FITZGERALD, GERALD (c. 1456-1513) (Medieval Ireland)

Gerald Fitzgerald, the eighth earl of Kildare, chief governor of Ireland (1478, 1479-1492, 1496-1513), was the eldest of four sons and two daughters of Thomas, the seventh earl, and his wife Joan, the sixth earl of Desmond. He was, according to Tudor commentators, unlearned: "rudely brought up according to the usage of the country" but "a mightie man of stature" (Carew) and "a warrior incomparable" (Stanyhurst). In 1472, he had command of twenty-four spearmen for defense of the English Pale, and in March 1478 was elected justiciar after his father’s death. The young earl contested Edward IV’s decision to appoint Henry Lord Grey as deputy lieutenant a few months later, in a characteristic demonstration of Geraldine power. Grey’s reluctance to serve without local support prompted the king to summon the leading lords and officials to court. In the resultant settlement Kildare was given charge of a more broadly based administration, with detailed instructions about preserving good rule and the king’s interests. The earl generally observed the spirit of this settlement until Edward’s death.

The eighth earl’s career marked the height of the family fortunes during the Kildare Ascendancy (14701534). Kildare was in many ways a typical early Tudor ruling magnate whose chief recommendation to successive English kings was his ability to rule the marches and protect their basic interests at little cost through the deployment of an extensive manraed. Hitherto secondary figures, the earls owed their rise to the crisis of lordship that followed the eclipse of leading magnates of the previous generation—Richard, duke of York; John Talbot, earl of Waterford; and James Butler, fourth earl of Ormond. Kildare power was deliberately built up by successive kings through continued reliance on the earl as governor, grants of land, and eventually marriage into the royal family, so reflecting the earl’s enhanced status in Tudor circles.

His second wife, Elizabeth St. John, was Henry VII’s first cousin, and his son and heir, Lord Gerald, married Elizabeth Zouche, also the king’s relative. Yet royal favor also recognized the earl’s organizational and military abilities. As deputy, Kildare built up a standing force of three hundred kerne, galloglass, and horsemen, and he reorganized the English Pale’s southern defenses around his principal castles: Maynooth, Rathangan, Portlester, Lea, Kildare, Athy, Kilkea, Castledermot, Rathvilly, and Powerscourt. Marcher defense was also strengthened by matching his numerous children—one son and six daughters with his first wife, Alison FitzEustace, daughter of Lord Portlester; seven sons with his second wife—with prominent English and Gaelic families. Almost all the Gaelic lords whose lands bordered the Pale also paid the earl "black rents." From a Gaelic perspective his dealings with the border chieftaincies differed little from relations between a Gaelic overlord and his vassal chiefs. Kildare’s court included a Gaelic entourage, and he spoke and wrote in Gaelic as occasion demanded.

Although admired by historians of the Irish Free State era as a champion of home rule and exemplar of a growing Anglo-Gaelic cultural rapprochement, Kildare was no "Anglo-Irish separatist." Certainly, he exploited the monarchy’s renewed weakness after Edward IV’s death, exacting better terms from Richard III and intruding as chancellor his brother, Thomas, against the king’s wishes. Yet the corollary was his loyal support for the Yorkist cause in the years following. This went far beyond most English magnates and long clouded his relations with Henry Tudor. In 1487, Kildare backed the Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel, had him crowned Edward VI in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and recruited four thousand Gaelic kerne commanded by his brother to invade England. The Yorkist army was heavily defeated in a three-hour battle at Stoke-by-Newark in which Thomas Fitzgerald was killed. Kildare held out for a few months but eventually submitted. Pardoned in 1488, the deputy and council refused to give better security for their conduct, threatening to "become Irish every of them," and in 1490 Kildare also evaded a summons to court (Harris). Yet, when in 1491-1492 another Yorkist pretender, Perkin Warbeck, landed at Cork, attracting support from the earl of Desmond, Kildare’s cousin, Henry VII, responded much more energetically. He dispatched Sir James Ormond with two hundred troops and dismissed Kildare.

Henry’s attempt to build up Ormond as a counterweight to Kildare resurrected the old feud between the two houses, precipitating serious disturbances. With Warbeck still at large, the leading nobles and officials were bound over for their conduct, Kildare in one thousand marks, and summoned to court. Sir Edward Poynings was appointed deputy with 653 troops to hold Ireland and carry out administrative reforms. Kildare actively supported Poynings, encouraging Ulster lords to submit, but in February 1495, he was arrested on charges of plotting with Irish enemies against the deputy, attainted by the Irish parliament, and shipped to England. Thereupon, the Geraldines rose in rebellion, led by Kildare’s brother, who seized Carlow castle. Once Poynings had broken Warbeck’s blockade of Waterford, however, resistance collapsed, and the king became anxious for a settlement so as to reduce costs. By 1496, the English parliament had reversed Kildare’s attainder, he had married the king’s cousin, and a formal investigation of his contacts with the Ulster lords had cleared him of treason. Accordingly, following undertakings given before the king’s council in August, he was reappointed deputy. Kildare’s son, Lord Gerald, remained at court as pledge for his conduct.

Thereafter relations between king and earl remained harmonious. These were years of comparative peace, prosperity, and strong government in the lordship. Kildare made regular progresses throughout Ireland: he visited outlying towns that seldom saw the deputy, including Carrickfergus in 1503, Galway in 1504, and Limerick in 1510. In 1512, he captured Belfast and Larne castles. In 1503, he also visited court for his son’s marriage, after which Lord Gerald returned to Ireland as treasurer. In 1504, the largest engagement of the period, at Knockdoe near Galway, saw the Pale levies of English bills and bows and Kildare’s Gaelic clients defeat Ua Briain and Clanrickard Burke in a rare pitched battle. The king rewarded Kildare with election to the Order of the Garter. Periodic expeditions against Ua Briain reflected the extended horizons of English rule, but not all were successful. In 1510, he broke down the latter’s bridge over the Shannon but suffered heavy losses. On Henry VII’s death in 1509, Kildare was elected justiciar according to custom but soon was reappointed deputy by the young Henry VIII. Age was catching up with the old earl, too. He was wounded in 1511 while campaigning in the midlands. Two years later, he was seriously wounded on campaign—shot while watering his horse near Kilkea. He retired slowly to Kildare and died on September 3. His body was brought to Dublin and buried in Christ Church in the chapel he had built two years earlier.

According to the Annals of Ulster, he exceeded all the English in power and fame by keeping better justice and law, building more castles for the English, conquering more territory and razing more castles of the Irish, but nonetheless being generous to the Gaelic literati. His servant, Philip Flattisbury of Johnstown, wrote that Kildare surpassed all previous governors in defeating Irish enemies and reducing them to the king’s peace, recolonizing and rebuilding towns long destroyed, and constructing castles and bridges "to the great profit and defense of the English." He was succeeded as governor and earl by Lord Gerald.

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