St Lawrence, Sir Christopher (d. 1619), 9th baron Howth , soldier, conspirator, and informer, was the eldest son of Nicholas St Lawrence, 8th Baron Howth, and his first wife, Margaret, daughter of Sir Christopher Barnewall, of Turvey, Co. Dublin. He is said to have been born in 1566–7, but this seems unlikely, given that his father was only about 12 years old at that date. The early to mid 1570s seems more likely.
Loyalist soldier He rose to prominence during the Nine Years War (1594–1603), distinguishing himself fighting for the crown against the rebels. In April 1595 he assisted his father and the lord deputy, William Russell (qv), in the pursuit of the rebel captain Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne (qv) across the Wicklow mountains. He went in 1596 to England, where he had been knighted by June and probably during this period married Elizabeth, daughter of John Wentworth of Little Horkesley, Essex. Although raised a catholic, he became a protestant at some point during his adulthood. The earliest explicit reference to his protestant faith occurs in 1605, but his conversion is likely to have occurred much – perhaps as much as a decade – earlier. Lacking strong religious convictions, his conversion was motivated mainly by a desire to ingratiate himself with the protestant authorities.
He returned to Ireland at the start of January 1597 and became captain of a company of 100 foot in April. By November he was governor of the royal garrison at Cavan. The growing strength of the rebels stretched the government's resources, forcing it first to reduce its forces in Cavan and then to withdraw St Lawrence into Leinster, where he spent most of 1598 fighting rebels in the midlands. In December he was stationed at Kells, Co. Meath, in order to defend the northern border of the Pale. Despite the crown's travails he continued his ascent and by April 1599 had been promoted to colonel and also given command of a troop of horse. As colonel, he participated in the 1599 campaigns of the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Robert Devereux (qv), 2nd earl of Essex, in the midlands and in Munster, showing great courage in leading the pursuit of horse thieves across the River Barrow at Woodstock on 14 May and at the successful siege of Cahir castle, Co. Tipperary, in late May. While en route to Ulster in September, Essex gave him command of 500 foot and fifty horse at Niselrothy, Co. Louth.
The fall of Essex Soon after, St Lawrence was one of six companions who accompanied Essex on his unauthorised return to England, and who rode with the earl on 28 September to the royal palace at Nonesuch, where Essex infamously burst in, unannounced, to Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber. Embittered by the queen's condemnation of his military performance in Ireland, Essex had considered using the army at his disposal to seize power in England. In the end he shrank from doing so, but his dramatic appearance at Nonesuch terrified the queen, who ordered his arrest later that day. Undaunted, St Lawrence publicly drank to Essex's health and (allegedly) to the downfall of his enemies. It was also rumoured that he had pledged to kill Essex's arch-rival Sir Robert Cecil. His reckless advocacy of Essex was entirely in keeping with his mercurial character. Significantly, mental instability and a propensity for violence appears to have run in the family: his grandfather Christopher St Lawrence (qv) (d. 1589), 7th Baron Howth, was notorious for his dissolute personal life and for his maltreatment of his family and household staff, whom he subjected to savage beatings on the slightest pretext. St Lawrence's apparently inherited personality traits accounted for his conspicuous valour in battle but also left him lacking in judgment and prone to engaging in rash escapades.
In late October he was summoned before the English privy council, where he denied having threatened Cecil's life. One of the counsellors then referred to his Irishness, the clear implication being that as such he could not be trusted, at which he declared: ‘I am sorry that when I am in England, I should be esteemed an Irish Man, and in Ireland, an English Man; I have spent my blood, engaged and endangered my Liffe, often to doe Her Majestie Service, and doe beseech to have yt soe regarded’ (Collins, Letters and memorials of state, i, 138). His dignified and uncharacteristically tactful response eloquently summed up the quandary of the partially gaelicised descendants of the medieval invaders of Ireland (the Old English), who were regarded with suspicion by the Gaelic Irish and English alike. It also mollified his accusers, who, in any case, recognised that his martial prowess was urgently required in Ireland. Prior to his return to Dublin on 19 January, the queen reversed an earlier decision to cut off his salary, and commended him to the authorities in Dublin.
Climax of the Nine Years War Following the rebels’ capture of Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, St Lawrence was ordered in April 1600 by the new lord deputy, Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy, to maintain order in the strategically important Butler lordship centred on Kilkenny, with the assistance of Sir George Bourchier. He was based at Kilkenny until August, then campaigned with his regiment under Mountjoy in the midlands, where he took a large prey of livestock from the rebels in a night raid. That autumn he and his regiment accompanied Mountjoy in his advance into Ulster. At the beginning of the battle of Moyry Pass (2 October) he happened to be three miles (4.8 km) away but hurried back to join his men, fight bravely, and suffer a bullet wound to the shoulder.
Having recovered from this injury, he played a prominent role in Mountjoy's spring 1601 offensive against the rebels’ midland strongholds in Westmeath and Offaly, leading a successful sortie against forces under the main rebel captain in the region, Richard Tyrrell (qv), on 3 March. However, before doing so he had been obliged to appeal to Mountjoy in order to defeat an attempt by his English officer colleagues to deprive him of his command. He complained of their bias, suspected that the reports of his exploits on her behalf were being deliberately withheld from the queen, and named the sergeant-major of the royal army, Sir Oliver Lambart (qv), as being particularly ill-disposed towards him. The recent execution of his former patron Essex had unsettled him, as it left Cecil and his associates preeminent in London. He was also embarrassed by the behaviour of his father, who at this time was a leading figure within a powerful protest movement by the catholic landowners of the Pale against the exactions imposed on them by the royal forces.
In summer 1601 St Lawrence took part in Mountjoy's campaign in Ulster, leading a detachment that engaged in a fierce skirmish with rebels near Benburb in July. Following the landing that autumn at Kinsale, Co. Cork, of a Spanish expeditionary force sent to support the rebels, he was dispatched into the Pale to raise a regiment of loyal Irish there. Having assembled 1,050 men, he led them south to join on 25 November Mountjoy's army besieging Kinsale. His regiment was quartered along with three others to the west of the town and played an active role in the siege by attacking Spanish trenches outside Kinsale on 28 November and by repulsing an assault on its positions on the night of 22 December. He played no role in Mountjoy's crushing victory over rebel forces outside Kinsale on 24 December, due to his position on the far side of the town. However, Mountjoy authorised him to lead seventeen companies in pursuit of the fleeing rebel army.
Fall from grace In summer 1602 St Lawrence campaigned once more alongside Mountjoy in Ulster and was made governor of Monaghan (July). With the war in its closing stages, and anticipating that he would soon be deemed surplus to requirements, he tried with some success to build a personal power base among the Irish within the Ulster border region, partly by appealing to anti-English sentiment. Most of the troops under his command throughout the war appear to have been Gaelic Irish, which increased his growing sense of solidarity with his compatriots. He also resented the manner in which he and his men often had to bear the brunt of the fighting, and would frequently assert later in his life that the English were cowards because – unlike the Irish – they would not fight in the woods and on bad ground. However, his actions aroused the suspicions of the authorities and he engaged in recriminations with his subordinate officer at Monaghan, Laurence Esmond (qv). The fact that Esmond was also Irish suggests that his problems cannot be wholly ascribed to ethnic animosities. These controversies culminated in his ignominious dismissal as governor of Monaghan in October.
He plunged further into disrepute when (c.1602–3) he was accused of unlawfully hanging an English servant of his, for which the Irish privy council summoned him to Dublin. St Lawrence brought a large, armed entourage with him when he came before the council, in a bid to intimidate its members. In the end no action was taken against him. However, he had alienated leading members of the political establishment and was discharged from the army following the end of the war in spring 1603. Denied royal patronage, he quickly went heavily into debt, and a merchant from whom he had borrowed money pursued him through the courts during 1606. By autumn 1605 he had separated from his wife, and the English privy council's ruling (a. May 1607), that he pay her £100 a year for her maintenance, further intensified his financial difficulties.
Rebel conspirator, government informer In 1605 the government began prosecuting prominent catholics for failing to attend Church of Ireland services, which radicalised the Pale gentry and led some of them to contemplate rebellion. Despite his being a protestant, St Lawrence's family connections led him to identify with the catholic opposition, particularly as he was then nursing his own grievances against the government. He became involved in the planning of an uprising in late 1605, and may well have been the driving force behind it. This plot had the support of many leading members of the catholic nobility in the Pale and elsewhere in Ireland, including Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, the main rebel leader during the Nine Years War. The conspirators agreed to wait until they had received assurances of military assistance from Spain, judging that an uprising would otherwise be futile.
Meanwhile St Lawrence lobbied the government for a pension and, failing that, requested persistently from late 1605 that (pending his inheritance of his father's estates) he be permitted to serve in the Spanish army in Flanders, where an Irish regiment had been established (1605) in which his younger brother Thomas was a captain. Such employment would provide ideal cover for his efforts to coordinate the uprising with a Spanish military intervention in Ireland. In summer 1606 he began recruiting soldiers for service in the Spanish army from the counties of Cavan, Monaghan, and Fermanagh, where he remained popular among the local Gaelic Irish. About this time he also began attending mass in order to further his prospects in the Spanish military. In July 1606 he left Ireland for London, where Cecil, who had retained his position as chief royal minister into the reign of King James I and had been made earl of Salisbury, reluctantly granted him leave to serve abroad until his father's death.
On reaching Brussels in August, he furthered the efforts of his fellow Irish émigrés to convince the Spanish to dispatch the Irish regiment to Ireland to second their projected uprising, and rumours reached Dublin in early 1607 that St Lawrence intended leading an invasion of Ireland. Then (February 1607) his relative and former ensign George St Lawrence revealed to the authorities a plot to seize Dublin castle, involving Art mac Rory MacMahon and other Ulster Irish. On being questioned, MacMahon claimed that George St Lawrence had instigated the plot and assured him that his more famous relative, Sir Christopher, fully supported the enterprise. About the same time that his kinsman betrayed the plot to take Dublin castle, St Lawrence went to London to appraise Salisbury of a wider rebel conspiracy to overthrow English rule of Ireland with Spanish support. His motivation for doing so remains uncertain. Most likely, he had concluded that the overstretched Spanish monarchy was unlikely to assist a catholic uprising in Ireland, while there are also indications that the Spanish rebuffed his request for a military command. Presumably unwilling to countenance further obscurity and financial hardship, he decided to provide information to the English authorities and instructed George St Lawrence to do likewise.
However, he was at pains to conceal his own role in the preparation of the conspiracy and must have been alarmed at the government's treatment of George St Lawrence, who was convicted of plotting treason in spring 1607 on the strength of MacMahon's testimony. George was eventually pardoned and released in autumn 1607 but spent the intervening period under sentence of death. The prospect of being similarly convicted for treason partly accounts for St Lawrence's erratic behaviour during the course of 1607. The inconstancy of his actions also reflected the manner in which his desire for the prestige and preferment that only the English crown could bestow on him conflicted with his need to retain the esteem of his countrymen.
The flight of the earls: prelude He returned to Flanders in March but left for England once more on 5 May, where he provided further intelligence to Salisbury. His father's death that month gave him a convenient excuse to come home, and he was in Dublin by late June. The 9th Baron Howth (as St Lawrence now was) insisted on the strictest confidentiality, and only the king, Salisbury, and the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester (qv), were initially aware of his role as an informer; his codename in their correspondence was ‘A. B.’. While in London he extracted assurances from the king that he would not be compelled to incriminate openly any of his co-conspirators. The king also yielded to his request that one of the conspirators – Richard Nugent (qv), Baron Delvin – would eventually be pardoned. Howth appears to have been responsible for drawing Delvin into the plot, and was accordingly anxious that he should come to no harm. In order to play up the importance of his intelligence he exaggerated the seriousness of the situation by claiming falsely that the Spanish intended invading Ireland with a 10,000-strong army in 1608. Both Salisbury and Chichester regarded his claims with scepticism, finding much in his testimony and demeanour that was unconvincing.
He named a number of leading catholic nobles as a party to the plot, but stated that he could only directly corroborate the involvement of Baron Delvin and of Ruaidhrí O'Donnell (qv), earl of Tyrconnell, with whom he held a number of meetings during July–August. His evidence against the rest, including Tyrone, was based on hearsay. At a time when his relations with the catholic nobility were already dangerously fraught, Chichester was not prepared to worsen matters by precipitously arresting some of its most distinguished members without stronger proof. Howth was insulted by the reluctance of Chichester and Salisbury to believe him, and impatiently awaited the grant of a royal pension that he believed the king had promised him. Money remained an issue for him: he had inherited an estate heavily encumbered with debts, and lacked the income to live in the manner of a peer of the realm.
Despite his reservations about Howth's reliability, the king was alarmed by his revelations and particularly by Tyrone's alleged involvement. James ordered Chichester to investigate the matter further and in July summoned Tyrone to London, ostensibly to arbitrate over an ongoing property dispute involving the earl, but really as a precautionary measure. Realising that the king's attitude towards him had changed, Tyrone was further discomfited when he received inaccurate intelligence from a highly placed catholic-sympathising source in the London administration that he would be arrested for treason on his arrival in England. Thus, Tyrone fled to the Continent by boat on 4 September, accompanied by Tyrconnell and leading members of the Ulster nobility.
The flight of the earls: aftermath The flight of the earls vindicated Howth's testimony, but he was disturbed by its implications. Aware that Tyrone had been warned from England, Howth probably feared that this intelligence source knew that an informer had compromised the earls, and perhaps even knew his identity. If exposed as such, Howth would face public opprobrium and the likelihood that his vengeful fellow conspirators would incriminate him in the event of their arrest. Despite the delicacy of his position, he expected to be amply rewarded by the government and demanded commands in the royal army for both himself and Delvin. He failed to grasp that such a promotion would make his double-dealing apparent to all, or that the government was highly unlikely to reward Delvin for his treason.
In any case Chichester believed that Howth had tipped the earls off, and his suspicions were further aroused when it emerged on 8 September that Howth had a boat furnished for a voyage at his quay, and that a number of noblewomen from families implicated in the plot were staying at his residence. Tyrconnell had been forced to leave behind his heavily pregnant wife Bridget, and Howth seems to have been trying to spirit her out of the country, presumably to divert any suspicions that he was an informer. However, he also continued to help the authorities, and in October he betrayed to Chichester a Franciscan friar, Owen McGrath, who had been trying to organise Bridget's escape.
With Howth's testimony still a secret, many in Ireland believed that the earls had been hounded into exile for their adherence to the catholic faith. Eager to scotch this widespread perception, Chichester pleaded with Howth to testify publicly, but he refused. The only other means of defusing the controversy surrounding the flight was for Delvin to confess his role in and to provide details of the plot. At Chichester's behest, Howth attempted to persuade Delvin but only seems to have succeeded in indicating (probably inadvertently) to Delvin that he had been acting as a government informer. An increasingly wary Chichester arrested both Delvin and Howth about 4–5 November, assuring the latter somewhat disingenuously that this was merely to protect his cover.
On 6 November Delvin confessed to participating in a rebel conspiracy, but only implicated Tyrconnell before escaping from Dublin castle on 21 November. While on the run, he condemned Howth for betraying him, and by the year's end it was being widely reported throughout Ireland that Howth had been working for the government. Meanwhile, he was sent in December to London, where he was questioned by the English privy council on 23 January 1608. The manner in which he was given the freedom of the Tower of London led the Spanish ambassador to conclude that he was a spy.
By the start of 1608 Howth had become embittered against Chichester, who (he believed) had wilfully failed to protect his confidentiality. In fact it is more likely that Howth was undone by his own transparency and by his increasingly convoluted and unsustainable attempts to deceive both sides. Unwilling to admit to his own faithlessness, he sought to discredit Chichester by alleging that the lord deputy's closest political associate, Sir Garret Moore (qv), was complicit in Tyrone's planned uprising and flight. Although false, this contention was rendered superficially plausible by Moore's long-standing friendship with Tyrone and by the fact that Howth's earlier, seemingly far-fetched allegations had proved at least partly true. He had long harboured a grudge against Moore, dating from the period during the Nine Years War when they had served together in the royal army. In late February he was granted an audience with the king, in which they discussed the charges against Moore and in which James asked him to negotiate Delvin's surrender. The king was prepared to forgive Delvin and the other conspirators who remained in Ireland, and hoped to use Howth as an instrument for communicating this. On 15 March 1608 the English privy council released him, declaring its confidence in his loyalty.
However, on his return home he was ostracised by his catholic peers, who now regarded him as a traitor; such was the animosity directed towards him that he feared he would be assassinated. Distrusted both by the catholic elites and by the Dublin administration, he proved completely incapable of exercising the mediating role that the king had envisaged for him: Delvin contemptuously rejected Howth's overtures in this respect. Undaunted, he proceeded with his attack on Moore, whom he formally accused of abetting Tyrone (3 May).
He paid a brief visit to London that month to pursue his case against Moore. In an encouraging development the king rewarded him for his testimony against the earls by granting him the captaincy of a company of 150 foot in the Irish army (4 June). He claimed that he had spoken to a number of witnesses who could verify Moore's treachery, but who were unwilling to come forward without being guaranteed a royal pardon, as they had been a party to conspiracy. Through Howth's habitual indiscretions, Moore uncovered the identity of these witnesses and warned them that Howth had named them as traitors. Howth complained that, backed by the power of Chichester's office, Moore was able to intimidate his potential witnesses and further undermine his reputation.
The animosity between Howth and Moore soon led to violence between their respective partisans during the latter part of 1608. In one encounter, a follower of Howth was killed and another two seriously injured after they were set on by twenty-five of Moore's retainers. Howth prosecuted the culprits in the royal courts but the lord chancellor, Thomas Jones (qv), who was closely related to Moore by marriage, frustrated his efforts. He accused Jones of bias and corruption; Jones retaliated by spreading rumours of an adulterous affair between Howth and Kate Fitton of Riverstown, Co. Meath.
Following Howth's complaints of Chichester's partisanship, the king summoned both him and Moore to England to resolve the case. Sensing victory, Howth publicly admitted in late 1608 to acting as a government informer and boasted that he enjoyed the king's confidence as a result. He embarked for England in early 1609, but on his arrival could produce only one witness to verify his claims, which were convincingly refuted by Moore. In April 1609 the king fully acquitted Moore but insisted that Chichester treat Howth with favour and respect.
Vendettas However, the ineffectual goodwill of a distant monarch in no way compensated for the animosity of Chichester and his henchmen, who pursued their vendetta against Howth with renewed vigour once he returned home. Chichester continued to frustrate Howth's efforts to convict Moore's retainers for the murder of his servant, and spurned his request to accompany him on a journey into Ulster, while Jones sued Howth for slander in the court of castle chamber. Howth worsened his predicament by securing a pardon from the king for himself and a number of other catholic nobles for plotting treason in 1605–7. However, these nobles, including his brother-in-law Jenico (Genico) Preston (qv), Viscount Gormanston, were infuriated at being dishonoured in the eyes of the crown. In August he protested that he could only move about with a large armed guard.
During summer 1609 Howth took umbrage after Jones's son, Sir Roger (qv), had publicly made disparaging remarks about him. On 24 November 1609 Howth and eight retainers confronted Sir Roger Jones, who was with friends at a tennis court in Thomas St., Dublin; a servant of Jones was killed in the ensuing sword fight. Howth and his men were arrested soon after, but he was quickly released without charge. His continued complaints of Chichester's ill-treatment led the Irish privy council to invite him to come before them and outline his grievances in February 1610. At these proceedings Delvin testified damagingly that Howth had helped him to escape from Dublin castle in November 1607, was deeply implicated in the rebel plot of that year, and had been involved in a previous conspiracy against the crown (presumably a reference to Essex's aborted 1599 coup). No longer willing to indulge Howth, the English privy council ruled in April that his complaints were groundless and (as a mark of royal displeasure) ordered him to remain within the three miles surrounding his residence. This restriction was lifted that September.
After being refused leave to go to London, he did so regardless in April 1611 but was denied access to the king. He claimed that Sir Roger Jones plotted his murder, at which the English council summoned Jones to London in May. In July the council cleared Jones and briefly imprisoned Howth after he refused to be reconciled with his foe. Fearing for his safety, he remained in England until autumn 1612. Prior to his return home the king praised Howth in a letter to Chichester in which he approvingly noted his protestantism – Howth's apparent reversion to catholicism during 1606–7 had not lasted – and enjoined the lord deputy to desist from his legal and physical harassment of Howth's followers. The king's intervention belatedly brought Howth's feud with the Chichester regime to an end. He was stripped of his company of foot (September 1612), but otherwise was not molested and subsided into relative obscurity.
Final years He attended the Irish parliament in 1613, where he briefly courted further controversy when he became associated with a petition of protest from catholic MPs. The following year provided firm evidence that he had made his peace with the government when he presented Chichester with the sword of state in Dublin on the lord deputy's return from a visit to England. Eager to integrate his dynasty into the emerging colonial establishment, he married his heir Nicholas to a daughter of the Church of Ireland bishop of Meath, George Montgomery (qv), in 1615. However, he retained his ties with the catholic opposition: in 1616 he was reported as attending meetings of catholic gentry and clergy at the residence of Nicholas Fitzwilliam of Co. Dublin. Towards the end of his life his finances remained in disorder, leading him to attempt unsuccessfully to withhold maintenance payments from his wife in 1614.
He died 24 October 1619 at Howth and was buried at Howth abbey on 30 January 1620. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter; he was succeeded by his eldest son, Nicholas.