Adventurer to Aristocrat
Richard Wingfield 1st Viscount Powerscourt
On a beautiful Spring day like today the view of the Sugar Loaf from Powerscourt is simply breathtaking and it is easy to forget what a rugged and dangerous landscape the Wicklow Mountains seemed to the first Lord Powerscourt. The majestic Sugar Loaf Mountain had for centuries been a landmark for scholars and pilgrims travelling to and from the monastic city of Glendalough. In 1603 it towered over a very different pilgrim and his battle hardened soldiers, seeking not spiritual enlightenment but land on which to build a dynasty.
After a long ride from Dublin through dangerous territory, constantly under threat from the native Irish inhabitants still loyal to their Gaelic chieftains, Richard and his men must have been exhausted as they crested the hill to look upon the breath taking vista of his new land grant. Seeing before him land to cultivate and “plant” with loyal subjects of the Crown his resilience and courage, over decades of fighting his way across Europe on behalf of the English Crown, had finally bore fruit. Almost sixty and still nursing some old battle wounds, his new estate, however beautiful, was based around a ruined castle and set in isolated, rugged terrain. The Gaelic chieftains of Wicklow had fought and raided the rulers of Dublin century after century, from the Vikings to the Normans to the Elizabethan war lords like Richard, who wanted to subjugate this beautiful and lawless region on Dublin’s doorstep.
Knights, Nobles and Normans
The English Crown had claimed ownership of Ireland since 1175, but over the centuries the Norman lords had intermarried and united with the native Gaelic lords, and by the mid-14th century only the area around Dublin known as the Pale was truly loyal to the English Crown. Powerscourt is an anglicisation of le Poer Court, Norman owners of the land in the first half of the 14th century, but the family lost the land after uniting against the Crown with the Gaelic chieftains.
“My Faithful and Beloved Soldier”
Queen Elizabeth I
There were many career soldiers like Richard with impressive military careers vying for the opportunity to impress Queen Elizabeth I and gain land and title. It was a grand romantic gesture, as Sir Walter Raleigh did previously with his cloak, which elevated Richard above the other hungry, poetic courtiers in the eyes of the Virgin Queen. When this wounded, loyal and successful subject was asked by his Queen how she should reward her “faithful and beloved soldier” he humbly replied “the scarf which Your Majesty wears will be sufficient reward for me”. (Contrast this gesture with the Queen’s horror when she was presented with the pickled head of the Wicklow Chieftain Fiach McHugh O’Byrne). In 1600 she made him Marshal of Ireland and he oversaw the defeat and exile of the Gaelic Lords and the carving up and “planting” of their lands with loyal British Protestants. King James rewarded Wingfield's further triumphs against the Gaelic Lords on 29 June 1609 with the grant of the castle and manor of Powerscourt in perpetuity, replacing the 21 year lease dating from 1603.
Conquerors and Colonists
But land and glory in battle were not enough for this ambitious and accomplished soldier. At almost seventy and without an heir to the amusement of his peers, he spent £2,000 purchasing the title of Viscount Powerscourt, a title which would die with him. He clearly had faith in the Wingfield’s to follow who did indeed reclaim the title not once but twice and carved a world renowned estate from his wild, rugged land grants.