Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sir Thomas Smith’s forgotten English Colony of the Ards and north Down in 1572

(NB: If you're reading this on Facebook, you can read this post in full on my blog). This booklet (pic left - click to enlarge) is my latest historical project, and will be launched on Friday 14th May at Ards Arts Centre (the old Town Hall). It's taken the best part of a year to complete, and conscious of my own limitations I'm happy with the end result. Published through Loughries Historical Society (and without the help of Mr Balmoral the booklet would never have happened!), with the printing funded by Ards Borough Council, North Down Museum and the Ulster-Scots Community Network, it lifts the lid on what was going on in the Ards and north Down before the Lowland Scots arrived with Hamilton and Montgomery to settle exactly the same region in May 1606. The booklet has 40 pages in total, and is lavishly illustrated throughout with some very rare maps and portraits which took ages to track down. Here's the introduction:


IN MAY 1572 around 800 young men gathered at the small town of Liverpool in the north west of England, bound for a new life in the Ards Peninsula and north Down.

Their venture had been planned with meticulous detail. The English authorities had been considering a scheme like this since at least the year 1515, so there was no shortage of either colonial theory or political will. It was 5 October 1571 when Queen Elizabeth I granted her Secretary of State, Sir Thomas Smith, 360,000 acres of land in this most easterly part of Ulster, “the nearest part of all Ireland to Lancashire.”

Smith and his 24 year old son, who was also called Thomas, had until March 1579 to successfully colonise the lands or else lose their grant. So, almost immediately, they began advertising their newly acquired estate to potential tenants across England, through the unique and imaginative step of publishing a range of promotional literature – a single page broadsheet, followed by a map of east Ulster accompanied by a 63 page promotional booklet. However, even though the land had been claimed by the English Crown since the late 1100s, it was disputed territory, having also been claimed by the Clandeboye O’Neills from around 1345.

The Smiths' objective was to establish a new English colony centred around a new fortress town called Elizabetha that was to be located at the upper end of the Peninsula where “it is joyned unto the rest of the Island”, and which would be defended by three major forts that the colonists would build. However, Sir Thomas was sent to France on Royal business, leaving the project in the hands of his son. But, due to delays, by the time the colonists set sail on 30 August 1572 the number of emigrants had plummeted to around just 100.

They arrived the next day and set up base camp at the small townland of Newcastle, between Cloughey and Kearney. However, a few months earlier Sir Brian O’Neill, the chief of the Clandeboye O’Neills, had acquired copies of the Smiths’ booklet. The discovery of their plan turned Sir Brian, who was described by the English authorities in 1571 as “a loyal and true subject” , into a man who “suddenly assumed a hostile attitude.” Knowing that Smith’s English colonists would make use of the vacant abbeys and any major stone buildings, O’Neill set fire to them all and left the English outpost town of Carrickfergus in ashes.

The Smith scheme struggled on, but it was doomed from the start, being dogged by both local Irish opposition and internal strife among the colonists themselves. On 20 October 1573, just over a year after arriving in Ulster, Thomas Smith jnr was killed by two Irishmen he had employed. The high profile murder sent shockwaves through the English authorities in London. The original Smith colony was then scattered, with most of the colonists returning home to England. After a few failed attempts to start afresh, by late 1575 the scheme was abandoned; Sir Thomas’ health deteriorated and he died in August 1577.

Sir Thomas Smith’s nephew and heir, Sir William Smith, had built a new church at Theydon Mount in Essex, and Sir Thomas was buried there. Sir William tried to revive the Ards project in June 1579, but it was too late. The deadline of the original grant had passed and the great adventure was over.

Nevertheless, Sir William Smith (and, later, his second son who was also called Thomas Smith) clung vainly to the hope that they might one day reclaim the family’s grant. However, after the Queen died in 1603, Sir William Smith was sent by the new Scottish King James I to Spain. Smith left his Ulster affairs in the hands of one of the King’s men - James Hamilton - giving Hamilton inside knowledge of lands in east Ulster which, once he had acquired them for himself, would make him famous. The failure of the Smiths’ English colony, and the destruction which it brought about, cleared the way for the success of the Hamilton & Montgomery lowland Scottish settlement of the same lands that would begin 34 years later in May 1606.

“Hamilton & Montgomery succeeded where Sir Thomas Smith failed. They created the bridgehead through which the Scots were to come to Ulster for the rest of the century.”
from The Narrow Ground by ATQ Stewart.


Copies will soon be available from Loughries Historical Society. Get in touch if you want to come to the launch evening.

The O'Neill burnings are referred to on the present-day interpretive signage at Newtownards Priory, Holywood Priory and at the new visitor centre at Grey Abbey (pic below - click to enlarge)


kerusso said...

Looks very good and sounds very interesting. Hope it goes well - will any bookshops be selling it?

Terry Coey said...

Very well researched and written.
A must for all historians.
The book launch in Ards was excellent.

Terry Coey (Bangor )