Ireland’s Wars: The Silken Rebellion

1534 and the events that took place in that year are very important in the military history of Ireland. The rebellion that broke out in the east of this country has the peculiar honour of frequently being placed at the beginning of the lists of Irish rebellions against the English crown, referenced often by those who came after as far forward as the early 20th century. It helps that the period in question has been imbued with a large dose of romantic exaggeration and certainly finds itself in the category of “doomed” that so many other rebellions would be part of.

In that regard, this rebellion can be seen, in the popular consciousness of the nation, as the beginning of its revolutionary history.

But the truth around the rising of “Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald is a bit more complicated than a young rebel striking a blow against English tyranny. The rebellion of 1534 was momentous in Irish history but found its inspiration from a cavalcade of miscalculation and poor strategic decisions.

Gerald Fitzgerald was in London, the Earl of Kildare locked up in the Tower on the orders of Henry VIII, again facing charges of disloyalty, of fermenting aggressive feelings with the native Irish. In his place, his one son and heir Thomas, in his early twenties, had been put in the position of Lord Deputy back home.

You will read a lot of differing accounts in regards what happened next, as the summer of 1534 wore on. It mainly comes down as to who had the greatest impact on Thomas’ thinking.

Did Gerald leave instructions with Thomas as to what to do if he was imprisoned? It certainly is not something that was beyond the Earl, well aware of the likelihood of him being imprisoned, but also keenly aware of the cards he had to play at home. Henry had been obliged to let Gerald off the hook on several occasions in the past, and a demonstration of the Earldom’s power may well have been a premeditated action to impress upon the English crown how much better off it would be if Gerald was left to his own devices.

Was Thomas badly advised by those that Gerald had left around him, mainly his uncles like James Fitzgerald? Did they act rashly in the events that followed, putting most of the responsibility on the shoulders of the young man who could not possibly have had the authority to do most of the things he is said to have done?

Or was Thomas really his own man, who heard the rumours of what was happening to his father in London and made the bold step to face up to the might of the English crown? Did he do so too quickly, influenced by the whisperings of enemies?

We will never really know for sure how much control Gerald had over what Thomas did, but I deem it likely that he had left some instructions with his son as to what to do if he was imprisoned. Whether these instructions went so far as to raise open rebellion or just cause some unrest is another matter.

What does matter is the rumours that were around the Pale in June 1534, about the fate of Gerald. Spread by all and sundry, but especially by a number of people who counted themselves enemies of the Fitzgerald’s, these rumours claimed that Gerald had been beheaded in London and that the English monarchy was committed to the destruction of the Kildare branch of the Fitzgerald’s. Plenty of people in Ireland at the time, like the Dublin Archbishop John Allen (one of the earliest “reformers” in a position of clerical power in Ireland) or the Earl of Ormond (still Piers Butler) would have loved to have seen the Fitzgerald’s crushed, and may have seen no better way to insure this then to provoke the young Thomas into a poorly thought out rebellion.

The Earl of Ormond was actually Thomas Boleyn at this time, this title given to him as a sign of favour from Henry VIII. Piers Butler had been granted the title “Earl of Ossory” after voluntarily surrendering his Irish title and remained in power in Ireland. Since Piers got his old title back in 1538, and for the sake of continuity and simplicity, I’ll continue to dub him the “Earl of Ormond” here.

As well as that, Henry did have plans for the re-appointment of Sir William Skeffington to the Lord Deputyship, the position he had held just a few years before, with a mandate to combat “popery” in Ireland and to greater enforce the centralisation of the realm – a mission that had the full support of the Earl of Ormond but was already provoking confusion and unpopularity in the east. Such a power play could not fail to be a part of the gossip and rumours in Dublin at the time.

However it came about, Thomas made the decision quickly once the rumours started flying around, and the family fell in line behind him. He started making contacts with the native Irish who were allied to the Earldom – the O’Neill’s and the Offaly O’Connor’s for example – telling them to assemble forces to aid him. On the 11th of June 1534, he arrived at a meeting of the Dublin Council that he was the nominal head of, accompanied by a number of armed guards. Surrendering his badges of office, he renounced his allegiance to the English crown, much to the shock of some of those present.

The image of the young Thomas, flanked by armoured horsemen, theatrically casting aside the sword of office and vowing to oppose the designs of the tyrant across the sea is a memorable one and has greatly aided the longevity of the rebellion in Irish remembrance. Thomas got his nickname from the extravagant clothing that he and his followers were often seen to be wearing, which only enhances the memory of his person – as a young, dashing, handsome firebrand.

The reality is that Thomas’ decision was a gigantic miscalculation. Much depends on his aims in undertaking his actions, but it is clear that he underestimated the resolve of the Tudor King and the likelihood of what would follow. Thomas likely wanted his father released as he had been several times before and for political life in Ireland to go on as normal – with Kildare at the top, left to their own devices while paying lip service to a distant overlord. Even if he actually thought his father had been killed, his renunciation of allegiance to England was probably a bullying tactic, a spectacular attempt to show Henry the dangers of annoying his distant subjects, and was not meant to be lasting.

Thomas almost certainly was not making a blow for freedom, either for his own Earldom or for Ireland in general. There are some indications that the Geraldines were making a power-play for overall control of Ireland, for the establishment of an independent Lordship, but it does not seem like this was ever a realistic aspiration. Thomas was probably hoping that some raids of Pale land and attacks into Ormond would settle the matter. Other Anglo-Irish families, like the Burkes, had renounced allegiance to the English crown before, but never in so open or brazen a manner. By this point, the Earldom of Kildare was “more Irish that the Irish themselves”, which may also demonstrate why Thomas was so willing to step into the role of rebel. Given the previous actions of his father and grandfather (in repeatedly accepting the overlordship of the English crown even when a rebellion may have been workable) and the geopolitical reality (England was not far away) I do not think that Thomas really had independence as a genuine goal (perhaps a faint aspiration if things went well) but he was determined to make as advantageous  position as he could for himself and his Earldom.

There was a religious element to the whole thing too, with Henry’s reforms not popular within Kildare and most of Ireland. Inflaming tensions and unrest on those grounds was all too easy regardless of Thomas’ actually feelings on the matter. Such motivations also had the added impetus of drawing the eyes of potential allies in Europe, from the Pope to the Imperial leader Charles V, who observed the unfolding events in Ireland with some interest – and perhaps some influence. If Kildare didn’t want to be a vassal of Henry, he may have thought Charles would be a better option.

The English weren’t interested in backing off. Henry was a King who did not bear slights well and already had a reputation for bloody put downs of rebellions in England. His reformation in full swing and eager to establish his authority, he soon had forces being prepared to travel to Ireland and bring young Thomas to heel, forces placed under the command of Skeffington.

Thomas was committed and gathered his own forces, beginning a campaign of burnings and intimidations in the Pale regions, detaining those who he believed were most opposed to him, forcing oaths of allegiance out of others. An aborted attempt was made to get the Ormond Butlers on his side. When this, predictably, failed, he launched a raid into Kilkenny. Ormond fought back, making his allegiances very plain.

Thomas was not really in the best strategic position as a result. He had an army, with cannon, gallowglass and cavalry, but his allies were scattered throughout Ireland, hesitant to come charging to the young man’s aid. On top of that, he had major enemies on both sides of his own land which were to occupy his attention.

That being said, he had advantages too. A bout of plague had recently swept through Dublin which had left the city severely weakened and lacking in manpower, and Ormond was never renowned as a military power at this time.

As well, the O’Toole clan of Wicklow, while not allied with Thomas, had taken advantage of the deteriorating situation and enacted a major plunder of granary stores in Fingal, south of the city. In defence of this area many of the city’s best militia had fallen, leaving Dublin in an especially weak state.

Thomas decided to aim his main blow at Dublin. The city contained a sturdy castle and was surrounded by walls that were not inconsiderable, but the citizens lacked the strength or the will to seriously contest a siege of the city proper. To that end they entered negotiations with the army that Thomas had brought to their gate, and with the agreement that the environs and people of Dublin would be left unmolested, Thomas’ force was allowed inside the walls so they could focus their besieging efforts on Dublin Castle itself, wherein numerous opponents of the Fitzgerald family, like Archbishop Allen, had taken refuge.

Thomas proceeded to batter the walls of the castle with his cannon and gallowglass, and the defenders blasted back. Thomas had placed himself in a good position, free to move around the east of Ireland without hassle, aided by several native Irish families, and in a strong posture to take the stronghold of the English in Ireland. But Dublin Castle did not give in easily, and the siege dragged on.

Archbishop Allen, not confident of his side’s success, attempted escape, but was tracked down to a hiding place outside the city and killed, perhaps on Thomas’ direct orders. Such an act was a propaganda disaster for the Fitzgerald’s. Thomas suffered the ignominy of excommunication some time afterwards. It didn’t matter that Allen had been a long-time enemy of the family: he was clergy and that came with a degree of protection that it was unwise to challenge. Many of those on the fence regarding Thomas’ actions now turned against him and his rationale of combating religious reforms sounded increasingly hollow.

Thomas had other problems too. So many of those Irish that he called allies were stingy with tangible support, distracted by problems at home, claimants to titles, clashes with neighbours. Not even the Desmond Geraldines were able to really help Thomas substantially thanks to trouble in Cork, and the coalition that the young man may have hoped to lead did not ever really come into being on the field. It is likely that many of these Kingdoms and other states were just biding their time and waiting to see how things would turn out before committing to either support or oppose Thomas. If Thomas had any ounce of the diplomatic intelligence his father and grandfather had, this was a scenario that he should have expected. Success was the best way to get his “allies” involved.

While a large amount of the country was leaning Thomas’ way, Ormond was an exception, and at the urging of King Henry he was sending his own raids into Carlow and Kildare, left largely undefended since most of Thomas’ force was in Dublin. These actions did mean that Thomas had to split part of the army besieging the castle off, engaging in a rapid campaign throughout the south-east which saw several small –scale clashes and the capture of a few minor positions. A brief truce saw Thomas try and bring the Butlers round to his way of thinking again. Ormond had barely refused when Thomas once more attacked, now backed up by a small contingent newly arrived from Tir Eoghain. The Butlers were forced to limit their offensive operations, under the potential threat from Desmond to the west as well as the incursions of Thomas.

Gerald had, by this time, died in prison in actuality, leaving Thomas as the reigning Earl, though it does not appear as if he ever really took up the title officially. The death of Gerald removed what may have been one of the primary motivations for Thomas’ actions, and what Thomas intended from that point is not clear (that depends on whether he truly believed his father had been killed before, or if he ever actually got confirmation that he father had passed). With no one left to free from Henry’s prisons, Thomas seems to have been fighting for a return to the status quo, or for the unlikely outcome of an independent Earldom.

Things were getting worse in Dublin for the new Earl. The castle stood strong under the ineffective bombardment of the Fitzgerald’s, and actually seems to have the better of the artillery duel, allegedly driving some of the Geraldine soldiers to use Dublin citizens as human shields for their own defences. This kind of (alleged) behaviour and the news that a force was being prepared in England to relieve Dublin led to the citizens of the city ending their agreement with Thomas and falling upon the besiegers violently. Confused and bloody clashes followed as the reduced Kildare forces were driven from the siege of the castle and left isolated.

It being now September, Thomas abandoned his leadership of the campaigns against Ormond and hurried back to Dublin with what force he had to spare. His efforts to intimidate the citizens of Dublin back into their previous acquiescence largely came to nought and several failed assaults were launched on defended civilian positions. Some sources allege that Thomas’ army, consisting of a substantial number of impressed Palesmen, were less than committed in their attempts to capture the town from that point on. A 400 strong sortie from the gates of the city scattered a large part of Kildare’s force, leaving many of his supplies and cannon pieces in Dubliner hands.

As October arrived and it became clear that Dublin could not be captured by force, Thomas settled on a six week truce with its citizens. Part of the truce terms were for the city to entreat with King Henry for a pardon to be given to Thomas, indicating that reality was kicking in. Of course, one of the other demands was for Dublin to furnish him with artillery pieces, so he probably knew that a pardon was a longshot at this stage.

Thomas was suddenly not in a great position and it was largely of his own doing, which reemphasises the narrative of an inexperienced and rash young man who didn’t really know what he was doing. He overestimated the support that he would receive from Irish and Anglo-Irish allies, was caught between foes to the west and east, and found himself unable to take Dublin Castle with speed, an outcome that sealed his fate more than anything else. If the castle, and the city with it, had fallen Thomas would have been in a far stronger position to negotiate an end to his rebellion on good terms to himself, or at least to be free to face the threat of Ormond and the coming English without the drain on men and resources that the siege of Dublin became.

He now had other concerns to deal with. Ormond was making further offensives into his own heartland, but much more importantly, the English army, ordered to bring him to heel, had arrived.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Silken Rebellion

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  9. sully says:

    Thank you for this well done story. I visited Ireland for 3weeks in June 2015.
    I have relatives in Connemara, galway and paternal ancestors that left southern Clare from Kerry way back. I spent three days in Kildare Town because I wanted to visit the Army base at the Curragh, and I was happy to find out that there was St. Brigid’s Cathedral next to a very nice B and B/bar/restaurant called Silken Thomas (years back I read about Silken Thomas Fitzgerald).
    Where did the Fitzgeralds live and what relation did these old buildings-the round tower, St Brigids -have back in the days of the Fitzgeralds?
    Thank you.

  10. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Nine Years War | Never Felt Better

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