When The Sea Queen Met The Virgin Queen

Written by Anne Chambers.

Grace OMalley and Queen Elizabeth

Extract From Granuaile Author ANNE CHAMBERS recounts the circumstances surrounding the meeting in 1593 between Irish leader Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I of England 

In recent times it has been Mna na hEireann who have walked the walk and talked the talk to put to rest the 900 years of discord, distrust and division that has blighted the relationship between Ireland and England.

First President Mary Robinson, then President Mary McAleese, broke through the barrier of centuries by their official meetings with the Queen of England. Their initiative is now to be reciprocated as Queen Elizabeth II becomes the first British Monarch to make a state visit to the Republic of Ireland.

But these recent meetings between the English Monarch and the Presidents of Ireland, historic and significant as they may be, merely mirror a much earlier meeting, some 418 years ago to be precise, between the leader and ’pirate queen’ Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) and Queen Elizabeth I.

Through the intervening centuries this original meeting was preserved in poetry and folklore. But the factual evidence, so long hidden among the Elizabethan State Papers and in private archives, reveals the real circumstances that brought together the two most remarkable women of their age.

Political developments such as the Good Friday Agreement, the official vindication of the innocence of the victims of Bloody Sunday, not to mention the UK’s donation (albeit with interest!) towards our current economic difficulties, have contributed to a more positive relationship between Ireland and Britain and helped facilitate this visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic. And political developments, albeit of a somewhat different hue, also brought about the historic meeting between Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I.

By 1593 the Gaelic world of Grace O’Malley was collapsing under the political, social and military upheavals of the previous four decades. Fragmented and politically outmoded, inter-clan feuding left every Gaelic leader to fend for himself. Queen Elizabeth I viewed Ireland as a weak chink in her armour against her continental enemies, particularly Spain; Ireland’s rich pasturelands a potential goldmine, and its religious allegiance (in theory at least) to the old faith, as a potential rallying point for rebellion against her.

By 1593 breaking the chauvinistic mould Grace O’Malley had established herself as a political and military leader both by land and by sea. Skilfully she negotiated her way through the Machiavellian web of Elizabethan politics, outmanoeuvring many of the Queen's administrators in the Irish service. When English diplomacy was replaced by military might she personally lead her army of ’two hundred fighting men and three galleys’ against individual English generals who sought to deprive herself and her family of their lands and power, earning herself a reputation as a rebel and a pirate in the process.

But by Spring 1593 Grace found herself backed into a corner by Sir Richard Bingham, the uncompromising English governor of Connaught. Her eldest son was killed by Bingham's brother, while Bingham attacked her land, confiscated her substantial cattle and horse herds and established an English garrison in her castle of Rockfleet on the shores of Clew Bay. To circumvent Bingham Grace wrote directly to Queen Elizabeth to complain of the circumstances that, as she diplomatically told her, ’constrayned your Highness fond subject to take arms and by force to maintaine her selfe and her people by sea and land the space of forty years past.’ Her letter caught the interest of the Queen’s Secretary of State, Lord Burghley.

While she waited a reply to her letter Bingham struck again. To bring this ’nurse to all rebellions in the province for forty years’ to heel, he imprisoned Grace's youngest son, Tibbott (Tiboid) Bourke, for treason, a charge punishable by death. The time for polite negotiation from a distance was over. Despite the catalogue of ’treasonable’ offences laid against her by Bingham and other military men at the English court, the ties of motherhood proved stronger and compelled Grace to take her life in her hands to present her case in person to Queen Elizabeth.

Ever astute and politically savvy, Grace well understood the obstacles in her way. Influence in the shape of a business acquaintance Black Tom Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, the Queen’s in-favour Irish lord and related to her through her mother Anne Bolyen, helped smooth the way, with a letter of introduction to Lord Burghley. Nonetheless Grace’s mission was daunting. Few petitioners were granted access to the Queen, and particularly not one whose rebellious and piratical actions were well-documented at Court. The iron cages hanging over the Thames at Wapping Stairs, each with their rotting human carcass, was the gruesome fate accorded to captured pirates.

Sailing her ship from Clew Bay Grace reached London in July 1593 and presented her credentials. Curious about this woman who had ’overstepped the role of womanhood’ Lord Burghley firstly elicited from her 18 written answers to 18 questions, regarding her life, her family, her ’career’, aspects of Gaelic law and the status of women in Gaelic society. Grace's answers, while shrewdly guarded, were sufficiently intriguing to arouse the Queen’s curiosity and, despite Bingham's indignant protestations, she agreed to see the Irish ’Queen’.

At the Palace of Greenwich, in late summer 1593, the two queens came face to face. They had much in common. Both had usurped what was perceived to be a male role and by sheer determination, courage and example had prevailed. Each had a lifetime of experience, were used to power, to having their orders obeyed. Both had kept their male followers in thrall and loyal throughout the duration of their lives.

Elizabeth was at the apex of her power, the beloved ’Glorianna’ of her people, the 'Goddess Heavenly Bright’ of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Vain and autocratic, she could be coarse and bawdy, she spat and picked her teeth, had a cruel wit and a razor-sharp tongue with which she bullied and cajoled her quarrelsome courtiers. Her eyes peered short-sightedly, her red hair had given way to a wig, her face a mask of rice powder and rouge, her nose, ’grew hooked as a harridan’s’ her teeth decayed and blackened. What age had ravaged Elizabeth tried to conceal by the sheer magnificence of her wardrobe.

The harsh maritime environment in which she operated had left its imprint on Grace O’Malley. Unlike Elizabeth, the furrows, wrinkles and scars of age, salt spray, wind and military action lay exposed for all to see. To have survived the Atlantic Ocean, as much as the battlefield, her courage, leadership and stamina were unquestionable. In her sixties, her physique tended towards, what one acquaintance observed, a ’stoutness of person’. Her dress, while undoubtedly the best in her wardrobe, could hardly compete with the opulence of the Queen.

Tradition holds that Elizabeth and Grace conducted their conversation in Latin. However, both from her own correspondence and from the observations of the many English administrators and military men in Ireland who came in contact with her, it is evident that Grace both understood and spoke English.

Intrigued and subsequently amazed by this woman who, unlike herself, personally led her army into battle and commanded her ships at sea, was twice married, once divorced, had taken a lover and was the mother of four children, with a mixture of compassion and admiration, the Queen listened as Grace outlined her list of grievances against Elizabeth's own governor. The correspondence emanating from the meeting confirms, as Grace attested ’the clemencie and favour’ she received from the Queen who ordered the release of Grace’s son and restored him to his lands. She also gave her royal assent that Grace could continue her career, which she euphemistically described as ’maintenance by land and sea’ without due let or hindrance.

Such is the impact the Irish ’Queen’ made at the court of Queen Elizabeth I that in a new map of Ireland compiled by the queen's cartographer shortly after her visit there her name, written as 'Grany O'Maly figures prominently, the only woman listed among the otherwise all-male chieftains.

While folklore claims that Grace refused the title Countess from the Queen, on the basis that one queen could not ennoble another, her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I paved the way for the Anglicisation of her descendants over the following centuries.

In 1627 her son Tibbott Bourke, for whose life she had risked her own, was created Viscount Mayo. Her great-great-great grand-daughters were Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, immortalised as the ’Gorgeous Gunnings’ from Castlecoote, county Roscommon. In the eighteenth century Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and her sister Elizabeth the 6th Duke of Hamilton and secondly the 5th Duke of Argyle. Another of her descendents, Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo from Westport House, a grandson of the famous British Admiral Richard Howe, became known as the ’emancipator of the slaves’ during his tenure as Governor General of Jamaica in the nineteenth century.

In August 1979, with tragic historic perversity, the Honourable Nicholas Brabourne, a 14th great-grandson in descent from Grace O’Malley and also a grandson of Queen Elizabeth II's uncle-in-law, Lord Mountbatten, with his grandfather, grandmother and young friend, was killed by an Irish terrorist bomb off Mulloughmore, County Sligo, in the same waters once traversed by his famous Irish ancestor.

And so when Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese come face-to-face perhaps somewhere in the ether of history their meeting will be observed by their famous predecessors, Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I, who might well exchange a knowing glance intimating - done that, worn the tee shirt!

© Anne Chambers 2011

Author: GRANUAILE: GRACE O’MALLEY - IRELAND’S PIRATE QUEEN www.graceomalley-annechambers.com

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