The Geraldines: The House of Desmond and the House of Kildare (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Geraldines | start of chapter

Surrey was a Viceroy who directed the whole of his powers to the establishment of quiet, and generally with success; the Irish kept their indentures under his rule, and the “poor and simple people thought he was the King’s son,” all English and Irishmen alike “on their knees praying devoutly that his generation should continue.” He is said to have been so just a judge that no man departed from him without the law and right he ought to have, and he used to say that he would eat grasses and drink water rather than feast at a banquet with a heavy heart and the curse of the poor.[17]

He paid full and ready money for all he took, so that the markets followed wherever he went. But with regard to Kildare his pacific efforts failed. The whole island had, in Surrey’s words, been agitated at the prospect of the return of Garrett Oge; but his foes would not leave him in peace. His brother-in-law Piers, now Earl of Ormonde, had joined with the Earl’s other enemies and abetted Wolsey’s designs to get rid of Kildare’s dominant influence in Irish affairs, his wife throwing herself vigorously into the quarrel of her husband against her brother.

Surrey’s attempts to patch up the quarrel had been unavailing, and Kildare’s wife wrote to the King that she lived in continual fear, for she had known the Earl, who was as good and kind to her “as eny man may be to hys wif,” twice in one morning warned ere he rose out of bed. Each Earl transmitted to London accusations against the other, the chief point against Kildare being that he had allowed his kinsman Desmond to escape when ordered to arrest him on the charge of high treason. The State Papers report that “he went his waye as wise as he came,” and it is quite likely that he shut his eyes to Desmond’s escape. In 1526 he was ordered to go to England and was committed to the Tower.

When brought before the Council, Wolsey began to pile accusations against him in a violent manner, but Kildare, checking him, demanded to have leave to answer each point in turn. He made a dignified and spirited speech, not without sharp shafts at the insolence and greed of the Cardinal. “I would you and I had changed kingdoms, my Lord, but for one month; I would trust to gather up more crumbs in that space than twice the revenues of my poor earldom.” The Cardinal, “perceiving that Kildare was no babe, rose in a fume from the Council table,” and recommitted Kildare to the Tower, going so far as to send an order on his own authority for his execution; but the King, “controlling the sauciness of the priest,” sent his ring in token of countermanding the order.

Even the Cardinal, in his saner moments, was of opinion that it would be inexpedient to remove him from his office as Deputy, there being no one in the kingdom able to replace him; but it was not till August 1530 that he returned to Ireland in the company of Sir William Skeffington, whom he soon succeeded as Deputy. Unfortunately he used his power with great lack of discretion. He despised Skeffington, and never failed to take an opportunity to humiliate him; he displaced Archbishop Alen, Wolsey’s friend, who was his opponent; he ravaged the territories of the Butlers and allowed O’Neill to invade Uriel (Louth).

Reports of these high-handed proceedings were not long in reaching London. His enemies complained that the Council “were partly corrupted with affection towards him and partly in dread of him,” so that no man will do anything that shall be “displeasant” to him.

In 1533 he was again summoned by King’s letters to England. “He received the summons with reverence and made no answer, but prepared himself for his journey to London.”[18] He called a Council at Drogheda, where he appointed as Deputy during his absence his son Thomas, a lad of twenty-one, afterward to be known as “Silken Thomas.” He solemnly charged him to act only by the advice of the Council, and to behave himself so wisely in his green years that he might enjoy the pleasure of summer and glean the fruits of harvest. Hardly had the brave old Earl been again committed to the Tower when news reached him that his son had broken out into rebellion and that the Archbishop of Dublin had fallen a victim.

A copy of the Papal excommunication pronounced against his son for this murder, which was shown to him by the Lieutenant of the Tower, seems to have been the final stroke of misfortune. He was suffering from a wound received in his last fray with O’Carroll, and from privations endured in prison, and on December 12, 1534, the old man died and was buried in St Peter’s Church within the Tower walls.

His son Thomas, who now comes to the front, was his only son by his first wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Zouche. By his second marriage to Lady Elizabeth Grey, whose brother, Lord Leonard Grey, was shortly afterward to be sent over as Marshal, he had two children who became famous, one for his adventures, the other for her beauty. These were Garrett (or Gerald), eleventh Earl of Kildare, who was saved by the devotion of his people from the ruin which overtook his family after the rebellion of his half-brother, “Silken Thomas,” and Lady Elizabeth, the “Fair Geraldine” whose charms were sung by the poet Henry, Earl of Surrey, and of whom Sir Walter Scott has left an unfading picture in his Lay of the Last Minstrel.

The beautiful girl, who was only seven years old when her father died, lived after his death with her mother at her uncle’s house, Beaumanoir, in Leicestershire. When Surrey first saw her at Hunsdon she was twelve years old, and was being educated with the future Queen Mary. She left Hunsdon to become one of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Katherine Howard, and in 1543, at the age of fifteen, she was married to Sir Anthony Browne, a man much older than herself.

Before her second marriage to Lord Admiral Clinton, Surrey had been sent to the block. It is unlikely that there was anything more than admiration between the poet and the girl. Her portrait remains at Carton, the seat of the Dukes of Leinster, with the one we here reproduce of her father, Garrett Oge.

On both sides of her family the Fair Geraldine saw one after another of her relations hurried to the scaffold. At Beaumanoir the gentle and learned Lady Jane Grey, who was closely related by marriage to her family, was growing up, only to be pushed by her ambitious kinsfolk into the disastrous project which was to involve herself and her whole family in ruin.

On her father’s side the Lady Elizabeth was to witness the equal ruin of the great house of Kildare to which she belonged, by the execution of her uncles and her half-brother in one terrible act of vengeance provoked by that half-brother’s ill-advised and hasty rebellion. Her only real brother, Gerald, was for years a fugitive at home and abroad. Lady Elizabeth lived much at Court, where she acted as maid-of-honour to Princess Mary. She survived to see the restoration of the family estates and honours when Mary became Queen of England.

There seems no doubt that the young Vice-Deputy, Thomas, Lord Offaly (1513–37), into whose hands his father had committed “a naked sword” at the early age of twenty one, was hurried into rebellion by reports sedulously spread abroad or conveyed to him in secret letters that his father had been, or was about to be, “cut shorter” in the Tower.

The house of Kildare had many enemies only too ready to take advantage of the inexperience and rash spirit of the youthful Deputy. A slip of paper, which reached his hands by strange means, announced to him the Earl’s supposed death. Unheeding the counsels of the Chancellor and of some of his nearest relations, he flung down the Sword of State in the Council chamber, exclaiming, “I am none of Henry his Deputy, I am his foe.” This was on June 11, 1534, five months after his father’s departure for England. Thomas rode through the city in state, attended by 120 horsemen, whose silken hangings attached to their helmets brought him the sobriquet of “Silken Thomas,” besides 340 galloglas and 500 kerne.

At St Mary’s Abbey he publicly renounced his allegiance and formally declared war on the Government, placing himself at Oxmantown at the head of the army. The Mayor of Dublin was ordered by the Council to arrest him, but the plague in the city had been so fatal that he had not men to send. Many who disapproved of the rising took refuge in Dublin Castle or escaped to England.

Archbishop Alen, who had been a chief agent in the removal of his father, and who was trying to escape from Clontarf, was driven back, and in the attempt to seize him he was either designedly or accidentally killed.

The insurrection, though a serious one and prolonged for three years, was destined to failure from the first. The high traditions of his family, the sympathy felt for his anxieties, and his personal beauty attracted to Thomas the affections of the populace, but the great lords stood aloof. The Butlers refused to join him and wasted Kildare, though Thomas offered, if successful, to halve the kingdom with the son of the Earl of Ossory.

His assault on Dublin Castle was repulsed, and he narrowly escaped capture in the Abbey of Grey Friars in Francis Street. The promised help from Scotland and Spain showed no sign of coming, and an excommunication from the Pope for the murder of Archbishop Alen by his followers weakened his cause in the eyes of his countrymen.

There were tidings of the return of Sir William Skeffington (called "The Gunner," from having been Master of the Ordnance under Henry VIII) with an English army. Though this was held up by storms under Lambey Island, Sir William Brereton succeeded in landing with a portion of the troops, while Skeffington, whose age and weakness were not suited to prompt action, failed in an attempt to go round by Waterford. Offaly had then an army of 7000 men, and after intercepting Brereton he fell back on Maynooth, on which Skeffington did not march until March in the following year, 1535.

Thomas is described as “a man of great natural beauty, of stature tall and personable, in countenance amiable, a fair face and somewhat ruddy.” He possessed the rich utterance of his countrymen, and is said to have been “of nature flexible and kind, very soon carried where he fancied; in matters of importance an headlong hotspur, yet nathless taken for a young man not devoid of wit, were it not, as it fell out in the end, that a fool had the keeping thereof.” He was a youth who in quiet times would have been beloved, but scarce fitted to lead a forlorn hope.

The chief event of the year was the fall of Maynooth Castle, which Lord Offaly, who was now tenth Earl of Kildare, had strongly fortified. It might have proved impregnable even to Skeffington’s heavy artillery, had it not been betrayed by its governor, Christopher Parese, the foster-brother of the Earl, whom he had left in command while he went into Offaly to raise additional forces. This unusual act of treachery on the part of a foster-brother—considered the most sacred of Irish relationships—was fitly rewarded by Parese’s execution by the Government, his “voluntary service” being even to the captors “so thankless and unsavoury that it stinketh.” But his head did not fall alone; twenty-five of the defenders were beheaded and one was hanged “for the dread and example of others,” an act cynically spoken of in the State Papers as “The Pardon of Maynooth.” The great spoil taken shows that Maynooth was one of the richest earls’ houses under the crown of England. Beds, hangings of silk, plate, garments, and furniture were in abundance. The stout towers still remaining prove the great original strength of the castle.

After the fall of Maynooth hope was at an end, and the army of kerne “melted away from the Earl like a snowdrift.” He made an attempt to sail into Spain, but O’Brien dissuaded him, and he could do no more than keep up a desultory warfare with the help of O’Brien and O’Conor Faly, who held to him when O’More and MacMorrogh submitted and the head of the Keatings called off his clansmen.

The rebellion would probably have been suppressed more quickly but for the slow feebleness of Skeffington, who died in 1535. But the arrival of Lord Leonard Grey as Marshal of the army hastened events. He landed in July 1535, and found Earl Thomas, who was his step-nephew, entrenched in a strong house of earth, so ditched and watered that it seemed well nigh impregnable, hidden in a wood. This he burned and destroyed, and very soon afterward Lord Thomas sent in his submission and surrendered to Grey and Lord Butler.

It is probable that he hoped for favourable terms from his kinsman, for the Council reported that he would yield himself to none other but only to him. “To allure him to yield” Grey seems to have held out hopes of pardon which were by no means approved in England.

Probably Lord Grey found his service against his step-nephew distasteful; it is certain that he took no pains to hunt down his true nephew, Gerald, Lord Thomas’ half-brother, for one of the accusations later brought against him, and for which he suffered death, was that he had allowed the boy to escape. But his action toward Lord Thomas can find no justification.

When, after the youth was sent to London and imprisoned in the Tower, Grey’s promise to him of personal safety was brought forward, Grey’s mouth was stopped by the bribe of a “great rent” and other even less seemly gifts. His treacherous arrest at a banquet of Kildare’s five uncles, his own kinsmen, two of whom had been opposed from the first to the rising and were in no way implicated, is one of the worst instances of that detestable Machiavellian policy which ruled in the Courts of Europe generally and in that of England during the seventeenth century. This made friendship, honour, and honesty alike subservient to political ends.

On February 3, 1537, Kildare’s five uncles suffered the traitor’s death at Tyburn, thus at one blow wiping out of existence all the male representatives of one of the great families of the country, save for the child Gerald, who was later to restore the title and position of his house. The seizure of the Geraldines struck terror into the Pale, and a letter written to Cromwell, Henry’s adviser, by an alderman in Dublin informed him that the gentlemen of Co. Kildare were “the most sorryest affright men in the world.” Lord Thomas survived his uncles for five months. On the walls of the State prison in the Tower may still be read the words Thomas Fitz G.” It would seem that the inscription was cut short by his summons to death.

His half-brother, a child of ten years of age at the time of the arrest of Lord Thomas, was lying ill of smallpox in Donore. His nurse wrapped him up, and he was conveyed by the devotion of a priest named Thomas Leverous, who remained faithful to him throughout his wanderings, to the care of his half-sister, Lady Mary, who had married Brian O’Conor Faly, chief of Offaly.

The most strenuous efforts were made to save this boy, who was adored as the remaining hope of his family and adherents. He was handed on secretly from one place to another, and his aunt, Lady Eleanor, widow of the MacCarthy Reagh, even consented to a second marriage with Manus O’Donnell of Tyrconnel, a man whom she seems to have detested, in order, as she thought, to provide her nephew with a safe asylum. But some years later, in 1540, suspecting that her husband intended to surrender Gerald to the English Government, she sent him over with his tutor, Leverous, disguised in a saffron-coloured shirt “like one of the natives,” to St Malo. He was everywhere received with the greatest respect and was protected in turn by the King of France, the Emperor Charles V, and his kinsman, Cardinal Pole. He passed some years in Italy and entered the service of Cosimo de Medici in Florence. His travels in foreign Courts and the care bestowed upon his education made him an accomplished gentleman. It is probable that his oft-expressed desire to become reconciled to the English King was sincere, but he remained abroad until after the death of Henry VIII. He was received into favour by Edward VI, and by him and Queen Mary he was restored to his honours and estates. His faithful tutor, Leverous, was raised to the episcopal bench as Bishop of Kildare and made Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.