Henry IV of France, regarded as one of France’s greatest leaders, looks for way to bring peace and unity to his divided country, while England and Spain trade blows. And the story of Grainne Ni Mhaille, aka Grace O’Malley.
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Alors messieurs mesdames
Paris vaut bien une messe
I would figure this must be one of the most famous lines in French history, second only to ‘deux croissant, un café au lait et une gitane s’il vous plait’, am I wrong? Paris is well worth a mass. Obviously, there’s a full and frank exchange of views over beer and sandwiches about whether or not he actually said the words, but hey, it’s the sentiment that counts I guess. Henry’s declaration of July 1593 might be seen as a cynical grab for power, a betrayal of the Huguenot cause for which he had fought for so long; but it seems well attested that Henry agonised over the decision, and that very influential in his choice was his lover and confidente, Gabrielle D’Estrees. It has to be said that despite being a married man, Henry IV was rather subject to a wandering eye, and indeed was subject to a wandering of many other organs; his list of mistresses has hit 56. But Gabrielle’s relationship with him was something special; she had been Henry’s constant companion during the wars albeit that she was Catholic, sharing his daily dangers; it was her view that peace could not come to France while its king was protestant; and who is to say she was wrong? The Huguenots were a powerful movement in France, over a million people probably – but still that was but 10% of the population. Whether cynical or not, and however strong one’s identification with the cause of Protestantism might or might not be – this had to be the right decision. Because after Henry was finally crowned as the new Catholic King of France in February 1594, his conversion having finally won him access to Paris, it brought to an end the civil wars that had racked its citizens and caused untold death and destruction for over 50 years. I was interested to learn, just to land you in a digression within a digression, that technically Henry of Navarre could not in fact convert; because he had been baptised a catholic, and in turning to Protestantism he was therefore apostate and could not try a second time. So when he appealed to the pope for his Catholic membership card, Phillip’s Spanish representatives tried to fight it, which is unfriendly, and – was it bright? Fortunately Clement VIII had a brain, and gave the dispensation required.
Now don’t for a moment imagine that with one wave of the royal sceptre all discord was banished from France, good lord not a bit of it mes amis. Catholics deeply resented any suggestion that Protestants should be good for anything other than target practice, and the Huguenots keenly felt their second class status, and seeing their leader changing his spots must have been utterly gutting – I’d certainly have burned my membership card on the steps of the Hotel de Ville. But in the Edict of Nantes in 1598 Henry would make a brave attempt to enforce toleration, though in a format that rather emphasised separation – Protestants had full civil rights, the right to safe havens such as the City of La Rochelle which they could fortify. Although Catholicism remained the state religion, unlike in England and Ireland, Catholics were not disbarred from public office. It is not Henry IV’s fault that this brave attempt at toleration would fail, it would rather be the fault of the absolutism and nation building of Louis XIV.
I realise I am drifting into what might now be called a history of France, but its deeply relevant to England. The English had an indication from their agents that this might happen; remember that an English contingent under John Norris had been fighting continuously alongside the French. When it happened, Elizabeth professed herself to be appalled. She wrote to Henry, a letter from which a certain element of peeve peeks out:
Ah what griefs, what regrets, O what groanings felt I in my soul at the sound of such news as Morlains has told me! My God is it possible that any worldly respect should efface the terror with which the fear of God threatens us? Can we with any reason expect a good sequel from an act so iniquitous? 
This is classic Elizabeth. The outrage, on a personal level may well have been heartfelt; after all, Elizabeth could have taken this way out in 1559 but chose not to do so. But she understood; and she understood also that this didn’t really change anything as far as the focus of English policy was concerned; the enemy was still Spain. Her ally France would be strengthened in the battle against that enemy, and while the Spanish were still in France, the alliance would continue. For Henry IV, he could now use that most ancient of techniques to unify a nation and distract them from their own problems and divisions – he could play the external enemy card,
We are all Frenchman and fellow citizens of the same fatherland; thus we must join together in reason and new kindness and renounce that severity and cruelty which only serve to inflame men
I don’t know how much we’ll return to Henry IV, so it might be worth noting that his reputation stands high as one of the greatest of France’s monarchs, and the hatred directed at him at the start of his reign had turned to love by the end of it; but none the less, he would also be assassinated, like his predecessor, by a Catholic fanatic, in 1610.
For the moment England remained on Team Henry, particularly because the Spanish were in Brittany, landing 4,000 men on a peninsula and constructing a fort which dominated the port of Brest and the Brest Roads. For the English this was a source of major panic – such ports made England vulnerable to raids and attacks on the West country – and indeed Spain did duly raid the West country in 1595; and it was therefore with some relief that a joint French and English force finally destroyed the fortress, putting pretty much all the 400 garrison to the sword. By this time then, the English had done their job in France, playing a secondary but significant role in sustaining the French in their hour of maximum danger; now, with the Catholic League in retreat and France uniting behind Henry, English support was less critical. However, cooperation between England, France and the Dutch Republic continued; and the capture of Calais by the Spanish stung Elizabeth into action, since this was another launch pad for Spanish raids – in 1596 the Triple Alliance was signed, though it would prove to be one of the shorter lasting agreements. Interestingly, it is through this alliance that Elizabeth finally recognised the Dutch Republic as a legal entity; it had taken a while.
And what of the war at sea? Well, since 1593 a plan had been gestating on the template of the successes of yesteryear, to be carried out by two of England’s most famous sea dogs, Drake on the 550 ton Defiance and Hawkins on the 600 ton Garland, with a major force ships and men. Surely, they would not fail as they finally sailed for Panama in August 1595, there to seize Nombre de Dios again and use it as a base to seize Spanish treasure fleets. They were given a strict instruction to return within 6 months because a fresh Armada was expected from Spain; the very idea of the expedition returning in 6 months seems wildly optimistic; if the Spanish did come and Drake and Hawkins were needed, then there’d be trouble.
In the Caribbean, though, Drake and Hawkins found life much harder, and the Spanish were forewarned and better prepared. An English attack was repulsed from San Juan, and then further disaster struck when John Hawkins, one of the fathers of the English Navy, but also England’s first slave trader died in November 1595. He also left behind him an institution called Chatham’s Chest, a sort of insurance policy where by 10% of seamans’ wages were kept back for later needs – it was called that because the money was kept in a chest. He also incidentally founded a hospital in Chatham which you can still visit. I was also very interested to learn that John Hawkins’ descendant, Andrew Hawkins knelt in chains in front of a crowd of 25,000 in the Gambia in 2006 to ask forgiveness for his ancestors’ actions in the slave trade, and had his chains symbolically removed by the Gambian Vice President.
Back in 1595 and 6, things got no better for Drake as you ploughed his now lonely furrow; although he managed to capture Nombre de Dios, the Spanish defeated his attempt to cross the isthmus, and in January 1596 Drake died of dysentery, and much against his wishes was buried at sea. His fleet limped home to return by May of the same year, the expedition a failure. And so farewell to Drake from our story; it’s been a pleasure to make his acquaintance once more, and I think we’ve done enough on his historiography so I’ll leave it at that.
Shortly after they returned another English expedition was making its way towards Spain with fire in its heart, this time a massive Armada of 120 ships, so you know, pretty much the same size as the Gran Armada, with 17 provided by the queen, and a contingent from the Dutch Republic – so this was once more an Anglo Dutch enterprise. It had strict orders to do no more than meet the royal objectives, to have no truck with wandering off to do some raiding; Elizabeth and the PC were terrified that new Armada’s were on their way from Spain, either to England or, more likely, to Ireland – and Ireland, after 50 years of cutting up rough, was set to cut up rough once more, so military Spanish expeditions to Ireland were distinctly unpopular with the English. So, the task was to destroy as many Spanish ships as possible to spike the Spanish threat.
This was an expedition for which Essex had been lobbying for some time, desperate to make his mark, and indeed he was part of it, and an approved part this time; but Elizabeth still knew her man and made Lord Howard the commander not Essex. It was, against the run of play, well organised and successful; they focussed on Cadiz and their arrival was a complete surprise. The performance of the English fleet for once lived up to the hype, the Spanish ships in the outer harbour were destroyed and by the end of the campaign 13 warships, 11 Indies ships and numerous smaller craft were destroyed. A landing force carried the town as well, and although our old friend Medina Sidonia arrived – he could do nothing to dislodge the invaders, whose control, discipline and behaviour towards the locals was exemplary, surprisingly. The return for the queen was rather reduced when the Spanish fired 36 of their merchant ships to avoid their capture – but of course the impact on an already strangled Spanish commerce was significant. On their way home Essex insisted on trying to capture the town of Faro in Portugal, popular holiday location these days of course for the English; the expedition wasn’t a great success, but apparently Essex raided the library of Bishop Jerome Osorius of many precious and rare books that would one day find their way to the Bodleian library. Stealing Library books is a fine tradition, obviously.
Once again, the news that a foreign power had captured a major Spanish city with impunity and held it seemingly at their leisure was received with fury and humiliation at Philip’s court, the treasure fleets were severely disrupted for the year, and probably played a part in Philip’s third declaration of bankruptcy. But nonetheless despite the pain, this time Philip was able to strike back with a second armada, as big as the 1588 version, which set off for England in the Autumn of 1596; the situation was pretty desperate – Howard’s ships were unavailable, refitting after their venture. Now this time, the wind really did intervene and help England out of a hole; the 1596 Armada was caught on a lee Shore in a storm on 18th October and lost more than 30 ships. God did indeed, this time, breathe.
The following year 1597 saw a similar pattern; Essex persuaded Elizabeth to launch a great fleet again to prevent the Spanish from launching a new Armada; but this time, Essex was in command, and made something of a Horlicks of the whole thing; battered by storms – obviously not his fault – but once assembled outside Lisbon he decided to wander off to the Azores without any real rationale, and on the assumption that the Spanish could not set sail this year. The Azores thing did not go at all well, but never mind no harm done thought Essex, and wandered back to blighty.
To discover a Queen who was distinctly bitey. Because news had reached England that despite Essex’s breezy optimism, Don Martin de Padilla had sailed with a massive 136 ships and 9,000 troops, with the plan to make a base at Falmouth. Essex was received very coldly indeed by the queen, which is unsurprising. God though, was in a breathy mood again; and he had another go. Just 30 miles from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, the Spanish fleet was hit by a storm, 26 of them sank and the rest fled.
The overall impression is that neither side here were landing a punch; England’s efforts were distinctly hit and miss, and even when a punch landed, as at Cadiz, it hardly threatened to lay the goliath out. Not that there was no impact; trade in Castile and Aragon continued to be strangled, the wealth of Philip’s heartland Castile sucked away; even the fleets were a bit of a mess. I realise this sounds counter intuitive, given they’d launched two Armadas, but Richard Hawkins, a prisoner in Spain was alive to the real situation:
If Spain make a navy, three years is needful to join shipping and those to be bought, embargoed or hired from Flemings, Venetians, Genoese or Argotese. For Spain is utterly without shipping of regard. Of men there is no kingdom that of this day is so poor…of mariners and gunners there is not a ship which is not partly furnished with Flemish and English
Just to add more salt to the wound, Maurice of Nassau was making the Spanish suffer in the low countries, with towns falling in a steady stream. The problem was not necessarily exceptional military prowess on behalf of the Dutch – but the absence of effective opposition. The Spanish armies were over stretched and underfunded, prone to mutiny, and demoralised with the lack of supplies. The Papal legate in Brussels remarked:
We can say this progress of the Protestants stems more from their diligence and energy than from military strength; but even more it stems from the absence of any obstacle
So, what to do? When considering his 3 enemies, England, Spain and France, even Philip could see that the advice of Meatloaf was sound; 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, along with the implication that I am sure was in Mr Loaf’s mind, that 3 out of 3 is sadly unobtainable. Though 3 out of 3 is unobtainable I would suggest as an excellent lyric for a love song if any songwriters are listening. Anyway, one of these enemies would have to go. The low countries were of course Hapsburg so those rebels, and heretical rebels at that, could not be allowed to win. The English were horrid heretics too boot, and anyway a new strategy was becoming available through the activities of one Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone – the prospect of doing the English real damage through Ireland was increasingly shiny. And look – almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Triple Alliance, Henry IV was opening negotiations with the Spanish for a peace. And they talk about perfidious Albion eh? But furthermore, war with France was looking increasingly unattractive; the catholic League had collapsed, the king was now a Catholic so job done, and once more France, Bourbon France now of course rather than Valois France, was looking like a difficult beast to take on. And so on May 2 1598 the Peace of Vervins was signed between France and Spain, and the Dutch and the English were once again left alone. Phillip meanwhile had concluded an agreement with his bankers in February, and the assault on the United Provinces began in earnest once more, with several towns falling in the duchy of Cleves.
Now on 13th September Phillip II died. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to miss the old bugger he’s been around for ages. He died as he’d lived, in a religious fervour; during his last illness he confessed constantly including a 3 day session on one occasion. He was desperate to die fully conscious and his wish was granted as he held and kissed a crucifix to the last moment, until an observer noticed that he
Gave two or three gasps, and his saintly spirit left him to enjoy eternal life
In 1605 one of his advisers looked back and commented
With the dawn of that most happy day…the new king assumed power. He began to govern the greatest empire under the sun because if he had sent letters announcing the news of his father’s death from the point where the sun rises to where it sets, returning to the same place, he would have found his own subjects to receive them anywhere
Through this quote Geoffrey Parker reminds me of what you lot probably know already; that the empire on which the sun never sets was not in fact the British Empire, but the Hapsburg Empire. Good golly Miss Molly. Phillip’s legacy has been much debated; criticism wasn’t slow to come, one commenting caustically of ’30 million wasted in the bogs of Flanders’. Although others were more positive; my impression is that my Bessie Geoff would consider Phillip to have sacrificed the wealth and future of Spain on the altar of his pride, religion and what he describes as ‘messianic imperialism’, but he also notes
Hundreds of people have tried to evaluate the place of Phillip II in history and legend some seeing him as a saint and a hero who deserved a prominent place at God’s right hand, others a sinner and a villain who deserved to rot in hell. 
So, I suppose ‘controversial’ might be the super summary. His successor was his son, Phillip III, called the Pious which is a little worrying since his Dad was pretty pious and didn’t get such a soubriquet – so alarmingly it could be that Phillip III actually managed to take it up a gear, which is impressive. Anyway, if Phillip aimed to match his pops in piety, he also aimed to do the same in terms of messianic imperialism; like a new football manager he aimed to begin his reign with a few wins to keep the board thinking they’d made the right decision, and launched an offensive in the Netherlands. And following in his fathers footsteps, and not realising that in fact Mr Loaf should have sung that 2 out of 2 is also unobtainable, he also launched an Armada destined for Ireland of 100 ships and 25,000 men no less. It got no further that the Azores.
But still, that mention of Ireland means that I must turn at last back to Ireland, because you and I need to talk about the Nine Years War, or Tyrone’s rebellion call it as you will.
Now then, where were we? We’d just done a couple of episodes on Elizabethan Ireland and a bit of a bloodbath it was too, the age of Atrocity as David Edwards calls it. We’d seen the policy of Henry VIII and Cromwell steadily and quite comprehensively running into trouble – that is, the policy of turning Ireland into a version of England. That meant in practice, or in theory, that Gaelic lords would surrender their lands to their new Tudor king, and receive them back as an English lord complete with title; at the same time, an English style administration would be introduced, with the country divided up into shires, with regional councils as applicable and required, and of course the parliament and Irish privy Council. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Sadly of course to succeed the policy would have needed to be implemented with great care and sensitivity, and even then there can have been no certainty of success; at root there lay a very fundamental difference between Gaelic lordship and Landownership and the English model, and many Gaelic lords simply refused to abandon centuries of culture. Some did try, and a few succeeded – the earls of Thomond and Clanricarde for example, and the Earls of Ormonde. But more were pushed into rebellion by gross and brutal English mismanagement, as Ireland become subject to waves of Elizabethan adventurers who abused martial law in an escalating circle of violence between rebels like FitzMaurice and their would be suppressors. Although the English remained committed to the idea of assimilation along the model of progress in Wales which they frequently referenced, plantations and religion and the failure to give Gaelic Irish and the Old English a proper role in government continually frustrated attempts to build the new society. It is worth noting, by the way, that as I believe I may have mentioned that what was happening in Ireland was not unique, it might be seen as part of the 16th century European process of nation forming; France, Spain, Scotland as well as England were trying to standardise administration and harness the potential for raising revenue.
Now, by the time we left the story and the end of the 1580s not all was yet lost possibly perhaps; in particular there remained Ulster; despite the rebellion of Shane O’Neill, Elizabeth and the English government had high hopes that the son of Matthew O’Neill, the Baron of Dungannon, would come up trumps and remain loyal to the English – and as war with Spain sucked England dry of resources it was critical that they did not get embroiled in another round of expensive rebellion, repression and violence.
However, in a piece of dramatic bad planning, we are not going to start the story of Hugh O’Neill until next week, because I thought it might be best to give you an example of what it might be like for an Irish lordly family trying to make a way in Elizabethan Ireland without losing their identity or their heads; it’s not the most tremendously typical example I have to say, because it’s also a very unusual example of a woman’s experience; the woman in question is Grainne Ni Mhaille. I’m also going to tell you this story because one of you out there suggested that I do so; sadly my memory is so rubbish even a Goldfish would despair so I can’t remember who. Sorry about that but whoever you were take a gold pineapple.
So Grainne Ni Mhaille then. Firstly it’s been a bit of a thing finding out a credible story because myth and legend has encrusted her story like barnacles on a boats bottom; so if you are looking for the oracle I have taken it to be Mary O’Dowd in the ODNB. So forgive me if I miss some exciting part of her tale. It may also be significant that we only have English sources for her life, she doesn’t appear in Irish annals, and that might mean that her significance has been overplayed. But look the significance of Grainne as far as I can see, quite apart from how unusual it was for her to assume such a leadership role for a woman at that time, is that her life demonstrates the shoals and eddies and currents a landed family in Elizabethan Ireland had to negotiate; traditional loyalties and turf wars with Gaelic families; the often predatory and off grid behaviour of English supposedly carrying out an impartial administrative role; and the Elizabethan court. Our story so far has been thick with Earls that come a cropper because they make the wrong move at the wrong moment – such as the extinction of the Desmonds for example.
Grainne may have been born around 1530, into the Ni Mhaille family among the green and red of Mayo, just to sneak in a Saw Doctors line, and the family held land on the coast; part of their income lay in taxing the fishermen who wanted to catch off their coast; and for this reason Grainne’s reputation very much includes a piratical, seafaring one; at one stage she would offer the use of her 3 galleys and 200 men to Henry Sidney, the English Deputy; Sidney was duly impressed though did not take her up on the offer. The legend is that when young her father tried to stop her going to sea by saying her hair would get caught in the rigging; so she cut her hair off. Who knows – but it’s all part of the profile of a powerful person who took control of her life and those around her.
We don’t know a lot of Grainne’s early life, although later in her life we’ll see that she could use Latin fluently so it seems as though she was well educated. By the 1540s she was married, to one Donal O’Flaherty – a good marriage because Donal was the tanaiste of the O’Flaherty. They had children – certainly one called Eoghan maybe more; but local warfare claimed her husband when he seems to have been ambushed by a rival family, the Joyces, with whom they’d been struggling for the control of Hen’s Castle. The legend here is that Grainne takes a lover and takes to sea, and gets into a fight with another family the MacMahon who kill her paramour and suffer the consequences at Grainne’s hands.
Still, despite this chaos Grainne is a good catch, and gets married for a second time, to one Richard Burke, heir to the MacWilliam Burke, chief of the Burkes of lower Connaught, co. Mayo, and they have a child, Theobald. But At some point though, she seems to have been imprisoned by the Earl of Desmond, around 1577; It’s not clear why – one theory is that Desmond at the time was still demonstrating his loyalty to the English, and maybe she was framed.
But hey presto, when she’s released she and her husband do a deal with the English, and by 1581, Richard has become the MacWilliam Burke, the head as it were, and by 1581 he was knighted; the background to this is that by this stage Desmond was in rebellion, and the English needed allies. So it’s probably worth doing a bit of summarising; in Grainne’s life, she is negotiating a path between Gaelic and English parties, and at the top of her priorities were the fortunes of her family; at once she has fought with other Gaelic competitors to protect and extend her lands, at others with the English, but from 1581 to 1583 the Ni Mhaille and Burke’s had aligned with the English.
But by 1583, Richard was dead. Now under Gaelic law I am told that while a wife had considerable independent authority while married, once widowed they would come under the authority of a male relative; and indeed Grainne may have begun to favour the English because under Common law widows could keep control of her marriage portion in terms of land. And at this point, when she’s maybe 55 years old in her own words,
‘she gathered together all her own followers and with 1000 head of cows and mares’
and went to live on part of her late husband’s territory in Mayo, where she continued to
‘maintain herself and her people by sea and land
So essentially Grainne was setting herself up as the chief of her people, an exceptional position for a widowed woman, even given the greater political influence of married Gaelic women. Her nemesis though came in the form of the Provincial governor Richard Bingham; it seems that she may have initially tried to get on with Bingham, but this was a man very hard to get on with, who ruled Connacht with hideous brutality – in one assize for example he had 70 of the defendants hanged. But also it’s quite probable than Grainne was playing politics – it’s worth, as always, putting modern nationalistic perceptions firmly aside; Grainne’s primary concern was the success of her family; and her son Theobald was fixing to become the MacWilliam Burke. How he ended up in this position is not clear but it is noteworthy that the Burkes were in revolt against Bingham in both 1586 and 1588; and Bingham was very clear – as far as he was concerned, Grainne was at the heart of these rebellions, he accused her of pulling in Scottish mercenaries to help. And things got personal; her son by her first marriage Eoghan was killed by Bingham’s brother, and Theobald was forced to live with Bingham in pledge for Grainne’s good behaviour.
None the less, rather breathlessly now given the constant ups and downs, by 1591 Theobald was in line to become the MacWilliam Burke – at which point Bingham arrested him. Extraordinarily, Grainne’s response was to travel to London in the summer of 1593 to visit Elizabeth. We have the extraordinary prospect of Grainne and Elizabeth conversing in Latin, because the one spoke no English and the other no Irish. And Grainne cut a deal; she offered her ships and her men in support of the English administration, she claimed that she had ‘procured all her sons, cousins and followers of the Ni Mhaille’ for the English administration. She made a choice again to get the best from her deal – declaring to Elizabeth that she should be given letters patent for her lands, explaining that under Gaelic law she had no right to her husband’s lands, despite having set herself up in Mayo.
Elizabeth was faced with very little practical evidence of Grainne’s involvement in rebellion, except the increasingly choleric explosions of fury from Bingham. So she accepted Grainne’s deal; and ordered that Theobald be released. Bingham was furious and dragged his heals – so Grainne went to London for a second time in 1595, and this time Elizabeth’s will was fully enforced.
Having finally plumped for alliance with the English, Grainne and her son followed through this time; Grainne may have died in 1601 or 1603, but Theobald emerged as the greatest landowner in Mayo and in 1627 was created Viscount Mayo, sat in the Irish parliament and the line would survive to the end of the 18th century.
It’s quite a wild story. That central idea is that in 16th century Ireland it is dangerous to impose modern nationalist notions on the motivations of the people involved; family played a major role. In the next episode we’ll meet the same basic question in the career of Hugh O’Neill. Without doubt, O’Neill will make an appeal to Gaelic nationalism and a call to the defence of Catholicism; but was that his motivation, or was it once more, personal ambition for himself and his family? Let’s discuss that next time.
 Loades, D Elizabeth I p284
 Norwich, J France p147
 Rodger, N Safeguard of the Sea, p288
 Parker, G The Dutch Revolt p232
 Parker, G Impudent King p362