Rebellion of Silken Thomas

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


WHEN Kildare was summoned to London—as it proved to be for the last time—he was called upon to nominate some one who should act for him in his absence, and for whom he himself would be responsible. Unfortunately he nominated his own son Thomas,[1] a hot, impetuous, brave, daring, and chivalrous youth, scarce twenty-one years of age. For some time the earl lay in London Tower, his fate as yet uncertain; the enemies of his house meanwhile striving steadily to insure his ruin.

It was at this juncture that the events detailed in bygone pages—Henry's quarrel with the pope, and the consequent politico-religious revolution in England—flung all the English realm into consternation and dismay. Amid the tidings of startling changes and bloody executions in London brought by each mail to Ireland, came many disquieting rumors of the fate of the Geraldine earl. The effect of these stories on the young Lord Thomas seems to have suggested to the anti-Geraldine faction a foul plot to accomplish his ruin. Forged letters were circulated giving out with much circumstantiality how the earl his father had been beheaded in the Tower of London, notwithstanding the king's promise to the contrary. The effect of this news on the Geraldine party, but most of all on the young Lord Thomas, may be imagined. Stunned for an instant by this cruel blow, his resolution was taken in a burst of passionate grief and anger. Vengeance! vengeance on the trebly perjured and blood-guilty king, whose crimes of lust, murder, and sacrilege called aloud for punishment, and forfeited for him allegiance, throne and life! The youthful deputy hastily assembling his guards and retainers, and surrounded by a crowd of his grief-stricken and vengeful kinsmen, marched to Mary's Abbey, where the privy council was already sitting, waiting for him to preside over its deliberations. The scene at the council chamber is picturesquely sketched by Mr. Ferguson, in his "Hibernian Nights' Entertainment,"[2]

"Presently the crowd collected round the gates began to break up and line the causeways at either side, and a gallant cavalcade was seen through the open arch advancing from Thomas' Court toward the drawbridge. 'Way for the lord deputy,' cried two truncheon-bearers, dashing through the gate, and a shout arose on all sides that Lord Thomas was coming. Trumpeters and pursuivants at arms rode first, then came the mace-bearer with his symbol of office, and after him the sword of state, in a rich scabbard of velvet, carried by its proper officer. Lord Thomas himself, in his robes of state, and surrounded by a dazzling array of nobles and gentlemen, spurred after. The arched gateway was choked for a moment with tossing plumes and banners, flashing arms and gleaming faces, as the magnificent troop burst in like a flood of fire upon the dark and narrow precincts of the city. But behind the splendid cortege which headed their march, came a dense column of mailed men-at-arms, that continued to defile through the close pass long after the gay mantles and waving pennons of their leaders were indistinct in the distance.

"The gate of Mary's Abbey soon received the leaders of the revolt; and ere the last of their followers had ceased to pour into the echoing courtyard, Lord Thomas and his friends were at the door of the council-chamber. The assembled lords rose at his entrance, and way was made for him to the chair of state.

"'Keep your seats, my lords,' said he, stopping midway between the entrance and council-table, while his friends gathered in a body at his back. 'I have not come to preside over this council, my lords; I come to tell you of a bloody tragedy that has been enacted in London, and to give you to know what steps I have thought fit to take in consequence.'

"'What tragedy, my lord?' said Alan, the archbishop of Dublin; 'your lordship's looks and words alarm me: what means this multitude of men now in the house of God? My lord, my lord, I fear this step is rashly taken; this looks like something, my lord, that I would be loth to name in the presence of loyal men.'

"'My lord archbishop,' replied Thomas, 'when you pretend an ignorance of my noble father's murder———-'

"'Murder!' cried the lord chancellor, Cromer, starting from his seat, and all at the council-table uttered exclamations of astonishment in horror, save only Alan and the lord high treasurer.

"'Yes, my lord,' the young Geraldine continued, with a stern voice, still addressing the archbishop, 'when you pretend ignorance of that foul and cruel murder, which was done by the instigation and traitorous procuring of yourself and others, your accomplices, and yet taunt me with the step which I have taken, rashly, as it may be, but not, I trust, unworthily of my noble father's son, in consequence you betray at once your treachery and your hypocrisy.' By this time the tumult among the soldiery without, who had not till now heard of the death of the earl, was as if a thousand men had been storming the abbey. They were all native Irish, and to a man devoted to Kildare. Curses, lamentations, and cries of rage and vengeance sounded from every quarter of the courtyard; and some who rushed into the council-hall with drawn swords, to be revenged on the authors of their calamity, were with difficulty restrained by the knights and gentlemen around the door from rushing on the archbishop and slaying him, as they heard him denounced by their chief, on the spot. When the clamor was somewhat abated, Alan, who had stood up to speak at its commencement, addressed the chancellor.

"'My lord, this unhappy young man says he knows not what. If his noble father, which God forbid, should have come under his majesty's displeasure—if he should, indeed, have suffered—although I know not that he hath—the penalty of his numerous treasons———-'

"'Bold priest, thou liest!' cried Sir Oliver Fitzgerald; 'my murdered brother was a truer servant of the crown than ever stood in thy satin shoes!'

"Alan and the lord chancellor, Cromer, also an archbishop and primate of Armagh, rose together; the one complaining loudly of the wrong and insult done his order; the other beseeching that all present would remember they were Christians and subjects of the crown of England; but, in the midst of this confusion, Lord Thomas, taking the sword of state out of the hands of its bearer, advanced up the hall to the council-table with a lofty determination in his bearing that at once arrested all eyes. It was plain he was about to announce his final purpose, and all within the hall awaited what he would say in sullen silence. His friends and followers now formed a dense semicircle at the foot of the hall; the lords of the council had involuntarily drawn round the throne and lord chancellor's chair; Thomas stood alone on the floor opposite the table, with the sword in his hands. Anxiety and pity were marked on the venerable features of Cromer as he bent forward to hear what he would say; but Alan and the treasurer, Lord James Butler, exchanged looks of malignant satisfaction.

"'My lord,' said Thomas, 'I come to tell you that my father has been basely put to death, for I know not what alleged treason, and that we have taken up arms to avenge his murder. Yet, although we be thus driven by the tyranny and cruelty of the king into open hostility, we would not have it said hereafter that we have conspired like villains and churls, but boldly declared our purpose as becomes warriors and gentlemen. This sword of state, my lords, is yours, not mine. I received it with an oath that I would use it for your benefit; I should stain my honor if I turned it to your hurt. My lords, I have now need of my own weapon, which I can trust; but as for the common sword, it has flattered me not—a painted scabbard, while its edge was yet red in the best blood of my house—ay, and is even now whetted anew for further destruction of the Geraldines. Therefore, my lords, save yourselves from us as from open enemies. I am no longer Henry Tudor's deputy—I am his foe. I have more mind to conquer than to govern—to meet him in the field than to serve him in office. And now, my lords, if all the hearts in England and Ireland, that have cause thereto, do but join in this quarrel, as I look that they will, then shall the world shortly be made sensible of the tyranny, cruelty, falsehood, and heresy, for which the age to come may well count this base king among the ancient traitors of most abominable and hateful memory.

"'Croom aboo!' cried Neale Roe O'Kennedy, Lord Thomas' bard, who had pressed into the body of the hall at the head of the Irish soldiery. He was conspicuous over all by his height and the splendor of his native costume. His legs and arms were bare; the sleeves of his yellow cothone, parting above the elbow, fell in voluminous folds almost to the ground, while its skirts, girded at the loins, covered him to the knee. Over this he wore a short jacket of crimson, the. sleeves just covering the shoulders, richly wrought and embroidered, and drawn round the waist by a broad belt set with precious stones and fastened with a massive golden buckle. His. laced and fringed mantle was thrown back, but kept from falling by a silver brooch, as broad as a man's palm, which glittered on his breast. He stretched out his hand, the gold bracelets rattling as they slid back on the thickness of his arm, and exclaimed in Irish:

"'Who is the young lion of the plains of Liffey that affrights the men of counsel, and the ruler of the Saxon, with his noble voice?

"'Who is the quickened ember of Kildare, that would consume the enemies of his people, and the false churls of the cruel race of clan-London?

"'It is the son of Gerald—the top branch of the oak of Offaly!

"'It is Thomas of the silken mantle—Ard-Righ Eireann!'

"'Righ Tomas go bragh!' shouted the soldiery; and many of the young lord's Anglo-Irish friends responded—'Long live King Thomas!' but the chancellor, Archbishop Cromer, who had listened to his insane avowal with undisguised distress, and who had already been seen to wring his hand, and even to shed tears as the misguided nobleman and his friends thus madly invoked their own destruction, came down from his seat, and earnestly grasping the young lord by the hand, addressed him:

"'Good my lord,' he cried, while his venerable figure and known attachment to the house Kildare, attested as it was by such visible evidences of concern, commanded for a time the attention of all present. 'Good my lord, suffer me to use the privilege of an old man's speech with you before you finally give up this ensign of your authority and pledge of your allegiance.'

"The archbishop reasoned and pleaded at much length and with deep emotion; but he urged and prayed in vain.

"'My Lord Chancellor,' replied Thomas, 'I came not here to take advice, but to give you to understand what I purpose to do. As loyalty would have me know my prince, so duty compels me to reverence my father. I thank you heartily for your counsel; but it is now too late. As to my fortune, I will take it as God sends it, and rather choose to die with valor and liberty than live under King Henry in bondage and villainy. Therefore, my lord, I thank you again for the concern you take in my welfare, and since you will not receive this sword out of my hand, I can but cast it from me, even as here I cast off and renounce all duty and allegiance to your master.'

"So saying, he flung the sword of state upon the council-table. The blade started a hand's-breadth out of its sheath from the violence with which it was dashed out of his hands. He, then, in the midst of a tumult of acclamation from his followers, and cries of horror and pity from the lords and prelates around, tore off his robes of office and cast them at his feet. Stripped thus of his ensigns of dignity, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald stood up, amid the wreck of his fair fortune, an armed and avowed rebel, equipped in complete mail, before the representatives of England and Ireland. The cheering from his adherents was loud and enthusiastic, and those without replied with cries of fierce exultation."

The gallant but hapless Geraldine was now fully launched on his wild and desperate enterprise. There is no doubt that, had it partaken less of a hasty burst of passionate impetuosity, had it been more deliberately planned and organized, the revolt of Silken Thomas might have wrested the Anglo-Irish colony from Henry's authority. As it was, it shook the Anglo-Irish power to its base, and at one time seemed irresistible in its progress to success. But, however the ties of blood, kindred, and clanship might draw men to the side of Lord Thomas, most persons outside the Geraldine party soon saw the fate that surely awaited such a desperate venture, and saw too that it had all been the result of a subtle plot of the Ormond faction to ruin their powerful rivals. Moreover, in due time the truth leaked out that the old earl had not been beheaded at all, but was alive a prisoner in London. Lord Thomas now saw the gulf of ruin into which he had been precipitated, and knew now that his acts would only seal the doom or else break the heart of that father, the news of whose murder had driven him into this desperate course. But it was all too late to turn back. He would see the hopeless struggle through to the bitter end.

One of his first acts was to besiege Dublin city while another wing of his army devastated the possessions and reduced the castles of Ormond. Alan, the Archbishop of Dublin, a prominent enemy of the Geraldines, fled from the city by ship. The vessel, however, was driven ashore on Clontarf, and the archbishop sought refuge in the village of Artane. News of this fact was quickly carried into the Geraldine camp at Dublin; and before day's-dawn Lord Thomas and his uncles, John and Oliver, with an armed party, reached Artane, and dragged the archbishop from his bed. The unhappy prelate pleaded hard for his life; but the elder Geraldines, who were men of savage passion, barbarously murdered him as he knelt at their feet. This foul deed ruined any prospect of success which their cause might have had. It excited universal horror, and drew down upon its perpetrators, and all who should aid or shelter them, the terrible sentence of excommunication. This sentence was exhibited to the hapless Earl of Kildare in his dungeon in London Tower, and, it is said, so affected him that he never rallied more. He sank under the great load of his afflictions, and died of a broken heart.

Meanwhile, Lord Thomas was pushing the rebellion with all his energies, and for a time with wondrous success. He dispatched ambassadors to the Emperor Charles the Fifth, and to the pope, demanding aid in this war against Henry as the foe of God and man. But it is clear that neither the pope nor the emperor augured well of Silken Thomas' ill-devised endeavors. No succors reached him. His fortunes eventually began to pale. Powerful levies were brought against him; and, finally, he sought a parley with the English commander-in-chief, Lord Leonard Gray, who granted him terms of life for himself and uncles. Henry was wroth that any terms should have been promised to such daring foes; but as terms had been pledged, there was nothing for it, according to Henry's code of morality, but to break the promise. Accordingly, the five uncles of Silken Thomas, and the unfortunate young nobleman himself, were treacherously seized—the uncles at a banquet to which they were invited, and which was, indeed, given in their honor, by the lord deputy Grey—and brought to London, where, in violation of plighted troth, they were all six beheaded at Tyburn, January 3, 1537.

This terrible blow was designed to cut off the Geraldine family forever, and to all appearance it seemed, and Henry fondly believed, that this wholesale execution had accomplished that design, and left neither root nor seed behind. Yet once again that mysterious protection which had so often preserved the Geraldine line in like terrible times saved it from the decreed destruction. "The imprisoned earl (Lord Thomas' father) having died in the Tower on December 12, 1534, the sole survivor of this historic house was now a child of twelve years of age, whose life was sought with an avidity equal to Herod's, but who was protected with a fidelity which defeated every attempt to capture him. Alternately the guest of his aunts, married to the chiefs of Offaly and Donegal, the sympathy everywhere felt for him led to a confederacy between the northern and southern chiefs, which had long been wanting. A loose league was formed, including the O'Neills of both branches, O'Donnell, O'Brien, the Earl of Desmond, and the chiefs of Moylurg and Breffni. The lad, the object of so much natural and chivalrous affection, was harbored for a time in Munster, thence transported through Connaught into Donegal, and finally, after four years, in which he engaged more of the minds of statesmen than any other individual under the rank of royalty, was safely landed in France."

The Geraldine line was preserved once more! From this child Gerald it was to branch out as of yore, in stately strength and princely power.


[1] Known in history as "Silken Thomas." He was so called, we are told, from the silken banners carried by his standard-bearers—others say because of the richness of his personal attire.

[2] The book here alluded to, it may be right to remind young readers, does not purport to be more than a fanciful story founded on facts; but the author so closely adheres to the outlines of authentic history, that we may credit his sketches and descriptions as well justified approximations to the literal truth.