What kind of pirate would sail to London to parley with her arch nemesis, the Queen of England? Her name was Grace O’Malley, she was Irish and a queen in her own right
In the 16th Century, whilst Ireland’s eastern coastline was controlled by the English, its hinterland to the west was frontier country.
On the wild Atlantic coast, where great rollers pounded the raw, verdant coastline, the Uí Mháille noble family held sway over the pasturelands there and surrounding seas. Into this family Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley in English) was born.
A woman whose name is shrouded in legend, Grace O’Malley grew up to become the matriarch of her clan and followed in her family’s footsteps. The O’Malleys drew power by ‘taxing’ passing ships — a euphemism for piracy — and fighting rival clans, and Grace led from the front.
Yet this was a time when the English were a growing force to be reckoned with; the great English Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne and she was tightening her grip on the ‘Emerald Isle’.
Elizabeth I’s man in Ireland Sir Richard Bingham was more than a match for O’Malley. As Governor of Connaught Sir Richard squeezed O’Malley’s domain so much that by 1593 he had captured her two sons, Tibbot Burke and Murrough O’Flaherty, and half-brother Dónal na Píopa.
O’Malley was reduced to desperate straits. What could she do?
She certainly wasn’t going to just give up. O’Malley was going to attempt something so audacious it might just win the Queen of England’s respect and therefore clemency.
This was risky to say the least; they were political enemies and cages hung from the Tower of London with rotting corpses in them, testament to the usual fate of pirates. Yet the Queen agreed to meet O’Malley in London so she could plead her case.
The two women were the most powerful in the British Isles. Despite being opposed in many ways they had much in common.
They were both courageous and charismatic leaders; Queen Elizabeth had earned huge respect for leading her nation to defeat the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588 and O’Malley has been described as a fearless leader and able negotiator, not to mention other less salubrious credentials.
O’Malley’s black sailed ship entered the Thames estuary and sailed upstream to Greenwich Palace where it docked.
The lady was then searched and the queen’s guards found something on her… it was a dagger!
The Queen’s henchmen were furious; it was bad enough their queen was meeting with a brigand, yet O’Malley explained it was for her own protection and the queen accepted this.
O’Malley was brought into the queen’s presence surrounded by Her Majesty’s guards and courtiers, wearing a dress rumoured so fine it drew not a few admiring glances.
They greeted each other as queens, if not equals. O’Malley declined to curtsey, and when the Irish Lady sneezed and was given an embroidered handkerchief she infuriated the courtiers even more by using it then throwing it on the crackling fire.
Yet, Elizabeth was intrigued by the woman. The two conversed in Latin and Elizabeth I warmed to Grace as she regaled the English queen with tales of her daring exploits and grievances towards Sir Bingham. The only thing now was would Elizabeth let a perennial nemesis of hers just sail off after coming into her clutches?
She did. O’Malley’s gamble paid off. As the serious troublemaker to the English which she had been, she entered the lion’s den and left with not only her life and liberty intact but her son Tibbot released.
Sir Bingham would continue to make her life difficult though. The two feminist icons of their age would both pass away in 1603.
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