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James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond

James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond

Irish nobleman
The basics
Quick Facts
A.K.A. Séamus FitzJohn FitzGerald, James FitzJohn FitzGerald
Gender male
Death November 11, 1583
The details

James (Séamus) FitzJohn FitzGerald (died 27 October 1558) was an Irish nobleman, the second son of John FitzGerald, de facto 12th Earl of Desmond, and Móre O'Brien, daughter of Donogh O'Brien of Carrigogunnell, Lord of Pobble. He held the title of Earl of Desmond from 1536 until his death in 1558.
Beginning his tenure in alliance with rebellious groups in Ireland, the 14th Earl of Desmond eventually gained favour with the Crown, ultimately being appointed Lord Treasurer of Ireland in 1547, an office which he maintained until his death.

Early years

Immediately on the death of his grandfather in June 1536, James FitzGerald assumed the position and title of Earl of Desmond. In order to support his position, FitzGerald united with O'Brien of Thomond, the head of the discontented party in Ireland. The government, which had just suppressed the rebellion of Thomas FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Kildare, resolved to attack him, and on 25 July 1536, Lord Leonard Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland marched against him. Breaching the border of Cashel, Grey sought to separate FitzGerald from O'Brien, "so as we might have entangled but with one of them at once." Grey took possession of FitzGerald's castle in Lough Gur, the doors and windows of which had been carried away and the roof burned by the FitzGeralds. He gave the captured castle to Lord James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond.

Claim to the earldom

FitzGerald "showed himself in gesture and communication very reasonable", and offered to deliver up his two sons as hostages, and to submit his claims to the earldom to the decision of Lord Grey. FitzGerald's claim was renewed in December of the same year. "And as far as ever I could perceive," wrote Grey to Thomas Cromwell in February 1537, "the stay that keepeth him from inclining to the king's grace's pleasure is the fear and doubt which he and all the Geraldines in Munster have in the Lord James Butler, both for the old malice that hath been betwixt their bloods, and principally for that he claimeth title by his wife to the earldom of Desmond."

Grey argued in favour of FitzGerald's claims. In August 1538, Anthony St Leger, who was at the time serving on the commission "for the order and establishment to be taken and made touching the whole state of Ireland," was advised by Cromwell "to handle the said James in a gentle sort." Accordingly, on the 15th of September, FitzGerald was invited to submit his claims to the commissioners at Dublin. Suspecting their intention, he declined to place himself in their power, though signing articles of submission and promising to deliver up his eldest son as hostage for his good faith. The negotiations continued to be delayed. In March 1538, the commissioners wrote that FitzGerald "hath not only delivered his son, according to his first promise, to the hands of Mr. William Wyse of Waterford to be delivered unto us, but also hath affirmed by his secretary and writing all that he afore promised."

Fortune's chance

FitzGerald had good reason for his caution. The Ormonde faction in the council, violently opposed to Grey and St Leger, were assiduously striving to effect his ruin. In July 1539, John Allen related to Cromwell how the "pretended Earl of Desmond" had confederated with O'Donnell and O'Neill "to make insurrection against the king's majesty and his subjects, not only for the utter exile and destruction of them, but also for the bringing in, setting up, and restoring young Gerald (the sole surviving scion of the house of Kildare) to all the possessions and pre-eminences which his father had; and so finally among them to exclude the king from all his regalities within this land."

In April 1540 the council informed Henry VIII of England that "your grace's servant James Fitzmaurice, who claimed to be Earl of Desmond, was cruelly slain the Friday before Palm Sunday, of unfortunate chance, by Maurice Fitzjohn, brother to James Fitzjohn, then usurper of the earldom of Desmond. After which murder done, the said James Fitzjohn immediately resorted to your town of Youghal, where he was well received and entertained, and ere he departed entered into all such piles and garrisons in the county of Cork as your majesty's deputy, with the assistance of your army and me, the Earl of Ormonde, obtained before Christmas last."

Ormonde was sent to parley with FitzGerald, but he refused to trust him. On the arrival of St Leger as deputy, however, FitzGerald again renewed his offer of submission, and promised, upon pledges being given for his safety, to meet him at Cashel. This he did, and renounced the supremacy of the Pope. "And then," wrote St Leger, "considering the great variance between the Earl of Ormonde and him, concerning the title of the earldom of Desmond ... I and my fellows thought it not good to leave that cancer remain, but so laboured the matter on both sides, that we have brought them to a final end of the said title."


St Leger assured King Henry "that sith my repair into this your land I have not heard better counsel of no man for the reformation of the same than of the said Earl of Desmond, who undoubted is a very wise and discreet gentleman," for which reason, he said, he had sworn him of the council and given him "gown, jacket, doublet, hose, shirts, caps, and a riding coat of velvet, which he took very thankfully, and ware the same in Limerick and in all places where he went with me." By such conciliatory conduct St Leger, in the opinion of Justice Cusack, won over to obedience the whole province of Munster.

In July 1541, James FitzGerald was appointed chief executor of the "ordinances for the reformation of Ireland" in Munster. In token of the renunciation of the privilege claimed by his ancestors of not being obliged to attend the great councils of the realm, he took his seat in a parliament held at Dublin. In June 1542 he visited England, where he was graciously received by King Henry, his title acknowledged, and the king wrote to the Irish council "that the Earl of Desmond hath here submitted himself in so honest, lowly, and humble a sort towards us, as we have conceived a very great hope that he will prove a man of great honour, truth, and good service". Nor did he, during the rest of his life, fail to justify this opinion. On 9 July 1543 he obtained a grant of the crown lease of St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin, "for his better supporting at his repair" to parliament.

Henry's son, Edward VI, named him Lord Treasurer of Ireland on the death of the Earl of Ormonde (patent 29 March 1547), and on 15 October 1547, when thanking him for his services in repressing disorders in Munster, King Henry offered to make a companion of his son. During the government of Edward Bellingham he was accused of treason, and having refused a peremptory order to appear in Dublin, the deputy swooped down upon him unexpectedly in the dead of winter 1548, and carried him off prisoner. He was soon released and continued in office by Queen Mary.


Marriages and progeny

James FitzGerald married four times: first, Joan Roche, daughter of Maurice Roche, Lord Fermoy, his own grandniece, for which reason, the marriage was annulled and their son, Sir Tomás Ruadh FitzGerald of Conna, father of James (Séamus) Fitzgerald, "the Sugán Earl," was disinherited.

James FitzGerald then married Móre O'Carroll, daughter of Sir Maolrony McShane O'Carroll, Lord of Ely, by whom he had Géaroîd, his heir, as well as another son, Seán, and four daughters. Móre O'Carroll died in 1548.

FitzGerald's third wife was Caitríona Butler, second daughter of Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, and widow of Richard, Baron le Poer. Caitríona died at Askeaton on 17 March 1553.

His last marriage was to Evelyn Mór MacCarthy, daughter of Donal MacCormac, MacCarthy Môr, by whom he had a son, Sir Séamus-Sussex FitzGerald who died in 1580, and a daughter, Elinor.


In the summer of 1558 the 14th Earl of Desmond was afflicted with a serious illness, and died at Askeaton on Thursday, 27 October. He was buried in the abbey of the White Friars in Tralee. A half century after James FitzGerald's death, chroniclers of the Annals of Four Masters observed, "The loss of this good man was woful to his country; for there was no need to watch cattle or close doors from Dun-caoin, in Kerry, to the green-bordered meeting of the three waters, on the confines of the province of Eochaidh, the son of Lachta and Leinster."

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