointed custodians of the lands that were in his hand, including, of course, the great fief of Leinster, and named the places where the feudal services in respect of these lands should be paid or performed. He gave the custody of Wexford to William Fitz Audelin, his dapifer, that of Waterford to Robert le Poer, his marshal, and that of Dublin to Hugh de Lacy. (Orpen, volume 2, p. 35)

It appears that Henry had ordered that a fortress should be erected here [on the west bank of the Barrow, near Leighlin bridge], but Robert le Poer, the custos of Waterford, who, according to Gerald, was wanting in energy and valour and utterly unfit for border warfare, had failed to carry out the royal command. [continued in footnote] `A quo Robertus Poer cui regio mandato injunctum id fuerat ante defecerat,' ibid. This sentence follows that last quoted, and has, I think, been misunderstood. According to the Annals of Inisfallen (Dublin copy), Robert Poer was killed in 1178 in an expedition against the O'Tooles of Hy Muireadhaigh (South Kildare). He was succeeded in Waterford by William Poer: Gir. Camb. v 354. In the Pipe Roll, 25 Hen. II (1178-9), p 67, is the entry `pro cc. summis frumenti missis Roberto Poherio in Hibernia xx.1. per breve regis'. Corn was sent in the same year to Raymond Fitz William and to the officers of Hugh de Lacy. (Orpen, volume 2, p. 55)

Finally, Robert le Poer is mentioned by F.X. Martin in a chapter of the collection `A New History of Ireland II: Medieval Ireland 1169-1534' (1987), edited by A. Cosgrove and published by the Oxford Clarendon Press.

Waiting for John [Henry II's son] to grow up meant that some strong royal representative had, in the interim, to control affairs in Ireland. Fitz Audelin, who had taken over from Raymond le Gros in April 1176, was replaced after the council of Oxford [1177] by Hugh de Lacy, with the title of `procurator'. Leinster was divided into three `custodies' under de Lacy at Dublin, fitz Audelin at Wexford, and Robert le Poer at Waterford.

Henry made a number of sweeping land-grants and gave powerful offices to a small number of ambitious settlers. This represented the second stage of Anglo-Norman colonisation in Ireland. The most notable beneficiaries were Hugh de Lacy, Robert fitz Stephen, Miles de Cogan, Philip de Braose, and Robert le Poer. Each person to whom grants were made at the council had to do homage and take an oath of fealty to John, as well as to Henry himself.

The kingdom of Desmond was granted to Robert fitz Stephen and Miles de Cogan; the kingdom of Thomond to Philip de Braose; and the custody of Waterford to Robert le Poer. There was no difficulty about Waterford: it was already firmly in Anglo-Norman hands, and le Poer assumed command there. (Martin, p. 112-3)