FitzGerald, Thomas (‘Silken Thomas’) (1513–37), 10th earl of Kildare , magnate and rebel, was the only son of Gerald FitzGerald (qv) (1487–1534), 9th earl of Kildare, lord deputy of Ireland, and his first wife, Elizabeth (d. 1517), daughter of Sir John Zouche of Codnor, Derbyshire, and his wife, Elizabeth St John of Beltso. Thomas was born in London but little is known about his upbringing or education. During his father's lifetime he was styled Lord Offaly . Following his mother's death, he was raised by Janet Eustace and her husband, Sir Walter Delahide, the 9th earl's steward. As a youth, he spent several years at the English court. Before December 1529, he married Frances, daughter of Sir Adrian Fortesque, knight of the bath, and co-heir of her mother, Anne, the daughter and heir of Sir William Stonor of Stonor, Oxford.
In spring 1533 Lord Offaly led an unsuccessful campaign against O'Reilly; in summer of that year he was again at court. The following November his father entrusted him with custody of the strategic border manor at Rathwire in Meath. Before he departed for court at the king's insistence early in 1534, Kildare summoned a council meeting at Drogheda at which he nominated Offaly, then aged twenty-one, as his vice-deputy during his absence. This decision shocked the earl's opponents, who viewed Thomas as ‘young and willful and most to this time ordered by light counsel’ (SP, Henry VIII, ii, 183). However, Kildare issued his son with strict instructions to act only on the advice of Delahide and his wife.
Having received Kildare, Henry VIII grew fearful that the feeble earl would soon die and that his allies in Ireland might stir up trouble for the incoming lord deputy, Sir William Skeffington (qv). Consequently, the king instructed Offaly to convene a council meeting at which his pleasure would be announced. However, Kildare preemptively dispatched a messenger to his son, warning him not to heed the advice of council members as this would result in his being sent to England and executed. Following consultation with the advisers designated by his father, Offaly called a council meeting on 11 June 1534. He arrived in Dublin accompanied by up to 1,000 infantry and cavalry. Guarded by 140 horsemen whose headpieces were ‘gorgeously embroidered with silk’ (Holinshed, vi, 292), whence his sobriquet, ‘Silken Thomas’, he rode through the city to St Mary's abbey, where the council was in session, surrendered the sword of state, and denounced royal policy.
Historians have advanced two interpretations of the motives behind this defiant act. Some argue that it was a reaction against deliberate Tudor policies of centralisation, directed at over-mighty magnates and encouraged by local humanist-inspired reformers. Others offer a more contingent explanation, interpreting it as a poorly calculated effort on Kildare's part to force the king into confirming him as lord deputy at a time when the political situation in England and Ireland was particularly delicate and unstable. For a period of two weeks Offaly awaited the king's response to his protest, canvassing support throughout the Pale and in Gaelic districts. However, after his father's arrest and imprisonment in London on 29 June, he escalated and intensified his campaign in an effort to paralyse English control of the lordship. Henry promised a pardon and Kildare's release but not his confirmation as deputy, which was Offaly's aim.
The mainstay of Thomas's support, particularly in the initial stage of the campaign, derived from the Kildares’ extensive bastard-feudal connections with Pale aristocracy and Gaelic septs. In an effort to muster support among the Englishry, he proclaimed a catholic crusade. He denounced Henry VIII as a heretic, ordered all those born in England to leave Ireland immediately, made contact with English and Welsh catholics and demanded an oath of allegiance to himself, the pope, and the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, who he hoped would send Spanish troops to support him. In this respect Offaly's strategy proved successful as, on the continent, religion was believed to be the true cause of the rebellion, and it also won him the support of several influential conservative clerics in Ireland. Charles V regarded the revolt as a timely diversion, which prevented Henry VIII from combining forces with the French while Charles pursued his expedition to Tunis in May 1535. The emperor advised Thomas to hold out against Henry VIII until he dispatched the promised force of 10,000 men in May 1535, thereby committing FitzGerald to a protracted and ultimately doomed campaign when a tactical surrender might have resulted in a partial restitution of his dynastic title and lands.
To replace Offaly, the Irish council elected as justiciar Richard Nugent (qv), Lord Delvin. Offaly's forces unsuccessfully besieged Dublin castle, while two of his armies campaigned in Louth and Wexford. As the siege of Dublin intensified in late July, several English-born officials fled the country, though John Alen (qv), archbishop of Dublin, was murdered by rebels at Artane in north Dublin on 27 July as he endeavoured to escape. In early August Offaly resumed the siege of Dublin and gradually asserted control over the Pale, Carlow, and Wexford, while his supporters Desmond, O'Brien, and the MacCarthys secured the south-west. Only the Butlers and the three cities of Dublin, Waterford, and Kilkenny opposed him. Following Gerald FitzGerald's death in the Tower of London on 2 September, Thomas succeeded as 10th earl. His father's demise crystallised Thomas's realisation that the possibility of compromise had been eliminated, and Henry VIII was now determined to crush the revolt. Kildare again besieged Dublin with an army of 15,000 men but despite being supported (however reluctantly) by the majority of Palesmen, the rebels were once more driven back from the city.
In mid-October, the nature of the campaign changed fundamentally when Sir William Skeffington's 2,300-strong army landed in Dublin, despite Kildare's initial success in preventing them from doing so. Most of the Pale gentry subsequently transferred their support to Skeffington, who travelled to Drogheda and at the high cross there had Kildare proclaimed ‘the most arrant traitor that ever was born’ (SP, Hen. VIII, ii, 206). Yet even after Kildare was attainted by the English parliament in December, the gentry of the Pale were reluctant to appear too strident in their opposition to him for fear that he, like his ancestors, might be pardoned.
To avoid a pitched battle with Skeffington's superior forces, Kildare pursued a defensive strategy. He withdrew to Maynooth castle, fortified the garrison with most of his munitions, and began recruiting substantial Gaelic forces in anticipation of a siege. He also burned surrounding districts in a ploy to drive out the English army. During the period 19 December 1534 to 6 January 1535, both sides observed a truce. Meanwhile, Kildare's forces steadily weakened. By December he was reported to have had no more than 100 men on horseback, 300 footmen, and ten handguns. The defection of his two uncles, Richard and James, to Skeffington's side soon after the latter's arrival was a severe setback. Moreover, several of his key personnel, including his sea captains, were captured, and two captains were stricken with disease – one contracted French pox and the other died of leprosy at Maynooth.
Consequently, when the campaign resumed in late February 1535, Kildare had effectively lost the initiative. By March Skeffington's forces had penetrated into Co. Kildare from their ring of garrisons around the Pale borders and there were skirmishes in the vicinity of Maynooth.
The highlight of the renewed campaign was the ten-day siege of Maynooth castle, which ended on 23 March when the fortress was surrendered by the constable, Christopher Paris (qv), for a bribe. The capture of Maynooth and the immediate summary execution of the majority of those taken prisoner despite their having surrendered on terms (the so-called ‘pardon of Maynooth’) dealt a shattering blow to Kildare's campaign and his credibility. The army he had raised to lift the siege dispersed on hearing about the executions and the earl fled for refuge, initially to Lea Castle in Co. Kildare and later to O'Brien's territory, whence he planned to sail for Spain to solicit military assistance. In May he dispatched his wife back to England (possibly because he would ‘have nothing to do with English blood’ (L. & P. Hen. VIII, viii, no.1019)).
Though dispossessed of his earldom, Kildare prolonged his campaign into the summer months, still hopeful of receiving aid from Charles V: in June, he sent his two closest allies, James Delahide and Parson Walsh, to seek Spanish aid. However, by late summer, his strongholds in Kildare and Carlow were warded with English garrisons. His former Gaelic supporters, notably Con Bacach O'Neill (qv), Conall O'More (qv), and McMurrough submitted to Skeffington, and Piers Ruadh Butler (qv), earl of Ossory, stirred dissension among Kildare's few remaining allies. The earl then returned to Kildare where, accompanied by his brother-in-law Brian O'Connor (qv), he found refuge in the woods and bogs of Allen. Skeffington's army was poorly equipped to capture rebels in hiding in the Gaelic midlands. In early August, Sir William Brabazon (qv) and his forces, accompanied by O'More, attacked the earl in Allen, but although Kildare and some of his men were captured, O'More allowed them to escape. William Keating, captain of the earl's household kerne, was, however, among those captured and he agreed to co-operate with the English army to drive his lord out of the fastness of Kildare. When Skeffington threatened to pursue them with a force of 1,000 kerne, the earl and O'Connor, despairing of Spanish assistance, surrendered on 24 August 1535.
The circumstances and terms of Kildare's surrender to his uncle-in-law, Lord Leonard Grey (qv), who had recently replaced Skeffington as army marshal, are controversial. Kildare requested pardon for his life and estates, and was promised his life by Grey. However, while satisfied with the capture of the fugitive rebel, Henry VIII was displeased by the conditions of his submission. Following the advice of his leading councillors, the king resolved to have the earl and leading male members of the FitzGerald family of Kildare executed.
In the third week of September 1535 Grey escorted Kildare to London where Henry initially gave the impression that he was likely to grant the earl a pardon. Kildare circulated freely about the court and had an audience with the king, but in early October he was arrested and imprisoned in the cell in the Beauchamp Tower where his father had died more than a year before. During his incarceration the earl suffered deprivation of money and warm clothing. Some time later his five uncles, two of whom had assisted Skeffington and another who had not participated in the revolt, were also imprisoned in the Tower. Grey's pleas that his promise to Kildare be honoured were ignored by the king and courtiers, including the duke of Norfolk (qv). The act of attainder of the 9th earl, passed by the Irish parliament in May 1536, deprived Thomas of the title 10th earl. Another act of attainder against Kildare and his five uncles was passed in the English parliament in July and all six were executed at Tyburn on 3 February 1537. Kildare's uncles were hanged, beheaded, and quartered, but he was hanged and beheaded. His body was buried in the priory of the Crutched Friars situated on Tower Hill. He died without issue.
Traditionally Thomas was portrayed as an impetuous, gullible youth whose rash reaction to false rumours of his father's execution broke the earl's heart and precipitated the demise of the Kildare dynasty. That distorted interpretation originated with the Dublin-born chronicler, Richard Stanihurst (qv), tutor to the restored 11th earl of Kildare's children. Stanihurst portrayed the revolt as an isolated, uncharacteristic lapse on the part of an otherwise loyal dynasty. He blamed the revolt entirely on Thomas, whom he styled a ‘brainless boy’ in order to exonerate the rest of the Kildare dynasty from responsibility for the youth's errant actions (Holinshed, vi, 308). However, several of his contemporaries viewed Thomas in an altogether more favourable light. Eustace Chapuys, Spanish ambassador to London, described him as ‘a young man of much wit, brave and bold who is very popular in that country [Ireland]’ (CSP, Spain, v, no. 70). The Gaelic annalists hailed him as ‘the best man of the English in Ireland in his time’ (AFM, v, 1443–5) and declared ‘there never lived, of all the Galls of Ireland, a man of his years whose death was a greater loss, both as regards humanity and military leadership, than this Thomas, the earl's son’ (Ann. Conn., 689). Departing from Stanihurst's simplistic and disingenuous interpretation of the Kildare revolt, modern historians instead stress the complexity of the political difficulties with which Thomas was forced to contend in 1534–5.