Wilmot, Sir Charles (1570/71–1643/4), 1st Viscount Wilmot of Athlone , English soldier and governor of Connacht, was son and heir of Edward Wilmot of Culham, Oxfordshire, England, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Stafford of Bradfield, Berkshire. He matriculated at Magdalene College, Oxford, on 6 July 1587 aged 16, but did not graduate and entered the army in 1588, serving first in France, where he became a captain in 1592.
The war in Munster Wilmot arrived in Ireland with his company in March 1595 and was stationed in Newry and later in Carrickfergus. In 1597 his friend and neighbour from England, Sir Thomas Norris (qv), made him sergeant-major of the royal infantry forces in Munster; a year later he was promoted to colonel. During 1598–9 Munster was largely overrun with rebels, but he served with sufficient distinction to be knighted in Dublin (5 August 1599) and to be granted temporary command of the province of Munster soon after, when Norris was wounded. In May 1600 the newly appointed president of Munster, Sir George Carew (qv), arrived with reinforcements, enabling the royal forces to go on the offensive. An experienced soldier, Carew soon identified Wilmot as his best captain, signalling his confidence by making him a member of the council of Munster in June.
In July 1600 Carew entrusted Wilmot with the independent command of a royal garrison of about 1,100 men to subdue north Co. Kerry. On 18 July he took Lixnaw and Rathowen castle before moving speedily to surprise the Irish at Tralee. This prompted the mass of the freeholders of the county to submit to him. Wilmot captured Ardfert in September, and defeated the baron of Lixnaw (qv) in battle in November. In December he took Listowel (generally held to be impregnable without cannon) after only a sixteen-day siege, capturing Lixnaw's son in the process, before taking Rathno abbey. The ensuing surrender of Castlemaine meant that he held all the castles in north Co. Kerry. On 8 December 1600 he was appointed governor of Castlemaine, a post he held until 8 August 1604.
Although Wilmot nominally commanded 1,100 men, his true strength was about half that number. Moreover, he was isolated from the rest of the royal forces and could only be supplied by sea. However, he easily surmounted these difficulties, showing great skill both in conducting military operations against rebel forces and in his dealings with the notoriously slippery local lords. Carew had installed Wilmot in north Kerry both to crush the opposition there and to watch the activities of Florence MacCarthy Reagh (qv), lord of the territory of Desmond in south Co. Kerry. Florence refused to allow royal forces into his territory and was ostensibly neutral, but was suspected of covertly supporting the rebels. Wilmot was soon able to gather intelligence strongly indicating Florence's malice towards the crown. For his part, Florence was dismayed at the settling of a large royal garrison in his vicinity and plotted to assassinate Wilmot about autumn 1600. However, Wilmot evaded this fate, being forewarned by Florence's wife, who was one of his intelligence sources.
By summer 1601 the rebellion in Munster had been effectively suppressed and Florence arrested, but the arrival of a Spanish expeditionary force to assist the rebels was expected daily. Carew withdrew Wilmot and his forces from Kerry and made him (July 1601) governor of Cork city, which was seen as the most likely target for a Spanish landing. When the Spanish landed near Kinsale in September, Wilmot ordered the evacuation of the town. He was in the royal camp outside Kinsale for the duration of the siege, but virtually nothing is known of his actions during this time although he would have been one of the leading English commanders present. In the event, English arms prevailed and the Spanish surrendered in January 1602. However, many of the lords of west Munster had returned to rebellion during the course of the siege, compelling Carew once more to dispatch Wilmot into Kerry with 1,000 men.
As before, he set about reducing his foes with great thoroughness, dynamism and guile. By mid April he had cleared north Co. Kerry of rebels, and followed them into the south of the county. In May, after Carew summoned him to join with his forces at the entrance to the Beare peninsula in order to participate in the siege of Dunboy, he successfully undertook a dangerous journey through difficult and rebel-infested terrain. After the fall of Dunboy in June, he returned to north Co. Kerry, where he gathered and destroyed corn and removed all the Irish inhabitants with their livestock to Co. Limerick as a precautionary measure, due to reports that Spanish forces were to land in west Munster. In late September Cormac mac Dermond MacCarthy (qv), lord of Muskerry in west Cork, briefly joined the rebellion, whereupon Wilmot oversaw the siege and capture of MacCarthy's castle at Macroom.
By autumn 1602 the remaining rebels had been forced to retreat to the Beare peninsula, believing that the royal forces could not prosecute war against them in such a remote area in the depths of winter. However, Wilmot and his cohorts continued to do so. He spent October and November establishing a garrison at Donkerran in south Kerry; once this was accomplished, his men resumed their harassment of the rebels. In late December Carew put Wilmot in command of an army of 3–4,000 men, comprising English and Irish, charged with completing the suppression of the rebellion. On 31 December he sent his Gaelic auxiliaries against the main rebel force, which was encamped in a strong position atop Glengariff. After a fierce six-hour running battle, Wilmot's forces drew off, having seized most of the rebels’ livestock. The opposing armies then remained camped on the mountainside for another two days, during which the rebel army gradually melted away. He proceeded to overrun the Beare and Bantry peninsulas and the Blasket islands, authorising the slaughter of defenceless civilians there. There can be no doubt that in its final stages, if not earlier, Wilmot's campaigns involved the systematic killing of potential rebel supporters, irrespective of age or sex.
Post-war difficulties On Carew's departure in February 1603, Wilmot became commander in chief of the Munster forces and in March was made joint acting governor of Munster. During that spring, he was engaged in mopping up the remnants of resistance in Kerry, before being drawn away by a sudden political crisis. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth in April, the citizens of many towns in the south of Ireland refused to proclaim the accession of King James, and began openly celebrating their catholic faith. Wilmot was able to restore royal authority in Limerick city by speedily dispatching 100 men there, and hastened south with the rest of his forces to Cork city, arriving before the city walls about 20/21 April. The mayor refused to admit royal troops and demanded the destruction of a newly built fort standing just outside the city. A stand-off ensued, with Wilmot effectively blockading the city. On 28 April 800 townsmen suddenly poured out of the city and attacked the royal fort. They managed to occupy and destroy part of it, but were beaten away by 300 of Wilmot's men. There then followed an exchange of musket fire from both sides. Over the next week the townsmen used artillery in the city to fire on the royal troops outside. Finally (4 May) Wilmot ordered his men to shell the city, leading the mayor to offer a ceasefire until the government's wishes were known. On 10 May, the lord deputy of Ireland, Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy, arrived at the head of a large army and the city surrendered. Overall, Wilmot had handled the situation in a restrained but firm fashion.
His immediate post-war career did not run smoothly. Despite being groomed for the office by Carew, he was passed over for the presidency of Munster. As a consolation, he became governor of Kerry for life on 1 May 1604, and was granted a life annuity worth £250 a year and a twenty-one-year lease of land around Dunboy. He intended planting an English colony there, but nothing came of this and he later sold the lease. He complained that his pension was not being paid, and in 1605 his salary as governor of Kerry was cut off. Undoubtedly this was due to the influence of Sir Henry Brouncker (qv), who had become president of Munster in 1604 and with whom Wilmot had fallen out. In part, this quarrel reflected the rivalry between two ambitious officials. Possibly, Wilmot also disagreed with Brouncker's hard-line persecution of catholicism in Munster. During this time, he appears to have lost influence within the Irish government, particularly when Sir Arthur Chichester (qv), who supported Brouncker's efforts, became lord deputy in 1605. Having inherited his father's debts and still with little to show financially for his service in Ireland, Wilmot abandoned his governorship of Kerry to return to England in the spring of 1606, surrendering his company in August 1607. On 14 November 1607 he was made an Irish privy counsellor and given a new annual pension of £200, but stayed away from Ireland.
He spent 1606–15 in England and established links with the king's chief favourite Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. Wilmot married (c.1610) Sarah, daughter of Sir Henry Anderson, sheriff of London 1601–2; they had three sons and a daughter. He lived in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Middlesex, while also renting a house at Charing Cross. In April 1611 he was granted the reversion of the marshalship of Ireland, but he surrendered this in 1617. He declared his intent to return to Ireland in August 1613 and was restored to the governorship of Kerry. In 1614 he benefited from grants of land in a number of counties in Ireland, and sat for Launceston in the English parliament. During 1614–15 his patron Somerset suffered a spectacular fall from favour, eventually being convicted for murdering his former ally Thomas Overbury. However, having been a close friend of Overbury, Wilmot avoided being associated with Somerset's disgrace and seems to have benefited from the widespread sympathy for the dead man. He probably returned to Ireland soon after his wife's death (December 1615), becoming lord president of Connacht in September 1616 after buying out the previous incumbent. Co. Galway, however, was excluded from his jurisdiction. In 1616 he also received a large grant of land spanning various counties in Ireland.
President of Connacht His presidency did not prove as profitable as he had hoped. The crown lands granted to him as president of Connacht were only worth £100 a year. Moreover, although the Overbury scandal briefly boosted his career, in the long run the fall of Somerset and his replacement as chief royal favourite by George Villiers, later duke of Buckingham, left Wilmot facing political isolation. He had no links with Villiers, who quickly came to dominate the management of royal patronage and policy in Ireland. Unlike most of his colleagues within the Irish government, he showed no interest in amassing a large Irish estate and appears to have sold most of the extensive grants of Irish land he received in 1616, retaining some land in Co. Cork and Co. Galway. As a result, he was unsympathetic towards the plantation policy promoted vociferously by Villiers and his clients in Ireland, who hoped to use such schemes to enrich themselves.
Deprived of his colleagues’ support, he turned instead to the patronage of the catholic nobility and burghers. From 1616 to 1621 he oversaw a process whereby catholic landowners in Connacht were to receive greater security of tenure in return for payments to the crown totalling £7,000 sterling. The stubbornness with which he subsequently upheld the property rights of these catholic landowners suggests he was receiving their financial backing. Moreover, a similar process occurred in Wilmot's provincial capital of Athlone, where many townsmen leased their lands from the crown with no security of tenure or fixity of rent. He claimed that the town was in urgent need of rebuilding and that in order to encourage the locals to pay for this they should be granted property either permanently or for their lives at low rents. As a result, in 1619 and again in 1622, he obtained authorisation to pass a series of such grants whereby the beneficiaries, who had to be protestant, would agree to pay for the building of a town wall. In fact, most of the beneficiaries appear to have been catholic and they may have paid Wilmot as much as £4,500 for this dramatic – and, for the crown, costly – improvement in their title to their properties.
It should be noted that he bore no sympathy towards either catholicism or the Irish. Rather, encouraging interactions between the crown and the catholic political leadership in Ireland was a means of advancing his own career, as he was one of the few royal officials capable of effectually mediating between the two. Far from being an enlightened idealist, his political philosophy was authoritarian and militaristic, showing contempt for civilian authorities and for attempts to limit the scope of the royal prerogative. He stated repeatedly that as long as there was peace with Spain and the army was well paid, the government could do whatever it pleased in Ireland. In other words, in Ireland the crown's power was bound not by the law but by the prevailing military realities. This insight, more than anything else, divorced him from his fellow protestants, who placed too much confidence in the power of the law to protect them from the quietly vengeful native Irish.
He was in England from May 1620 to January 1622, where he was made 1st Viscount Wilmot of Athlone on 4 January 1621. However, in his absence Buckingham arranged for the appointment of Sir Charles Coote (qv) as vice-president of Connacht. Buckingham hoped to secure land under a possible plantation of Connacht and, realising Wilmot would oppose this, advanced Coote as a means of undermining him. On returning to Ireland in 1622, Wilmot facilitated the efforts of a royal commission sent to Ireland at the behest of the English parliament to uncover the corrupt dealings of Buckingham and his clients. He wrote a number of letters to the lord treasurer of England, Lionel Cranfield, earl of Middlesex, advising him on how to improve the Irish government's finances and accusing Coote of corruption in the execution of his public office. In July he was appointed commissioner to inquire into the plantations of Leitrim and Longford, from which Buckingham had benefited. Aware both of Buckingham's power and of the duke's growing anger at the commission's investigations, he refrained from implicating anyone in particular, while being highly critical of the manner in which the Leitrim and Longford plantations had been executed.
In 1623 Middlesex authorised stringent cuts in military and civil expenditure in Ireland. Although Wilmot had advocated this policy, he was unhappy that the revenues for his own presidency of Connacht also suffered. Then (September 1623) Coote retaliated by drawing attention to his illegal alienation of crown lands in Athlone. However, Middlesex remained an effective patron. Through his means, Wilmot secured subsidies for the presidency of Connacht in October and a declaration from the English privy council in December of its confidence that Wilmot was innocent of Coote's charges.
Royal adviser and general of Ireland The political climate worsened again for Wilmot in summer 1624, when Buckingham engineered Middlesex's fall from power and began preparations for a plantation of Connacht. Meanwhile, Coote's charges against Wilmot were resurrected, with a commission being established to investigate them. Wilmot refused to be intimidated and defiantly defended the arrangements he had previously made with the catholic landowners of Connacht, designed to preserve their property rights. Realising that the newly crowned King Charles I desperately needed money to pursue a war with Spain, in summer 1625 Wilmot proposed that the Connacht landowners would pay a fine in order to prevent a plantation of their lands. In August Buckingham rebuked him for interfering, but it soon emerged that Wilmot had more accurately read the king's intentions. Charles began negotiations with the catholic nobility of Ireland for money to fight his war, in return for a number of concessions regarding the political, religious, legal, and property rights of catholics in Ireland. Wilmot had played a key role in this sudden reversal of royal policy by repeatedly highlighting the risk that an ongoing policy of religious persecution and plantation during a time of war could lead to a costly and prolonged rebellion.
Reflecting the king's confidence in his judgement, in late 1625 he was pardoned for any irregularities that may have taken place in the reconstruction of Athlone and received salary arrears of £666. In 1626 his rival Coote was dismissed as vice-president of Connacht. Wilmot went to England (1627), where he and Buckingham, who had continued as royal favourite into the new reign, finally came to terms. Having acquiesced in his master's policy of accommodating the catholic interest in Ireland, the duke had no reason to oppose Wilmot. That summer Wilmot was appointed second-in-command of the fleet assembled to relieve the English forces at Rhe (Ile de Ré) in France. In the event the fleet never sailed, but he remained in England, being appointed (20 July 1628) to the English privy council, where he quickly came to be seen as an authority on Irish and military affairs.
In autumn 1629 he returned to Ireland to take up the prestigious and important post of general of the Irish army. Normally the lord deputy headed the army, but the Dublin administration had become increasingly beset by internal conflict and as a result the crown attempted to balance the contending factions by appointing two lords justices, Richard Boyle (qv), earl of Cork, and Adam Loftus (qv), Viscount Ely, to govern civil matters while giving Wilmot control of the military. Cork and Loftus were bitter enemies, but it was hoped that Wilmot could mediate between the two: he had known Cork well during his service in Munster (1598–1603), while he and Loftus had become political allies due to their shared agreement that the crown needed to conciliate the catholics if only for short-term pragmatic reasons. He began to harbour ambitions of being appointed lord deputy of Ireland.
On arriving in Dublin, he secured a public show of reconciliation between Cork and Loftus, but appearances were deceptive; despite his well-attested diplomatic skills, Wilmot was totally unsuitable for his political mission. Cork and his supporters had long opposed the crown's policy of compromise with catholicism, and resented being dictated to by royal courtiers and ministers in London. As the architect of the very policy they sought to overturn and as someone who had used his influence while in London (1627–9) to help secure the dismissal of the anti-catholic lord deputy Henry Cary (qv), Viscount Falkland, Wilmot was seen by Cork and his followers in a partisan light. In December his efforts to billet fifty soldiers on Dublin city provoked a riot, as the mayor and citizens of the city refused to recognise the validity of his warrants for doing so. After four days of negotiations, the city agreed to accept a warrant from the lords justices to billet the soldiers. Wilmot regarded this compromise as an affront to his authority as general and suspected with good cause that Cork had encouraged the Dubliners in their defiance of him.
This incident did not augur well for the unity of the Irish government, and during 1630 the chronic infighting between leading royal officials only worsened, with Wilmot regularly lining up alongside Loftus against Cork and others. This development probably dashed whatever chances Wilmot had of becoming lord deputy. Peace with Spain in 1630 reduced the clout of the ‘catholic’ lobby, enabling Cork to emerge as the dominant figure in the Irish government in the autumn. Conversely, Wilmot's authority was diluted when a Cork ally, Roger Jones (qv), Viscount Ranelagh, was made joint president of Connacht in September. He kept a lower profile during 1631, continuing to base himself in Athlone.
Conflict with Wentworth In 1632 the king announced the appointment of Sir Thomas Wentworth (qv) as lord deputy of Ireland and instructed Wilmot to resign command of the army to him. Wentworth wrote introductory letters to a number of leading Irish officials, Wilmot included. However, Wilmot's letter arrived late and, believing that he had been snubbed, he wrote the lord deputy an angry letter. An inordinately suspicious and vengeful man, Wentworth appears to have concluded that Wilmot, bitter at being passed over for the lord deputyship, would seek to undermine him and had to be destroyed. This misunderstanding was highly unfortunate for Wilmot as Wentworth would otherwise have favoured him, as he did others that were enemies of Cork. Suffering from ill health, Wilmot was glad to return permanently to England in 1634, where he lived at Latimer (about twenty miles north-west of London), although he continued to hold his post as joint president of Connacht and his command of a company of foot until his death.
However, Wentworth denied him a peaceful retirement by reopening investigations in autumn 1634 into the alienation of crown property by Wilmot in Athlone. In December Wentworth concluded that he had deprived the king of crown lands worth £500 a year, and instigated legal proceedings against him in the court of exchequer to recover the land in question, and in the court of castle chamber to censure him for his misdemeanour. In response, Wilmot ignored Wentworth's summons to Dublin, defended his actions, attempted to have the case tried in England, and had one of his agents complain to the king about the lord deputy's management of the Irish customs. To no avail: Wentworth accumulated a damning body of evidence against him, and to increase the pressure began investigations into the composition agreements he had made with the Connacht landowners during 1616–21, and into claims that he had pocketed money intended for the military units still under his command in Ireland. Prior to leaving Ireland, Wilmot had had the foresight to sell all his land there. However, Ireland remained a significant source of income including his government salaries for his presidency of Connacht and for his company of foot, land he held on a lifetime lease worth £500 a year, and an ironworks near Belfast. Politically and financially vulnerable, he changed tack, offering first a qualified (summer 1635) and then total (3 October 1635) admission of guilt, throwing himself on the king's mercy.
He agreed to repay the current holders of the alienated crown lands the money he had received from them and then arrange for them to re-convey this property to the crown. Negotiations began between Wilmot and the Athlone property holders; neither side wished to surrender their gains and accordingly progress was slow. Moreover, it became apparent that Wilmot was not particularly wealthy and lacked the means to pay up. This was rather surprising, given his long and influential career and given that he was no less grasping than his governmental colleagues. He may simply have been financially profligate. Fortunately for him, the king continued to regard him highly and would not countenance his financial ruin or imprisonment, hampering Wentworth's efforts to speed things up. Eventually (summer 1637) Wilmot agreed to repay £4,200 at a rate of £1,000 a year. However, he had no intention of doing so, and in August 1638 Wentworth resumed legal proceedings against him and withheld his official salaries.
Wilmot's Fabian tactics proved successful: the Athlone controversy subsided into the background as the three kingdoms gradually fell into a prolonged political and military crisis from 1637. Indeed, this very crisis placed a premium on his vast military experience, further protecting him from Wentworth's machinations. In June 1637, following unrest in Scotland, he was appointed by the king to the reconstituted council of war. Two years later, he became governor of the strategically crucial town of Newcastle. However, due to his advanced age, he was in no position to play a significant role in the king's efforts to subdue first his Scottish subjects, in the ‘bishops’ wars’ of 1639–40, and then his English subjects from 1642.
Wilmot's will is dated 12 May 1643 and he probably died soon after, although it can only be said with certainty that he had died by April 1644. He was in debt at the time of his death and his will provided for the sale of some of his lands to settle this. He married (c.1627–30) Mary, widow of Garret Moore (qv), 1st Viscount Moore of Drogheda, daughter of Sir Henry Colley of Castle Carbery, and granddaughter of Sir Thomas Cusack (qv), lord chancellor of Ireland. They had no children. He was succeeded by his youngest son from his first marriage, Henry, who became one of the leading generals in the royalist army during the English civil war and was created earl of Rochester.