White, Sir Nicholas (d. 1593), lawyer and master of the rolls of Ireland, was born in Waterford city, son of James White of Waterford, who was steward to James Butler (qv), 9th earl of Ormond, and who died along with the 9th earl of food poisoning after a banquet in London in 1546. Nothing is known of his mother. In his will Ormond left £10 (Irish) a year for Nicholas's education at the inns of court and expressed the hope that Nicholas would serve his son as his father had served him. Accordingly, White entered Lincoln's Inn in 1552, and was called to the bar six years later. He inherited land from his father in Co. Tipperary and Co. Waterford. At some point in the 1550s he married a woman called Sherlock, a common name in Waterford. After her death, he had married by 1581 Mary, daughter of Andrew Brereton, an English soldier residing in Kildare.
Ormond and Sidney On his return to Ireland, White entered the service of his hereditary lord Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, becoming his attorney and practising law in his private court at Tipperary. He also played a key role in the administration of the Butler lordship in Co. Kilkenny and Co. Tipperary, serving as seneschal of Tipperary from March 1561 till about 1563–4, JP for Co. Kilkenny and Co. Tipperary in 1563, and recorder of Waterford in 1564. He was elected as MP for Co. Kilkenny in 1559. In reward for his services Ormond granted him land at Knocktopher in Co. Kilkenny, where he resided at White's Hall. About 1564 he appears to have begun acting as an agent for the crown, which was then pressurising Ormond to demilitarise his lordship and to open it up to English law and administration. The earl was willing to do so and White assisted him in seeking to regulate the levying of military exactions upon Co. Tipperary in July 1564. However, these reforms were fiercely resisted by leading members of the Butler dynasty, particularly by Ormond's younger brother Sir Edmund Butler (qv).
In February 1566 the crown established the short-lived first presidency of Munster and White was appointed to the council, which was to advise the president in his government of the province. He sat on this body as a representative of the Butler interest, and his early public career was furthered by Ormond's patronage; his conformity to protestantism also helped. Nonetheless, there was some tension between his dual roles as Butler vassal and crown official. This was particularly the case after the appointment of Sir Henry Sidney (qv) as lord deputy of Ireland in 1565. Sidney was determined to bend the Butlers to his will, and, with White's assistance, conducted judicial sessions at Kilkenny in April 1566 in which he indicted Sir Edmund and eighty-eight of his adherents. By summer 1566 White was widely regarded as being Sidney's creature, but this does not seem to have led to a break with Ormond, who may have hoped that White would exert a moderating influence over the lord deputy. In spring 1567 he accompanied Sidney on a tour of the south and west of Ireland in which he held a number of judicial sessions within autonomous lordships. Later that year, he went to the royal court in London as an envoy of Sidney.
The break with Sidney; encounter with Mary, queen of Scots White's association with the increasingly intrusive Dublin administration made him an obvious target for disaffected Butlers as resistance to the government's pretensions manifested itself in increasing levels of violence and disorder within Kilkenny and Tipperary. In September 1568 he paid another visit to London in order to appeal for a grant of property outside the Butler domains, where he could reside safely. He met Queen Elizabeth I and won the confidence of both her and her principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, by playing on their growing doubts over Sidney. Possibly he had become alienated from Sidney due to his abandonment of his initial strategy of moderate reforms in favour of a far more radical one of property confiscation and colonisation. In any case, he now joined with Ormond in criticising the lord deputy's policies for being over-ambitious and likely to alienate the loyal Irish. In November the queen ordered White's appointment as seneschal of Co. Wexford and constable of the castles of Leighlin and Ferns in place of Thomas Stukeley (qv), one of Sidney's cronies. Then in February 1569 she authorised his appointment to the Irish privy council and his receipt of grants of land in Kildare and a reversion to the land of the dissolved monastery of Dunbrody in Wexford.
On his return journey to Ireland in February, he met with Mary, queen of Scots, then a prisoner at Tutbury castle. It was an acrimonious encounter in which he angrily refuted Mary's contention that Elizabeth was treating her harshly. However, he also admitted in his subsequent letter to Cecil that despite his hostility towards Mary, he had found her to be somewhat alluring and advised that she be kept under strict confinement for fear that she would have a similar impact on others. Elizabeth was jealous of her more glamorous Scottish rival and, although he was at pains to stress that Mary in no way surpassed her in charm and beauty, White could well have forfeited his recently acquired favour had this relation been communicated to his queen. Fortunately, Cecil seems to have kept it from his royal mistress.
Back in Dublin, an infuriated Sidney delayed the royal grants of property to White, complained bitterly at his appointment as seneschal, and accused him of having become Ormond's man once more. Bearing Sidney's suspicions out, White immediately wrote to Cecil to reveal that the lord deputy had lost the support of the loyal Irish. By June he had been sworn a member of the Irish privy council, and from his position at the heart of the royal administration he dispatched a series of missives to Cecil that helped undermine Sidney's viceroyalty. For his part Sidney arranged to convey the property normally vested in the office of seneschal of Wexford to a trust on behalf of the supplanted Stukeley. Furthermore, Sidney denied him the right to certain perquisites normally associated with this post and refused to pay for the military entourage that he required in this role, leaving him with a hopelessly inadequate salary of £20 a year. Shorn of these revenues, he declined to take up his position in the south-east for a time, fearing for his safety given the hostility of Stukeley and of the Butlers.
Seneschal of Wexford In summer 1569 Sir Edmund Butler led his family into a revolt against the crown in which the rebels attacked and destroyed White's house at Knocktopher. During this time, White prudently remained within Waterford city, only venturing out after Ormond returned from London in September to bring his family to heel. Thereafter, he played a key role in his capacity as seneschal of Wexford in assisting Ormond in pacifying south Leinster during 1569–70. Whereas Sidney and his cohorts sought to provoke the Butlers into rebellion, Ormond and White adopted a relatively measured approach, which reassured the local landowners. Indeed, White's assertion to Cecil that Ormond had the situation in hand induced the queen to withhold promised subsidies to Sidney, thus denying the lord deputy the means to continue his belligerent policies. Ormond could not have stabilised his lordship so speedily had one of Sidney's supporters been seneschal of Wexford.
During this time White complained ceaselessly of his lack of pay as seneschal and requested leave to go to London, but his presence was considered essential in the south-east. Despite his financial handicaps, he successfully apprehended a number of rebels and pirates, and aided Ormond in subduing a rebellion in Munster, participating in the capture of rebel strongholds at Mocollop and Shian, Co. Waterford, in May 1571. However, not all law-breakers were treated equally. On 20 April 1571, while conducting judicial sessions at Wexford town, he freed a Butler client, Turlough Mor McSweeney, despite his having taken part in a massacre at Enniscorthy during the Butler revolt in August 1569. Many Wexford townsfolk had been killed in the Enniscorthy massacre, and this display of blatant favouritism sparked a riot.
In September 1571 he obtained licence to go to the royal court, where he petitioned for compensation for the losses he had sustained in serving the crown. By then Sidney had been dismissed as lord deputy due to the queen's horror at the expenses he had incurred in Ireland, and White was appointed to investigate his accounts, which preoccupied him for about six months. During this time the office of master of the rolls fell vacant in Dublin and he persuaded the queen to advance him to this position in July 1572. The queen also gave him a permanent grant of the property he had previously only leased from the crown in Waterford and Tipperary.
In his absence, his son-in-law Robert Browne, a landowner in Co. Wexford, was killed by O'Byrne and Kavanagh rebels. White used his influence to extend his seneschalship of Wexford for another eight months and to procure a commission of martial law and funds to raise men with which to prosecute these rebels upon his return to Ireland in August. His ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of vengeance had the effect of inflaming the already highly unstable and violent condition of south Leinster. The lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), had hoped to broker a truce in the fighting in Leinster and was irritated at White's meddling. Eventually, in early 1573 the lord deputy pardoned the main culprits for Browne's murder, Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne (qv) and Brian MacMurrough Kavanagh (qv), overruling White's protests.
Master of the rolls White was still described as being a resident of Knocktopher in 1571, but by 1573 he was living at Leixlip, Co. Kildare, where he had been granted the former property of St Catherine's priory (1569) and the manor of Leixlip (1570). The main attraction of Leixlip lay in its closeness to Dublin, where he hoped to pursue a career in the central administration. He speedily integrated himself into Pale society and married his children into some of the leading landowning families of the Pale. In 1574 he transferred some, if not all, of his property in Co. Tipperary and Co. Waterford to the crown in return for the government agreeing to waive its right to an annual rent of £30 for his property at Leixlip. Fear of further Butler reprisals may have prompted this move but he remained on good terms with Ormond, from whom he purchased former church property at Enniscorthy in the 1570s. In 1577 he even purchased a lease of crown lands in Kildare from the former rebel Sir Edmund Butler.
He relinquished his seneschalship of Wexford in early 1573 in order to assume his position as master of the rolls. However, he continued to play a role in the local administration of south-east Leinster by virtue of his property interests in Wexford and appears as a JP for the county in 1585. From 1573 he acquired a reputation for being one of the queen's most able, intelligent, and diligent ministers, but he was also regarded as corrupt and partial towards his friends and neighbours in the Pale in his judicial rulings. As master of the rolls, he initially worked alongside the lord chancellor of Ireland, Sir Robert Weston (qv), who was often sick and delegated to White the running of the court of chancery. Thus, after Weston's death (May 1573), he sought the lord chancellorship on an interim basis but found the archbishop of Dublin, Adam Loftus (qv), vying for this position also. Loftus eventually won, but not before a bitter row permanently poisoned relations between these leading officials. Particularly galling for White was the manner in which he had to oversee the running of the court of chancery while Loftus claimed the fees and perquisites associated with this position. He complained of the burden this imposed on him, and at the manner in which the clerk of the hanaper contested the perquisites of his mastership of the rolls.
Initially, Fitzwilliam had praised White but their relationship never fully recovered from the fall-out over the Browne murder. Continuing his role as Cecil's watchdog in Dublin, White cast a jaundiced eye over Fitzwilliam's administration of Ireland, being particularly scathing in his letters to London of the manner in which the lord deputy gave the largely English seneschals complete freedom of action. He argued that these seneschals abused the wide discretionary authority given to them and alienated the Irish through their brutality, pleading instead for the introduction of the rule of law. In June 1573 he was the only member of the Irish privy council to oppose Fitzwilliam's decision to arrest the vice-treasurer of Ireland, Sir Edward Fitton (qv), for defying his authority, and subsequently brokered an uneasy reconciliation between the two men. That autumn he demurred when Fitzwilliam suggested that he go to Munster to reestablish the government's authority there following the escape of the disaffected Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), 15th earl of Desmond, from prison in Dublin. White protested that as an adherent of Ormond he would be totally unacceptable to Desmond, and was vindicated soon after when Desmond complained about his bias.
Loyal opposition In 1575 Sidney was reappointed lord deputy and intended instigating radical reforms in Ireland. White thoroughly disapproved and predicted that his attempts to force the landowners of the Pale to commute the cess, their traditional obligation to provision the royal army during times of emergency, into a permanent tax would arouse fierce opposition. So it proved: by 1577 the cess controversy had brought Sidney's regime to its knees. The Irish privy council broadly divided along ethnic lines, with English members supporting Sidney and Irish ones supporting the protests from within the Pale. White acted as the main representative on the privy council for his discontented neighbours within the Pale, stressing to Cecil that their complaints should in no way be construed as constituting disloyalty. In June 1577 he was the only privy counsellor to oppose Sidney's decision to arrest a number of landowners who refused to accept that the crown was entitled to cess them.
This stance earned him the hostility of many of his English colleagues, and in late 1577 Sidney supported charges against him of dereliction in the discharge of his office of master of the rolls. Further investigations led on 28 April 1578 to White's suspension from office and from privy council meetings. As well as this, Sidney accused him of writing false reports to London, of opposing the queen's prerogative right to cess, and of having corruptly enriched himself through public office. For his part, White denied having benefited materially from his public service and claimed that he acknowledged the queen's right to cess, but that he opposed the extortionate manner in which it was enforced. Such was the opposition within the Pale to Sidney that the queen dismissed him as lord deputy in September, after which White obtained leave to go to London, where he exonerated himself and was restored to office.
After a long spell in London, he returned shortly before May 1580 to Ireland, where a dangerous rebellion had broken out in Munster. That summer he accompanied the lord justice, Sir William Pelham (qv), on his campaign in Kerry and wrote an account of his proceedings. He also praised Ormond, who sought to defeat the rebellion by winning over the Munster lords. However, an attempted uprising within the Pale in August strengthened the hand of the hardliners who urged extreme measures. During 1580–82 the government executed a number of Pale landowners for treason and arrested the leading noble in the Pale, Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), 11th earl of Kildare. White had unavailingly decried these repressive measures and in December 1581 complained to Burghley that the government was weakening and alienating the traditionally loyal Old English of the Pale, which could only be to the benefit of the wild Irish. He argued that the English administrators were motivated mainly by their desire to seize prime land held by the Old English landowners in the Pale and elsewhere. In 1582 the queen belatedly recognised the damage these policies were causing and ended the trials and executions of the Pale gentry.
His success in this regard served to heighten the animosity borne towards him by his English colleagues. The vice-treasurer, Henry Wallop (qv), rebuked him for being an advocate for traitors and accused him of taking no action against rebels in areas where he had influence in north Wexford. Wallop was also instrumental in disallowing an allowance of £666 granted to White in 1580 for his running the court of chancery in the absence of a lord chancellor during 1573–6. Nonetheless, he remained an indispensable figure within the Dublin administration, spending some £666 a year out of his own pocket in discharging his duties.
The lord deputyship of Perrot Sir John Perrot's appointment as lord deputy (1584) catapulted him back into high influence. The pugnacious Perrot fell out with most of his English counsellors and relied instead on White and his fellow Irishman Lucas Dillon (qv). This association would in time prove dangerous for all concerned, but for the moment White basked in his return to favour, being knighted by Perrot on 21 June 1584 and then being dispatched on the Leinster judicial circuit that autumn. In the latter role, he proved he was no soft touch by executing forty-eight of 181 prisoners in his sessions.
In December, Perrot sent him to Connacht to investigate charges of corruption against the recently deceased president of the province, Sir Nicholas Malby (qv). As a long-standing critic of Malby's heavy-handed methods, he discharged this duty with relish and accumulated a damning body of evidence. Later Perrot used White to undermine Malby's similarly autocratic successor, Sir Richard Bingham (qv), dispatching him in summer 1585 to the province as chief commissioner to negotiate a composition for the cess there. The resulting settlement infuriated Bingham due to the manner in which it strengthened the power of the most powerful Irish lords. Despite Bingham's fulminations, in the areas where royal officials adhered to the agreement (mainly in south Connacht), it had the effect of confirming many landowners in the province in their loyalty to the crown.
Perrot had hoped that the Connacht composition would serve as a model for a similar resolution of the long-standing cess dispute within the Pale, and called the Irish parliament in 1585 to facilitate this. He envisaged that White would use his influence with MPs from Leinster to procure a deal, but memories of the 1580–82 ‘terror’ remained sharp and the parliament collapsed in acrimony. At the start of this parliament (May 1585) White unsuccessfully sought to persuade Perrot to offer liberty of conscience to catholics in order to secure support for his ambitious legislative programme. In summer 1586 Bishop Thomas Jones (qv) of Meath condemned Perrot from his pulpit for tolerating catholicism and singled out White and Dillon for particular criticism: both men were regarded as crypto-catholics. Although White appears to have adhered to the Church of Ireland till his death, his son and heir Andrew was a catholic.
By then, Perrot's capacity for making enemies was making life awkward for White, particularly when the lord deputy also began to quarrel with Ormond. Ormond desired Perrot's friendship and employed White as a mediator, but Perrot's ongoing antagonism towards the earl strained White's relations with Ormond. Perrot's main opponent in Dublin was White's old enemy Loftus, who (along with others) complained that the lord deputy disregarded the advice of his counsellors, preferring to rely on a cabal of Irish advisers. This was not the case: Perrot was very much his own man and had a number of English advisers, but Loftus's smears proved damagingly effective and induced the queen to order Perrot only to consult with his English counsellors regarding matters of great importance and secrecy. Perrot did not adhere to this command but the queen's evident mistrust pained White. Such was the intemperate nature of council meetings at this time that in May 1587 Perrot quarrelled so fiercely with the elderly Sir Nicholas Bagenal (qv) that he hit him. White's attempts to downplay this incident in his subsequent report earned him the derision of his fellow counsellors, who assailed him for being Perrot's lackey.
Earlier that year, White finally succeeded in obtaining possession of the former property of the monastery of Dunbrody in Co. Wexford, having been granted a reversion to this land in 1569. The then occupier of this property, Edward Itchingham, refused to accept this, procured a permanent grant of Dunbrody, and mortgaged it to Sir William Drury (qv), lord justice of Ireland 1578–80. From 1580 White was embroiled in legal action with Itchingham and Drury's widow. Following Itchingham's death (1582), he secured the wardship of his nephew and heir, John Itchingham, before buying off Lady Drury for £500 in 1587. As part of this settlement, White acknowledged John Itchingham's right to revenues from the property. The government had recently erected fortifications on this land at Duncannon and Perrot appointed him constable of this castle, which he intended to use as a residence. This prompted an outcry from Perrot's enemies, who argued that such a strategically important fort should not be put in the hands of a native.
Arrest and death In 1588 Perrot was replaced as lord deputy, but continued to influence Irish policy as an adviser to the queen and through his supporters in Dublin, particularly White. His successor, Sir William Fitzwilliam, quickly came to resent this and regarded White with hostility. In January 1589 Fitzwilliam complained that he could not get White to sign anything critical of Perrot. Later that year, White criticised Fitzwilliam for seeking to discredit Bingham's government of Connacht and for indulging Hugh O'Neill (qv), 2nd earl of Tyrone, arguing that Tyrone's rival Turlough Luineach O'Neill (qv) should be strengthened in order to maintain a balance of power in Ulster. In doing so, he was following the line promoted by Perrot.
Infuriated by Perrot's meddling, Fitzwilliam resorted to desperate measures by falsely accusing Perrot of treason in early 1590. At first it appeared as if Perrot would easily surmount this allegation, and the commission appointed in March to investigate the matter was composed overwhelmingly of his supporters within the Dublin administration, White included. However, Perrot was undone when his powerful patron Francis Walsingham died in May, after which Cecil (who by then had been created Lord Burghley and appointed lord treasurer of England) threw his weight behind the case against the former lord deputy in the interests of defending his client and relative Fitzwilliam. That month, Perrot was arrested while a new commission was appointed in London to examine the charges of the Irish priest Dennis O'Roughan, who claimed to have proof that Perrot had conspired with King Philip II of Spain. In Dublin White and other members of the original commission sympathetic to Perrot were subjected to scathing criticism for the partisan fashion in which they had discharged their duties. As commissioner, White had interrogated O'Roughan, whose complaints that White had ordered his torture and encouraged him to incriminate Fitzwilliam for fabricating the entire plot were taken up by Fitzwilliam and his supporters, who also accused White of illegally passing evidence collected by him and his fellow commissioners to Perrot.
During their investigation White and his fellow commissioner Richard Meredith (qv), bishop of Leighlin, had been informed by a prisoner in Dublin castle that a letter from Perrot to Philip II, produced by O'Roughan as evidence, had been forged; the prisoner offered to provide proof. Fearing that White and Meredith would expose his machinations, Fitzwilliam demanded White's arrest. At first Burghley was inclined to preserve White, before reluctantly accepting that he would have to be sacrificed. He was under arrest in Dublin by 28 June and sent to London in August, where he and Meredith were imprisoned in the Tower, kept in close confinement, and denied visitors; White's son was also refused access to the queen. In October White was placed in the custody of one of Burghley's most trusted supporters.
On 27 December he was interrogated at Popham House and denied the charges of being part of a catholic conspiracy to facilitate a Spanish conquest of Ireland. At first he was confident that these preposterous allegations would be discredited, but he became increasingly bewildered at Burghley's failure to secure his release. By March 1591 he was back in the Tower and complaining of poor health. However, he was not released and by May 1592 had been tried and found guilty in the court of Star Chamber. He died in the Tower shortly before 11 February 1593. His arrest and death entailed the removal of the most vocal and active proponent of moderate measures within the Dublin administration and was part of a broader purge of Irish-born government officials.
He had three sons, Andrew, Thomas (d. 1586), and James, and a daughter, Mary. His successor, Andrew, became involved in a long-running legal battle with John Itchingham for possession of the Dunbrody properties. Following White's arrest in 1590, Itchingham had complained that White had unlawfully deprived him of his rightful inheritance, at which the government established a commission to adjudicate on the matter in November 1591. The crown also seized his residence at Duncannon and converted it into the residence of the royal constable of the fort. After White's death, Itchingham further alleged that having become troubled in his conscience, White had offered some financial compensation to him. The matter was finally resolved in Itchingham's favour in 1602.