The Rebellion of Silken Thomas Fitzgerald (1534-1537)

Patrick Weston Joyce

332. When the lord deputy, Garrett Oge Fitzgerald, went to England in obedience to the king's mandate, he left his son, the young Lord Thomas, as deputy in his place. On his arrival in London he was sent to the Tower, on various charges. He might possibly have got through his present difficulties, as he had through many others, but for what befel in Ireland, which will now be related.

333. Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, who was afterwards known as "Silken Thomas," from the gorgeous trappings of himself and his retinue, was then in his twenty-first year, brave, open and generous. But the earl his father could not have made a more unfortunate choice as deputy; for there were in Dublin plotting enemies who hated all his race, and they led the young man to ruin by taking advantage of his inexperience, and of his unsuspicious disposition.

334. They now—1534—spread a report that his father had been beheaded in England. Whereupon with his brilliant retinue of seven score horsemen he rode through the streets to St. Mary's Abbey; and entering the chamber where the council sat, he openly renounced his allegiance, and proceeded to deliver up the sword and robes of state.

His friend archbishop Cromer, now lord chancellor, besought him with tears in his eyes to forego his purpose; but at that moment the voice of an Irish bard was heard from among the young nobleman's followers, praising the Silken Lord, and calling on him to avenge his father's death. Casting the sword from his hand, he rushed forth with his men to enter on that wild and hopeless struggle which ended in the ruin of himself and his family.

The earl, his father, on hearing of his son's rebellion, took to his bed, and being already sick of palsy, died in a few days.

335. Collecting a large force of the Irish septs in and around the Pale, Lord Thomas led them to the walls of Dublin. The city had been lately weakened by a plague, and the inhabitants on promise of protection admitted him. He then laid siege to the castle, to which several of the leading citizens, including archbishop Allen, had retired on the first appearance of danger.

336. The archbishop, having good reason to dread the Geraldines, for he had always been bitterly hostile to them, attempted during the siege to make his escape by night in a vessel that lay in the Liffey. But he was taken and brought before Lord Thomas at Artaine. He threw himself on his knees to beg for mercy, and the young lord, pitying him, ordered his attendants to take him away in custody. But they, wilfully misinterpreting him, murdered the archbishop. This fearful crime brought a sentence of excommunication against Lord Thomas and his followers.

337. As time went on, O'Conor Faly, O'Moore, and O'Carroll—three powerful chiefs—joined his standard; and he had on his side also O'Neill of Tyrone, and O'Brien of Thomond. He and O'Conor Faly now invaded Meath, and burned Trim, Dunboyne, and the surrounding territory.

338. The new deputy Sir William Skeffington remained inactive during the whole winter. But in March, 1535, he laid siege to the castle of Maynooth, the strongest of Fitzgerald's fortresses, which was defended by 100 men. After a siege of nine days, during which the castle was battered by artillery, then for the first time used in Ireland, he took it by storm, except the great keep; and the garrison who defended this, now reduced to thirty-seven men, seeing the case hopeless, surrendered, doubtless expecting mercy. But, they were all executed. The fall of Maynooth damped the spirits of his adherents; and one of his best friends, O'Moore of Leix, was induced by the earl of Ossory to withdraw from the confederacy.

339. The rebellion had already brought the English Pale to a frightful state, three-fourths of Kildare and a great part of Meath burned and depopulated; while to add to the ruin and misery of the people, the plague was raging all over the country. Lord Leonard Grey, marshal of Ireland, was directed to place himself at the head of the army and to take more active measures. He made short work of the rebellion. Lord Thomas's remaining allies rapidly fell off; and he and his faithful friend O'Conor sent offers of submission. O'Conor was received and pardoned; and Lord Thomas delivered himself up to Lord Grey, on condition that his life should be spared.

340. Lord Thomas was conveyed to England in 1535 and imprisoned in the Tower. Here he was left for about eighteen months neglected and in great misery. There is extant a pitiful letter written by him while in the Tower to an old servant in Ireland, asking that his friend O'Brien should send him £20 to buy food and clothes:— "I never had any money since I came into prison, but a noble, nor I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown, for a velvet furred with budge [i.e. instead of a velvet furred with lambskin fur], and so I have gone wolward [shirtless] and barefoot and barelegged divers times (when it hath not been very warm); and so I should have done still, but that poor prisoners of their gentleness hath sometimes given me old hosen and shoes and shirts."

341. At the time of his arrest his five uncles were treacherously taken; and though it was well known that three of them had openly discountenanced the rebellion, and notwithstanding the promise made to the young lord, the whole six were executed at Tyburn in 1537.

342. And this was the end of the Rebellion of Silken Thomas, which had been brought about by the villainy of his enemies, and during which, though it lasted little more than a year, the county Kildare was wasted and depopulated, and the whole Pale, as well as the country round it, suffered unspeakable desolation and misery. It was a reckless enterprise, for there never was the remotest chance of success: the only palliation was the extreme youth and inexperience of Lord Thomas Fitzgerald.

343. Notwithstanding the efforts of king Henry VIII. to extirpate the house of Kildare, there remained two direct representatives, sons of the ninth earl by Lady Elizabeth Grey. Gerald (or Garrett) the elder, then about twelve years of age, succeeded to the earldom on the death of Lord Thomas. At the time of the apprehension of his uncles (in 1535) he was at Donore in Kildare, sick of small-pox. His faithful tutor Thomas Leverous, afterwards bishop of Kildare, fearing for his safety, wrapped him up warm in flannels, and had him secretly conveyed in a cleeve or basket to Thomond, where he remained under the protection of O'Brien. The other son, then an infant, was in England with his mother. The reader should be reminded that Leonard Grey, now lord justice, was uncle to these two children, for their mother Lady Elizabeth was his sister.

344. Great efforts were now made to discover the place of young Gerald's retreat; and certain death awaited him if he should be captured. But he had friends in every part of Ireland, for the Irish, both native and of English descent, had an extraordinary love for the house of Kildare. By sending him from place to place disguised, his guardians managed to baffle the spies that were everywhere on the watch for him. Sometimes the Irish chiefs that were suspected of protecting him were threatened, or their territories were wasted by the lord justice; and large bribes were offered to give him up; but all to no purpose.

345. When Thomond became an unsafe asylum, he was sent by night to Kilbrittain in Cork, to his aunt Lady Eleanor Mac Carthy, who watched over him with unshaken fidelity. While he was under her charge, Manus O'Donnell chief of Tirconnell made her an offer of marriage, and she consented, mainly, it is believed, for the sake of securing a powerful friend for her outlawed nephew. In the middle of June, 1537, the lady travelled with young Gerald all the way from Cork to Donegal, through Thomond and Connaught, escorted and protected everywhere by the chiefs through whose territories they passed. The illustrious wayfarers must have been well known as they travelled slowly along, yet none of the people attempted to betray them. The journey was performed without the least accident; and she and O'Donnell were immediately married.

346. At the end of two years Lady Eleanor, having reason to believe that her husband was about to betray Gerald, had him placed, disguised as a peasant, on board a vessel which conveyed him to St. Malo. On the Continent he was received with great distinction. He was however dogged everywhere by spies greedy to earn the golden reward for his capture; but he succeeded in eluding them all. And he was pursued from kingdom to kingdom by the English ambassador, who in vain demanded from the several sovereigns that he should be given up. He found his way at lost to Rome to his kinsman Cardinal Pole, who gave him safe asylum, and educated him as became a prince.

347. After many extraordinary vicissitudes and narrow escapes, he was reinstated in all his possessions by Edward VI., in 1552; and in 1554 Queen Mary restored his title, and he became the eleventh earl of Kildare.