Michelburne (Michelborne, Mitchelburne), John (c.1648–1721), soldier, governor of Derry, playwright, was born on 2 January 1648 in Sussex, the only child of Abraham Michelburne and his wife, Penelope (née Wheeler), who died during the birth. Michelburne was baptised 8 January 1648, at Horsted Keynes Church, Sussex. He may have grown up in Ireland; at some point his father had moved to Wicklow, dying there in 1664.
Michelburne apparently served in the late 1660s in the Lord General's Regiment of Foot Guards (later known as the Coldstream Guards), and subsequently in the foot regiment of James Scott, duke of Monmouth. He saw action in Flanders and France, rising to the rank of sergeant. He bought a lieutenant's commission in 1678, but returned to England in 1679 after the treaty of Nijmegen. Posted to Tangier (1680) under Percy Kirke (qv), Michelburne served there alongside Robert Lundy (qv), the future governor of Derry. After his return in 1684 he became a first lieutenant in the regiment of William Stewart (qv), Lord Mountjoy, but under the Jacobite regime he saw at first hand the replacement of protestant officers with catholics. Aware of his increasingly precarious position, he was stationed in Dublin at the time of the Glorious Revolution in England. He left his unit and went to Derry, where a volunteer militia was being raised under Col. Clotworthy Skeffington (qv). Michelburne was invited to join, and distinguished himself in a number of engagements with Jacobite forces in Ulster. He arrived back in Derry eight days before the siege began and was ordered by Lundy (now governor of the city) to defend the ford at Castlefinn, on the River Finn, but he was forced to withdraw to Derry just prior to Lundy's escape.
With the appointment of Henry Baker (qv) and George Walker (qv) as joint governors after Lundy's departure, Michelburne was appointed colonel and became the most senior officer in the city, though his relations with the governors were troubled (at one point he fought a duel with Baker, and was briefly confined, though Baker later nominated him as his successor). The eventual loss of confidence in Walker was shared and encouraged by Michelburne, and after Baker's death Michelburne took over the defence of the city, and was appointed deputy-governor (21 June 1689) and governor (30 June). He supervised the construction of new fortifications, and in July erected a gallows on the battlements, threatening to hang prisoners in response to the Jacobite tactic of driving protestant refugees up to the city walls. While orchestrating the defences, he also formulated plans for the rapid evacuation of the city's occupants to Enniskillen.
With Walker's departure after the raising of the siege, Michelburne was appointed sole governor (3 August 1689) of Derry, and was elected an alderman of the city for life. He remained in Derry for much of the war (though his regiment saw service at the battle of the Boyne and the first siege of Limerick), but did not retain the governorship; the precise date of his replacement is uncertain. In May 1689 he had captured two French flags in an engagement at Windmill Hill, south of the city walls; between January 1691 and March 1692 he hung them in St Columb's cathedral with the permission of the bishop, William King (qv). However, in July 1691 Michelburne was engaged to capture Sligo. Based at Ballyshannon, his forces were outnumbered by the defenders; while he came close to capturing the town once, he was in no position to besiege it. The defenders, under Sir Tegue O'Regan (a former comrade), made overtures to General Ginkel (qv), for a negotiated surrender; Michelburne had already offered the terms of the Williamite proclamation of 9 July 1691, sending a copy to O'Regan with a bottle of whiskey and snuff. A Jacobite force had arrived under Hugh Balldearg O'Donnell (qv), who was edging towards defection, and a joint attack was suggested, but O'Donnell sought to bolster his own negotiating position by encouraging the defenders to hold out. He moved his forces closer to Sligo, forcing Michelburne to withdraw. Michelburne was blamed for this, and was replaced by Arthur Forbes (qv), earl of Granard. However, he played a key role in the final assault in September, erecting a gallows in the market square to hang looters within his own ranks. He was briefly made governor of Sligo after Granard secured the town, but within a month was recalled to Dublin to face charges of corruption, though these were later dismissed. An account of his conduct was later published as An account of the transactions in the north of Ireland . . . with a particular relation of the manner of besieging and taking the town of Sligo . . .(London, 1692); whether he was the author is unclear. But he received no significant rewards for his service.
Michelburne did not return to Derry till 1693. Nominated for election as mayor in November 1698, he failed to be elected after resigning as governor. His regiment having been disbanded, he went to London to petition for the considerable arrears (£15,941. 18s. 6d.) owed to both his units, and some reward for himself. Fortuitously, two pamphlets appeared around this time which depicted his wartime conduct in a positive light (again, it is unclear whether he was the author). The case of Col. John Michelburne . . . (1699), stressed his lack of a reward after the war, while a second pamphlet, The case of the governor, officers, and soldiers actually concerned in the defence of Londonderry . . . (1699), cast aspersions on the role claimed by others (especially the serving aldermen) in the defence of the city. Called before the council of Derry to explain himself in April 1699, Michelburne refused to admit to being the author, or to repudiate the pamphlet. Subsequently disenfranchised, he mounted a successful legal challenge to overturn this but was refused admittance to the council chamber till 1703, when the new council readmitted him and paid the fees of his appeal.
Michelburne subsequently wrote a play, Ireland preserv'd, having it privately printed and distributed in 1705. It undoubtedly sought to justify Mitchelburne's conduct; the central protagonist, ‘Granade’, was a conscientious soldier faced with an incompetent governor. The incidental detail strongly suggests that Granade represented Michelburne, and Ireland preserv'd can be interpreted as his own personal testimony (though it was more fair-minded towards his enemies than might be expected). It also (at an early stage) pioneered the use of the epitaph ‘virgin’ to describe the city. The play was a modest success, and three London editions were printed by 1718. The author's financial position remained precarious, and he was imprisoned for debt in London in 1709.
Michelburne resided in Derry till his death. Involved in the foundation of the original Apprentice Boys club in 1718, he arranged for a crimson flag to be hung from the cathedral spire on its completion. On 1 August 1718 Mitchelburne orchestrated the celebrations of the relief of the city. He died in Derry 1 October 1721, leaving provisions in his will for an impressive funeral, numerous philanthropic bequests, and £50 to maintain the flag over the cathedral. He was buried in Glendermot churchyard against the stipulations of the will, and his epitaph described him as ‘a valiant soldier, faithful, pious and charitable, expecting the resurrection of the just’ (Dwyer, Siege of Londonderry, 228).
Over time, Michelburne had become associated with the commemoration of the siege; at least one club named after him was founded in Derry in the 1720s, and in 1775 an ‘Independent Michelburne club’ was founded in the city. The flags he had placed in the cathedral were renewed in 1788, 1839, and 1888. However, his grave was vandalised c.1836. But Ireland preserv'd proved an enduring legacy. At least twenty editions were printed in Ireland in the eighteenth century, with at least five in Ulster alone: Belfast (1744, 1750, 1759), Newry (1774), and Strabane (1787). It was also produced in locally-printed chapbook editions, and its widespread performance and use in schoolhouses was noted by William Carleton (qv) in the nineteenth century. Usually printed with Robert Ashton's (qv) The battle of Aughrim, it readily entered folk memory. In 1841 it was reprinted in a new edition by John Graham (qv) (1776–1844), who modernised the text and identified Granade as Michelburne, though he was unaware that Michelburne was the author.
Mitchelburne was married twice. His first wife was Susan Beresford of Coleraine, the daughter of Tristram Beresford (qv). She and their seven children all died during the siege of Derry. His second wife Elizabeth (possibly Cunningham) was buried in St Columb's cathedral 10 January 1724; they had no children. The 1708 edition of Ireland preserv'd is illustrated with an engraving of Michelburne. An original manuscript of the play is retained in the BL as Stowe MS 977.