THE AGE OF ATROCITY: MASSACRE IN NAAS, 1535

by ehistoryadmin on April 24, 2014

The age of atrocity: Massacre in Naas, 1535

James Durney

From about 1510 the political order that had given a measure of stability to Irish affairs since the mid-1400s began to come apart. Three key elements can be blamed for the instability in the leading dynasties: (i) the passing, in quick succession, of a generation of lords and chieftains who had ruled several of the greater lordships for many years; (ii) the inability of some of their successors to curb growing family disunity or prevent the partial break-up of their lordships; and (iii) the renewed assertiveness of once strong lineages that had been quiet for a number of years previously

In Athy Garret Mór Fitzgerald, the ‘Great’ 8th Earl of Kildare, who had ruled for thirty-five years, died in 1513. His successor, Garret Óg, dealt swiftly with the problem of succession, heading off the danger of further family division by capturing his rival in 1514. Other lordships were not so lucky and disintegrated into warfare. At the same time as the old order was replaced with new blood the government of Henry VIII decided to embark on the reassertion of royal authority over its weakened Irish dominion. As the King’s agents arrived in Dublin to take charge of the process, they found huge political and social turmoil. Perhaps unaware of the growing dislocation then confronting Ireland’s greatest family, as the old order began to crack, the government’s meddling spectacularly backfired. Rather than confirming royal power it provoked its outright rejection, and after twice flirting with revolt, in 1528 and 1532, the Kildare Fitzgeralds entered into full-scale insurrection in 1534.

King Henry, immediately abandoned his dependence on the great rival Anglo-Irish affinities and dispatched a force of 2,300 English soldiers to Ireland under the command of Sir William Skeffington and Lord Leonard Grey. The Fitzgerald army was at the time the greatest military force in Ireland, but in just a few months of combat they were defeated. The Fitzgeralds fought a hard war, burning and pillaging widely, killing any who resisted them and allegedly ordering the summary execution of anyone who was English by birth. It is unclear whether these allegations were true or just exaggerated reportage of a handful of isolated killings of English people – the Fitzgeralds were ‘Old English’ by descent – but there is no doubt that in London the allegations were believed to be true.

The crown’s vengeance, when it came, was terrible. Skeffington took the town of Naas from Thomas Fitzgerald, known as ‘Silken Thomas,’ capturing a large number of prisoners. The English forces guarding the prisoners feared they were about to be attacked by other Fitzgerald elements in the vicinity, and so killed their captives to prevent them being freed. Around 100 Fitzgerald prisoners were executed at Naas on Saturday 6 March 1535. The killing of prisoners by the English caused astonishment in Ireland, where the seizing of captives for ransom was a customary feature of Irish warfare. Three weeks later, after the siege and capture of Maynooth Castle (18-23 March) the English slaughtered the inhabitants after they had surrendered leading to the expression that they were giving the ‘pardon of Maynooth’. The army took the basecourt by assault after an artillery bombardment, but the constable was tricked into surrendering the great castle for a bribe and the inhabitants put to the sword. At least one consolation was that the constable suffered the same fate as those he had betrayed.

Thomas Fitzgerald surrendered on 24 August and was taken to court in London by Lord Grey, who was his brother-in-law. Between January 1535 and May 1536 a handful of rebels were tried and executed, until finally in February 1537 Silken Thomas and his five uncles were executed at Tyburn.

David Edwards in ‘The escalation of violence in sixteenth-century Ireland,’ refers to the Naas atrocity as the first definite massacre of the sixteenth century and the earliest recorded large scale dispatch of unarmed, or disarmed, persons.

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