The Desmond Rebellion (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Desmond Rebellion | start of chapter

His cousin, James FitzMaurice, who had so faithfully upheld his claims during his long imprisonment, now naturally looked for some reward of his fidelity. He asked that some lands should be assigned to him from the wide Desmond territories on which he might settle down. But the Countess, Dame Eleanor Butler,[9] desired to preserve the earldom intact for her only son, and vehemently opposed any division of the property.

Disgusted by his cousin’s ingratitude, James flung himself into rebellion, “studying nothing day nor night, but how to procure to stir both heaven, earth and hell to do the Earl mischief.” He entered into alliance with Edmond FitzGibbon, “the White Knight,” the Seneschal of Imokilly, and others, and gradually their ideas enlarged and gave birth to wider schemes.

The rumours of plans for planting Munster with English, the severe rule of Perrot, the religious disquiet, combined with the danger in which England stood from the machinations of France, Spain, and Rome, and the general unrest, suggested to their minds an armed resistance to England under the title and appeal of the Catholic League, and with the aid of foreign powers.

James was advised to apply to France and Spain and lay before them his case. He was to complain how hardly the English used the Irish, “taking away from some their lands, from others their lives, and from all their religion.”

This service James FitzMaurice undertook. He fled to France and laid his case before the French king, Henry II, who was willing enough to assist him but was dissuaded by his counsellors. Failing here, he went on to Spain, but Philip had then newly made peace with the English Queen and sent on James to Rome, where he found Pope Gregory XIII quite ready to lend his aid against the heretic queen. He had even cherished ideas of conquering Ireland for his nephew the Marquis Diergnoles, surnamed Bon Compagnion. He introduced FitzMaurice to the English adventurer, Stukeley, whom the Pope created Marquis of Leinster, giving him eight hundred soldiers who were to serve under him in Ireland; other troops subsequently added were, O’Sullevan Beare says, mostly Italian desperadoes whom the Pope wished to get rid of out of Italy; all these were to be paid out of the Papal exchequer.

It would seem that James was acting independently of Desmond. There had been “hot wars” between them, and they seem never to have been on good terms; on James’s return Desmond refused to join him and declared his intention of marching against him.

In February 1576, when Sidney was touring the South, Desmond “very honourably attended on” him, offering fealty and service to the Queen. FitzMaurice was then at St Malo, “keeping great port, himself and his family well apparelled and full of money; having oft intelligence from Rome and out of Spain; not much relief from the French king, that I [Sidney] can perceive, yet oft visited by men of good countenance.”

Sidney believed that if James landed while he was in the North, he might take and do what he would with Kinsale, Cork, Youghal, Kilmallock, and even Limerick, so great was his credit among the people. He urgently pleaded for the coming of Sir William Drury, as being the only man able to deal with the situation.[10]

James, meanwhile, was getting more promises than performances from abroad, and, impatient to return to Ireland, he left Stukeley to bring over the troops and himself travelled back by way of France, where the new king, Henry III, received him graciously, promising everything he asked; thence he went to Spain and Portugal, finally landing on the coast of Kerry with three ships, some money, and a few soldiers, and bearing the consecrated banner blessed by the Pope. With him came the afterward well-known Dr Saunders as his confessor.

The news of FitzMaurice’s intended invasion accompanied by French troops kept Ireland in a ferment during the years 1577–78; munitions and money were hastily sent over, and men were ordered to Ireland from Wales and the southern counties, while the coasts were patrolled by three ships set apart for that duty.[11]

The Earl was becoming impotent; so weak of body as “neither can he get up on horseback … but that he is holpen and lift up, neither when he is on horseback can he of himself alight down without help.” Sidney thought there was less danger to be apprehended from him than from any other member of his kindred.[12]

The conspiracy was spreading into Connacht, however, and Malbie was kept busy trying to check it and to prevent a union with Munster, but Sir John of Desmond was contemplating an alliance with Mary Burke, Clanricarde’s daughter, as a means to further the project of union between the provinces, “though he have another wife living, and she another husband.”[13]

A chief organizer was the Dr Saunders whom FitzMaurice had brought over, and who was more sought for and more dreaded by the government than any of the heads of the rising. Large rewards were offered for his capture, but he seemed to carry his life securely in his hands. It was largely through his wider views of the European situation that what was at first a family feud developed into a formidable combination against England of which Spain and Rome were to reap the advantage. He succeeded in drawing the brothers Earl Gerald and Sir John of Desmond into the plot, and he was “made more accompt of” than twenty men; “yea! John of Desmond made more accompt of him than of his own life.” He was the accredited envoy of the Pope, who gave him money for the enterprise. He was less successful in Lisbon, however, the King having requested him to depart on learning that he was fitting out ships for Ireland; while in Spain they doubted that any Geraldine was left alive in Ireland.

When James FitzMaurice asked Saunders as to the progress he was making in fitting out ships in Portugal, and heard that the King refused to allow him any ships or soldiers, he is said to have answered, “I care for no soldiers at all; you and I are enough; therefore let us go, for I know the minds of the noblemen in Ireland.”[14]

James’s proclamation ran as follows:

“This war is undertaken for the defence of the Catholic religion against the heretics. Pope Gregory XIII hath chosen us for general captain in this same war, … which thing he did so much rather because his predecessor Pope Pius V had before deprived Elizabeth, the patroness of the aforesaid heresies, of all royal power and dominion, as is plainly declared by his declaratory sentence, the authentic copy whereof we also have to show. Therefore now we fight not against the lawful sceptre and honourable throne of England, but against a tyrant which refuseth to hear Christ speaking by His vicar.”[15]

It is remarkable that, in announcing his war as a war of religion, the most formidable of all the Desmond leaders should emphasize the fact that he regarded the sceptre of England as a lawful one, against whose claims he would not contend, though he lifted up the banner of religion against the present Queen Elizabeth, who was held to be illegitimate on account of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anna Boleyn during the lifetime of his previous Queen. James considered her as a usurper or “pretensed queen” as well as a heretic. It was only under such a banner that all the nation could rally.

It had shocked the conscience of a Catholic people that a woman and a Protestant should hold herself as head of the Church. This view is quaintly expressed by Viscount Baltinglas in a letter to the Earl of Ormonde in 1580, when efforts were being made to bring him into the rebellion. He says:

“The highest power on earth commands us to take the sword. … Questionless it is great want of knowledge and more of grace, to think and believe, that a woman, uncapax [incapable] of all holy orders, should be the supreme governor of Christ’s Church; a thing that Christ did not grant unto his own Mother. If the Queen’s pleasure is, as you allege, to minister justice, it were time to begin; for in this twenty years past of her reign we have seen more damnable doctrine maintained, more oppressing of poor subjects, under pretence of justice, within this land, than ever we heard or read … done by Christian princes.”[16]

The news of the landing of James FitzMaurice and Saunders at Dingle on July 1, 1579, spread rapidly through Ireland. They had brought only three vessels and a few men, but were backed by unlimited promises from the King of Spain, who was said to be sending thirty thousand men, well appointed, with plentiful supplies of money and munitions, on whose landing it was confidently expected that the country would rise.

Desmond and the Earl of Clancar swore a solemn oath to unite their forces, the oath being administered by Dr Saunders in the most solemn manner.[17] The Pope’s banner was displayed, and the people were taught by Saunders that a new Government would settle them in their religion.

Combinations were in progress in the North between Turlogh O’Neill and O’Donnell, the Baron of Dungannon and even Sorley Boy being drawn into the conspiracy, and there were rumours of great numbers of Scots assembling in Ulster under the direction of O’Neill.[18]

The country was in a state of eager expectation and unrest. In Pelham’s sarcastic words;

“Since the advertisements of the foreign invasion every man here looketh about him, for howsoever the world may delight in change upon promise of golden mountains, I suppose it is now considered that what foreign prince soever come, he will not allow to any freeholder more acres than he hath already, nor more free manner of life than they have under our sovereign. And further, I am told that some of the traitors themselves begin to consider that the invader will put no great trust in those that do betray their natural prince and country.”[19]

The landing was ill-fated from the first. FitzMaurice was joined by Sir John of Desmond, a man little inclined to rebellion, but soured by his long and unjustifiable imprisonment in London. He was disappointed too because the birth of his brother’s son had destroyed all his hopes of succession to the family estates.[20]

The rebellion opened with an act of treachery on the part of Sir John. He was marching into Kerry with the aged Sir Henry Davells, High Sheriff of Cork, who was his foster-brother and had been his close friend. Davells had on more than one occasion used his money and influence on behalf of Sir John when he was in difficulties. But Sir John now turned upon him in the middle of the night in Tralee Castle, where they had lain down together to rest. There he slew him in his shirt, three of his companions being slain with him. FitzMaurice professed the greatest horror of the deed; “to murder a man naked in bed when he might have had advantage of him on the highways” was wholly against his code of honour, and he refused to have any further dealings with Sir John during his lifetime, though the murderer defended his action by saying that the clergy had told him that it was meritorious to kill a heretic.

Neither was the wild licence permitted by Sir John to his soldiery pleasing to his cousin. No news came of Stukeley or his reinforcements, and it was only later that it was learned that on his arrival with his troops in Portugal, the king of that country, who had always been opposed to the Irish enterprise, had bought over him and his men and had induced them to join a force he was raising to fight the Moors in Barbary. Shortly afterward the tidings leaked through that all of them had been cut to pieces by the Moors. Thus the hopes of foreign aid came for the moment to naught.

FitzMaurice himself fell in the same year (1579). His near kinsman, Theobald Burke, on whose assistance he had counted, took the field against him, and at Bohereen, five miles from Limerick, FitzMaurice found him stationed to impede his passage. He had left the main body of his troops behind him, not anticipating danger, but both parties fought furiously until a lad discharged his fowling-piece full at FitzMaurice, who was distinguished by a yellow doublet, and mortally wounded him. For a time he managed to conceal his injury and fell only after having slain both the Burkes and driven off their men. Then, exhorting the bystanders never to make peace with the English, the chief instigator and leader of the insurrection passed away.

The widow of Theobald Burke, his kinsman, received head-money for his death, and his cousin, Maurice Fitzjohn, cut off his head. The body, wrapped in a caddowe, was buried by a huntsman under an old oak, but it was found, brought to Kilmallock, and hanged on a gibbet, where it was used as a target by soldiers “who in his lifetime durst not look him in the face.”[21]

The conduct of the war fell into the hands of Sir John, of whom the authorities said that he “slept not,” the Earl declaring to the Lord Deputy that he was in no way implicated in the rebellion.

Desmond seems to have suffered from the extremest pangs of indecision, natural enough in a weak man who had already felt the pains of long imprisonment and knew the certain end of a man accounted to be a traitor. The writer of the story of the Geraldines thought him “not well established in his wits.” At one time we find him praying the Queen “for one drop of grace to assuage the flame of my tormented mind,” while at another he throws himself wholly into the rebellion and “plainly puts on a rebel’s mind.”

,p>Elizabeth received his letters with promises of forgiveness and terms for his acceptance which the authorities in Dublin thought too liberal to be shown to him, and Pelham, then newly gone into Munster, in vain tried to induce him again to put himself into the power of the authorities.

The double game of dissimulation could not be kept up for ever. On November 2, 1579, Desmond was proclaimed a traitor.[22] That he had ever since his escape from Dublin been entering into combinations against the Government[23] and that he was now deeply involved in the new enterprise cannot be denied; but the terms of submission proposed to him by Pelham and Ormonde were such as he could hardly be expected in any circumstances to accept. They included the delivery of Dr Saunders and the strangers who had come over with him; the possession of his chief castles of Askeaton and Carrigofoill, and the prosecution of the rebellious members of his own family.[24]

The curt and irritating letters of Pelham to the Earl also show a settled intention of allowing him no chance of escape.[25]

Pelham’s actions were swift and his method of policy clear. He sums it up in his report to the Queen on August 12, 1580:

“I give the rebels no breath to relieve themselves, but by one of your garrisons or other they be continually hunted. I keep them from their harvest, and have taken great preys of cattle from them, by which it seemeth the poor people … are so distressed, as they, … offer themselves with their wives and children rather to be slain by the army than to suffer the famine that now in extremity beginneth to pinch them.”[26]

In the admiring records of his contemporaries Pelham was “a painful gentleman.” It was in his period of service that the detestable system of warfare which would accept no submission except the suppliant came “with bloody hands,” i.e., hands that were stained with the blood of some near relation who sided with the rebels, took firm root in English policy in Ireland. To do “some acceptable service” was Pelham’s constant admonition to the chiefs of the insurrection when they wanted to come in; and it was by this means that the heads of the rebellion were cut off one after another.[27]

The policy was carried on by Sir George Carew and his associates. Even Sidney, in the case of Shane O’Neill, had been known to adopt it. It was successful in quelling the rebellion, but at the cost of spreading throughout the country a universal mistrust even of a man’s nearest friends and allies, who might, in an underhand fashion, be selling him to the Government.[28]

In 1579 Pelham has to confess that neither his predecessor nor he, even with the aid of the Earls of Kildare and Ormonde, “could get any espial for reward against the rebels,” an avowal most honourable to the whole country, for the temptations both in money and personal safety were purposely made high. By the end of the war, however, the country was swarming with spies of all sorts—English, Irish, and foreign, working for the Government on the one hand and for the Irish confederates on the other. No man dared to trust the servant in his house, the tutor of his children, or the sworn confederate of his counsels. It produced also a contempt mingled with dread of the double-dealing of the English Government which has never been entirely dissipated. This is expressed in many of the finest poems of the period, which from this time onward become channels of protest against the dissimulation and terrors practised by the ruling powers.[29]

All countries of Western Europe were at this period working by the same system of political corruption; the question appeared to their Governments, not one of morality, but one of high politics. And it has to be remembered that at the moment when the rebellion in Kerry and Cork was in progress, England was in a state of peril in which she has seldom stood before or since, and that the rebellion of the Desmonds was closely linked up with the expected descent of Spain upon her shores.

Ireland was the weak spot, the place selected by the Spanish admirals for the landing of the men of the great Armada which was being prepared in Spanish harbours, and of which the handful of troops entrusted to FitzMaurice had been designed as the forerunners. It is little wonder that from the English point of view it did not appear a time for quiet talks with men in league with the enemy, when the expectation of foreign forces was making the whole country “stand upon their tiptoes.”[30]