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IRELAND 1400-1603



James Durney


In this essay I aim to show the effectiveness of the Tudor re-conquest in Kildare. To understand the Tudor re-conquest of Kildare it is necessary to describe early Anglo-Norman influence on the county.


One of the first groups of Normans to arrive in Kildare was under the command of Maurice FitzGerald, an ally of the deposed and exiled King of Leinster, Art MacMurrough. The Normans were originally settled Vikings from Normandy, in France, who had conquered England in 1066. Those who invaded Ireland were mainly Welsh settlers or Cambro-Normans. As mercenaries they accompanied Art MacMurrough on his return to Ireland. MacMurrough had been exiled because of his ambition to become High King of Ireland. The reigning high king, Rory O’Connor, beat off this attempt and took over MacMurrough’s Leinster kingship. MacMurrough went abroad to enlist help from King Henry II, who gave him permission to raise an army in Wales. MacMurrough’s main ally was Richard de Clare, or as he is better known in Ireland, Strongbow. He married MacMurrough’s daughter, Aoife, and when MacMurrough died the following year Strongbow became Lord of Leinster. Strongbow made Kildare the centre of his campaign to conquer Leinster. Through force of arms Strongbow settled Welsh and English allies in Leinster, and granted Naas and Offelan to Maurice FitzGerald.[1] The new landowners recognised the needs for defence and built fortified homes or castles to blunt the raids of the Gaelic Irish. They also built churches and restored old Celtic buildings in which to pray. The administration of Kildare was put into the hands of powerful Anglo-Norman families, chief among them were the FitzGeralds. Known as the Geraldines, the FitzGeralds became Ireland’s most powerful dynasty for seven centuries. The Geraldines had properties and appointments in over thirty Kildare townlands. They occupied most of Kildare and portions of Dublin, Carlow, Offaly and Laois and acquired additional properties, mainly castles, throughout the country. They also intermarried with influential families at home and in England. While there were other Anglo-Norman families in Kildare, the FitzGeralds were the most influential in the area and became the King’s principal representatives in Ireland.[2]

From the thirteenth century onwards the Norman incursions in the rest of Ireland at first faltered then waned, allowing Gaelic Ireland to become resurgent. By the 1500s, the Anglo-Normans were in retreat, as it had proved impossible to maintain a sufficient defence against the growing power of the Gaelic chieftains. By this time, the Gaelic Irish had adopted weapons and tactics comparable to those of the Anglo-Normans and also availed of Scottish mercenaries called galloglasses (Galloglas were mercenary warrior kindreds whose families descended from the Gaelic-Norse aristocracy of Argyll and the Isles of Scotland. They were employed as heavy infantry). Furthermore, England’s wars with Scotland in the early fourteenth century and with France during the Hundred Years War (1338-1453) had made it too expensive for the English to mount a sustained military campaign in Ireland. Some Anglo-Norman lords were forced to pay tribute to Gaelic rulers, while others became wholly gaelicised, becoming fluent Irish speakers and adopting Gaelic customs and dress. Therefore, English domination had weakened to the extent that its Dublin-centred control began concentrating on its most obedient counties of Kildare, Louth, Meath and Dublin, known as the Pale. The Pale comprised a region in a radius of twenty miles around Dublin, which the inhabitants gradually fortified against incursions from the Irish. It became the only real piece of Ireland under English control and a tenuous foothold for them on the island. The Pale boundary essentially consisted of a fortified ditch and rampart built around parts of the medieval counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin and Kildare, actually leaving half of Meath and Kildare on the other side. Within the confines of the Pale the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from that of their counterparts in England, apart from the regular forays of raiding Irish. English language and culture predominated and a government established in the old Norse city of Dublin enforced English law.


Kildare rebels.
Beyond the Pale, the authority of the Dublin government was tenuous. The Gaelic Irish were, for the most part, outside English jurisdiction, maintaining their own language, social system, customs and laws. The English referred to them as ‘His Majesty’s Irish enemies’. The great dynasties of Fitzgerald, Butler and Burke, achieved effective independence, raising their own armed forces, enforcing their own law and adopting Gaelic Irish language and culture. The FitzGeralds as deputy lieutenants, or justiciars, in the absence of the resident lord lieutenant, governed the lordship on behalf of the English monarch. The expansion of the county heartland under Garret Mor benefited both FitzGeralds and the English crown. From being in a vulnerable position in the mid-1400s, the Kildare manors, centred on Maynooth and Leixlip, had by the early sixteenth century been encompassed by an expanding circuit of stoutly fortified acquisitions. As a competent administrator and well-connected local nobleman Garret Mor, known as ‘the Great Earl,’ governed the Irish colony at no expense to the English crown.  Under the terms of Poynings’ Law (1494), Garret as Lord Deputy could not call parliament or place bills before it without prior authority from the king. Under the auspices of the FitzGeralds as governors, the physical borders of the colony had been extended, and the judicial and fiscal regimes of the Dublin government were to a greater and lesser degree effective even in parts of the remoter colonial territories, such as Kerry and the outlying cities of Galway and Limerick.[3] But by the sixteenth century the House of Kildare had become an unreliable servant to the English government, by scheming with Yorkist pretenders to the English throne, and signing private treaties with foreign powers. In 1513 Garret Og FitzGerald, the Ninth Earl, became Governor when his father, Garret Mor, died while campaigning in the midlands. He was already experienced as a courtier, administrator and soldier by the time of his appointment and took his father’s place as governor with the minimum of upheaval. An arguably better ruler than his father Garret Og pursued a policy of Irish unity, of ‘Ireland for the Irish.’ He leased portions of his estates to Gaelic activists and established the College of Saint Mary near his castle in Maynooth. In 1519 Garret was summoned to England and lost his appointment as Lord Deputy due to alleged ‘seditious practices, conspiracies and subtle drifts’. He was forced to remain in the London area until his return from England in 1523.[4]

Garret Og could point to the extremely turbulent state of many parts of Ireland, particularly the Pale marches, during his absence as testimony to the necessity of Geraldine oligarchy to govern Ireland in the name of the crown, but, during subsequent terms as Lord Lieutenant he began facing opposition within the Pale and Leinster.[5] He took offence to the appointment of Sir William Skeffington as special King’s Commissioner in Ireland in 1529 and as Lord Lieutenant in 1530. Skeffington assembled the Irish Parliament in 1531 in an effort to control Kildare and other Irish lords by enacting stiffer laws. Garrett refused to co-operate, thwarting Skeffington’s efforts and the following year persuaded King Henry VIII to reinstate him as Lord Lieutenant. He decided he was going to defend his position by force of arms if necessary and transferred some of the king’s ordnance from Dublin Castle to Maynooth in 1533. In the face of such intransigence Henry re-instated Skeffington and in September 1533 summoned Garret to London to explain his behavior. Garret appointed his son, Thomas, as Deputy Governor of Ireland, before going to London, the following February, by which time he was terminally ill and likely to die soon anyway. (Thomas FitzGerald, Lord Offaly, was known as ‘Silken Thomas’ because of silk fringes on the helmets worn by his retainers.) Garret Og had, in the event of being dismissed from office, arranged with his son to begin a symbolic rebellion aimed at forcing Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell to reverse their plans for the permanent replacement of the FitzGeralds from the deputyship. Garret Og was interrogated at court between March and May in 1534 and ‘manifold enormities’ were proven against him.[6] However, he was not arrested until 29 June 1534 and by this time the Kildare rebellion was eighteen days old. Steven Ellis, in Ireland and the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603, explains the removal of Garret Og from office at this time was ‘part of a major reorganization of Tudor provincial government which in the same month saw three new officials appointed to head the government of Ireland, Wales and the far north (of England), followed by other measures to centralize control and reorganize the provincial councils’.[7]

The lord privy seal, and chief advisor to Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, had built up much loyal support in the Irish Council and used these to his advantage in accusing Garret Og of, among other things, treason. FitzGerald was refused licence to depart England and the actions of confinement and interrogation took toll on his health. Henry, learning that FitzGerald was not likely to live long and no doubt intending to head off conflict summoned Thomas FitzGerald, with instructions to form a government in his father’s absence. Garret sent word to Thomas in May, warning him not to place any trust in the Irish council and against obeying a summons to London. Apparently following the king’s instructions, Thomas summoned the Irish Privy Council to St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, for 11 June. But on the day it met, Thomas accompanied by 140 horsemen, rode to the abbey and publicly denounced the government’s policies, renounced his allegiance to King Henry VIII, and proclaimed a Catholic crusade. Colm Lennon maintains that Thomas was ‘well-prepared for this crisis’ and in the ‘weeks before 11 June solicited support from traditional or sometimes Kildare allies’. Lennon claims that it was a public relations exercise that escalated into a full-scale rebellion when Henry incarcerated Garret Og in the Tower of London and Thomas sought overseas help.[8] There is little information on the start of the rebellion, but Thomas seemed to have much success. Thomas delivered a proclamation against English-born persons and even made an example of some, which discouraged commercial sea traffic. Consequently, communications between Dublin and London were severely disrupted. Thomas denounced the king as a heretic and demanded an oath of allegiance to himself, the pope and the emperor. The crusade won him some support from conservative clerics in Ireland, and also considerable sympathy abroad and from English dissidents. However, ‘little more than prayers, promises and the odd shipment of arms’ were provided. [9]
In July Silken Thomas attacked and besieged Dublin Castle, while two rebel armies campaigned in counties Louth and Wexford. The siege continued until English reinforcements landed in October. Within the Pale Thomas was given aid, men and money ‘in the style normally reserved for the king or his governor’.[10] Sir William Skeffington, again Lord Lieutenant, lost no time in declaring Thomas a traitor, leaving those members of the Pale gentry who had been wavering in their support for the crown confirmed instead as loyalists. By this time Garret Og had died in London and Thomas had become the Tenth Earl of Kildare. The English reinforcements spent much of the winter uselessly guarding Dublin and the main towns, and rather than risk a pitched battle Thomas retreated to his stronghold at Maynooth, which had been prepared against a siege. While Thomas burned other parts of the Pale Maynooth was attacked in March 1535 by an English force under Skeffington. After a ten-day siege the English took the base court by assault after an artillery bombardment. The constable betrayed the garrison, but when Skeffington took the castle he executed him and gave the garrison the ‘Maynooth Pardon’, that is, they were all put to death. As Thomas’ principal castle the capture of Maynooth heralded the complete failure of the Rebellion. Thereafter his raids on the Pale had little more than nuisance value, though they were still a serious embarrassment to the government, especially outside the country.

 Thomas, seeing his army melting away and his allies submitting one by one, asked pardon for his offences from Leonard Grey, marshal of the English army. (Grey was Garret FitzGerald’s brother-in-law, and not without family sympathies. He was appointed deputy in February 1536 and remained in this post until 1540 and it was during Grey’s deputyship that the Irish church reformation was instituted.) Silken Thomas was still a formidable opponent, and Grey, wishing to avoid a prolonged conflict and despairing of Spanish aid, guaranteed his personal safety and persuaded him to submit unconditionally to the king’s mercy. On 24 August Thomas, hiding in the Bog of Allen, surrendered and in October was sent as a prisoner to the Tower of London. His five uncles, who also put themselves under the protection of Lord Grey, were subsequently arrested and incarcerated with Thomas in the Tower of London. Despite Grey’s guarantee Thomas was executed, with his five uncles, at Tyburn, London, on 3 February 1537.[11] Since Thomas had surrendered on the basis of assurances that his life would be spared, many of his allies remaining at large saw this as a betrayal. The execution of three of Thomas’ uncles, who had not even supported their nephew, also drew opposition and sympathy. For the House of Kildare the rebellion was a disaster as ‘all the Geraldines of Leinster were exiled and banished. The earldom of Kildare was vested in the King; and every one of the family who was apprehended, whether lay or ecclesiastical, was tortured and put to death. These were great losses, and the cause of lamentation throughout Ireland’.[12] Nonetheless, the extended family of the earls of Kildare ‘remained by far the most influential landed family in sixteenth-century Kildare society, retaining possession of their vast estates which extended across the whole of central Kildare, as well as the north-east and west of the county’.[13] 

 The Tudor re-conquest of Kildare.

The merciless crushing of the Silken Thomas rebellion and the execution of the seven Geraldines ended the supremacy of the House of Kildare. With the family’s hereditary viceroyalty gone, English control over Ireland tightened. The confiscation of the FitzGerald lands affected County Kildare’s entire population and signalled a phase of significant change in the political, economic, religious and social climate of the county which would last until 1922. However, it was as much a disaster for Henry VIII as it was for the FitzGeralds. The result of the rebellion was a renewed crisis of lordship and a ‘decay of the borders’. According to Ellis the garrison needed for defence after Kildare’s demise cost more than the revenues derived from the forfeited estates. Kildare’s estates also suffered with his death.[14]

The House of Tudor had been founded by King Henry VII who succeeded in ending the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York. Henry VII, his son Henry VIII and his three children Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I ruled for 118 years. During this period, England developed into one of the leading European colonial powers, and finally brought Ireland under English control. The Tudor period saw many changes in England, including that of religion. With the assistance of Thomas Cromwell, the king implemented the policy of surrender and regrant. This extended Royal protection to all of Ireland’s elite without regard to ethnicity; in return the whole country was expected to obey the law of the central government; and all Irish lords were to officially surrender to the Crown, and to receive in return by Royal Charter, the title to their lands. The keystone to the reform was in a statute passed by the Irish parliament in 1541, whereby the lordship was converted to a kingdom. Overall, the intention was to assimilate the Gaelic and Gaelicised upper classes and develop a loyalty on their part to the new crown; to this end, they were granted English titles and for the first time admitted to the Irish parliament. In practice, lords around Ireland accepted their new privileges but carried on as they had before. Henry’s religious Reformation - although not as thorough as in England - caused disquiet; his Lord Deputy, Anthony St Leger was largely able to buy off opposition by granting lands confiscated from the monasteries to Irish nobles. Important monastic settlements at Athy, Castledermot, Kildare, Naas and Clane were confiscated and were used as strategic strongholds or bestowed as rewards on officials and military men who were prominent in crushing the Kildare Rebellion.[15] The crisis of the Geraldine League disrupted the royal commission’s work but the bulk of the houses in the Pale surrendered in October-November.[16] However, St Leger allegedly regretted that the government had ‘meddled to alter religion’ during a minority, but worked constructively to ensure local conformity. Local men were preferred where available and while Englishmen were appointed to the sees of Kildare (Thomas Lancaster) and Leighlin (Robert Travers), the existing Gaelic curates were indemnified by grants of denization against the medieval statute excluding them from benefices in the Englishry.[17]

With the demise of the House of Kildare the administration headed by Lord Grey realised that great opportunities for English advancement in Ireland had opened out. Using the substantial forces available to him Skeffington had pacified the Pale’s western and southern borders by his prosecution of a campaign of force mixed with diplomacy. Ireland, the administration argued, was now ‘in case (as) at the first conquest, being at your grace’s pleasure’; Irishmen were ‘never in such state of fear as they be at this instant time’; the gentlemen of County Kildare were the ‘most sorriest men in the world’, and the Pale gentry viewed anxiously the toll of seventy-five executions and sixty-six attainders in the wake of the Kildare rebellion.[18] It was decided to conquer the unstable Gaelic districts of south Leinster, but Lord Grey’s ties to the House of Kildare unwittingly led to his downfall and the rise of FitzGerald power in the guise of the Geraldine League. The Geraldine League came about through an alliance of the FitzGerald’s and a sept of the Northern O’Donnells – Manus O’Donnell was married to Eleanor FitzGerald, daughter of Garret Mor. The aim of the Geraldine League was to restore the House of Kildare to its former glory through the surviving twelve-year-old male heir, Gerald FitzGerald. Later many more, mainly northern, septs joined the Geraldine League but they were roundly defeated in the battle of Bellahoe, Co. Monaghan, in 1539, signalling the end of the League. However, Gerald FitzGerald returned from exile in 1555 to once again bring the House of Kildare back into Irish politics.

Gerald FitzGerald, the half-brother of Silken Thomas, was twelve years old at the time of the Kildare Rebellion and the heir to the Geraldine dynasty. His loyal supporters went to great lengths to protect him and smuggled him out of Ireland and eventually to Rome, where he received his education. Gerald served for a time as Master of the Horse in the service of the Duke of Florence. When Henry VIII died in 1547 and Edward VI succeeded him Gerald returned to England where he married the daughter of Sir Anthony Brown, K.G., who interceded with the king and had the Irish FitzGerald estates restored to Gerald. He returned to the estate at Kilkea, near Athy, where a passionate preoccupation with alchemy earned him the sobriquet the ‘Wizard Earl’. Protector Somerset, following the traditional practise of restoring fallen noble families after a decent interval, had sanctioned Kildare’s return from exile. (The restoration was also designed to secure relations in Leinster.) FitzGerald received a pardon for treason and was restored to his title and estates. Gerald was created Eleventh Earl of Kildare and lost no time in reasserting the traditional Kildare dominance in the midlands, where disturbances ensued.[19] By 1558 Monasterevan, which had always been in the Gaelic sphere, came under the full control of the English with the establishment of a viceregal residence in the town.[20] Reverting to the classical soldier/farmer colonial model, outposts such as Monasterevan, Graney, Timolin, Athy, Cloncurry and Casteldermot were militarised and reserved to either government officials or proven soldiers. Within this protective cordon the less vulnerable locations were granted to local loyalists, while closer to Dublin the process, as exemplified in respect of the monastic properties of Naas, Kilcullen and St Wolstans (Celbridge), was more a scramble for speculative profit or prestige. All in all, in the contest for Kildare the Old English were the victors. [21]

In 1574 Gerald was accused of assisting Gaelic rebels and was arrested and called to England, but returned to supervise the defense of the Pale as the O’Mores and O’Conors raided and destroyed parts of Kildare. He faced serious problems on his return to Ireland in December 1578. His county Kildare lands had been seriously damaged and some of his most prominent Gaelic tenants had been killed in the midlands war that had recently ended with the killing of Rory Og O’More in June 1578. The latter’s rebellion and its vicious suppression by the New England captains laid large sections of Kildare, Laois and Offaly waste, areas that had traditionally been protected by the Earl of Kildare. In order to end the ongoing and embarrassing border conflict the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, was forced to give the midland captains carte blanche in their dealings in this traditional Geraldine-controlled area. The head hunt carried out by these captains marked a significant departure from the traditional low intensity anti-insurgent methods of native border magnates like the Earl of Kildare and resulted in a staggering loss of life. The Massacre of Mullagmast in Kildare’s absence had facilitated this slaughter, exposing his allies and tenants to harassment and ultimately weakened his political credibility on the border and in the Pale.[22] The Massacre of Mullagmast had occurred on New Years Eve 1577. Captain Francis Cosby with reinforcements from Kildare town and Monasterevan lured the rebellious O’Mores and O’Conors to a meeting at Mullaghmast, an ancient meeting place for Leinster chieftains, where the Annals of the Four Masters records: ‘The English of Leinster and Meath, upon that part of the people of Offaly and Leix that remained in confederacy with them and under their protection committed a horrible and abominable act of treachery. It was effected thus: they were all summoned to show themselves with the greatest number they could be able to bring with them at the great Rath of Mullach Maistean; and on their arrival at that place they were surrounded on every side by four lines of soldiers and cavalry who proceeded to slaughter them without mercy so that not a single individual escaped by flight or force.’[23] Over forty of the seven septs (families) of Laois were murdered and in an instant Irish opposition to the plantation was delivered a mortal blow. Rory Og O’More retaliated with raids on Naas, Athy, Carlow and Leighlin Bridge.

In 1580 when Arthur Gray arrived in Ireland as Lord Justice, he was met by rebellion from James Eustace and the surviving Gaels of Offaly and Laois.[24] The O’More and O’Connors burned the towns of Carlow, Athy and Naas. The government response was just as ferocious. Gerald FitzGerald was arrested on suspicion of helping the rebels and died in England after five years under arrest. Henry, his son, was appointed his successor by the English Council. The O’Mores captured Athy in 1598, while the new Lord Justice, Lord Borough, arrived with a large English army and secured the co-operation of among others, Henry, the Earl of Kildare. Henry died in Drogheda on the way home from campaigning in Ulster of wounds or fever and was buried with great pomp in Kildare. His brother William was installed in his place and travelled to England. On his return home by ship in the spring of 1599 William and eighteen chiefs of Meath and Fingall disappeared, believed murdered by the English. His cousin Garret was appointed by the Queen and joined Lord Essex in his campaign against the Irish.[25] Naas was among one of the many towns to receive an English garrison before they marched southwards. Meanwhile the Ulster Irish raided Leinster in 1601 and burned and plundered parts of Kildare. But the writing was on the wall – Gaelic Ireland was no more.

The prevailing consensus among historians is that Silken Thomas’ rebellion was not conceived as such, but was a gesture of protest intended to force concessions from Henry VIII, which only escalated into rebellion after Garret Og was arrested.  While the Kildare Rebellion was a disaster for the FitzGerald family, resulting in the executions of its leading members and the confiscation of most of their property, for the rest of the country the rebellion opened the way for one of the most significant changes in Ireland with the imposition of the Reformation. Within the Pale the FitzGerald’s were the most powerful of Henry VIII’s allies, or enemies, and with the Geraldine’s power broken it facilitated the Reformation and the re-conquest of the English colony. The rebellion was thus a disaster for the FitzGerald’s and Ireland as a whole. While, the medieval world of Gaelic Ireland only began to come to an end decisively after the battle of Kinsale in 1603, it really began to decline with the fall of the house of Kildare in 1534.

End Notes

1. Farrell, History of Kildare, pp.28-9.
2. Ibid, p.35.
3. Lennon, Sixteenth Century Ireland, p.81-2.
4. Farrell, p.43.
5. Lennon, p.100.
6. Jeffries, The Kildare Revolt, JCKAS, vol. XIX, p.449.
7. Ellis, pp.135-6.
8. Lennon, pp.108-9.
9. Ellis, p.137.
10. Ibid, p.138.
11. Farrell, pp.44-5.
12. Annals, p.1445.
13. Lennon, p.67.
14. Ellis, p.142.
15. Farrell, p.46.
16. Ellis, pp.212-3.
17. Ibid, p.220.
18. Lennon, p.71.
19. Ibid, p.270.
20. Ibid, p.274.
21. Carrey, Surviving the Tudors, p.187.
22. Nolan, Kildare from the Documents of Conquest, KHS, pp.248-9.
23. Farrell, p.149.
24. Annals, p.1737.
25. Ibid, p.2093.







Annals of the Four Masters, vols, 5 & 6. Author unknown. Compiled by Emma Ryan. CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.
Carrey, Vincent P., Surviving the Tudors. The ‘wizard’ earl of Kildare and English rule in Ireland 1537-1586. Dublin, 2002.
Ellis, Steven G., Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603. English expansion and the end of Gaelic rule. Essex, 1998.
Lennon, Colm. Sixteenth Century Ireland. Dublin, 2005.
Marsden, John. Galloglas. Hebridean and West Highland Mercenary Warrior Kindreds in Medieval Ireland. East Linton. Scotland, 2003.
O’Farrell, Padraic. A History of County Kildare. Dublin, 2003.


The Kildare Revolt. Accident or Design? Henry A. Jeffries. Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society. 2004-2005 Vol. XIX (Part III).
Kildare from the Documents of Conquest: the Monastic Extents 1540 and the Civil Survey 1654-1656. William Nolan. Kildare. History and Society. Editors: William Nolan and Thomas McGrath. Dublin 2006.




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