In a series of three seperate earlier posts, we’ve looked at the history of Dublin’s cathedral of Saint Patrick’s, from the early Christaina era, in one post, to the Viking ear in another, and finally to the Anglo-Normans, and “the story of the two cathedrals”.
It’s all a long, immense, complex web of religious and civil politics, spanning from early “Celtic era” saints, to Viking warriors; from Plantagenet kings to Norman archbishops. Congratulations to those who managed to follow the story, in all its machinations, twists and turns so far!
Today, we’re going to have a look at the famous Boyle memorial, an enormous, commemorative sculpture, commissioned by Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, in memory of his beloved second wife Katherine.
Where is it? Well, let’s imagine we’ve just walked into the cathedral, through that double porch from the bending lane known as St Patrick’s Close. Just through the second, inner door, we look first to our right, where the great nave of the cathedral opens up, (below) its looming vaults soaring overhead. Between the columns we can catch glimpses, of tombs, statues and memorials, of arches and stained glass. Naturally we are eager to see them all. We shall be traveling that way soon, I promise, in future posts. There are scores of treasures and stories here to enjoy.
But today we’ll look in the other direction. Because before we blunder into these great spaces, and maybe miss something, while we are still by the doorway, we first take a look hard left. Over there we spy an enormous monument. Our curiosity piqued, we saunter over to the subject today’s post, the superb, massive multi-layered mid-17th century Boyle memorial, carved in wood.
This vast memorial was commissioned by Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, to commemorate himsefl and his second wife Katherine, the mother of his fifteen children. He and her are depicted on it, along with various other members of their large family. The figures of the earl and his wife lie in recline at the centre of the memorial, inside the recessed space, you can just make out his face in the niche below. The piece has much to tell us about the man who commissioned it, and the turbulent, often violent politics and conflicts of late 16th and early to mid-17th century Ireland.
The sculptor was Edmond Tingham, whose workshops were in Chapelizzod, on the western reaches of the banks of the Liffey, west past the gates of Phoenix Park, for those who know or have visited Dublin.
In Italy or France, this work would probably be in marble. But here it is in wood. The artistry is perhaps not stunning by French or Italian standards, but personally I somehow prefer these works of the Northern Renaissance.
But is the piece even Renaissance? Well, yes and no. By date perhaps, yes. And there’s no doubt either that Tingham would have been partially aware of some developments in the great world beyond Irish shores. But – if you’ve read my Egyptian piece “Ripples of History” – you’ll know the Renaissance came late to Ireland. So, even though this work dates from the 1600s, it is still carved and conceived in an almost medieval mindset and sensibility. Ireland in the late Renaissance was a new developing colonial outpost, carved out through guile, grit and blood by ambitious men. Men like Richard Boyle.
Boyle’s memorial to his wife may lack the sophisticated art, anatomical knowledge and learned polish of continental artworks from the era. The figures are stout and homely. It may look clunky, even naïve to some eyes. But strangely perhaps, I almost prefer such works these days. One gets jaded with too much sophistication! Besides, there is plenty of gritty history here.
Nor does the work lack vigour, in its strong composition, its power, vivid colour sheer bulk and immensity. Indeed by all accounts it reflects the character of its patron, Richard Boyle, earl of Cork, scion of an old family perhaps but a ruthless self-made man as well, a land-holding magnate, a fighting warrior type, and sire of an immense brood.
I read quite a lot of late 16th and early 17th century history. But even the most cursory glance at Wikipedia will tell you what an extraordinary man Boyle was and the dangerous and turbulent times he lived thorough and somehow managed to not just survive in, but to prosper.
He was born in Kent in England. There he attended the local famous school, the King’s school at Canterbury. Curiously he not only attended this school, at the same time, but later attended the same college (Corpus Christi) at Cambridge University as Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright, poet, and spy,
Marlowe was author of Tamburlaine; Edward II, and, of course; Doctor Faustus, and a contemporary and literary rival of Shakespeare, who greatly respected him. (Marlowe was a more educated man, especially in the classics)
However Marlowe met an early, violent death in very mysterious circumstances. He was stabbed in 1593, in a pub in Deptford. At the same time as the Star Chamber, the highest authority in the land, was looking for him. Marlowe’s early and murky death undoubtedly cleared the stage for Shakespeare, who duly inherited Marlowe’s mantle as England’s pre-eminent dramatist and tragedian.
It was this same shady, ruthless, often bloody world of ambition, politics and intrigue that Richard Boyle now entered and embraced. If you think modern politics are “cut throat” well, hold on to your seat. There will be blood.
After Cambridge, Boyle went on study law at London’s Middle Temple. Then he made his way to Ireland, just one of many Elizabethan-era, “new-English” adventurers to seek his fortune there. For non-Irish readers, “New English” is our Irish term for this new, protestant generation of Elizabethan and Jacobean English, (in contrast to the Anglo-Norman era, Catholic “old English”)
There would be plenty of politics, intrigue, violence and real-life adventure in Boyle’s career. He probably married his first wife -Joan Apsley for wealth. It worked to get him started, gaining him estates, income and valuable connections. After her death, and in sharp contrast, he almost certainly married his second wife Katherine Fenton, for love, if reports, the size of her memorial here in Saint Patrick’s, or indeed of their vast brood are anything to go by.
Boyle was criticized for the perceived cynicism and opportunism of his first marriage. In fact, in general Boyle clearly alienated many of his New-English contemporaries in Ireland. Several highly placed officials did their best to convict him on various charges and he was briefly imprisoned at least once. Most seriously, he was even accused of colluding with England’s Spanish enemies. In this age of the Armada and religious war, this was an extremely dangerous charge. If substantiated, it certainly would have seen Boyle beheaded for treason. Much of Catholic Europe loathed Elizabeth, while Protestant zelots and loyal allies, like her spy master Sir Francis Walsingham, were equally prepared to do anything to protect her from threat, or assassination, or England from invasion.
Boyle planned a return to London, to justify himself to the Queen or her representatives and clear his name. But events in Ireland would intervene first. Ireland at this time was a pot of simmering ethnic and religious tensions, stoked to boiling point by locals’ land losses to the early plantations, just getting started in earnest, especially of course in Ulster, but also in tracts of Munster, where Boyle’s own estates around Cork and Bandon were a case in point.
A brief digression here about this generation of colonial English and Scots adventurers in Ireland. You (we) may not like them but their exploits were extraordinary. From the mostly English plantation-generation in Munster alone, we have Boyle, a bit later Sir William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) and Sir Walter Raleigh, (the explorer and buccaneer who went to the new world and apparently brought back some odd discoveries from there.
Unfortunately, Raleigh’s New World finds did not catch on. (Who remembers or has really heard of “tobacco” now? Or for that matter that forgotten strange ground-growing vegetable reportedly called “the potato”?)
It was Raleigh’s estates, incidentally, that Boyle bought in County Cork. Boyle had to build or maintain 13 castles, to defend the territories. It was that sort of world.
For students of English literature, the poet Edmund Spenser – author of The Fairie Queen– was also in Munster around this same time, as a civil servant in the colonial administrator. Oh, and Boyle earl of Cork’s own son, Robert Boyle, is recognized as the father of modern Chemistry. Among other feats, he’s the author of Boyles Law of Gasses. (It is quite likely, that the small figure of the youngest child on the memorial, in the photo above, depicts Robert as a boy.)
The predominantly Presbyterian Scots-Ulster planters in the northeast were equally prolific to their Munster counterparts. Several ventured further to the New World and by the mid-19th Century, a sizable number of American Presidents (e.g. Andrew Jackson; James Knox Polk; James Buchanan) were of Scots-Ulster decent. Anyhow, here ends today’s obligatory digression!
Whatever their later exploits and distinctions, the circumstances for such planter types Ireland, no matter how ruthless and determined, did not look promising in late 16th and early 17th century. Local resentments soon turned into open insurrection. Gaelic rebellion in Munster soon laid waste to Boyle’s estates around Cork. Without the necessary funds Boyle was temporarily unable to travel to London to clear his name.
A while later however the exact same antagonism and accusations forced him to London, where he returned briefly to legal practice to gain some income. But at this same period in London, Boyle was touched by the world of very high politics, as he was taken into the services of the earl of Essex.
Essex, the handsome and courtly Robert Devereux, was famously Elizabeth’s favourite (remember Bette Davis and Erol Flynn in the old classic, absurdly rosy, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex?)
In real life Essex was a far more complex and probably far darker character. He had served well in his early military career in the Netherlands. Now he courted and flattered the elderly queen, for his own ends and ambitions. She liked his looks and easy charm. The queen’s favour brought him a far more senior command in the campaign in Ireland, where he would fare far less well.
Meanwhile back in the late 1590s in England, even in London, and even with this powerful new patron, Boyle still seemed surrounded by enemies, including some within the frightening “Star Chamber” which was to sit in judgment of him, (as they had intended to do with his old school contemporary Marlowe.)
Boyle’s prospects did not look good. But he escaped this trap when he somehow managed to have the Queen Elizabeth herself present. He then managed to convince her of his innocence, his loyalty and his worth.
Even better, she granted him a commission in Ireland. Soon Richard Boyle was back was back in Ireland, exonerated, untouchable for the time being, annoying people and generally throwing his weight around, and soon, heavily involved in the 9-Year War.
Yes, various small acts of local simmering resentment and hostility towards the pushy English outsiders, had now turned into a full-scale war.
This, the famous 9-Year War was the last great push of Gaelic Ireland, against the English and their hated Plantations.
The leader and figurehead in all this was the massive figure of Hugh O’Neil. He- the Great O’Neill, was the most powerful Gaelic Lord in Ulster. In the English system O’Neill was earl of Tyrone but -far, far more importantly in the ancient Irish system, he was the O’Neil – a de facto title in the old Irish clan system. And O’Neill, having long played with the English, was now fiercely resisting them.
O’Neill (portraits above and below) had accepted titles and had given his (feudal-style) submission to Elizabeth, in return for guarantee of his lands, under the Tudor system known as “surrender and re-grant”. But O’Neill was not impressed with an English-style title like the earl of Tyrconnell. He hardly considered himself some ordinary, petty baron. He came from kings, from the great and ancient Sept of the O’Neills, who had been high Kings of Ireland for time immemorial.
He treated, and was treated, as a Prince in the states of Europe. Most of all, deep down, O’Neill did not like these vulgar, nouveau riche newcomers coming in and grabbing land from his neighbours. His whole people, his entire culture and history, looked to him for leadership.
His distant kinsman and ally, the earl of O’Donnell, from the neighbouring Gaelic O’Donnell kingdom in Donnegal, and also the powerful Maguire clan, felt much the same way. Before too long they stopped playing games and pretending to like the English. They were soon in open rebellion.
Dangerously, treasonably and very frighteningly from an English perspective, they were also courting an alliance with London’s mortal Spanish enemies,
Specifically they courted the king of Spain, the arch-devout-catholic monarch of Europe, Phillip III of Spain, (above) a powerful monarch with vast resources as his domains included Spain itself; Austria, the highly developed Netherlands, and the Philippines, as well as the vast resources of gold and silver-rich South America.
But even prior to the arrival Spanish assistance, things in Ireland for the English in the Nine Year War were going from bad to worse. Hugh O’Neill and his allies already defeated several English armies sent to tame him. In March 1595, he made light work of the army of Henry Bagnel, routing it at the Battle of Clonibert in County Monaghan.
Then an enormous Gunpowder explosion ripped apart the centre of Dublin in 1597, destroying the city centre and obliterating scores of people. Then in August 1598, O’Neill destroyed a second army, killing 2000 English soldiers at the Battle of Yellow Ford.
It was now obvious to London many more men and resources, and vast amounts of money needed to be thrown into the fight in Ireland if the crown was to Prevail.
At this stage, 1599, Boyle’s patron, the ever-ambitious earl of Essex, talked himself into the job in Ireland, as Lord Luietentant and military commander of crown forces. But, even equipped with 16-17,000 men (a very large force then) Essex did not do much better. From an english standpoint, he wasted time and men in expeditions south of Dublin, instead of marching to in Ulster to confront O’Neill directly.
When Essex did finally attempt to face O’Neill, he’d lost so many men to dysentery that he was forced into signing a compromise treaty that many in England would regard as a failure or even a humiliation for the crown.
Essex then returned to England. He did this without permission, effectively abandoning his post, and so was promptly put on trial. He was partly exonerated but never regained his power and influence at court. He was also stripped of the trade monopoly (for sweet wine apparently) and thus the income necessary to support his lavish lifestyle.
This humiliation, allied to his relentless ambition, later led Essex to the extreme desperation of trying to to lead what seems to be some sort of badly-organized coup. It quickly spluttered out, failing miserably. Essex was tried a second time. This time there was no reprieve. He was convicted by a jury of his peers and duly lost his head on the block, the last-ever person be executed at the Tower of London.
But by now the English had ther things on their moind. Now came the news they’d been dreading. The Spanish now sent military help to assist O’Neill. Their ships lay at anchor off Kinsale, in Co. Cork, (hard by Richard Boyle’s estates of course.
This was another Armada in its way, and almost as dangerous to England. The O’Neill and O’Donnell forces now made the long, hard march south to join forces with the Spanish and make common cause with their catholic allies to destroy the English and their colony in Ireland. But it was a long and difficult march. It gave the English, travvelling from Dublin, time to reach Kinsale first. This little map below shows the route taken by the O’Donnell army from Donnegal.
The English, with the new commander Mountjoy, rushed south to meet this joint menace. They reached the south cruvcially before the Gaelic army from Ulster. The English and Montjoy now besieged the town of Kinsale, which the Spanish forces had occupied and done their best to fortify.
When the Gaelic armies arrived, muddy and exhausted, the two sides clashed at the battle of Kinsale. Even when the O’Neills and their allies arrived they could not link up with teh Spanish, and were themslves exhausted and far from their Ulster territory and powerbase. Ultimately the English managed to prevail, and the besieged Spanish survivors surrendered.
I have read that Boyle himself able to deliver this news to Elizabeth. If so, it would have been breathless news to deliver. This was a pivotal moment in British and Irish history. True, there would be later heaves against England in the Confederate war and Cromwellian period, and again in the Williamite War. But these would by confederations of Old English type Irish and Gaelic Irish, as uncomfortable and mutually supsicous allies and often with teh gaels as “junior partners” The 9-Year war was the last great push by Gaelic Ireland, acting alone to oust the English. And they had lost.
There was no doubting who was now in the ascendancy. The colony and protestant interest in Ireland was preserved for the foreseeable future.
In sharp contrast, Gaelic Ireland was spent force. O’Neill, and O’Donnell, did hang on a while longer. But now they could not even adequately defend their own territory, as the English rampaged through Ulster. The Irish Nine Year war was all but over. Within a few years the great Ulster earls, increasingly hemmed in and under ever-greater pressure, were forced to give up, They, with their close kin and retainers, all set sail, for exile in Spain, an event known as the Flight of the earls.
As noted there would be one more, last final heave for the remnants of aristocratic, Gaelic, catholic Ireland later, towards the end of the 17th century, called the Williamite-Jacobite war. But I’ll tell you all about that some other day, later on our tour of the cathedral.
And what of Richard Boyle? With his lands around Cork, Kinsale and Bandon safe, the Plantations accelerating, his Cork estates finally secured, and the Gaelic menace seen off, that seems to end the first, eventful chapter of Richard Boyle’s life. But there was plenty more drama and conflict to come.
Elizabeth, “the virgin queen” died soon after the battle of Kinsale. She childless of course so was succeeded by the first Stuart monarch James I of England (also James VI of Scotland) James continued the hated policy of Plantation.
Tough old Richard Boyle outlived both Elizabeth and James. James was succeeded by his son, Charles I. ( Portrayed in the image below, painted by the Flemish master, Sir Anthony Van Dyck).
here begins another belligerent chapter in old Richard Boyle’s pugnacious career.
Boyle’s political struggles would continue under this new realm, Charles I was the third monarch Boyle lived under. Life was not really about to get any quieter.
Boyle was of course first earl of Cork. The earl, often reckoned to be the richest man in Britain and Ireland at this point, had a high notion of himself. Bizarrely his huge wooden memorial to himself and his wife once stood directly behind the altar!
It was moved to its current location on the insistence of the earl’s arch political enemy, from this later stage of colourful career. This was Thomas Wentworth, earl of Stafford (1593-1641).
Wentworth/Stafford was King Charles’ Viceroy in Ireland, a determined, ambitious and driven man. Stafford and the archbishop of Dublin Laud both despised Richard Boyle earl of Cork. Both were delighted to have his memorial moved from behind the altar to a less glamorous location near the West door. Obviously this was a symbolic gesture, meant to humiliate the earl, but there were also far higher stakes at play.
Stafford was determined to force through reforms in Ireland. He was harsh and unpopular in Ireland but he served Charles loyally and well, doubling customs duty, getting rid of piracy and raising an army .
Feeling secure in his position, he was not afraid to trample on local sensibilities either. The earl of Cork was just one of many powerful enemies Stafford made, both in Ireland and back in London, where the restive Puritans and parliamentarians also cordially loathed him.
Boyle, predictably, was instrumental in Stafford’s bloody downfall, testifying at his trial when he was finally abandoned by his royal master and thrown to the wolves. Stafford was duly impeached in front of a vengeful parliamentarian.
The Boyle family incidentally, never forgave the Cathedral for allowing of their memorial to be moved. I’ve even read that even over a hundred years later, they refused to help pay for any restoration work, unless it was restored to its original position! It never has been moved.
But Stafford fared far worse. Having flown very high as Viceroy and as favourite and key advisor to Charles, he was later cynically, cravenly abandoned. After much heart ache and brest beating, Charles sacrificed his loyal Viceroy. Wentworth was tried and impeached by the Parliamentarians. He was beheaded in 1641.
Charles’ cynical sense of self-preservation and expediency did not save him in the long run. England was slipping ever closer to civil war. Charles lost the war.
He himself was tried and impeached, and famously lost his royal head, in that extraordinary, unthinkable act, of regicide, at Whitehall, in January 1649.
Boyle had died a few years earlier, in 1643. At the time, he had even gone to England, having temporarily lost his lands, in the Irish Rebellion of 1641, one of many upheavals in this most bloody and endlessly complex era of Irish history, and all tied up with the equally complex series of bitter rolling inter-related conflicts in England, Ireland and Scotland.
But Richard Boyle, that thrusting dynastic-minded opportunist, that vulgar political pugilist, that grabber of lands and favour, sometimes called “the first colonial millionaire” and “archetypal adventurer” would have pleased to learn of events after his death.
He claimed to have founded the town of Bandon, a blatant lie, but he did import the iron works there and import and establish also the colony of settlers there over from England. To this day there is a protestant community in pockets of Cork, and most notably in Bandon. The church of Ireland (Anglican) Bandon Grammar School is still thriving, founded 1641 by the earl of Cork.
40 years after the Battle of Kinsale, when Ireland had seemed pacified or at least subdued, trouble erupted again, with the bloody Irish rebellion in 1641. Bitter fighting would continue over the next 12 years, and perhaps a third of the population would perish in that period- a story we shall tell in the next post. But Boyle would have pleased by one thing at least. As the initial stages of the local part of the rebellion was put down, with the vigorous actions of his sons, they regained the family’s Munster estates within a few short years.
The family have this vast wooden behemoth to the memory of their kin here in the cathedral. In a place where Archbishops, Field Marshalls and Dukes are all interred, it is still the largest memorial in Saint Patrick’s.
Rumour says they still won’t contribute to its upkeep!
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