Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Piers, William (d.1603)
PIERS, WILLIAM (d. 1603), constable of Carrickfergus, born early in the sixteenth century, was the son of Henry (or, according to Burke, of Richard) Piers of Piers Hall, near Ingleton in Yorkshire. He came to Ireland apparently about 1530, and on 12 Sept. 1556 he and Richard Bethell obtained a grant of the constableship of Carrickfergus Castle, with the command of twelve ‘tormentarii,’ called ‘harquebosiers,’ five archers, one doorkeeper, and two bombardiers (Cal. Fiants, Philip and Mary, 120). He took part in the expedition under Sussex against the Scots in Cantire in September 1558, returning to Carrickfergus in November. From his position at Carrickfergus, which formed an outlying post of the English Pale, he was able to furnish early and accurate information to government regarding the movements of the Hebridean Scots, who found in him an active and vigilant enemy. In 1562 he was employed in trying to arrange a settlement with James MacDonnell, and in the spring of the following year he went to Scotland to negotiate personally with him. As a reward for his services he received, on 10 Dec. 1562, a lease for twenty-one years of the site of the priory of Tristernagh in co. Westmeath. Exposed as he was to the attacks of the Scots on the one side and of the O'Neills on the other, he had constantly to be on the alert against treachery from both quarters, and more particularly so during the temporary alliance between government and Shane O'Neill [q. v.] in 1564. His astuteness and vigilance at this time won for him high praise from Sir William Fitzwilliam and Sir Henry Sidney. In June 1566 the constableship of Carrickfergus was confirmed to him, and in November he obtained a lease of the customs of the town and haven for twenty-one years at an annual rent of 10l. His severity towards Sir Brian MacPhelim O'Neill and others of the native gentry of Clandeboye, in distraining their cattle for cess, which they refused to pay, evoked the censure of the Irish government; but his conduct was approved by the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, and there can be little doubt that his firmness contributed largely to strengthen the authority of the crown in the north.
As yet (1567) there was no intention of establishing an English colony in Ulster; but by a firm and at the same time conciliatory attitude towards the native gentry, resting mainly on the substitution of the English for the Irish system of land tenure, Piers hoped to produce in Ulster a state of affairs similar to that which existed in the English Pale. Such a system he regarded as the strongest possible safeguard against further encroachment on the part of the Hebridean Scots. His relations with Sir Brian MacPhelim were consequently amicable; but towards Shane O'Neill, who was anxiously striving to extend his authority over the whole of Ulster, he was implacably hostile, and is credited with being the author of the scheme that ultimately led to his death. It is said that after Shane's body had lain for four days in the earth, he caused it to be exhumed, and the head, ‘pickled in a pipkin,’ to be sent to the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, for which he received the stipulated reward of one thousand marks. Notwithstanding the determined efforts of the Scots in 1568 to extend their settlements southward along the Antrim coast, Piers succeeded in holding them at bay, and early in 1569 he defeated them with great loss in the neighbourhood of Castlereagh. He was created seneschal of Clandeboye, and in July 1571 he transmitted to the queen ‘a device for planting Ulster and banishing the Irish Scots,’ based on a recognition of the rights of the native gentry to the territory claimed by them. He was greatly perturbed by the news of Sir Thomas Smith's intended plantation, and warned the government of the extreme danger of the experiment. Nevertheless he rendered what assistance he could to Walter Devereux, earl of Essex [q. v.], who, after Smith's failure, had taken up his scheme on a larger scale, and with greater resources; and it is probable that if his advice had been followed the issue of that enterprise might have been different. He was, however, suspected of intriguing with Sir Brian MacPhelim, and in December 1573 he was placed under custody by Essex. He protested his innocence, but more than a year apparently elapsed before he was acquitted, and in the meantime he was deprived of the constableship of Carrickfergus.
Subsequently he succeeded in interesting Sir William Drury [q. v.] in his plan for settling the northern parts with the assistance of the native gentry, including Sorley Boy MacDonnell [q. v.], who was willing to transfer his allegiance to the English crown. In October 1578 he repaired to England with letters of credit from the Irish government to the privy council. His principal object was to obtain the queen's consent to his scheme. He was so far successful that on 8 April 1579 instructions were sent to Drury to assign him fifty horse and one hundred foot. But there was unaccountable delay in arranging the details of the scheme, and it was apparently not until the summer of the following year that Piers returned to Ireland. By that time the situation had materially altered. With Munster in a state of open rebellion, and Turlough Luineach O'Neill [q. v.] hanging like an ominous cloud on the borders of the Pale, matters of graver importance than the settlement of Clandeboye occupied the attention of government. During that summer and autumn Piers was employed in trying to arrange a modus vivendi with Turlough Luineach. In this he was not altogether unsuccessful. For though it was impossible to accede to Turlough's demand to control his hereditary urraghs, the head of the O'Neills proved otherwise tractable enough, and Piers hoped by certain minor concessions to confirm him in his allegiance, and even to draw him into an alliance against the Scots.
After the capture of Fort del Ore, Piers's plan was revived, with the consent of the lord deputy, Arthur, fourteenth lord Grey de Wilton [q. v.]; but other counsels had begun to prevail with Elizabeth, and, though Piers himself repaired to England early in 1581, he failed to enlist the sympathy of the government. His serious illness at the time may have contributed to his ill-success. He returned to Ireland apparently in the autumn of 1582, and seems shortly afterwards to have retired to Tristernagh. Though verging on seventy, he was still able to sit in the saddle, and his willingness to serve the state, coupled with his long experience, rendered him a useful adviser in matters connected with Ulster. In 1591 he obtained permission to revisit England, ‘that he may behold and do his duty to her majesty … before he dies.’ He apparently survived till 1603, and is said to have been buried at Carrickfergus, of which town he was the first mayor and practical founder. It is necessary to distinguish carefully between him and his three contemporaries of the same name, viz., William Piers, his nephew, described as of Carrickfergus, and also mayor of that town; William Piers of Portsmouth, an officer in the navy, who also served in Ireland; and William Piers, described as lieutenant to the preceding.
Piers married Ann Holt, probably a native of Yorkshire, and by her had one son, Henry [q. v.], who is separately noticed.
[Thoresby's Ducatus Leodiensis, p. 250; Ware's Annals, s.a. 1570; Lodge's Peerage, ed. Archdall, ii. 201–4 n.; Churchyard's Choice; Hill's Macdonnells of Antrim, p. 144; Irish Statutes, i. 328; Benn's Hist. of Belfast, pp. 27, 31; m'Skimin's Hist. of Carrickfergus, p. 315; Cal. State Papers, Irel. passim, and Foreign, 1563, pp. 113, 290; Cal. Hatfield MSS. i. 260, 325; Cal. Fiants, Philip and Mary, Eliz.; Lewis's Topographical Dict. (Carrickfergus); Gregory's Hist. of the Western Highlands, pp. 201, 224; Harl. MS. Brit. Mus. 7004, ff. 100, 104.]