In honor of the St. Patrick's Day holiday 2015, I'd like to share with my readers the biography of a less well known 16th century Irish woman who, along with her husband, defied Elizabethan rule in her country. She, too, gained audiences with Queen Elizabeth I, and her life story is filled with drama and heartache, but ultimately, perseverance. I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed researching her!
Eleanor FitzGerald, Countess of Desmond
Eleanor FitzGerald was born Eleanor Butler, into the Kilkenny County Butler clan. She was of Norman-Irish (French-Irish) noble descent. Her father was Edmund Butler, Lord Dunboyne, and her mother Cecily MacCarthy. When Eleanor was just thirteen, two events happened in the same year that were to determine the course of her future. Firstly, over in the neighboring isle of England, Elizabeth Tudor ascended the English throne in 1558, becoming Queen Elizabeth I of England. Secondly, Garrett FitzGerald, of the FitzGerald clan, was made 15th Earl of Desmond - this powerful man was to become her husband.
|Dutch water-color painting of Irish clothing, circa 1575. By Lucas de Heere. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Even before Eleanor was born, the royal English Tudor family had forced nearly every noble Irish family to agree and cooperate with the English crown and their cultural and economic dominance. England wanted Ireland as part of their kingdom for resources, such as timber for ships, and for farmland. The changes England instituted for the Irish people were numerous. For example, the Irish were forbidden from speaking their native language, and instead ordered to speak English. Also, ancient Irish Brehon laws were replaced with Latin law, which had begun in Roman times and were used by the English, and inheritance laws were changed to favor English landowners in Ireland.
While the rules imposed by the Tudors on the Irish may sound harsh to us today, they were not by any means unique to the Anglo-Irish dynamic. Any relationship that existed between colonized countries and their occupiers in the 16th century, and later during the age of Imperialism had similar, if not more brutal restrictions.
In 1565, at the age of nineteen, Eleanor married the thirty-two year-old Garrett FitzGerald. Garrett had begun courting Eleanor just three weeks after he had buried his first wife, in January of that year. By marriage, Eleanor had become a countess, and now possessed a very large piece of land. It seems that Garrett has some problematic step-sons from his first marriage that caused him and his new bride a bit of difficulty after their wedding. Garrett was a traditional Irish warrior-leader, and he and Eleanor now happened to have the largest estate in all of Ireland or England! Historical evidence suggests that Eleanor and Garrett married for love, and not for the more common reason of forming a dynastic alliance. Garrett was likely attracted to Eleanor not only because she was considered beautiful by many, but also because she was known to be smart, reasonable, and even-tempered. She would also prove herself to be brave and resourceful in difficult situations in the years to come.
|A map of Ireland, circa 1450, showing the southwest Earldom of Desmond. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.|
Within just two years of Eleanor's wedding to Garrett, she gave birth to a baby girl. Very soon after, her husband was captured by the English because he was openly challenging their rule and their laws, and would not do what he was asked by Queen Elizabeth I. Eleanor's husband was gone for the next 6 years, but a strong and capable Eleanor managed the FitzGerald estate in his absence, and raised their daughter without him. She also imprisoned any of Garrett's enemies who attempted to steal their property.
|Coat of Arms of the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond at Buttevant Friary, in the south wall of the south transept. Photo shared for public use by Andreas F. Borchert.|
Eleanor got her affairs in order and made the trip to England so that she could speak to Queen Elizabeth I on her husband's behalf. She knew that Garrett, languishing in the custody of Sir Warham St. Leger (until 1573), was unlikely to be released anytime soon unless she did something about it. Queen Elizabeth I granted Eleanor permission to stay by her husband's side while in England. What a bittersweet reunion that must have been! On the one hand, having not seen one another in so many years, Eleanor and Garrett must have both been overjoyed and comforted at the sight of one another. On the other hand, Eleanor must have been heartbroken to see her once-fearsome warrior of a husband reduced to a helpless prisoner.
In 1571, while in England, Eleanor gave birth to a son, named James. He may have been born at St. Leger House, Southwark, although there is an alternate story suggested in The Life of Sir Martin Frobisher, by William McFee, dated contemporary to the birth between 1571-2. According to McFee, the FitzGeralds were living on parole in London at the time of Eleanor's pregnancy, and Garrett asked Frobisher, one of Queen Elizabeth I's "sea dogs", to smuggle them out of the country so that their child would not be born in England, and thus be in danger. Frobisher, who was staying at Lambeth, met Garrett at St. Leger House. McFee said that Garrett has applied at court for permission for Eleanor to go home to Ireland, and that permission had been granted, but McFee did not say for when.
Although James was the heir of the FitzGerald estate and also to his father's title, this was not to be the case if the English had anything to say about it (remember that the FitzGeralds owned the most substantial piece of property in both England and Ireland). Eleanor was forced to do the unthinkable for a loving mother: she was made to give up her son to the English. The English wanted to keep James as a bargaining tool. They knew that the FitzGeralds were unlikely to disobey Queen Elizabeth I if they had James in captivity.
Four years later, in 1575, Garrett was released from the the Tower, where he had been transferred after his time with St. Leger. However, he refused to pay English taxes, putting him at risk for re-capture. Eleanor, ever-patient with her husband, was to continue spending most of her life rescuing him from harsh punishment because of his brazen patriotism. This wasn't just wifely loyalty- this was love.
Back in Ireland in 1579, Garrett was captured by his own brothers; Irish clan warfare often made strange bedfellows, and enemies. Garrett's brothers had captured him in order to force him, the best leader they knew, to lead a rebel army against English oppression in Ireland. This would make Garrett, a known irritant to the English who was already under surveillance, the leader of a treasonous militant group. One can only imagine the anxiety Eleanor felt at the idea, especially considering the fact that their son was still in English custody.
The uprising led by Garrett FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond became known as the "Second Desmond Rebellion". It lasted from 1579-1583. As a result of the rebellion, Eleanor and Garrett's property was ransacked and destroyed. Eleanor quickly left the rubble behind and traveled across dangerous territory to where Garrett was planning a battle. She had come to advise him on his military campaigns.
Eleanor managed to protect her husband from re-capture by having them hide out and sleep in ditches, bushes and caves. Eleanor personally delivered battle plans from her husband to his soldiers who were ready and waiting for his orders. Unfortunately for the FitzGeralds and their supporters, the rebellion was not to succeed. In 1583, Garrett was found and arrested. It was inevitable, really. Despite Eleanor's dedication to protecting her husband, they just couldn't outrun the English forces forever.
Garrett sent a last-minute plea to Eleanor to surrender to the English, rather than take the risk that she and their children would be captured and perhaps killed (in addition to James, they had Thomas, Katherine, Jane, Ellen, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Ellice). Eleanor agreed. To the English, Garrett was a traitor, and a symbol of Irish obstinance that had to be made an example of. He was beheaded in 1583 at age 51. His head was sent back to England and displayed on Tower Bridge to warn those who even considered rebelling against the crown.
So what became of Eleanor FitzGerald? Her surrender at her husband's request protected her from being held equally accountable for his treasonous activity. However, she lived in poverty for the next four years, as traitors and their families forfeited their property to the crown. In 1588, that monumental year of England's defeat of the invading Spanish Armada, Eleanor met with Queen Elizabeth I once again. She was able to garner enough sympathy from the queen that, Elizabeth I granted Eleanor, the wife of a traitor, a widow's pension, so that she and her children would no longer have to struggle. Compared to the other Tudor monarchs, Queen Elizabeth was not a cruel person or an unreasonable ruler, and there are many examples of her benevolence. However, she was still to be obeyed, absolutely.
In a stunning turn of events, Eleanor FitzGerald relocated to England with her family. Perhaps she wanted to demonstrate her gratitude to Queen Elizabeth I, the woman who had restored her to self sufficiency. Perhaps it was because there was nothing left for her to fight for in Ireland anymore, ever since the rebellion. All that lay behind her were tragic memories. Perhaps it was a combination of both. And besides, her son, James, now a young man of seventeen years, was still imprisoned on English soil.
In 1597, the Countess of Desmond got remarried to Donogh O'Conner of County Sligo. Eleanor, still a great negotiator, was able to campaign for her son's release. When he was freed, Eleanor brought him back to Ireland, to see the country he was from but had never been to. Sadly, James was not anything like Eleanor's other children. Because he had not been raised in a normal and loving environment, but had instead been kept in prison with minimal care since birth, he was constantly paranoid of being imprisoned again. He died eccentric and mad at the young age of 30 in 1601. The English armies, under Queen Elizabeth's orders, finally and officially conquered Ireland that same year.
Eleanor had spent her whole life in the thick of political turmoil and heartbreak. It was only fitting that this courageous woman who was constantly helping rescue her first husband and plan his battles have some peace in her old age. Eleanor FitzGerald lived quietly after her second husband's death, managing their lands from their Sligo Castle. She lived there until the ancient age of 93, passing in 1635. Alone with her thoughts, we can only wonder how much she reminisced about the adventures of her early years.
Broderick, Marian. Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History. Dublin: O'Brien Press, 2002.
Emerson, Kathy Lynn. "A Who's Who of Tudor Women".