The Geraldines: The House of Desmond and the House of Kildare

Eleanor Hull
The Geraldines

The history of the fifteenth century was in England largely occupied by the savage dynastic struggles known as the Wars of the Roses. In Ireland it was a century in which similar struggles were carried on by the three great families of the Ormondes, Kildares, and Desmonds, whose efforts for power kept Ireland in a like state of turmoil.

The Wars of the Roses had a direct effect upon Ireland, for the Ormondes as Lancastrians and the Desmonds as Yorkists took an active part in the contests, fighting on opposite sides. Large bodies of Irish kerne were drawn off to serve in the English and Continental wars, the kerne of the MacCarthys, O’Kellys, MacManuses, MacGeoghegans, O’Keeffes, and other purely Irish families being sent in as large numbers as those of the families of English extraction.

The pretenders to the throne on the Yorkist side, Jack Cade and ‘Perkin’ or Peter Warbeck, created a much greater enthusiasm in support of their claims in Ireland than they did in England. Cade (1450) believed himself to be a Mortimer, a family whose representatives were well known in Ireland on account of the successive Viceroys of that name; Lambert Simnel, in 1487, gave himself out to be the Duke of Warwick; and Perkin Warbeck, in 1497, was believed to be the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower. All of them put forward claims to recognition sufficient to bring them the support of influential persons at home and abroad; and all of them, especially the last, found vigorous partisans in Ireland.

Warbeck besieged Waterford with Maurice of Desmond and an army of 24,000 men; but the ships sent to their assistance having been captured, he fled to Cork and thence to Leper’s Island, near Kinsale, where he took ship in a Spanish bark and escaped to Cornwall. Here he was apprehended, taken before King Henry VII at Exeter, and afterward executed.[1]

Simnel was still more popular; he was carried through Dublin in triumphal procession on the shoulders of leading nobles and crowned in Dublin Castle by the Earl of Kildare, who was then Governor, all the Lords and Commons supporting him.[2] He seems to have been a handsome boy who bore himself well. It was the loss of so many scions of royal blood in the unnatural family wars of the Roses that made it possible for pretenders to impersonate these missing princes.

Men were imprisoned or disappeared, and none but those most responsible knew what had become of them. The heads of the greatest in the land fell freely on both sides. When Richard III suddenly felt himself possessed of “inward compassion” for the cruel and unjust execution of Thomas, Earl of Desmond, he could truthfully point “to his brother, his nigh kinsmen and great friends” who had similarly suffered.

One cause which strengthened the Yorkist claims in Ireland was the sending over of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, the head of the White Rose party, as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1449. By his mother, Anne Mortimer, he was the direct representative of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and he had reasonable and strong hopes of succeeding to the throne. His beautiful wife, the ‘Rose of Raby,’ was mother of two kings, Edward IV and Richard III. He came over with much pomp and splendour, as Lord-Lieutenant for Henry VI, and, unlike some others of the royal line, who about this period were successively appointed to the post of Viceroy, he remained some time in Ireland, and ruled well and justly. He was a successful Viceroy, for he not only attracted to himself and his line most of the English in Ireland and stayed the tendency toward disaffection, but his beneficent measures brought in the Irish lords in great numbers.

It was said that the influence of the Duke of York was so great that “ere twelve month come to end the wildest Irishman in Ireland will be sworn English.” The list of Irish lords who came in and brought their kerne with them included O’Byrne, O’More, O’Farrell, O’Nolan, O’Dempsey, MacMorrogh, MacGeogheghan, O’Hanlon, and O’Neill. Besides these, Magennis, lord of Iveagh, brought with him 600 horse and foot, MacMahon 800 men “well harnessed,” the O’Reilleys 700, “with many other that be the King’s liege men.”

The head of the O’Byrnes, after a sharp reminder of the King’s power, was “sworn the King’s true subject, his wife and his children to learn English and wear English array, and the King’s laws to be suffered throughout his land.” The Norman lords followed suit. De Cogans, Roches, Barretts, Desmond the White Knight, and the nobles of Eastern Ulster and Leinster, described as “kings, dukes, earls, and barons,” bound themselves by indentures and hostages as sworn liegemen of the King.

It was time that something should be done, for a memorial addressed to Richard Plantagenet by the liegemen of Co. Kildare in 1454 complained that “this land of Ireland was never at the point finally to be destroyed since the conquest as it is now,” no loyalists even in Leinster or Meath daring to appear in the King’s courts, or to ride to market towns for dread to be slain, or having their goods spoiled, through the misrule and violence of “divers gentlemen of the counties,” of whom the Lords of Kildare were the worst offenders, “more destruction being committed by them than was done by Irish enemies and English rebels long time before.”

The hopes of the Duke of York were cut short at the disastrous battle of Wakefield in 1460. He led a great army of Irish kerne over to England to support his claims to the throne and joined them with the English troops. They met with a decisive defeat; Richard Plantagenet fell, fighting bravely, but in the following year his son, Edward IV, ascended the throne as the representative of the house of York. Thus ended the career of one who as Viceroy of Ireland had, during his ten years’ government, “exceedingly tied to him the hearts of the noblemen and gentlemen of that land.”[3] One of the most independent of the native princes, MacGeoghegan of the Hy-Fiachrach, hitherto always ready to combine with the English rebels, was treated by him with such honour that he went home boasting that “he had given peace to the King’s Lieutenant.”

It was in the last year of Richard Plantagenet’s life that the Irish Parliament, sitting under his presidency, made an effort to enlarge its independent powers. In the later years of the reign of Edward III the members had claimed the privilege of refusing to send representatives to England on the demand of the sovereign, and had protested “the rights, privileges, and usages which the Lords and Commons from the time of the conquest of the land of Ireland had possessed and enjoyed.”[4]

Now, in 1460, stimulated by the Duke’s presence, and strengthened by the memory of their late services to the Crown, they made a further step in asserting their liberties. The Commons affirmed that Ireland, being corporate in itself, was “bound only by such laws as the Parliament or Great Councils of Ireland itself held, accepted, and proclaimed.”

It was the first clear enunciation of the principle of Irish Parliamentary independence, stated in unmistakable language. This principle, which was thrown to the winds during the Tudor period, when it was the aim of the sovereigns to make Ireland directly dependent on the will of the Crown, was one for the recovery of which Ireland was to fight for centuries; it was the principle which in after days was to be reaffirmed by Molyneux, Grattan, and Parnell.

It was violently resisted thirty-four years later in Poynings’ Law (1494), which rendered the Parliaments of Ireland completely dependent on those of England. The immediate cause of the passing of this law lay in the disputes of the leading Anglo-Irish families which had lowered the Irish Parliament into a mere tool in the hands of whichever party was in power, and had utterly destroyed any representative character which it had possessed. Butlers, Kildares, and Desmonds had used it in turn to advance the interests each of his own house. It only remained for a Tudor autocrat, watching his opportunity, to put an end to these unseemly quarrels by robbing it of its former independence of action.

Poynings’ Law had also another purpose; it was intended to prevent any further efforts of the Irish nobility to influence the course of events in England. During the long dynastic wars Desmond and Kildare had carried on a struggle on behalf of the house of York which had helped to decide the succession in a direction contrary to that which finally prevailed, and the Lancastrian Henry VII was determined that this should never occur again. He designed to render the Anglo-Irish gentry powerless outside their own country and seriously to diminish their influence within it.

In the Parliament called by the Lord Deputy Poynings at Drogheda in December 1494 there was passed the Act which bore his name and which for three centuries was to deprive the Parliament of Ireland of even the shadow of independence. Judges and other officials were to hold office during pleasure and not by patent as heretofore; the chief castles were to be placed in English hands; to carry weapons or wage private wars, or to excite the Irish to take up arms, was made illegal and high treason, and the chief measures of the Statute of Kilkenny were re-enacted. The principal clause provided that no Parliament should be summoned in Ireland except under the Great Seal of England, or without due notice to the English Privy Council; and that no Acts of the Irish Parliament should be valid unless previously submitted to the same body.

A still more controversial measure followed, which declared that all laws “late made in England” should apply to Ireland, even if they had never been approved by the Irish Parliament or made known to them, and subsequently even this stretch of the prerogative was exceeded by the decision that this should apply to all laws whatsoever passed in England up to that date. This article reads as follows:

“Be it ordained and established by authority of this present Parliament … that all statutes late made within the said realm of England concerning and belonging to the common and public weal of the same be henceforth deemed good and effectual in the law, and over that be accepted, used, and executed within this land of Ireland in all points at all times requisite according to the tenour and effect of the same; and over that by authority aforesaid, that they and every of them be authorized, proved, and confirmed in this land of Ireland. And if any statute or statutes have been made within this said land hereafter to the contrary, they and every of them by authority aforesaid be revoked, void, and of none effect in the law.”[5]

Thus by Poynings’ Law not only was the Irish Parliament rendered helpless to pass regulations for its own country and made completely subordinate to that of England, but Ireland was also saddled with a whole body of laws in the making of which she had no part and which were designed for England only.

A slight modification was made in Mary’s reign, and during the rebellion of 1641 Charles I promised its repeal, but this was never carried out. On the contrary, the principle was extended by a statute passed in 1719, enabling the English Parliament to legislate for Ireland without reference to the Irish Parliament, and it required the lengthened struggle at the close of the eighteenth century to bring about the repeal of these laws.

Yet, though Poynings carried out the purpose with which he was sent to Ireland, it was not easy by Act of Parliament to deprive the Anglo-Irish nobility of all semblance of independence. The Pale was reduced to the weakest point, and the country was unable to pay its way.

In spite of the intention of filling all posts with Englishmen sent over with that object, the gentry of the country had again to be called upon, the new English not being willing to face the prevailing conditions. Kildare was once more installed as Deputy, and the Geraldine supremacy lasted till 1534, when the outbreak of the rebellion of “Silken Thomas” brought it to an end.

It is necessary at this stage to sketch the past history of the two branches of the great house of the Geraldines, the Desmonds and Kildares, whose ancestors had been the first to respond to the appeal of Dermot MacMorrogh for help, and who had carved out for themselves large tracts of Leinster and Munster as their reward. The FitzGeralds, or Geraldines, traced their descent traditionally to the powerful family of the Gherardini of Florence, who up to a late date acknowledged the connexion by keeping up a friendly correspondence with the two Irish houses.[6]

We have seen the rapid rise to power of the family after their arrival in Ireland and the vast estates controlled by them. They had become thoroughly Irish, speaking the native language in their home life and encouraging native brehons, bards, and historians in their families. Their war-cries of “Crom-aboo” and “Shanad-aboo” were heard in many a fray and were answered by the “Lamh-laidir-aboo” of the O’Briens over the border.[7]

It required an Act of Parliament in 1495 to suppress these dangerously exciting battle-cries. The FitzGeralds, unlike the Ormondes, with whom their houses carried on an hereditary feud from century to century, were always inclined to alliance with the native chiefs. It will be well to speak of the Desmonds and the Kildares in turn, and to trace their history up to the outbreak of the Geraldine rebellions.

The Desmonds were unfortunate in their family succession. On more than one occasion the deaths of the direct heirs by accident, or the disputes between different members of the family, led to such confusion that the succession is reckoned differently by various genealogists. Gerald, or Garrett, the third (or fourth) Earl (d. 1398) received the estates from his elder brother Maurice, who died young, on condition of marrying Eleanor, daughter of James Butler, the second Earl of Ormonde (d. 1382), who, in the reigns of Edward III and Richard II, had received many gifts of lands and who was then, in 1359, Viceroy of Ireland.

The object of this marriage was to bring to an end the wars between the two houses, which had been carried on from year to year and were destructive to the country. But no plans, however well laid by English kings, availed to stay this family feud, which was to be further increased in the reign of Henry V by the close friendship between James the “White” Earl of Ormonde and Thomas of Lancaster. This made adherence to the Lancastrian cause traditional in the house of Ormonde, while the Desmonds were strongly Yorkist. Though the Desmonds remained loyalist up to the time of the Reformation (which threw them definitely on the side of the anti-English Catholic confederation, and produced the rebellion of Elizabeth’s reign) they were increasingly Irish in their habits and sympathies. Gerald even gave his son James to be fostered by the O’Briens.

Gerald is styled “the Rhymer” or “Poet,” and some very charming poems in Anglo-Norman French, founded on French models, delicate and ingenious lyrics like the Court poetry of the Elizabethan period in England, remain to prove the European strain of culture that mingled with the Irish tradition in his mind, and the union of which produced an aristocratic love-poetry of the type of that of Wyatt and Surrey. Some poems written by members of his house are to be found in a manuscript in the British Museum,[8] and have for heading the title Proverbia Comitis Desmonie. His Gaelic poems and those of his family, some of which may be earlier than this date, remain in the Scottish Book of the Dean of Lismore.

This Gerald is a romantic figure, “a nobleman of wonderful bounty, mirth, and cheerfulness of conversation, charitable in his deeds, easy of access, a witty and ingenious composer of Irish poetry, and a learned and profound chronicler,” say the historians of his country. In 1367 he succeeded Lionel, Duke of Clarence, as Justiciar, acting at other times as his Deputy to uphold the King’s policy in Munster. But to his own people he was famous chiefly for his erudition; they looked on him as a mathematician and the possessor of magic arts. Such a man could not die, and tradition says that in 1398, after being thirty years earl, he disappeared under the waters of Loch Gur, where he sleeps, save once in every seven years, when he awakens and passes over the waters of the lake, riding upon its ripples.

Again, on his departure, the succession was disputed, two of his sons and his brother having died young, leaving no children. Finally his third son, James, O’Brien’s foster-son, succeeded in displacing his nephew Thomas, who had more direct claims to the earldom. Of this Thomas it is said that in him “the pernicious disease that infested his posterity first took rooting,” for he went twice into rebellion, forfeiting his estates, and “after many turnings and windings up and down the realm” he died in 1446 in banishment in France.[9]

James was father of the eighth or “Great” earl, Thomas FitzGerald, by his wife Mary, daughter of Ulick Burke, who succeeded to the family estates in 1462, and in the following year was appointed Deputy to the Duke of Clarence, the Lord-Lieutenant.

Being a strong Yorkist, Thomas attached himself warmly to the fortunes of Edward IV, fighting on his side in nine battles against the Lancastrians and rising high in the King’s favour and personal friendship. As a hostage for the loyalty of his house he had been educated at Court, and he was thoroughly at home in England. He was a man of great activity and occupied himself in building border-castles to defend the Pale and in garrisoning the passes of Offaly; he was “a lord wise, learned in Latin, in English, and in the old Gaelic writings,” combining in his person the best knowledge of both countries. He relaxed the orders against trafficking with the Irish, in spite of prohibitions passed in the Irish Parliament; and he set himself to do justice and show humanity to all.

For some years he ruled nobly and discreetly and then retired to his estates in Munster. But “the old malice that had been between the bloods of the Desmonds and Butlers,” as Lord Grey said at a later date, broke out afresh in 1463, and the Earl entered and devastated the Butlers’ lands.

Complaints were transmitted to London by those who were jealous of his power and influence, accusing him of taking “coyne and livery” contrary to the law, of relaxing the orders against “trafficking with the Irish enemy,” and of entering into treasonable correspondence with the Irish. But he laid his case in person before the King in 1464, and Edward, with whom “he was in singular favour” and “who took pleasure and delight in his talk,”[10] refused to listen to the accusations of his enemies.

On the Irish Parliament certifying that “he had always governed by English law and had brought Ireland to a reasonable state of peace, having, moreover, rendered great services at intolerable charges and risks,” he was restored to office by the King, and six manors in Meath were granted to him. In his own district he devoted himself to improvements.

At Youghal, where he lived, he founded a college with a Warden, eight Fellows, and eight choristers, who lived together in a collegiate manner, having a common table and all other necessaries allowed them.[11] In his time representatives went from Cork to the Irish Parliament. This great man was cut off in a sudden and mysterious manner.

Sir John Tiptoft (or Tibotot), Lord Worcester, who was his determined enemy, was sent over as Viceroy in 1467, apparently at the wish of Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who had long been jealous of Desmond’s influence with the King and was watching her chance to bring down the Earl’s pride. Desmond had been opposed to the King’s marriage with Elizabeth, whom he considered as a woman unsuited to Edward’s rank and position, and he is said to have counselled the King to divorce her. Some whisperings of this had reached the Queen’s ears, and hardly was Tiptoft well in office than she sent over an order, as though in the King’s name and sealed with his privy seal, ordering him to take and execute Desmond.[12]

On receiving her injunction he hastily called a Parliament at Drogheda, to which Desmond and Kildare were both summoned; they were arraigned, and Desmond was speedily executed, “to the great astonishment of the whole nobility of Ireland.” With him was executed Edward Plunket. This event, which happened on February 14, 1468, when Thomas was only forty-two years of age, sent a thrill of horror through the land. English and Irish alike condemned a crime committed “without cause, without guilt, without right at law, but only through jealousy and envy.”

The vague charges brought against the victims might equally have been brought against any great lord who lived in amity with his Irish neighbours, and other nobles must have felt their heads in danger. “The King was wondrously offended,” and the Queen, the author of the whole mischief, had to fly to sanctuary. Even Richard, the King’s brother, afterward King Richard III, himself soon to become an expert in swift and needless executions, described Desmond as “atrociously slain and murdered by colour of law against all reason and sound conscience.” Long afterward, when Sir Henry Sidney came over as Deputy, he had Desmond’s body removed to a tomb in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.