Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Boyle, Richard (1566-1643)

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BOYLE, RICHARD, first Earl of Cork (1566–1643), an Irish statesman frequently referred to as the 'great earl,' was descended from an old Hereford family, the earliest of which there is mention being Humphry de Binvile, lord of the manor of Pixeley Court, near Ledbury, about the time of Edward the Confessor. He was the great-grandson of Ludovic Boyle of Bidney, Herefordshire, by a younger branch of the family, and the second son of Roger Boyle, who had removed to Faversham, Kent, and had married there Joan, daughter of Robert Naylor of Canterbury (pedigree in Robinson's Mansions of Herefordshire, pp. 94-5). In his 'True Remembrances' he says: 'I was born in the city of Canterbury, as I find it written by my own father's hand, the 13th Oct. 1566.' After private instruction in 'grammar learning' from a clergyman in Kent, he became 'a scholar in Bennet's (Corpus Christi) College, Cambridge,' into which he was admitted in 1583 (Masters, Hist. Corpus Christi Coll., ed. 1831, p. 459). On leaving the university entered the Middle Temple, but, finding himself without means to prosecute his studies, he became clerk to Sir Richard Manwood, chief baron of the exchequer. In this employment he discovered no prospect adequate to his ambition, and therefore resolved to try his fortunes in Ireland. Accordingly, on Midsummer's eve, 23 June 1588, he landed in Dublin, his whole property, as he tells us, amounting only to 27l. 3s. in money, a diamond ring and a bracelet, and his wearing apparel. With characteristic astuteness he secured introductions to persons of high influence, and he was even affirmed to have done so by means of counterfeited letters. At any rate, as early as 1590 his name appears as escheator to John Crofton, escheator general, a situation which he doubtless knew how to utilise to his special personal advantage. In 1595 he married, at Limerick, Joan, the daughter and coheiress of William Ansley, who died in 1599 in childbed, leaving him an estate of 500l. a year in lands, 'which,' he says, 'was the beginning of my fortune.' The last statement must, however, be compared with the fact that some time before this he had been the victim of prosecutions, instigated, according to his own account, by envy at his prosperity. About 1592 he was imprisoned by Sir William Fitzwilliam on the charge of having embezzled records, and subsequently he was several times apprehended at the instance of Sir Henry Wallop on a variety of charges, one of them being that of stealing a horse and jewel nine years before, of which he was acquitted by pardon (Answers of Sir Richard Boyle to the Accusations against him, 17 Feb. 1598, Add. MS. 19832, f. 12). Finding these prosecutions unsuccessful, Sir Henry Wallop and others, according to Boyle, 'all joined together by their lies complaining against me to Queen Elizabeth, expressing that I came over without any estate, and that I made so many purchases as it was not possible to do without some foreign prince's purse to supply me with money' (True Remembrances}. To defeat these machinations Boyle resolved on the bold course of proceeding to England to justify himself to the queen, but the fulfilment of his purpose was frustrated by the outbreak of the rebellion in Munster. As the result of the rebellion was to leave him without 'a penny of certain revenue,' he ceased for the time to be in danger from the accusations of his enemies. Indeed, his fortunes in Ireland were now so desperate that he was compelled to leave the country and resume his legal studies in his old chambers in the Temple. Scarcely, however, had he entered upon them when the Earl of Essex offered him employment in connection with 'issuing out his patents and commissions for the government of Ireland.' This at once caused him again to experience the attentions of Sir Henry Wallop, 'who,' says Boyle, 'being conscious in his own heart that I had sundry papers and collections of Michael Kittlewell, his late treasurer, which might discover a great deal of wrong and abuse done to the queen in his late accounts ... he renewed his former complaints against me to the queen's majesty.' In consequence of this Boyle was conveyed a close prisoner to the Gatehouse, and at the end of two months underwent examination before the Star-chamber. Boyle does not state that the complaints were in any way modified or altered, but if they were not his account of them in his 'True Remembrances' is not only inadequate but misleading. His examination before the Star-chamber had no reference whatever to his being in the pay of the king of Spain or a pervert to Catholicism—the accusations he specially instances as 'formerly' made against him by Sir Henry Wallop—but bore chiefly on the causes of his previous imprisonments, and on several asserted instances of trafficking in forfeited estates (see Articles wherein Richard Boyle, prisoner, is to be examined, Add. MS. 19832, f. 8, and Articles to be proved against Richard Boyle, Add. MS. 19832, f. 9). It can scarcely be affirmed that he came out of the ordeal of examination with a reputation utterly unsullied, but the unsatisfactory character of his explanations was condoned by the revelations he made regarding the malversations of his accuser as treasurer of Ireland, and according to his own account he had no sooner done speaking than the queen broke out 'By G—'s death, these are but inventions against the young man, and all his sufferings are but for being able to do us service.' Sir Henry Wallop was at once superseded in the treasurership by Sir George Carew [q. v.],and a few days afterwards Boyle received the office of clerk of the council of Munster. He was chosen by Sir George Carew, who was also lord president of Munster, to convey to Elizabeth tidings of the victory near Kinsale in December 1601, and after the final reduction of the province he was, on 15 Oct. 1602, sent over to England to give information in reference to the condition of the country. On the latter occasion he came provided by Sir George Carew with a letter of introduction to Sir Walter Raleigh, recommending him as a proper purchaser for all his lands in Ireland 'if he was disposed to part with them.' Through the mediation of Cecil, terms were speedily adjusted, and for the paltry sum of 1,000l. Boyle saw himself the possessor of 12,000 acres in Cork, Waterford, and Tipperary, exceptionally fertile, and presenting unusual natural advantages for the development of trade. All, it is true, depended on his own energy and skill in making proper use of his purchase. Raleigh had found it such a bad bargain that he was glad to be rid of it. In the disturbed condition of the country it was even possible that no amount of enterprise and skill might be rewarded with immediate success. Boyle, however, possessed the advantage of being always on the spot, and of dogged perseverance in the one aim of acquiring wealth and power. Before the purchase could be completed Raleigh was attainted of high treason, but in 1604 Boyle obtained a patent for the property from the crown, and paid the purchase-money to Raleigh. There can indeed be no doubt whatever as to the honourable character of his dealings with Raleigh, who throughout life remained on friendly terms with him. The attempt of Raleigh's widow and son to obtain possession of the property was even morally without justification. It had become to its possessor a source of immense wealth, but the change was the result solely of his marvellous energy and enterprise. Cromwell, when he afterwards beheld the prodigious improvements Boyle had effected, is said to have affirmed that, if there had been one like him in every province, it would have been impossible for the Irish to raise a rebellion (Cox, Hist. Ireland, vol. ii.) One of the chief causes of his success was the introduction of manufactures and mechanical arts by settlers from England. From his ironworks alone, according to Boate, he made a clear gain of 100,000l. (Ireland's Nat. Hist. (1652), p. 112). At enormous expense he built bridges, constructed harbours, and founded towns, prosperity springing up at his behest as if by a magician's wand. All mutinous manifestations among the native population were kept in check by the thirteen strong castles erected in different districts, and defended by well-armed bands of retainers. At the same time, for all willing to work, immunity from the worst evils of poverty was guaranteed. On his vast plantations he kept no fewer than 4,000 labourers maintained by his money. His administration was despotic, but enlightened and beneficent except as regarded the papists. For his zeal in putting into execution the laws against the papists he received from the government special commendation—a zeal which, if it arose from a mistaken sense of duty, would deserve at least no special blame; but probably self-interest rather than duty was what chiefly inspired it, for by the possession of popish houses he obtained a considerable addition to his wealth.

The services rendered by Boyle to the English rule in the south of Ireland and his paramount influence in Munster marked him out for promotion to various high dignities. On the occasion of his second marriage on 25 July 1603 to Catherine Fenton, daughter of Sir George Fenton, principal secretary of state, he received the honour of knighthood. On 12 March 1606 he was sworn a privy councillor for the province of Munster, and 12 Feb. 1612 a privy councillor of state for the kingdom of Ireland. On 29 Sept. 1616 he was created Lord Boyle, baron of Youghal, and on 6 Oct. 1620 Viscount Dungarvan and Earl of Cork. On 26 Oct. 1629 he was appointed one of the lords justices of Ireland, and on 9 Nov. 1631 he was constituted lord high treasurer. So greatly was he esteemed for his abilities and his knowledge of affairs that, 'though he was no peer of England, yet he was admitted to sit in the Lords House upon the woolsack ut consularius' (Borlase, Reduction of Ireland, 219). For his promotion and honours he was in a great degree indebted first to Sir George Carew, and afterwards to Lord-deputy Falkland. On the appointment of Wentworth, afterwards Earl of Strafford, as lord deputy in 1633, he, however, discovered not only that the fountain of royal favour was, so far as he was concerned, completely intercepted, but that all his astuteness would be required to enable him to hold his own against the overmastering will of Strafford. The action of Strafford in regard to the immense tomb of black marble which the earl had erected for his wife in the choir of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, was, though not unjustifiable, sufficiently indicative of the general character of his sentiments towards him. It was utterly impossible, indeed, that there could be harmonious action between men of such consuming ambition placed in circumstances where their vital interests so conflicted. At first Strafford had the advantage, but the Earl of Cork's patience and self-control, disciplined by a long course of trials and hardships, never for a moment failed him. In the management of intrigue he was much more than a match for Strafford, who found his purposes thwarted by causes in a great degree beyond his ken, and ultimately fell a victim to the hostility provoked by his rule of 'thorough.' One of the first intimations made to the council after Wentworth's arrival was the intention of the king to issue a commission for the remedying of defective titles to estates. The real design of the commission was to enable the king to obtain money by confiscating estates to which the title was doubtful. It was too probable that the Earl of Cork, if an inquiry of this kind were set on foot, would not escape scatheless. A charge was preferred against him in regard to his possession of the college and revenues of Youghal. Wentworth, after hearing the defence, adjourned the court, and sent word to the Earl of Cork that, if he consented to abide by his award, he would prove the best friend he ever had. The earl at once agreed, whereupon he intimated the decision 'that he should be fined fifteen thousand pounds for the rents and profits of the Youghal College property, and surrender all the advowsons and patronage—everything except the college house and a few fields near the town.' On learning the sentence Laud wrote to Wentworth in high glee: 'No physic is better than a vomit if it be given in time, and therefore you have taken a very judicious course to administer one so early to my lord of Cork' (Laud to Wentworth, 15 Nov. 1633, Letters and Despatches of Thomas, Earl of Strafford, i. 156). Deeply chagrined as the Earl of Cork no doubt was by this turn of affairs, he never permitted himself to indulge in expressions of anger or to show any direct hostility to Strafford. While undoubtedly working to undermine his authority, he even took pains to let it be known indirectly to Strafford how thoroughly he admired his rule. Laud, writing to Strafford 21 Nov. 1638, mentions that the Earl of Cork had spoken to him in high terms of his 'prudence, indefatigable industry, and most impartial justice' (Letters of Strafford, ii. 245), to which the unsuspecting Strafford replies: 'It must be confessed his lordship hath in a judicious way had more taken from him than any one, nay than any six in the kingdom besides; so in this proceeding with me I do acknowledge his ingenuity as well as his justice' (Letters, ii, 271). Possibly the Earl of Cork deemed it best, in the uncertain condition of the struggle at this time, to be secure against any result; but even to the last, when the fall of Strafford seemed inevitable, he avoided taking a prominent part against him. At the trial he bore witness with seeming reluctance. 'Though I was prejudiced,' he says, 'in no less than 40,000l. and 200 merks a year, I put off my examination for six weeks.' He also states that he was 'so reserved in his answers, that no matter of treason could by them be fixed upon the Earl of Strafford.' All the same, but for the Earl of Cork, Strafford's Irish policy would very likely not have been met with the skilful and persistent opposition which led to his impeachment; and in any case that the Earl of Cork's reluctance to bear witness against him was not inspired by affection or esteem is sufficiently shown from an entry in his diary on the day of Strafford's execution: 'This day the Earl of Strafford was beheaded. No man died more universally hated, or less lamented by the people.'

Shortly after his return from England—whither he had gone as a witness at Strafford's trial the rebellion of 1641 broke out in Ireland. Sudden as was the outbreak, the earl was not taken by surprise, for from the beginning he had carefully prepared against such a contingency. In Munster, therefore, the rebels, owing to the stand made by the Earl of Cork, found themselves completely checkmated. Repairing to Youghal he summoned all his tenants to take up arms, and placed his sons at their head without delay. In a letter to Speaker Lenthall, giving an account of his successes, he states that, his ready money being all spent in the payment of his troops, he had converted his plate into coin {State Papers of the Earl of Orrery, p. 7). At the battle of Liscarrol, 3 Sept. 1642, his four sons held prominent commands, and his eldest son was slain on the field. The Earl of Cork died on 15 Sept. 1643, and was buried at Youghal. He left a large family, many of whom were gifted with exceptional talents, and either by their achievements or influential alliances conferred additional lustre on his name. Of his seven sons, four were ennobled in their father's lifetime. Richard [q. v.] was first earl of Burlington; Roger [q. v.] was first earl of Orrery; Robert [q. v.], the youngest, by his scientific achievements, became the most illustrious of the Boyles; and of the eight daughters, seven were married to noblemen.

[Earl of Cork's True Remembrances, printed in Birch's edition of Robert Boyle's works; Budgell's Memoirs of the Boyles (1737), pp. 2-32; A Collection of Letters chiefly written by Richard Boyle, Earl of Corke, and several members of his family in the seventeenth century, the originals of which are in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, and a copy in the British Museum Harleian MS. 80; various papers regarding his examination before the Privy Council in 1598, Add. MS. 19832; copies of various of his letters from 1632 to 1639, Add. MS. 19832; copy of indenture providing for his children 1 March 1624, Add. MS. 18023; Earl of Strafford's Letters and Despatches; Cal. State Papers (Dom. series) reign of Charles I; State Papers of the Earl of Orrery; Cox's History of Ireland; Borlase's Reduction of Ireland; Biog. Brit. (Kippis), ii. 459-71; Lodge's Irish Peerage, i. 150-162; the Diary of the Earl of Cork and his correspondence, formerly at Lismore Castle, are with other Lismore papers being published (1886) under the editorship of Rev. A. B. Grosart, LL.D.]

T. F. H.