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Silken Thomas

Thomas Fitzgerald, born in London in 1513, hailed from noble lineage as the son of Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, and Elizabeth Zouche, a distant cousin of Henry VII. Following his mother’s passing, Thomas was raised under the care of Janet Eustace, the wife of his father’s steward. Despite scant details about his early years, historical records shed light on significant events that shaped his life. Thomas spent a considerable period at the English court and eventually entered into matrimony with Frances, the youngest daughter of Sir Adrian Fortescue. The timing of their marriage remains unclear, whether preceding or succeeding his father’s return to Ireland in August 1530.

The turning point in Thomas’s life came in February 1534 when his father was summoned to London, leaving him as the deputy governor of Ireland. However, distressing rumours soon reached Thomas, suggesting his father’s execution at the Tower of London and hinting at similar peril for himself and his uncles at the hands of the English government.

In defiance, Thomas took a bold stand against English authority. Gathering 140 armoured gallowglasses, adorned with silk fringes on their helmets (from which Thomas derived his nickname), he marched to St. Mary’s Abbey in Dublin on 11 June 1534. There, he publicly renounced his allegiance to his cousin, King Henry VIII of Ireland.

Despite counsel from Chancellor Archbishop John Alen to reconsider his actions, Thomas remained resolute. His harper, communicating solely in Irish and sensing wavering resolve in Thomas, recited verses extolling the valour of his ancestors, urging him to act decisively. Stirred by this reminder of his lineage, Thomas cast down the sword of state and departed the hall, followed by his loyal supporters.

The rebellion escalated as Thomas seized control of strategic fortresses within the Pale and declared goods belonging to the English crown forfeited. He sought alliances, even extending a proposition to Lord Butler to share rulership of the kingdom. However, his attempt to capture Dublin Castle met with defeat, eroding support, particularly from the clergy, after his suspected involvement in the death of Archbishop Alen.

Retreating to Maynooth Castle, Thomas found himself besieged by English forces led by Sir William Skeffington in March 1535. Despite his expectation of widespread support, his cause faltered, and he eventually surrendered to Lord Leonard Grey in July of the same year. Legend has it that Thomas played a haunting melody under the boughs of the Silken Thomas Yew, Ireland’s oldest planted tree, before submitting to Grey.

Subsequently, Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower of London in October 1535. Despite earlier assurances of safety, he and his uncles were executed in 1537. The Attainder of the Earl of Kildare Act 1536 facilitated their execution and the confiscation of their property.

The repercussions of Thomas’s revolt reverberated beyond his demise. Henry VIII, compelled to address the unrest in Ireland, eventually established the Kingdom of Ireland in 1542. This marked a significant shift in governance, with measures such as curbing the powers of lords deputy and introducing policies like surrender and regrant. Additionally, the Royal Irish Army was instituted to ensure greater stability in the region.

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  • more of a ‘force for good’

  • Less of a ‘force for good’


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