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The History of Ulster
O'Neill the Great visits Elizabeth


Shane summoned to the Court of Elizabeth - His Letter to the Queen - Sussex attempts to get Shane murdered - Shane prepares to submit - His Terms of Submission - He sails from Dublin - Received on his Arrival in London by Cecil, Pembroke, and Bacon - He appears before Elizabeth - Received graciously by the Queen - He is detained in England - Corresponds with Elizabeth.

Shane O'Neill was now required to appear in person before Elizabeth to explain the grounds on which he based his claim to the Earldom of Tyrone, and also to account for the disloyal conduct of which he had, of late, been guilty. O'Neill professed the fairest and most peaceable intentions, and denied that he had opposed the Government: what he had done had been done in self-defence; and he maintained that no attempts should be made to control him in the just exercise of his own authority. He held that if he had attacked any of the English settlements, he had only repelled their attempts against himself: these injurious neighbours, envying his state, and being desirous to wrest from him his possessions, had even formed designs against his person; the result being that he lived in constant danger of being assassinated.

He now wrote to the Queen giving an account of himself and his actions, and his letter, though it suffers much from being translated, is a document which proves that if the writer was, when viewed from a modern standpoint, a savage, he was at least a highly interesting savage.

"The Deputy", he writes, "has much ill-used me, your Majesty; and now that I am going over to see you I hope you will consider that I am but rude and uncivil, and do not know my duty to your Highness nor yet your Majesty's laws, but am one brought up in wildness far from all civility. Yet have I a good will to the commonwealth of my country; and please your Majesty to send over two commissioners that you can trust that will take no bribes nor otherwise be imposed on, to observe what I have done to improve the country, and to hear what my accusers have to say; and then let them go into the Pale and hear what the people say of your soldiers with their horses, and their dogs and their concubines. Within this year and a half, three hundred farmers are come from the English Pale to live in my country where they can be safe.

"Please your Majesty, your Majesty's money here is not so good as your money in England, and will not pass current there. Please your Majesty to send me three thousand pounds of English money to pay my expenses in going over to you, and when I come back I will pay your Deputy three thousand pounds Irish, such as you are pleased to have current here.

"Also I will ask your Majesty to marry me to some gentlewoman of noble blood meet for my vocation. I will make Ireland all that your Majesty wishes for you. I am very sorry your Majesty is put to such expense. If you will trust it to me I will undertake that in three years you shall have a revenue where now you have continual loss.

"Also your Majesty's father granted certain lands to my father O'Neill and to his son Matthew. Mat Kelly claims these lands of your Majesty. We have a saying among us Irishmen that 'whatsoever bull do chance to bull any cow in any kerragh, notwithstanding, the right owner of the cow shall have the calf and not the owner of the bull'. How can it be or how can it stand with natural reason that the said Matthew should inherit my father's lands, and also inherit his own rightful father the smith's, and also his mother's lands which the said Matthew hath peaceably in possession?"

Sussex, despairing of conquering O'Neill in the field, determined to remove "the most dangerous person in Ireland" by other means than warfare. He decided to use the poisoned bowl or the dagger, as the following letter from him to the Queen proves. It is dated 24th August, 1561, and runs:

"May it please your Highness,

"After conference had with Shane O'Neill's seneschal I entered talk with Neil Grey; and perceiving by him that he had little hope of Shane's conformity in anything, and that he therefore desired that he might be received to serve your Highness, for that he would no longer abide with him, and that if I would promise to receive him to your service he would do anything that I would command him, I sware him upon the Bible to keep secret that I should say unto him, and assured him if it were ever known during the time I had the government there, that besides the breach of his oath it should cost him his life. I used long circumstance in persuading him to serve you to benefit his country, and to procure assurance of living to him and his for ever by doing of that which he might easily do. He promised to do what I would. In fine I brake with him to kill Shane; and bound myself by my oath to see him have a hundred marks of land by the year to him and to his heirs for his reward. He seemed desirous to serve your Highness and to have the land, but fearful to do it doubting his own escape after with safety, which he confessed and promised to do by any means he might escaping with his life. What he will do I know not, but I assure your Highness he may do it without danger if he will. And if he will not do that he may in your service, then will be done to him what others may. God send your Highness a good end.

"Your Highness's
"Most humble and faithful subject and servant,
"T. SUSSEX."

The Queen's opinion of this proposal, if she ever expressed it in writing which is doubtful is not discoverable. That she did not contemplate the committing of the proposed murder with aversion, or censure Lord Sussex, is proved by the fact that he was continued in office, and later he repeated the experiment on other lines, but was signally unsuccessful.

What the Lord Lieutenant did not succeed in effecting by force was brought about through the mediation of the Earl of Kildare, whose family connection with O'Neill gave him considerable influence with that chief. The persuasions of Kildare were backed by a pressing letter of invitation from Elizabeth to Shane to repair to her Court, and this invitation Shane the Proud accepted on terms which implied that he was rather conferring a favour than receiving one. He demanded a safe-conduct so clearly worded that whatever the result of his visit he should be free to return; he required a complete amnesty for his past misdeeds; and he stipulated that Elizabeth should pay all expenses for himself and his retinue; the Earls of Ormonde, Desmond, and Kildare must receive him in state at Dundalk and escort him to Dublin; Kildare must accompany him to England; and, most important of all, Armagh Cathedral must be
evacuated.

On these terms he was ready to go to England. When the terms were laid before the Council in London, they were accepted for "certain secret respects", and the prospect of having such a redoubtable chieftain in their power made one of the members suggest that the terms of the safe-conduct might be evaded, and " that in Shane's absence from Ireland something might be cavilled against him or his for non-observing the covenants on his side; and so the pact being infringed the matter might be used as should be thought fit". Happily for the honour of England this vile proposal met with no approval from the Queen, who, after some slight hesitation, wrote to O'Neill accepting all his terms save the evacuation of the cathedral. Making a virtue of necessity Shane consented to this, saying at the same time that he did so solely to please Elizabeth, but that for "the Earl of Sussex he would not mollify one iota of his agreement".

Everything being now in order, the Ulster chieftain, leaving Turlogh Lynnagh O'Neill in charge of Tyrone, set sail in December, 1551, from Dublin, with Kildare in attendance and accompanied by a guard of gallowglasse, and was received privately at the Lord Keeper's house, on the 2nd of January, by Cecil, Pembroke, and Bacon. O'Neill had received one thousand pounds already, and was now handed a second thousand; whereupon he remarked that two thousand pounds was a poor present from so great a queen. The enormity of his transgressions being pointed out to him, and an endeavour made to extract a promise that he would behave himself in future, he evasively responded that he hoped he would get a little more money. Seeing that it was waste of time to try to bargain with him, the Englishmen had to content themselves with Shane's assurance that he would confess in Irish and in English that his deeds were not what they should have been, whereupon preparations were made to receive him at Court.

Few scenes could be more picturesque than this visit of the great Ulster chieftain to the capital of his unknown sovereign. As he came striding down the streets of London on his way to the Palace, attended by his train of gallowglasse armed with the battleaxe, his was indeed a figure to strike the imagination. Like the great golden eagle from far-off Donegal, when seen among homely surroundings, Shane the Proud impressed those who gazed at him as being indeed a king of men. He stalked into the Court, his saffron mantle sweeping round and round him, his hair curling on his back and clipped short below the eyes, which gleamed from under it with a grey lustre. Behind him followed his gallowglasse, their heads bare, their fair hair flowing on their shoulders, their linen vests dyed with saffron, with long and open sleeves, surcharged with shirts of mail which reached to their knees, a wolf-skin flung across their shoulders, and short, broad battle-axes in their hands.

The redoubtable chief had no reason to be dissatisfied with his reception. The Council, the peers, bishops, aldermen, dignitaries of all kinds, were present in state, and the assembly included ambassadors from the King of Sweden and the Duke of Savoy.

Approaching the throne O'Neill fell on his knees before Elizabeth, and from a scroll which had been inscribed at the dictation of Cecil, read aloud in Irish a submission couched in the following terms:

"Oh! my most dread sovereign lady and Queen, like as I, Shane O'Neill, your Majesty's subject of your realm of Ireland, have of long desired to come into the presence of your Majesty to acknowledge my humble and bounden subjection, so am I now upon my knees by your gracious permission, and do most humbly acknowledge your Majesty to be my sovereign lady and Queen of England, France, and Ireland; and I do confess that for lack of civil education I have offended your Majesty and your laws, for the which I have required and obtained your Majesty's pardon. And for that I most humbly from the bottom of my heart thank your Majesty, and still do with all humbleness require the continuance of the same ; and I faithfully promise here before Almighty God and your Majesty, and in presence of all these your nobles, that I intend by God's grace to live hereafter in the obedience of your Majesty as a subject of your land of Ireland.

"And because this my speech being Irish is not well understanded, I have caused this my submission to be written in English and Irish, and thereto have set my hand and seal; and to these gentlemen my kinsmen and friends I most humbly beseech your Majesty to be merciful and gracious lady."

The submission having been duly made, Elizabeth motioned Shane to rise, "check'd with a glance the circle's smile", no doubt eyeing as she did so, with characteristic appreciation, the magnificent thews and sinews of this the most formidable of her vassals. Ignoring a suggestion from Sussex that she should give O'Neill a cool reception, or "show strangeness" to him, she received his submission very graciously, and listened favourably to the allegations by which he defended or palliated his conduct. He repeated his objections to the succession of Ferdoragh's issue, urged his own just claim to the sovereignty of Tyrone, both by the laws of England and the old Irish institutions; offered proof of his right and superiority over the neighbouring lords; pathetically referred to the injuries he had received and the desperate attempts made to destroy him; and lamented the iniquity of his enemies which had driven him to ensure his own security even at the risk of appearing to oppose her royal authority. He concluded with strong protestations of friendship and loyalty. Elizabeth appears to have been much impressed by the artlessness exhibited in his address, and dismissed him with presents and assurances of favour.

Shane now discovered that, notwithstanding his precautions, he had been outwitted in the wording of his safe conduct. Although it was agreed that he should be permitted to return to Ireland, the date of his return was not specified; and as it was deemed politic to detain him until matters in Ulster had become more settled, various pretexts were given for keeping the caged eagle in London, one being that he must await the arrival of the young Baron of Dungannon, who had been summoned to the English law courts to be heard in support of his cause. Duplicity was the order of the day, for not alone had Dungannon not been so summoned, but instructions had been given to prevent him from leaving Ireland.

O'Neill was at first unperturbed, and made good use of his time by writing flattering epistles to the Queen, telling her that she was the sole hope and refuge he possessed in the world; that in visiting England his chief desire had been to see that great queen whose fame was world-wide, and to study the methods of her government, so that he "might learn how better to order himself in civil polity". He begged her to give him his father's earldom, assuring her that if she did he would maintain her authority in Ulster, where she should be undisputed Queen over loyal subjects; he would drive away all her enemies; he would expel the Scots from Ireland who were friends of Mary Stuart. His audacity knew no bounds, for "he was most urgent that her Majesty would give him sorqe noble English lady for a wife with augmentation of living suitable". It has never been suggested that in making this last request Shane the Proud was sounding the mind of the Maiden Queen in the modest manner which becomes the Irish gentleman. This is a matter that never can be settled, but Shane considered himself, although naturally he never said so, and despite the expressions of humility used in his submission, as quite the equal in social rank of Elizabeth. It is not a characteristic of manhood to beg the assistance of a woman when seeking a wife, unless the hope is entertained by the man that the woman whose aid towards matrimony is sought may, in giving the help required, herself accept the position which it was proposed she should select another to fill. Shane had nothing to gain by the acquisition of any other "noble English lady", and therefore there could be no object in his thus begging the Queen to find him a wife, save to convey a covert proposal to Elizabeth herself, and in the case of rejection protect himself from being rebuffed. O'Neill has, at the hands of historians, been assailed with epithets of which the "adulterous, murdering scoundrel" of Froude is about the mildest. But if humanity of the time of Elizabeth must be judged by the standards of, say, Victoria, what were Sussex and Elizabeth when the latter did not demur at the suborning of Neil Grey to kill O'Neill? Shane appears to have got thoroughly into Elizabeth's good graces, which was fairly creditable for "a murdering scoundrel", and the Queen's suavity, coupled with the bearing of Shane the Proud, led the wits at Court to style the Irish Chieftain:

O'Neill the Great, Lord of the North of Ireland;
Cousin of St. Patrick. Friend of the Queen of England;
Enemy of all the world beside.

Shane had been now three months in London, and yet nothing had been done, and he was pining to get back to Ulster. He was told that "the young Baron" was expected from Ireland daily, and other obstacles were put in the way of his departure. Finally he appealed to Elizabeth, "having no refuge nor succour to flee unto but only her Majesty"; he begged to be allowed to return to Ulster, where his presence was urgently needed, not alone because the Scots were "evil neighbours", but because his kinsmen were fickle. He added, however, with genuine courtliness, that if Her Majesty desired him to stay he was her slave indeed, he would do all which she would have him do; and, evidently with the desire of being acceptable in the Queen's eyes, he asked that he might be allowed to attend on Lord Robert Cecil, "that he might learn to ride after the English fashion, to run at the tilt, to hawk, to shoot, and use such other good exercises as the said good lord was most apt unto".

Elizabeth, though touched by this appeal, held for a little longer her unwilling guest in London. The Golden Eagle was not suffered yet awhile to return to his mountain home.


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