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An Adventurer Who Founded a Grammar School


THE year 1976 marks the fourth centenary of the death of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, who died on 22nd September, 1576. In the history of England he is known for his bloody exploits in Ireland, but Carmarthen people remember him as the person who was most instrumental in securing the establishment of an educational foundation in their town that is still known as the Queen Elizabeth Boys' Grammar School.

Walter Devereux was born, probably in 1541, in Carmarthen castle, the elder son of Sir Richard Devereux (Mayor of Carmarthen in 1536) and Dorothy, daughter of George Hastings, first Earl of Huntingdon. The family, descended from Robert D'Evreux, a companion of William the Conqueror, came into the possession of large estates in Wales, where during the second half of the sixteenth century they had a principal seat at Lamphey, in Pembrokeshire, following the grant of the alienated episcopal manor by Henry VIII in 1547, to which was added a large share of the confiscated lands of Sir Rhys ap Gruffydd, son of Sir Rhys ap Thomas. Sir Richard Devereux died before his father, Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, whose death in 1558 resulted in the passing of the title to Walter Devereux, the subject of this article.

The new viscount went to Court on the accession of Elizabeth in the same year and about 1561 he married Lettice, eldest daughter of Sir Francis Knollys, K.G. Thereafter he lived in retirement until 1568, when he emerged to take part in public affairs. The following year he played a part in suppressing the rebellion of the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland in the north and in 1572 he was created a Knight of the Garter and Earl of Essex.

It was as an Irish adventurer that Walter Devereux earned his fame. In the spring of 1573 he undertook a private venture by which he planned to colonise Ulster and bring it firmly under English rule. Earlier attempts to settle Englishmen there had been unsuccessful and the province, whose inhabitants were in "a state of semi-savagery", was "the gall and misery of all evil men in Ireland", as Essex was to report to Burghley.

In a formal agreement Queen Elizabeth made over to Essex the land of Clandeboye (now Co. Antrim), with the exception of Carrickfergus and some mountain districts in the north. An army was raised and the cost of maintaining this and the necessary fortifications was to be shared by Essex and the Queen, who lent 10,000 to pay preliminary expenses, the loan to be secured by his property in Buckinghamshire and Essex, which was to be forfeited if repayment were not made within three years.

In July 1573 he took leave of the Queen, who counselled him to avoid bloodshed as far as possible, advice which he was to find convenient to forget, and further enjoined him not to precipitate a change of religion among the population. On landing with difficulty in Ireland after a storm, he proclaimed that his sole business was to rid Ulster of the Scots. But soon his high hopes were faced with difficulties, which were made worse by famine and disease, his men succumbing to great suffering at the rate of fifteen or twenty a day. After himself sharing these sufferings Essex escaped in May 1574, with the remnant of his army, to the Pale.

Undeterred, he mustered all the men he could and renewed his attempts, but this time against the Irishry. He made murderous raids, accompanied by burnings and pillage, which caused the Queen's earlier satisfaction to turn to alarm. In October of the same year, 1574, Essex perpetrated a piece of supreme treachery when he invited the Irish chief MacPhelim to confer with him at Belfast. During the banquet MacPhelim, his wife and brother were seized, the retainers having been slaughtered, and removed to Dublin, where they were executed. Essex boasted that "this little execution hath broken the faction and made them all afeard".

But Essex still managed to retain the confidence of the Queen, who now made him Earl Marshal of Ireland and granted him lands in that country. Soon, however, the Queen and her advisers reversed their policy and ordered Essex to withdraw from Ireland, which he reluctantly did, but not before he had committed further massacres, which were long remembered as one of that unhappy country's grievances against England. Although his expedition was a failure, his appointment as Earl Marshal and his barony in Ireland were confirmed. But he had contracted large debts and was obliged to sell lands in Staffordshire, Cornwall, Essex, Wiltshire and Yorkshire to settle them.

Worthier than his Irish excursions was his association with the foundation of a grammar school in the town of Carmarthen in the year 1576, an earlier foundation known as the "King's Schole", established by "Thomas Lloid" under Letters Patent granted by Henry VIII in 1543, having failed to survive. Under the terms of the charter of 1576 the school was to be called "the free grammar school of Queen Elizabeth from the foundation of our kinsman Walter, Earl of Essex, Richard, by divine permission Bishop of St. David's, Sir James Crofte, Controller of our household, Griffith Rees Esquire and Walter Vaughan Esquire,1 two aldermen of our said town of Carmarthen, and Robert Toye Benefactor, one of the councillors of the same town, for the education and teaching of boys and young men in grammar and other lesser studies, a school which is to last perpetually". Despite vicissitudes, this school survived and in the present year of grace Carmarthen still takes pride in perpetuating the name of the first Elizabeth in connection with its boys' grammar school.

Soon after the granting of the school charter, dated 8th July 1576, the principal founder was dead. While in Ireland for his public investiture as Earl Marshal Essex suffered intensely from dysentry and died on 22nd September in Dublin castle. The body, preserved in spirituous liquors, was brought back to Carmarthen via Holyhead, a journey that lasted thirty-four days. Burial took place at St. Peter's Church on 26th November, the funeral sermon being delivered by Bishop Richard Davies, collaborator of William Salesbury in translating the New Testament into Welsh. The grave is unmarked, but is believed to be underneath the site of the organ.

Essex left two sons, the elder, Robert, being the ill-fated favourite of Queen Elizabeth who was beheaded in 1601. He also left two daughters; the eldest, Penelope, he desired to be married to Sir Philip Sidney, whom Essex new intimately, but the marriage never materialised. The second daughter, Dorothy, married firstly Sir Thomas Perrot, son of Sir John, the reputed illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and secondly Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland; it was as a result of this last marriage that much Carmarthenshire property passed to the earls of Northumberland, who in consequence had the gift of a number of church livings in the south of the county.
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