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Lettice Digby, Lady Offaley

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     The Lady Lettice Digby is a heroine whose name right well deserves to be held in remembrance along with those of Lady Brilliana Harley, of Blanche Lady Arundell, and of the Lady of Lathom, whose defenses of Wardour Castle and Lathom House I have told in previous papers.* Her defense of Geashill Castle, in King's County, Ireland, was one of the most spirited episodes in the history of the Irish Rebellion in 1641. She was by birth Lettice, FitzGerald, being the only child of Gerald, Lord Offaley, whose great-grandfather, Gerald, ninth earl of Kildare, was an ancestor of the ducal house of Leinster. Her mother, the Lady Katherine Knollys, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, was left a widow almost at her birth, in 1580.
     The earldom, of course, descended in the male line, but the barony of Offaley, as a barony in fee, was one which it was thought could pass to females, and was therefore claimed for the youthful heiress while still a child. But the claim, though brought before the judges, was kept so long in dispute that King James I. undertook to adjudicate it in person, and in the end he did so, being probably moved by gifts and presents, which in his day often helped to promote or to defeat justice. His Majesty in the end adjudged the ancient barony to the earl, but created Lettice Knollys Baroness Offaley for life. The King's grant, which is dated in 1619, and was made under the great Seal of England, invested her with the lands of Killeagh and the territory and demesne of Geashill, which she brought by marriage into the Digby family.
     When the Irish rebellion of 1641 broke out, as mentioned above, the Lady Offaley was some sixty years of age, and had been a widow for a quarter of a century.  ‘With the rebels she could make no common cause, and with the defection of the Lords of the Pale she could have no sympathy;' she was therefore prepared to resist every challenge and every overture on the part of the insurgents, whose action she regarded as foul disloyalty. Her ladyship was residing at Geashill with her sons and some of her grandchildren, when the forces of the enemy appeared before the walls of her castle, in spite of the natural defenses of the bogs by which the place was surrounded. Henry Demsey a brother of Lord Clanmalier, and her own kinsman, along with others of the leaders of the rebels, sent her a summons which purported to be in the king's name, ordering her at once to surrender her fortress, and at the same time threatening, in case of non-compliance, to burn it and the town which lay clustered at the foot of its walls, but promising her and her people a safe convoy in case she should yield.
     This missive was addressed to 'the honorable and thrice virtuous lady, the Lady Digby.' But, aware of the men with whom she had to deal, Lady Digby was not to be dismayed by threats or duped by promises. Castle after castle had yielded, some gained over by threats, some by siege, and some by storm, and their helpless inmates had been butchered or driven forth homeless and shelterless. The Lady Lettice had too much spirit to yield herself to such a fate without a struggle, or without fighting a blow in self-defense. She alike questioned the authority of her enemies and distrusted their promises of mercy.
      ‘I am,' she replied, ‘as I have ever been, a loyal subject of my king. I thank you for your offer of a convoy, which, however, I hold as of little safety. Being free from offending His Majesty, or doing wrong to any of you, I will live and die innocently, and will do my best to defend my own, leaving the issue to God.' Such was this noble lady's dauntless answer to a summons sent fraudulently in the king's name, requiring her to give up her castle to her own and the king's enemies.
     Being surrounded by extensive bogs, Geashill Castle was by no means easy of approach, as already mentioned; but in proportion to its strength was its possession of importance to the rebels. ‘Gesshall, in the King's County, is very necessaire to be had; it is a matter of consequence to Her Majesties service in that county were the words of Sir Henry Sidney, when he paid a visit to Ireland in the previous reign of Elizabeth. Sixty years later it was equally, valuable prize, and the rebels determined to secure it if they could, at all cost.
     Negotiations with its high-spirited owner being useless, they proceeded to make an assault on the castle; but they experienced such a warm reception on a near approach, that they were glad to retreat. ' One of the Lady Offaley's sons, having fallen into the hands of the rebels, was brought under the castle walls in chains, and a threat was held out that, unless she made at once an unconditional surrender they would strike his head off before her eyes.  Nothing daunted, she replied that she had a Roman Catholic priest as a prisoner within her walls, that she would bring him out upon the ramparts, and that his life should be immediately forfeited if the rebels touched a hair of her son's head. As the rebels were Catholics, reverence for their priest induced them to withdraw as the price of his safety.
     The siege was, however, renewed after a brief interval, and prisoners were taken on either side. On one occasion a messenger, sent by Lady Offaley with a letter to the rebels, was detained by them. ‘ I am innocent,' she wrote, ‘of doing you any injury, unless you count it an injury for my people to bring back a small quantity of my own woods when they find them, and with them some men who have done me all the ill they can devise.'
     The siege was suspended for a time, but not abandoned, an interval of two months being spent in making preparations for a renewed assault. A hundred and forty fragments of old iron were collected from every quarter, and brought together, and an Irish rebel undertook the work of fixing them, and molding them into one huge cannon. Three times were they recast before the work was completed, but the lady of Geashill showed no signs of alarm.  At length the engine was brought across the bogs to the front of the castle. Hoping to intimidate its gallant defender, Lord Clanmalier himself wrote to her announcing the arrival of this formidable piece of ordnance, telling her that he would never leave the spot to which he bad advanced, until he had gained possession of the castle. Her answer was characteristic of womanly bravery: ‘ I am still of the same mind, my lord, and I can think no place safer than my own house; God will, I trust, take a poor widow into His protection, and defend her from all those who without cause have risen up against her.'
     Her confidence was not vain. Clanmalier ordered the cannon to be placed in the most commanding position, but it burst on its first discharge, injuring several of his rebel forces. The rest, in bitter disappointment, took up their guns, and kept up a continuous fire of musketry until the evening, but without inflicting any real damage. Lady Offaley herself watched the attempted assault from the window. As soon as night set in, the insurgents made off, carrying with them their unlucky cannon.
     But the respite which they allowed the lady was a brief one. Next morning Lady Offaley received the following letter from her rebel cousin, Lord Clanmalier:
   ‘ Madame---I received your letter, and am still tender of your good and welfare, though you give no credit thereunto. And, whereas you do not understand by relation that my piece of ordnance did not prosper, I believe you will be sensible of the hazard and loss you are like to sustain thereby, unless you be better advised to accept of the kind offer which I mentioned to you in my last letter unto you . . . If not, expect no further favor at my hands.---And so I rest, your ladyship's loving cousin, &c.’
     The fawning hypocrisy of her foe was well met by the keen and caustic reply of Lady Offaley:
     ‘My Lord,---Your second summons I have received, and shall be glad to find you tender of my good. For your piece of ordnance I never disputed how it prospered, presuming you would rather make use of it for your own defense or against your enemies than against a poor widow of your own blood, which, if shed, shall be required at the hands of those that seek to spill it. For my part, my conscience tells me that I am innocent, and I wish you so too.---I rest, your cousin, &c.’
     In this letter true womanly feeling and thorough heroism are apparent in closest alliance. Lady Lettice was not ashamed of  pleading her womanhood and her widowhood. Her mind was free from arrogance and pride; she uttered no hard words; she was cautious as well as courageous. When her danger became more imminent, and her resources grew feebler, she felt that help from outside was not to be rejected. At the end of April, 1642, she succeeded in informing Sir Charles Coote who was then at Naas, in the county of Kildare, of the straits to which she was reduced. He applied at once to the Earl of Ormond, who was at Dublin, for instructions, and the matter was laid before the council at Dublin Castle. It was determined that no time should be lost in sending assistance to Geashill. Accordingly, Philip Sydney, Lord de Lisle, son of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, was sent to the King's County, with a regiment of carabineers and a company of dragoons, which he had brought with him from England. He was placed in this high command in spite of his youth; but ' he would have belied the high name which he bore, had he not been forward to render assistance where such claims of chivalry and humanity were put forth as at Geashill.' Accompanied by Sir George Wentworth, Sir Charles Coote, and Lord Digby, the Lady Lettice's eldest son, he set off at once, and at the head of three hundred horse, and half that number of foot-soldiers. But their active aid was scarcely needed, for, though they were slightly harassed by some rebel skirmishers as they crossed the bog, yet on reaching Geashill it was found that the rebels had gone off into the woods and the mountains. It appeared that Lady Offaley, weary of waiting for help, or, at all events, unaware that it was close at hand, had despatched messengers to some of her relatives among the FitzGeralds, asking for the loan of about fifty foot-soldiers to protect her against the ‘mixed multitude' of insurgents. This latter, however, fell into the hands of her foes, who were on the point of returning to renew the siege, when the sudden arrival of the royal troops scattered them one and all to the winds.
     Although repeatedly urged by her friends to retire to some place of peace and safety, this heroic lady preferred to remain within her own castle walls, which were now well-provided from Dublin with arms and ammunition. Having spent some months in peace and quiet, and having seen the last of the rebels in her own neighborhood, Lady Lettice was at last persuaded to quit the fortress which she had so gallantly defended, and to settle down in England for the remainder of her days. She therefore retired to her husband's estate at Coleshill, in Warwickshire, where she died December 1, 1658, and she lies buried by his side in the parish church of that pleasant country town. 

*See `Tales of Great Families,' 2nd ,Series, vol. i, p. 1., and 1st Series, vol. i, p. 278.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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