PRINCE WILLIAM’S ‘forgotten’ Irish ancestor
ELEANOR COUNTESS OF DESMOND
‘Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands for their legs could not bear them, they looked like anatomies of death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their grave…’
So the English poet Edmund Spenser described the province of Munster in 1583. While the dreadful spectacle of famine and decay may have appalled his eyes, Spenser, together with friends such as Walter Raleigh, had actively participated in and benefited from Munster’s ruin, as the English Crown wrested the province from the grip of its once powerful overlord – Gearoid (Gerald) Fitzgerald, 14th Earl of Desmond.
By 1579 the writing was on the wall for Desmond. Rooted in the feudal tradition of a bygone era, from which he derived his status and wealth, the world outside his Munster domain had moved on. Queen Elizabeth I viewed him as a threat to her power in Ireland, his intrigues with Spain a threat to England’s security and the vast acres under his control in Ireland as a potential goldmine. After years of prevarication in 1579 Elizabeth finally let loose the dogs of war. Desmond was proclaimed a traitor, a price on his head and his lands and castles up for grabs.
For three years a savage military campaign was waged against him by Elizabeth’s military generals, aided by her cousin the Earl of Ormond, Desmond’s bitter rival for power in Ireland. Abandoned by his Spanish allies, ill from dropsy and dysentery, too weak to even mount his horse, Desmond was hunted like a wild animal across the despoiled acres of his vast lordship. Despite his overwhelming liabilities, however, he had one remaining asset - his countess, Eleanor.
Educated, intelligent, courageous and able, daughter of Edmund Butler, Baron of Dunboyne, from Kiltinan Castle, county Tipperary, Eleanor’s destiny was as a wife, mother and chatelaine. But instead her marriage in 1565 to the Earl of Desmond, hurled her into a maelstrom of a bitter family feud, international political intrigue, a religious war, the enforced rebellion of her husband and finally social and political melt-down and ostracism.
With amazing skill, courage and diplomacy, Eleanor at first tried to mediate with Elizabeth and her administrators. Her letters are pragmatic, astute and knowledgeable, as she tried to keep at bay avaricious officials in the Queen’s pay in Ireland, predatory military generals, as well as power-hungry rivals from within her husband’s own family – all of whom hoped to profit from his downfall. Enduring imprisonment in Dublin Castle and in the Tower of London, exile in the slums of Southwark, her only son held hostage in the Tower of London, her mission, to save the House of Desmond, her husband, her children and herself from annihilation, became her obsession.
And when her efforts as a mediator between her husband and Queen Elizabeth were overtaken by international events, she endured three horrific years on the run with Gearoid across the wastelands of his Munster lordship. Enduring a knife-edge existence in desolate hastily-erected shelters in forests and mountains desperately she tried to keep her husband alive until either the vacillating English Queen called off her war dogs or help came from her husband’s fickle Spanish allies.
When her husband was finally run to ground and ignobly beheaded in a lonely cave near Tralee in the winter of 1583, his head pickled in a wine cask, sent to London to end up on a spike at the entrance to the Tower of London, Eleanor set out to salvage what she could from the ruins of his estates for their children. Deserted as the wife of a ‘traitor’ by family and friends, a political and social outcast, pocketing her pride, forced to beg her bread with her five young daughters on the streets of Dublin, pawning everything she possessed, she took her case to the heart of the Machiavellian Tudor Court in London, experiencing humiliation, isolation and imprisonment in the process.
Her persistence and courage finally paid dividends, however, when she won both the respect and assistance of Queen Elizabeth 1 and the love and protection of a new husband, Donagh O’Connor Sligo.
Fighting her cause to the very end of her long and remarkable life until well into her nineties, Eleanor rebutted the many spurious claims made in the Courts of Chancery, in both Dublin and London, to her second husband’s property by the new wave of English carpetbaggers who descended on Sligo after the fall of Gaelic Ireland in the years following the Battle of Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls.
Eleanor, Countess of Desmond died in 1638 and is buried in Sligo Abbey where her tomb can be seen today.
Eleanor’s third daughter, Lady Katherine FitzGerald married her first cousin Maurice Roche, Viscount Fermoy. Through the Viscount Fermoy line Eleanor’s descendants include the late Princess Diana and her sons Princes William and Harry.
Eleanor’s childhood home, Kiltinan Castle, Fethard, County Tipperary, is now owned by the composer, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber
© Anne Chambers 2020
Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, 1545-1638 by Anne Chambers (Gill Books)