Sunday 6 June 1518—the day the Renaissance came to Ireland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Volume 20

A 1531 engraving by Barthel Beham of Kinsale’s royal visitor, the Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg, as King of the Romans, wearing the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. He succeeded Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1558. (Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin)

A 1531 engraving by Barthel Beham of Kinsale’s royal visitor, the Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg, as King of the Romans, wearing the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. He succeeded Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1558. (Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin)

In June 1518 a fleet carrying the Archduke Ferdinand from Spain to the Low Countries was blown off course and arrived in Kinsale. One member of that expedition, Laurent Vital, has left us a hidden history of the Irish in a series of fascinating, risqué and controversial scenes and stories that illuminate Ireland on the eve of the transformative Tudor conquest as never before. The writer’s prurient interest in women’s breasts is reminiscent of a Carry On film, whilst the archduke’s directive about non-interference with the locals lends a Star Trek character to the whole mise en scène.

Laurent Vital’s unintended voyage

Laurent Vital was a secretary of the Burgundian state and part of the official delegation that delivered Charles of Habsburg to Spain, where he was crowned king of Castile and Aragon. He was responsible afterwards for a highly personalised manuscript record known as Le premier voyage de Charles-Quint en Espagne, de 1517 à 1518. Its final chapters describe the journey home in a fleet consisting of five large ships and a barque under the command of Charles’s younger brother, Archduke Ferdinand. This royal fleet left Santander towards the end of May in fine weather but quickly encountered a powerful storm in the Bay of Biscay. What should have been a straightforward summer cruise to Flanders became a nightmare. Storms battered the fleet about Biscay for five days. At one point the archduke and the rest of the nobility vowed to go on pilgrimage if God spared them, but with the waves getting bigger and coming over the sides the crew was soon pumping continuously to prevent the vessels from being submerged. Eventually they ended up somewhere off the coast of Brittany but the winds were still contrary. The pilots decided to head for Scilly in the hope of tacking up the more friendly English side of the Channel, but they missed it and were blown north-west into the Atlantic. Exhausted, hungry and thirsty, it was decided to make for Ireland, and on the eleventh day of the voyage—Sunday 6 June 1518—they entered the harbour of Kinsale.Surprised at the appearance of such large ships, a deputation came out of Kinsale and was kept entertained on board whilst Juan de Granada, an English-speaking cleric, was sent into the town to check it out. To avoid being recognised and any unnecessary fuss, the archduke had taken off his Order of the Golden Fleece that hung on a gold chain around his neck. By the time that Vital had found lodgings in a large house in the town, however, the identity of the principal visitor was known. Vital reckoned that the Spanish churchman had blabbed. Whereas the noblemen came into town to make merry during the four-day visit, the fifteen-year-old archduke remained on board ship, from where he would go into the countryside to ‘besport himself’. Disappointed about his failure to put in an appearance, it was agreed that the town could send an official delegation to make him welcome. What followed was a pantomime of bowing and scraping and speaking in Latin in which the town representatives greeted the prince, seated in the midst of his nobles under a canopy of gold cloth. The townsmen were pleased that they had done so, because after the lord of Reoulx, Ferdinand’s head of household, had given the response, he invited them on board to a specially prepared feast in his quarters.

St Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, famous across Europe, was the subject of an enquiry by the visitors to Kinsale. One of the townswomen regaled them with an account of her pilgrimage there. (Sir James Ware’s De Hibernia & antiquitatibus ejus, disquisitions (London, 1658))

St Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, famous across Europe, was the subject of an enquiry by the visitors to Kinsale. One of the townswomen regaled them with an account of her pilgrimage there. (Sir James Ware’s De Hibernia & antiquitatibus ejus, disquisitions (London, 1658))

Enquired about St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg

Much of what Vital reported about Ireland came from the French-speaking brother of his landlady in the town. This man provided him with the usual Anglo-Irish townsman’s viewpoint. Outside the towns the country was inhabited by the ‘wild Irish’, whom Vital called les sauvaiges and whom his informant claimed were cave-dwellers. They lived by pillage and rapine, and what law there was came from rival warlords who required passports and charged tolls on those passing through their areas. Kinsale was apparently in a particularly lawless region and had been under constant threat until in recent years the townsmen had evolved a modus vivendi with the country people through a system of petty bribery. This relationship enabled Vital to ask for information and explanation. He could not help noticing that the ‘wild Irishmen’ had smeared their faces with blood and was told that, because they went bareheaded, it was done to prevent them from getting freckles during the summertime. Vital was also anxious to know about St Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, which was famous as a pilgrimage site throughout Europe. Even though it was 180 leagues away in what was referred to as ‘the Scottish quarter’, it turned out that his hostess had been there as a girl, undertaking it seemingly as some form of pre-marital penance. He was disappointed to hear that she, like a rather blasé teenager, had seen no visions. Her detailed account, albeit mediated through her brother and possibly written up by Vital as a result of further reading, is one of only two by Irish pilgrims and the only one given by a woman.

Breast obsession

More importantly, Vital made his own observations. As a result, he has left us with some of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of the dress of the Irish that we have. He was struck by the strangeness of their clothing—so much so, he says, that it would make you laugh. On the other hand, he had enough self-awareness to say that they must have found the dress of himself and his colleagues equally exotic. What astonished and pleased him most was that the young girls went topless until the age of marriage, and ‘it is as common there to see or touch the breast of a girl or woman, as it is to touch her hand’. Consequently, in the next passage he virtually exhausted his lexicon in describing Irish mammae, concluding:
‘I also saw all sorts of tits, middle sizes, big, shapely and in the open hand one would call them firm but yielding. And I saw some so disgusting and unsavoury that I marvelled where the little children could receive their daily nourishment. Also I saw others which were not at all worth looking at, so ugly and wrinkled were they [that they] only deserve the name of flabby udders.’
In spite of their state of dress, this connoisseur of the female form considered the Irish women, especially the young, good-looking ones, to be completely honourable and virtuous. The mind boggles in considering how Dürer—such a realistic draughtsman of the human form—might have portrayed them! This purple passage did, however, result in the only modern scholarly reference to Vital’s visit to Ireland, by Polish historian Antoni Maczak in his work on international travel.Another thing that Vital witnessed was a violent incident between a young Irishman and a beautiful girl, as he waited early one morning in the churchyard for St Multose’s to open. The girl was beaten and dragged to the church door, upon which her companion forced her to follow him in making the sign of the cross, and then afterwards they went off hand in hand. Vital considered himself a coward for not stepping in, but he had the archduke’s injunction about not interfering with the locals as a good excuse. What Vital had observed was a clandestine marriage. There might be any number of reasons for such a private contract—the lack of a dowry, church rules about consanguinity, or even the ban on racial intermarriage under the Statutes of Kilkenny.

Christoph Weiditz’s ‘Thus go the women in Ireland’ from his Trachtenbuch kept during his time at the court in Spain, 1529–32.Was it also influenced by Vital’s account? (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg) Below: St Multose’s Church in Kinsale. Vital heard high mass sung in the church and also witnessed a clandestine marriage in its grounds. (Mary F.C. Cusack, A history of the city and county of Cork (Cork, 1875))

Christoph Weiditz’s ‘Thus go the women in Ireland’ from his Trachtenbuch kept during his time at the court in Spain, 1529–32.
Was it also influenced by Vital’s account? (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg)
Below: St Multose’s Church in Kinsale. Vital heard high mass sung in the church and also witnessed a clandestine marriage in its grounds. (Mary F.C. Cusack, A history of the city and county of Cork (Cork, 1875))

Departure

Vital also noted that the choral music he heard at the church service was different from elsewhere. Furthermore, just as the fleet was about to embark, servants of a local lord—probably the earl of Desmond—arrived. While one of them presented greyhounds to the prince, another entertained the party with singing and harp music, followed by an impromptu—and far better received—swimming display. The royal fleet eventually departed on Wednesday 9 June. It left behind three crewmen, whose harassment of local women had broken the prime directive, for correction by the local authorities. After more contrary winds in the Channel, the death of one of their company complaining of a surfeit of fresh salmon in Kinsale and a welcome reunion with one of their own vessels that had become separated from the main fleet in Biscay, the archduke eventually disembarked in Flushing in Zeeland on 16 June.Unfortunately Vital never recorded the names of the people he met in Kinsale. Nor did he offer any description of the town other than to say that it had a great harbour overlooked by a castle. Furthermore, there is no record of this unscheduled royal visit in the town records of Kinsale or in the surviving state papers, though we can now assume that it was the subject of the letters that Henry VIII received the following month from the earl of Desmond and the city of Cork (L & P Hen. 8, ii, no. 4293). It is interesting to speculate what lasting effects the visit may have had. There is obvious correspondence between the observations made by Vital and  Dürer’s famous drawingof Irish soldiers, as well as possible influence on subsequent ones done by Christoph Weiditz and Lucas de Heere. More instrumentally, the chance landing had announced to the Irish, notwithstanding Ferdinand’s doctrine of non-interference, the emergence of a new power combining the might of Spain and the Low Countries on the western seaboard of Europe. This in turn might explain the speed with which the hitherto pro-French earl of Desmond turned to Spain when Henry VIII began divorce proceedings against Catherine of Aragon ten years later. And that began a pattern of contacts eventually culminating in Spanish military intervention in Ireland, which fittingly enough happened at Kinsale in 1601–2!

St Multose’s Church in Kinsale. Vital heard high mass sung in the church and also witnessed a clandestine marriage in its grounds. (Mary F.C. Cusack, A history of the city and county of Cork (Cork, 1875))

St Multose’s Church in Kinsale. Vital heard high mass sung in the church and also witnessed a clandestine marriage in its grounds. (Mary F.C. Cusack, A history of the city and county of Cork (Cork, 1875))

Hidden in plain sight?

Why, then, has this extraordinary account escaped notice for so long? It was first published in Brussels in 1881 as the third of a four-volume set entitled Collection des voyages des souverains des Pays-Bas. A Spanish translation was published in 1958 and the original was reprinted again in 1988. It has become well known, as it was a key source for the early years of Charles V in Spain. Indeed, its nineteenth-century Belgian editor had at the outset highlighted the colourful passages about Ireland as some of the most interesting in the book, and he had conspicuously noted ‘Quinquesalle’ as being ‘Kinsale’. Maybe its content was too risqué, or maybe it had too many ‘savages’ for Catholic nationalist Ireland to contemplate. If any such evasion did happen it’s a pity, because Vital’s account is also a splendid example of the céad míle fáilte. More likely, with Irish historians concentrating their research efforts on the state papers in London, it remained ‘hidden in plain sight’. That has now been remedied, however. It was recently brought to the attention of the CELT website by Jeroen Nilis of the University of Leuven, who came across it as a student in the 1980s. We have now added the original text with accompanying translation in digital form to our extensive and free resource for Irish literature, history and politics (see www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T500000-001/).  HI
Hiram Morgan is the director of Corpus of Electronic Texts of Ireland (CELT), University College Cork.

Further reading:

Mm. Gachard & Piot, Collection des voyages des souverains des Pays-Bas, vol. III (Brussels, 1881).B. Herrero, Relación de primer viaje de Carlos V a España (1517–1518) por Lorenzo Vital (Madrid, 1958).A. Maczak, Travel in early modern Europe (London, 1995).

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