Sassanachs don’t Like Mondays (allegedly)

Ormond versus Desmond

In addition to the canonical list of battles, the sporadic chaos of the Wars of the Roses spawned one or two encounters between the heads of rival aristocratic families, of which the best known is the battle between the Berkeleys and Talbots at Nibley Green in Gloucestershire in March 1470. What is less well known is that in the summer of 1462 the dynastic strife spilled over into Ireland, in a battle fought between the FitzGeralds of Desmond and the Butlers of Ormond at Piltown, some fourteen miles inland from the city of Waterford, in the Butler county of Kilkenny.


The earls of Ormond, whose power was centred on the castle and county of Kilkenny, had for about a century been attempting to push further south and west into the territory of the earls of Desmond. Piltown might, therefore, have simply been classed as one of the many private battles of medieval Ireland were it not for the political affiliations of the two families concerned. James, 4th Earl of Ormond (known as ‘The White Earl’), and James, 7th Earl of Desmond, had put aside their differences to support the Duke of York during his sojourn in Ireland in 1449-50 and had stood together as godfathers to York’s baby son George. But the White Earl had died in 1452 leaving as his heir a handsome but cowardly son firmly settled in England, where he had already been granted the earldom of Wiltshire and won the favour of Queen Margaret. During the course of the 1450s Wiltshire was to become York’s bitter rival for the lieutenantship of Ireland, brother-in-law to Henry Duke of Somerset, and – during the last months of King Henry’s reign – a somewhat unreliable comrade-in-arms to Jasper Tudor.  York had appointed as his deputy in Ireland the Earl of Kildare, and the FitzGeralds of both Kildare and Desmond continued to support him, welcoming and protecting him when he returned as a fugitive after the rout at Ludford Bridge.

After York’s death at Wakefield, the Irish parliament reappointed Kildare as Justiciar until such time as King Edward should choose a new lieutenant. As for the Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, he fled (in his wonted manner) from the Battle of Towton but was captured at the Percy stronghold of Cockermouth in Cumbria, brought to Edward at Newcastle and there beheaded. He was childless, and so his heir was Sir John Butler, the elder of his two brothers.


The Butlers Make War in Ireland

All the while that the Earl of Wiltshire had been dallying with Queen Margaret in England, he had left the Butler interests in Ireland in the hands of his first cousin, a seasoned warrior known as Edmund MacRichard Butler who resided at Paulstown castle in County Kilkenny (not to be confused with Piltown). Edmund’s late father, Richard Butler, had been a younger brother of the White Earl born during Richard II’s visit to Ireland and named for that king, who had allegedly stood as his godfather. But the Butlers of Paulstown had no interest in English politics, and both Richard and his son had married Gaelic Irish brides in defiance of the Statutes of Kilkenny. If Anglo-Ireland was not to remain a bulwark of the house of York under Edward IV, the Earl of Ormond would need to come back and re-assert his interests in person.

In November of 1461 King Edward’s first parliament attainted the late Earl of Wiltshire and his two brothers, John and Thomas. Thanks (ironically) to a provision of the late duke of York, however, this English attainder carried no force in Ireland, and it was in Ireland that Sir John Butler now took refuge as the lawful earl of Ormond. He may have been considerably more familiar with Ireland than his brother Wiltshire, as he had enjoyed a marriage (albeit invalid) with Raghnailt, sister of Tadhg O’Brien, the young king of Thomond (county Clare), that was sufficiently longlasting as to have produced two or three sons. By the end of January 1462 the new earl and his cousin Edmund had agreed to mount a joint challenge to the Yorkist ascendancy within Ireland, in aid of which Ormond resolved to return to England to wage men. In preparation for this journey, he drew up a deed at Kilkenny castle formally appointing Edmund MacRichard as his deputy in Ireland ‘in our absence as long as it shall please us’.

Our only account of the subsequent Butler campaigns comes from The Annals of the Four Masters, an early-17th-century compilation of older Irish chronicles most of which have since been lost. This source relates that, towards the end of the twelvemonth period ending on 24 March 1462 (therefore probably during Earl John’s absence in England) Edmund MacRichard rode north with Gaelic allies and challenged the Earl of Kildare in his own territory:

A great war broke out between the English of Meath and those of Leinster, during which war a great part of Meath was destroyed. O’Conor Faly and Edmund Mac Richard Butler went to Druim-Tuirleime [a hill in County Meath, well inside the Pale] with one thousand horsemen, or more, all wearing helmets, and remained there, without fear or dread, shoeing their steeds; and their army and marauding parties were plundering and burning Meath in every direction.’

Word of this crisis may have reached King Edward’s ears because he finally made provision for the government of the English colony in Ireland, appointing his twelve-year-old brother George of Clarence as Lieutenant of Ireland on 28 February, and on 16 May appointing Kildare’s ally Roland FitzEustace as Clarence’s deputy. Edward had created FitzEustace Baron Portlester in early March, and it may not be too fanciful to suppose that he may have been the leader of the forces that had finally driven Edmund MacRichard and his allies back into Kilkenny.

By 7 June John, Earl of Ormond, had returned to Ireland ‘with a great company of Englishmen’ and was staying at Clonmel, close to the disputed border between the Ormond and Desmond territories. He and Edmund MacRichard  now seem to have abandoned, or at least postponed, any further attack on the supporters of King Edward’s administration, turning their attention instead southwards and westwards, possibly hoping to take advantage of the Earl of Desmond’s old age and ill health.  To begin with everything went Ormond’s way. Desmond’s younger son, Gerald, was taken prisoner, and the Butlers even took Ireland’s second city of Waterford. Yet, in order to settle the dispute once and for all, both sides now agreed to a pitched battle.

The date that was set for the encounter is not known; a claim that the battle took place in ‘high summer’ derives from an early 20th-century synthesis of sources made by Theobald Blake Butler, and may be his own, albeit rather reasonable, interpretation of events based on the available evidence. Allowing at least a month since the Earl of Ormond’s appearance in Cashel for the conclusion of the Butlers’ initial campaign against the Desmonds, the battle does indeed seem likely to have occurred during August, or even September. This also fits well with the report in a letter written to John Paston during the week following King Edward’s arrival in London on Saturday 4 September, that ‘many men’ had arrived in London ‘at the fear of the countries next them of Ireland’ and that ‘this three weeks there came neither ship nor boat out of Ireland to bring no tidings; and so it seemeth there is much to-do there by the Earl of Pembroke.’ Jasper Tudor, it will be remembered, had been the late Earl of Wiltshire’s companion-in-arms, and he had by now been ousted from Pembroke Castle and his other Welsh properties.

That a date was set for the battle indicates either that the Earl of Ormond had initially agreed to it or that MacRichard had taken charge of negotiations on his behalf. In the event, however, Ormond and his men refused to fight on that day and stubbornly remained within the walls of a fortified town. The Four Masters gives no indication of the nature of Ormond’s objection to the appointed battle date, but an English translation of it made later in the 17th century includes an interpolated claim that the English soldiers Sir John had brought with him would not fight because it was a Monday and ‘Englishmen were accustomed not to give battle on Monday nor after noone any day’. Yet to my knowledge no reference to such an English superstition appears in any earlier extant texts, English or Irish, and had there been such a taboo one would think that someone might usefully have told Richard III (Bosworth having been fought on a Monday). Perhaps, if such a prohibition did exist, it may have been a response to the original Black Monday, Easter Monday of 1360, when 1,000 English soldiers besieging Chartres had been killed by a freak hailstorm. Or perhaps the English aversion to Mondays was merely a notion circulating in 17th-century Ireland (where it is was soon to be ascribed to James II), and John of Ormond had been unhappy with the date for some other reason altogether. Or perhaps his objection had nothing to do with the date, and he simply could not see why he should risk all his recent gains to the vagaries of a pitched battle.

The Battle of Piltown

The chosen battlefield lay in the diocese of Ossory, on the flat plain between the towns of Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford. To the south, the site is bounded by the River Suir, and to the west and east by its tributaries the Lingaun and the Pil, and on almost all sides by hills.  The leader of the Desmond army was Thomas FitzGerald, the aged Earl James’ eldest son; at this point in the tale, the Four Masters suddenly switch to naming Thomas Earl of Desmond, so it may be that Earl James had very recently died; he was certainly dead before the end of the year. Thomas FitzGerald was a gallant campaigner in his prime, and an exceptionally learned man equally at home with texts in English, Latin or archaic forms of Irish. The Butler forces were led by Edmund MacRichard and the men he had raised from the Butlers’ Irish lands. In 1905 the then bishop of Ossory, William Carrigan, noted in volume IV of his history of the diocese that:

This fierce battle is well remembered in the traditions of Piltown. It would appear to have begun at the “tower” in Rogerstown; to have continued through Logreeach, over an old roadway crossing the Pill, or Glen, river, into Ardclone; and to have ended at Closh na nAlbanach, the Pit of the Scotch, where the Parish Priest’s house is now situate.’

Butler, Piltown Map

Under Thomas of Desmond’s leadership, the Butler army was decimated and Edmund MacRichard taken prisoner. Perhaps John Earl of Ormond had been right not to risk battle, or perhaps it was the absence of his contingent, and his leadership, that had proved fatal to his cause.

According to the Four Masters, the survivors of the defeated army managed to retrieve and bury only 410 of their slain before the dogs and birds of prey devoured the rest; in his genealogy of the FitzGeralds of Desmond, Fr. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, one of the authors of the Four Masters, wrote that countless of them died and  were  drowned  in  the Suir’, although Bishop Carrigan later argued that they more probably drowned ‘in their stampede over the Pill. All along the line of battle, as handed down by tradition, human bones have been frequently dug up.’ Carrigan’s objection is based on the assumption that the routed Butlers would have fled eastwards over the Pil to take refuge in the Walsh Mountains of County Kilkenny rather than southwards towards the much wider Suir (unless perhaps herded that way by their enemies).

After routing the Butler forces, the new Earl of Desmond went on to take Kilkenny and many other Butler towns. Edmund MacRichard was forced to pay a ransom to secure his release, which in true Thomas-Earl-of-Desmond style was to be paid at least in part in precious manuscripts. We know this because Earl Thomas had the following explanation written in Irish in the margin of folio 110 of the Butlers’ copy of the famous Psalter of Cashel:

This was the psalter of Edmund MacRichard Butler until the defeat of Piltown was inflicted upon the Earl of Ormond and MacRichard by the Earl of Desmond, when this book and the Book of Carrick were obtained in the redemption of MacRichard. And it was this MacRichard that had these books translated for himself and they remained in his possession until Thomas, Earl of Desmond, wrested them from him.’

According to the Four Masters, the Earl of Ormond’s younger brother Thomas now also put in an appearance, though he seems to have stayed at sea, where he captured four ships. Perhaps it was through his aid that Ormond succeeded in escaping from Ireland. If Jasper Tudor had indeed been involved with the Butler rebellion, he too managed to escape, because at the end of October he was with Queen Margaret when she landed at Tynemouth and went on to seize Bamburgh.

The Fruits of the Victory and the Defeat

In the middle of October, Deputy Portlester had held a parliament in Dublin that passed an Act of Attainder against the Butler brothers. Finally, their Irish lands were officially and lawfully confiscated, and the Anglo-Irish could no longer style Sir John Butler ‘Earl of Ormond’. When King Edward heard of the new Earl of Desmond’s resounding victory over the Butlers he was so impressed that he appointed him as his new Deputy Lieutenant. Sir John Butler made further attempts to retake his Irish lands over the following two summers, each time being repelled by Desmond’s forces. Finally, in September of 1464 he gave up the attempt and sailed into exile.



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