Bourke, Toby (‘Don Tobias’) (1675–1742), Baron Bourke , courtier and diplomat, was born at Farranatlaba, barony of Shanid, Co. Limerick, son of Richard Bourke and his wife Silena O'Brien. In 1688, at the age of 13, he travelled to the University of Bordeaux, where an Irish college had been in existence since the beginning of the century. He studied sciences, arts, letters, and the French language. After the treaty of Limerick and the flight of the Wild Geese, Bourke made his way to the court of James II (qv) at Saint-Germain, where he had relations of noble origin at court, including the 8th earl of Clanricard and Honora Burke (qv), Lady Lucan and future duchess of Berwick. He later enrolled as a volunteer in one of the Irish regiments.
In 1698 he returned to Saint-Germain when the treaty of Ryswick brought an end to the wars of the league of Augsburg and the English succession. He then obtained a recommendation to the princess of Carrigano at Turin, and in Italy he secured his diplomatic future with an employment in the household of Cardinal de Bouillon, French ambassador to Rome. Bouillon entrusted him with delicate diplomatic missions to the dukes of Parma and Modena. In Rome he also made the acquaintance of the princesse des Ursins, who became lady-in-waiting to the young Spanish queen and the power behind the Spanish throne. His contact with her guaranteed access to the Spanish court while he was in the entourage of the nuncio, Mgr Zondadari. His learning, talent, and mastery of European languages ensured a favourable impression.
In 1702 he was made a knight of the order of Santiago and a knight-baronet by James III, the Old Pretender. On 7 January 1704 James appointed him as a gentleman of the privy chamber. The young king also signed a certificate stating that he was descended from the Burkes of Clanricard. In 1705 he was sent to Spain as Jacobite ambassador to Philip V by the queen regent, Mary of Modena, at the behest of her niece, the princesse des Ursins. Throughout his career he showed great zeal for the Jacobite cause and the interests of his countrymen in Spain, acting as a sponsor for a number of Irishmen knighted in Spain in the early eighteenth century, including Julian McCarthy (1709), Domingo O'Heyne (1709), Geronimo de Begg (1710), and Bernard O'Conor Phaly (1739). He retained close links with eminent Irish émigrés in Spain, including Dr John Higgins ((qv); court physician to Philip V) and the exiled duke of Ormond (qv).
In 1705 the French war minister, the marquis de Torcy, procured him an annual subsidy of 6,000 francs from Louis XIV. In return, and twice a month for seven years, Bourke sent Camillart, Torcy's deputy, what was described by the French historian François Combes as a ‘véritable gazette des temps’. It comprises some 192 carefully written reports, full of information on Spanish and European politics, court intrigue, the ups and downs of the Jacobite cause.
Bourke was one of the main casualties of the reestablishment of relations between Great Britain and Spain in 1712. Although he relinquished his ambassadorship, he continued to reside in Spain until he was sent by the Spanish prime minister, Cardinal Alberoni, as an envoy extraordinare to Charles XII, the warrior king of Sweden. The British admiral George Byng planned to intercept his ship en route but was thwarted because the death of Louis XIV forced Bourke to interrupt his maritime jouney to go to Paris to confer with the Spanish ambassador. Byng did succeed in capturing Bourke's wife, four children, and eight servants. Bourke was finally forced to abort his embassy to Charles XII on the latter's recognition of Charles VI as king of Spain. By 1716, with the Spanish court continuing to refuse to reimburse his expenses for the abortive Swedish embassy, he was forced to send his family to stay with his in-laws and liquidate some of his remaining assets in France. He was raised to the peerage by James III as Baron Bourke (February 1727).
Bourke suffered great personal grief when his wife, young son, and several servants were lost in a shipwreck. His daughter was captured by pirates and it was several months before she was found and ransomed. She later accompanied her father to Rome, where she became a lady-in-waiting to James III's consort, Queen Clementina. On the outbreak of the War of Jenkins' Ear (1739) Bourke was back in Spain, where he died on 12 May 1742.
In his extensive diary the duc de Saint-Simon, French ambassador to Spain, described Bourke as a man who was devoted to France, who imparted much information (and fantasies) to him in the course of their discussions. Saint-Simon deemed him to be well informed, obsessed with politics, a man who spoke with the authority of a minister, about whom he had never heard anything bad, and who was deemed to be an honourable man.
Aside from his letters in the French archives, his large corpus of correspondence to John Caryll, secretary to Mary of Modena and Cardinal Luigi Gualtero, cardinal-protector of England and Ireland, are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the BL. There are copies and drafts of many letters and papers relating to Bourke from the major European repositories in the Marquis MacSwiney papers in the RIA.