Background and early career
He was born about 1470, the second son of Sir William Wellesley (c.1443-1502) of Dangan, County Meath and his wife Ismay, daughter of Sir Thomas Fitz-Christopher Plunket, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. His brother Garrett (died 1538) was an ancestor of the Duke of Wellington.
Walter was educated at the University of Oxford, and was said to have been one of the outstanding scholars of his time. He became an Augustinian friar, and before 1520 became prior of their house at Great Connell near Newbridge, County Kildare. For the rest of his life he showed great concern for the welfare of the Priory.
Walter was called a man who "had a singular mind towards the maintenance of English rule in Ireland", and as a result he enjoyed the trust of Henry VIII. Henry proposed him as Bishop of Limerick, but the choice was rejected by the Pope. In 1520 Surrey, the Lord Deputy of Ireland suggested him as Bishop of Cork, but Wellesley himself rejected the proposal when told he could not remain Prior of Great Connell. Finally in 1529 he became Bishop of Kildare, on condition he could also remain Prior. He was Master of the Rolls 1521-2.
Suppression of Great Connell
Though he was trusted by the Crown to carry out its policies faithfully, Wellesley showed little enthusiasm for the Reformation. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, his great concern was to ensure the survival of Great Connell. In 1537 he asked for it to be exempted from confiscation on the ground that it was part of the Diocese of Kildare. His assurance to Thomas Cromwell that "no brother is elected unless he be of the English nation" was not necessarily a sign of anti-Irish prejudice, since monasteries within the Pale were not permitted to admit Irish monks, and he may simply have been stressing that Great Connell observed this rule strictly.
Wellesley's influence with the King was enough to ensure the survival of Great Connell for a few years, but two years after his death the last Prior surrendered it. The lands were granted to Nicholas White and the priory was allowed to fall into ruin.
Death and memorials
Wellesley died in October 1539 and was buried in Great Connell where an impressive effigy was erected to his memory. After the dissolution of the priory the tomb was lost and was finally rediscovered by the Kildare Archaeological Society in 1971. The restored tomb is now in Kildare Cathedral.
Bishop Wellesley was described as a man of "gravity and virtuous conversation", the most famous scholar in Ireland, and a firm upholder of English rule there.
- Pearce, Robert Rouiere Memoirs and Correspondence of the Most Noble Richard, Marquess Wellesley 3 Vols London 1846
- Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol. 1 p.194
- Ball p.194
- Ball p.194
- Ball, p.194