Author Anne Chambers recounts the circumstances surrounding the meeting in 1593 between Irish leader Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I of England
The forthcoming meeting between Queen Elizabeth II with the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, mirrors another meeting, some 418 years ago, between the Irish leader, the ‘pirate queen’ Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) and Queen Elizabeth I. The circumstances that gave rise to that meeting were somewhat more dramatic than the present one.
By 1593 the antique, tribal Gaelic world of Grace O’Malley was collapsing under the political, social and military upheavals of the previous four decades. Queen Elizabeth I viewed Ireland as a weak chink in her armour against Spain; Ireland’s rich pasturelands a potential goldmine, and its allegiance to the old religion, a potential rallying point for rebellion against her.
Over the space of 4 decades, with immense skill, courage and charisma, Grace O’Malley established herself as a leader of some note and notoriety in Ireland. Commanding a military force, by land and by sea, comprising, ‘three galleys and two hundred fighting men,’ she skilfully negotiated her way through the Machiavellian web of Elizabethan politics. When English diplomacy was replaced by military might, she personally lead her army, by land and by sea, against individual English generals who tried to deprive herself and her family of their lands and power, earning herself a reputation as the ‘most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.’
But by Spring 1593 Grace found herself backed into a corner by Sir Richard Bingham, the uncompromising English governor of Connaught. Her eldest son was killed by Bingham’s brother, while Bingham attacked Grace’s land, confiscated her substantial cattle and horse herds and established an English garrison in her castle of Rockfleet on the shores of Clew Bay. To circumvent Bingham Grace wrote directly to Queen Elizabeth. Her letter caught the interest of the Queen’s Secretary of State, Lord Burghley.
As she waited a reply from the English Court Bingham imprisoned Grace’s youngest son for treason, a charge punishable by death. The time for polite negotiation from a distance was over. Despite the catalogue of ‘treasonable’ offences laid against her at the English court, the ties of motherhood proved stronger and compelled Grace to present her case in person to the English Queen.
Ever astute and politically savvy, Grace realised the obstacles in her way. Influence in the shape of a business acquaintance, the Earl of Ormond, related to Elizabeth through her mother Anne Bolyen, helped smooth the way, with a letter of introduction to Lord Burghley. Nonetheless Grace’s mission was daunting. Few petitioners were granted access to the Queen, particularly one whose rebellious and piratical actions were well known.
Sailing her ship from Clew Bay she reached London in July 1593 and presented her credentials. Curious about this woman ‘who overstepped the role of womanhood’ Lord Burghley questioned her about her family, her ‘career’, aspects of Gaelic law and the status of women in Gaelic society. Grace’s answers were sufficiently intriguing and, despite Bingham’s indignant protestations, Elizabeth agreed to see the Irish ‘Queen’. They met at the Palace of Greenwich, in late summer in 1593.
Elizabeth was at the apex of her power, the ‘Goddess Heavenly Bright’ of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Vain and autocratic, she could be coarse and bawdy, she spat and picked her teeth, had a cruel wit and razor-sharp tongue. Her eyes peered short-sightedly, her red hair had given way to a wig, her face a mask of rice powder and rouge, her teeth decayed and blackened. What age had ravaged Elizabeth concealed by the sheer magnificence of her wardrobe.
The harsh environment in which she operated had left its imprint on Grace O’Malley. Unlike Elizabeth, the furrows, wrinkles and scars of age, salt spray, wind and military action lay exposed for all to see. To have survived the Atlantic Ocean, as much as the battlefield, her courage, leadership and stamina were unquestionable. By her sixties her physique tended towards a ‘stoutness of person’.
While tradition holds that Elizabeth and Grace conducted their conversation in Latin, both from her correspondence and from the reports of the English administrators and military men who came into contact with her, it is evident that Grace both understood and spoke English.
Intrigued and subsequently amazed by this woman who, unlike herself, personally led her army into battle and commanded her ships at sea, had been twice married, once divorced, had taken a lover and was the mother of four children, the Queen listened as Grace outlined her list of grievances against Elizabeth’s own military governor. The correspondence emanating from the meeting confirms, as Grace attested ‘the clemencie and favour’ she received from the Queen who ordered the release of Grace’s son and restored him to his lands. She also gave her assent that Grace could continue her career, described as ‘maintenance by land and sea’ without due let or hindrance. Such was the impact made by the Irish ‘Queen’ that in a new map of Ireland compiled by the royal cartographer shortly after her visit, her name written as ‘Grany O’Maly’ is listed among the otherwise all-male leaders.
And so when Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese meet, perhaps somewhere in the ether of history they will be observed by their famous predecessors, Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I, who might well exchange a knowing glance intimating – done that, worn the tea shirt!
© Anne Chambers 2011
From: GRANUAILE: GRACE O’MALLEY – IRELAND’S PIRATE QUEEN (2009)