FITZGERALD (Medieval Ireland)

Barons of Offaly to 1316

The Anglo-Norman family known as the Fitzgeralds or Geraldines of Kildare emerged from relatively modest beginnings, being descended from Henry I’s castellan Gerald of Windsor and Nest, daughter of the Welsh prince Rhys ap Tewdwr. The family came to Ireland with Richard "Strongbow" de Clare, lord of Strigoil in 1169, when the pioneering exploits of Maurice fitzGerald (d. 1176) earned him the reward of a grant of land in the form of the middle cantred of Offelan in County Kildare.

Maurice’s middle son Gerald fitzMaurice (d. 1204) became the first Geraldine baron of Offaly through marriage to Eva de Bermingham, thereby gaining the important centers of Lea and Rathangan. He also acquired the manors of Maynooth and Rathmore in County Kildare from his elder brother William, baron of Naas. Finally, he took possession of Croom in County Limerick through his participation in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Thomond during the 1180s and 1190s. By his death, he had gained possession of the manors and estates that subsequently formed the core of the family’s landed interests.

The Fitzgeralds became prominent in the colony’s affairs under the leadership of Maurice fitzGerald, second baron of Offaly (d. 1257). First, fitzGerald expanded the family’s holdings in Limerick by acquiring the manors of Adare and Grene. More importantly, he held office as chief governor from 1232 to 1245. Notwithstanding his involvement in the death of his feudal lord Richard Marshal, lord of Leinster, in April 1234, he quickly earned the trust of Henry III. He used his authority as chief governor to summon the feudal host of the lordship to participate in the invasion of Connacht in 1234-1237 led by Richard de Burgh and Hugh de Lacy, earl of Ulster. In return, de Burgh granted him the manors of Ardrahan and Kilcolgan in County Galway, while de Lacy granted him estates in Mayo and Sligo as well as claims to lands in Fermanagh and Donegal.

On his death, the family’s holdings were divided between his grandson and heir Maurice fitzGerald, third baron of Offaly (d. 1268), who inherited the core estates in Kildare and Limerick, and his younger son Maurice fitzMaurice (d. 1286) who inherited the estates and claims in Connacht and Ulster.

In 1264-1265, the Fitzgeralds’ rivalry with the de Burghs as to which lineage would dominate the northwest led to the outbreak of a bitter civil war that caused widespread devastation throughout Ireland and during which the two Geraldine magnates imprisoned the chief governor. However, a truce was established between the two lineages without settling the dispute and both Fitzgerald lords escaped punishment by fighting in the royalist cause in England in 1265-1266. In 1266, the third baron cemented his family’s high status by marrying the king’s niece Agnes de Valence (d. 1310).

However, fitzGerald drowned in 1268, sending the family’s fortunes into near terminal decline. The Fitzgeralds were forced to endure a lengthy minority until 1285, while de Valence kept control of the family’s Limerick properties for the rest of her life. More ominously, from 1272 onward, the Irish dynasties of the midlands in general, and the Ua Conchobair Failge dynasty in particular, became hostile to the settlers, and by 1284, Lea Castle had been burned. Maurice fitzMaurice died without male heirs in 1286 and in 1287, the fourth baron, Gerald fitzMaurice, died childless at the age of twenty-two. However, just before he died, contrary to customary law, he transferred the property and lordship to his cousin John fitzThomas fitzMaurice (d. 1316).

Although fitzThomas appears to have been the sole surviving male representative of the family, he effected a decisive reversal in the family’s fortunes. His primary goal appears to have been the reunification of the second baron’s legacy. First, the government helped him to temporarily pacify the midlands Irish dynasties. Second, he persuaded Maurice fitzMaurice’s heiresses to bequeath him their properties and claims in Connacht and Ulster. On his return home from visiting King Edward in 1292, however, the unresolved question of supremacy in the northwest brought fitzThomas into conflict with both the chief governor William de Vescy and Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, after quarreling over the appointment of a king of Connacht in 1293. FitzThomas subsequently accused de Vescy of treason and succeeded in having him removed from office. In 1294, fitzThomas captured the earl of Ulster and attacked his supporters in Meath, Kildare, and Connacht in an explosion of lawlessness known as the "time of disturbance." King Edward intervened and summoned fitzThomas to Westminster in disgrace and ultimately stripped him of his family’s Connacht and Ulster properties as a punishment.

FitzThomas redeemed himself with the king by repeated military service, twice in Scotland and once in Flanders. Although he was never entrusted with the office of chief governor, he played a leading role in the increasingly strenuous efforts to pacify the Irish midland dynasties. When Edward Bruce invaded Ireland in 1315, the aged fitzThomas remained loyal to Edward II and was one of the leaders of an army that was defeated by the Scots in January 1316. Immediately afterward, he traveled to England to confer with the king, who created him earl of Kildare in May 1316, four months before his death.

Earls of Kildare to 1534

For the remainder of the fourteenth century, fitzThomas’s heirs played prominent roles in the lordship’s affairs while consolidating their power in Kildare. The second earl Thomas fitzJohn (d. 1328) was granted the liberty of Kildare in 1318 and twice served as chief governor. Initially, the position of his younger son, the fourth earl Maurice fitzThomas (d. 1390), was threatened by the suspicions harbored by Edward III toward the Anglo-Irish magnates. However, after campaigning in France in 1347, the earl gained the king’s trust and subsequently often served as chief governor in short spells. He also devoted much energy to the defense of the Kildare marches, both through military action and forging alliances with midlands Irish dynasts such as An Sinnach (Ua Catharnaig) and Mag Eochagain.

The first half of the fifteenth century saw a sharp decline in the Fitzgeralds’ influence. The fifth earl, Gerald fitzMaurice (d. 1432), was principally known as an adherent of his son-in-law, the earl of Ormond, and was arrested in 1418 on charges of plotting against John Talbot, Lord Furnival, on Ormond’s behalf. Overall, however, his tenure was marked by a major increase in the power of the Ua Conchobair Failge dynasty, which captured Rathangan within a year of his death.

The recognition of Thomas "fitzMaurice" fitzGerald (d. 1478) as seventh earl in 1456 represents a major turning point in the family’s fortunes. The Yorkist seventh earl’s success was closely connected to his lengthy period in office as chief governor during which he dovetailed the successful defense of the Pale with the advancement of his personal interests by subduing his Ua Conchobhair Failge neighbors and recovering large tracts of territory in the Kildare marches. Essentially, he pioneered the methods and tactics later used by his son Gerald, the eighth earl (d. 1513), to establish the "Kildare ascendancy."

Upon the death of the eighth earl, his son, Gerald fitzGerald (d. 1534), inherited both the earldom and the chief governorship. At first, the ninth earl continued to govern the lordship using the methods so successfully employed by his father, dispensing gifts and protection to his adherents in return for their service in peace and war. However, from 1515 the "Kildare system" encountered increasing levels of opposition within the lordship, from both his estranged brother-in-law Piers Ruad Butler, ably assisted by his wife Margaret and from sources within the Pale, whose opposition was based upon the negative effects upon the Pale of the introduction of March customs such as coyne and livery.

Kildare’s position was progressively undermined at court until he was replaced in 1520 by the earl of Surrey. The Fitzgeralds’ response of attempting to render the lordship ungovernable was temporarily successful and the earl was reappointed in 1524. However, under the strain of closer royal scrutiny and constant complaints from Ireland, the system broke down. Following a series of replacements and reappointments, the earl was summoned to England in 1534. There, facing replacement again, the dying earl ordered his son Thomas, lord of Offaly (d. 1537), to launch the rebellion that finally destroyed the family’s dominance in Ireland.

General Observations

When the Kildare Geraldines’ experiences are taken together, some common familial characteristics may be discerned. They expressed their religious piety conventionally through the foundation of religious establishments such as the Dominican house at Sligo or the Augustinian house at Adare. They showed a keen sense of self-awareness, as exemplified by their continued use of patronymics. In general, the Fitzgeralds did not express great interest in learning and their literary patronage does not compare with that of their Butler or Desmond peers. For all of their familiarity with native Irish customs and culture, they showed a clear preference for marriage with individuals of English descent or preferably of English birth. Overall, their success can be explained in terms of their military qualities, their cultivation of personal relations with the king, their ability to operate readily in both Irish and Anglo-Irish society, and, above all, their ruthless opportunism.

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