Ireland, by the middle of the 1520’s, was rapidly coming to the boil in a way it hadn’t for many years. The native Irish warred everywhere, immigrants from Scotland were causing fractions and the feuds between the various Anglo-Irish nobles were getting worse and worse. In combination with the royal games of power being fought in England at the court of Henry VIII, the whole situation was ripe for an explosion. This entry will discuss the build-up to that inevitable explosion, the plots and intrigues of the time.
It was all still down to the Earldom of Kildare, and the Earldom of Ormond (sometimes known as the Earldom of Ossory at this time in records). Gerald Fitzgerald was constantly having to defend himself to the English crown from charges of disloyalty and disobedience, charges that were routinely circulated and encouraged by Piers Butler, the Earl of Ormond. The stakes of the feud were control over the main political institutions of Ireland, land between the two bordering Earldoms, and favour back in England. The Butlers, sandwiched between two different branches of the Fitzgerald’s, were routinely lashing out at their neighbours. The fact that the two families were connected by marriage – Piers having taken Gerald’s sister as his wife – did not seem to matter much, seen by history as an aborted attempt to heal the rift between the two.
Further south, James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Desmond, was hatching his own, rather extravagant, plans. Whatever his intentions, the evidence suggests that he was in contact with the other two main players of the European stage at the time – Francis I, King of France, and Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Together with Henry VIII, the three men were the most powerful players in Royal politics in Europe, their time on this earth marked by a succession of alliances, intermarriage and betrayals, which moved beyond issues over lands and titles into the realms of religious war.
James was writing letters to both Francis and Charles, suggesting and trying to organise a military invasion of Ireland from one of the two. What exactly James’ motivations and aims were is not clear. His experience in having to fight a war to try and claim his inheritance – a war that had required the intervention of English lords to settle – might have stuck in his mind. James had not gotten on with his English superiors, and so far from the “motherland”, he may, like so many others, described himself as Irish more than English.
But moving beyond that into planning war with Henry VIII is something else entirely. Did James want independence for his Earldom? Greater power and control in Ireland? Just a different, more beneficial, overlord in either Francis or Charles? Maybe the sources are inaccurate in this regard. It may only have been a passing interest of James, but is still a rather extraordinary thing to consider, the possibility of French or Spanish/German troops invading Ireland on the suggestion of an Anglo-Irish noble. Charles V, at least, had enough interest in the idea to send a representative to Desmond in order to survey the land and its ruler. In the end such plans came to nothing, largely due to the death of James by 1530.
But the rumours and concerns over James and his wandering eyes soon reached London. The rival court, especially Cardinal Wolsey, were worried enough to issue a summons to James. When he ignored this, they decided to order the Earl of Kildare, as Lord Deputy, to look into it and, if necessary, to enter Desmond with force and arrest James. Such a mission was probably encouraged by the Ormond Butlers as a wonderful way to try and turn the Fitzgerald’s against each other, while for the royal court it would have been an excellent opportunity for them to test the loyalty of Gerald.
Gerald does not seem to have done anything to put Wolsey’s ideas into effect. The general indication is that even if he wasn’t involved in James’ machinations as some suggested, he wasn’t interested in pursuing his kinsman seriously, and made less than a half hearted effort to bring him to heel. He had wars in Ulster to look into and try and control, political intrigues in Dublin, the feuds with the Butlers’ to occupy him. Forcing a confrontation with the other branch of the family was not really high on his list of priorities.
With Kildare seemingly failing the test of loyalty, he was called back to London yet again to face questioning. It was the story of his life, it seems. Again, as with all the other times, Kildare was apparently able to assuage the doubts of Henry, though his stay in London was far longer than previous trips, lasting several years. Wolsey’s enmity was not a good thing to have. All the things that Gerald was accused of – failing to go after Desmond, making alliances with the native Irish, murders of Butler family members – were all pretty much true, but he was still able to talk his way out of it. It is well to remember that Gerald had many friends in Ireland, and the Tudors were probably keenly aware of the problems his death could cause.
It the meantime it was Ormond who was able to exert control in Ireland, becoming the most powerful Earl in Gerald’s absence. But he was soon having major trouble from a branch of the O’Connor’s operating out of Offaly, who were raiding deep into the east of the country, going so far as to capture the newly appointed Lord Deputy, the Baron of Delvin (Westmeath), when he attempted to cancel the “black rents” that the English routinely paid as protection money to the native Irish. Piers attempted to step in an negotiate Delvin’s release, but lacking the military force to back up his position, was obliged to simply pay off the O’Connor’s. It wasn’t long before the Irish parliament made such payments illegal but that had been tried before.
The whole incident was a humiliation for the English administration in Ireland and for the Earl of Ormond, who seemed to lack the gravitas of Gerald Fitzgerald. Piers attempted to insinuate that Gerald was responsible for O’Connor’s incursions, and for the aggressive raids carried out by other native Irish (from Ulster mostly) and the Geraldines. These accusations didn’t stick, though it would hardly be surprising if they were true.
When Kildare finally got back to Ireland, in 1530, he found his power nominally gone, now moved into the hands of a new Lord Lieutenant, Henry Fitzroy (who happened to be the bastard son of Henry VIII) and a new Lord Deputy, Sir William Skeffington.
The two men, Gerald and William, appear to have been able to put any of their differences aside for a time, jointly leading an expedition into Ulster in order to quell potential enemies there, done successfully. But within a year the two were quarrelling openly. Both men complained to London, and for whatever reason, Gerald won out. Skeffington was recalled, and Gerald once again took up the Lord Deputyship. Skeffington, despite his advanced age (nearing 70), would be back in Ireland before too long.
From this point on though the evidence would suggest that, rather like James Fitzgerald, he was preparing for future conflict with a bigger foe, even provoking it. Under his watch the O’Neill’s raided into English holdings in Louth while marriage alliances were made with the Offaly O’Connor’s. Soon he was openly fighting with Ormond yet again, to the extent that he felt bold enough to lead a force to besiege the castle at Birr, in a conflict where he was wounded from a gunshot to his left side, an injury he never really recovered from. Ormond lacked the military and connections of Fitzgerald, and his Earldom was widely plundered during this time.
Gerald made arms, forged cannon, improved the walls of his castles. He solidified his alliances with native Irish clans and Kingdoms. It seems likely he was getting ready for something, though what that was exactly will never be known.
We cannot be sure. Perhaps Gerald was merely improving his military position in Ireland as a matter of course and genuinely had no aggressive feelings towards England. Regardless, his activities provoked a fresh batch of concern from London, and it wasn’t too long before he was being summoned back there. The fact that Gerald actually went to face the questions of Thomas Cromwell (Wolsey having fallen from grace) might well be evidence that he had nothing to feel guilty about (or thought he could get away with it again).
This entry is designed to illustrate just how changeable things were in Ireland as they were throughout the Kingdom of England, how people could be removed from positions of power and respect very quickly, only to rise again if they were able to play their cards right. The titles to do with control of Ireland were too often bandied around as political playthings, given to men who did not merit them. Things like The Tudors show an overly sexualised portrayal of this time period, but its depiction of the political plots and intrigues is not too inaccurate. Aside from things like the Lord Lieutenancy and Deputyship, the very Earldoms that defined the Anglo-Irish position were handed over to those in Henry VIII’s favour, with the Boleyn family temporarily being honoured with the Earldom of Ormond passing to their family – it would be handed back to the Butler’s when Anne was executed. The religious fractures that were taking place in England and the rest of Europe were not yet fully felt in Ireland, but it was only a matter of time.
The constant upheaval and feuding in Ireland could not continue indefinitely, not without a larger problem emerging. There was too much in-fighting, too much dissatisfaction with England, too many political units that acted almost entirely of their own volition, seeking greater autonomy still.
Gerald left the Lord Deputyship in the hands of his son and heir, Thomas. Thomas was a young man, a firebrand by some accounts. Unfortunately for him, and for the Earldom of Kildare and Ireland, he was easily influenced, by both friends and enemies. With Gerald back in England and his young son left to mind the house, the enemies of the Fitzgerald’s saw their opportunity. That’ll be the subject of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.