James Archer

James Archer an Elizabethan Jesuit

Brian Daly

The Archer name appears in several place names in Kilkenny city – Archers Avenue, Archers field, etc. so who was this Archer? The family name comes from the original Archer’s responsibility for the King’s bows and arrows when the king went hunting. It turns out that the Archer family came to Ireland with Strongbow over a 1000 years ago and were prominent in Kilkenny city life for centuries as mayors, sheriffs and coroners One of their most interesting members was the Jesuit James Archer who was born in 1550 but we have little information of his parents or family. His lifetime spans a most interesting period in Irish history (remember the Chinese curse – “that you may live in interesting times”). He would have been a contemporary of John Rothe who built Rothe House in Parliament St in the 1590s.
Around 1564 as a teenager he was sent to Louvain in Belgium to study for the priesthood and lived there approximately 12 years returning with a Master of Arts degree. He was described by his superiors as physically strong but not distinguished in ability and morose in temperament – probably most suitable for hearing confession.
In 1587 he was sent to Belgium to act as chaplain to the Spanish troops and spent 5 years there. At that time Belgium was a hotbed of intrigue – the Spanish were planning an invasion of England; exiled English Catholics were hoping that the next monarch would be a catholic and plotters were making plans to assassinate Queen Elisabeth. James Archer is mentioned in English state papers as one of the conspirators. However the evidence seems to be based on confessions extracted by torture and improbable to say the least.
In 1592 he was summoned to Spain to set up an Irish college in Salamanca to train young Irish men as priests to work in Ireland. He had many difficulties particularly in raising finance but succeeded in getting the support of the Royal family and he established an institution with the highest standards of education comparable with the University of Salamanca, one of the most important in Europe.
A report from Spain to Rome described Archer as having a progressive development in his judgement and character, of moderate ability, prudent, phlegmatic and melancholic in temperament but not excessively so. He had the talent to be a good confessor and to be the superior in his own country! At Rome it was decided to make him the first superior of the new Jesuit mission to Ireland. He was 46 years of age.
At the same time back in Ireland war clouds were gathering and in 1596 James Archer was sent back to Ireland to seek funds for the college in Salamanca and to look at the possibility of re opening the Jesuit mission in Ireland.
He had planned to work in the cities and towns and in the first year he worked in the Kilkenny- Wexford area. However the government authorities soon became aware of his presence in Ireland and their expectation was that a Spanish invasion was imminent. Because of his record as a chaplain to the Spanish forces in the Netherlands he was a marked man and moved through the country with difficulty. He described himself as being “in dire straits”, the government pursues me with deep hatred and I am forced to keep to the woods and hiding places. He has no chance of returning to Spain because the merchants know that their ships are watched by government agents.”
In August 1598 Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone and his allies won a great victory at the battle of the Yellow Ford when an English force bringing supplies to a new fort outside Armagh were soundly defeated with many casualties.
James Archer made contact with O’Neill as part of his mission to spread the faith and put his great energy to working with the Confederacy in the rebellion against English (Protestant) rule.
However the next great turn in the tale was the disastrous invasion of Ireland at Kinsale by a Spanish army led by Don Juan del Aquila in 1601 and the end of Irish hopes It seems that del Aquila must have been the worst Commander in Chief of any army ever. He disagreed with his captains, would take advice from nobody and repeatedly changed his plan of battle. The result was an ignominious defeat, the end of Irish rebellion and the Earls O’Neill and O’Donnell took flight to Europe. James Archer reported that del Aquila “has shown himself the most cowardly and timorous man I have ever seen in my life” and did exactly the opposite of what he was advised to do. Having given an order, the next moment he commanded the very opposite”.
For James Archer, life finished up in Spain as spiritual father to the students at the Irish College, Santiago Compostella where he died at the age of 70 years.