Things weren’t looking good for Thomas Fitzgerald as 1534 drew to a close and 1535 began. His failure to take Dublin was a disaster, he was unable to get those Irish inclined to his cause to cough up many men to help him, and his own army was scattered. But with the arrival of the English force tasked to stop him, the situation became truly dire.
The arrival of Skeffington’s host, much delayed by poor weather and the poor health of its 70+ commander, decisively ended any pretensions Thomas had about taking Dublin, or about facing down the English crown. Burning as many crops and “enemy settlements” in the area outside the city as he could, and performing some delaying raids aimed at the landed English ships at Lambay, Thomas soon took what remained of his army and retreated inland.
The strategic situation was not totally beyond recovery, even at this stage. Thomas, judging from his attempts to get a pardon through the city of Dublin, may have been reining in his ambitions severely. Maintaining the struggle against the English and drawing out all that was coming might have been the goal, just to force Henry to come to the table and recognise the dependency he had on Kildare. Thomas seems to have lacked the force to confront the English directly at this time, so an actual military victory was not really possible.
The English landing caused Thomas to head west. His fears of pursuit, if he had them, were unfounded. Skeffington, leading the English army, was not in great health. Very old for his time period, Skeffington did not have long to live, and was probably chosen to lead the force due to his prior experience in the country rather than his actual martial ability. Only after a few weeks did Skeffington’s force begin any serious movement, and that was just to head to town of Drogheda when it was rumoured Thomas was considering an attack there, which did not take place. Aside from some minor naval battles against privateers, the English army, presumably a few thousand strong, was not quick out of the gates.
Such delays were crucial for Thomas, who was busy with what little Irish allies he was able to muster, combating the army of Ormond in his own territory. The Butlers were on the ascendant really, hooking up with other English forces in Waterford to launch attacks into Desmond as well as Kildare. Ormond was ever looking out for his won interests, using the crisis as an excuse to attack neighbours who may have had nothing to do with it. Such activities did much to deter other Irish clans from joining up with Thomas, such as the MacMurragh’s of south Leinster and the O’Byrne’s of Wicklow. Ormond hoped to join up with the army of Skeffington, but the ill-health of the man precluded this. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Thomas began to prepare for the long haul.
To that end, he began readying the numerous castles under his control – chief among them Maynooth, but also fortresses in Carlow, Athy and Ley, Offaly. It was Ley to which he removed the largest part of his ammunition, anticipating perhaps a major stand in one of his most westerly territories (or simply to get his greatest stocks as far away from the English as possible). He trusted in the walls and garrison of Maynooth to keep his capital from falling. That garrison was commanded by a man named Christopher Parese (Paris is some sources), a close friend and “foster-brother” of Thomas.
Maynooth had been the seat of the Kildare Fitzgerald’s for several generations at this point, and its castle was one of the most impressive (and by reputation, richest) in Ireland, with thick walls and powerful guns. As the centre of the Kildare Earldom, it was an important town, and obviously a potential target for the English force.
When Skeffington heard that Thomas was in the vicinity of Trim, Meath, he marched out of the confines of Dublin to fight a minor engagement with the young Earl successfully, before promptly turning around and heading back to Dublin. This was probably due to the awful weather that November brought, which was not exactly campaigning season. Thomas’s forces, meagre as they were, hassled the English all the way back to Dublin as best they could, taking advantage of the fact that the contingent of English archers, usually so deadly, were next to useless in the wet weather. But in the end, the entire action was an anti-climax that only made Skeffington’s health worse. His army remained encamped for several more months.
A few actions were undertaken over the winter, with some minor castles taken by each sides near the border of Kildare and Dublin, while the native Irish allied to Thomas, such as the O’Neill’s, launched raids into Pale land. While the taking and burning of places like Trim and Dunboyne proved that Thomas and his rebels were far from neutralised, they were not enough to get the English to come to the table and were certainly not enough to make Skeffington or Henry VIII reconsider their presence in Ireland.
It was not until March of 1535 that Skeffington (and the weather) had improved enough to allow more operations, and he headed straight to Maynooth. For the English, the aim was to cut out the heart of the Kildare rebellion as quickly as possible. Even if Thomas was not present at Maynooth – which he wasn’t – the taking of the castle there would be a huge blow to the rebellion. A man who could not defend his own keep was not someone who would inspire many followers.
Thomas perhaps could have relocated his forces to Maynooth and tried to endure, but he choose a course of travelling elsewhere in his territory and neighbouring allies in order to muster enough of an army to face Skeffington in battle, trusting in his castle to keep the English at bay long enough for him to do so. The other option was simply to hold out long enough for foreign help – in the form of Imperial armies under Charles V or even from Scotland – to arrive in Ireland. How likely this occurrence was cannot be ascertained really well, but it is not unforeseeable that, if Thomas had kept the war going, he would have received foreign assistance. It is claimed that the O’Neill’s were gathering Scottish mercenary troops at any rate, and Charles V would always have been interested in striking a blow against his (then) enemies.
Maynooth was the lynchpin of everything, and Skeffington, as soon as his army was in place and demands for surrender were rejected, began a bombardment of the walls and castle with the cannon he had brought with him. It was the 15th of March. Maynooth was actually defended by little more than a hundred men, but most of them were gunners of some type, whether it was cannon or smaller arms, and they poured fire down on the besiegers whenever they could from the high positions the castle granted them. But the guns of the English were considerable enough, and they soon had some of the higher towers of the Maynooth structure tumbling under a sustained deluge of cannonballs, after only a couple of days. With some of the height advantage of the defenders gone, and several of their cannon made useless, Skeffington refocused his guns on the outer walls of the castle.
It is clear that the new Lord Deputy of Ireland was not interested in starving the garrison out. He knew that the chances of a relief being sent against them were not unlikely, and that a small garrison would last longer if he gave them the luxury of withholding an assault. Moreover, communications from the King had not been positive, Henry upset over the lack of progress given Skeffington’s time in Ireland already. As such, it is not surprising to see that the English were so committed to an assault and a quick capture of the castle, if they could do so.
Thomas was, at this time, frantically gathering anybody he could to his cause in Connaught, before rapidly marching back east to try and relieve Maynooth. Perhaps he had some communication from the defenders, who informed him of the way things were turning. Thomas’ own concern was with recruitment, and the pickings were slim. Aside from intimidating many who could have joined up with Thomas, the Earl of Ormond had done everything in his power to make sure that clans like the Burkes and the O’Brien’s had their own riled up neighbours and rival claimants to fight, and could spare nobody to help Thomas even if they had sympathies for him. With such machinations done, Ormond and his own Irish allies implanted themselves on the approach to Maynooth, doing the best they could to stop any relief force that might try to get there.
The end was not long in the coming. By the 23rd of March a breach of sufficient size had been blown in the walls around Maynooth Castle, through which Skeffington’s army poured in, killing over half of the defenders in the process. What was left of the defence retreated back inside the castle, shutting up shop.
What happened next is a matter of some debate. Some sources claim that Perase betrayed Thomas and his fellow defenders by allowing the English access to the castle in exchange for a monetary award. This is probably a romantic addition to the story, where the heroic Irish could never be allowed to be defeated by force of arms alone. More believable sources say that the garrison, now under 50 men and facing many times that outside the castle doors, surrendered as a group after promises of clemency from Skeffington. Either way, the castle fell into the hands of the English without much more fighting. If a pardon was offered, Skeffington did not keep faith, with the captured defenders executed to a man a few days after the siege ended, “the Maynooth pardon”, as a message to any other rebels on the commitment of the English. Perase, whether he sold out or not, was among them. Maynooth Castle was occupied.
Thomas had been fleeing back to Kildare all this time, but was far too late. When word reached him and the army he had managed to assemble in Connaught about the fall of his keep, a disintegration occurred. What forces he had broke apart and slipped away, the men returning home rather than risk their lives in what appeared to be a hopeless endeavour. This was no ordinary local Irish war after all, it was, in the eyes of the English, treason, and treason could mean death even in the event of capture. The combined arms of Skeffington and the Earl of Ormond, at this point, was too much to face up to, and the fall of Maynooth in such a quick time was a massive shock, considering the previous power of the Earl of Kildare.
For Kildare, the game was nearly up. His capital fallen and his army gone, Thomas fled to the safety of the O’Brien’s of Thomond. He may still have had pretensions of native Irish allies, especially in Ulster, rallying sufficient men to his cause for him to march against the Pale, or for foreign troops of Spanish or Scottish origin to help him, but the usual problems persisted. The native Irish had their own problems to deal with, and Charles V was unlikely to back Thomas at this juncture. Thomas’ grandfather, who had raised such a diverse coalition from the native Irish a few generations before, would perhaps have struggled to believe how things had changed for his family. With the Earldom of Kildare largely undefended and lacking a leader, most of the other castles and towns nominally loyal to Thomas were soon falling into English hands without a great deal of military challenge. A large part of Kildare’s lands were pillaged and burned.
Thomas, with the tiny amount of martial forces left to him, fell back on a campaign of guerrilla warfare, carrying out raids and ambushes which subsequently helped to secure the romantic allusions that have become attached to him, of a young rebel fighting a hopeless cause. Skeffington got more and more ill after the fall of Maynooth, and reinforcements sent from England in July were more active than he had been. One by one, the Irish who had actively aided Thomas, like the O’Connor’s and O’Carroll’s of Offaly, submitted to the English, while the Earl of Ormond continued to run rampant in other parts of the country, especially Westmeath, preventing any chance of more families helping the young Earl. By August, Thomas had enough, and sought a parley, surrendering himself to Leonard Grey, commander of the latest English army to arrive in Ireland. Thomas would spend several years in prison in London with many other members of his family, before his inevitable beheading in 1537.
The Fitzgerald family was attainted and largely disinherited for their treason – however, the line was kept alive through the other sons of Gerald Fitzgerald, the half-brothers of Thomas, who remained at large in Ireland. They still had many friends and they would return to trouble Henry and the English before too long.
Why did Thomas fail? Many reasons of course, but the most obvious is the misassumption about the likely English response. Thomas must have presumed that the reaction to his rebellion would not have been too forceful or committed. In that, he was badly mistaken, perhaps influenced by the years of giving in that Henry VIII had done for Thomas’ father.
The other miscalculation was on the level of support native Irish allies would have been able to give him, which was never, given the state of Ireland at the time, going to be too high. Without the additional armies he was expecting from the four corners of Ireland, Thomas was never going to be in a military position to challenge the English.
Aside from all that though, Thomas just was not a great military mind, though his personal courage is little doubted from the accounts. He was unable to take Dublin Castle and lost the trust of the people of that city very fast. He failed to adequately combat the threat from the Earl of Ormond, who outdid Thomas militarily and diplomatically at nearly every turn. He put too much trust in the meagre men he had left in Maynooth, and in its walls. The gunpowder age came late to Ireland, but the Silken rebellion showed clearly how walls were no longer the comfort they once were. He was never able to command enough men, and placed too much hope and promise on the assistance of others both within and outside Ireland.
Thomas did do right when he placed emphasis on gunnery in terms of defending, and he proved himself to be versatile when it came to moving around from front to front. That he lasted so long given the circumstances is impressive, but was perhaps down to the faults of Skeffington as a military leader, delaying for so long and so frequently.
If Thomas had been able to fight his way past Ormond and attack Skeffington, there is no guarantee that he would have been victorious, and no guarantee that this course would have resulted in his overall victory. But it would have helped him immensely, and the war would have lasted longer. That being said, reinforcements for the English were already on their way by the time Maynooth fell, so Thomas’ defeat was only a matter of time in any case.
Thomas may have failed in his rebellion, but he earned a place in history, the young rebel facing down the tyranny of the English and losing his life in the process. The castle where his fate was essentially decided fell into disrepair around the 17th century, but the partially restored shell of the keep and some of its walls are still there today, outside the entrance to the university that has come to define the town more than its rebel past.
I happen to live currently in Maynooth, and as a result, can actually provide some personal taken imagery of the location where the Silken rebellion was decided:
Thomas Fitzgerald is at the beginning of Ireland’s revolutionary heritage, and his rebellion marks a distinct shift in the nature of Irish military history. The native Irish had often warred with the English, but had spent much of their time over the last several centuries fighting each other as well. More and more, that would begin to change, as Henry VIII decided it was time to exert more power in Ireland, to greater centralise the authority of the island and extend his religious reforms to his western colony. With a growing English presence encroaching on the traditional liberties enjoyed by the Irish and Anglo-Irish, a greater unification of English enemies against a common foe was inevitable.
It was such an alliance that will form the basis of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.