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Authors: Anne Chambers

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Chapter 19

A DARING PLAN

Spurred on by their success over the chiefs in Connaught, in 1593 the English began to knock on the doors of Ulster, the last stronghold of Gaelic power.

Fearing that the English would overrun Ulster, as they had done in Connaught, two of the most powerful chieftains, Hugh O'Neill, chief of Tyrone, and Red Hugh O'Donnell, chief of Tirconail, agreed to put past differences behind them and unite to defend their lands. They sent a letter to the king of Spain to seek his help against the English.

The English, meanwhile, began to move against Ulster. The whole of Monaghan was declared Crown property and its chieftain, MacMahon, was executed.

They next moved against Maguire of Fermanagh, while Bingham looted and burned the lordship of O'Rourke of Breffni.

During the attack on O'Rourke, Bingham claimed he had intercepted a letter from Granuaile's son, Tibóid, implicating him in a plot to raise a new rebellion in Mayo.

Bingham arrested Tibóid, imprisoned him in the high-security castle of Athlone and charged him with treason. This was a crime punishable by death.

Whether Tibóid wrote such a letter or not, there is no proof. What is certain is that this was the very chance Bingham had been hoping for, to be rid of a troublesome chieftain and to strike another blow against Granuaile.

Granuaile realised there was not a moment to be lost if she was to save her son's life. Bingham's hatred of herself and her family spurred her into action.

She decided to follow her letter to the English court and to try and meet personally with the Queen.

The risks she undertook were enormous. While the sea journey to London was well within Granuaile's sailing ability, there were other dangers and uncertainties.

The seas around the west and south coasts of Ireland were now patrolled by English warships. A ship captained by such a notorious rebel and pirate would be considered a great prize by any English captain. Granuaile would be hanged from the ship's bow.

When she landed on English soil, would she not be immediately thrown into the Tower of London as a traitor and executed on the same charge of treason that now also hung over the head of her son? Even if she did succeed in evading capture, how was she to get an audience with the queen of England?

Like Royalty and heads of state today, there were strict procedures and protocol involved. Few people were allowed an audience with the queen and, given her reputation, Granuaile's chances were slimmer than most.

But Granuaile was intelligent as well as bold. She knew that only someone close to the queen, someone she liked, someone with influence, could get her an audience. And she knew the very person.

Black Tom Butler, the earl of Ormond in Munster, was a relation and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. Handsome and charming, he divided his time between the court and his estates in Ireland. The queen jokingly referred to him as ‘her Black husband'.

But Granuaile also knew Black Tom through the longstanding connection of his ancestors with the lordship of Umhall.

She asked the earl for a letter of introduction to the queen's secretary of state, Lord Burghley. Black Tom agreed.

Armed with this and with a belief in her own powers of negotiation and persuasion, as well as her extraordinary stamina and courage, in June 1593 Granuaile set sail from Clew Bay on the most important voyage of her life.

Chapter 20

INTO THE LION'S DEN

Bingham's spies brought him news of Granuaile's departure to England.

He was furious that she had slipped through his fingers. But he was also worried what Granuaile might say about him, if she managed to get to see the queen.

He speedily wrote to remind the queen of all the trouble Granuaile had caused her by land and sea for 40 years. She was a traitor and a pirate and he had, he wrote, enough proof against her ‘to hang her by justice'.

Meanwhile, Granuaile's galley sailed on its way down along the west coast, past Mizen Head and onwards towards the south coast of England. Past the Isles of Scilly, through the English Channel, into the Straits of Dover, it finally entered the Thames estuary.

On board, as well as her crew, Granuaile had brought some of her relations to act as her bodyguards, including her grand-nephew, Tibóid Reagh Bourke, who, it was later recorded, ‘attended her at court'.

As her galley sailed up the great river towards the city of London, Granuaile entered a world very different from her home in the west of Ireland.

The River Thames teemed with traffic. Barges, lighters and the traditional Thames ‘wherries' – small boats with a single sail – ferried cargo and passengers up and down that great water highway.

London was one of the busiest and wealthiest ports in the world. Along the bustling waterfront, trading ships from all over the known world – from Antwerp, Hamburg, Bordeaux, Venice and the Levant – discharged their cargoes of wine, spices, silk, carpets, metalwork, pottery, glass, pitch and timber and were loaded with the produce of England: tin, corn, coal and the woven cloth for which England was famous.

As her galley sailed further upriver, Granuaile saw for herself the royal palaces of Elizabeth – Greenwich, Whitehall and Westminster – and the mansions of the wealthy aristocracy and merchants, rising up from the river's edge.

But she also saw a sight which must have made her realise the terrible risk she took in sailing into the lion's den.

Along the riverbank she saw the rotting corpses of pirates who had paid the ultimate price for their crimes by being hung up in iron cages. It was a fate she knew could yet be hers.

She anchored her galley at one of the many landing stages below London Bridge and set foot in the great city of London.

Through the narrow streets and lanes, bordered on each side by wooden-framed houses, shops and taverns, Granuaile jostled her way through the constant mass of people: tradesmen selling their wares, porters carrying their loads, drovers driving herds of cattle, sheep and pigs, vying for space with pickpockets, beggars and sword-swinging young nobles spoiling for a fight, richly dressed ladies, their perfumed handkerchiefs held at the ready to stifle the awful smell of the open sewers, as they flitted from goldsmith to haberdasher.

All was noise, stench and movement, a far cry from the tranquillity and fresh air of Granuaile's home on the western coast of Ireland.

And whether she liked it or not, she would have to stay in this strange city until she achieved what she had come for.

It would take longer than she perhaps thought.

Chapter 21

EIGHTEEN QUESTIONS

Despite her letter of introduction from the earl of Ormond, Granuaile did not get to see the queen of England immediately.

Hundreds of people wanted an audience with the queen, many of them her own subjects, but very few succeeded. For someone from Ireland, a rebel and a pirate to boot, it was even more difficult.

For those lucky enough to be allowed into the queen's presence, certain procedures had to be gone through.

The queen's secretary of state, Lord Burghley, had read the letter Granuaile had sent to the queen. He was intrigued by her and what she wrote.

He already knew a lot about her from Sir Henry Sidney, Sir William Drury, Sir John Perrot and more lately from Bingham. But he wanted to find out more about her for himself.

He sent Granuaile a list of eighteen questions. They ranged from questions about her mother and father, her husbands and her children, to questions about the laws and customs of Ireland in relation to women, their dowries and inheritance.

He also asked her about the ownership of various lands and castles in Mayo and about the property owned by her relations and neighbours.

Granuaile knew she would have to be careful how she answered the questions.

If she answered them falsely, she might never get to meet the queen and her son would die. If she answered them truthfully, especially in relation to the questions about lands and property, she could provide the English with information that they could use against her family and neighbours.

Granuaile's answers are preserved to this day in the Elizabethan State Papers with notes in the margin in Lord Burghley's own handwriting.

Granuaile told him about her family, her mother, father, husbands and children and especially about the death of her eldest son, Owen, at the hands of Bingham and his relations.

She gave an account of her life – or the bits of it she knew would be less damaging in her quest to meet the queen – up to the death of her husband Richard.

She told Burghley of the harsh treatment she had received as a widow at the hands of Bingham; how he stole her cattle and horses, threw her into prison and built a gallows on which to hang her.

To Burghley's questions regarding specific castles and lands, because he misspelled their Gaelic names, she pretended that she had no knowledge of such places.

Granuaile waited in London while Lord Burghley studied her replies.

The waiting was a terrible time for her. If her answers were not acceptable she could still be thrown into prison. She had no idea if her son was still alive in Ireland or if Bingham had already executed him.

Then, in late July 1593, she received the news she had prayed for. The queen would see her at her palace of Greenwich.

Chapter 22

GOOD QUEEN BESS

A few miles from the city of London, Greenwich Palace looked out over the Thames.

It was Queen Elizabeth's favourite palace, especially in summertime, when the dirt and smells of London became too much and too dangerous for her health.

Elizabeth, known to her people as Good Queen Bess, was much-loved by them. By 1593 she had been on the throne for 35 years. During her reign, England had been peaceful and prosperous.

Her people looked on her as a goddess, their saviour from the Spanish invasion. For years she had steered her country safely through many dangers.

She had proved her critics wrong when they said that a woman on the throne would bring only misfortune to England. She had proved, as she said herself, that although she was a woman she had ‘the heart and stomach of a king'.

Poets wrote sonnets and poems about her and the people cheered her wherever she went.

Elizabeth had never married. She feared that if she married a foreign prince or king, her husband would rule England instead of herself. If she married an English lord, it could divide her people and lead to a civil war.

‘I will have but one mistress and no master,' she once said to the earl of Leicester, who wanted to marry her.

She had decided early in her life to sacrifice her own chance of happiness and of having children to make sure that her kingdom remained at peace and free from foreign rule. If she married a foreign prince she knew that instead of herself her husband would rule England.

Elizabeth was a brilliant scholar and could write and speak many languages, including Latin. She loved music and dancing, was an expert horsewoman and enjoyed hunting.

While she often gave great banquets for her court and for visiting nobles and ambassadors, she ate and drank very little herself.

She was tight-fisted with money and did not like waste. To save expense, each year she went on state visits to the castles of her richest nobles, bringing all her court and servants with her, which amounted to many hundreds of people. The noble had to foot the bill for the honour of entertaining Elizabeth and her court.

She loved to dress in magnificent gowns and dresses encrusted with rare gems, but there was a reason, other than fashion, for this display.

By her appearance Elizabeth created the image of a divine and untouchable goddess in the minds of her people and particularly in the minds of her nobles, in case they harboured any ideas of getting rid of her. She strutted through her court dressed like an exotic, tropical bird.

Elizabeth had a hot temper to match her flame-coloured hair. She was given to swearing and boxed the ears of her nobles when they displeased her.

She could be bad mannered, often spat and picked her teeth. She could also be very witty and had a razor-sharp tongue, which made many a nobleman quake in his boots before her.

Granuaile and Elizabeth were in many respects ‘birds of a feather', being powerful women in what was, at that time, considered very much a man's world.

It was perhaps fitting that they should come face to face.

Chapter 23

THE MEETING

On a summer's day in July 1593, Granuaile's galley tied up at the landing stage near Greenwich Palace. It had been a long wait but the moment she had hoped and prayed for was now at hand.

Granuaile and her party were escorted through the long corridors of the palace, past large rooms, panelled in rich mahogany with tapestry-covered walls, sweeping staircases and galleries with high ceilings, decorated with intricate plasterwork.

It was a far cry from the simple surroundings of her stone castle at Carraigahowley.

Granuaile realised the difficult task that lay before her. There was no turning back. When she left Greenwich it would be as a prisoner or as a free woman.

She well knew that Bingham had blackened her name. Now, to save the life of her son, Granuaile would have to convince the queen to go against the advice of her own governor.

The fashionable courtiers and their ladies stared in wonderment as the elderly woman, bareheaded, her long, greying hair bound up in a knot, her face lined and weather-beaten by the wind and the salt spray, dressed in a woollen cloak that stretched to the ground, was lead past them towards the queen's private chamber.

While they tittered at her out-of-fashion clothes, something about her, the way she marched through the room, the look she may have thrown at them, made them realise they were in the presence of someone special, someone who, as a poet wrote of her, was

… well used to power, as one that hath

Dominion over men of savage mood

And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath

And thru' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

They looked at her in awe.

This, after all, was the notorious woman pirate from the far west of Ireland they had heard about from Sir Philip Sidney – commander of rebels and pirates, the scourge of English merchant ships.

What on earth was the queen thinking about to agree to see such a woman?

As the doors of the presence chamber closed behind her, Granuaile came face to face with the woman against whom she had rebelled and in whose hands her life and her son's life now lay; the very woman whose servants in Ireland had turned Granuaile's world upside down. Granuaile saw a woman about the same age as herself, but there the resemblance ended.

The queen was dressed in a richly embroidered gown, studded with diamonds and precious gems, which dazzled and shone in the sunlight.

Behind the mask of the magnificent dress and fabulous gems, Granuaile saw that the queen's face was like a mask, covered in white rice powder and rouge. Her nose was hooked and her teeth were black. Her head was covered in a red wig.

Elizabeth peered short-sightedly at the ‘notorious rebel', the ‘famous feminine sea-captain', about whom her ministers in Ireland had written. She saw standing before a woman about her own age, dressed plainly, no paint or powder to hide her wrinkled face.

But something about the way the Irishwoman stood, as if they were equals instead of queen and subject, made Elizabeth realise she was looking at someone special. This woman did not need fine dresses or gems to mark her out as being a leader.

Despite her titles of High Admiral of her navy and Chief Commander of her armies, Elizabeth knew that, unlike this woman who stood before her, she had done little to deserve them.

Unlike Granuaile, she had never led her troops into battle or sailed further downriver than Greenwich. Her titles were empty. Granuaile's were the real thing.

Granuaile with Queen Elizabeth I.

It was said that the two women spoke to each other in Latin. The queen spoke many languages, but Granuaile could also speak English and knew some Spanish as well.

The queen was curious to hear directly from Granuaile about her strange life on land and sea. Was it true she had led rebellions? Had she plundered English ships at sea? The queen peered at the document on the table beside her and pointed in disbelief to a particular sentence. Was it true that she had even attacked her own son?

Taking a deep breath, Granuaile knew that she must be careful how she answered Elizabeth. She had to choose her words with care.

Granuaile told the Queen she had no option but had been forced to take action to protect herself, her family and her followers because of the disturbed state of her country.

She explained Connaught was in such a state, where the people were terrified, the countryside devastated, due to the actions of the queen's own servants there, especially Bingham. Instead of justice, Bingham had brought only grief to her and her people.

The queen listened with growing admiration and pity as Granuaile told her how she and her family had suffered at Bingham's hands and of his ‘hard dealing' of herself, in particular.

She asked that her son be released from prison. The queen said she would consider it and promised Granuaile that in the meantime her son should come to no harm while in Bingham's custody.

Then Granuaile played her trump card.

She needed desperately to return to the sea in order to recoup her losses on land. But to do this she had to get Bingham off her back. The only way around him was if she could get the queen's specific permission.

Referring to her seafaring activities as ‘maintenance by land and sea' – which sounded more law-abiding than piracy and plunder – she asked Elizabeth to allow her to return to her seafaring ways. Elizabeth agreed. Granuaile led her to believe that, as the queen wrote, by doing so she would be ‘fighting Our quarrel with all the world'.

Granuaile had pulled a fast one. She could return to her former trade by sea, this time with the queen's permission, and there was nothing Bingham could do to stop her.

The queen wrote her orders in a letter to Bingham. Ignoring the accusations he had made against Granuaile, she ordered him to release Tibóid and, in future, to allow him and his half-brother, Murrough O'Flaherty, to ‘live in peace and enjoy their livelihoods'.

She urged him to ‘have pity on this aged woman' and to ensure that she be allowed ‘maintenance' for the ‘rest of her old years'.

With much thanks and vague promises of loyalty, Granuaile took her leave of the queen, her mission a success.

Such was the impact Granuaile made on the queen and her court that when Elizabeth I was having a new map of Ireland drawn by her mapmaker, Baptista Boazio, later that year, Granuaile's name was included as chieftain of Mayo. She was the only woman whose name had ever appeared on a map of a country.

It was proof that regardless of law and custom, Granuaile had, by her sheer ability and courage, become accepted as a chieftain in her own right, both in Ireland and England.

Armed with the queen's letter, Granuaile set sail for Ireland and was home in Clew Bay in September.

BOOK: Pirate Queen of Ireland
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