Gerald Fitzgerald was the powerful 9th Lord of Kildare, located in The Pale of Ireland. He had a rocky relationship with King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547), and was sometimes in the English king’s good graces, but at other times under suspicion or even under arrest. In 1534, Henry VIII ordered Gerald to report to London, where he would answer further questions about his loyalty. Gerald deputized his son, Thomas Fitzgerald, as the acting Earl of Kildare, then ventured to London to meet the king’s summons. Upon Gerald’s arrival in the capital, Henry VIII must not have been impressed with what he heard, for Lord Fitzgerald was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
When word reached back to Ireland that Gerald Fitzgerald had been imprisoned, many Irishmen expected the worst—after all, Henry VIII remains notorious for his many executions. Of the many concerned Irishmen, Gerald’s son, Thomas, was the most outraged.
After hearing about the imprisonment of his father, Thomas Fitzgerald declared war on Henry VIII. He managed to rally a major rebellion under his leadership, profiting from the anti-Protestant sentiment among the Catholic Irish. Thomas Fitzgerald hoped that the Catholic nature of his rebellion would entice the Scots and the Spanish to aid in his revolt, but foreign help never came. Nevertheless, Thomas was able to deliver considerable damage with his own resources.
Thomas Fitzgerald’s rebellion quickly laid siege to the major city of Dublin, which was the heart of English authority in Ireland. They succeeded in taking parts of the city, and even managed to kill the archbishop of Dublin, John Alen, but the city was never entirely occupied.
In October, 1534, English reinforcements arrived under William Skeffington to crush the rebellion. Once Skeffington’s men landed and gained a foothold, the rebellion was defeated with ease. By March of 1535, the rebels were pushed out of Dublin and slowly pressed back into the Fitzgerald territory of Kildare. Thomas Fitzgerald and his rebels made a final stand at Maynooth Castle, but by August, 1535, they were forced to surrender.
With the end of the rebellion, Fitzgerald power in Ireland virtually came to an end. Gerald Fitzgerald died of ill health in 1534, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. His son, Thomas Fitzgerald, despite being given a promise of mercy, was executed (along with five of his uncles) after the rebellion was crushed. After the mass execution of the Fitzgerald men, the leadership of the family passed to a young boy, also named Gerald Fitzgerald (11th Earl of Kildare), who was smuggled out of Ireland. He managed to stay alive until Queen Mary I restored him to power after the death of King Henry VIII.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Ireland: A Short History (Third Edition) by Joseph Coohill. London: Oneworld Publications, 2008.
Ah, the impetuous Silken Thomas; you've rolled back the years for me.