William Darcy (died 1540)

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Sir William Darcy (c.1460–1540) was a leading Anglo-Irish statesman of the Pale in the early sixteenth century; for many years he held the office of Vice-Treasurer of Ireland. He wrote an influential treatise called The Decay of Ireland, for which he has been called "the father of the movement for political reformation in Ireland".[1]

Background and early career[edit]

He was born at Platten in County Meath, son of John Darcy IV of Platten and his wife Elizabeth Plunkett, daughter of Christopher Plunkett, 2nd Baron Killeen.[2] The Darcys of Platten were a junior branch of the family of Baron Darcy de Knayth, and had become one of the leading families of the Pale through intermarriage with other landed families such as the Plunketts and St Lawrences. Through his mother he was a great-grandson of Sir William Welles, Lord Chancellor of Ireland.

He was in Dublin, studying law, in 1482-3, along with his cousin Thomas Kent, the future Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer.[3] The King's Inns was not founded until a year after Darcy's death, but a rudimentary form of professional instruction for young lawyers was provided. Darcy lodged at the house of the King's Serjeant, John Estrete, with whom he studied those English legal texts which were considered to be essential for the education of those students (by no means all of them) who intended to practice law.[4] During the holidays he visited the home of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Philip Bermingham, to study dancing and the harp: these were not simply recreations but were considered to be an essential part of a young lawyer's education.[5]

Darcy then proceeded to Lincoln's Inn, where he was enrolled in 1485; he was fined for unspecified misconduct in Trinity Term and returned to Ireland soon after.[6]

He was a protégé of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare, who for much of the period 1478–1513 was so powerful that he was called "the uncrowned King of Ireland". Darcy assisted the Earl in two notable ventures: the failed attempt to put the pretender Lambert Simnel on the English throne, and the Battle of Knockdoe in 1504 where the Earl crushed the power of the Burkes of Clanricarde.[7] He sat on the Earl's household council and at his request was made Vice-Treasurer of Ireland.

After the 8th Earl died in 1513, relations between Darcy and the Kildare family declined. The 8th Earl's son and heir Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare was generally considered to be a man of intelligence, charm and diplomatic skill, but there seems to have been ill-feeling between himself and Darcy, who lost both the office of Vice-Treasurer and his place on the Earl's council.[8] This may have prompted him to write The Decay of Ireland, which, though it addressed wider problems, was partly a personal attack on Kildare.

The Decay of Ireland[edit]

The Decay of Ireland was originally a series of articles presented by Darcy to the Privy Council in London in 1515.[9] Darcy argued that the English Lordship of Ireland had originally been strong and prosperous, but had fallen into decline for two main reasons: chronic neglect of Irish affairs by the English Crown, and the carving out of semi-independent lordships, held by the three great Earls, the Earl of Desmond, the Earl of Ormond and Kildare himself. By use of what was later called bastard feudalism – the practice of great noblemen of hiring private armies which owed loyalty only to their lord, not to the Crown – the Earls had made themselves virtually independent of the Crown. This combined with the creeping Gaelicisation even of those parts of Ireland under English rule, meant that the Crown effectively controlled only the Pale, and might soon lose even that.[10]

Darcy proposed no remedies for the misgovernment of Ireland, although it was clear that he regarded the power of the Earl of Kildare as a threat to the Crown (the ninth Earl could of course have pointed out that Darcy himself owed everything to the Kildare dynasty). Although he deplored Gaelic influence on the Anglo-Irish he was personally tolerant enough in racial matters – he spoke fluent Irish and married one of his daughters to a member of the O'Donnell clan.[11]

Reaction to the treatise and Darcy's later career[edit]

Darcy's treatise had a great influence on later writers such as Patrick Finglas, but it did nothing to restore him to official favour or to damage Kildare's career. By the early 1520s however Kildare was in disfavour with the Crown, whereas Darcy had earned the respect of Surrey, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. He was restored to the office of Vice-Treasurer in 1523; when Kildare returned to power in 1524, it was on condition that he mend relations with Darcy.[12] Kildare's brother Richard later married Darcy's granddaughter Maud, although the marriage can hardly have given any pleasure to her grandfather as they were generally believed to have murdered Maud's first husband, and Richard's involvement in the rebellion of his nephew Silken Thomas ultimately cost him his life.

Darcy died "far advanced in years" in 1540. He was remembered as a man of "great wisdom and learning" who deserved great merit from the English for his services to English rule in Ireland.[13]


Darcy married firstly Margaret St. Lawrence, daughter of Nicholas St Lawrence, 4th Baron Howth[14] and secondly Catherine Simon. He had at least three sons by his first marriage:

  • George, his heir, who married Jane Riccard, and by her was the father of Maud, Baroness Skryne
  • John (died 1558)
  • Christopher

-and three daughters:

Career of Maud Darcy, Baroness Skryne[edit]

Trevet memorial to Maud Darcy and her third husband Sir Thomas Cusack

Sir William was given the wardship of James Marward, titular Baron Skryne and married him to his granddaughter Maud,[15] a decision he must have regretted when Maud, according to the popular belief, had her husband murdered in 1534 by Richard FitzGerald, whom she later married[16] (ironically Richard was the half-brother of Darcy's old enemy the 9th Earl of Kildare). Richard was executed for his part in the Silken Thomas Rebellion.

Maud soon afterwards remarried Sir Thomas Cusack, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, by whom she had thirteen children. In notable contrast to her troubled earlier marital history, this was a happy marriage and free of scandal, and the couple are commemorated together in a monument in Trevet Church. She died sometime before 1560.


  1. ^ Lennon, Colm Sixteenth-century Ireland-the Incomplete Conquest Gill and Macmillan Dublin 1994 p.79
  2. ^ Lodge, John and Archdall, Mervyn The Peerage of Ireland Dublin 1789 Vol.1 p.122
  3. ^ Kenny, Colum King's Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland Irish Academic Press Dublin 1992 p.21
  4. ^ Kenny p.21
  5. ^ Kenny p.22
  6. ^ Kenny p.22
  7. ^ Lennon p.73
  8. ^ Lennon p.9
  9. ^ Lennon p.79
  10. ^ Bradshaw, Brendan The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century University of Cambridge Press 1979 pp.37–9
  11. ^ Bradshaw p.41
  12. ^ Lennon p.96
  13. ^ Lodge and Archdall p.122
  14. ^ Mosley, Charles, editor Burke's Peerage 107th Edition Vol.1 p.1240
  15. ^ Collins, Arthur Peerage of England 1812 Vol.i p.137
  16. ^ Collins p.137