Messingham, Thomas (c.1575–1638?), church reformer, hagiographer, and third rector of the Irish College, Paris, was of Old English stock in Co. Meath. It is likely that he received his early formation locally or in Dublin. He was sent abroad for further education, probably during the 1590s, and entered the Irish college at Douai, founded in 1595 by fellow Meath-man Christopher Cusack (qv) (d. 1624). At Douai he joined a number of Meath students, including Luke Rochford (qv) (d. c.1631) and the future bishop of Meath, Thomas Dease (qv) (c.1572–1650). He also made the acquaintance of David Rothe (qv) (1572–1650) and John Roche (c.1575–1636), future bishops of Ossory and Ferns respectively. As Messingham began his studies in Douai, efforts to organise Irish clerical students and priests into a permanent Irish college were afoot in Paris. The relative peace following the edict of Nantes (1598) made Paris a more attractive gathering point for the migrant Irish. At some date before 1600 Thomas Dease moved to Paris. Messingham followed him and joined the staff of the Irish college there. Messingham was appointed rector after Dease's nomination as bishop of Meath in 1621. He was still rector in 1632.
David Rothe praised Messingham lavishly in a sermon delivered at the Irish college on 1 February 1620, and his name is mentioned in glowing terms in the commendatory letter of Irish prelates in favour of the Irish college. Supported by Dease and Rothe he helped secure funding for the college by gaining the patronage of the de L'Escalopier family. It was to this end that in 1624 Messingham dedicated his collection of Irish saints’ lives, Florilegium (Paris, 1624), to Jean de L'Escalopier's two sons. This was an important work in the revival of interest in the Irish saints. From the late 1610s at least Messingham had been engaged in researching the lives of the early Irish saints and in 1620 he published in Paris the offices of the three national patrons and of Saints Finian and Canice. In March 1623 he met the Franciscans Aodh Mac Cathmhaoil (qv), Patrick Fleming (qv) and Aodh Mac an Bhaird (qv), to arrange for cooperation in gathering material on the Irish saints. The Franciscans were in Paris investigating the possibility of establishing their own college there. The arrangement produced some fruit but fell through later. There is evidence that Messingham participated in a literary circle that included Archbishop James Ussher (qv) of Dublin.
As well as ensuring financial patronage for the college, Messingham was anxious to assure its status within the university of Paris. In 1623 King Louis XIII recognised the existence of an Irish seminary and gave it the right to accept donations and bequests. Messingham had to work hard, against Irish competition, to maintain access to these funds. In 1624 the seminary was recognised by the University of Paris but it was not granted the status of college and remained directly under the authority of the university rector. A regime was agreed by the archbishop of Paris in 1626, the same year in which Pope Urban VIII granted Irish bishops the right to ordain candidates before they undertook their seminary training abroad. Messingham ran into difficulties over his alleged preference for Leinster and Meath students, a fact that indicates that the Paris college did not avoid the ethnic tensions which disturbed the tranquillity of so many fledgling Irish colleges in the early seventeenth century.
Messingham's privileged position in Paris enabled him to build up an important network of contacts in Ireland, where a new generation of bishops and clergy was coming to prominence. Many of them were his contemporaries from Douai and Paris. Some were fellow-Meathmen such as Thomas Dease, Peter Caddell, Patrick Cahill, and Laurence Sedgrave, but others were from further afield such as David Rothe, Hugh O'Reilly (qv), archbishop of Armagh, and Eugene Sweeney, bishop of Kilmore. Messingham was also close to Edmund O'Dwyer (qv), bishop of Limerick. His judgement was valued and sought by his colleagues in Ireland. His political role had already been recognised in 1611 when Henry Fitzsimon (qv), SJ, praised him for his services to his homeland. In 1615 David Rothe addressed material to Messingham concerning elections to the parliament of 1613–15, especially regarding the campaign for the relaxation of anti-recusant legislation. This may have been to solicit Messingham's own opinion on the matter, but he was also expected, no doubt, to pass the information on to appropriate contacts at the palace and nunciature in Paris and, of course, to Rome. Messingham, politically speaking, is best described as an Old English conservative. Some inkling of his political sentiment can be gleaned from a letter of his to Luke Wadding (qv) (1588–1657), dated 15 July 1630. This was written in the wake of the crackdown by the lords justices, Adam Loftus (qv) and Richard Boyle (qv), earl of Cork, on the catholic community in Dublin, which began in 1629 and led to the razing of the Franciscan house in Cooke St. and the handing over of the Jesuit college in Back Lane to Trinity College. In the concluding passage, Messingham informs Wadding that a number of agents were recently sent by the Irish clergy to the queen of England imploring the restoration of ‘their former libertie or connivasion of religion’. He was not sanguine about their chances of success and commented that in the past such liberty was abused ‘by their continual jarrs amongst themselves and by their building of churches and keeping publick schooles’. Messingham believed that keeping a low profile was the best means to secure the catholic church's future under a protestant government. He criticised ecclesiastical disputes in Ireland, especially those that pitted seculars against regulars, and he did not approve of all clerical appointments in the country. He commented that ‘when there are fewer bishops, priests and friars in the countrey, the people were more fervent in their devotion, more zealous in religions and lesse scandals seene among all sorts of churchmen then is nowadays’.
Messingham's desk in Paris acted as a sorting house for the ecclesiastical post moving between Ireland and Rome. He was often asked to write testimonials for ecclesiastics, and his knowledge of Irish affairs made him useful to the Paris nuncio and to Propaganda fide. Like his contemporary Luke Wadding in Rome, Messingham exercised an influence on clerical appointments in Ireland in the 1620s and 1630s. Also, from the mid 1620s he was in a position to exercise some influence in the Roman datary, a department of the papal government that had traditionally adjudicated and approved certain clerical appointments. Datary influence may help explain how Messingham was appointed dean of the chapter of St Patrick's, Dublin, in March 1624 and also how his co-diocesans, the sometimes turbulent Luke Rochford, Peter Caddell, and Peter Cahill received datary appointments in Dublin and Meath. Messingham appears to have used his influence to help Thomas Dease to overawe regular clergy in Meath diocese by ensuring that diocesan priests were appointed to the old monastic offices. This prevented the religious or regulars making property or presentation claims. Messingham himself was appointed prior of the hospital of St John at Trim in 1624. William Dease, probably the bishop's nephew, was appointed in 1627 to the priory at Fore, while in 1628 Oliver Dease was appointed to the Augustinian priory in Navan. Messingham was no friend of the regular clergy and in 1634 he opposed the handing over of the nascent Irish college in Rome to the Jesuits.
Although his influence was useful to Thomas Dease, it proved irksome to the archbishop of Dublin, Thomas Fleming (qv) (1593–1651), OFM, son of the baron of Slane, who came to resent the influence of Messingham's Dublin circle. In the ferocious pamphlet war that pitted his Dublin protégés against Dublin regulars and the archbishop in the late 1620s and early 1630s, Messingham inevitably took his friends’ side and helped present their extravagant accusations against the regulars for judgement by the faculty of Paris in 1631. This was part of a larger dispute over the respective influence of secular and regular clergy that convulsed the English and Irish catholic churches at the time. The success of Messingham's activities in Paris on behalf of his protégés later proved embarrassing to the Irish bishops and may have contributed to the decline in Messingham's influence in the 1630s.
Despite the demands of his ecclesiastical duties, Messingham maintained a range of contacts in Ireland, as a surviving batch of his letters from 1634 reveals. These speak of the many favours he performed for lay patrons and friends in Ireland and also of the hardships endured by the Irish community during times of penury and famine in France. He was particularly grateful for the odd barrel of butter or herring from Ireland. He probably died in 1638 and may have travelled outside France prior to this. During his career he was an important figure in the formative years of the Irish college. He played a pivotal role in the reorganisation of the Irish catholic church in the early seventeenth century. His contributions to liturgical modernisation, history, and hagiography were significant. On a political level Messingham tried to respond to the challenge posed by the clash of catholic loyalties, divided between king and pope. Like most of his contemporaries, he was anxious to convince the English king that being catholic did not automatically imply political disloyalty. On the other hand, he was nervous of some of the more extravagant claims made for the deposing power of the pope and was more interested in the moral, spiritual, and liturgical possibilities of the new reformed catholicism than in its political pretensions. In attempting a satisfying coherent solution to the political and religious dilemma of seventeenth-century Irish catholics, Messingham combined the tools of renaissance scholarship, the discipline of counter-reformation catholicism, and the traditional influence of native religious practices to produce a modernised, adaptable version of reformed catholicism in Ireland.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).