- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


The daughter of Anna Boleyn was promptly proclaimed Queen the same day on which Mary died--the 17th of November, 1558. Elizabeth was then in her 26th year, proud of her beauty, and confident in her abilities. Her great capacity had been cultivated by the best masters of the age, and the best of all ages, early adversity. Her vices were hereditary in her blood, but her genius for government so far surpassed any of her immediate predecessors as to throw her vices into the shade. During the forty-four years in which she wielded the English sceptre, many of the most stirring occurrences of our history took place; it could hardly have fallen out otherwise, under a sovereign of so much vigour, having the command of such immense resources.

On the news of Mary's death reaching Ireland, the Lord Deputy Sussex returned to England, and Sir Henry Sidney, the Treasurer, was appointed his successor ad interim. As in England, so in Ireland, though for somewhat different reasons, the first months of the new reign were marked by a conciliating and temporizing policy. Elizabeth, who had not assumed the title of "Head of the Church," continued to hear Mass for several months after her accession. At her coronation she had a High Mass sung, accompanied, it is true, by a Calvinistic sermon. Before proceeding with the work of "reformation," inaugurated by her father, and arrested by her sister, she proceeded cautiously to establish herself, and her Irish deputy followed in the same careful line of conduct. Having first made a menacing demonstration against John the Proud, he entered into friendly correspondence with him, and finally ended the campaign by standing godfather to one of his children. This relation of gossip among the old Irish was no mere matter of ceremony, but involved obligations lasting as life, and sacred as the ties of kindred blood. By seeking such a sponsor, O'Neil placed himself in Sidney's power, rather than Sidney in his, since the two men must have felt very differently bound by the connection into which they had entered. As an evidence of the Imperial policy of the moment, the incident is instructive.

Bound the personal history of this splendid, but by no means stainless Ulster Prince, the events of the first nine years of Elizabeth's reign over Ireland naturally group themselves. Whether at her Majesty's council-board, or among the Scottish islands, or in hall or hut at home, the attention of all manner of men interested in Ireland was fixed upon the movements of John the Proud. In tracing his career, we therefore naturally gather all, or nearly all, the threads of the national story, during the first ten years of Queen Mary's successor.

In the second year of Elizabeth, Lord Deputy Sussex, who returned fully possessed of her Majesty's views, summoned the Parliament to meet in Dublin on the 12th day of January, 1560. It is to be observed, however, that though the union of the crowns was now of twenty years' standing, the writs were not issued to the nation at large, but only to the ten counties of Dublin, Meath, Louth, West-Meath, Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, and Tipperary, with their boroughs. The published instructions of Lord Sussex were "to make such statutes (concerning religion) as were made in England, mutatis mutandis." As a preparation for the legislature, St. Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church were purified by paint; the niches of the Saints were for the second time emptied of their images; texts of Scripture were blazoned upon the walls, and the Litany was chanted in English. After these preparatory demonstrations, the Deputy opened the new Parliament, which sat for one short but busy month. The Acts of Mary's Parliament, re-establishing ecclesiastical relations with Rome, were the first thing repealed; then so much of the Act 33, Henry VIII., as related to the succession, was revived; all ecclesiastical jurisdiction was next declared vested in the Crown, and all "judges, justices, mayors, and temporal officers were declared bound to take tie oath of supremacy;" the penalty attached to the refusal of the oath, by this statute, being "forfeiture of office and promotion during life." Proceeding rapidly in the same direction, it was declared that commissioners in ecclesiastical causes should adjudge nothing as heresy which was not expressly so condemned by the Canonical Scriptures, the received General Councils, or by Parliament. The penalty of praemunire was declared in force, and, to crown the work, the celebrated "Act of Uniformity" was passed. This was followed by other statutes for the restoration of first fruits and twentieths, and for the appointment of Bishops by the royal prerogative, or conge d'elire--elections by the chapter being declared mere "shadows of election, and derogatory to the prerogative." Such was, in brief, the legislation of that famous Parliament of ten counties--the often quoted statutes of the "2nd of Elizabeth." In the Act of Uniformity, the best known of all its statutes, there was this curious saving clause inserted: that whenever the "priest or common minister" could not speak English, he might still continue "to celebrate the service in the Latin tongue." Such other observances were to be had as were prescribed by the 2nd Edward VI., until her Majesty should "publish further ceremonies or rites." We have no history of the debates of this Parliament of a month, but there is ample reason to believe that some of these statutes were resisted throughout by a majority of the Upper House, still chiefly composed of Catholic Peers; that the clause saving the Latin ritual was inserted as a compromise with this opposition; that some of the other Acts were passed by stealth in the absence of many members, and that the Lord Deputy gave his solemn pledge the statute of Uniformity should be enforced, if passed. So severe was the struggle, and so little satisfied was Sussex with his success, that he hastily dissolved the Houses and went over personally to England to represent the state of feeling he had encountered. Finally, it is remarkable that no other Parliament was called in Ireland till nine years afterwards--a convincing proof of how unmanageable that body, even constituted as it was, had shown itself to be in matters affecting religion.

The non-invitation of the Irish chiefs to this Parliament, contrary to the precedent set in Mary's reign and in 1541, the laws enacted, and the commotion they excited in the minds of the clergy, were circumstances which could not fail to attract the attention of John O'Neil. Even if insensible to what transpired at Dublin, the indefatigable Sussex-one of the ablest of Elizabeth's able Court-did not suffer him long to misunderstand his relations to the new Queen. He might be Sidney's gossip, but he was not the less Elizabeth's enemy. He had been proclaimed "O'Neil" on the rath of Tullahoge, and had reigned at Dungannon, adjudging life and death. It was clear that two such jurisdictions as the Celtic and the Norman kingship could not stand long on the same soil, and the Ulster Prince soon perceived that he must establish his authority, by arms, or perish with it. We must also read all Irish events of the time of Elizabeth by the light of foreign politics; during the long reign of that sovereign, England was never wholly free from fears of invasion, and many movements which now seem inexplicable will be readily understood when we recollect that they took place under the menaces of foreign powers.

The O'Neils had anciently exercised a high-handed superiority over all Ulster, and John the Proud was not the man to let his claim lie idle in any district of that wide-spread Province. But authority which has fallen into decay must be asserted only at a propitious time, and with the utmost tact; and here it was that Elizabeth's statesmen found their most effective means of attacking O'Neil. O'Donnell, who was his father-in-law, was studiously conciliated; his second wife, a lady of the Argyle family, received costly presents from the Queen; O'Reilly was created Earl of Breffni, and encouraged to resist the superiority to which the house of Dungannon laid claim. The natural consequences followed; John the Proud swept like a storm over the fertile hills of Cavan, and compelled the new-made Earl to deliver him tribute and hostages. O'Donnell, attended only by a few of his household, was seized in a religious house upon Lough Swilly, and subjected to every indignity which an insolent enemy could devise. His Countess, already alluded to, supposed to have been privy to this surprise of her husband, became the mistress of his captor and jailer, to whom she bore several children. What deepens the horror of this odious domestic tragedy is the fact that the wife of O'Neil, the daughter of O'Donnell, thus supplanted by her shameless stepmother, under her own roof, died soon afterwards of "horror, loathing, grief, and deep anguish," at the spectacle afforded by the private life of O'Neil, and the severities inflicted upon her wretched father. All the patriotic designs, and all the shining abilities of John the Proud, cannot abate a jot of our detestation of such a private life; though slandered in other respects as he was, by hostile pens, no evidence has been adduced to clear his memory of these indelible stains; nor after becoming acquainted with their existence can we follow his after career with that heartfelt sympathy with which the lives of purer patriots must always inspire us.

The pledge given by Sussex, that the penal legislation of 1560 should lie a dead letter, was not long observed. In May of the year following its enactment, a commission was appointed to enforce the 2nd Elizabeth, in West-Meath; and in 1562 a similar commission was appointed for Meath and Armagh. By these commissioners Dr. William Walsh, Catholic Bishop of Meath, was arraigned and imprisoned for preaching against the new liturgy; a Prelate who afterwards died an exile in Spain. The primatial see was for the moment vacant, Archbishop Dowdal having died at London three months before Queen Mary-on the Feast of the Assumption, 1558. Terence, Dean of Armagh, who acted as administrator, convened a Synod of the English-speaking clergy of the Province in July, 1559, at Drogheda, but as this dignitary followed in the steps of his faithful predecessors, his deanery was conferred upon Dr. Adam Loftus, Chaplain of the Lord Lieutenant; two years subsequently the dignity of Archbishop of Armagh was conferred upon the same person. Dr. Loftus, a native of Yorkshire, had found favour in the eyes of the Queen at a public exhibition at Cambridge University; he was but 28 years old, according to Sir James Ware, when consecrated Primate-but Dr. Mant thinks he must have attained at least the canonical age of 30. During the whole of this reign he continued to reside at Dublin, which see was early placed under his jurisdiction in lieu of the inaccessible Armagh. For forty years he continued one of the ruling spirits at Dublin, whether acting as Lord Chancellor, Lord Justice, Privy Councillor, or First Provost of Trinity College. He was a pluralist in Church and State, insatiable of money and honours; if he did not greatly assist in establishing his religion, he was eminently successful in enriching his family.

Having subdued every hostile neighbour and openly assumed the high prerogative of Prince of Ulster, John the Proud looked around him for allies in the greater struggle which he foresaw could not be long postponed. Calvagh O'Donnell was yielded up on receiving a munificent ransom, but his infamous wife remained with her paramour. A negotiation was set on foot with the chiefs of the Highland and Island Scots, large numbers of whom entered into O'Neil's service. Emissaries were despatched to the French Court, where they found a favourable reception, as Elizabeth was known to be in league with the King of Navarre and the Huguenot leaders against Francis II. The unexpected death of the King at the close of 1560; the return of his youthful widow, Queen Mary, to Scotland; the vigorous regency of Catherine de Medicis during the minority of her second son; the ill-success of Elizabeth's arms during the campaigns of 1561-2-3, followed by the humiliating peace of April, 1564--these events are all to be borne in memory when considering the extraordinary relations which were maintained during the same years by the proud Prince of Ulster, with the still prouder Queen of England. The apparently contradictory tactics pursued by the Lord Deputy Sussex, between his return to Dublin in the spring of 1561, and his final recall in 1564, when read by the light of events which transpired at Paris, London, and Edinburgh, become easily intelligible. In the spring of the first mentioned year, it was thought possible to intimidate O'Neil, so Lord Sussex, with the Earl of Ormond as second in command, marched northwards, entered Armagh, and began to fortify the city, with a view to placing in it a powerful garrison. O'Neil, to remove the seat of hostilities, made an irruption into the plain of Meath, and menaced Dublin. The utmost consternation prevailed at his approach, and the Deputy, while continuing the fortification of Armagh, despatched the main body of his troops to press on the rear of the aggressor. By a rapid countermarch, O'Neil came up with this force, laden with spoils, in Louth, and after an obstinate engagement routed them with immense loss. On receipt of this intelligence, Sussex promptly abandoned Armagh, and returned to Dublin, while O'Neil erected his standard, as far South as Drogheda, within twenty miles of the capital. So critical at this moment was the aspect of affairs, that all the energies of the English interest were taxed to the utmost. In the autumn of the year, Sussex marched again from Dublin northward, having at his side the five powerful Earls of Kildare, Ormond, Desmond, Thomond, and Clanrickarde--whose mutual feuds had been healed or dissembled for the day. O'Neil prudently fell back before this powerful expedition, which found its way to the shores of Lough Foyle, without bringing him to an engagement, and without any military advantage. As the shortest way of getting rid of such an enemy, the Lord Deputy, though one of the wisest and most justly celebrated of Elizabeth's Counsellors, did not hesitate to communicate to his royal mistress the project of hiring an assassin, named Nele Gray, to take off the Prince of Ulster, but the plot, though carefully elaborated, miscarried. Foreign news, which probably reached him only on reaching the Foyle, led to a sudden change of tactics on the part of Sussex, and the young Lord Kildare--O'Neil's cousin-germain, was employed to negotiate a peace with the enemy they had set out to demolish.

This Lord Kildare was Gerald, the eleventh Earl, the same whom we have spoken of as a fugitive lad, in the last years of Henry VIII., and as restored to his estates and rank by Queen Mary. Although largely indebted to his Catholicity for the protection he had received while abroad from Francis I., Charles V., the Duke of Tuscany and the Roman See--especially the Cardinals Pole and Farnese--and still more indebted to the late Catholic Queen for the restoration of his family honours, this finished courtier, now in the very midsummer of life, one of the handsomest and most accomplished persons of his time, did not hesitate to conform himself, at least outwardly, to the religion of the State. Shortly before the campaign of which we have spoken, he had been suspected of treasonable designs, but had pleaded his cause successfully with the Queen in person. From Lough Foyle, accompanied by the Lord Slane, the Viscount Baltinglass, and a suitable guard, Lord Kildare set out for John O'Neil's camp, where a truce was concluded between the parties, Lord Sussex undertaking to withdraw his wardens from Armagh, and O'Neil engaging himself to live in peace with her Majesty, and to serve "when necessary against her enemies." The cousins also agreed personally to visit the English Court the following year, and accordingly in January ensuing they went to England, from which they returned home in the latter end of May.

The reception of John the Proud, at the Court of Elizabeth, was flattering in the extreme. The courtiers stared and smiled at his bareheaded body-guard, with their crocus-dyed vests, short jackets, and shaggy cloaks. But the broad-bladed battle-axe, and the sinewy arm which wielded it, inspired admiration for all the uncouth costume. The haughty indifference with which the Prince of Ulster treated every one about the Court, except the Queen, gave a keener edge to the satirical comments which were so freely indulged in at the expense of his style of dress. The wits proclaimed him "O'Neil the Great, cousin to Saint Patrick, friend to the Queen of England, and enemy to all the world besides!" O'Neil was well pleased with his reception by Elizabeth. When taxed upon his return with having made peace with her Majesty, he answered--"Yes, in her own bed-chamber." There were, indeed, many points in common in both their characters.

Her Majesty, by letters patent dated at Windsor, on the 15th of January, 1563, recognized in John the Proud "the name and title of O'Neil, with the like authority, jurisdiction, and pre-eminence, as any of his ancestors." And O'Neil, by articles, dated at Benburb, the 18th of November of the same year, reciting the letters patent aforesaid, bound himself and his suffragans to behave as "the Queen's good and faithful subjects against all persons whatever." Thus, so far as an English alliance could guarantee it, was the supremacy of this daring chief guaranteed in Ulster from the Boyne to the North Sea.

In performing his part of the engagements thus entered into, O'Neil is placed in a less invidious light by English writers than formerly. They now describe him as scrupulously faithful to his word; as charitable to the poor, always carving and sending meat from his own table to the beggar at the gate before eating himself. Of the sincerity with which he carried out the expulsion of the Islesmen and Highlanders from Ulster, the result afforded the most conclusive evidence. It is true he had himself invited those bands into the Province to aid him against the very power with which he was now at peace, and, therefore, they might in their view allege duplicity and desertion against him. Yet enlisted as they usually were but for a single campaign, O'Neil expected them to depart as readily as they had come. But in this expectation he was disappointed. Their leaders, Angus, James, and Sorley McDonald, refused to recognize the new relations which had arisen, and O'Neil was, therefore, compelled to resort to force. He defeated the Scottish troops at Glenfesk, near Ballycastle, in 1564, in an action wherein Angus McDonald was slain, James died of his wounds, and Sorley was carried prisoner to Benburb. An English auxiliary force, under Colonel Randolph, sent round by sea, under pretence of co-operating against the Scots, took possession of Derry and began to fortify it. But their leader was slain in a skirmish with a party of O'Neil's people who disliked the fortress, and whether by accident or otherwise their magazine exploded, killing a great part of the garrison and destroying their works. The remnant took to their shipping and returned to Dublin.

In the years 1565, '6 and '7, the internal dissensions of both Scotland and France, and the perturbations in the Netherlands giving full occupation to her foreign foes, Elizabeth had an interval of leisure to attend to this dangerous ally in Ulster. A second unsuccessful attempt on his life, by an assassin named Smith, was traced to the Lord Deputy, and a formal commission issued by the Queen to investigate the case. The result we know only by the event; Sussex was recalled, and Sir Henry Sidney substituted in his place! Death had lately made way in Tyrconnell and Fermanagh for new chiefs, and these leaders, more vigorous than their predecessors, were resolved to shake off the recently imposed and sternly exercised supremacy of Benburb. With these chiefs, Sidney, at the head of a veteran armament, cordially co-operated, and O'Neil's territory was now attacked simultaneously at three different points--in the year 1566. No considerable success was, however, obtained over him till the following year, when, at the very opening of the campaign, the brave O'Donnell arrested his march along the strand of the Lough Swilly, and the tide rising impetuously, as it does on that coast, on the rear of the men of Tyrone, struck them with terror, and completed their defeat. From 1,500 to 3,000 men perished by the sword or by the tide; John the Proud fled alone, along the river Swilly, and narrowly escaped by the fords of rivers and by solitary ways to his Castle on Lough Neagh. The Annalists of Donegal, who were old enough to have conversed with survivors of the battle, say that his mind became deranged by this sudden fall from the summit of prosperity to the depths of defeat. His next step would seem to establish the fact, for he at once despatched Sorley McDonald, the survivor of the battle of Glenfesk, to recruit a new auxiliary force for him amongst the Islesmen, whom he had so mortally offended. Then, abandoning his fortress upon the Blackwater, he set out with 50 guards, his secretary, and his mistress, the wife of the late O'Donnell, to meet these expected allies whom he had so fiercely driven off but two short years before. At Cushendun, on the Antrim coast, they met with all apparent cordiality, but an English agent, Captain Piers, or Pierce, seized an opportunity during the carouse which ensued to recall the bitter memories of Glenfesk. A dispute and a quarrel ensued; O'Neil fell covered with wounds, amid the exulting shouts of the avenging Islesmen. His gory head was presented to Captain Piers, who hastened with it to Dublin, where he received a reward of a thousand marks for his success. High spiked upon the towers of the Castle, that proud head remained and rotted; the body, wrapped in a Kerns saffron shirt, was interred where he fell, a spot familiar to all the inhabitants of the Antrim glens as "the grave of Shane O'Neil." And so may be said to close the first decade of Elizabeth's reign over Ireland!

End of Volume 1 of 2

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.