It was half past 1573, and Queen Elizabeth was very annoyed. A long-running feud between Sir William Fitzwilliam, the chief governor (“Deputy”) of Ireland, and Sir Edward Fitton, one of the other English officials in the Irish governing Council, had sparked a squabble between their followers in which one of Fitton’s men was killed by a follower of Fitzwilliam’s. Fitzwilliam, using the royal power delegated to him as Deputy, issued a general pardon to his own man, not only for the killing but for all crimes he might have committed; when Fitton complained about this, Fitzwilliam had him arrested, but then had second thoughts and released him the next day. Fitton had meantime written directly to the Queen to complain about his treatment. Having heard both sides of the story, she wrote this stinging rebuke to Fitzwilliam and the other members of the Irish Council.
RIGHT trusty and well-beloved, and trusty and well-beloved, we greet you well.
We have received your letter of the 12th of June, in the which, for the matter of pardon granted, and also touching Sir Edward Fitton, having read and considered the whole that you have written, and likewise that he hath written, of that matter unto us, we cannot but mislike that you the Deputy should be so hasty to give such and so general a pardon upon the slaying of a gentleman: for, where the corrupt jury of the coroner’s [in]quest did find it but se defendendo, it may easily appear that was no true verdict, and that it was a murther; or else you would not in that case have made out a general pardon, but a particular pardon upon the indictment, and, of course, as in like cases are wont.
But this pardon is so general, that all treasons, murders, and other enormities, and transgressions of laws be pardoned, and from the friend of the man murdered all prosecution of law taken away, such a one as we ourself (for we have seen the copy of it) would be afraid to grant, nor have not granted (to our knowledge) at any time since the first day of our reign: for it is not unknown to our Council here, and to all that have any doings with us, how seldom, and with what difficulty and conscience we be brought to pardon any man where suspicion of murther and malice pretensed is; and how curious we be to be informed of the matter when any of our subjects be slain, before we will condescend to discharge any man of it.
That discretion we looked for in you our Deputy, and therefore we put you in that place, lest the blood of the man slain should cry vengeance upon us and our realm not doing justice for it, and that the punishment of the murder should be a terror to others to adventure upon the like. But if you our Deputy should overslip yourself in this, either by hastiness or temerity, yet, as it appeareth, you the rest of our Council there have done as little your duties to God and us, in that you would put your hands unto it; as, whatsoever the Deputy therein for the time should do and allow, you would straight run into the same rashness, and affirm it with subscription of your hands as applauders of our Deputy. You be put there to be grave and sage advisers, to temper such sudden affections either the one way or the other, of love or of hatred, as may chance to our Deputy, being but a man made of flesh and blood, who cannot lightly be without them; and to have regard to God first, and then to our honour and the surety and good government of our realm.
Sir Edward Fitton seemeth to us a true and a good Counsellor, who, seeing so unreasonable a pardon so unadvisedly granted, made stay of it to bring it unto you our Deputy to be better advised of it, not resisting, but discreetly requiring more mature consultation; and for this you will agree to put him to that shame as to commit him for a contemner of your doings, imputing rashness unto him in that behalf, where, in truth, he honoured us, in requiring more deliberation and regard than was had, to be had in justice, the which is clean taken away by that rash and unjust pardon. He refused to sit with you, and he had cause so to do; for it appeareth you are all rather followers of the Deputy’s affections, than careful ministers of justice or of our honour.
If you had done well, you should have done as he did, requiring the Deputy to stay to take better advisement: so should you have showed more care of justice, of our honour, and of the good government of that our realm, than of following the hasty affection of our Deputy. You are adjoined to him from us as Counsellors, and in one commission, not to follow one head, or whatsoever the Deputy willeth; but to consider what is just and reason to be done, and so agree with him and set to your hands, and no otherwise; and therefore be you more than one, that, if need be, one may temper the other. Nicholas White, as appeareth by your letter, not daring to dissent against so running a consent, yet showed his conscience not to consent to affection, and would prescribe no punishment to that fact, which in his conscience he thought to be the duty of a good Counsellor to do.
If this had been in our father’s time, who removed a Deputy thence for calling of one of the Council dissenting from his opinion “churl,” you may soon conceive how it would have been taken. Our moderate reign and government can be contented to bear this, so you will take this for a warning, and hereafter have before your eyes, not the will or pleasure of our Deputy or any other Counsellor, but first God’s honour, and then justice and our service, which is always joined to the good government of the realm, not following in any respect any private quarrels or affections.
And as to you our Deputy, we shall hereafter write our mind more at large: so will we not forget to give thanks to our good cousin, the Earl of Kildare, for his good service. And we could be content that the Earl of Ormond were at home.
We have written to Sir Edward Fitton, willing him to join with you in Council and take his place again; and do wish that, all sinister affections laid apart, you do join all in one to do that which may be to the honour of God and of our service, to the execution of justice, and to the good government of that realm.
Given under our signet at our manor of Greenwich, the 29th of June 1573, the 15th year of our reign.
Interestingly, she does not dispute Fitzwilliam’s right to issue the pardon. She does, however, make it clear that she thinks it was a bad idea, and refers not to the specifics of the case but to the general principle that “murther” should be prosecuted according to the law.
The constitutional principle she is keenest to assert, however, is the duty of dissent in the government. She accuses the Irish Council of failing to discharge their responsibilities by not standing up to Fitzwilliam and accepting his arbitrary rule, both in issuing the pardon and in his subsequent treatment of Fitton. She reminds the older councillors that her father sacked a previous Lord Deputy for insulting one of his councillors (I am still trying to work out what incident that refers to – perhaps the recall of William Skeffington in 1532). She describes her own style of ruling as “moderate”. (So you can forget about the image you have of Miranda Richardson from Blackadder.)
Obviously I took an interest in this letter because of the namecheck of my ancestor. Nicholas White had recently been appointed to the Council as Master of the Rolls and Keeper of the Great Seal; he was distrusted by the other members of the Council because he was, er, Irish. I find Elizabeth’s sentence about him rather obscure, but she seems to be giving him due credit for protesting against Fitzwilliam’s imprisonment of Fitton (though he seems to have been silent on the question of the pardon). White, of course, had a hot line to Lod Burghley in London.
Elizabeth’s style is a bit rambling, isn’t it? But I suppose that when you are queen you can write any way you want to.