Master Thomas Lee

Master Thomas Lee
(1552/3 - 1601)

Master Thomas Lee - English soldier and traitor

Thomas Lee, an English Protestant who was a half-first cousin to Sir Henry Lee, Quarendon, Buckinghamshire, came to Ireland as an undertaker in 1574, and was given land.

He was employed by the Crown to protect the borders of the Pale against raids by the Irish, and he campaigned against the O'Moores and O'Tooles, as Captain-General of the Kern (foot-soldiers). He owned a substantial estate in Kildare, and bought or built a castle at Castlereban, on the river Barrow, north of Athy, on a site obtained from Sir Walter Fitzgerald, otherwise known as Sir Walter de St Michael.

He was active in the campaign in which Sir Henry Bagenal and Hugh O'Neill were slightly injured while suppressing the revolt of Hugh Maguire in a rout at Beleek on 10th October 1593, and he was on friendly terms with them, to the extent that he allowed both to claim credit for his own efforts. In 1594, he wrote a tract entitled A Brief Declaration of the Government of Ireland, in which he described the hanging of Hugh Gaveloc O'Neill by the Earl of Tyrone, to clear the way for his own leadership of the O'Neill; 'And where the earl's adversaries have, in times past, incensed your majesty against him, for hanging and cutting off one Hugh Gaveloc, a notable traitor, and son to Shane O'Neale, informing your majesty the said Hugh was your majesty's subject; it shall be well proved that he [Gaveloc], was ever a traitor against your majesty, a daily practiser with foreigners [as the Scots and others], for the disturbances of that kingdom, and one who sought, by all means, to overthrow the earl who, by martial law, which he then had, did cut him off for his offences. For the doing whereof he did incur your highness's displeasure; and the said martial law, which kept the whole country in awe, was taken from him; the want whereof has made his country people grow insolent against him, and careless of observing any humanity or duty; which hath bred the outrages now in practice, so that in my poor opinion, it were requisite the same authority were restored unto him.'

Lee accompanied Sir William Russell into Wicklow to hunt for Fiach McHugh O'Byrne early in 1597. Relatives of the outlaw had given away his hiding place, and on 8 May, when O'Byrne was attempting to escape from Russell's column, he ran into Lee. O'Byrne was captured and killed by Lee's men when he hid in a cave.

Lee had the outlaw's head preserved in salt and sent to the Queen, to claim his reward, signing his letter 'your bog Irishman'. The impropriety of dealing directly with Elizabeth in this manner became a cause for anger when the court officials needed to defend themselves against criticism for the embarrassing loss of the outlaw's head, which had been found in a tree in someone's garden, in Enfield Chase.

Lee became more disenchanted with the English court, his sympathies began to change towards the Irish, and he 'went native', wearing the garb of a Gaelic chieftain, and becoming involved in skirmishes with various landowners and sheriffs.

His friendship with O'Neill and Bagenal became a problem after they became enemies.

Hugh O'Neill had eloped with Henry Bagenal's sister Mabel, and then married her under circumstances of dubious legality, as he had at least one other wife. By the time Bagenal and O'Neill met at the Yellow Ford in August 1598, the cause of Ireland may have been intertwined with an in-law squabble, as O'Neill's womanising had by now driven Mabel to run away. She was to return to live with him again for a time before her early death. Bagenal's forces were already close to defeat when he was shot in the face and killed, after he lifted the visor of his helmet to have a look around. The advance force was wiped out.

After the defeat, Thomas Lee's friendship with O'Neill came under suspicion, and he was jailed in Dublin castle for a few months, suspected of aiding the Irish with information.

On 12 February 1601 Lee was arrested in England, having gone there in support of Robert Deveraux, second Earl of Essex, returning from a disastrous and expensive campaign in Ireland. Essex was in disgrace for having made peace with O'Neill, when he had been expected to defeat him. Essex had attempted to foment a rebellion against Elizabeth.

Lee was apprehended while secretly watching the Queen in her chamber (according to one version, in Notes and Queries, 1943, he waited under her bed), as part of his plot to hold her to ransom his friends the Earls of Essex and Southampton, who were both under suspicion of conspiracy against the Queen. He was tried the day following his arrest, was found guilty, and was hanged drawn and quartered the next morning at Tyburn, at the site of Marble Arch, in London.

In the Genealogical Office, in Dublin, there are manuscript letters regarding Lee's views on the problems of Ireland. There are also records of letters from his cousin, Sir Richard Lee, supported by Richard's brother, Sir Harry Lee, to Elizabeth I, asking her not to confiscate the property in county Kildare, because of the suffering which would be caused to Lee's son.

Thomas Lee's portrait, painted in 1594 by Marcus Gheevaerts, showing him in an exaggerated pose and the attire of a Gaelic chieftain, is in the Tate gallery, London. The same artist was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee to paint Queen Elizabeth at Ditchley, suggesting a close connection between the two men.