Sir Nicholas Whyte, DNB

White, Sir Nicholas (c.1532-1592), lawyer and administrator, was descended from a notable family of the English pale. His father, James White, steward of James Butler, earl of Ormond, had been poisoned while in London with the earl in 1546. Nicholas owed his early advancement to Ormond’s influence: in recognition of James’s loyalty, the earl left £10 for the boy’s education at the inns of court. A cadet branch of the family was led by another James White, recorder of Waterford, who joined Walter Cowley in a survey of religious houses in 1541 and was granted monastic property in Kilkenny. Nicholas White married twice. Nothing is known of his first wife except her surname, Sherlocke. His second wife was the daughter of Arthur Brereton of Killyon, Meath.

Education and early career

In 1552 White entered Lincoln’s Inn, and he was called to the bar in 1558. His contemporaries at the inn were James Dowdall, later chief justice of queen’s bench, the rivals Nicholas Nugent and Robert Dillon, who became in succession chief justices of common pleas, and his younger ally and protégé from Waterford, Nicholas Walsh, the last native-born chief justice of common pleas. Nicholas White returned to Ireland and was elected knight of the shire for co. Kilkenny in 1559. On 17 August 1559 he was sent as commissioner by the Irish privy council, along with Francis Cosby, Nicholas Heron, Luke Neterville, and others, to hear a controversy between the lord of upper Ossory and Edward Butler in Kilkenny. He was justice of the peace for co. Kilkenny in 1563 and in the following year was named recorder of Waterford. The original instructions in 1566 for the inchoate lord president and council in Munster named White as one of the resident members of the first council. Along with other leading lawyers, he was named in the lease of Dominican property in 1567 which became King’s Inns in Dublin. On 13 June 1569 he became constable of Wexford Castle, a position which had formerly been occupied by a kinsman of his second wife. White established his estate at White’s Hall, near Knocktopher, co. Kilkenny.

White earned the favour of successive chief governors, and in 1568 he was given the right to travel to England, where he met the queen and her principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley. From that time forward he became a key confidant of Cecil and an important commentator on Irish affairs. He had a notable interview with Mary, queen of Scots, at Tutbury in February 1569, details of which he sent to Cecil on his return to Ireland. On 4 November 1568 Elizabeth appointed him seneschal of Wexford and constable of Leighlin and Ferns, replacing the disgraced adventurer Thomas Stukeley. He retained the office until 1572, concluding his tenure with the pursuit of the rebels who murdered his son-in-law Robert Browne. On 18 January 1569 White was granted reversion of the lands of Dunbrody Abbey, co. Wexford, and other leases, to which he added a grant of St Catherine’s Priory at Leixlip, which became his Dublin residence, on 28 May. Although he suffered losses to his property during the wars of the Butlers in 1569, he strengthened his estate by acquisitions in Wexford and he successfully controlled the restless Kavanaghs in that county.

Master of the rolls in Ireland

In September 1571 White once again returned to England, with licence to be absent for six months. On the recommendation of the lord deputy, Fitzwilliam, White succeeded Sir Henry Draycott as master of the rolls in Ireland on 14 July 1572, and the lord chancellor was directed to accept a surrender of his lands in exchange for a regrant of them in fee simple. Despite these marks of royal favour, White was viewed by fellow privy councillors in Ireland as suspiciously partisan. Unlike his pliant contemporary Sir Lucas Dillon, White took independent positions in opposition to the dominant English-born faction on the council. The ambitious lord keeper and archbishop of Dublin, Adam Loftus, demanded custody of the great seal upon the death of Lord Chancellor Robert Weston in 1572 and vied with White on several occasions. When Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam chided Sir Edward Fitton for his arbitrary conduct as councillor in 1573, White was Fitton’s lone defender. When the dispute over cess arose in 1577 between Lord Deputy Sidney and the gentlemen of the pale, White was almost alone among Irish councillors who took the part of the Old English élite. He wrote to Burghley on 13 June 1577 that he had no intention to impugn the queen’s prerogative, and later warned the queen’s principal adviser that Sidney had forfeited the support of the pale over their legitimate constitutional claims. Sidney distrusted him as a client of Ormond, and the new lord chancellor, Sir William Gerard, accused White of excessive partiality as a judge in 1578, saying he was ‘greatly allyed in the pale by his mariages … a depe dissembler, greatly corrupt and wilfully affected with oute regard of troth or equitye’ (LPL, Carew MS 628, fol. 311v).

At the height of the cess controversy in April 1578 White was charged by the attorney-general, Thomas Snagge, with misfeasance in office, and suspended as master of the rolls for failing to certify the writs, patents, and licences from the court of chancery to the exchequer. He forfeited the fees of his office, and the locks to his desk were broken open so the rolls could be inventoried in May 1578. The danger passed when Lord Deputy Sidney was himself recalled, Gerard was forced to explain his manoeuvring in relation to the pale gentry, and White was allowed to plead his case in England before Burghley himself in September, after which he was restored to office.

Desmond rebellion

The crisis of the cess was unresolved when the perilous rebellion in Munster commenced in 1579 and White worked closely with the successive lords justices Sir William Drury and Sir William Pelham as a veteran official with long experience in the province. None the less, he was now under suspicion as one who consistently favoured the interests of the Old English, and Sir Henry Wallop, the new vice-treasurer in Ireland, blamed him for supporting the cause of the disgraced chief justice Nicholas Nugent, who was precipitately tried and hanged for treason in 1582. Wallop protested against a concordatum sent to Ireland awarding White 1000 marks for his work in chancery after his 1580 trip to England, and he blamed White for failing to apprehend the rebels in Wicklow during the rebellion.

In February 1581 White demonstrated his independence in council, refusing to sign a letter to the queen regarding Malby’s actions in the Munster rebellion since he was away in England during the deliberations of the meeting. Again, on 28 August 1582 White was accused of withholding his signature to conciliar deliberations on the actions of the deputy during the pale rebellion. However, he continued to demonstrate his valuable insights to Burghley in regular correspondence throughout the period, including letters of December 1581 on the miseries of war, the need for temperate government, and his fear that the wild Irish were glad to see the weakness of English blood in Ireland. In a missive of 13 September 1582 White complained of the unfriendly dealings of Lucas Dillon, his erstwhile companion and fellow Irish-born councillor, stating they had been for a long time of ‘contrary minds’ (PRO, SP 63/95/95). In spite of his sympathies for the native Irish he was apparently the author of an extraordinary trial by combat in September 1583 in which Teig MacGilpatrick O’Connor and Conor MacCormac O’Connor lost their lives. His usefulness as an Irish speaker and a nominal protestant made White an essential privy councillor for two decades.

Later career

On the arrival of the ambitious new lord deputy, Sir John Perrot, White was granted a knighthood in Christ Church, Dublin, on 21 June 1584. White worked with Perrot to establish the effectiveness of common law rule, though forty-eight of the 181 prisoners in the Leinster circuit were executed in autumn of 1584 in an example of rough justice. In December he went into Connaught to investigate charges of corruption against the former lord president, Sir Nicholas Malby, and on 15 July 1585 he was named a commissioner for the cess in that province. White and Dillon attended the lord deputy in September 1586 to Connaught, a sojourn which the combative new lord president, Sir Richard Bingham, much resented. On 29 November 1586 White wrote to Burghley describing the continual bickering in council between the chief governor and the lord chancellor, Loftus, adding that the newly revived court of castle chamber was busy with accusations against the tyrannical government of Bingham and his lieutenants in Connaught. Chief Justice Robert Gardener complained to Burghley in December that Perrot governed with the aid of a minority of Irish councillors such as White, trampling the rights of council and ignoring the need for consensus, hearing many private causes without recourse to law. In May 1587 the temperamental chief governor quarrelled with the aged marshal Sir Nicholas Bagnal at the council board and struck him. White, who reported the incident thoroughly to Burghley, had recommended a full council hearing for Bagnal’s agent from which the beleaguered chief governor would be excluded. By the end of Perrot’s regime White was viewed as a minion of the lord deputy who was primarily responsible for a policy of favouritism toward Irish-born servitors. The return of his former adversary Sir William Fitzwilliam as lord deputy in 1588 allowed White’s enemies on the council to triumph over him.

Arrest and death

In 1589 White was included on a commission for pacification of the Burkes, who had rebelled against the arbitrary conduct of the lord president, Bingham. The latter suspected the intentions of the commission, but White reported to Burghley that Bingham was not wholly to blame. Within a few months the career of Sir John Perrot was placed in jeopardy by the allegations of treason levied against him in England by an Irish priest, Denis O’Roughan. White was implicated in these charges and Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam moved swiftly to place him under arrest in June 1590, sending him to England two months later despite his illness. He was examined on the charges and committed to the Marshalsea prison prior to his testimony before the court of Star Chamber, at a time when his health was in grave danger. Placed in the Tower of London in March 1591, White appealed to the privy council for a servant to attend him, owing to his age and infirmity. White’s inquisition before the high court in 1592 affirmed that Perrot had complained of the queen’s reluctance to support his government. His earlier support of the deputy compromised his position and he died in the Tower in the same year as his patron.

Both Nicholas White and Lucas Dillon died in 1592, and both Irish-born councillors were replaced by English officials, Sir Anthony St Leger becoming master of the rolls. White’s views on government were systematically and forcefully pressed on the queen’s advisers and may be summed up in his letter of 1574 to Burghley: ‘I wish the country were more governed by law than by discretion’ (Brady, 280). In a controversy with John Long, archbishop of Armagh, White counselled tolerance in the matter of oaths and religion during the July 1586 session of parliament, noting the preference of the lord deputy for moderation toward the gentlemen of the pale.

White and his second wife had two sons. Thomas, the elder, was educated at Cambridge University and died in November 1586, while the younger son, Andrew, succeeded to White’s estates after completing his education at Cambridge. White also had two daughters, one of whom married Robert Browne of Mulcranan, co. Wexford, leading to White’s strong efforts in 1572 to prosecute the rebels who had assassinated his son-in-law. Despite his role as councillor, the Irish privy council in 1573 refused to allow White’s writ of appeal for the pardon of Fiagh McHugh O’Byrne and others accused of murdering Browne, declaring ‘the graunting of that writ wold renue a blooddie rebellion which withe great travell we have appaysed’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Carte 56, fol. 65v). His ongoing attentions to the Dunbrody property led to the intervention of the privy council in England in October 1587 when White was accused of dispossessing William Browne of the profits of the barony. White’s other daughter married into the Old English family of Christopher D’Arcy (or Darcy) of Platten, near Duleek, Meath.

White was closely associated with the career of Sir Nicholas Walsh of Waterford, who followed White to Lincoln’s Inn and succeeded him as recorder of Waterford, later becoming chief justice of common pleas (1597). White also kept as wards the sons of leading Munster gentry such as the dispossessed Charles McCarty who sued before the English privy council in April 1590 to regain his property. On 12 February 1593 the privy council authorized White’s son to bring his body back to Ireland for burial. After his death the privy council in England remanded a complaint by John Itchingham against the heirs of White (James and Andrew) regarding title to White’s property of Dunbrody to common law proceedings in Ireland.

Jon G. Crawford


CSP Ire., 1574–85, 285, 304; 1586–8, 101, 206–7, 353; 1588–92, 263, 343; 1592–6, 107 · APC, 1578–80, 119; 1591, 13, 39, 46; 1592–3, 125; 1598–9, 226 · J. L. J. Hughes, ed., Patentee officers in Ireland, 1173–1826, including high sheriffs, 1661–1684 and 1761–1816, IMC (1960) · Bodl. Oxf., MS Carte 56, fol. 65v · PRO, SP 63/95/95; SP 63/80/147 · LPL, Carew MS 628, fol. 311v · D. B. Quinn, ed., ‘Calendar of the Irish council book for 1581–86’, Analecta Hibernica, 24 (1967), 93–180 · C. Brady, The chief governors: the rise and fall of reform government in Tudor Ireland, 1536–1588 (1994) · J. G. Crawford, Anglicizing the government of Ireland: the Irish privy council and the expansion of Tudor rule, 1556–1578 (1993) · A. Vicars, ed., Index to the prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536–1810 (1897), 487 · C. Kenny, King’s Inns and the kingdom of Ireland (1992) · F. E. Ball, The judges in Ireland, 1221–1921, 2 (1926)

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1 Response to Sir Nicholas Whyte, DNB

  1. saare_snowqueen says:

    Interesting and well reasoned comment on Estonia’s entry into the Euro zone. Thank you for that. The process seems to be proceeding with the usual Estonian sangfroid and good grace, helped in no small measure by the constant outrageous weather – snow flailing winds and more snow with tall man sized drifts in places. Compared to all of that the transfer into euro’s is last week’s news.

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