Fitzgerald, James (1571?–1601), the ‘Tower earl ’ or ‘queen's earl’ of Desmond , was the only son of Gerald (qv), 15th earl of Desmond, and his second wife, Eleanor (qv), daughter of Edmund Butler, Lord Dunboyne. He was born in England during his father's incarceration there (1567–73), probably at Southwark in summer 1571. The circumstances of his birth proved an unfortunately prophetic portent of his future life. After his parents returned to Ireland in spring 1573, he remained in London as a guarantee for his father's future good behaviour. In summer 1575 he was sent to Bristol, apparently as a prelude to his dispatch to his family home in Ireland, but continuing tensions between Earl Gerald and the crown meant he was kept in England.
At some point between then and August 1579 he was returned to Ireland and lived with his family at Askeaton, Co. Limerick. However, his respite did not last long, as rebellion against the crown broke out in Munster in summer 1579. Initially his father tried to remain neutral, but the royal authorities demanded that he give active support and that he deliver up his heir. The earl was reluctant to do so and would eventually put himself at the head of the rebellion, but James's mother Eleanor believed that opposition to the crown would doom the house of Desmond and was determined to safeguard her son. Fearing that some of the rebel leaders were about to seize or even kill James, she handed him over to the lord justice of Ireland, Sir William Drury (qv), at Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, in September.
James was imprisoned in Kilkenny castle before being removed to Dublin castle (29 October 1579). Initially his confinement was relatively comfortable, but it became much less so after the government dismissed in late 1579 the servants who had attended on him. When his mother visited him in August 1582 she complained at the state's neglect of his education and requested that he be sent to England where he could receive a proper schooling. The government ignored this because they wished to use James as a bargaining chip in their attempts to arrange his father's negotiated surrender. In the event the Desmond rebellion was crushed by force in autumn 1583, with the earl being hunted down and killed in November. The victorious government decided to confiscate the earl's property and settle English colonists on it, thereby disinheriting James. No longer of use in Ireland, he was transferred to the Tower of London in July 1584.
There he was taught by a schoolmaster, and as an adult was capable of writing in a legible and eloquent fashion, but his education seems to have been unsatisfactory nonetheless. He was a sickly youth, imprisonment did little for his health, and a bewildering array of potions and medicines were administered to him to treat a variety of ailments during his captivity. On 17 June 1593 he wrote a letter to the leading royal official, Sir Robert Cecil, unavailingly pleading for his freedom, and in which he poignantly declared: ‘though yong in years, yet being old in miserye . . . howe only by being born the unfortunate sone of a faulty father, I have ever since my infancy never breathed out of prison’ (D. MacCarthy, Life and letters of Florence MacCarthy, 488–9). His fortunes changed in 1598 when his cousin James fitz Thomas Fitzgerald (qv) led a rebellion that engulfed most of Munster and proclaimed himself earl of Desmond. By October 1599 royal officials were considering releasing James (the ‘Tower earl’) and returning him to Munster in the hope that he would draw support from fitz Thomas.
This proposal was embraced by Sir George Carew (qv) after his appointment as president of Munster in early 1600. In particular he advised that James be sent to Ireland as a free man, that he receive the title of earl of Desmond, and that he be given some land in Munster with which to maintain himself. However, the queen was adamantly opposed, fearing that she would be humiliated if James joined the rebels or if he failed to attract support. Carew, aided by Cecil, slowly overcame her resistance, and by August 1600 James was free to leave the Tower during the day, although he had to return there every night. Eventually the queen agreed to send him to Munster, to recognise him as earl of Desmond, to grant him command of a troop of horse, and to grant him a royal pension. Conversely she stipulated that he be kept under royal supervision, declined to grant him any land, and – although she signed the patent creating him earl of Desmond – required that he demonstrate his usefulness before this patent was formally passed. This was an unsatisfactory compromise, as it was important that James was not seen to be an English puppet.
He set sail from Bristol on 13 October and landed at Youghal (14 October), where he received a warm reception. His party then proceeded to Cork city (15 October), where, however, the mayor and local magistrates were ostentatiously inhospitable. Many merchants and landowners, both English and Irish, had benefited from the destruction of the Desmond overlordship over much of Munster, and had no desire to see it reestablished. There also seems to have been confusion over his exact status and the extent to which the queen was prepared to countenance him. Nonetheless the return of the rightful heir of the last earl of Desmond was the occasion of rejoicing within the heart of the old Desmond patrimony. On his arrival (18 October) in Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, people came from miles around to cheer him. However, this goodwill evaporated the next day when he attended Church of Ireland services in Kilmallock, after which the locals shunned him. Having been anglicised and protestantised during his long incarceration in London and being too frail to withstand the rigours of Irish military service, he was not a credible earl of Desmond.
On 14 November Thomas Óg Fitzgerald surrendered the castle of Castlemaine, Co. Kerry, to him, apparently out of respect for his position as earl of Desmond, but it is likely the fort would have been yielded anyway. In any case this was his sole success, and in December he complained that the people held him in contempt. His appeals for land and money with which to serve the crown were ignored by London. Moreover, Carew's success in largely quelling the Munster uprising during the second half of 1600 meant the government no longer needed him. Admittedly, rumours of James's imminent return and of the restoration of the earldom of Desmond had played a part in undermining support for fitz Thomas in summer 1600. However, the prospect of a royally sanctioned Desmond restoration proved far more alluring than the reality. Significantly, in 1601 Carew reported that fitz Thomas, despite having been defeated in battle and driven into hiding, remained hugely popular in the province. In contrast James subsided into irrelevance.
He left Ireland on 22 March 1601 and returned to London, where he continued to receive his pension and unsuccessfully renewed his appeals for land in Ireland. He died of fever in London on 16 November 1601, having spent nearly all his life in captivity.