Wednesday, 23 January 2013

THE ANTIQUARIAN: James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond & Catherine FitzGerald

Of the great Anglo-Irish houses to come to prominence after the invasion of Ireland, two families figure as the most influential in the island’s colourful and dramatic history: The Butlers of Ormond and the Fitzgeralds of Desmond & Kildare.  The following record concerns the two great houses of the Butler Earls of Ormond and the Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond; it provides a new insight into a conflict that history largely records as simply one involving land and power.

The exact cause of the feud is still unknown to historians.  In his theses on the Earls of Desmond, Keith Alan Waters cites possible sources of friction being land disputes in the 1370s that involved Waterford and Desmond holdings in the Ormond liberty of Tipperary (129).  The two families had at one time been on very good terms.  They had been allies in confrontations with the de Burgh and le Poer families and in 1359, Gerald FitzMaurice, the 3rd Earl of Desmond, married Eleanor Butler, the daughter of James Butler the 2nd Earl of Ormond.  In that same year, Gerald joined his father-in-law, then Justiciar of Ireland, on a campaign in Leinster against native Irish insurgents (Waters, 110-111).  By the 1390s, however, Gerald’s brother-in-law, the 3rd Earl of Ormond had succeeded his father and exasperated an already aggravated situation by having an affair with his niece, Catherine, who was the daughter of his sister, Eleanor, by Gerald, the 3rd Earl of Desmond (Waters, 130).

The Butlers & the Desmond Geraldines 

In the 1920s the historian W.F. Butler discovered an old manuscript book of pedigrees that appended its genealogy of the Butlers with a legend regarding this illicit affair.  The story itself is rife with inaccuracies, yet, when corrected, it not only acknowledges the actual event but through its dramatic embellishments testifies to what must have been its scandalous notoriety.  According to the narrative the affair began this way: 

     While James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond, was convalescing at his Carrick estate from an 
     unnamed illness, he was visited by his English wife the Countess, daughter of Lord Welles; 
     his niece, Catherine; and their ladies in waiting.  At one point in the visit, the Countess and 
     some of her women went for a stroll leaving Catherine and a portion of the ladies with 
     the Earl.  Trying to cheer him up, the ladies began exchanging pleasantries with the Earl and, 
     as the author describes it, “bandying words” (Butler, 10).  Noticing, suddenly, that one of 
     the Countess’ dresses was lying about in the antechamber, Catherine left the room to try it 
     on.  The women, following, began gathering about her so that the Earl finally asked what 
     all the commotion was about.  Stepping out of the group to stand in full view of her Uncle, 
     Catherine herself replied: “‘They are laughing about seeing me in this English dress…And 
     my lord,’” she continued, archly, “‘if it is an English dress that makes English women 
     beautiful to Irish men, then I think I must seem beautiful myself…One thing is certain,’” 
     she looked at him and smiled, “‘I’d make you a better Countess than that English hag you
     have’”(Butler, 10).

The narrative goes on to reveal that word of the affair raced through the country and, of course, greatly troubled her parents, the 3rd Earl and Countess of Desmond.   After the death of her mother in 1396 and her father in 1398, the narrative suggests that James Butler’s wife remained in Waterford while Catherine was openly spending a lot of time at the Carrick Estate of her Uncle.

As mentioned earlier, the narrative confuses and contradicts its own chronologies and the particular individuals involved, but it does give enough detail to provide for the proper corrections.  In this way, it links the death of Catherine’s brother, John, the 4th   and new Earl of Desmond, to a planned meeting in which John demanded satisfaction from his Uncle over the issue of his sister.  Both history and the narrative provide the same details of John FitzGerald’s death: that while crossing the river Suir, he was accidentally thrown from his horse and drowned.  The narrative, however, specifies that it was associated with the illicit affair between his Uncle and sister.  It is at this point that the legend embellishes, as W.F. Butler remarks, like something out of the “annals of the Italian Renaissance” (14). The story adds that on the same day that the meeting with her Uncle led to her brother’s death, Catherine sought to improve her position by having a priest poison and kill the Countess of Ormond.  This part of the story, of course, has no historical basis.

It does appear, however, that the two did enter into some sort of contractual relationship and that the affair did produce at least one child: James “Gallda” Butler, who became the ancestor of the Barons of Cahir.  That some sort of legal agreement had been reached is corroborated by the fact that early in the sixteenth century Sir Piers Butler, the head of the house of Cahir, was claiming property “on the strength of some papers from the third Earl to Catherine Fitzgerald” and that an exchange of letters shows his kinsmen, the seventh Earl of Ormond, looking into the matter for him (Butler, 13).

James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde died on 7 September 1405 and was described as a mighty strong man, “the head of the chivalry of Ireland” (Webb).  After the affair, Catherine Fitzgerald went on to marry a man named John FitzThomas and became the ancestress of the MacThomas’ of Knockmone---the date of her death is unknown.

"So, how does Ireland look to you now?!"

NOTE: For a more detailed history on the FitzGerald House of Desmond and another family legend, see the original children’s book Thomas FitzMaurice & Desmond the Ape available now at Blurb by clicking on the provided link located at the right of the screen.

Butler, W.F.  “An Irish Legend of the Origins of the Barons of Cahir.”  The Journal Of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, Vol. 15, No. 1
            (Jun. 30, 1925), pp. 6-14. JSTOR.  Web. 23 Jun. 2011.

Waters, Keith Alan (2004).  The Earls of Desmond in the Fourteenth Century, Durham Theses, Durham University.  Available at Durham E-Theses

Webb, Alfred.  A Compendium of Irish Biography: Comprising Sketches of Distinguished Irishmen, Eminent Persons Connected with Ireland by
            Office or by Their Writings.  Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son, 1878.

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