Fitzgerald, Henry (1562–97), 12th earl of Kildare , magnate, was the second son of Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), 11th earl of Kildare, and his wife Mabel, daughter of Sir Anthony Browne, KG. As a boy, he was fostered to the O'Connors of Offaly, thus strengthening the Kildare influence in the midlands, and was schooled at Rathangan, Co. Kildare. In May 1575 his father was arrested on suspicion of treason, with Henry and his two brothers also being taken into royal custody. He was sent to England for a time. Immediately prior to his father's second arrest for treason (December 1580) he slipped away and sought refuge with his foster-family, the O'Connors. By then, his older brother had died, making him heir to the earldom of Kildare. In February 1581 he gave himself up to the government and was dispatched to England once more, where the authorities kept him under close watch and sought to prevent him from communicating with any Irish. A fiery character, he was involved in a scuffle with an apprentice at Moorgate in June 1582.
Following his father's death (1585), he succeeded to the earldom of Kildare and was finally permitted to return to Ireland in early 1586. The earls of Kildare had formerly been the most powerful nobles in Ireland, but their status had never recovered from the ‘Silken Thomas’ rebellion of 1534, and, regarded as suspect by the authorities, they had been subjected to considerable government harassment ever since. As a result, much of the traditional patrimony of the earls of Kildare had been seized by others. Moreover, Henry inherited a much diminished estate from his father, due to the provision of sizeable Kildare lands as jointures to his widowed mother and to his widowed sister-in-law. Shorn of these resources, he struggled to acquire and maintain the luxury items and military retinues that were respectively the symbols and basis of aristocratic status in Ireland. At some point prior to 1592, the crown seized some of his property and two of his castles in recompense for money owed by him.
His only viable strategy was to win the favour of the crown, a course made difficult by the fact that some members of the Irish privy council held land formerly owned by his ancestors. Nonetheless, throughout his career he sought to assist the royal army with his own private forces, many of whom were drawn from his foster-family, the O'Connors. Indeed, while other midland clans continued to display hostility towards the government during this period, the O'Connors appear to have adopted a relatively loyalist stance under his influence. Although he was probably raised a catholic and all his followers were catholic, he at least outwardly embraced protestantism. Like his father, he could not afford the handicap of being openly catholic. Embarrassingly, in 1586 one of his servants in London was implicated in a catholic plot to assassinate the queen. Further controversy occurred in April 1591 when he quarrelled fiercely with Robert Devereux (qv), 2nd earl of Essex and chief favourite of the queen, in the queen's presence chamber, forcing the authorities to intervene to prevent a duel between the two men. Despite these incidents, both the queen and her ministers in London were broadly sympathetic and sought to alleviate his financial difficulties.
About 1588–9, he secured a politically and financially advantageous marriage to Francis, daughter of Thomas Howard, earl of Nottingham and lord admiral of England. He spent much of his time in London seeking royal favour, in which his wife and in-laws proved effective lobbyists on his behalf. However, the marriage was not a success. His wife, who had been bred at the royal court, had little in common with her semi-gaelicised, fast-living husband. In 1594 the queen ordered Kildare to send his wife to England to live with her family, rebuking him for mistreating her in the process. The couple remained personally, but not politically, estranged thereafter.
From the time Henry became earl, he petitioned for restoration of family property that had been confiscated following the failed 1534 rebellion and had been withheld ever since, despite the restoration of the earldom of Kildare in 1552. In August 1589 the queen ordered that he should be granted land elsewhere in Leinster in compensation for the crown's retention of the strategically important manor of Carlow. The Dublin administration was less sympathetic to his claims, and – after much foot-dragging – eventually executed this royal command in late 1592. Recognising that the Dublin government was unwilling to grant him land in Leinster, he revived his family's long-dormant claims to land in Sligo and in various parts of Ulster. By laying claim to estates in marcher territories and in areas outside the crown's control, he hoped both to further and to benefit from the government's intended conquest of Ulster.
He already had an estate at Lecale, Co. Down, but this area was frequently raided by the MacCartans. In April 1594 Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, wrote to him offering to help him banish the MacCartans, with or without the proper authorisation from the government. Tyrone was at this point moving towards open rebellion against the crown and was trying to sound Kildare out. However, Kildare had supported the MacShane O'Neills, Tyrone's rivals for control of the O'Neill lordship, and he declined to respond, handing the letter over to the government. In revenge, Tyrone later led his forces to devastate Kildare's estates as his rebellion grew in strength. During 1594–7 Tyrone successfully repelled the crown's assaults on his mid-Ulster lordship, shaking the crown's authority in the rest of Ireland in the process. Kildare remained steadfastly loyalist, assisting the royal army with his men on numerous occasions. In June 1595 he was charged with defending the Pale while the lord deputy campaigned in Ulster. The Irish acknowledged his prowess in battle by styling him ‘Henry na tuagh’ (‘Henry of the battleaxes’).
As the crown's military fortunes continued to wane, some of his supporters tried to drive a wedge between him and his English in-laws, and he became noticeably less overt in his protestantism, causing royal officials to suspect him. This was probably unfair, although he was impulsive and reckless. Moreover, he became increasingly exasperated with the crown's failure either to protect his lands from the rebels or to compensate him for his losses, regarding the crown's belated recognition of his efforts in 1596 (the command of a troop of thirty-five horse) as a paltry return. In July 1597 he accompanied the lord deputy, Thomas Burgh (qv), on a campaign into Ulster and was wounded in a skirmish near Blackwater fort. A garbled non-contemporary account of this engagement states that he fought with conspicuous courage, that he was thrown twice from his horse, and that two of his O'Connor foster-brothers fell defending him, causing him great grief. Weakened by his wounds, he fell ill with dysentery and was brought to his mother's house at Drogheda, where he died 3 August 1597. He was buried in Kildare cathedral. His death was a setback for the crown, but a disaster for the Kildare dynasty. Had he survived the war, his devotion to the royal cause would surely have been amply rewarded, giving him the means to resurrect the fortunes of his house. Instead well over a century of financial penury and political irrelevance beckoned for the earls of Kildare. He was succeeded by his brother William.
With his wife he had three daughters, two of whom lived to adulthood. Bridget married Ruaidhrí O'Donnell (qv), 1st earl of Tyrconnell, who in 1607 suddenly fled Ireland for continental Europe. He was unable to bring her with him, as she was heavily pregnant and with her family in Kildare at the time of his hurried departure. Subsequent efforts by Tyrconnell to spirit her out of Ireland prompted the government to arrest her and transport her to England. There, she charmed King James I, persuading him that she had nothing to do with her husband's flight and to grant her a pension of £200 a year. She returned to Ireland in 1609 and remarried after her husband's death.