The not-so-great and (definitely) not-so-good: Humphrey Gilbert

There are a number of candidates to stand alongside Cromwell in Irish demonology. Not all of them have to be English, but such is a helpful indicator.

GilbertMy personal nomination would be Humphrey Gilbert, who had a passing mention in JohnD66‘s fine headline post for the politics.ie thread, which is where this began.

Pretty well the whole of our knowledge of Gilbert’s beginnings comes from John Hooker of Exeter. Gilbert’s parents (Otto Gilbert, from Compton, and Katherine Champernoun of Modbury) were both south Devon gentry. On Otto’s death (1547), the widow remarried Walter Raleigh, of similar background. So Humphrey Gilbert was (Sir) Walter Raleigh’s half-brother, and early patron.

Gilbert followed the usual progress of a “New Man” of the Tudor era: Eton and Oxford, and a place in Princess Elizabeth’s service (it helps if your aunt, Kate Astley, has been the princess’s governess). Then a bit of law at the Inns of Court, next a bit of military service: the shambles that was the Earl of Warwick’s Newhaven expedition to support the Huguenots. Gilbert came out of this well.

Gilbert built on this new fame and devised a hare-brained scheme to seek the North-West Passage. This would be done under the auspices of the Muscovy Company, which is why it all fell through. He was already advocating this project as a way of:

  • damaging Spanish and Portuguese interests in the New World;
  • “planting” the Americas with the dross of English society (vagrancy and the rootless poor were a major issue in Elizabeth’s England). An indicator of what was to come.

Irish interest in Gilbert stems from 1566, when Gilbert served as a captain under Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy, in the campaign against Shane O’Neill. That seems to have come through the Champernoun connexion: these Devon-men scratched each other’s backs. Gilbert then became the emissary between Sidney and London, and was already adapting the American plantation scheme to Ireland, both for Ulster and with Sir Warham St Leger for Munster. The Fitzgerald and Butler risings of 1569 put these plans into abeyance.

In September 1569 Gilbert was made colonel of the army in Munster, and so became the military governor with powers of martial law, riding rough-shod over any niceties of municipal or personal rights. He had a disciplined force of just 500 men, but it was enough to suppress Munster in six weeks. Only James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald eluded him. His own letters, and the 1579 account by Thomas Churchyard, splatter the episode with blood (I’m unconvinced we should treat either source as gospel).

What cannot be in doubt is that the whole campaign, and Gilbert’s part in particular, was “shock and awe”. Gilbert refused to deal with the rebels, except face-to-face, then he required total submission, an oath of loyalty to the Queen, and bankable pledges of future good behaviour. The story of the decapitated heads is straight Churchyard:

 His manner was that the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies, and brought to the place where he encamped at night: and should there be laid on the ground, by each side of the way leading into his own Tent: so that none could come into his Tent for any cause, but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads, which he used ad terrorem, the dead feeling nothing the more pains thereby: and yet did it bring great terror to the people, when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they came to speak with the said Colonel. Which course of government may by some be thought to cruel, in excuse whereof it is to be answered: That he did but then begin that order with them, which they had in effect ever to fore used toward the English. And further he was out of doubt, that the dead felt no pains by cutting of their heads, according to the example of Diogenes, who being asked by his friends, what should be done with him when he died, answered in this sort: Caste me on a dunghill quoth he, where unto his friends replied, saying: The Dogs will then eat you, his answer thereto was thus why then set a staff by me: Whereunto they answered, you shall not feel them, to whom he again replied with these words, what need I then to care.

But certainly by this course of government (although to some it may seem otherwise) there was much blood saved, and great peace ensued in haste. For through the terror, which the people conceived thereby, it made short wars.

With that, Gilbert was knighted by Sidney at Drogheda, returned to England, had himself elected to parliament, married an heiress, and devoted himself to maritime adventures.

In the Irish context, we meet him again in 1578, commissioned to patrol the southern coast of Ireland against James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald’s expected return, with Spanish aid. Gilbert muffed it, was blown south into the Bay of Biscay, and Desmond slipped past into Dingle. From the outset, this was fraught with “issues”: Gilbert quarrelled with Henry Knollys, who was supposed to be his fellow in the venture, and Knollys went off with three ships, to leave Gilbert to it. This operation went further sour when Gilbert failed to pay his crews, and two ships simply offed. Gilbert got himself into a further mess, by trying to sell off some of his patent rights to recoup his losses (already around £2000). Gilbert’s favour at Court thereafter was definitely in doubt.

More to the point, on 11 June 1578, Gilbert had received letters patent to search out remote heathen and barbarous landes, for a personal and eternal fiefdom, and plant them. This would occupy the rest of his life, particularly so after in 1581. On the dismissal of Ormond, he failed to get the presidency of Munster he expected. There is a plaque at St John’s, Newfoundland, celebrating Gilbert’s landing, and identifying him as the founder of the English/British empire.

The plantation of Munster, conceived by Gilbert in the 1560s, came about inn the later 1580s, schemed by Burghley, attempted by Sir John Perrot (an illegitimate son of Henry VIII?), then enforced by the likes of Walter Raleigh (in Waterford and east Cork), by William Courtney and Henry Oughted (in Limerick), and Valentine Browne (in Kerry).

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Filed under County Cork, History, Ireland

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