William de Burgo, Earl of Ulster

A. D. 1333.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

THIS nobleman was married to Maud, third daughter of Henry Plantagenet, earl of Lancaster, and by her had a daughter who was married to Lionel, duke of Clarence, third son of King Edward III., who was in her right created earl of Ulster and lord of Connaught. By her he became possessed of the honour of Clare in Thomond, from which came the title of Duke Clarence, which has since been retained in the royal families of England. Lodge, from whom chiefly we have taken these particulars, mentions in addition, that the title Clarencieux, of the king of arms for the south of England, is similarly derived; for when the dukedom of Clarence escheated to Edward IV., on the murder of his brother George duke of Clarence, he made the duke's herald a king at arms, under the title of Clarencieux. The early death of this unfortunate nobleman might seem to exempt the biographer from the task of noticing a life which could be little connected with the political history of the period; but the circumstances of his death, in themselves marked by the worst shades of daring licence and treachery, appear to give a frightful testimony to the consequences of misgovernment.

The history of every transaction which had occurred during the five generations which had elapsed since Henry II., had tended to prove that there was among the Irish of those generations an assumption that no pledge was binding, no deception dishonourable in their dealings with the Norman race. It was obvious that no bargain could bribe the assassin and the robber from their spoil, if the booty offered a reward beyond the bribe. The marauder would naturally look to secure both, or calculate at least the gain between them. Actuated by no principle but the desire of acquisition or the thirst for revenge, the powerful native chief readily assumed the specious tone of good faith and honour, and frankly pledged his forbearance or protection, until he received the reward; it then became the consideration, and the only one he cared to entertain, what course his interest might prescribe. The reward was to be viewed but as an instalment of concessions to be extorted by future crimes; the pledge, the treaty, the oath, were given to the winds that have ever blown away such oaths. Of this fatal policy we shall have again to speak; its present consequence was general disorder and licence.

The earl of Ulster was murdered by his own servants, in June, 1333, in the twenty-first year of his age, at a place called the Fords, on his way into Carrickfergus. This atrocity is supposed to have been caused by the vindictive animosity of a female of his own family, Gyle de Burgo, whose brother he had imprisoned. She was married to Walter de Mandiville, who gave the first wound, and attacked him at the head of a large body of people. His death caused a great commotion among the people of Ulster, who rose in large bodies in pursuit of his murderers, and killed three hundred of them in one day. His wife fled with her infant daughter to England, and very vigorous steps were taken to bring every one to justice who was accessary to the murder. In all public pardons, granted at the time by government, a clause was added, "excepting the death of William, late earl of Ulster."[1]

Some of the results of the earl's death have a curious interest, and some a painful one: the decline of the De Burgo family was a consequence, and with it that of the English settlers on the Ulster estates. The feebleness of the administration operated to prevent the legal occupation of the territories of the murdered earl, by the king as guardian to his infant daughter; they became, therefore, the object of contention between the members of the family and the descendants of the house of O'Niall, their ancient possessor. The consequence was a bloody and destructive war, fatal to the English settlers; who were, notwithstanding much detached resistance, and many a gallant stand, cut up in detail by numbers and treachery, until few of them were left. In Connaught, two of the most powerful of the De Burgo family seized and divided the vast estates of their unfortunate kinsman; and in the means by which they maintained this wrong, have left another testimony of the licentious anarchy of the time, and of its main causes and character. An usurpation against the law of England was maintained by its renunciation. With it they renounced their names, language, dress, manners, and every principle of right acknowledged in their previous life; and instead, adopted the costume and character of Irishmen, and assumed the name of MacWilliam, Oughter, and Eighter. They were followed in this unfortunate and derogatory step by their dependents, and thus spread among the Connaught settlers, a deterioration of character and manners, from which they did not soon recover.

A policy of compromise has the fatal effect of rendering the whole administration one of false position and impolitic expedient. It must revolve between heartless concession and rash violence. And such was the Irish government of Edward, which again plunged the kingdom in disorders from which it had been but recently emerging amidst a doubtful and dangerous undulation. The unfortunate distinction, which forced the English settlers into the position of enemies, followed and completed the steps of a ruinous impolicy.


[1] Lodge.