09 December 2020

The chapel ruins at Askeaton Castle
and a link with a Cambridge college

The ruins of Askeaton Castle, Co Limerick … the castle dominates the skyline in every part of the town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The ruins of Askeaton Castle, also known as Desmond Castle, dominate the skyline of Askeaton, and its pinnacles can be seen from most parts of the town. The castle, which is undergoing extensive restoration works, stands on a rocky islet surrounded by two branches of the River Deel.

The castle was built in 1199 on top of a rocky outcrop that secured its defence. At first, the castle was the manor of Hamo de Valoines, who was the Justiciar of Ireland, a forerunner of the Lord Lieutenant or Viceroy, in 1196-1199.

The castle was granted by King John to William de Burgo in 1203. The original castle was rebuilt in the 13th century and parts of this foundation still remain.

Hugh de Neville had custody of the castle later in the 13th century, and by 1287 the castle had been granted to Thomas de Clare, a younger brother of Edward I’s son-in-law, Gilbert de Clare, 6th Earl of Hereford.

Thomas de Clare had married Juliana FitzGerald, daughter of Maurice FitzGerald, 3rd Baron Offaly and ancestor of the Earls of Kildare. Thomas de Clare died in 1287, and King Edward II granted the castle to de Clare’s son-in-law Robert de Welle in 1307. However, this may have been merely a matter of custody, and Askeaton Castle was in the possession of Thomas de Clare’s son, Richard de Clare, in 1315.

Richard was also held Bunratty Castle in Co Clare. Against all the odds, he was defeated at the Battle of Dysert in 1318 and was killed by Conor O’Dea.

When her husband was killed, Lady de Clare set fire to Bunratty Castle and fled to England with her household. However, she retained possession of Askeaton Castle, and it was granted to de Clare’s son and sister, Matilda de Welle, in 1322, when it was valued at £14 1s 1½d.

The banqueting hall at Askeaton … one of finest examples in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Within a generation, the Earls of Desmond had made the castle their main seat of power by 1348, possibly even earlier. The castle was rebuilt and fortified by successive earls, including Gerald FitzGerald (1335-1398), 3rd Earl of Desmond, and James FitzGerald FitzGerald (1380-1462), 7th Earl of Desmond, in 1420-1440.

Most of the castle date from rebuilding in the 15th century. These buildings include the banqueting hall, built in 1440 by the seventh earl. It is one of Ireland’s finest examples of a banqueting hall and has a fine groin-vaulted chamber on the ground floor that is part of an earlier hall built on the same site.

With its Gothic windows, its high gables and its elevated place, it could easily be mistaken for a mediaeval church on the site.

Although it is now in ruins, the banqueting hall is one of the finest mediaeval secular buildings in Ireland, with elegant windows and architectural features.

The ruins of the small chapel or church beside the banqueting hall at Askeaton Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A small, mediaeval church or chapel is attached to the rear of the hall. Unlike the banqueting hall, this is a largely featureless building with only one window remaining.

I wonder, at times, whether this church merely served as a domestic chapel for the castle household. Or did it serve as a parish church for the ville or mediaeval township within the castle compound?

I wonder too who the clergy were who served this small chapel. Were they domestic chaplains in the retinue or private household of the Earls of Demond? Were they Franciscan friars from the friary in Askeaton founded in 1389 by Gerald FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond? Were they priests in the convent of the Knights Templar, who arrived in Askeaton in 1298, or the parish priests at Saint Mary’s Church?

There is even a remote possibility that the chapel within the castle compound was served by the priests of Toomdeely, a parish that served the west bank of the River Deel until it was united with Askeaton parish on the east bank of the river.

None of these questions are relevant after the castle was attacked in 1579 during the Desmond rebellion. Indeed, the chapel may long have ceased to serve a church within the castle compound long before the Reformations in the mid-16th century.

Lady Elizabeth de Clare depicted in a window in the Chapel of Clare College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But I am interested in another link between Askeaton Castle and the de Clare family. Richard de Clare, who was killed at the Battle of Dysert in 1318, was a first cousin of Lady Elizabeth de Clare, who gives here name to Clare College, Cambridge, where I stayed in 2016.

Clare College is the second oldest of the 31 colleges in Cambridge, the oldest being Peterhouse. It was first founded as University Hall by Richard de Badew in 1326. But it was soon in financial difficulties and was generously re-endowed a few years later by Lady Elizabeth de Clare (Lady de Burgh), a granddaughter of King Edward I.

She was the heiress to large estates and tracts of land in Ireland, including Co Limerick and Co Clare, through her descent from Strongbow and her marriage into the de Burgo family, Earls of Ulster and ancestors of the great Burke families.

The black border with tear drops on the coat-of-arms of Clare College is a sign of her mourning: Lady Elizabeth had three husbands who all died before she was 28.

King Edward III granted a licence ‘to his cousin Elizabeth de Burgo’ to establish a collegium that was refounded in 1338. It was known as Clare Hall as early as 1339, but the present simplified title, Clare College, dates only from 1856.

The original endowment provided for the maintenance of 15 ‘scholars’ or fellows, of whom no more than six were to be in priestly orders, and for 10 ‘poor scholars.’

In 1359, a year before her death, Lady Elizabeth de Clare provided a set of statutes for the new college, and these have guided the college for almost seven centuries.

The college fought legal battles to remain independent of the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, and this independence was eventually settled in 1430. In 1439, a generous bequest by William Bingham provided for a chaplain and 24 scholars living in what was called ‘God’s House,’ beneath the present Old Schools.

Religious debate was fierce in early 16th century Cambridge was fierce and Hugh Latimer (1485-1555), one of the principal leaders of the English Reformation, was elected a Fellow of Clare in 1510 while he was still an undergraduate.

Clare Hall continued to grow in the 16th century. The present college buildings that surround the ‘Old Court’ were built over 77 years, from 1638 to 1715. These beautiful buildings look across the lawns of King’s College.

The bridge linking the Fellows’ Garden and Old Court is the oldest bridge now crossing the River Cam in Cambridge, and was the first in the classical style. Thomas Grumbold was paid three shillings for his designs in 1638. The bridge had 14 stone balls, seven on each side. It is said one has a segment missing as Grombold’s supposed revenge for poor payment, his way of ensuring the bridge was never actually completed.

During the 19th century, the name of the college changed from ‘Clare Hall’ to ‘Clare College,’ and the college choir was established in 1866. Memorial Court, where I stayed four years ago, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1920s and was dedicated in 1926. Recent students who graduated from Clare include the composer John Rutter, who read music at Clare.

Clare was one of three Cambridge colleges to admit undergraduate women in 1972. Perhaps it was appropriate that this decision was taken by a college that had been founded by a woman.

The missing segment on one of the had 14 stone balls on the bridge at Clare College is said to be Thomas Grombold’s revenge for poor payment (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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