Friday, 8 March 2013

THE ANTIQUARIAN: The Old Countess & Richard III

Famed for her beauty in youth, she has been called “the Kerry Diamond;” afterward famed for her longevity of life, she became “the Old Countess” of Desmond.

The legend of Katherine of Dromana, daughter of John FitzGarrett Lord of Decies, purports her birth year as 1464; records that in her 139th year, she journeyed from Ireland to England (walking on foot from Bristol to London) to visit James I; and states that her death at the age of 140 was due to her falling from a tree while gathering nuts.

In actuality, Katherine was the second wife of the 12th Earl of Desmond, Thomas “Maol;” she died in 1604, most probably at the age of 104; and reliable sources record that up to the end of her life, she would walk (for pleasure) five miles from her castle at Inchiquin to the market town at Youghal when she could have had “the best horse in the kingdom” take her there (Sainthill, 452).

So where did all the legends come from? After the rebellion and subsequent beheading of Gerald the 15th Earl of Desmond in 1583, and for twenty years after the ruin of one of Ireland’s great patriarchal families, the solitary widow, who had managed to protect her dower estate while the rest of the earldom’s properties were parceled out to undertakers, remained unscathed.  For the local populace, she became a living vestige of a much loved and ancient house that had ruled over their ancestors for more than four hundred years.  The origin of the remarkable legends surrounding Katherine of Dromana, then, were rooted in what she came to symbolize for subsequent generations of Irish men and women who, as Richard Sainthill described it, must have seen “the Old Countess” as the beloved remnant “of a long past, and almost forgotten generation”(452).

A further testament to the kind of grandeur she came to represent is the legend of her dancing with the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) at a party given by his brother, Edward IV.  In one version of the tale, Richard is so taken with her that he repeatedly asks her hand in marriage, offers his current estates and the certainty of future prospects that, he suggests, may include the English throne.  Katherine, embarrassed by his advances, reminds the Duke that she is betrothed to the son of one of King Edward’s most beloved subjects, Thomas 8th Earl of Desmond, and tells him that her only ambition is “to live---to die in my own land, with one who well deserves my heart’s best service”(Macarty, 278).  She then cuts short the Duke’s next protestation by simply wishing him well and walking away.  In Flora Macarty’s version of the story, the infamous future King of England reacts to this rejection by staring palely after the Kerry Diamond, curling his lip contemptuously, and “scorning his own weakness” (278). 

In effect, when viewed from a political perspective, “the Old Countess” became the woman who, in her youth, rejected all the imperial power of Plantagenet England and the one woman who, in her old age, defied and transcended all the dread power of England during its Tudor reign.

"You could have had all of THIS!"

Macarty, Flora. “Desmond; Or, The Charmed Life.”  The United States Magazine,
            And Democratic Review. (1837-1851). Vol 14 (69), Mar. 1844, pp. 276-283.     
            American Periodicals.  ProQuest. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Sainthill, Robert.  “The Old Countess of Desmond.  An Inquiry:
     Did She Seek Redress at the Court of Queen Elizabeth, as Recorded in the Journal of      
     Robert Sydney, Earl of Leycester? And Did She Ever Sit for Her Portrait?” 
     Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. (1836 – 1869). Vol 7 (1857-1861),

     pp. 429-473.  Royal Irish Academy. JSTOR. Web. 7 May 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment