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 heresee 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?

(1) Falls, Cyril (1997). Elizabeth’s Irish Wars. NY: Syracuse University Press. pp. 140-141.

Posted on December 20, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. A fascinating “what if” reverie indeed, Shane. Just think of all the beautiful baroque architecture we might have had. And tapas! Oh yes, tapas!! Although, sadly, not the vino to go with it. And the Spanish can keep their version of cerveza, thank you very much! But tapas and Guinness… mmmmm, the possibilities are endless!

    Seriously, it was indeed a great missed opportunity but I wonder how practical it might have been, given that the new Kingdom of Ireland would have probably needed fairly intensive Spanish supervision for a number of years/decades. And given England’s effective control of the seas the logistics of supply and communications would most likely have been a major problem. Also, given Ireland’s well-known propensity for dissension, and Walsingham’s proven capability for sowing it, I wonder would English agents have soon been busy fomenting internal strife? Pretty sure they would… they were good at that sort of thing, as we were good at betraying each other.

    However, had the new Kingdom survived its initial difficult birth I think that it would probably have prospered and proved a constant thorn to England. And it’s not difficult to imagine that there would at least have been a strong and properly-trained Irish army – Irish tercios!

    However a strong Irish navy would also have been essential, and I wonder how that might have worked out, given Spain’s relative weakness in that area and Ireland not having that much of a sea-faring tradition compared to our neighbour?

    Moving forwards, I wonder if such an Irish kingdom would have continued to develop along Spanish lines, or would a more northern European character have asserted itself? We’ll never know, of course, but one thing that might well have happened is that the Church, which would of course have been the established Church, would probably have fallen prey to freemasonry and anti-clericalism come the 18th and 19th centuries which, of course, because of its subjection, did not happen in actual history. Until now.

  2. Jaykay, I suspect that they would have went native to an extent (especially in their language) after a generation or two. That is usually what happens with imported dynasties. His noblemen and supporters would have been the Gaelic lords, who would have strongly influenced them. It’s amazing to think we could have had a hybrid Gaelic-Spanish Habsburg kingdom! Imagine the possibilities! I suspect that given his background we would have been an effective protectorate of both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. But the mere fact of having a king (particularly of such illustrious naval achievements, character and lineage) would have created a sense of the legitimacy of Irish independence that it would have been hard for even England to ignore. (Elizabeth I and and the subsequent Stuart Kings of Great Britain believed themselves to be the legitimate monarchs of Ireland, which is why they felt entitled to pursue the policies they did.)

  3. Yes, Shane, I think there would have been an element of going native, all right. And while some Spanish would have initially despised the living conditions of some (remoter) parts of Ireland (e.g. the comments of some of the shipwrecked sailors from the Armada which were brutally direct: “savages” etc) there most probably would have been rapid immigration resulting in intermarriage and economic expansion, and the expanded development of towns, spurred by the boon of trade with the worldwide Spanish Empire. Think of how maritime cities like Galway might have developed! In fact we might well have had a Spanish-style cathedral there almost 400 years before it actually got built.

    There is a huge amount to conjecture here. Our monasteries would have been revived and rebuilt and think of what treasures we might now have, both spiritual and physical, had that happened.

    Strategically, England might well have been in a very perilous position, open to attacks from all flanks, including Scotland.

    Hmmm… maybe I’ll put on my Robert Harris hat and write a parallel reality historic fiction.


  4. Indeed, the more I think about it the more it really appeals to me, especially when I compare it to what actually did happen. Three nightmare centuries of unspeakable horrors would have been entirely avoided, and our Gaelic civilization would been both preserved and allowed to really develop. (Presumably we would have shared in the Spanish Golden Age.)

    BTW I love the nobles’ declaration 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.” They must be thinking of an Irish Empire!

  5. Jaykay

    Scotland has been open from attacks from England since the year dot .We have fought, lost (and won!) many battle against them in defending ourselves & our country.England invaded Scotland,so “open to attacks from all flanks”- Scotland? 😦

  6. Yes, Chris, England would have been open to attacks from Scotland. Please remember that we’re talking about the period of the mid-16th century, before the unified monarchy and long before the actual Union, when Scotland was an independent kingdom. The point being made earlier was that had Ireland come under a Spanish prince/king then she would, with Spanish help, have comprised a much more potent military threat to England than had been the case. Scotland, at that period, was also still viewed as a threat to England. And I’m sure you’re aware that the last invasion of England from Scotland was in the 18th century, albeit the monarchy had been unified for over 100 years at that stage and the actual Act of Union had taken place.

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