Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skeffington, William

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SKEFFINGTON, Sir WILLIAM, called ‘The Gunner’ (d. 1535), lord deputy of Ireland, eldest son of Thomas Skeffington or Skevyngton of Skeffington in Leicestershire, and Mary, his wife, emerges from obscurity as sheriff of the counties of Warwick and Leicester in the last year of the reign of Henry VII, by whom he is said to have been knighted. He was appointed master of the ordnance by Henry VIII, and continued to hold that post till 1529, taking part in that capacity in the military enterprises of the first half of the reign, and between 1520 and 1528 was frequently employed in attending to the fortifications of the English Pale in France. He was returned M.P. for Leicester in 1529, and in August of that year was appointed deputy to the Duke of Richmond, lord lieutenant of Ireland. His appointment was indicative of an attempt on the part of Henry to recover for the crown that supremacy in Irish affairs which its own former weakness had allowed to slip into the hands of one or other of the great Anglo-Norman families, and of the house of Kildare in particular. It was the first time that the government of the country had been entrusted to a simple gentleman possessing no personal influence and deriving his importance solely from the monarch whose servant he was. Had indeed Wolsey, by whom the policy was dictated, continued in power, his hatred to the head of the Leinster Geraldines might have been productive of serious consequences. As it was, the downfall of the cardinal at the very moment, and the restoration of the Earl of Kildare [Fitzgerald, Gerald ninth Earl of Kildare] to favour, practically deprived Skeffington's appointment of its significance. The instructions delivered to him touched the preservation of order in the Pale and its defence against the attacks of the ‘wyld Irishry,’ the reconciliation of the conflicting interests of the Earls of Kildare, Desmond, and Ossory, the raising of a subsidy, and the holding of a parliament. He was expressly forbidden to venture on any independent warlike enterprise against the natives, but was enjoined to render every assistance to the Earl of Kildare. On 2 Aug. he landed near Dublin, whither he was shortly afterwards followed by the Earl of Kildare himself. The effect of the limitations in his patent was soon apparent; for the Earl of Kildare, who did not scruple to show his contempt for him, and, as Ossory complained, openly to conduct himself as though he were the viceroy and Skeffington merely his instrument (State Papers, Hen. VIII, printed, ii. 157), contrived before long to deprive him of everything but the merest semblance of viceregal authority. For a time indeed Skeffington struggled hard, with the assistance of the Earl of Ossory, to assert an independent position; but the experiment, if such it deserves to be called, of trying to govern Ireland by the exercise of the royal authority alone came to an end in 1532. In May of that year Skeffington was formally charged by Sir John Rawson [q. v.], prior of Kilmainham, and Chief-justice Bermingham, with maladministration, or, in other words, with acting partially towards the Earl of Ossory. The influence of Kildare was sufficient to procure his recall, and, having been somewhat contumeliously treated by him, Skeffington quitted Ireland in the summer, and returned to his old post of master of the ordnance.

But his treatment by Kildare rankled deeply, and he assisted with all his might to bring about his downfall. Early in 1534 he had the satisfaction of seeing his enemy clapped in the Tower, and shortly afterwards, a rumour of his death having provoked a rising on the part of his son, Lord Thomas of Offaly, Skeffington was again nominated lord deputy. It is doubtful if he was very anxious for the task imposed upon him of suppressing the rebellion, and to an impartial witness like Chapuys it seemed as if Henry had been guilty of incredible folly in entrusting the enterprise to one ‘the most incompetent for such a charge that could be chosen.’ The news, early in August, of Archbishop Alan's murder hastened his departure from court. The vessel with the artillery had already sailed when he reached Chester, but whether it was that the winds were adverse, or, as Chapuys insinuated, that Skeffington wanted an excuse to withdraw from the undertaking, and pleaded the necessity of larger reinforcements as a reason for not immediately embarking, it was not till 14 Oct. that, in obedience to peremptory orders from Henry, he actually set sail from Graycot. The fleet was driven by a gale under Lambay, and in consequence of a report that Dublin had fallen into the hands of Lord Offaly, Skeffington determined, for not very obvious reasons, to proceed himself to Waterford, detaching Sir William Brereton and John Salisbury for the purpose of effecting a landing, if possible, at Dublin. But after in vain trying to make headway in a dead calm, he likewise steered for Dublin, where he landed a week after Brereton. Once landed, he displayed unexpected vigour, and, collecting his forces, marched on 28 Oct. to the relief of Drogheda, accomplishing the whole distance in one day. Offaly was proclaimed a traitor at the market-cross; but a plan for a combined attack on Kilkea Castle was frustrated by Skeffington's illness, and indeed it was not till the following spring that he was sufficiently recovered to take the field in person. ‘In the meane tyme,’ as the master of the rolls wrote, ‘the rebell hath brent moch of the countrie, trusting, if he may be sufferde, to wast and desolate the Inglishry, wherby he thinke to inforce this army to departe’ (ib. p. 226). In the general opinion, Skeffington's advanced age and illness rendered him unfit for the task imposed upon him; but Henry refused to withdraw his confidence from him, and on 14 March 1535 he sat down before Maynooth, the strongest of Earl Thomas's fortresses, commanded by his own foster-brother, Christopher Paris. The place was defended by some small pieces of ordnance, transplanted thither from Dublin Castle, and of the hundred men composing the garrison sixty at least were professional gunners. But impregnable as it had hitherto been deemed, it was not adapted to resist the heavy artillery (a novel feature in Irish warfare, and the origin probably of his title ‘The Gunner’) which Skeffington advanced against it. On the 16th the batteries were unmasked. The bombardment lasted six days without intermission, but on the 23rd, a breach having been made in the north side, the outworks were carried by assault and sixty of the defenders slain. The main tower still held out, but Paris, either thinking further resistance futile, or, as it has been improbably asserted (Stanihurst, but cf. Bagwell, i. 174–5, who sees no reason to doubt Stanihurst's account), having been bribed to betray his charge, offered to surrender. The surrender was apparently unconditional, and Skeffington, after consultation with the council, caused him and the garrison, to the number of twenty-five, to be executed ‘for the dread and example of others.’ The severity of the punishment was unexpected, and the ‘pardon of Maynooth,’ as it was called, became a proverbial expression for the gallows. Having accomplished his immediate object, Skeffington repaired to Dublin to prepare for a parliament which Henry had ordered to be summoned. Notwithstanding his ill-health, he succeeded in detaching Con O'Neil, first earl of Tyrone [q. v.], from the Earl of Kildare, and in July he proceeded to Drogheda to receive his personal submission. While there he became so ill that his death seemed inevitable. Nevertheless he managed to drag himself back to Maynooth, now his headquarters, and, though seldom able to leave his bed much before noon, he recovered sufficiently to concert measures for an attack on O'Conor Faly, Kildare's sole remaining ally. His resolute attitude, coupled with the treachery of O'Conor's brother Cahir, brought that chieftain to his knees, and on 15 Aug. Kildare, finding his case desperate, submitted. Skeffington's services were gratefully acknowledged by Henry, who, disregarding the clamour for his recall, continued him at his post, advising him, however, to act more by the advice of the council than he had hitherto done. Meanwhile the quarrel—a quarrel of old standing—between the Butlers and the Munster Geraldines had assumed the dimensions of a rebellion on the part of the latter, and in September Skeffington advanced with his artillery against Dungarvan. The place was stormed, and Skeffington, having handed it over to Lord James Butler, entrusted the further settlement of affairs in the south to him, and returned to Maynooth. But his sickness growing upon him, he removed to Kilmainham priory, where he breathed his last on 31 Dec. 1535. He was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, on the north side, before the steps ascending to the altar, in close proximity to the grave of Archbishop Richard Talbot (d. 1449) [q. v.]

Skeffington married, first, Margaret, daughter of Sir Everard Digby of Drystoke, by whom he had a son Thomas, his heir, who married Margaret, daughter and heiress of Edmund Stanhope of West Markham, Nottinghamshire; and, secondly, Ann, daughter of Sir John Digby of Kettleby in Leicestershire, by whom he had apparently a son Leonard, ‘sometime lieutenant of the Tower,’ and the inventor of an instrument of torture, known as ‘Skevington's irons’ or ‘Skevington's daughter,’ by which the body of the victim was completely doubled up until the head and feet were drawn together, the invention of which has been erroneously ascribed to his father, Sir William. A grandson, also William, is mentioned as having obtained an appointment as gunner in the Tower in July 1527, which would give Sir William Skeffington's age at the time of his death as considerably over seventy.

According to Sir William Brabazon, Skeffington, despite his age, was ‘a verie good man of warre,’ but ‘somewhat covetous.’ Perhaps he owed the disagreeable addition to his character to his wife, who for a considerable time after his death continued to pester government for some equivalent for the pecuniary loss she and her family had thereby suffered.

[Chapman's Skeffingtons of Tunbridge in Arch. Cantiana, x. 39–45; Hasted's Kent, ii. 333–4; Lodge's Peerage, ed. Archdall, iii. 57; Fabyan's Chronicle, ed. Ellis, p. 700; Cal. State Papers, Hen. VIII, ed. Brewer and Gairdner, i–x. passim; State Papers, Hen. VIII, printed, il. 147–297; Cal. Carew MSS. i. 41–90; Ware's Annales; Stanihurst's Chronicle; Monk-Mason's St. Patrick's, notes, p. lviii; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 381; Tanner's Societas Europæa, p. 18; Jardine's Use of Torture, ed. 1837, p. 15; Bagwell's Ireland under the Tudors, i. 153–247; Froude's Hist. of England, chap. viii.]

R. D.