Piers, William (d. 1603), constable of Carrickfergus, was son of Henry Piers of Piers Hall near Ingleton in Yorkshire; nothing is known of his mother. By his own account he arrived in Ireland in the early 1530s, but he is first recorded in 1555 as ‘a tall, burly man with a big, brown beard’ (Appleby, Calendar, 11) who was captain of a pirated barque that he claimed to have received from the 14th earl of Desmond (qv). In the following year, while fishing in the Bann area, he was engaged by Lord Deputy Radcliffe (qv) to assist in his campaign against the MacDonnells, much of whose strength lay in their ability to move freely between the Isles and the north of Ireland.
In September 1556 Piers was appointed constable of Carrickfergus castle. He was involved in another naval expedition against the MacDonnells early in 1558, but at a time when the government was troubled by two sources of instability in Ulster, the MacDonnells and Shane O'Neill (qv), his position soon acquired quasi-diplomatic responsibilities and Piers became in effect the government's negotiator in the region. In 1559 Radcliffe, now earl of Sussex, decided that O'Neill was the greater threat and Piers was instructed to negotiate with James MacDonnell (qv), offering to exchange recognition of the MacDonnell claim to land in north-east Ulster for assistance in the pursuit of Shane. Although an agreement was reached, the MacDonnells failed to act on it despite a meeting between Piers and James MacDonnell in Scotland in the winter of 1562–3, at which James protested that he had no authority over his brother Sorley Boy (qv), who controlled the main MacDonnell fighting force.
Piers concluded that it would be unwise to rely on James, and advised Sussex accordingly. Though Sussex remained convinced of the need to settle with Shane by force, others, including the queen, preferred diplomacy. Terms were agreed in September 1563, and before long the government was contemplating the reversal of its policy by supporting O'Neill in a campaign against the MacDonnells. Shane, with the approval of Sussex's caretaker successor, Sir Nicholas Arnold (qv), requested assistance from Piers, who refused to become involved in the conflict, which ended with the defeat of the MacDonnells at the battle of Glenshesk on 2 May 1565.
It seems to have been in the early months of 1565 that Piers presented the government with his own proposals for dealing with the problems of Ulster. He envisaged a colony in the classical style, consisting of 4,000 English settlers located in a series of fortified towns along the north-east coast, with both native and English tenants. Local protection would be provided by a garrison of 1,000 horse and 2,000 foot; the governor would have a commission of martial law; and a suitable appointment should be made to the bishopric of Down. The necessary regional conditions for the success of this project were to be created by excluding the Scots, partly by means of naval patrols and partly by pressure on the queen of Scots to control her subjects; by manoeuvring Shane O'Neill and the MacDonnells into making war against each other; and by strengthening English influence through an alliance with the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell. These proposals received little if any consideration.
On the arrival of Sir Henry Sidney (qv) as lord deputy in January 1566, Piers had his constableship confirmed by patent. Dispatched to England with messages from Sidney for the queen, he returned with £6,000 for the fortification of Carrickfergus. Ironically, the chief role assigned to him in the subsequent campaign against Shane O'Neill was to secure the cooperation of the MacDonnells by convincing them that the government was actively considering the recognition of their position in Ulster as a means of containing O'Neill and barring the entry of further Scots. This message, although authorised by the queen, was entirely false. It may have contributed in some part to O'Neill's murder at the hands of the MacDonnells at Cushendun on 2 June 1567. Certainly Piers, who exhumed the body four days later and sent the head to Dublin, was quick to claim a share of the credit and continued to claim his reward for years thereafter.
In the volatile aftermath, Piers attended to his own interests. He received a lease of the town customs of Carrrickfergus in 1566, and was appointed seneschal of Clandeboye in 1569 and collector of the customs of wine in 1572. Increasingly, however, he was becoming prone to act less as a government official than as a warlord among warlords. In November 1567, without consulting the viceroy, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), he negotiated an eighteen-month truce with Sorley Boy, in return for which he agreed to forward Sorley's petition for a patent to his lands in north-east Ulster. Fitzwilliam's displeasure was intensified as a series of complaints made it evident that from his base at Carrickfergus Piers was dominating the surrounding countryside and imposing extortionate exactions on natives, settlers and Scots alike. His control was underpinned by a close alliance with the most powerful Irish chieftain in the region, Sir Brian MacPhelim O'Neill (qv), whose claim to the lordship of Clandeboye he supported. When Sir Brian's lands were bestowed on the colonial projector Sir Thomas Smith (qv) in 1571, Piers opposed the scheme and warned of the danger of destabilising the region. Fortunately, Fitzwilliam was equally opposed to the venture.
When Smith's grant was superseded by a new grant to the earl of Essex (qv) in 1573, however, Piers's opposition placed him at risk. Alarmed by the size of the operation and fearful that it would drive Sir Brian and other loyal Irishmen into revolt, he became openly hostile to the enterprise. In the belief that Piers had given Sir Brian information prejudicial to the security of the enterprise, Essex had him arrested and imprisoned without bail in December 1574 and threatened him with execution. It was not until Sidney returned as viceroy in September 1575 that Piers recovered official favour; he was restored as constable and was able to set about re-establishing his former position in changed circumstances.
The Essex episode had severely affected the dominance that Piers had exercised over the hinterland of Carrickfergus, and Sir Brian MacFelim had been murdered. Piers set about forming an alliance with the new strong man in Clandeboye, Brian MacFertagh O'Neill. As time went on he decided that an alliance with Turlough Luineach O'Neill (qv) would be to the advantage of both England and himself. Throughout the late 1570s he spared no effort to persuade Turlough to distance himself from the Scots and eventually, in 1580, he was authorised to offer Turlough the queen's pardon. The opposition of the new lord deputy, Lord Grey de Wilton (qv), quashed this initiative. At about the same time, Piers submitted a new proposal for dealing with the problems of Ulster. The expulsion of the Scots was at the heart of it, and the former design for fortified settlements was repeated, but without elaboration of detail or mention of reform. What he now principally visualised was a joint enterprise in conquest, with his two Irish allies playing the major part under the supervision of himself and a small group of Englishmen who would collect a levy (or composition) from the Irish landholders. Though the proposal was well received, no attempt was made to act on it.
In the early 1580s Piers, now about 70 years of age and perhaps declining in influence with the rejection of his agreement with Turlough Luineach, moved from Carrickfergus to the estate to which he had been granted a lease in 1562, at Tristernagh in Westmeath, where he became a JP. In 1591 he received permission to visit Elizabeth at court, reputedly to renew an acquaintance dating from the reign of Mary, when he had saved her from her sister's fury ‘by conveying her privately away’ (Hill, Macdonnells, 144). In retirement, he continued to offer advice on Ulster, submitting yet another proposal in 1594 in which he stressed the importance of defeating the rebels, arranging a composition, and recompensing loyal chiefs by creating them barons and giving them secure title to their lands.
William Piers died in 1603 and is believed to have been buried in Carrickfergus. He married Ann Holt of Cheshire, a member of Sidney's household; they had a son, Henry, who inherited the property at Tristernagh and converted to catholicism.