The Italian Connection: The Great Earl & Archbishop Octavian

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Volume 7

A brief entry in the Annals of Ulster, dated June 1513, records the death of the Archbishop of Armagh, Octavian del Palagio. The obit precedes by only a few entries that of a more famous individual: Gerald fitz Thomas FitzGerald, the Great Earl of Kildare, who died from gunshot wounds received in battle in September 1513. Sir James Ware, writing more than a century later, in his history of the bishops of Ireland, summarised the thirty-five-year pontificate of this Florentine archbishop as that of a careful and loyal administrator and reformer. It was a sober and dispassionate judgement that, without any significant alterations, has been handed down to us in the work of later historians. But who was this Octavian, and how accurate was Ware’s assessment of him?
Ware tells us that Octavian was buried in the church of St Peter at Drogheda, the church which, because of the well-known division of the diocese into an English and an Irish section, had served for most of the later Middle Ages as the pro-cathedral of the archbishops of Armagh. Octavian was buried in a tomb which he had himself commissioned in an Italian renaissance style, and which Ware had personally admired in St Peter’s, but it was, unfortunately, destroyed not long afterwards.
Interestingly, another Del Palagio tombstone has survived, although mutilated, in the churchyard of the archbishop’s manor of Termonfeckin. It is that of one John Del Palagio, subdeacon and canon of Armagh, who, we learn from the inscription, probably died of the plague in 1504. In the nineteenth century Bishop Reeves, who noted its presence, suggested that this John could have been a near kinsman of Archbishop Octavian.
Recently, however, a petition has been discovered in the Registers of Supplications of Pope Alexander VI of one John Del Palagio, clericus Armachanus, who is described as the son of an archbishop and of an unmarried woman. This indicates without any ambiguity the degree of affinity between this John Del Palagio and Archbishop Octavian, and gives us a new, and not irrelevant, Irish dimension to the pontificate of the Florentine.

Octavian’s early career

Octavian was a member of one of the noble families of Florence, the Del Palagios, whose founder, Filippo Neri, gained fame and wealth within the Woollen Guild. In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the family considerably expanded its fortunes, and to this wealth its members also added the prestige of important public offices and embassies, held both at home and abroad, on behalf of the Florentine republic.
Octavian was born in Florence at the beginning of the 1420s—very likely a member of one of the junior branches of Del Palagio—and embarked on an ecclesiastical career. Graduating in Canon Law and promoted to full priesthood, he left Florence and went to Rome. There he made contact with the Roman Curia and worked for the Apostolic Chamber as its proctor and advocate, presumably in the hope of promotion to a major office. He was still working in that capacity at the beginning of the 1470s when another Del Palagio, Antonio, a direct descendant of the main lineage, and very likely a cousin of Octavian, was winning great respect at the Curia, serving it as an apostolic banker, one of the most sought-after positions in the Age of the Medici.

Ireland and Rome

Thanks to a deep-rooted belief in papal authority, from the second half of the fourteenth century until the Reformation, no episcopal promotion in Ireland was regarded as valid, nor could take effect, without the pope’s approval. Along with that prerogative, the pope was also in a position to fill directly a great number of other benefices, including abbacies, deaneries and parish churches, imposing a tax with each provision. One of the results of the extent and nature of papal intervention into Irish ecclesiastical affairs was a great deal of travelling by Irish clerks to Rome and the widespread employment of Irish proctors, messengers and Italian bankers by the Apostolic See—in other words, the strengthening of the relationship between Ireland and Rome.
Thus it was at the papal court that curialists like Octavian heard first-hand accounts of the Irish church, and reports about the decadence of her otherwise orthodox organisation. At Rome, in May 1477, Octavian encountered a member of one of the more senior ecclesiastical families of the province of Armagh, Thomas Mac Cathmhaoil, then at the papal court being conferred with the dignity of dean of Armagh by Sixtus IV. And it seems quite likely that this representative of one of the major jurist families in Armagh played an important role in persuading Octavian to come to Ireland, perhaps in order to help revitalise (in view of his extensive legal expertise) his church.
Octavian’s services on behalf of the Apostolic Chamber had so far failed to secure for him some prominent and permanent benefice. His native Florence was then going through a tumultuous period, marked by recurrent struggles between the factions of the Medicis and Pazzis, which were the prelude to the apostolic interdict of 1477, amidst the increasing fear of a French invasion. Certainly Octavian must have considered the precarious condition of his situation at home when, ultimately, in June of that same year, he undertook, as papal nuncio and temporary governor of the diocese of Armagh (then technically vacant), a journey to Ireland. His rise to prominence in Ireland was very rapid indeed, and the following year, almost two hundred years after Archbishop Reginaldus (1247-1256), he became the second, and also the last ever Italian archbishop of Armagh.

Octavian and Kildare

Octavian’s pontificate of Armagh, 1478-1513, coincided almost exactly with the ascendancy of his most eminent contemporary, Gerald, eighth Earl of Kildare. There, however, the similarity ends. Octavian was a fully experienced man in his mid-fifties when in July 1478, thanks to the financial intervention of Antonio Del Palagio, Pope Sixtus IV appointed him to the see of Armagh.
The earl was a considerably younger man of twenty-two, when in May of the same year, he became head of the Irish council, the leading representative of the powerful Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
Soon, however, the earl, with his indubitable capacity of guaranteeing peace to the country, or rather of imposing his order upon it, became the arbiter of the Irish body politic. It was an order which in difficult times he would defend by resorting to the sort of violence and terror of which all of his class were capable. Yet Kildare’s order brought a period of relative stability within the lordship, followed by a period of undisputed prosperity. These developments helped the earl to win the support of many among his more traditional opponents and earned him the respect and consideration of successive English kings, who one after another confirmed him as their Irish deputy.

The Lambert Simnel affair

It is fortunate that one of the historical events which best shows the power and the ambitions then enjoyed and nourished by the earl, that of his active part in the Yorkist challenge to Henry VII through the coronation of Lambert Simnel as king of England, is also the episode which probably best enlightens the figure of Octavian. The situation of Octavian during the crisis of Lambert Simnel was extremely complex, but the contrast between him and the earl is instructive as an insight into the difficulties met by Irish subjects in finding common paths of governmental co-operation.
The Florentine had accepted the promotion in 1478 to a diocese, Armagh, which, because of violence and usurpation, had lost almost all of its wealth and earlier status. From the outset Octavian had denounced such usurpation at assemblies of his church, so that it is no great surprise to hear that he had to face the opposition of the Great Earl in taking possession of the see. It was only in March 1484, after a lengthy legal battle fought both in Rome and in Ireland, that Octavian was able to free himself and his successors from a series of debts and financial problems which had badly affected his diocese for the previous fourteen years and for which the Earl of Kildare was largely responsible.
Therefore, Octavian had good reason to be resentful of the policy of the earl. There were, however, two specific factors which eventually induced him to go one step further and withdraw his support entirely from Kildare. First, Octavian was sent a letter by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, which made it quite clear that the boy, Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be the last surviving Plantagenet prince, was in fact an impostor.

Letter of Archbishop Octavian collating John Del Palagio (his son!) to Haynestown, County Louth. (PRONI and Armagh Public Library)

Letter of Archbishop Octavian collating John Del Palagio (his son!) to Haynestown, County Louth. (PRONI and Armagh Public Library)

This principal adviser of the king, with whom Octavian corresponded throughout this period, informed Octavian that the new Tudor king, Henry VII, had entirely discredited Lambert Simnel’s credentials by parading the real Earl of Warwick, then a prisoner at the Tower of London, through the streets of London.
We know of the existence of this letter because we are informed by Octavian himself that at this point of the crisis he took the initiative of briefing Pope Innocent VIII about developments:

The clergy and secular are all distracted at this present with a king and no king, some saying he is the son of Edward, Earl of Warwick, others saying he is an impostor; but our brother of Canterbury hath satisfied me of the truth, how his majesty the king of England hath showed the right son of the said earl to the publick view of all the City of London, which convinceth me that it is an error willingly to breed dissension.

Apart from the ‘truth’ revealed to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Octavian avoided ‘errors and dissension’, quite simply because he was a man of law who, as a matter of principle, was not prepared to break the oath of fealty to the king. So the loyal archbishop stood with his lawful superior and refused to take part in the earl’s plot, keeping himself apart from the ceremonial coronation of Lambert Simnel which was performed on 24 May 1487 at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at which John Payne, the Franciscan Bishop of Meath, preached the sermon.
Amid this general support then gathered around the earl, the Archbishop of Armagh’s opposition must have appeared as an intolerable affront to Kildare’s authority. The partisans of the earl were furious, and in a reply to John Morton, Octavian said that if it had not been for the personal intervention of Kildare himself, the Earl of Lincoln would have made a martyr of him:

…with the sole exception of myself no one opposed the wicked crime of the boy’s coronation in Ireland; and in this affair I have exposed myself to very great danger to my life. For the Earl of Lincoln, being at the time furiously angry with me, went to the Earl of Kildare in his uncontrolled wrath and asked for permission and power to put into effect the royal prerogative against all who had opposed this action.

The archbishop ended his account by almost expressing gratitude to Kildare for having ‘refused to grant what Lincoln had sought with such instance’.
But despite this gesture the tension between the earl and the archbishop still existed. Octavian knew that he did not yet have the total good-will of Kildare and referred again to this in a letter to Archbishop Morton: ‘but Kildare strove to do me fresh harm, claiming that I was opposed to him and to the whole body of the people in this country’. Therefore it seems that the earl had saved the archbishop’s life only in order to ensure that any further opposition to himself would not gain new ground amongst the public.

Henry VII and Octavian

Within the Pale, Octavian’s opposition to Lambert Simnel received public attention, but he remained isolated. This is attested by another letter, written to Henry VII soon after the battle of Stoke, by the tainted commonalty of Drogheda, anxious now to regain the king’s friendship and forgiveness:

We were daunted to see not only your chief Governor to bend or bow to that idol, but also our father of Dublin, and most of the clergy of the Nation, excepting the reverend father his grace Octavianus, archbishop of Armagh.

According to Henry’s modern biographers, ability and loyalty were the only prerequisites as far as he was concerned in order to obtain his favour, but Francis Bacon once wrote of him that he cultivated discretion to such an extent that even his friends could never be certain what he was thinking. And thus, if the result of the battle of Stoke had made Octavian think that his loyalty was now to be rewarded, events were to show how he was misleading himself.
It is possible that to come out openly in support of the Florentine archbishop could have been an embarrassment for the king, who was already planning to restore relations with Kildare. It is clear that the king needed the co-operation of Kildare to re-establish order within the Lordship and that he would not change his policy in order to honour even the most faithful of his subjects. Furthermore if the king wanted to discharge the archbishop he did not need to explain his reasons to the public. There was little in the way of hard evidence in England which could establish without doubt the loyalty of Octavian towards the king during the Simnel crisis; and there was the matter of how a genuine opponent of the earl could manage, as Octavian did, to survive Kildare’s anger.
The prudent gesture of the earl and the grace he had granted to the archbishop, in saving his life, could, therefore, be used by the king as an expedient to secure Octavian’s condemnation in England. In the winter of 1487, the king sent a request to Rome to start proceedings against Octavian and the three other bishops of the Pale (Dublin, Meath and Kildare), all of whom were accused of high treason for having supported Lambert Simnel contrary to their oath of obedience to him, together with a request for their deposition. Archbishop Octavian must have reacted with amazement on learning the news of the king’s response to his loyalty and probably thought that somebody had misled the king on this account.
It was to become clear that he was the victim of an overtly political judgement. The archbishop was in a ‘no-win’ situation, in extreme difficulty irrespective of whether or not he had taken part in the plot. For the moment, Octavian could not do much more than devote his fortune to securing a fair papal process which would have re-established the truth of his loyalty for all to see.

General pardon

Eventually the proceedings against the Irish bishops at the papal court, like those against the Irish temporal lords at the courts of the realm, were withdrawn in the summer of 1488 when Sir Richard Edgecombe, king’s deputy, brought with him to Ireland the general pardon of Henry VII for all those who sought it. But behind the apparent relief of the full rehabilitation that the general pardon brought with it Octavian would not have failed to detect the danger that this new situation had in store for him: his main antagonist, the Earl of Kildare, would soon return to power; he himself had missed the opportunity of a full rehabilitation before the king which only a fair trial would have given him. Thus, even the general pardon became for Octavian a very delicate matter.

Henry VII by Michiel Sittow, 1505-he would not openly support Octavian. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Henry VII by Michiel Sittow, 1505-he would not openly support Octavian. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

In order to receive it, he had to request it from the deputy, Edgecombe and renew the oath of obedience to Henry VII. Thus, receiving the pardon was a tacit admission of guilt, a confession of having taken part in the plot against the king. While the pardon was ideal for Kildare’s men, for Octavian it could be turned into an act of humiliation. The courageous opponent of May 1487 now had to bend before the deputy and admit his guilt for something that Kildare, not he, had done.
Eventually Octavian came to a decision. The general pardon was the wish of his master, the king, and finally he agreed to be obedient to his will. Furthermore Octavian was by now already far too disillusioned and was not prepared to remain isolated, his main worry being to be restored to favour in order to return as soon as possible to his ecclesiastical duties. On 28 July 1488, putting aside any further doubts, Octavian went to Dublin where he received a pardon from Sir Richard at the convent of the Black Friars. Some time later, this time probably encouraged by the commonalty of Drogheda itself (or by some other potential but covert enemy of Kildare), Octavian approached the royal court with an ambitious request to have conferred upon himself the office of chancellor of Ireland. Evidently he was still hoping to be able to persuade the king of his bona fides and wanted to prove that loyalty was still something he valued.
In a last letter sent to Archbishop John Morton, who by now was the English Chancellor, the archbishop explained the advantages for the king and the Irish Lordship from the promotion of a loyal servant like him to this office:

If our lord the king would accept to provide me with the office of chancellor of Ireland, he would feel all the beneficial support of having a very solid column in the struggle against his enemies, and said earl [Kildare] and other our enemies will be won.

But instead of a loyal ally, the king still preferred the strong, tough, untrustworthy Kildare, leaving Octavian with no other choice but to adjust his relations with the earl, an adjustment that would eventually happen when the earl was restored to the office of king’s deputy.

The final settlement

As a result of his improved relationship with the earl, Bishop Reeves has observed, the archbishop was able to spend the rest of his life in great tranquillity, and thus he was able to lead the church with that commitment and ability which all historians, from Ware onwards, have attributed to him. However the settlement was far from stable and complete, and it was of little use to the archbishop in his attempt to strengthen, as he had wanted, the authority of the provincial court of Armagh. This particular effort, which enjoyed the full endorsement of the native Irish dean and chapter of Armagh, is widely documented, and his many difficulties are revealed in the surviving archiepiscopal registers, which preserve in great detail the course of many strenuous legal battles fought by the archbishop with his suffragan bishops.
The discovery that John Del Palagio in Armagh was a son, rather than a nephew of Archbishop Octavian, might cause one to believe that the cliché ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, could not have been more appropriate than for Octavian himself. However it is his full commitment to his office and his passionate opposition to the Simnel conspiracy, which reveals the true story of a prelate who had been, since the early years of his episcopate, fully involved and engaged in Irish political problems.

The early sixteenth-century font of St Peter's (Church of Ireland), Drogheda, where Octavian is buried, may have been commissioned by him. (Con Brogan)

The early sixteenth-century font of St Peter’s (Church of Ireland), Drogheda, where Octavian is buried, may have been commissioned by him. (Con Brogan)

Here we witness a very tenacious, almost obstinate, personality who was neither prepared to give up his principles, nor play the part of a minor spectator. On the other specific issue—the apparent lack of consistent logic in the relationship between the king, Kildare and the Archbishop of Armagh at the time of the Simnel affair—this must be read as testimony to the nature of the problems that loyalism had already started to create in Ireland. Just as the acknowledgement of the overlordship of the English king by his Irish subjects removed from them the necessity of settling their internal differences on their own, so the sudden voltes-face  of a distant king and government added to, rather than alleviated, the internal dissension. Between 1493 and 1495, the archbishop and the earl eventually reached a form of accommodation, but tensions between them persisted until their deaths in June and September 1513.

Mario Sughi tutors in medieval history at Trinity College, Dublin.


Further reading:

W. Reeves, ‘Octavian del Palazzo Archbishop of Armagh’, Royal Society of Antiqueries of Ireland Journnal, vol III (1875).

D. Bryan, Gerald Fitz Gerald, the Great Earl of Kildare (Cork, Dublin 1933).

A. Gwynn, The Medieval Province of Armagh, 1470-1545 (Dundalk 1946)

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