Kilclief Castle, County of Down

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 49, June 1, 1833

Among the numerous architectural remains of antiquity which adorn the shores of the fertile County of Down, some of which we have already noticed, the Castle of Kilclief claims attention,Kilclief Castle as well on account of its early antiquity, as of its fine preservation, and of some curious circumstances connected with its history which have been collected by Harris, the industrious historian of the county.

This fine example of the Anglo-Irish military keep, is situated at the entrance of Strangford harbour, and is still entire, with the exception of the roof. It is of considerable size and height, and in its general form nearly a square, with the addition of two quadrangular wings in front, in one of which is a stair-case, and in the other a stack of closets. The first floor is vaulted, and the second has a stone chimney-piece on which is carved the figure of a bird, resembling a hawk, and also a shield bearing a cross Patee.

The name of the founder, and period of the erection of this Castle, are unknown; but its style of architecture sufficiently proves it to be of the early part of the fourteenth century. It, with the lands adjoining, which constituted a fine demesne of some of the finest quality in the barony, were an ancient See house and Manor of the Bishops of Down; and it is not unlikely that it was erected for their use, as we find from history, that it was inhabited by one of them early in the fifteenth century.

A strong castle was not an inappropriate or unnecessary description of episcopal residence in those days, when Bishops were not unfrequently, like Friar Tuck, in Ivanhoe, as much distinguished for their pugnacity as piety. Thus we are informed that John Ross, Prior of the Benedictines in Down, who obtained the Bishoprick in 1387, was in his character "marked with almost every vice; and in this year (1380) he obtained the King's pardon, on the payment of the fine of six marks, for all treasons, transgressions, felonies, extortions, usurpations, and excesses, whatsoever, whereof he had been indicted." (Archdall from King's Collections.) This worthy, however, was either more moral or more fortunate than his successor, John Cely, or Sely, who was likewise promoted to the Bishoprick, from the Priorship of Down, and after much difficulty, ultimately deprived of his See, as it is stated in a letter from the Primate Prene to Pope Eugene IV. de criminibus et excessibus, for crimes and excesses. Of those excesses, one of the most noted, and which was the probable cause of his disgrace, was his having publickly cohabited with a married woman, named Lettice Thombe, in his Castle of Kilclief.

For this scandal he was served, in 1434, by the Archbishop Swain with a monitory process in this Castle, requiring him to turn off his mistress, and that if he did not do so in the time prefixed, he should not only be suspended from Divine service, but solemnly excommunicated."--The Bishop, however, was not to be so easily terrified, and found means to weather the storm for several years, till in 1441, he was prosecuted with effect, and ultimately deprived. He was the last Bishop of Down, previous to its union with the See of Connor. Cely seems to have been a bad or at least an irregular man very early, for on the 10th of July, 1414, by the name of John Sely, Bishop of Down, late Prior of the Cathedral of St. Patricks of Down, a pardon passed the great seal, acquitting him of all treasons, transgressions, and other crimes, of which he had been indicted and outlawed. (Rot. pat. tur. Bermi. 2d Hen. 5 f. no. 20.)

Perhaps it is only doing justice to the fame of "Ould Ireland," to note that these worthy successors of St. Cailin, were not Irish, or at least "mere Irish," for it appears from an Act of Parliament of the year 1380, that no person of that description should be permitted to profess himself in the Abbey of Down.

There is a chamber in the Castle of Kilclief, called the Hawk's Chamber, which Harris states, was by the tradition of the old natives, the place where Bishop Cely's Falconer and Hawks were kept; this tradition, however, might, as he adds, have arisen from the representation of the bird already noticed, as being sculptured on the chimney-piece in the Castle.

Kilclief is a Rectory of the Archdeaconry of Down, and owes its origin to the times of St. Patrick, who placed over a church here, which is now the parish church, two of his disciples who were brothers, named Eugenius and Neill. In a subsequent age, an hospital for Lepers was founded here, under the patronage of Saint Peter.