The Confiscation of Ulster in the Reign of James the First


The Sham Plot—Different versions of the Plot—Flight of Tyrowen—His death at Rome—Proclamation of James—Rebellion of O’Dogherty.

James having thus, by religious persecution and personal indignity, tortured the angry spirit of Tyrowen, hastened to consummate his designs upon the broad lands of Ulster. All the great exertions made by Elizabeth during the last Irish war, and all the extravagance of treasure which victory had cost, would have been a vain outlay of labour and money, if O’Neill and O’Donnell were allowed to retain their lands, and the peasants of Ulster to cultivate in peace the soil they had fought for so well and so long. A decent pretext, however, was required to authorize James and his councillors to seize upon the extensive domains of the northern chiefs and people. A long war had concluded in a solemn national peace, for the fulfillment of whose terms national honour was pledged.—The conquered people had received the institutions of the conqueror; they had abandoned the customs and the laws, and all but the religion of their country ; their Princes and their Kings had relinquished their ancient honours and accepted a modern nobility; they had surrendered their lands into the hands of a foreign monarch, and taken them again under a new tenure and new conditions of possession; and all this they did to purchase peace and security, under the most solemn sanctions and the most sacred guarantees. It required no little skill in one of the contracting parties to escape from the conditions of the agreement, and, with a plausible excuse, to perpetrate a great and meditated wrong.

No better mode appeared of effecting the object of James and his courtiers, than a plot, either real or fictitious, which, involving the leading noblemen of Ulster in charges of High Treason, would, by forced construction of law, throw the whole of the land of the Northern province into the grasping and needy hands which awaited its distribution. Circumstances put such an excuse in their way.

There are many versions given of the conspiracy of Tyrowen and Tyrconnell, but the following are those principally adopted by the writers of Irish history. The first and by far the most singular is, that a letter was discovered in the Council Chamber in the Castle of Dublin, without a signature, and directed to Sir William Usher, Clerk of the Council, in which was mentioned a design for seizing the Castle, and murdering the Deputy, and suggesting a general revolt and dependance on Spanish forces; for the purpose of establishing the Catholic religion.* The following is the anonymous letter, which was found in the Council Chamber, May 19, 1607. It was taken up by a door-keeper, who carried it to the Lord Deputy, then most fortunately sitting in council:—

The letter imported, “that the writer was called into company by some Popish gentlemen, who after administering an oath of secrecy, declared their purpose was to murder or poison the Lord Deputy; to cut off Sir Oliver Lambert; to pick up one by one the rest of the officers of state; to oblige the small dispersed garrisons by hunger to submit, or to penn them up as sheep in the shambles. That the Castle of Dublin, being neither victualled nor manned, they held as their own; that the towns were for them, the country with them: the great ones abroad and in the North were prepared to answer the first alarm; that the powerful men in the West were assured by their agents to be ready, as soon as the state was in disorder: that the Catholic King had promised and the Jesuits from the Pope warranted men and means to second the first stirs, and equally to protect all their actions: that as soon as the state was dissolved and the King’s sword in their hands, they would elect a Governor, Chancellor, and Council: dispatch letters to the King, trusting to his unwillingness to embark in such a war and his facility to pardon; that he would grant them their own conditions of peace and government with toleration of religion; that if he listened not to their motions, then the many days spent in England in debate and preparations, would give them time to breathe, to fortify and furnish the maritime coasts and at leisure to call to their aid Spanish forces from all parts.” The writer goes on to say that he interposed some doubts, “which they readily answered; and he pretended to consent to further their projects; and that he took the method of this letter to give notice of their designs, though he refused to betray his friends: in the meantime that he would use his best endeavours to hinder any further practices. That if they did not desist, though he reverenced the mass and the Catholic Religion equal to the devoutest of them, yet he would make the leaders of that dance know, that he preferred his country’s good before their busy and ambitious humours.”

*”Temple writes to the same effect, but Dr. Carleton, bishop of Chichester, a contemporary writer, says:—”Montgomery, bishop of Derry, suspected, or was told, that Tyrowen had gotten into his hands the greatest part of the lands of his bishoprick; which he intended in a lawful course to recover; and finding there was no man could give him better light or knowledge of these things than O’Cahane (who was intimate with Tyrowen,) made use of such means that he (O’Cahane) came to him of his own accord, and told him he could help him to the knowledge of what he sought, but that he was afraid of Tyrowen; yet he engaged to reveal all that he knew of that matter, provided the bishop would promise to save him from Tyrowen’s violence, and not deliver him into England, which the bishop having promised, he brought O’Cahane to the council in Dublin to take his confession there. Upon this, processes were sent to Tyrowen to warn him to come up to Dublin, at an appointed time, to answer the suit of the lord-bishop of Derry. There was no other intention but in a peaceable way, to bring the suit to a trial; for the council then knew nothing of the plot. But Tyrowen having entered into a new conspiracy, of which O’Cahane was, began to suspect, when he was served with a process to answer the suit, that this was but a plot to draw him in, and that surely the treason had been revealed by O.Cahane. Upon this bare suspicion, Tyrowen with his confederates fled out of Ireland, and lost all those lands in the North.'”—Thankful Remembrance, p. 168. citante Curry. It is not likely that O’Cahan, who entered into conspiracy with Tyrowen, and who was a Roman Catholic and a gentleman, would communicate to the usurping Bishop of Derry any information which could injure his ally and friend O’Neill. So vague are the rumours on which Parliament founded its bill of attainder, by which half a million of acres were vested in the crown! Borlase despatches the matter with his characteristic brevity:—” The said Lord Mountjoy continued for some time Lord Lieutenant, who going for England carried Tyrowen with him; who was graciously received by the King, and returned with honours not long after. He complotted however fresh rebellions, which being detected, and he being proclaimed traitor, he fled privately into Normandy, thence to Flanders, then to Rome, where he lived on the Pope’s allowance, became blind, and died 1616.”—Reduction of Ireland, p. 184. ed. of 1675.

Nothing could be more improbable than the statements of this strange letter. The abrupt manner in which are communicated the most desperate intentions, of murdering viceroys and starving armies—the mode in which the writer, professing himself to be a Catholic, speaks of “the Mass,” a manner never adopted by Catholics—the minuteness with which each particular of intended rebellion was stated by these conspirators at this meeting, render the occurrence of such meeting more than doubtful, and stamp the whole affair as a design of men anxious to involve the Earls, (who it is to be observed, are never mentioned by name in the letter,) in the charge of treason that they might share in the forfeitures, which were sure to ensue upon their flight or conviction.

Dr. Jones, the Bishop of Meath of the day, says that it was written by a “providential discoverer of another rebellion in Ireland,” who was not willing to appear. It was not very likely that such a discoverer should conceal his participation in what government would have looked upon as a most meritorious service, and would have rewarded with its wonted liberality. But guilt was easily proved, where it was so strenuously desired. A letter without a signature, or any of the marks of an authentic document, dealing in generalities, and lavishly imputing treasons to the most distinguished individuals in the state, was an instrument of bringing home guilt adapted only to the worst forms of tyranny; yet, coupled with the subsequent flight of the supposed traitors, it was at the time admitted as conclusive testimony against them, and has been retailed by nearly all the succeeding historians, without examination or rebuke, as a satisfactory proof of their guilt.

Cox, in his own quaint way, says, “They (meaning Tyrowen and Tyrconnell) had sent a Baron to the Archdukes, and probably had employed some one else in Spain.” He does not give any authority for the statement.

But the fullest, and most probably as true an account as any of the affair, is given in the accurate pages of the latest and best of the English historians, Lingard represents the two Earls as having left the English court with expressions of gratitude and feelings of distrust, feelings embittered by the persecutions then commenced against the Catholics, and the undisguised anxiety of the Scotch courtiers to make settlements in Ireland. In this state of mind, the Earls accepted an invitation from Richard Nugent, Baron Delvin, to meet him at the Castle of Maynooth, where in dangerous conference they are said to have imparted to each other their resentful feelings, and sworn to defend their rights and their religion by open force. They did not, however, at that time agree upon any definite scheme of insurrection; their mode of action was to be defensive, and they resolved to have recourse to measures of force only in case their religious liberty was attacked by the king. Two years after, secret information is said to have been received by James, that Tyrowen was renewing his former relations with the King of Spain, and it is to this, probably, that Cox refers. Upon which information, whether true or false, his ruin and that of the other Northern chiefs was determined. A claim was set up to a considerable portion of his lands by direction of the ministers; the Irish government declined to entertain the suit ostensibly on account of its grave nature, but really to entrap Tyrowen over to England, who, however, was a match for the cunning of his enemies. He solicited and obtained a respite of thirty days before appearing in England; and well knowing what the issue of such a visit would be, he and his wife, his younger sons and nephews; Tyrconnell, with his son and brother; and thirty other persons, embarked in a vessel which had arrived from Dunkirk, and after a few days’ voyage arrived at Quillebecque, in Normandy.*

The Abbé Mac Geoghegan slightly varies from Lingard’s account. He says, and in this he agrees with Anderson in his “Genealogies,” that St. Lawrence, Baron of Howth, entrapped the two Earls and the Baron Delvin to a conference, the particulars of which he divulged to government; that Tyrowen and other Lords were summoned before the Council and denied the accusation; that they were directed to attend next day; that before the next day came, some false friends of theirs in the Council advised them to fly; and that the Earls accordingly relinquishing their intention of appearing a second time in the Council Chamber, and embarking at Lough Swilly sailed thence to France.

*Reid takes the plot for granted, and without vouchsafing a single authority, says—” Irritated at this resolution of James, (namely, to hang the priests, &c.,) and urged on by the disaffected clergy, several of the Northern nobles who had been previously favoured by him and had sworn fealty to the Crown, entered into a conspiracy against his government and applied to the courts of France and Spain to aid them in subverting English power in Ireland. The plot was happily discovered before the time appointed for its execution had arrived.”—Reid’s Hist. Presb. Church in Ireland, vol. I, p. 75. The plot was generally considered to be what Dr. Anderson describes it, a contrivance of Cecil, who was, as Osburne calls “an adept in state tricks.” Dodd in his “Ecclesiastical History,” says—”Cecil was an adept in framing fictitious plots, and has left instructions behind him to succeeding ministers, when and how to make use of them against the Catholics. The original of these instructions, in Cecil’s handwriting, was formerly in the keeping of the infamous Judge Bradshawe, by whom it was shown to Sir William Percival, who communicated it to a gentleman of great worth who died in 1697, and left it amongst other papers of remarks upon the times,”—Dodd’s Ecc. Hist., vol. 3, fol. 196. This, it is true, requires more confirmation; but when we recollect Cecil’s character, and that his system was worked after Cecil’s death as Cecil’s self would have worked it, we must acknowledge that the mere mapping of his own paths for the benefit of his successors can add nothing to his infamy or their originality: when, too, we see the same practices continued to the present day, we must pronounce him to have been the transmitter of a system that is intrinsically English.

On looking at all the authorities, it is by no means clear that any design of insurrection was ever entertained by the two Earls; it is most certain, that the report which was spread of an intended massacre of the English, was in every particular false. There is not a tittle of evidence adduced to prove so monstrous a charge, even in the elaborate argument of James, which may be seen in his long and pedantic proclamation.* Yet the story of the plot, and the report of the intended Sicilian Vespers, are repeated successively by nearly every English historian that writes of that period. Anderson, in his “Royal Genealogies,” is an exception to the dull reiteration of falsehood. He gives a short and contemptuous notice of the conspiracy: “Artful Cecil employed one St. Lawrence** to entrap the Earls of Tyrowen and Tyrconnell, the Lord of Delvin, and other Irish chiefs into a sham plot, which had no evidence but his. But those chiefs being informed that witnesses were to be hired against them, foolishly fled from Dublin, and so taking guilt upon them, they were declared rebels, and six entire counties in Ulster were at once forfeited to the crown, which was what their enemies wanted.” Artful Cecil, was Robert, Earl of Salisbury, who, according to some historical opinions, was the contriver of the Gunpowder Plot;*** but who, at all events, profited largely by its discovery.

*Appendix I. The report that Tyrowen intended a massacre, is thus given by Boderie, ambassador of the King of France:—”La conspiration etoit a ce qui se publie maintenant parmi ce peuple, de faire des Vepres Siciliennes sur tous les Anglais qui sont en Irlande, et puis y retablir la Religion Catholique. Je ne sais si le principal but dudit Comte eut de profiter a la religion; mais quoi qu’il eu soit ce qu’il a fait n’y a point deja ete nuisible. Car la verite est que depuis cela, on n’a pas si severement poursuivi les Catholiques, comme on faisoit auparavant.” “They give out here that the conspiracy was to make a Sicilian Vespers on all the English who were in Ireland, and then to re-establish the Catholic religion. I am not sure that the principal end of the said Earl was to benefit religion ; but as far as he has as yet gone, he has not done it any harm. For the truth is. that since this business, they have not persecuted the Catholics so severely as they did before.”—Boderie. Dec. 20, 1607; ii., p. 488.

**St. Lawrence was a fit tool of Cecil. Camden says, that he offered to murder Lord Grey de Wilton and Sir Thomas Gerald, to prevent their conveying reports of Essex to the queen; but Essex who, whatever were his faults, was chivalrous and noble, scornfully refused the bloody service Eliz. 741.

The character of Cecil is uninteresting to Irish readers. But it may be observed, as a matter of historical accuracy, that the preponderance of evidence is against the fact of his having contrived the Gunpowder Plot. Dr. Lingard attributes it altogether to Catesby—he calls it his Plot; and gives good reasons for his adoption of so desperate a remedy to assuage his grievances. Lingard, vol. 8, p. 32. Butler in his “Memoirs of British an 1 Irish Catholics,” devotes an admirable and temperate chapter to the vindication of the greatest enemy of his faith. Butler, vol. 2, p. 172. At the same lime he quotes four Protestant authorities: Osburne—Secret Author of the Protestant Plea, to prove that Cecil’s guilty contrivance was generally believed. But there is no evidence of any fact against him. He certainly knew of the plot early in its progress, and sham plots were greatly in vogue; but this was as real as it was sanguinary and dangerous, and a minister, without any conscience but great talent, might well consider that he had a right to make use of his knowledge, sooner or later, as he judged it prudent. The writers who insist on the guilty contrivance of this minister are, amongst others, Lord Castlemaine, and in our days the author of the interesting and eloquent “Memoir of Hugh O’Neill,” in the “Library of Ireland,” page 237. “It seems to be the opinion of the ablest historians of these times, that the new-made Earl (of Salisbury) stood indebted for all his honours and preferments in this reign, to a disposition which led him to a ready compliance with his master’s wishes; and it is asserted, that he encouraged James to extend the royal prerogative beyond the limits prescribed to it by the laws of the land.”—Play fair’s Family Antiquity, vol. 1, p. 185. There seems to be some sort of historic justice in the following facts: James, the fourth earl in descent from Robert Cecil, became a Catholic, and narrowly escaped prosecution for his apostasy, and impeachment for his rebellion in conspiring to restore James the Second. The latter is a singular instance of gratitude in that order to the unhappy Stuarts. —Lodge’s Genealogy of the British Peerage, p. 431.

The only circumstance which gave any colour to the charge against the Earls, was their secret flight into France. It was said that if innocent, they should have stood their ground and proved their freedom from imputed guilt, nor left their estates and dependents to the discretion of the King and of his courtiers. But Tyrowen was forewarned that witnesses would be suborned against him, and his own experience of English law had taught him not to trust to the false testimony and well-assorted juries, which had already done such execution upon his friends. And, as for standing on the defensive, the Earls had no military resources; the spirit of the people was broken, as well by the treachery of some of their own chieftains during the late war, as by the arms of England; it would have been, under such circumstances, impossible to have collected an army able to withstand a king so powerful as James. They pursued the only course open to them ; they fled from a country where they could not live safely in peace, nor die honourably in war. Possibly they hoped to revisit Ireland, fortified by foreign assistance—the most insecure and fatal reliance of a people struggling for Liberty. In this hope they were signally disappointed—their political existence terminated with the freedom of the country they had so reluctantly abandoned.

The sequel of their personal history, though not necessary to this narrative, is full of interest. In the Autumn of 1607, there embarked at Lough Swilly, Hugh O’Neill, Catherine his wife, and three sons; Roderick O’Donnell, his brother Cathbar, and his sister Nuala; Rose, the wife of Cathbar, and their son Hugh, a child of two years, and a very numerous and distinguished company. It was a mournful group, that fugitive family, leaving for ever the scenes of their affections, of their glory, and of their ruin. “It is certain that the sea has not borne, and the wind has not wafted, in modern times, a number of persons in one ship more illustrious, eminent, or noble in point of genealogy, heroic deeds, feats of arms, and valiant achievements, than they. Would that God had permitted them to remain in their patrimonial inheritances until their children should have come to the years of manhood! Woe to the heart that meditated and the mind that conceived, and the council that recommended the project of this expedition, without knowing whether they should to the end of their lives be able to return to their native principalities or patrimonies.”* In a few days they arrived at Quilbecque in Normandy. The English ambassador at the court of Henry IV. demanded the Irish exiles as traitors to the King of England. James himself issued a long proclamation charging them with their treasons, their immoralities, their low birth, and their rapacity; but France, ever friendly and hospitable to Irishmen, refused to credit the impossible falsehoods of his manifesto, or to surrender into his sanguinary hands those who had entrusted themselves to their clemency and friendship. The other foreign courts followed the example of France; they treated the Earls and their followers as martyrs to the love of country and to their fidelity in religion; they were cheered by the sympathy of Europe, and were received every where with the greatest distinction. Many of them entered the Spanish army which was then engaged in endeavouring to extirpate civil and religious liberty in the United Provinces;** the Earl of Tyrconnell and Maguire of Fermanagh died shortly after the flight from Ireland; one in Italy and the other in Geneva; and Hugh O’Neill proceeded to Rome where he lived on the monthly alms of the Pope and of the King of Spain. A miserable fate for a man who possessed in the highest degree the qualities of statesman and hero; a man “of great industry, large soul, and capacity for the weightiest businesses.” Old and blind, and worn down by his private cares and the great afflictions of his country, he died in the Holy City in 1616. A few years afterwards his son was found strangled in his bed at Brussels.

In the Convent of St. Isidore, at Rome, there is a valuable Irish manuscript, containing a full account of the cause of Hugh O’Neill’s flight, his various and painful journeys, from that fatal moment when he bid his last farewell to his princely demesnes until his melancholy death. It would be conferring a great obligation on the history of Ireland, if this manuscript were rescued from the moths and the hand of Time.

*”Annals of the Four Masters.” It is difficult to understand the reasonableness of the last imprecation. We can solve it only by reference to the Abbé’s version of the “Flight of the Earls.” Most probably the denunciation *M intended to fall on those false friends in the Council who advised them to fly. This, with the project of returning with Spanish troops, would account for the whole.

**One regrets that this was the service which the expatriated Irish generally adopted. It may however be said in their defence, that they looked upon the Spaniards as akin in blood and of a common origin with themselves, and as professing the same religion. In addition to which it must be remembered that the English were the allies of the Dutch, and the opportunity of meeting their enemies was too tempting to be lost.

The flight of the Earls was rapidly followed by a commission of oyer and terminer, “to take,” as Leland says, “the speediest advantage of this incident.” Justice Sibthorpe and Baron Eliot were sent into the counties of Donegal and Tyrowen; indictments were found against the Earls and all who were supposed to have been concerned in the conspiracy; many were taken and executed, and process of outlawry issued against those who had fled from the country.*

Whilst the law was busy in its vocation, the king was not idle. He saw, with considerable indignation, that his outlawed and fugitive subjects were honourably received in foreign courts; he feared that their representations of his bigoted oppression would meet with a ready credence from the sympathy of Catholic Europe, and he resolved to prevent such a result by publishing a statement of his own case. And the Proclamation (dated 15th Nov. 1607,) which, in pursuance of this design, was issued, is the basest and most despicable document preserved amongst the state papers of the English government.

It stated, what was notoriously false, that the Earls were “base and rude in their originall;” that they had not their possessions by lawful or lineal descent from ancestors of blood or virtue ) and that their only reason for flight was the private knowledge and inward terror “of their own guiltinesse.” A much more unblushing falsehood was, that they had endured no molestation on the ground of religion, and that the manners of the Earls were so barbarous and unchristian that it would be unreasonable to trouble them about any form of faith. Much more to this purpose, equally malignant and untrue, did James’s Proclamation contain; but it was without effect. Its manifest falsehood and undisguised rancour deprived it of any power to work evil against the fugitives, in that quarter where James was most anxious to misrepresent and injure them. They continued the honoured guests of the courts of Europe, illustrious examples of the great reverses of fortune, and of the perfidy of monarchs.

*Richard, Baron Delvin was arrested in 1617, and committed to the Castle for High Treason. But his servant contrived to convey to Alexander Aylmer, “his gentleman,” some cord, by which he was enabled to effect his escape. Wingfield the Marshal was despatched in pursuit with a detachment of horse, but Delvin was not caught. He submitted next year, and received a full pardon 18th July, 1608. In the celebrated parliaments of 1613 and 1615 he sat, and his deserts were so great as to have gained for him the Peerage of Westmeath. He was afterwards an ambassador, or rather an umpire, between the Irish Catholics and Charles the First. In the “Popish rebellion” he and his wife, both advanced in years, were assaulted when travelling, their carriage stopped, and the lady wofully misused. This pressed upon his mind, and he died in 1641. The full details of his unhappy death are given graphically enough in dodge’s “Peerage” by Archdall, vol. 1, p. 240.

By the flight of the Earls, six counties in Ulster fell to the disposal of the crown. The only title, however, which James could have had to these counties was by forfeiture arising from the attainder for flight of O’Neill and O’Donnell. But it has been well remarked by an eminent lawyer and historian, that it was singular that his own proclamation should divest him of that title. “Wee doo hereby declare that these persons had not their creations or possessions in regard of any lawful or lineall descent.”* If they had no legal title, how could a forfeiture, worked by their attainder for flight, transfer a title to James? There could be no transfer of a non-existent thing. The course of events, however, was the best criticism on the king’s proclamation.

However anxious James was “to indulge his passion for reforming Ireland by the introduction of English law and civility,” he was diverted from the immediate pursuit of the object by an insurrection in the North of Ireland. Sir Cahir O’Doherty, the prince of Inishowen, “a man of great hopes but few years,” determined to assert his independence, and to fling off the galling supremacy of English laws and customs. His insurrection occurred in 1608, and for five months wore a very threatening aspect. He surprised the town of Derry, and slew the governor, Sir George Paulet; he took various English stations, and continued a vigorous guerilla warfare, until “a happy shot, which smote him on the head, settled that business.” His followers dispersed after his death, and any who fell into the hands of the English were executed “with a necessary severity.” This was the last blow struck in Ulster, which thenceforward presented a scene of loyalty and desolation excellently suited to the reforming spirit of the king. A large tract of land in the six northern counties, Tyrowen, the principality of O’Neill; Coleraine or Derry, O’Cahan’s country; Donegal, the principality of O’Donnell; Fermanagh, M’Gwire’s country; Cavan, O’Reilly’s country; and Armagh, fell to the lot of James by a forced construction of the law of forfeiture and escheat. The suppression of O’Dogherty’s insurrection cleared the way to the completion of the policy of fraud and violence by which a splendid country was torn from its just possessors; by which the old laws of property were overturned, and an ancient people banished from the dwellings of their fathers. By these rebellions or these “sham plots,” five hundred thousand acres escheated to the crown— a foreign law handed over the domains of the fugitive Chiefs to the “king’s passion for reforming Ireland by the introduction of English civility;” and we shall soon see how fully he indulged this passion, and how much at the expense of his Irish subjects.

*The Irish chiefs possessed the suzerainte but not the property of the soil: consequently the guilt of O’Neill and O’Donnell, though even so clearly proved, could not affect the right of their feudatories, who were not even accused of treason. The English law of forfeiture, in itself sufficiently unjust, never declared that the interests of innocent tenants should be sacrificed for the rebellion of the landlords; it only placed the king in the place of the person whose property had been forfeited, and left all the relations of the tenantry unaltered. Yet were all the actual holders of lands in these devoted districts dispossessed without even the shadow of a pretence; and this abominable wickedness is even at the present day eulogised by many as the consummation of political wisdom De Beaumont’s Ireland, vol. 1, Translator’s note to p. 57.

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