‘Treason against traitors’: Thomas Walker, Hugh O’Neill’s would-be assassin

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Hugh O'Neill, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Volume 18

Sir Henry Danvers, commander of the Armagh garrison—in whom the would-be assassin Walker confided—was under pressure to be active against Tyrone because of his brother Charles’s execution for involvement in Essex’s revolt. He was rehabilitated under the Stuarts, becoming first earl of Danby in 1626. (His Grace the Duke of Bedford and the Trustees of the Bedford Estates)

Sir Henry Danvers, commander of the Armagh garrison—in whom the would-be assassin Walker confided—was under pressure to be active against Tyrone because of his brother Charles’s execution for involvement in Essex’s revolt. He was rehabilitated under the Stuarts, becoming first earl of Danby in 1626. (His Grace the Duke of Bedford and the Trustees of the Bedford Estates)

The official denunciation of former Lord Deputy Perrot refers to his proposals to poison the Wicklow warlord Feagh McHugh O’Byrne. This, however, was a show trial, steeped in lies and propaganda. The assassination of troublesome Irish leaders made sound sense to English administrators in Ireland, not least because it was cheaper than waging expensive and often unsuccessful military campaigns. Lord deputies considered, and in certain instances acted on, offers from would-be assassins and discussed their plans with officials in London. As a polite fiction, Elizabeth was never herself informed of such nefarious activity lest it touch her majesty.
It is hardly surprising that the idea of assassination would again be on the agenda after Perrot’s trial when the state had to take on Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone. In 1595 Lord Deputy Russell looked favourably on the offer of Thomas Fleming, who had men serving O’Neill in Dungannon, to kill him as the royal army approached. Russell, who had the earl proclaimed a traitor at Dundalk, never marched far enough into O’Neill territory for the plan to be activated. There was another revenge killing on offer. Lachlan McLean boasted to English agents that he would arrange the assassination of the earl to avenge the latter’s killing of his cousins and foster-brothers, the sons of Shane O’Neill. McLean, however, based in the Western Isles of Scotland, was never seriously in a position to mount such an operation. Again, in 1597 Lord Deputy Burgh, with his military campaign collapsing, turned in despair to the offer of an unnamed party who waited on the earl. He informed Sir Robert Cecil, the secretary of state in London, that he was not dealing with the proponent directly:

 

‘One has offered to kill the traitor. I made him be spoken with; myself had wronged the place which I exercise under Her Majesty’s commandment, if I had treated in this condition. But being offered, I caused him to be entertained and promised £1000. Much credit may not be given to these overtures, neither do I depend on them; yet in my allegiance I might not reject him who would proffer to kill a monstrous traitor.’

 

Nevertheless, neither the inside job by trusted men nor an external hit by an ancient foe came as close as the lone attempt made in the summer of 1601.

 

Thomas Walker, lone assassin
In November 1600 Lord Deputy Mountjoy drew up a more elaborate denunciatory proclamation of O’Neill and put a price on his delivery, dead or alive. One man to respond was Thomas Walker, a young Londoner in the service of Thomas Dove, the bishop of Peterborough. From Walker’s vivid attempts to explain himself both to Mountjoy and Cecil and from Mountjoy’s own gloss on his activities we can reconstruct what took place.

 

 

Richard Bartlett’s 1601 map of the Blackwater valley (with Benburb Castle to the south-east and Charlemont fort to the north), along which Walker travelled (and got lost) on his way to Hugh O’Neill. (National Library of Ireland)

Richard Bartlett’s 1601 map of the Blackwater valley (with Benburb Castle to the south-east and Charlemont fort to the north), along which Walker travelled (and got lost) on his way to Hugh O’Neill. (National Library of Ireland)

It was a loner—Balthasar Gérard—who perpetrated one of the most dramatic assassinations of the age when he shot and killed the Dutch leader, William the Silent, prince of Orange, in his house in Delft in 1584. It was another loner—François Ravaillac—who was to stab the French king, Henri IV, to death in his carriage in Paris in 1610. These religiously inspired individuals changed the course of history. Was this lone Englishman brave enough or mad enough to do the same to the earl of Tyrone? Thomas Walker had been in attendance with Thomas Dove at court and at his consecration as bishop at Lambeth. In the interval before his master took up residency, Walker decided to make a visit to Ireland. This was contrary to the wishes of his father, who was understandably worried about his son going into a war zone. At Chester, the main port of departure for Ireland, Walker was delayed for five weeks awaiting passage. It was during this time that Walker—allegedly for patriotic reasons rather than for the purpose of claiming head money—formed a determination to kill Tyrone. As a result, he steeled himself by praying to God twice a day for the necessary courage. Eventually, with a number of military men, he boarded a ship which had ‘to tide it over’ because the winds remained contrary, reaching Dublin on 2 July 1601. He held to his purpose in Ireland, taking another ship to Carlingford and then on to Newry, where he acquired a garran or packhorse. Now in the theatre of war where Mountjoy was conducting operations against Tyrone, he travelled northwards in the company of soldiers via Mountnorris fort to the front-line garrison at Armagh.

 

Passes through enemy lines
It was here that Walker first disclosed his purpose to the base commander, Sir Henry Danvers. Sir Henry was anxious to demonstrate his loyalty following the execution of his elder brother Charles and the confiscation of the family estates for involvement in the Essex revolt of February 1601. As a result, Mountjoy had recently put Danvers in charge of Armagh, advising him ‘to be often stirring with his forces against the rebels and withal to practise what possibly he could devise upon the person of Archtraitor Tyrone’. Obviously Danvers was not going to pass up the opportunity presented by Walker, though at first he counselled him against such a dangerous course. Danvers offered to send the would-be assassin, on the spurious grounds that he was a family friend, to Tyrone with a personal letter requesting that he make a timely submission. Walker rejected this as he claimed to have a better idea of his own. Mountjoy later informed Cecil that Danvers had acquainted him with this offer to kill Tyrone and that he had approved it, as he had others in the past, on the grounds that ‘for if any one speed it is enough and they that miss lose nothing but themselves’. This seems like a post-facto justification because at the time Danvers did not want Walker to stay long at Armagh, in case, observed by Tyrone’s spies in her majesty’s garrison, his cover might be blown. As a result, the following morning Walker was assisted past the Armagh watches by Danvers, who took him half a mile in the direction of the Blackwater, but he lost his way. Only on the second morning, Sunday 7 July 1601, did he make it to the river, where he found horse tracks, which he followed till he caught sight of two horsemen. They eventually spotted him and pursued him until they detained him on a little hill within sight of the river, where he was searched and disarmed before being brought into the presence of the earl.

 

Audience with Tyrone

 

The earl of Essex’s execution—Walker explained away his flight to Tyrone by claiming that his family was implicated in the failed revolt. (Woodcut illustrating a subsequent ballad)

The earl of Essex’s execution—Walker explained away his flight to Tyrone by claiming that his family was implicated in the failed revolt. (Woodcut illustrating a subsequent ballad)

When Tyrone asked the captive to explain why he had come, he was ready with his story. He claimed that his father had been a London supporter of Essex who had suffered death and confiscation for participation in the failed coup d’état and that he and his family were now destitute. Maybe he had this story from Danvers after all. When Tyrone challenged him that that was no cause for him to run away, Walker, thinking on his feet, said that he had feared being turned in, having posted a libel in revenge. This satisfied the earl, who asked him his name, bade him welcome and ordered his men to return his belongings. The earl told him that he was ‘the fortunatest man that ever came unto him’ because he would not have been so lucky had he met his footmen rather than horsemen.
Walker now had possession of his sword and dagger and was with O’Neill for much of the rest of the day—and he had opportunities to strike. When the earl took him aside to quiz him on current events, he had no personal guard nor was he wearing any body protection, having on only a black frieze jerkin open at the chest. God had answered Walker’s prayers for his safe delivery into the presence of the archtraitor, but at the critical point he forgot his promise to the Almighty. Instead of a soldier’s heart, he was overcome by ‘effeminate thoughts’ and could not do the deed. Again, when an alarm was raised about the sudden advance of the English army, Walker drew his sword and brandished it, offering to serve alongside the earl. Tyrone turned down the offer, however, joking that Walker could not possibly fight in such great breeches, ‘for if thou should be forced to running in them, thou were not able in this country where there is naught but wood and bog’. Perhaps if Walker had had a pistol or a possibility of escape he might have made a different choice. What is surprising is how lax O’Neill’s security was. This was a man who continually feared that the English churls were seeking his life and on whose head Mountjoy had now placed a bounty of 2,000 marks. With so many enemies wishing to avenge his dastardly deeds against them, and well aware of the grisly ends the state had visited upon Shane O’Neill, Rory Óg O’More, the earl of Desmond and Feagh McHugh O’Byrne, surely he would have had more precautions in place? His ‘O’Neill’ title afforded protection from internal traitors but not from complete strangers like Walker. Maybe he was saved in this case by his own famous charisma—that Walker, expecting to meet a Catholic monster, the infamous ‘running beast’, as he was nicknamed by Lord Deputy Burgh, was disarmed by his charm and hospitality.
With Mountjoy threatening to cross the Blackwater, Walker was now ordered to safety by the earl, along with his wife, the young countess, Catherine Magennis, and the household servants. The failed assassin thought that they were going to Dungannon Castle but they ended up in a crannog on one of the loughs in the vicinity. By the following morning it was decided that Walker was a security risk who needed to leave; either Lady O’Neill and her entourage had come to this conclusion or the departure had been prearranged by the earl. Walker was now given money and packed off to Dunluce on the north coast with some English army runaways from Lough Foyle and a Scots merchant. He claimed that he still had hopes of going back to the earl to execute his purpose and that he tried unsuccessfully to bribe one of the deserters who could speak Irish to accompany him. Walker had no intention of going to Scotland with the deserters. Instead he was anxious to meet Randal McSorley McDonnell, who had submitted to the Crown, so that he could obtain safe-conduct to Sir Arthur Chichester, the nearest English commander, at Carrickfergus. But McDonnell was perturbed that his double game of supplicating the Crown whilst assisting the escape of deserters at O’Neill’s behest had been revealed to the Englishman. He threatened to shoot Walker and only calmed down when the latter claimed to be a papist.

 

Spurned the offer of escape

 

Lord Deputy Mountjoy—knew that the queen, in the aftermath of Essex’s revolt, was worried about his control of the army in Ireland, and that Tyrone was trying his best to exploit the tense situation. (Weiss Gallery, London)

Lord Deputy Mountjoy—knew that the queen, in the aftermath of Essex’s revolt, was worried about his control of the army in Ireland, and that Tyrone was trying his best to exploit the tense situation. (Weiss Gallery, London)

The following day McDonnell sent Walker with an escort of troops to Chichester at his forward base at Massereene fort on Lough Neagh. Chichester was naturally suspicious of his unwanted guest. He thought that he was either a spy or a priest and wanted him examined by the lord deputy. As a result he arrested Walker and sent him as a prisoner to Downpatrick. The guard conveying Walker onwards to Newry decided to go off carousing in the Mournes and wanted to let him go, but the prisoner spurned the escape opportunity. From Newry, Walker was sent back to the Blackwater, which he had crossed twelve days before and where the lord deputy still had the army. Mountjoy had him interrogated and committed ‘close prisoner’ to the gaol in Newry, where he was to be examined further. From there Walker, lying in irons, wrote to Mountjoy what R. P. Mahaffy, the editor of the calendar of the state papers, described as ‘a rambling letter probably by an insane person’. In August Mountjoy withdrew from Ulster, frustrated at having failed to break O’Neill’s resistance and faced with the increasing likelihood of a Spanish landing. When he did so, he also dispatched Walker back to Chester with instructions to its mayor to have the prisoner transported down to Sir Robert Cecil. Mountjoy thought that Cecil would be the

 

‘. . . best judge of him and may happily learn more of his intent and disposition, by reason his friends are dwelling in London than we here can find the means to do. I am sorry I should be troublesome to you in a matter of this nature, because for mine own part I confess, I think the man little better than frantic, though such a one was not unfit for such an enterprise. Yet considering it might otherwise prove dangerous to my self or to the gentleman that set him a work, I presume you will hold me excused and conceive that I have reason so to do for my own discharge.’

 

This rather cryptic statement goes some way towards explaining why the Irish state should have imprisoned a man who actively plotted to kill Tyrone. Mountjoy had not imprisoned Walker because he was an embarrassing failure whom state officers had sponsored; rather it was done to protect Danvers and himself in case Walker might be mistakenly perceived as an agent sent by them, as former associates of Essex, to the Irish leader.
Back in England, Walker eventually wrote Cecil a four-page stream-of-consciousness narrative of his escapade in Ulster. This naive English loner had failed to change the course of history but his account shines a light on the murky world of Elizabethan counter-espionage, as well as providing glimpses of wartime conditions in Ireland. HI

 

Hiram Morgan has been funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences to write a biography of Hugh O’Neill in the Royal Irish Academy’s Judging Irish Historical Figures series.

 

Further reading:
H. Chettle, England’s mourning garment (London, 1603).
H. Morgan, ‘Documents on Thomas Walker’s plot against Tyrone in 1601’,@ http://www.ucc.ie/celt/pub lished/E600001-003/.
H. Morgan, ‘Thomas Walker and the earl of Tyrone’, Dúiche Néill: Journal of the O’Neill Country Historical Society 18 (2010).
F. Moryson, ‘History of the rebellion of the earl of Tyrone’, in idem, An itinerary (London, 1617).

'


Copyright © 2017 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568