Digby, Lettice (c.1580–1658), Baroness Offaly , was the only child and heir of Gerald Fitzgerald , Lord Offaly, eldest son of Gerald (qv), 11th earl of Kildare. Her mother was Catherine, daughter of Sir Francis Knollys. After the death (1599) of her unmarried uncle William, 13th earl of Kildare, she assumed the title Baroness Offaly, claimed to be heir general to her grandfather, the 11th earl, and laid claim to three manors in the Kildare estate on behalf of her mother, who was entitled to a widow's jointure. In this she was both prompted and furthered by her husband, Sir Robert Digby of Coleshill, Warwickshire, England, who leased part of the Kildare estates, enjoyed the patronage of powerful figures in Dublin and London, and sought to establish himself as de facto earl of Kildare through his wife. In 1602 the Digbys sued Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th earl of Kildare, alleging that a deed of 7 September 1566 drawn up by the 11th earl, making Lettice his heir general, had been fraudulently altered after his death in order to disinherit her. After prolonged and costly legal proceedings in the court of castle chamber the Digbys won a qualified victory on 3 February 1609 when the court accepted that the 11th earl's will had been wrongfully altered. However, there were still doubts over the deed of 1566, and the court ruled that its validity would have to be tried by jury at common law.
Despite attempts at arbitration, the dispute persisted, surviving the 14th earl's death (1612) and that of Sir Robert Digby (1618). Her husband's death, combined with the ruinous cost of their marathon legal battle with the house of Kildare, left her in need of financial assistance from family and friends and political assistance from the government. Fortunately both were eventually forthcoming. On 11 July 1619 King James I pronounced on Digby v. Fitzgerald by rejecting Lettice's claim to be the 11th earl's heir general while granting her and her heirs the manor of Geashill, comprising some 30,000 acres in King's Co. (Offaly), effectively partitioning the Kildare patrimony in the process. In addition, he granted her the manors of Portlester, Woodstock, and Athy in right of her mother's jointure, and the right of reversion as a jointure to the manors of Moylare and Castleleigh following the death of Frances Fitzgerald (née Howard), widow to the 12th earl of Kildare. In July 1620 James recognised Lettice as Baroness Offaly for life, while stipulating that after her death the title would revert to the earls of Kildare.
Despite this royal bounty she remained in financial straits, having seven sons and three daughters to maintain while shouldering her husband's still considerable debts. Further relief came in the form of Richard Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Cork, the wealthiest landowner in Ireland, who married his daughter to her eldest son, Robert, paying a generous dowry in the process. Indeed, between 1626 and 1642 Cork allocated £10,000 to the Digby family. Some of this was in the form of interest-free loans, and he was lenient in enforcing their terms. This munificence was partly due to Cork's regard for the Digbys, but mainly to his desire to encompass the Kildare estates within the ambit of his own burgeoning dynasty; as well as holding half of these estates, Lettice and her son were likely to inherit the remainder if the young George Fitzgerald (qv), 16th earl of Kildare died childless. Cork hoped that under his stewardship the house of Kildare would become a vehicle for promoting the anglicisation and protestantisation of Ireland.
Lettice immediately commended herself to Cork as an ideal partner in this venture, having proved herself to be a determined promoter of English protestant values. Soon after taking up residence at Geashill in 1620, she introduced English tenants on her lands, sparking resentment among the local Irish, who stole her livestock and harassed and even murdered her tenants. She remained undaunted, drawing strength from her particularly puritanical brand of protestantism. After securing both the guardianship of, and his daughter's hand in marriage to, the 16th earl of Kildare, Cork encouraged his son-in-law to accept Lettice's possession of much of the traditional Kildare estate. However, on reaching adulthood, Kildare proved a wilful character who defied his father-in-law by wresting possession of the manors of Portlester, Woodstock, and Athy from an outraged Lettice in 1633 and then by also seeking to recover Moylare and Castleleigh from her. Eventually, Kildare was imprisoned for debt in 1637, being released a year later when he formally accepted the division of the Kildare estates.
Following the outbreak of a countrywide catholic rebellion in autumn 1641, the local rebels besieged her at Geashill castle around the turn of the year. After being blockaded for 16 days the parched defenders were close to capitulating when a timely burst of rain eased their thirst, leading the rebels to withdraw. Before doing so they demanded her surrender, threatening to kill all in the castle if they took it by storm. Despite being isolated in a rebel-controlled region, she dismissed all such demands. In a series of written exchanges with members of the O'Dempsey family, who were the local rebel leaders and her second cousins, she stressed her vulnerability and femininity as well as their shared kinship and social status in a bid to shame them into desisting. Although some accounts suggest that the castle was garrisoned solely by women and children, this was not so. Indeed in early spring she appears to have authorised a successful raid to recover cattle seized from her by the rebels.
In late March–early April, the rebels reappeared before Geashill having constructed a makeshift cannon, which, however, exploded at the first shot; a further attempt, after an interval in which the cannon was repaired, produced an identical result. Throughout, she affected an aristocratic sang-froid in the face of imminent peril. Meanwhile, her plight had become widely known due to the publication in London at some point in spring 1642 of a portion of her correspondence with her besiegers. Impressed by her bravery, Lord Lisle (qv) and Sir Charles Coote (qv) successfully undertook the hazardous task of relieving her in late April. She elected to stay, but when Sir Richard Grenville relieved Geashill again in October, he concluded that the castle would have to abandoned and persuaded her to accompany him back to Dublin with her family and followers. She left Ireland for Coleshill where her husband had left her a life interest in property, remaining there until her death on 1 December 1658. She was buried in Coleshill alongside her husband. There is a portrait of her at Sherborne castle showing her with a book inscribed with a reference to Job 19: 20: ‘I am escaped with the skin of my teeth’.