Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Lettice Fitzgerald, Baroness Offaly (c.1580–1658)
Born in 1580 as the only child to Gerald Fitzgerald (Lord Offaly, Lord Garratt) and Catherine Knollys, Lettice Fitzgerald was a prominent Irish woman, part of the Fitzgerald aristocratic dynasty. While she was still a child her father and unmarried uncle had passed, leaving her to become the heiress-general to the Earls of Kildare (possessing of three manors). She was from this, to become the first Baroness Offaly, heir to her grandfather the 11th Earl. In this period of waiting Lettice was to later marry Robert Digby (MP) on the 19th of April 1598 and would mother ten children throughout their relationship. Sir Robert Digby of Coleshill (an Englishman) possessed a wide variety of patrons across both London and Dublin, and sought to expand his influence through their marriage.
In the year of 1602 the 14th Earl of Kildare produced a deed of 1566 – supposedly written by the 11th Earl that disinherited Lettice. She promptly sued, stating that the deed was fraudulent and altered, and in 1609 after costly years at court, it was decided that the validity of the deed would be tried by jury at common law. Lettice refused all arbitration, despite the death of both the 14th Earl and her husband in 1618, continuing her legal crusades against her relatives. Upon the 11th July 1619, King James I rejected the claim that Lettice was the heiress to the 11th Earl; however, he did grant her the castle of Geashill. This comprised of approximately 300,000 acres of Offaly. She was also granted the manors of Portlester, Woodstock and Athy. She was announced in 1620 the ‘Baroness Offaly for life’ though proceeding her death the title would return to the earls of Kildare – not her children. Lettice then preoccupied herself through the promotion of Anglicanism and Protestantism throughout Ireland.
In 1641 Catholic rebellion took place throughout Ireland, and the residence of Lettice, Castle Gaeshill, was besieged a total of three times. She is known to have been resolute in its defence through her correspondence and reportedly beheaded a Catholic priest when threats were made upon her eldest son's life. She departed upon the third siege and lived the remainder of her life in Coleshill England, until she died on the 1st of December 1658.
During the siege of the Geashill Castle (1642), Fitzgerald had a combative correspondence with her second cousins, both Henry and Lewis O’Dempsey. In her steadfast defence of the castle, and refusal to demands she wrote numerous letters to the Irish rebels, in one instance stating she “doubt not” that she would “receaue a Crowne of Martydome” (Trinity College, MS 814, fol. 107r). Thematically these letters stressed the femininity of Fitzgerald, her widowhood, and the familial bonds she possessed with the rebels, likely to create a sense of vulnerability. It is suggested that she intentionally constructed these correspondence to shame her kinsman into surrender, demonstrating her literary prowess through the manipulation of her circumstances (Clavin, 2009). Famously upon the dubious offer of mercy from the O’Dempsey’s, Fitzgerald stated:
“I will live and die innocently, and will do my best to defend my own, leaving the issue to God.” (British Isle Genealogy, 2004).
It remains unclear if Fitzgerald intended for her letters to be published, as they became especially prominent across London during the spring of 1642, after the first siege. Unsurprisingly after being promoted across England as propaganda (Maxwell, 2019), and previously introducing English tenants upon her lands, the London aristocracy offered their aid. The ardour and pride of her literary works was said to have inspired them. When the regiments of Sir George Wentworth, Sir Charles Coote, and Lord Digby (her son) arrived, Fitzgerald had already dispatched the rebels (British Isle Geneaology, 2004).
Evidence also exists to report on the reception of Lettice’s letters. It is highly likely that it was the topical nature of Fitzgerald’s letters regarding the religious local rebellions that prompted the transmission of its reception. Of particular note to this is the nature of religious communities being rich in transnational reception networks for both male and female authors (Coolahan, 2012). For accounts of her reception see Temple (1646).
Lettice Fitzgerald is not solely regarded for her letters however, as she also authored the poem ‘Verses maide by Lettice Fitz Gerald ye Lady Ophaley, after she lost her eye-sight being above fourscore years of age’. Similar to the shrouded and forgotten nature of her letters, the poem is unknown in date or context (McShane, 2016), surviving only as a miscellaneous addendum within the 1922 volume of the Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society. The poem highlights the religious fervour of the Baroness Offaly;
“Death keeps the key of this dark prison where
She lies inthroald with sin and bound with care
O send Thy summons Lord and sett her free”.
The works of Fitzgerald leave a grim reminder of Irish women’s literary perspectives, particularly during the hostilities between the 1640’s-1650’s. While one may find a plethora of poetic and biographical texts from the male Irish aristocracy regarding the promotion of anglicization and Protestantism within Ireland, such cannot be said for the women (McShane, 2016). The previously mentioned poetry of Fitzgerald is a testament to the contributions of early modern Irish women; however, it also highlights the struggles in retrieving such works.
This is due to the poetic, oral traditions of Irish women, stemming across all socio-economic backgrounds (Hamrick, 2016). Instead of manuscript and publication, instead these individuals were to circulate works through oral citations in traditional Irish dialects. Also in opposition to the retainment and circulation of these perspectives was the destruction of the Dublin Public Record Office in 1922, which resulted in the loss of immeasurable historical and poetic records.
The works of Fitzgerald not only share a perspective of a rare, female, aristocratic leader during these religious hostilities, but also represent the tumultuous trends of female authorship.
Further/ Suggested ReadingsEdit
Coolahan (2010) makes intriguing comparisons between the works of Lettice Digby (Fitzgerald) and Lady Elizabeth Dowdall. Particularly within her chapter ‘Depositions’ she outlines the “assured self-constructions of female resistance” (p.166).
The collective works titled under ‘Women's Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland’ further adds to the topic of literary retainment, particularly works that have not been traditionally thought worthy of scholarly consideration. It discusses similarly to that of Hamrick (2016) how the circulation of texts authored by early modern Irish women were not only disregarded in the time of their publication, but also by current historians, and scholarly trends. It also details the improved understandings of these historical women’s intellectual habits, due to the study of more ‘self-expressive’ or personal texts such as the letters of Lettice Fitzgerald.
Also consider the following works;
Maxwell, J. (2019). MONSTRUM HORRENDUM. History Ireland, 27(5), 20–23.
McAreavey, N. (2007). '"Paper bullets": Gendering the 1641 Rebellion in the Writings of Lady Elizabeth Dowdall and Lettice Fitzgerald, Baroness Offaly', in T. Herron and M. Potterton (eds.), Ireland in the Renaissance c.1540-1660, pp. 311-24.
Clavin, T. Digby, Lettice. Dictionary of Irish Biography. Royal Irish Academy.
Coolahan, M. (2010). 4 1641 depositions. Women, Writing, and Language in Early Modern Ireland. Oxford University Press.
Coolahan. M. (2012). The Reception of Women’s ‘Lost’ Texts. Women Writers.
Eckerle, J. A., McAreavey, N., & JSTOR eBooks: EBA Title List. (2019). In Eckerle J. A., McAreavey N., JULIE A. ECKERLE and NAOMI MCAREAVEY(Eds.), Women's Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland. University of Nebraska Press.
Hamrick, W. (2016). Eighteenth-Century Women’s Poetry in Irish. The Reception & Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700 [blog].
Maxwell, J. (2019). MONSTRUM HORRENDUM. History Ireland, 27(5), 20–23.
McShane, B. (2016). Retrieving early modern Irish women’s writing: verses composed by Lettice Digby nee Fitzgereald (c.1580-1658), Baroness of Offaly. The Reception & Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700 [blog].
Temple, J. (1646). The Irish Rebellion. Letter dated 14 December 1641 from lords justices of Dublin, giving account of receiving these letters and forwarding copies to the lord lieutenant, sig. Ff2v.
Trinity College Dublin, (1642). Correspondence of Lettice Digby, Baroness of Offaly in Deposition of Thomas Pickering. TCD MS 814, fol. 107r.