Fitzgerald, James fitz John (d. 1558), 14th earl of Desmond , treasurer of Ireland, was the second but eldest surviving son of Sir John fitz Thomas Fitzgerald and More, daughter of Donogh O'Brien of Carrigogunnell in Co. Limerick, lord of Pobblebrien. He actively supported his father's claim to the earldom of Desmond following the death (1534) of Thomas Fitzgerald (qv), 12th earl, in opposition to James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv), 13th earl de jure. As the 12th earl's grandson, James fitz Maurice was the logical successor and was recognised as 13th earl by the government. However, Sir John, younger brother to the 12th earl, arguing that James fitz Maurice was illegitimate as his parents had been cousins, succeeded in seizing control of the lordship of Desmond during 1534–5. By this stage, his son James fitz John had married Joan, daughter of Maurice, Viscount Roche, with whom he had a son, Thomas. However, Joan was his grandniece, meaning that his heirs could also be deemed illegitimate. Consequently, he repudiated Joan during the early 1530s, thereby illegitimating Thomas, and by 1533 had married More, daughter of Maolruanaidh O'Carroll (qv), lord of Ely. They had two surviving sons, Gerald (qv) and John (qv), and four or five daughters.
Renegade earl In January 1535 Henry VIII wrote both to James and his father, seeking their support in quashing the rebellion of ‘Silken Thomas’ FitzGerald (qv), 10th earl of Kildare. Anxious not to alienate Henry, they failed to help their traditional allies the Fitzgeralds of Kildare. However, the dispatch of a sizeable English army to Ireland to quell the Kildare uprising unsettled the autonomous lords of Ireland, who feared this was a prelude to a military conquest of the entire island. Moreover, the fall of the Kildare Fitzgeralds greatly strengthened the power of the Butlers of Ormond, the Desmond Fitzgeralds’ most bitter enemies. Further complicating matters, James Butler (qv), later 9th earl of Ormond, also had a claim to the earldom of Desmond by right of his marriage to Joan Fitzgerald, granddaughter of James FitzGerald (qv), 11th earl of Desmond.
Thus, although James fitz John and his father did nothing to hinder the royal army's efforts in Leinster, they set about consolidating their political and military position within Munster. Following the defeat and surrender of Silken Thomas (1535), they seized the former Kildare manors of Crome and Adare in Co. Limerick, thereby improving their strategic position within the Fitzgerald heartland. They also formed an alliance with the O'Briens of Thomond to resist royal encroachments into the province. Further success followed in 1536 when their main rival James fitz Maurice fled Munster, facilitating a smooth transition of power within the earldom of Desmond to James fitz John after his father died in June. However, fitz Maurice found refuge at the royal court in London, where he had previously served as a page in his youth, and remained a latent threat due to his favour with the king.
James fitz John maintained continual contact with the leading royal officials in Ireland and frequently declared his willingness to submit to the crown, but a formal settlement proved elusive. Negotiations broke down repeatedly because he was unwilling to accept the arbitration of the royal government over the disputed succession to the earldom of Desmond. In late July 1536 the royal forces under the lord deputy of Ireland, Leonard Grey (qv), entered James's territories and occupied his castle at Lough Gur. He temporised with the lord deputy for a time before a mutiny among the royal soldiers over lack of pay forced Grey to withdraw, abandoning Lough Gur in the process. Nonetheless he kept in touch with Grey and shrewdly claimed that the machinations of the Butlers had frustrated an agreement, thereby stoking the lord deputy's fears regarding the ambitions of the Butler family. By 1537 Grey was desperate to secure an alliance with James in order to lessen his government's dependence on the Butlers, but the king was angered by accurate reports that James was harbouring leading actors in the Silken Thomas rebellion as well as Silken Thomas's young half-brother and heir, Gerald Fitzgerald (qv). As the talks dragged on through 1537 and beyond, James claimed that if he were given command of 300 royal soldiers he would restore order to Munster.
Clearly, he perceived that an alliance with the crown would secure his own highly uncertain position within Desmond. Warding off rare royal incursions into Munster was the least of his concerns. Although preeminent in the earldom and in much of Munster, he struggled to hold his ramshackle and sprawling lordship together, as many of his vassals sought to break free from his grasp. He was involved in constant fighting with his vassal lords in east Cork, with the various MacCarthy clans in west Cork and south Kerry, and with the Butlers in south Tipperary. He also had to keep a wary eye on his brother Maurice ‘an Torteain’ (of the burnings) who had a reputation for cruelty and treachery and whom he was obliged to imprison temporarily in spring 1538. The earls of Desmond had been estranged from the crown ever since James's grandfather and 8th earl of Desmond, Thomas Fitzgerald (qv), had been executed for treason in 1468. During the intervening period, the earldom had been shaken by a series of prolonged and debilitating internal power struggles. James had the foresight to see that only reconciliation with the crown could end this cycle of violence.
That said, he was determined to negotiate a hard bargain, was confident that the crown did not have the resources to crush him militarily, and was suspicious of the government's motives. The manner in which the crown had executed virtually all the leading members of the Kildare Fitzgerald dynasty in 1537 caused profound mistrust in Ireland. Further impeding a settlement was the deceptive ease with which the crown had overthrown the Kildare Fitzgeralds in 1534–5, which caused the king and many of his officials (but significantly not Grey) to harbour unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved by military force in Ireland. The Butlers encouraged this attitude in order to advance their own goals.
In an apparently conciliatory gesture, James delivered his eldest son, Thomas, to the authorities in March 1538, but Thomas (having been bastardised) was not his heir and therefore of little value as a hostage. Then in July Grey met with him near Limerick and agreed informally to recognise him as earl of Desmond, after which James half-heartedly supported the lord deputy's campaign against the O'Briens of Thomond. It soon emerged that he had once more duped the English: despite his assurances of loyalty, he helped broker the formation in spring 1539 of a nationwide rebel confederacy, known as the Geraldine League, that pledged itself to securing the restoration of the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare. In July 1539 he invaded the Butler territories in Tipperary in order to prevent Butler from defending the Pale against the onslaughts of the northern members of the Geraldine League. Significantly, he did not attack the Pale despite promising his northern allies that he would do so, thereby signalling that the main focus of his hostility was the Butlers (against whom he maintained a relentless series of assaults throughout the summer and autumn) and not the government. In November–December Grey and Butler entered Munster in great strength, received the submission of all the leading lords in Co. Cork, and captured the Desmond territories of Imokilly and Kerrycurrihy. These Desmond territories were handed over to James fitz Maurice, who had belatedly returned to prosecute his claim to the earldom after a four-year absence in London.
Concord with the crown Secure in his Co. Limerick redoubt, James fitz John remained undaunted and his men shouted their defiance at Grey across the swollen and impassable Blackwater river in December; the lord deputy withdrew from the province soon after. Then on 19 March 1540 fitz Maurice unwisely moved inland from his base and was waylaid and slain near Fermoy by a party led by James's brother Maurice ‘an Torteain’. James moved speedily to reoccupy Imokilly and Kerrycurrihy and to impose his authority in Co. Cork once more. The elimination of fitz Maurice removed a key obstacle to James's settlement with the crown. Just as important was the realisation of both sides that they would have to moderate their terms following five years of intermittent and inconclusive warfare. Crucially Butler, by then 9th earl of Ormond, was willing to drop his claims to the earldom of Desmond for the sake of peace. Indeed, it was Ormond who took the lead in this reconciliation by beginning negotiations with James on behalf of the king in May and by arranging his receipt of a royal pardon in July.
However, the final resolution awaited the arrival of the new lord deputy, Sir Anthony St Leger (qv), who came to Ireland in September having been empowered to pacify Ireland by conciliating the autonomous Irish lords. St Leger had determined on doing so by recognising these lords’ claim to their lands and by seeking to govern Ireland in conjunction with them, and quickly came to see amicable relations with James as providing the best advertisement for what became known as the policy of ‘surrender and regrant’.
In January 1541 James met with St Leger at Cashel and then formally submitted to him at Cahir, Co. Tipperary, on 16 January before a crowd of about 200 Irish lords and a number of royal officials and clergy. As part of this submission he agreed to accept the revival of royal government in Munster and renounced the pope, in return for which he was formally recognised as 14th earl of Desmond and sworn a member of the Irish privy council. On 18 January St Leger brokered an indenture between Desmond and Ormond, whereby Ormond dropped his claim to the earldom of Desmond and both men agreed to accept arbitration regarding their various legal and property disputes. In gestures laden with symbolism, Desmond donned English attire and accompanied St Leger into Limerick city, thus becoming the first earl of Desmond to enter a walled town since 1468. That summer he also became the first earl of Desmond to attend the Irish parliament since 1468.
On visiting the Desmond lordship, St Leger was struck by its war-torn and poverty-stricken condition: Desmond himself may have wielded great power, but he was virtually penniless and badly needed a period of peace if his personal revenues were to improve. At his first meeting with the lord deputy, Desmond quickly grasped both the import of St Leger's surrender-and-regrant scheme, and that he could exploit it to advance his own authority in Munster; indeed, it was in line with proposals he had made as early as 1537. In June 1542 he travelled to London, where he rendered personal homage to the king; he used an interpreter, as he could not speak English. Impressed by the humility he displayed in the royal presence and by his evident astuteness, Henry acknowledged his possession of the former Kildare manors of Crome and Adare in Co. Limerick, rewarded him with £133, and advanced one of his supporters to the bishopric of Emly.
The royal earl From 1541 Fitzgerald was appointed to a number of royal commissions for the maintenance of law and order in Munster, which had the cumulative effect of making him the royal governor of the counties of Kerry, Cork, and Limerick, and of parts of Co. Waterford. These powers both reflected and augmented his authority as earl of Desmond. While executing these commissions he could rely on royal military support, as demonstrated in September 1542 when St Leger reinforced him personally with 400 royal soldiers with which to put down the opposition of the MacCarthy clans in Cork and Kerry. On this occasion St Leger and Desmond accepted on behalf of the king the submission of all the leading lords in this region. It cannot have been lost on anyone present that they were also submitting to Desmond, albeit in his capacity as the king's representative.
It was probably during this campaign that St Leger and Desmond proceeded with the dissolution of the monasteries within Desmond's sphere of influence. The right to oversee this process in Munster and to benefit from the resulting spoils had been one of his main demands during his negotiations with the crown in 1539. Accordingly (1 August 1541) St Leger had appointed him head of a royal commission established to suppress the religious houses in Co. Limerick, Co. Cork, and Co. Kerry. His influence over the subsequent dissolution process can be gleaned from the fact that nearly all the monasteries in this area were suppressed in name only, being placed in the custody of either Desmond or of his local clients who allowed the monks to remain on the property. While he was pragmatic enough to accept the break with Rome, he, like most of his peers, had no time for the religious novelties being promoted in England.
Bolstered by the prestige and power of the crown, he proceeded to impose order on Munster. Later the 1542–58 period came to be seen as the sole period of peace and stability for the province in an otherwise bloody and turbulent sixteenth century. In 1553 one of his supporters in the government declared that JPs could traverse the counties of Limerick, Cork, and Kerry, and have their judgments peacefully enforced. The reality may have been more rough and ready, but it is difficult to gainsay the verdict of his obituary in the Annals of the Four Masters: ‘the loss of this good man was woeful to the country for there was no need to watch cattle or close doors from Dun-caoin in [west] Kerry to the green bordered meetings of the three waters [the confluence of the rivers Suir, Nore, and Barrow near Waterford city]’ (AFM, v, 156). When violence did erupt, he could be relied on to take the crown's side, as he proved by apprehending the feuding White Knight and Lord Roche in 1543, by sending 120 of his men to serve Henry VIII in his war in France in 1544, and by intervening against rebels in the midlands in 1546–7.
The government rewarded him generously for his efforts by granting him the manors of Crome and Adare for life in 1546, as well as leases of and the right to purchase cheaply various former monastic properties in Munster throughout the 1540s. Under St Leger's indulgent gaze he simply declined to pay the rents on the lands that he leased. A further benefit of his enhanced stature was his ability to reassert his control over his own vassals. During the early sixteenth century the Fitzmaurice barons of Kerry and the Fitzgerald lords of the Decies in Waterford had largely emancipated themselves from the Desmond overlordship. In the 1540s Desmond was able to subdue the Fitzmaurices once more, but had less success in the Decies, where the loss of the manor and castle of Dungarvan to the Butlers in the 1530s had undermined the earldom's power.
By 1546 St Leger and Ormond had fallen out and engaged in a bitter power struggle. Inevitably Desmond became embroiled in this conflict, and his previously dormant jurisdictional disputes with Ormond suddenly flared up at this time, although open violence was averted. In 1546 Ormond's allies accused St Leger of corruption in relation to the distribution of suppressed monastic property, and suborned Edmund Sexton, a former agent of Desmond, to charge the earl and St Leger of colluding to deprive the king of revenues. On 20 March 1546 Desmond was among a group of Irish nobles who saw St Leger off at Dublin as he embarked for England to defend himself from these allegations; he also signed a letter praising St Leger's rule of Ireland in the strongest terms. In the event, St Leger successfully cleared himself and Desmond, and Sexton was imprisoned in London in May. Ormond's sudden death that September, leaving a minor as his successor, handed St Leger an unchallenged ascendancy over Irish politics and meant that Desmond was now the leading noble in Ireland. Reflecting this status, King Edward VI appointed Desmond in succession to Ormond to the highly prestigious, albeit honorary, position of high treasurer of Ireland in March 1547. In 1548 he was made admiral of the coast from Dungarvan to Galway city.
Political and dynastic difficulties However, St Leger's removal from office in May 1548 encouraged many of Desmond's enemies in Munster to oppose him, leading to an upsurge in violence in the province, which the new lord deputy, Sir Edward Bellingham (qv), blamed on the earl. About this time, Desmond embarked on a long-running feud with Murchadh O'Brien (qv), 1st earl of Thomond, which defied numerous attempts by government officials to mediate a resolution. In order to buttress his position in August 1548 he summoned an assembly of the leading Munster lords, from whom he extracted an oath of personal loyalty. Bellingham interpreted this as potentially treasonous and in December unexpectedly visited Desmond in one of his castles accompanied by armed guards, compelling the earl to return with him to Dublin, where he may have been briefly imprisoned. The outbreak of a civil war within the lordship of Thomond after the first earl's death in 1551 further strained Desmond's relations with the government, as he supported his ally Donal O'Brien in opposition to the crown's candidate for the earldom. Then (1552) he was suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to procure a French invasion of Munster. These reports were almost certainly untrue, but the willingness of many English officials to believe them demonstrated the widespread scepticism within the royal administration of his worth and reliability as an ally. However, Bellingham's term of office had ended in late 1549, and his immediate successors to the lord deputyship – St Leger (September 1550–April 1551), Sir James Croft (qv) (May 1551–December 1552), and St Leger again (November 1553–May 1556) – proved more sympathetic. Desmond's relations with the government were generally good but his influence had ebbed perceptibly since his mid 1540s heyday.
Meanwhile his own family was also causing him problems. In 1548 his brother Maurice had flirted with the Butlers, due to his discontent at his perceived lack of favour, and in 1551 Desmond had to apprehend both Maurice and his own son and heir, Gerald, for conducting unauthorised cattle raids. Eventually he appeased Maurice by granting him ownership of the territory of Kerrycurrihy, Co. Cork. Desmond calculated that Maurice would be too preoccupied with maintaining himself within this isolated Fitzgerald enclave to challenge his position. The behaviour of his guileless and headstrong son Gerald caused him far more concern and, together with the worsening political climate, accounts for the foreboding with which he regarded his dynasty's future towards the end of his life. In 1547 King Edward had suggested that Gerald be brought up as his companion at the royal court, and Desmond's refusal of this offer has been seen as a serious mistake that deprived his successor of the chance to forge valuable contacts in London. However, the fate of Desmond's old rival James fitz Maurice demonstrated starkly the dangers of spending too long at court; while, given the dysfunctional nature of Gerald's personality, his prolonged exposure to England's royal elite could well have proved disastrous. Nonetheless it became increasingly apparent during the 1550s that the earldom of Desmond would soon fall into far less capable hands.
In 1551, Desmond was appointed head of a commission authorised to enforce in Munster the radical protestant reforms sponsored by the Edwardian regime. As a result he is said to have banned the open celebration of the traditional mass in his jurisdiction and closed down many of the religious houses that had survived the initial dissolution campaigns of 1541–3. However, he was uncomfortable with the Edwardian innovations and also refused to countenance the new protestant ritual. The authorities were careful not to tread too brusquely on his religious sensibilities, and when they forced the resignation of the catholic-sympathising bishop of Limerick in April 1551, they permitted Desmond to choose his replacement.
Constitutional opposition to the crown He welcomed the accession of Queen Mary in 1553 and the resulting restoration of catholicism as the state religion, but he found her political policies much less congenial. Since 1546 the crown had alternated erratically between conciliation and coercion, with Desmond's political stock rising and falling in tandem. However, there was an unmistakable drift away from ‘surrender and regrant’ towards a policy of military conquest of recalcitrant Irish lords, and of the settlement of parts of Ireland with English colonists. In response Desmond sought to integrate himself more closely into the royal administration of Ireland, and in 1555 lobbied to be appointed lord president (governor) of Munster, which he believed would insulate him from the whims of royal viceroys in Dublin. However, the circumstances of St Leger's final recall (1556) doomed his chances. Investigations uncovering the corrupt administration of royal finances and of confiscated monastic property during the 1540s led to the political disgrace and removal from power of Desmond's closest ally, and largely discredited the ‘surrender and regrant’ programme in official circles. Moreover, these inquiries revealed that Desmond owed substantial arrears in rent to the crown for former monastic properties, and pressure was brought to bear on him to repay these debts. His attempts to curry favour with the devoutly catholic queen in 1557, by highlighting the manner in which he had preserved many religious houses during the two previous reigns, availed him little.
St Leger's successor as lord deputy, Thomas Radcliffe (qv), later 3rd earl of Sussex, embarked on an aggressive programme of military expansionism in Ulster and of plantation in the midlands which angered established interests in Ireland. Munster was not a priority for Sussex so his relations with Desmond were outwardly amicable, but the earl was unsettled by the long-term implications of these initiatives. Furthermore the few interventions Sussex did make in the province were designed to undermine Desmond's power there. It was clear that the government no longer viewed him as a partner in the administration of Munster but as an over-mighty magnate whose wings needed to be clipped. During 1558 Sussex encouraged attempts by Lord Roche and by the MacCarthys of Muskerry, both of Co. Cork, to throw off Desmond's rule. Most galling of all was Sussex's promotion of his friend Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, who, having attained adulthood and benefiting from government support, began to assert himself against Desmond from 1556.
The 1541 Desmond–Ormond indenture had left unresolved two issues, which now re-emerged to become the focus for renewed violence. The first concerned the right to levy customs duties on wines imported into the ports of Youghal and Kinsale, which had long been in contention between the earls of Ormond and Desmond. The second concerned a number of formerly Fitzgerald manors in south Tipperary that had passed to the 9th earl of Ormond as the dowry of his wife Joan Fitzgerald. Desmond had acknowledged Joan's rights to these manors, but by arranging her remarriage to his heir Gerald (1550), he believed he had effectively recovered them for his dynasty. However, Ormond held that these lands remained part of the Butler lordship and were subject to the jurisdiction of his palatinate law court in Tipperary, something that Desmond hotly contested. With Sussex's help, Ormond secured a series of favourable rulings in these disputes, which Desmond refused to accept, leading to a series of raids and counter-raids between the earls’ respective followers.
In early 1558 Desmond threw his weight behind a concerted campaign by leading Irish landowners, particularly within the Pale, to secure Sussex's dismissal. This attempt was orchestrated by Gerald Fitzgerald, for whom Desmond had provided sanctuary in 1536–7, and who had since been restored as 11th earl of Kildare. In order to cement his alliance with the revived house of Kildare, Desmond restored the manors of Crome and Adare to the earl. In February 1558 he complained to the queen at the oppressiveness of Sussex's government and in particular at the quartering of royal soldiers on the Pale. He advocated a return to St Leger's gradual reforms, arguing that military action would achieve little and make it difficult to regain the trust of the Gaelic Irish. Instead he called for power to be delegated to local lords, and renewed his appeal to be made president of Munster. He also accused Sussex of corruption and called for a royal commission to be sent from England to investigate and to reform the royal administration in Ireland. Despite the political reversals of the 1550s he never contemplated a return to the isolationism of the pre-1541 period, and sought to advance his goals by cooperating with established interests elsewhere on the island.
His efforts failed to unseat Sussex, but he remained sufficiently powerful for the lord deputy to refrain from seeking revenge for Desmond's open opposition to his rule. In summer 1558 Sussex visited Desmond in Munster and patched up an uneasy reconciliation; the lord deputy stood godfather to the earl's newborn son James. By the start of August, Desmond had fallen terminally ill and he died on 14 October. He was buried on 1 November in the Franciscan friary at Askeaton, Co. Limerick.
After the death of his second wife (1548), he had married by February 1550 Katherine, daughter of Piers Butler (qv), 8th earl of Ormond. She died in March 1553 and soon after he married Ellen, daughter of Domhnall MacCarthy Mor (qv). His final marriage produced a son and a daughter.