1569 The Irish Situation

Many of the explorers we will be talking about got to know each other in Ireland. Humphrey Gilbert, Richard Grenville, Sir Henry Sidney, Walter Ralegh, Lord Grey, and Ralph Lane fought side by side during the Desmond Rebellions.


The Normans who invaded England in 1066, invaded Ireland 103 years later in 1169. During that medieval era, Ireland had four provinces: Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster. The provinces were divided into counties and the counties were divided into baronies. County Cork, the center of the Desmond Rebellions, had twenty-four baronies.

By 1530, The English and the Normans dominated eastern Ireland in an area known as The Pale. It was geographically divided from the west by a string of mountains. The English ran their colonies by English law and followed the English religion. They were governed by a Lord Deputy, who represented England’s monarch, Henry the VIII and reported to Henry’s Privy Council. The Lord Deputy was based in the city of Dublin in The Pale.

Most lands “beyond the Pale” remained under the influence of Gaelic-Irish clans, who were the descendants of the Celts [discussed in Crossing the Ocean Sea]. But some of those lands had been allotted to English, Norman, and Welsh families during the Norman Conquest. Over time, the descendants of those Anglo-Irish families, “became more Irish than the Irish.”

When King Henry severed the Church of England from papal control in the 1530s, he pressured the entire island to follow English law and become Protestant. He confiscated [took ownership of] the Catholic churches and abbeys in the Pale for himself, which meant he confiscated all the land that the Catholic church owned in Ireland. That was a great deal of land. He then repopulated the Pale with English subjects and Scottish lowlanders.

As you can imagine, Henry’s desires caused a lot of friction with the existing Gaelic-Irish population and Anglo-Irish landlords, who were Catholic. They wanted to keep their Irish traditions, customs, laws, and religion. The Gaelic-Irish and Anglo-Irish used different systems for managing their estates, solving disputes, keeping order, and even fighting among themselves. Besides, why should they change their centuries-old faith in Catholicism to Protestantism just because King Henry VIII told them to do so? They refused.

When Henry’s daughter Elizabeth became queen in 1558, little had changed ‘outside the Pale.” The Gaelic-Irish and the Anglo-Irish still refused to convert to Protestantism. She feared that their allegiance to the Pope of the Holy Roman Empire [leader of the Catholic Church] threatened her own authority over her empire. As monarch of both England and Ireland, Elizabeth considered anything short of allegiance to her religion high treason and punishable by death. She sent her Protestant bishops to Ireland to take control of the Irish churches outside the Pale.

The Irish would not budge. Their protests became violent and they harassed the Protestant bishops. Elizabeth mistakenly thought she would force the Catholics to change their allegiance. She sent her soldiers to Ireland to beat the rebels until they submitted.

The Desmond Rebellions

There were several clashes between Elizabeth’s forces and the Catholic rebels in Ulster Province where Humphrey Gilbert served as governor in 1568. But the two largest clashes occurred in Munster. These large clashes are known as the Desmond Rebellions. [The English term Desmond came from the Irish term Deasmumhain, which literally translated to South Munster.] The First Desmond Rebellion started in 1569 and lasted until 1573. The Second Desmond Rebellion started six years later in 1579 and lasted until about 1583.

Munster Province was dominated by two rival Anglo-Irish clans, the Desmonds and the Ormands. As you can see from the map above, their lands butted against each other. Even though the families were interconnected through marriage, the Catholic Desmonds allied with the Gaelic-Irish, whereas the Protestant Ormands allied with Queen Elizabeth.

The 15th Earl of Desmond, Gerald FitzGerald, led his clan from his castle in Cork, the county’s principal harbor. His brother John FitzGerald of Desmond and his cousin, John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, were also powerful family leaders. John FitzEdmund was the Seneschal [Steward] of the barony of Imokilly just west of Cork Harbour. He had a castle in Youghal at the mouth of the River Blackwater, also a strategic port.

All the FitzGerald armies were known as Geraldines. But John FitzEdmund’s personal regiment of Geraldines were known as the Seneschals. [You will need to know this distinction when you read about Walter Ralegh’s exploits in Ireland later. Ralegh will inherit Youghal castle.]

Thomas Butler was the Earl of Ormand. Like the FitzGeralds, Butler’s family received their land during the Norman Conquest four hundred years earlier. Thomas was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin through her mother, Ann Boleyn. He became extremely wealthy raising sheep and selling wool, earning himself the nickname ‘the Wool Earl.’ [Textiles comprised 80 percent of England’s exports.] Besides his land holdings in Ireland, Thomas Butler owned seventy-two manors in England. To make things more complicated, he married Gerald and John FitzGerald’s sister.

The rivalry between the clans heated up in the 1560s. One clan would raid the other trying to increase its territory. The argument came to a particularly violent pitch at the Battle of Affane in 1565 after Gerald Fitzgerald initiated a raid on Ormand land in County Waterford.

Elizabeth summoned the leaders to London to discuss the matter. She dismissed her cousin Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond with a pardon. But, at Butler’s insistence, she “detained” Gerald and John FitzGerald in the Tower of London. She declared she would not let them out until they relinquished their lands to Butler and the crown. Meanwhile, she took possession of Desmond lands and initiated plans to “re-colonize them” with Protestants. She ordered her Protestant bishops to take control of the parish churches.

Both acts seriously offended the Gaelic-Irish and all other Catholic families in Cork. With Gerald and John in the Tower, their first cousin James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, the captain general of County Desmond, had sole command of the Desmond armies. FitzMaurice gathered a rebel army uniting his Geraldines and Seneschals with the Gaelic-Irish clans from “the extreme western fastnesses(1)” [far western provinces]. The largest of those western Gaelic-Irish clans was led by Donald MacCarthy Mor. The clan owned the peninsula west of the Earl of Desmond’s lands [as shown on the map above]. FitzMaurice further aggravated Queen Elizabeth by dressing in the traditional Irish dress and colors knowing full well she had imposed a law prohibiting them.

The furious queen contacted the current Lord Deputy of Ireland in Dublin, Sir Henry Sidney. “Fix things,” she commanded.

Lord Sidney had been working on a plan to convert the Gaelic feudal system to an English model called Presidencies. He hoped the change would serve as a compromise between the Irish clan lords’ way of doing things and the English way. But he was either too slow at enacting his plan or it was not working.

Politically and economically, Munster Province was declining fast. During the private wars between the clans and the English, the English had burnt Catholic farm fields, known as the ‘scorched earth policy.’ The lack of farms caused a horrible famine. The population dwindled by two thirds. In Lord Sidney’s report to London, he wrote that Munster, which ‘used to be as fine as Yorkshire,” was now a “waste and more desolate than any land he had seen before, even after war.”

Still trying to enact his Presidencies plan, the Lord Deputy chose an Anglo-Irish lord Warham St. Leger to serve as President of Munster. Like Sidney, St. Leger’s principal residence was in Kent, England. He was a Protestant and well connected to the English aristocracy. But he also had a long time relationship with the Anglo-Irish clans. Like the FitzGeralds and the Ormands, the St. Leger family had had estates in Ireland since the Norman conquest. Warham’s father, Anthony St. Leger served as Lord Deputy of Ireland for five terms.

St. Leger became more closely associated with Gerald FitzGerald when the Earl mortgaged some of his prime land in Cork to St. Leger. The private clan wars had depleted the Earl’s cash, and he needed money. The holdings included the castle-abbey of Traghton [Traton], Carrigaline Castle on the shore of Cork Harbour, and the whole district of Kerricurrihy that lay west of Cork Harbour and had “the best and most fertile park and ploughland.” The trouble with this mortgage arrangement was that the Earl’s cousin, FitzMaurice, thought that by inheritance, those lands were his.

In 1568, after Lord Sidney put forth Warham St. Leger’s appointment to Queen Elizabeth, St. Leger brought to Ireland twenty-six-year-old Richard Grenville (1542-1591) to serve as the Mayor of Cork. Grenville had just returned home from the war against the Turks in Hungary.

Richard Grenville, a second cousin twice removed from Humphrey Gilbert(2), was married to Mary St. Leger, an extremely distant relation of Warham St. Leger.(3) [Mary St. Leger’s branch of the family were “seated” in Devonshire, whereas Warham St. Leger’s branch resided in Kent.] On the other hand, Mary was very closely related to Thomas Butler, the Earl of Ormond. She was either his great-granddaughter, or great-niece(4). None of these family connections will make a difference, as it turns out. [We will learn more details about the Grenvilles later.]

By June of 1569, FitzMaurice and MacCarthy Mor had gathered 4,500 men and were marching across the plains to attack Kerricurrihy. FitzMaurice wanted to reclaim the lands that St. Leger had leased from Gerald Fitzgerald. Not knowing that FitzMaurice was on his doorstep in Kerricurrihy, Richard Grenville sailed for England on June 15th. Warham St. Leger was already there. Grenville wanted to help convince Queen Elizabeth to appoint St. Leger as President of Munster.

Grenville’s wife, Mary, her children, and Warham St. Leger’s wife, Lady St. Leger, were left behind at the castle-abbey of Traghton in Kerricurrihy. The following day, June 16th, FitzMaurice and MacCarthy Mor arrived and laid siege on the abbey. The women and children fled, leaving their belongings behind them. They made it to the walled city of Cork, where the residents pulled them in and locked the gates. The Geraldines spoiled the castle-abbey before chasing the two women and their entourages to Cork.

But the Geraldines were in no position to war with the city. Lady St. Leger wrote to Sir Henry Sidney in Dublin [162 miles and several days march north] with a plea for help. She reported that FitzMaurice was camped outside the city demanding that she and Mary Grenville surrender to him. He would not leave until they did. And he demanded that the English “rid themselves of their heretical Protestant views and return to Catholicism.”

Sir Henry Sidney quickly mobilized 600 Protestant English troops and marched south toward Cork accompanied by Humphrey Gilbert and his troops from Ulster.

Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, leaving Dublin Castle.(5)

When the English reached Cork Harbour, they met up with 400 more troops sent by the Queen from England.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s Privy Council had assigned Sir John Pollard to be president of Munster, not Warham St. Leger. They feared that St. Leger was too closely associated with the FitzGeralds. Pollard’s arrival in Ireland was delayed, but he caught up eventually.

Lord Sidney did not wait. He assigned Gilbert to act as the military governor of Munster and with the thousand English soldiers proceeded to Cork. Gilbert’s intention was to squash the Geraldines, which his forces did. But FitzMaurice and Mor escaped to fight another day. [Humphrey Gilbert will become well known for his terror attacks, which include killing civilians at random and mounting severed heads in columns at the entrance to his camps.]

The citizens of Cork had held out until Richard Grenville and Warham St. Leger returned from England to rescue their wives and children.

The following month, FitzMaurice and Mor’s rebels laid siege on the Earl of Ormond’s fort at Kilkenny. They held out for several months before Lord Sidney’s forces under Humphrey Gilbert arrived and, once again, massacred them. Donald MacCarthy Mor surrendered to Lord Sidney in November of 1569. It took another year for the other Gaelic-Irish Catholic lords to follow suit.

But FitzMaurice retreated to the mountains and “wilds of the forest” of Aherlow in County Kerry. From there he continued to launch hit-and-run attacks on the English and their allies for the next three years.

The first of the two Desmond Rebellions ended with Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond establishing himself as the most powerful lord in southern Ireland. Warham St. Leger returned to England. Richard Grenville and his family followed a year later. Grenville will not see Ireland again for twenty years, after he first attempts to reach the Far East by sailing though the Strait of Magellan and second, attempts to establish an English colony in Virginia.

Humphrey Gilbert sailed back to England. Elizabeth knighted him in 1570, at age thirty, for his part in the Irish wars. He next joined the fight against the Spanish Catholics in Flanders in the Low Countries, where he fought alongside mariners and soldiers with whom he will later associate on future expeditions. He will return to Ireland when the Second Rebellion breaks out in 1579.

Next article: 1574 Richard Grenville’s Proposal


  1. A fastness is a place well protected by natural features. The western provinces were beyond the hills and woods.
  2. We have traced Warham and Mary St. Leger’s families back as far as their great-great-grandparents and can not find a link.
  3. According to Burke’s Landed Gentry, Sir Richard Grenville was certainly the cousin of Ralegh’s half brother, Humphrey Gilbert. Grenville’s great-great-grandfather Otho Gilbert (1417-1494), was Humphrey Gilbert’s great-grandfather. (Elizabeth Gilbert and Sir Thomas Grenville married). Less authentic sources state that Walter Ralegh’s grandparents were Wimond Ralegh and Jane Grenville. This Jane Grenville could be the woman of that name who was the daughter of Jane  – , Thomas Grenville’s second wife after Elizabeth Gilbert. That would make Ralegh’s grandmother Jane Grenville a step-cousin several times removed from Grenville. (Appendix – Connection of Walter Ralegh, Richard Grenville and Humphrey Gilbert)Mary was the d/o Sir John St. Leger (d. 1596) Sheriff of Devon, who was the s/o Sir George St. Leger (c1465-1536) and Anne Knyvett. George St. Leger was the s/o Sir John St. Leger of Shipton and Lady Anne Butler heiress of Annery, Devon. Lady Anne Butler was the d/o Thomas Butler 7th Earl of Ormonde & great-aunt of Queen Anne Boleyn [Queen Elizabeth’s mother].
  4. Mary was the d/o Sir John St. Leger (d. 1596) Sheriff of Devon, who was the s/o Sir George St. Leger (c1465-1536) and Anne Knyvett. George St. Leger was the s/o Sir John St. Leger of Shipton and Lady Anne Butler heiress of Annery, Devon. Lady Anne Butler was the d/o Thomas Butler 7th Earl of Ormonde & great-aunt of Queen Anne Boleyn [Queen Elizabeth’s mother].
  5. Plate from The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick, published in 1581. “Sir Henry Sidney, Lord-Deputy, accompanied by an armed force, sets out from Dublin Castle for a progress through Ireland” {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Edinburgh University Library website. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Image_of_Irelande_-_plate06.jpg

PDF of Raleigh, Gilbert and Grenville family trees.
Click image for a hi-resolution pdf of the same.