The Ten Civic Families of Kilkenny
By the time of the arrival of the Anglo Normans in 1169, Kilkenny was already the largest inland settlement in South Eastern Ireland. This settlement was focused on Irishtown and St. Canice’s Cathedral. Its Lord was the local bishop and remained so until 1843. In the course of the 13th Century the Anglo Normans built a new and larger town adjacent to Irishtown. This new settlement was built on what we know today as High Street linking the Castle to Irishtown gate and became known as Englishtown or High town. Piers Butler in 1538 was recognised as the 8th Earl of Ormond, and Lord of the town of Kilkenny. Entitled to all of its chief rent, which amounted to £18 Irish. It was denounced by the Corporation, this outspoken condemnation of their Lord indicates a certain amount of independence by the Corporation. This could be linked to the development from the late 15th Century of an oligarchy of about fifteen families, in whose hands wealth and political influence were concentrated. The names of the ten namely: Archdekin, Archer, Cowley, Langton, Lee, Knaresborough, Lawless, Ragget, Rothe and Shee. There were other influential families such as Hacketts, Savages, Sherlocks and Walshes, and together with the ten controlled every civil and almost every ecclesiastical position within the town. Some families were prominent in public life, for example a member of the Rothe family was Sovereign on eighteen occasions between 1440 and 1544. The Archers held the position sixteen times between 1434 and 1544, while the Shees were Sovereigns on seven occasions between 1493 and 1544. “The Aldermen for a period of one hundred and fifty years came from a handful of families, ten at most, whose alliances, intermarriages and God parent ties before long made them a single family.” When the dissolution of the monasteries brought new land on to the market, these families were in a position to take advantage of the opportunities it afforded. In 1539, the Sovereign and burgesses wrote to Thomas Cromwell asking that they be granted the Black Abbey, St Francis Abbey and the hospital of St. Mary Magdalen and in 1543, their wish was acceded to. With the exception of Rothe House, little remains of their mansions but facades. Their extensive funerary monuments can be seen mainly in St. Mary’s Church yard today.
Please click on the pictures to open animated files which make it easier to read the carvings.
Archdekin (Archdeacon): A heraldic manuscript dated 1270 records Ede le Ersedekne who has been identified as Eudo le Archdeckin of Cornwall who died in 1304. His Christian name Eudo rendered Odo in Latin gave rise to the Irish surname MacOda, which was anglicized Cody. A carved stone displaying the family arms can be viewed in the courtyard of Rothe House. This stone carrying the date 1636 was taken from their house on the corner of Irishtown and Dean Street. A monument in St. Mary’s Museum was erected by a James Archdekin while he was alive, spaces for his and wife’s dates of death were never filled in. It is possible this was the same James who as Mayor corresponded with Cromwell. His transplantation to Connacht would explain the reason the dates being left blank. A petition signed in 1661 signed by sixteen members of Kilkenny’s oldest families, among them an Archdekin, to be allowed return was sent to Ormond. John Archdekin was appointed an Alderman in 1687 by James II. The family were known as maltsters and wine merchants. They were the owners of the Maltings off James’ St.
Archer: Martin Archer served as Sovereign in 1603, the last of numerous members of his family who held the office from the time of David Archer in 1366. In 1582, Martin erected a slab on the front wall of his house in High Street opposite St. Mary’s Lane. It is likely he erected the altar tomb in St. Patrick’s Graveyard bearing the initials MA 1580. An example of the Archer’s coat of arms is to be seen in the wall screen of St. Mary’s. Peter Archer served for 36 years on the corporation and was town clerk from 1525. Richard Archer petitioned the Government in 1657 to be allowed remain in Kilkenny and was told he would not be accepted. An aged Thomas Archer was given a stay of only two months before going to Connaught. The family owned numerous mills on the River Nore, also property known as Archer’s Lease, Archer’s Rath, Archer’s Grove.
Cowley: Several members of the family were lawyers; Robert Cowley and Walter, his son, were appointed Clerks of the Crown in Chancery in 1535. Robert was legal adviser to Piers Rua Butler, Earl of Ormond. Robert in 1528 was in communication with Cardinal Wolsey after whose downfall he corresponded with Thomas Cromwell. Twelve years later, he was appointed Master of the Rolls and commissioner for the sale of confiscated land and property, an appointment he eagerly adapted to. In a dispute with the Lord Deputy, he was committed to prison for ten months. Walter in 1537 was appointed Principal Solicitor for Ireland. He fell out of favour during Henry VIII reign. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, his fortunes recovered under Edward VI. He held high office until his death in 1551. His son Henry served as M.P. for Thomastown, but settled in Meath. His alleged descendant Richard Colley or Cowley took the name and arms of Wellesley in 1728, on succeeding to the estates of that family. He was created Baron of Mornington and was grandfather of the Duke of Wellesley. The Duke may have been a member of the Cowley Family. The monument to Martin Cowley, Mayor in 1626, can be seen in St John’s Priory. This Cowley was named in the Great Charter as one of the first Aldermen. Known as Mr. Cowlie the lawyer, who represented the Corporation in 1611. Andrew Cowley was Sheriff in 1642 and a member of the Confederate Assembly in 1647. Another Cowley, James, was recorder of Kilkenny and was one of four commissioners appointed for drawing up articles of agreement before the surrender to Cromwell in 1650.
Daniel: As early as 1395, John Daniel was Sovereign of Kilkenny. In 1471, the office was held by Patrick Daniel. A century later, another John acted as trusted agent for Black Tom Earl of Ormond, in his dealings with Lord Burghley the powerful minister of Queen Elizabeth. Walter Daniel was Coroner in 1610 and Sheriff in 1613. A carved stone which was formerly in Sheestown is now set in the basement of Rothe House. The motto reads My Hope is in God, dated 1601. William’s daughter Lettice was the first wife of Nicholas Langton and they had their house on High Street.
Knaresborough: The family took its name from the town of Knaresborough in Yorkshire, and were in Kilkenny in the 14th century. Oliver was Sovereign in 1371, 1379 and 1380. In 1391, Thomas Knaresborough was accused of drawing his knife against the Sovereign, but was taken into grace by the jurors when they failed to decide. His name is recorded as Sovereign in the following year. He may well be the same Thomas featured among “the better twelve burgesses“ on the Corporation in 1403/04. Nicholas Knaresborough FitzWilliam erected a funerary monument for himself and his wife Rose Archer in St. Mary’s Church in 1639. A Knaresborough was among the sixteen families who petitioned Ormond in 1661 be allowed return to Kilkenny. William was declared a Freeman of Kilkenny in 1785.
Langton: The Langtons originated in Leicestershire when John de Langton married Alice Banastre of Lancashire thus acquiring the property. Robert, their son, was the founder of the Langtons of Low in Lancashire from whom the Kilkenny Langtons claim descent. According to a pedigree of 1765, John Langton FitzRichard in 1486 came to Ireland to escape retribution for having supported the pretenders Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel. Ricardus Langtown is mentioned in the rent roll of 1449 as holding Kyteler’s Hall in 1460 at a rent of 3 shillings. The outstanding member of the family was Nicholas Langton FitzRichard, a grandson of the John. Nicholas was Sovereign in 1606 and following the granting of a town charter in 1608 was sent to London to renegotiate the terms resulting in the City Charter of 1609, whereby the town and free borough became instead a City with a Mayor and Aldermen. Nicholas himself became one of the first Aldermen and Mayor in 1613. It was he who built the “Great Stone House” adjoining the Butter Slip to accommodate his growing family. His first wife Lettice Daniel died in 1604 having borne him eight sons and three daughters. By his second wife Nicholasa, daughter of Patrick Archer, he had a further fourteen children. When he died in 1632 at his country house in Grenan, his body was brought by boat from Thomastown and buried “in his own tomb in the great quire of St John’s Abbey”. The monument is no longer to be seen. A stone slab carved with the Langton and Daniel coat of arms (1609) was formerly displayed on the front of his great stone house, in 1864 it was displayed on the rear of the house, but has since disappeared.
Lawless: Walter Lawless was Portreeve of Irishtown in 1605, he died in 1627 and was buried in St. Canice’s Cathedral. His wife was Margaret Rothe, daughter of Robert Rothe. William was mayor of Kilkenny in 1622. In his will, luxury is evident for he left his wife bedsteads, curtains, stools, hangings, harps, carpets, a dozen silver spoons, a silver bowl, etc etc, land in Tullaroan and church land within the City. William Lawless was appointed an Alderman in 1687.
Lee/Ley: Of the families discussed the Ley are the earliest to feature on the list of Sovereigns of Kilkenny. If not of Richard de Lega in 1289 than with Thomas Ley in 1321. Nicholas Ley held the office in 1384 and 1385. Another Thomas whose father was an Alderman of Waterford, was the last Sovereign elected in 1608. And was named as the first Mayor in the Charter of 1609. On his death in 1629, his sixteen year old grandson Thomas Ley FitzNicholas inherited the property. We do not have any surviving carvings in Kilkenny to remind us of this family. But on the Rock of Cashel there is a tablet dated 1607 which it is said could be their arms. The initials JA and RA standing for John/James Ley and Rose Archer. On the carving is a stag indicating the ancestral heritage of the Archer lady.
Raggett: Ballyraggett which was held by Richard le Ragged in the early thirteenth century preserves the name of this family. There is seal dated 1421, set into the floor of St. Mary’s bearing the Raggett Arms and the motto “Wisdom conquers malice”. It is inscribed Richard Raggett, citizen of Kilkenny, who twice performed the duties of the higher Magistracy is here dead. He died on the second day of March 1614. His wife Catherine Garvey died on 10th October 1593. He is named on the Great Charter as one of the original Aldermen. His second wife was Honnor Rothe. Clement Raggett his son by his first marriage served as Mayor in 1616. He was re-elected in 1617 and 1619.
Rothe: Robert Rothe M.P. for Kilkenny in 1585 and Mayor in 1609. His descendants, the Rothes of Tullaghmaine were the senior branch of the family. Jenkin Rothe, Sovereign in 1473, is thought to be the great grandfather of John Rothe Fitz Piers. He married Rose Archer and built Rothe House in 1594. By far the most impressive monument surviving in Kilkenny today, is that of Richard Rothe Fitz Edward, Mayor in 1627, and died in 1637. It occupies most of the western wall in St. Mary’s. His father Edward Rothe Fitz John was one of the original Aldermen named in the great Charter of 1609. He married Ellice Grace, daughter of James Grace, who in 1566 gave his castle on the site of the present day courthouse for use as a jail. A carving dated 1629 of the arms of Richard Rothe was presented to the museum of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society by Edmund Smithwick in 1863. Rev James Graves had found it in St. Francis Abbey. It is now in the National Museum. The coat of arms of John Rothe Fitzpiers are displayed on the front of Rothe House (A) – perhaps the finest and best preserved carving of the period in Kilkenny. It shows a shield of the Rothe, Waring, Chamberlain, and Archer families. The Tudor Rose is also displayed indicating loyalty to the Crown. Underneath is an inscription “The emblems of John Rothe, merchant, son of Peter son of John”. One of the original Aldermen named in the Great Charter of 1609 and Mayor in 1613. John served with his cousin Elias Shee as members of Parliament in 1585. In 1642 the most eminent member of the Rothe family, David, Bishop of Ossory erected a monument in the Lady Chapel of St. Canice’s Cathedral where he intended to be buried. Following the reversal of fortune suffered by the Catholics on the arrival of Cromwell, the Bishop was buried with his ancestors in St. Mary’s. Yet another carving of the Rothes impaled with those of Walton dated 1643 of Mount Juliet. A tomb slab in St. Mary’s Church in New Ross dated 1637 commemorates John Neville and Mary Rothe.
Shee: Alone among the ten civic families the Shees were of Gaelic origin. They were not the only prominent native Irish family in 17th Century Kilkenny. There were Murphy, Kelly, Phelan, and Donphy as their armorial carvings will attest. Four Shee brothers, Odoneus, William, John and Edmund, received letters of denization from Roger Mortimer in 1381. This gave them the right to be received among the Old English and participate in civic office. Odoneus was the ancestor of the Shees of Kilkenny. Robert Shee, grandfather of Sir Richard Shee, forever associated with the Alms House in Rose Inn Street, was Sovereign of Kilkenny three times in the 1490’s was killed in battle in 1500.
A finely carved stone over the front of the alms house (D) shows Sir Richard’s coat of arms and the inscription “The arms of Richard Shee of Kilkenny Esquire who caused this hospital to be made, 1582.” At the back of the alms house in St. Mary’s Lane (E) is another carving bearing Sir Richard’s arms and those of his wife Margaret Sherlock, and dated 1582. A further building in St. Kieran’s Street bears the arms of Sir Richard (A), there is another stone carving in the Alms House. Sir Richard’s great house, situated on Coal Market Street was the meeting place of the Confederate Assembly (1642-1649); this historic house was lost forever when demolished in the 1860’s to make way for the Market place. The Shee tomb in St. Mary’s church is unique, for not only does it bear the Apostle weepers but also displays Shee marriages and the arms of their wives. The Shee wives came from the Butler, Sherlock, and Fagan families. Further Shee carvings are in St Mary’s: Elias Shee, born in Kilkenny, sometime scholar of Oxford. A carving of his mother Margaret Rothe who was an aunt of John Fitz Piers, builder of Rothe House. A tablet set in the screen wall of St Mary’s commemorates Patrick, son of Gaspar and his wife Mary Pembrooke dated 1646. Over a chimney piece in 68 High Street formerly a Shee house, set in a stone frame are the Shee arms with the motto “God Gives.”
Another Shee house was at No 98 and 99 High Street (C), the former Woolworths, a tablet though badly damaged bears the coat of arms of Henry Shee and his wife Frances Cripes. Yet another Shee memorial can be seen in St Canice’s Cathedral erected by Fr. James Shee for himself and his brother John another priest who died in 1648. On the front wall of no 79 John Street (F) occurs a carved shield bearing the Fitzgerald and Shee arms. The inscription reads “By the rite of marriage the alliance of the Shees and the noble lineage of the Geraldine house is renewed in the year of 1638. Peter Fitzgerald.” This Peter Fitzgerald was transplanted to Connaught in 1653 under the Cromwellian Settlement. A fate shared by most of the families we have discussed, in an age which marked the end of their long period of supremacy in Kilkenny.
- John Bradley and Michael O’Dwyer (eds.): Kilkenny through the Centuries
- Gerard Crotty: A Guide to the Heraldry of the Civic Families of Kilkenny in Elizabethan and early Stuart times, in: Kilkenny Through the Centuries – Chapters in the history of an Irish city, Kilkenny 2009.
- Essays by John Bradley.
- W.G.Neely: Kilkenny, An Urban History 1391-1843
- Claire Murphy: Ten Civic Families of Kilkenny, OKR 1954, p. 1ff.