The Last Countess of Desmond in Ireland and Queen Elizabeth
Fall of the Earl of Desmond
Eleanor Butler was born approximately 460 years ago. She was the second wife of the15th Earl of Desmond. Through turbulent times she proved to be an invaluable negotiator for her husband and went to unprecedented lengths to protect him and her family.
Sixteen century Ireland was in the midst of turmoil. Although under English rule it was largely divided. The land had been given to Anglo-Irish landowners many of whom had integrated and intermarried into the gaelic way of life but they were ultimately answerable to the English queen Elizabeth. Then there were many Irish Chieftains who fought valiantly to hold onto their hereditary way of life.
Eleanor was born into an Anglo Irish family and her father was the Lord Baron of Dunboyne. She grew up at Kiltinan castle. She was described as a tall woman with light brown hair who always presented herself well on social occasions. In 1565 Eleanor was nineteen years old. Garett Fitzgerald, the Earl of Desmond was recently widowed and soon turned his attentions towards Eleanor. It wasn’t long before they married.
They began their married life together at Askeaton castle. Their honeymoon period was short lived. Garrett’s first wife had been the mother of the Earl of Ormond. Garrett’s marriage to her had made the Earl of Ormond his step- son. There had been territorial disputes between the Earl of Desmond and Ormond for generations. An uneasy truce was in evidence after Garrett’s first marriage. However the Earl of Ormond or Black Tom as he was known was not pleased at Garrett’s speedy remarriage and the hostility between them now intensified.
The Earl’s clashed at the battle of Affane. Black Tom emerged the victor and Garrett was taken captive. When Queen Elizabeth learned about this incident she was furious. It was common knowledge that the queen had a very good relationship with Black Tom whom she had grown up with. Also she had little time for what she thought was the pompous, rebellious Earl of Desmond.
They were both summoned before her but it was apparent that she favoured Black Tom. This incensed Garrett further. Both Earl’s signed a declaration of loyalty to the queen and to confirm this they would be obliged to pay the queen £20,000 if they didn’t abide by her new terms.
Garrett returned to Ireland and Eleanor did her best to placate him and restore his injured ego. Eleanor knew in order to maintain their estate it was necessary to appear humble and loyal to the queen. Garrett on the other hand believed that the 15th Earl of Desmond should not be required to scrape or bow to anyone. Eleanor wrote regularly to Queen Elizabeth reassuring her of her husband’s loyalty and his adherence to English law.
During the next three years there was temporary peace inMunster. Eleanor gave birth to her first child a girl she named Margaret. The queen however was continuously provided with information about the Earl of Desmond and was less than happy with his behaviour. She despatched an ambassador Sidney toMunsterto examine the Earl’s behaviour more closely.
Garrett was furious to hear of his impending visitor and refused to meet him. Eleanor eventually convinced him to at least listen to what the queen’s representative had to say.Sidneyannounced he had ordered an investigation into a territorial dispute between Garrett and Black Tom. He then found in favour of the Earl of Ormond. Garrett was furious and launched into a tirade of abuse against Sidney and the queen.
Sidneynext requested that all of Garrett’s under lords should submit their loyalty personally to him. Then he received news that an attack was being planned against him on his return to Limerick. He had Garrett placed under arrest until he arrived safely inLimerick. After this Garrett was imprisoned inDublinjail.
Sir John the Earl’s brother was despatched toDublinto request terms for Garrett’s release however he was also imprisoned. Eleanor rushed to Dublin to be at her husband’s side. They agreed Eleanor would assume control of the estates during his absence.
Garrett was sent to thetowerofLondonwhere he would be detained in honourable confinement. Under these conditions Garrett was expected to pay for his own upkeep and his standard of living in the tower would depend on the funds he had available to him. Initially he departed for London with an entourage of about a hundred. Eleanor was worried how their decreasing fortunes could cope with the financial strain of his extravagance.
As anticipated Eleanor found it increasingly difficult to sustain Garrett’s and her families standard of living. Garrett decided to appoint his cousin James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald as the Captain of Desmond. Eleanor distrusted his motives and she vowed to watch him closely.
The new Captain of Desmond was irate when he heard ofEngland’s plan to send new settlers toIreland. A wave of colonists descended onMunsterand laid claim to Desmond land. Fitzgerald contemplated engaging the help of the papal army. Queen Elizabeth was estranged from the pope and the Catholic church were determined that the hieratic queens religion would not replace Catholicism. He also held talks with the Earl of Ormond.
An attack was launched against the new settlers and many fled for their lives. However it achieved little as many of the celtic chieftains left their land undefended while they fought in the rebellion. The English seized land during their absence.
Eleanor now felt her only viable option was to join her husband in the bleak, damp Tower of London. She immediately took up a campaign to gain access to the queen’s court to plead for her husband’s release. After a long struggle she was eventually granted an audience. She threw herself at Elizabeth’s mercy and assured the queen that her husband was now a broken man whom she would now be easily able to control.
Elizabeth stared stonily at the Countess and it seemed that all was lost. But she later despatched a letter to Eleanor informing her they would be removed to new lodgings owned by Sir Warham St. Leger.
Six years after Garrett’s imprisonment there was still little change in the Munster situation.Elizabeth was growing weary from the expense of quashing rebellious forces and Sir Warham St. Leger berated the queen with complaints about the expense of his lodgers. Against the advice of her Council Elizabeth decided to release Garrett. Eleanor felt that she had little choice but to leave her son James inEnglandas she feared for his safety inIreland.
When they arrived back in Dublin Perrott’s forces immediately informed Garrett that he would be detained in Dublin. Sir John ceased his opportunity and persuaded Perrott to let him return to Munster instead. On hearing this Eleanor decided to go with him as she didn’t trust his motives.
Perrott was already campaigning for Garrett’s return toEngland. On hearing this Eleanor and Garrett hatched a plan to allow Garrett to flee back toMunster. In November 1573 Garrett was back on home ground.
Eleanor still tried to persuade Garrett to display more loyalty to the crown and to conform to English law. However now that he was back on his home soil his courage was returning to him. He openly criticised England and the queen. Rumours filtered back to her and she berated officials about the continuing lawlessness inMunster. Eleanor tried once again to diffuse the situation.
The Earl of Essex was despatched toIrelandto intercede with the troublesome Earl. Eleanor eventually convinced Garrett to meet with him inWaterfordin July 1574.Essexwasn’t aware that the queen had already instructed that Garrett be held prisoner and proclaimed a traitor. The meeting with the privy Council did not go well as both sides were antagonistic.
Eleanor and Garrett heard the rumours and decided to flee back toMunster. Eleanor and others implored Garrett to concede to the queen’s demands but he refused.Elizabethwas furious when she received the news. Black Tom was also complaining to her about the seizure of one of his castles by the Earl of Desmond. She granted him and the Lord Deputy permission to retake the castle by force. Garrett was taken aback by this action and conceded to the queen’s demands.
All remained quite for sometime until Sir William Drury was appointed president ofMunster. He was determined to crush the Barony of Desmond. He decided to seize Kerry as the Council had already ruled that Garrett wasn’t entitled to it. Garrett plotted to block his entry toTraleebut Eleanor’s swift intervention averted a battle.
Sir John was arrested on charges of suspected treason. Garrett feared he would be next and so he fled to a remote part of Kerry with Eleanor and their daughters. Eleanor wrote to Sir Henry Sidney and the queen explaining that it was merely Garrett’s fear of being re-arrested that had caused him to flee.
They stayed in Kerry for several months. Eleanor continued to implore Garrett to make his peace with the queen. It was revealed that there had been no plan to arrest him. Garrett eventually went to meet Sidney. At this stage Garrett was in a feeble state and his health had rapidly deteriorated.Sidney could not see the sickly Earl as much of a threat and the meeting was successful. The queen later wrote to Eleanor praising her for her wise handling of a potentially volatile situation.
However Sidney was soon returned toEnglandand Drury was to replace him. Rumours were also circulating that James Fitzmaurice was returning fromSpainwith a papal army. He did indeed return with an army of six hundred papal soldiers, he had on his travels greatly exaggerated the commitment of all the Irish Chieftains to back the cause. Sir John joined forces with him. James Fitzmaurice was killed in a skirmish and Sir John took his place still having his sights set on becoming the next Earl of Desmond.
Drury was convinced that Garrett was involved in the rebellion and sent a delegation toMunsterto question his loyalty. The delegation requested access through Munster to crush the rebellion. Garrett was incensed at this suggestion and ranted against England and the Queen. Drury requested that their son James be held by him before the Earl would be allowed to leave.
Daily Eleanor could see her influence over her husband waning. She feared for their future and for her son’s life. Drury was returning toEnglandin ill-health and Eleanor asked him to bring her son with him. He agreed.
Drury was replaced by Malby, he plundered the Earl’sLimerickestates, he was subsequently replaced by Sir Richard Pelham. Pelham was convinced of the Earl’s disloyalty. Drury died before reachingEnglandwith Eleanor’s son. Pelham now threatened to execute James. Eleanor went to plead with him and reluctantly Pelham gave Garrett one last chance.
Pelham appointed Black Tom to mediate with Garrett and he presented him with an impossible list of demands. Eleanor advised Garrett to ask for a review of the demands from the privy Council or the queen. Pelham did not want to risk this and refused before declaring the Earl of Desmond a traitor.
Eleanor watched everything she had strived to achieve slipping through her fingers. Garrett now felt his only option was to rebel. He attacked the town of Youghal with great ferocity and then went into hiding awaiting the promised re-enforcements fromSpain. When they finally arrived they were ill-equipped and inadequate.Munster suffered greatly from famine and disease. Life on the run was now taking a mental and physical toll on the Earl and the Countess.
In April 1581 Eleanor strove to get an audience with the queen through surrendering to the Earl of Ormond. Pelham knew this was too dangerous for him and without success Eleanor returned to Garrett. The English soldiers despised Eleanor and they spoke of her as being a temptress, a traitor and they spat contemptuously, ‘what lady would live in the bogs and marshes like an animal?’
The situation lingered on and they were relentlessly pursued. Black Tom was granted the help of a thousand soldiers and the authority to grant pardon’s to those who would submit to him.
Eleanor and Garrett were driven into Kerry. Many of Garrett’s followers accepted pardons and departed. In June 1583 Eleanor surrendered to Black Tom and said she could no longer reason with her wayward husband.
The Earl and Countess of Desmond had said their final farewell at Slieve Logher. They both knew the end was imminent and that parting company was the best thing for both of them.
It was in November 1583 at Ballymacelligott near Traleethat the Earl was finally found. A scouting party led by the O Moriartys who were pursuing cattle looters had no idea who the perpetrators were. They found a cave at the side of a mountain. Inside an old man lay barely conscious. There was a young girl and two young boys with him. Garrett the 15th Earl of Desmond was beheaded. He was fifty one years old when he died.
Garrett’s head was sent to Black Tom who then forwarded it toElizabeth. She had it impaled on London Bridge. Eleanor was now thirty eight years old and the widow of a rebel. Through Black Tom she applied for and eventually received a pardon. She also laid claim to a portion of the Desmond Estate without success.
Eleanor and her family were now destitute and nobody wanted to be seen to associate with them. Eventually Eleanor managed to secure temporary lodgings in Dublin through Perrott. Eleanor then intensified her efforts to regain some of her husband’s estate and once again found herself back on the streets. She was now heavily in debt. She decided she would have to plead her case in England and just as she prepared to leave she received news that she had been granted a pension of £100 per year. But when she tried to collect it Perrott refused to pay it.
She returned toEnglandand set about the arduous task of seeing the queen. After months of poverty Elizabeth finally received her. Eleanor was hungry and poorly attired the queen could not help but sympathise with her. She granted her £200 per year and later agreed to pay it directly fromEngland. She now moved her family to Westminister.
Eleanor once again returned to court still determined to regain some of the Desmond Estate. She became acquainted with Donagh O’Connor Sligo who was trying to be re-instated in his Sligo estates and eventually succeeded. In 1597 Eleanor was successful in having part of the Desmond estate returned to her and she married Donagh O’Connor Sligo.
Eleanor was now fifty-two and hoped to settle peacefully inUlster. But once again problems in Munster reared their ugly head. Garrett’s nephew made a claim to the Desmond Estate. He became known as the sugan (straw) earl. It was decided by Sir William Carew to re-instate Eleanor’s son James inMunster. He wanted to detract attention away from the sugan earl and he knew James could be easily controlled.
James returned but he had spent his life in imprisonment and had no zest for the gaelic way of life. He was obedient and sickly. At this time Donagh O’Connor Sligo had been imprisoned. Eleanor was plotting a marriage between her daughter and Hugh O’Neill a powerful Ulster Chieftain. She hoped to gain support for her husband’s release and to rally some support for her son.
She sent a messenger to summon her daughter secretly as she knew there would be opposition to the marriage. But Carew was having her watched and intercepted the servant. He then told James the details of his mother’s plot. He was shocked at her deviousness and requested to be returned toEngland. He was returned and nine months later he died under suspicious circumstances. Desmond now had no living heir.
On the 21st of September 1601, 3,800 Spanish soldiers landed at Kinsale. But by December England emerged the victors. The rebellion was over but Eleanor and Donagh had little left. Their estates had been seized or plundered. They were involved in many legal challenges over Land Ownership claims and Eleanor’s pension only came occasionally.
Eleanor returned toEngl and in 1605 her pension and arrears were paid to her. In 1609 Eleanor was once again a widow. Donagh had died a broken man. He left everything to Eleanor but due to his mortgages and unsolved legal challenges this amounted to practically nothing.
The last Countess of Desmond spent the remainder of her life living at SligoCastle. There were many challenges to her right to live there but she held her ground. In spite of her turbulent life she lived until her nineties. She was undoubtedly the driving force and a strong ally to both of her husbands. She understood better than them that to live in the new Ireland it was necessary to relinquish the Gaelic feudal way of live or suffer the dire consequences.
Today her remains rest in Sligo Abbey and her tomb is still a testament to the courageousness and unrelenting determination of this incredible woman who was to be the last Countess of Desmond.
History of the Countess of Desmond
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Mary Kelly Godley – writer for hire in County Kerry, Ireland