Fitzgerald, Sir John fitz Edmund (c.1528–1612), landowner and loyalist, was the son of Edmund fitz James Fitzgerald, lay dean of Cloyne, and his concubine Honor Ní Donogh, a woman of Muskerry. Both his father and his grandfather, James fitz William, had enjoyed a degree of local prominence by establishing a de facto hereditary hold over the deanery of Cloyne and with it the church lands comprising the manor of Cloyne, but they were essentially minor members of the Fitzgeralds of Imokilly, Co. Cork, who were in turn a branch of the Fitzgerald earls of Desmond. Fitz William succeeded in founding this clerical dynasty by supporting the crown's efforts to extend its power into south Munster even at the expense of his traditional overlords, the earls of Desmond – a strategy continued by his son and grandson, with moderate and spectacular success respectively. Although illegitimate, fitz Edmund (as he was usually called by contemporaries) was his father's eldest son and partial heir, receiving as of right about 3,000 acres after fitz James's death, which had occurred by 1560. Initially, the crown nominated one William Flynn as dean of Cloyne, but the government had no means of enforcing this appointment and fitz Edmund also succeeded his father to the property associated with the deanery, probably residing in the episcopal castle at Cloyne.
First Desmond rebellion, 1569–73 Worsening relations from 1565 between Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), earl of Desmond, and the crown highlighted fitz Edmund's usefulness to the royal authorities, who formally recognised him as dean of Cloyne in 1566 even though he was never ordained. In January 1568 he escorted royal officials sent to Munster through hostile territory. Later that year Desmond, then imprisoned in the Tower of London, requested his assistance in collecting his rents, indicating fitz Edmund's growing influence. He sided with the crown when the first Desmond rebellion broke out in summer 1569, for which he was made sheriff of Co. Cork and authorised to enforce martial law in early 1570. As such, he maintained his own private forces to prosecute the rebels in battle and executed many close relatives. However, by May 1572 repeated rebel attacks on his property and supporters had reduced him to financial straits, preventing him from continuing in his military role. He withdrew to London for much of 1572 to petition for compensation, being supported in this by leading members of the Dublin administration. This mission resulted in 1573 in the grant of church lands in Imokilly.
The rebellion was finally suppressed in early 1573, but the earl of Desmond's escape from royal confinement and return to Munster that November, for the first time in six years, threatened a resumption of hostilities and led to a prolonged standoff between the Fitzgeralds and the state. During this time, fitz Edmund urged Desmond to remain loyal, and a compromise settlement was eventually reached in September 1574. However, in summer 1574 he had been one of many Geraldines who signed a document pledging to assist Desmond by force of arms if the crown did not offer reasonable terms. This departure from his otherwise steadfast loyalism may be the product of strong-arm tactics by Desmond, or may reflect an attempt by fitz Edmund to win the earl's confidence and thereby persuade him to submit to the crown. Once this crisis had passed, Desmond formally enfeoffed all his property to fitz Edmund and two others to hold in trust. This purely legal transfer was designed to safeguard the Desmond inheritance should the earl subsequently be attainted, and demonstrates that fitz Edmund did enjoy Desmond's trust.
During the resulting period of peace, fitz Edmund improved his landed position and finances. In the mid 1560s he had signed an agreement with the then bishop of Cork and Cloyne, Roger Skiddy, which was ostensibly designed to transfer some small amounts of church property to fitz Edmund at a reasonable rent. In fact, he had duped the bishop into signing a document that conveyed all the church property in the diocese of Cloyne to him and his heirs at a yearly rent of five marks, which was approximately one per cent of its true value. In 1575 Skiddy's successor as bishop, who was unaware of the original fraud, was presented with this document and agreed to accept this transfer in return for a single payment of £40. This despoliation of the diocese of Cloyne gave fitz Edmund virtually unencumbered possession of over 7,700 acres and became something of a cause célèbre among royal and Church of Ireland officials well into the seventeenth century.
Having accumulated about 10,000 acres, he proceeded to develop them commercially. By the end of the 1570s, he had stocked his lands with at least 3,200 cows, 1,000 horses, 1,457 pigs, and – most remarkably – 21,500 sheep and goats, which would suggest that he exported wool to England. He also owned six water mills and at least six castles, and appears to have invested heavily in developing the town of Midleton. His foresight in this regard reflects the manner in which he was able throughout his career to exploit his knowledge of both the Gaelic and English worlds to advance his own interests. He became widely renowned for his learning and his generous hospitality to strangers.
Second Desmond rebellion, 1579–83 As before, he was one of the few landowners in Munster who reliably upheld the crown throughout the second Desmond revolt of 1579–83, maintaining six of his castles as outposts for the crown, which agreed to subsidise his personal military entourage by adding some of them to its army payroll. As before, his lands were subjected to persistent rebel attacks, being raided sixty-six times between November 1579 and May 1581 alone. The main culprits were his neighbour, first cousin, namesake, and seneschal of Imokilly, John fitz Edmund Fitzgerald (qv) (d. 1589), and in particular David Barry (qv), also a near neighbour and later 3rd Viscount Buttevant. There was a preexisting rivalry between fitz Edmund and the Barry family for control of various properties in Co. Cork, and Barry exploited the rebellion to prosecute this feud relentlessly. In May 1581 fitz Edmund estimated he had suffered financial losses of over £6,000, not counting the burning of the town of Cloyne and of Ballycotton castle and the murder of some of his tenants. Due to these losses and his hopes of acquiring his rebel neighbours' land, he associated himself closely with various English officers serving in Munster, including Sir Warham St Leger (qv) and Sir Walter Ralegh (qv), who advocated an uncompromising stance towards the rebels and were fiercely critical of Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond and general of the royal forces in Munster, for his perceived softness. In spring 1582 fitz Edmund helped them secure Ormond's dismissal from his military command by accusing him of releasing known rebels.
The second Desmond revolt proved unprecedented in its destructiveness and intensity. In a bid to economise, the government ran down its military establishment in Ireland during winter 1581–2, as a result of which fitz Edmund's military subsidy was withdrawn. Moreover, famine and plague were causing mass mortality in Munster by early 1582, apparently claiming all but thirty out of fitz Edmund's 600 followers. In summer 1582 the government permitted him to import grain from England to feed his supporters, but this design was frustrated by local officials in the English ports. Despite his many tribulations, the second Desmond rebellion presented him with a great opportunity for self-enrichment in the long run. In January 1583 he arranged royal pardons for large numbers of rebel landowners in Imokilly and the surrounding areas. This only partly reflected his desire to assist his neighbours, relatives, and friends; there can be no doubt that he extracted a heavy price for this service. These landowners stood to lose all their property to the crown due to their past rebelliousness; fitz Edmund appears to have offered to use his influence on their behalf, in return for which they transferred some or all of their land to him, either free of charge or at a low price.
Self-aggrandisement The final defeat of the Munster rebels in late 1583 left him perfectly poised to prosper under the new political dispensation. Crown sovereignty was belatedly established in Munster for the first time and he became a key figure in the local administration, serving continuously as a JP of Cork, being sheriff of the county in 1585–6, and sitting as MP for the county in the 1585–6 Irish parliament. Moreover, the queen granted him a pension of 100 marks a year in 1583, giving him a significant financial edge at a time when years of destructive warfare caused widespread social distress within Munster. Between 1584 and 1598 he exploited the crown's political and financial patronage to become one of the largest landowners in Munster. Some of his holdings were acquired by purchase and the legitimate use of a royal grant of confiscated land, but the vast majority were acquired by fraud, legal chicanery, intimidation, and outright theft, with the bulk of his victims being small landowners, minors, and widows.
Many landowners, impoverished by years of warfare, mortgaged their lands to him, which according to Irish custom meant that he could enjoy possession of the mortgaged property until his original loan was repaid. In practice, he refused to allow the former owners to redeem their property. Another tactic was to purchase certain lands from a relative of the real landowner and to use his influence to have the law courts accept this pseudo-purchase as legitimate. Often legal formalities were not required as he ‘persuaded’ landowners to accept him as their protector, which in practice meant he became their landlord, by stressing that the government was going to confiscate their lands anyway and that they would be better off as tenants to a fellow Irishman and catholic than to an English protestant. Those who proved unreceptive were liable to be expelled from their lands by his armed followers. He eventually accumulated 42,000 acres in Imokilly, depriving at least thirty landowners of at least some, if not all, of their property in the process, and thereby supplanting his cousin and namesake the seneschal of Imokilly as the dominant lord in the barony. To emphasise his elevated status, he married his son Edmund to the seneschal's widow. Elsewhere, he acquired some 17,000 acres in the rest of Co. Cork, over 5,000 acres in Co. Limerick, and nearly 20,000 acres in the Corca Dhuibhne peninsula in Co. Kerry, although much of this was barren and mountainous. In 1596 he was estimated to have an annual income of £1,000.
Plantation in Munster His property interests in lands earmarked for the proposed plantation of Munster led him to oppose that colonising venture, most vocally in his capacity as MP in the 1585–6 parliament. In May 1586 he was among a group of MPs who signed a protest that a number of Munster landowners who had been pardoned by the crown stood to lose their property under the act of attainder for the earl of Desmond and his followers. The same month he led the opposition within the house of commons to the act of attainder. He produced the feoffment made by Desmond in September 1574, and swayed most of his fellow MPs by arguing that as the earl had transferred his property to a trust some five years before he rebelled, the property in question could not be seized by the crown. At this point, government officials produced the document (which had since fallen into their hands), signed in July 1574 by fitz Edmund, Desmond, and others, pledging to resist the government by force if necessary. By proving that Desmond had engaged in treason shortly before the property conveyance and that fitz Edmund was implicated in it, this document discredited both fitz Edmund and his argument. The bill was passed unopposed and fitz Edmund fell into official disfavour for a time.
He kept a low profile after this setback and did not openly associate himself with the widespread political, legal, and physical resistance to the ensuing Munster plantation, while continuing assiduously to advance his property interests and to maintain his local hegemony in Imokilly. However, his land-grabbing activities and loyalism made him very unpopular among his compatriots, leading to a sustained series of complaints against him for his illegal proceedings, which some royal officials were prepared to countenance. The crown's English-born administrators distrusted the loyalty of all the Irish, and fitz Edmund's behaviour during the 1585–6 parliament had demonstrated that his agenda did not correspond wholly with theirs. More fundamentally, they were disturbed by his catholicism, which many of them believed was incompatible with loyalty to the protestant state. Although he appears to have attended Church of Ireland services and was nominally a Church of Ireland clergyman, he patronised the catholic clergy by allowing them to officiate at Cloyne cathedral and by maintaining Franciscan friars on his property at Timoleague.
Norris, Saxey, and fitz Edmund's position in Munster In summer 1588 reports (probably false) were spread at the royal court that he had arranged the marriage between his catholic godson Florence MacCarthy Reagh (qv) and the daughter and heiress of Donal MacCarthy Mór (qv), 1st earl of Clancare; the queen had forbidden this union and wanted Clancare's daughter married to an English protestant. Then, in April 1592, he had his men rough up the under-sheriff of Co. Cork, who was attempting to seize his brother-in-law's property in lieu of money owed to the crown. For this contempt of royal authority, he was brought before the court of castle chamber in Dublin in February 1593, fined, and imprisoned for a time. However, he easily weathered these squalls because most English officials took the pragmatic view that he was indispensable to the maintenance and administration of royal power in Co. Cork. The governor of Munster, Sir Thomas Norris (qv), was a close ally who shielded him from the intrigues of his many enemies and stood by him during the greatest political crisis of his career.
In February 1594 Norris took depositions from a number of O'Noonan freeholders at Tullylease, Co. Cork, who related how fitz Edmund had attempted to convince them to accept him as their landlord. In doing so, he had stressed that the English were a hateful and malicious nation, that the queen was determined to encompass the ruin of all Irish landowners, and that he would restore the O'Noonans to their property on the imminent triumph of the catholic religion and of the Fitzgeralds over the English. Such words could be construed as slanderous to the queen and therefore treason, but Norris saw this bluster for what it was and took no action, retaining the depositions in case he needed to use them against fitz Edmund at a later date.
There the matter rested until the arrival from England of William Saxey in early 1595 to take up the position of chief justice in Munster. Having no experience of Irish affairs and being very anti-catholic, Saxey became convinced of fitz Edmund's disloyalty after reading the aforementioned depositions and pressed for his prosecution, but was discouraged by his colleagues. Undeterred, he took matters into his own hands in May 1596 when he indicted fitz Edmund for treason and imprisoned him, pronouncing that he could not be bailed under any circumstances. However, Saxey was soon compelled to travel to Dublin, where he was rebuked by the Irish privy council while Norris freed fitz Edmund in his absence. Saxey complained that he dared not venture into the countryside for fear of being attacked by fitz Edmund's followers, and appealed that fitz Edmund be tried in England – believing, justifiably, that a trial conducted in Ireland would never convict him due to his political connections and financial resources. Instead, a commission was established in Dublin to investigate the charges, which acquitted fitz Edmund in spring 1597; he was formally pardoned on 26 May.
Undoubtedly the Dublin government regarded Saxey's prosecution as particularly ill-advised given that a rebellion, commenced in 1594 by a confederation of Ulster Gaelic lords, had begun to undermine the crown's grip on the entire island, placing a premium on reliably loyalist landowners such as fitz Edmund. During 1598 the Munster Irish rose against the government and came to dominate the countryside. Once again, fitz Edmund proved conspicuously loyal, in return for which rebel forces systematically devastated his estates in early 1600. In May 1600 he was involved in negotiations between the government and his godson Florence MacCarthy Reagh, in which his attempts to persuade MacCarthy Reagh to assist the royal army failed.
Soon afterwards fitz Edmund withdrew to Dublin, much to the annoyance of the president of Munster, Sir George Carew (qv), and to the queen's chief minister in London, Sir William Cecil, who both felt that he could have done more to help the royal cause. His old enemy David Barry also supported the crown on this occasion, but fitz Edmund and Barry do not appear to have cooperated with each other, despite being ordered to do so by the queen. Carew contrasted Barry's dynamic campaigning unfavourably with fitz Edmund's departure from the war zone, and suspected that his removal to Dublin was prompted by reports of the crown's plans to have James Fitzgerald (qv), son and heir to the last earl of Desmond, released from the Tower of London, restored to his title, and granted some property in order to pacify the rebellious Geraldines within Munster. Fitz Edmund may have feared that the proposed revival of the earldom of Desmond would reduce both his own influence and his prospects of acquiring property held by rebel landowners. While in Dublin, he caused further complications for Carew by securing a grant of the lands of Conna, Co. Cork, to which both Barry and an English captain in the royal army also held a claim.
As a result of this perceived obstreperousness, Cecil refused fitz Edmund's plea that he receive command of some royal forces to garrison his castles, noting presciently that he was rich enough and crafty enough to look after himself. Partly to stimulate his military ardour, the queen, while stressing that she believed him to be innocent, authorised an inquiry in August 1600 into complaints over fitz Edmund's past seizures of land. This attitude was perhaps too harsh. If fitz Edmund did not campaign as enthusiastically against the rebels as he had done on previous occasions, this may well have been due to the fact that his advanced age, his long and close association with a widely detested royal administration, and his own notoriety had lost him the support of the personal following he had previously enjoyed. In the immediate aftermath of the Munster uprising in December 1598, one English officer had noted that fitz Edmund could muster only a handful of men for the crown. Indeed, his son Thomas had joined the rebellion for a time.
In December 1600 he returned to Imokilly, where he entertained James Fitzgerald (who had just arrived in Munster) at his castle at Ballymaloe. He stressed his eagerness to assist Fitzgerald, although he may have been secretly relieved when the gambit proved ineffective and Fitzgerald returned to London. By 1601 the Munster rebels had been largely subdued and east Co. Cork was relatively quiet thereafter. In March 1602 the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy, spent a night at Ballymaloe and knighted fitz Edmund for his services.
Final years Following the final victory of the royal forces in 1603, nothing more is heard of inquiries into his past and he continued to acquire property by mortgage. By his death his estate totalled 84,000 acres. Attempts by Barry in 1604–5 to wrest Conna from him and by the Church of Ireland in 1607 to recover the property of the diocese of Cloyne were defeated. Then, in 1608, he consolidated his landed position by securing a surrender and regrant of all his property from the crown. This regrant also licensed him to export products into England; to oversee all tanning, baking, and shoemaking in Imokilly; and to hold Saturday fairs in various locations in Munster. To the very end, the crown turned a blind eye to his increasingly conspicuous catholicism, and the protestant clergy only gained control of Cloyne cathedral after his death. His final months were marred by the behaviour of his second son, Gerald, who – seeing that both his father and older brother Edmund were increasingly frail – sought to seize his father's estates for himself. Although Edmund only outlived his father by two months, Edmund's young son John fitz Edmund Fitzgerald II nonetheless succeeded to his grandfather's and namesake's extensive estates. Sir John fitz Edmund Fitzgerald died 15 January 1612 and was buried in Cloyne cathedral, where an altar tomb was erected in his memory.
He is said to have married Honora, daughter of Tadhg O'Brien and niece to Donough O'Brien (qv), 4th earl of Thomond, but this can only be the case if they married very late in his life; she cannot have been the mother of his children. He had at least five sons – James, Edmund, Gerald, Thomas, and Redmond – and two daughters, Joan and Eleanor. In his will he returned all the church land he possessed to the crown, but this was suppressed by his grandson and heir.