Darcy, Sir William (c.1460?–1540), administrator, undertreasurer of Ireland, was son and heir of John Darcy, esquire, of Platten, Co. Meath, and his wife Elizabeth Plunket. The Darcys of Platten were a junior branch of a leading north of England family, descended from John Darcy (qv) of Knaith, the long-serving, early-fourteenth-century justiciar of Ireland. Darcy's grandfather had been slain in France while serving Henry V. The family was traditionally prominent in shire government: Darcy's landed patrimony, worth c.£150 a year, placed him among the shire's dozen most wealthy families. It comprised five manors in Meath – split between the maghery and the marches, where he held in chief the extensive manor of Rathwire – plus scattered lands elsewhere. Known as ‘Great Darsey’ because of his physical appearance (Cal. Carew MSS, Book of Howth, 188), Darcy received, like many English gentry of the period, a legal training. He first appears with his cousin, Thomas Kent, as a young law student in Dublin (1482), where he lodged with Hugh Talbot and was instructed in the basic law texts of the period, notably Littleton's Tenures and the Natura brevium by John Estrete, the king's serjeant-at-law. In May 1483 he left for London, and two years later was admitted to membership of Lincoln's Inn, where he was fined and put out of commons for unspecified offences. Returning to Ireland (May 1486), he played a prominent part in the ensuing Lambert Simnel (qv) conspiracy when, at the coronation of ‘King Edward VI’ in Christ Church cathedral (May 1487), ‘the child was borne in and upon Great Darsey of Platan's neck, that every man might see him’ (ibid.). Darcy was subsequently pardoned. By 1493 he had been knighted, but then faced political humiliation when Poynings’ act of resumption threatened much of his inheritance. Perhaps as a result of a visit to court, Sir William got a proviso inserted into the resumption in favour of his Meath and Louth estates, but the dispute about Rathwire reemerged later.
The later years of the 8th earl of Kildare (qv) as deputy (1496–1513) saw Darcy's reputation at its height. He served as sheriff (1496–7, 1500–01), and was then appointed successively receiver-general of crown lands, under-treasurer, and (from 1504) deputy-treasurer to Kildare's son and heir, the Lord Gerald. In 1500 he advised the deputy on measures for ‘the reformacion of the contres of Kilkenny and Typerary’ (Charles McNeill (ed.), Liber primus Kilkenniensis (Dublin, 1931), 156–8). He participated in the battle of Knockdoe (1504), where a blow from the captain of the Irish galloglass – who had singled Great Darcy out – put him on his knees. At some point, too, he became a member of Kildare's baronial council. Darcy's insistence on ‘good English order’ and his evident pride in English weaponry also attracted favourable comment in official circles: he was one of the few Meath marchers who ‘rydithe in a sadill dayly’ or ‘werithe gowne and dublet’ (Ormond deeds, 1509–47, app. 76), and thirty-five years later could recall attending the wedding (1482) of the famous English longbowman, Nicholas Travers of Courtlough, still then ‘the beste & strongest archere’ among ‘xl good bowys there’ (Memoranda roll, 9 & 10 Hen. VIII, NAI, Ferguson coll., iv, ff 52–2v, 56–7). Marriages strengthened Darcy's ties with this close-knit ‘civil society’ in Meath. His first marriage, to Margaret, widow of Walter Mareward, baron of Skreen, produced at least two sons, George and John, and three daughters. After Margaret's death he married Katharine Simons. His daughter Margery married Richard Golding of Piercetown, former student of Lincoln's Inn, and heir to a neighbouring landowner. A second daughter married Lord Dunsany. His heir, George, married Joan (or Genet) Tuite, and their daughter, Maud, married James Mareward, baron of Skreen.
Kildare's death brought change, however. Relations with the 9th earl of Kildare (qv) were initially cordial, but both Darcy and the 8th earl's English-born secretary, Robert Cowley (qv), were then dropped from his baronial council. Kildare's visit to court in 1515 provided an opportunity to question the earl's policies; the articles Darcy put in to the king's council also offer an insight into his outlook. Kildare, he alleged, was imposing Gaelic exactions and other unlawful impositions on the English Pale, following the precedent set by the earls of Ormond and Desmond in their own territories. Where ‘good English order & rule’ had once been kept, now ‘the kinges lawes be not obeyed and all the kinges subiectes be in no better case then the wyld Irishe’. Even in the Pale, the king's subjects were ‘neere hand Irish’, speaking Irish and wearing Irish dress, ‘so as they are cleane gone and decayed’, and not eight of the landlords there ‘but be in debt, and their land be made waste’ (Lambeth Palace Library, MS 635, ff 188, 188v). Although a colourful exposition of contemporary English ideas about decay and degeneracy, these crude and sketchy articles were hardly the penetrating critique of Kildare rule which Darcy was supremely well equipped to provide. Probably they reflect Darcy's pique at his exclusion from Kildare's counsels, but they only succeeded in effecting a complete breach with the earl, who returned to Ireland in high favour. Initially, Darcy stayed on at court but then returned to live at Platten in semi-retirement.
With the 1520–21 expedition of the lord lieutenant, the earl of Surrey (qv), Darcy's prospects revived. Apparently he was summoned to court and closely consulted about the state of the revenues and the feasibility of abolishing coign and livery in the Pale. Somewhat rashly, he advised the king that the surplus on the Irish revenues was 2,000 marks a year although, according to Darcy's own accounts in 1502–3 and 1504–5, total receipts had never exceeded £1,588 annually, as Sir John Stile (under-treasurer of Ireland during Surrey's governorship) later pointed out. Thereafter, Darcy was widely employed by Surrey in negotiating submissions from Gaelic chiefs and in legal examinations about a supposed treasonable letter to Maolruanaidh O'Carroll (qv) from Kildare urging him to make war on the English. In all this, Darcy's extensive knowledge of Gaelic customs and the language proved extremely useful to Surrey. In September 1520, in the first flush of enthusiasm after Surrey's arrival, Darcy's third daughter, Margery, even married Aodh Dubh O'Donnell (qv) when, briefly, it was thought that the Donegal chief might be sworn English. Yet hopes soon evaporated, and by autumn 1521 Darcy was reduced to threatening truculent chiefs ‘with a great power comyng hether with thErll of Kildare’ (SP Hen. VIII, ii, 63–4). Under Surrey's successor, Piers Butler (qv), Darcy again acted as undertreasurer, but when Kildare recovered the deputyship (August 1524) he immediately dismissed Darcy who was, by now, closely identified with the Butlers in the escalating feud between the two earls.
By this stage, Darcy's son George was taking over from Sir William in local government. Sir William was, for instance, conspicuously absent during the emergency in May 1528 when the vice-deputy, Lord Delvin (qv) (d. 1538), was kidnapped by Brian O'Connor (qv) near Darcy's castle of Rathyn. In Darcy's final years, however, circumstances conspired to draw his family and Kildare's closer together. In 1530, both faced legal proceedings instituted by Archbishop John Alen (qv) of Dublin (1476–1534), then lord chancellor, for recovery of lands; and in 1531 the exchequer resurrected the dispute over Rathwire. When an inquisition found for the king, Darcy chose to petition Lord Deputy Skeffington (qv) rather than suing a traverse from Chancellor John Alen (qv) (d. c.1561) and – in a typically flamboyant gesture – wrote the petition not in his native English, but in the law French he had learned with Mr John Estrete fifty years earlier. None the less, the king recovered Rathwire – immediately relet to George Darcy at the generous rent of £16 annually; but George's death soon after was a further crushing blow to Sir William. Old and blind, Darcy retired to the Grey Friars, Drogheda, granting lands in September 1532 to George's widow, with provision for rents to himself and the Franciscans there.
Darcy's best hope for Rathwire now lay through his old adversary, Kildare, recently reappointed deputy, who had granted custody to his son, Lord Thomas (qv). George's widow soon remarried, her second husband being Kildare's close confident, Sir Gerald Shanesson Fitzgerald. His daughter, Margery, also remarried – Kildare's brother, Sir James Fitzgerald of Leixlip. And then Sir William's world fell apart, with the disastrous rebellion of 1534. Despite his infirmities, however, the old man had lost none of his political acumen, epitomised by some delicate trimming. His son John was promptly despatched to court: King Henry appointed him gentleman usher of the chamber, granting him Rathwire for life at the generous rent of twenty marks. This time the family clung on to Rathwire. Lord Thomas later destroyed the castle, but otherwise Darcy's property came through ‘the wer seyson’ relatively unscathed. Shanesson and Kildare's brothers allegedly resorted twice weekly ‘to Drogheda to Ser Wyllam Darcy to fet hys consayll to Thomas FyzGerrot’ (Lambeth Palace Library, MS 602, f. 130). And after Shanesson had been trapped in Drogheda (October), following the arrival of Skeffington's relief army, Darcy assisted him to escape: he was conveyed over the town walls with ladders. Meanwhile, Darcy's granddaughter, Maud, had complicated matters by exploiting the troubles to change husbands. Richard Fitzgerald, the 9th earl's brother, killed her husband and then married her: she was indicted for treason (murder of malice prepensed), but later pardoned. Richard was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Darcy himself died peacefully in April 1540 in advanced old age, the month after the Grey Friars itself was suppressed.
For someone of his status, Darcy's colourful career has left considerable evidence in the records of the period, so permitting a more rounded analysis of the man, his political outlook and beliefs than is usually possible for an English marcher and minor official. Historiographically, Darcy's career stands at the crossroads between two different interpretations of the early Tudor lordship. Within the nationalist tradition, Darcy has attracted attention for his opposition to the earl of Kildare and has even been hailed as ‘father’ of an ‘Anglo-Irish movement for political reform’ (Bradshaw, Irish constitutional revolution, 37). On an alternative reading of the evidence (‘two-nation theory’), however, he was ‘an English gentleman’ whose basic ideas reflected traditional English values of peace, order, and civility, but one who exhibited a more pragmatic streak when his own interests were at stake.