The Hero of Catholic Europe who almost became King of Ireland
When Spain, which was then the world’s most powerful empire, planned invasions (or liberations if you prefer) of Ireland in the course of the sixteenth century, one of the dilemmas it was confronted with was confusion over exactly what type of polity would be established in Ireland after a successful Spanish invasion. In an age of imperial expansion, the status quo had become a perilous anachronism. The fratricidal warfare of the native kingdoms and the lack of administrative unity left the country dangerously susceptible to colonial re-conquest. Would, therefore, Ireland become an overseas territory of the King of Spain, represented in Ireland by a viceroy, or would Ireland be granted its own monarch? The Irish nobles and bishops seem to have had little problem in principle with either prospect; the immediate priority for them was centered on repelling English Protestant operations. (It’s also important to note that the strong religious ties between both countries, as well as a shared enemy, buttressed by the then very strong Irish self-conception of being descended from King Milesius of Spain, meant that Spain was not really perceived by them as a foreign power at all, and prospective Spanish rule was acceptable in ways which English rule never conceivably could be.)
A solution was agreed by the Irish nobles whereby Don John of Austria (in picture above), brother of King Philip II of Spain and son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, would become King of Ireland. (Don John is most famous for having saved Europe from the Ottoman Turks in the battle of Lepanto.) In a letter to their ambassador at the Spanish Court, Maurice Fitzgibbon, Archbishop of Cashel, (you can read the letter in full here — see also this distinct but related petition to King Philip II from the Irish bishops and nobles) they re-affirm their loyalty to King Philip, stress the perils of disunity in the face of English aggression and confirm their request that the King’s brother be made King of Ireland:
…According to certain Englishmen of the [Privy] Council of England, who have favoured us, albeit clandestinely, it is the intention of the Queen [Elizabeth I] to seek peace with His Majesty [King Philip II of Spain] in order that he may not be moved by his wonted benevolence to realize our danger and to assist us. His Majesty ought to reflect that such a proposal by the English would not be to his advantage but is in fact put forward simply in order the more effectively to ruin us and all Catholics. Having considered among ourselves and with our council this most difficult and important matter, it appears to us that Your Grace should approach His Majesty with a request that his most honourable brother, Don John of Austria, should be proclaimed our King. We would engage ourselves to be His Majesty’s most faithful subjects and vassals, as we have promised in our letters. Concerning all this we have written to the said Don John a letter which Your Grace will hand to him. You will discuss not only with His Majesty but also with the said Don John these intricate affairs so that he may send us his reply to our petition. If it be granted, we trust to God that as soon as Don John sets foot in Ireland all our people will give him their allegiance and will make him not only King of Ireland but also of other provinces which we will subject to his rule. For if we had a King like other nations none would venture to attack us, on account of the spirit of our people in war, the stoutness of their hearts, and the fertility of their soil. Because we have not a King and are divided among ourselves the English attack and rob us daily, and we suffer grievously as a result. Your Grace well knows how they sow enmity between two brothers in order to destroy them individually and seize their possessions… (1)
While in Lisbon in 1574 the papal nuncio to Ireland, Father David Wolfe, S.J., was commissioned by Don Juan de Borja, the Spanish ambassador to Portugal, to write a Description of Ireland for King Philip II. Fr Wolfe’s work offers a fascinating and comprehensive topography of all the regions of Ireland. In his general overview of the whole of Ireland, he laments in his final conclusion that “one thing alone is lacking in that realm, namely, a Christian King, zealous of the honour of God, who should ever reside in the realm and constrain idle men to work, and chastise the wicked and base, and reward the good and virtuous” and prays that “God give the country a King after His own heart, and not after our transgressions.” He devotes his efforts so that “his Catholic Majesty should not let slip the opportunity of taking so good and beautiful a kingdom.” His section on how Ireland is to be successfully invaded puts heavy emphasis on the necessity for Don John to be crowned King of Ireland in order to put an end to Irish factionalism and to exile the ‘English heretics’ out of Ireland:
In all the island of Ireland, Meath alone excepted, I am sure that no single hundred is to be found but there is war therein: it is village against village, hundred against hundred, brother against brother, kinsman against kinsman; ergo, all that realm, thus divided, is already at the mercy of whosoever chooses to take it.
Believing as I do, that his Majesty desires not so much to extend his temporal dominion as to exalt the glory of Christ, and to extirpate the Lutheran pest from His holy church, and plant there the true Catholic and Apostolic faith, I therefore deem it very expedient, nay, rather, necessary, that he should have the authority and commission (that which was originally granted to Henry, King of England being revoked) of the Apostolic See to enter with an armed force that realm of Ireland, it being, as I have already said, the patrimony of St. Peter. With this authority and commission from the Supreme Pontiff, it would be well that his Catholic Majesty should, as indeed all the lords and nobles of Ireland desire and are fain that he should, ordain and appoint his brother, Don John of Austria, king of that realm. This I am prompted to say for many reasons, the first and chief being the honour of God, since, his Highness being zealous for the Christian and Catholic religion, I doubt not that he would reform the Church of Ireland.
I am also prompted by the advantage to the commonweal of the realm, because, as under the eye of the master the horse waxes stout, so under the eye of the King the realm waxes stout and strong and peaceful, while on the other hand in his absence, dissensions, discords, rebellions, poverty and other innumerable evils are engendered, as is plainly visible in that same realm of Ireland, which has lacked the presence of a King for more than 400 years.
Herein I am also prompted by this, that his Majesty, being standard-bearer and captain general of the Church of God, and having by God’s grace gained several victories over the infidels that are chief among the enemies of God and His Holy Church, has well earned the right to have some reward of the Church, nor know I what reward she could more readily give him than that royal crown of Ireland, which is her own. All other provinces of the Church are already given to other Christian princes; that province of Ireland alone is left; and I doubt not that God has kept it for Don John, and that the Supreme Pontiff will grant him that realm, if his Catholic Majesty will crave and solicit it; for the son of so good a father as was Charles V, the brother and most loyal servant of so great a king as the Catholic King, and the standard-bearer and champion of so holy and pious a mother as the Roman Church, deserves no less a dignity than a royal crown, for thereby are enhanced at once the glory of the father, the honour of the brother, and the dignity and worshipfulness of the mother.
I am furthermore prompted thus to utter my mind by the consideration that his Catholic Majesty’s council would not suffer him to diminish his ancestral inheritance to aggrandize that noble knight, his brother Don John; and so Ireland would be to the purpose. Moreover, the lords of Ireland do not gladly welcome or obey Viceroys, because in truth hitherto the Viceroys of that realm, and indeed Viceroys everywhere else, as one sees in the Indies of Portugal and elsewhere, do nought else but pick and steal the wealth of the kingdom, and at the end of four or five years depart with their bags full; and fresh gifts and presents must be forthcoming for the new Viceroys and Presidents, so that they have despoiled the realm of its wealth. Wherefore the folk of Ireland yearn to have a king in the realm to defend them, and to whom they can yield obedience; and above all they desire for their King Don John, hearing tell of his good repute and fortune, and of his zeal for the honour of God.
Furthermore, I say that in my opinion if Don John were created King of Ireland, he would be a great scourge and terror to the heretics of England, because they hold it to be predicted that the ruin of England is to begin in Ireland. The prophecy in the English tongue is as follows: He that will England win, let him in Ireland begin.
Moreover, the creation and coronation of Don John as King of Ireland would be a great blow to the Flemish heretics, because the victuals and munitions which the Lady Elizabeth is wont daily to send to them in Flanders she would keep in her realm for fear of being attacked in some quarter or another by Don John and the Irish, who would be glad enough to ravage England.
Should his Catholic Majesty deem this business inopportune by reason of the war against the Turk with which Don John is occupied at present, I say that by the authority of the Supreme Pontiff he might readily take possession of that realm with the forces of the Holy League, and having received the oath of fealty with hostages from the lords and nobles of the realm, and left there his Viceroy and munitions in the cities and fortresses, might turn his attention to the war against the Turk.
The lords of Ireland, and also many Englishmen are firmly persuaded that Don John has already received the royal crown of the realm of Ireland from the Supreme Pontiff, and they anticipate with the utmost delight the time when they shall welcome and embrace him as their king.
Sixteenth-century Irish history is abundant with lost opportunities and ‘What ifs?’. But surely this must be among the most heartbreaking?