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Elizabeth I and Grace O'Malley: The Meeting of Two Irish Queens

Elizabeth I met Irish queen Grace O'Malley in 1593.

Elizabeth I met Irish queen Grace O'Malley in 1593.

Queen Elizabeth I Meets Grace O'Malley

July 1593 saw an amazing event: the meeting of Queen Elizabeth I of England and Grace O'Malley, the pirate Queen of Ireland. In many ways, they were enemies. Elizabeth sought to pacify Ireland under her rule, while Grace O'Malley wanted the freedom to run an independent pirate kingdom in Ireland

These two women were the most powerful women in the British Isles at the time. Both were political and military leaders of men. Although their political interests were opposed, it is said that when they met, they formed a strong personal rapport bordering on friendship.

Although their politics were different, their personalities may have been quite similar. After all, they were both women with the strength, courage, and charisma to rule in a world of men.

Timeline for Grace O'Malley

  • 1530 born in the Lordship of Umhall, western Ireland.
  • 1546 married Donal O'Flaherty.
  • 1560 Donal killed while fighting, and Grace assumes leadership of clan lands and ships.
  • 1565 takes Anglo-Irish nobleman Hugh de Lacy as her lover. When the McMahon clan kills him, Grace visits terrible retribution on the McMahons.
  • 1566 married Richard Burke for a year. She then broke off the relationship but kept his castle at Rockfleet.
  • 1578 captured by the English and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Released in 1879 on the promise of good behaviour.
  • 1584 Grace led a rebellion against the English governor Bingham.
  • 1588 Spanish Armada failed to attack England, fleeing ships wrecked on the Irish coast. Bingham declares all-out war on Grace for helping Spanish ships.
  • 1592 Grace writes to Elizabeth I to protest against Bingham's behaviour and to emphasise her right to her ancestral lands.
  • 1593 July, Grace met Elizabeth I in person and impressed the Queen enough to have her son released from prison and to be allowed to return to her old lands.
  • 1603 Grace died at Rockfleet Castle, County Mayo.

Who Was Grace O'Malley?

Grace O'Malley is the English name given to Grainne Ni Mhaille, an exceptional woman in any era. She was born in 1530 in western Ireland to a sea-faring ruling family. Grace is said to have insisted on being allowed to learn how to sail despite being a girl. The story goes that in the face of her father's refusal to break with tradition and allow a woman onto a ship's crew, Grace cut off her hair and dressed as a boy so she could sneak onto the ship. This led to her common nickname; Grainuileor Grainne Mhaol, meaning "bald grace" in Irish.

After a political marriage to the leader of the nearby O'Flaherty clan ended with her husband's death in 1560, Grace took control of the family's lands and ships. By this stage, she had demonstrated her sailor skill and ruthlessness and intelligence as a leader. Although in Celtic times, Ireland had a tradition of strong female queens, such as Maeve, who were both military and political leaders, in the 1500s it was almost unheard of for a woman to assume such power. This is something she had in common with Elizabeth I.

Grace was a daring leader, leading her clan's fleet of ships in clashes with Spanish, Turkish, and English pirates. She made strategic alliances and broke them as quickly, doing what she had to do to maintain the independence of her family in their ancestral lands.

She faced pressures from rival Gaelic clans and the encroaching power of the Elizabethan English. In the end, it was the growing power of the English that forced Grace to meet with Elizabeth in an attempt to secure some continued measure of independence. However, Grace is believed to have carried herself in that meeting with the dignity of a queen meeting an equal and it is not at all certain that Elizabeth came off best out of the meeting.

Rockfleet Castle, County Mayo. Grace O'Malley divorced Richard Burke but kept his castle.

Rockfleet Castle, County Mayo. Grace O'Malley divorced Richard Burke but kept his castle.

Elizabeth I circa 1600.

Elizabeth I circa 1600.

Queen Elizabeth I and Ireland

On 17 November 1558 Queen Elizabeth I inherited the Kingdom of England and Wales from her Tudor father, Henry VIII. With the crown came also the title Queen of Ireland, yet while the population of England and Wales were fully under the control of English royal power and law, in Ireland the situation was very different.

The conquest of Ireland by Anglo-Normans started in 1171, but it had been patchy at best. By the 1400s, many of the remaining native Gaelic kings in Ireland had begun to increase their territory and independence once more. Furthermore, after centuries living in Ireland, the Anglo-Norman lords, while nominally loyal to England, tended to operate very independently and did not appreciate interference from across the Irish sea.

For her father Henry VIII, the unruly Irish had not been a top priority, but for Elizabeth, circumstances were very different. With wars sparked by the Reformation raging across Europe, Elizabeth could not afford for Catholic Ireland to ally with powerful Catholic Spain against the relatively small and beleagured Protestant Kingdom of England.

Elizabeth set about bringing the Gaelic and Norman-Irish leaders under her control. Efforts started peacefully with treaties signed to make Hugh O'Neill, leader of the most powerful ruling Gaelic family, Earl of Tyrone under the English feudal system. Later, as Hugh O'Neill rejected English over-lordship and made a bid for independence, Elizabeth turned to military conquest to try to control her continually rebellious Irish subjects.

The cost of the Elizabethan wars in Ireland was enormous and almost bankrupted the English crown. Yet on almost exactly the day of Elizabeth's death, Hugh O'Neill ended his fight against the English in defeat. The Gaelic aristocracy never recovered and English control of Ireland tightened hugely in the 1600s, often to the detriment of the native Irish way of life.

Grace O'Malley meets Elizabeth I in 1593.

Grace O'Malley meets Elizabeth I in 1593.

The Two Irish Queens Meet

Grace O'Malley was, like many of the Gaelic leaders of the day, a thorn in Elizabeth's side. While Elizabeth wanted to establish herself as absolute ruler, Queen of Ireland, Grace would have seen herself as an independent queen within her territories in the west of Ireland. Not only was it humilitating for Grace to seek Elizabeth's aid, it was dangerous. Grace risked being thrown in prison and executed for traitorous activities.

Grace was effectively at war with Richard Bingham, English Governor in Ireland, and was known in England as a pirate and a traitor. However, when Grace arrived in London in July 1593, Elizabeth agreed to meet with her. Elizabeth's motives are not recorded. She may have been simply thinking pragmatically that it was cheaper to make allies of the Gaelic leaders than keep fighting them. However, it does also seem likely that she was fascinated by this Irish queen, the only other female military leader in Europe at the time.

When Grace was brought before Elizabeth, she shocked courtiers when she did not bow. Grace acted as one Queen meeting another. Elizabeth offered to confer the title of Countess on Grace but Grace refused the offer, saying that a title cannot be conferred from one equal to another. This may have been purely Irish pride, but perhaps also a ploy to refute the charges of treason; if she were an independent queen, rather than a subject, then she could not be guilty of treason. If Elizabeth decided to treat Grace as a rebellious subject then she could have the pirate queen sent immediately to the Tower of London for execution.

Yet if Grace was nervous she did not show it. Irish legend says that when Grace sneezed she was presented with a silk hankerchief which, having used, she promptly threw in the fire. The shocked an angry courtiers explained that it was an expensive gift and should be kept safe, but Grace told them in Ireland a used hankerchief is always thrown away.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Grace's demeanour, Elizabeth seems to have been very taken with the pirate queen. The two women retired in private conversation and Grace related many tales of her own daring exploits as well as her greivances against Bingham.The conversation took place in Latin, being the only language the two women held in common.

Surprisingly, after this personal meeting Elizabeth forgave all Grace's previous rebellious activities and granted everything she asked for. Her family was pardoned from all charges of treason, Bingham was called off, and Grace was confirmed in the posession of her ancestral lands. Grace O'Malley returned to a life of leadership and piracy on the west of Ireland and is remembered as one of the last great leaders of Gaelic Ireland.

In a life of adventure and risk, the meeting of Grace O'Malley with Elizabeth I, still stands out as Grainuale's greatest gamble, and her greatest success.

More information on Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I


Paul on June 30, 2019:

Grace was released from custody in 1579 - not 1879 - on the promise of good behaviour.

Thomas Myles Mc Kenna on April 20, 2013:

Well done Crace . one Irish Queen is at least the equal of any English Royal Slan

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on October 23, 2012:

You are right, of course. Thanks for pointing out my typo - it is important not to get historical dates confused!

Susan on October 22, 2012:

It was 1558 when Elizabeth inherited England and Wales from her sister, Mary I.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on September 03, 2012:


IntegrityYes on September 02, 2012:

I voted way up!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 24, 2012:

Glad to hear it Molly! They were two very interesting characters...

molly smith on April 24, 2012:

brilliant.more information than i learned.I have learned lots from this.

Just History from England on October 24, 2011:

Brilliant hub! I wonder if the action and the independance shown by Grace O malley, reminded her of her fathers daring deeds (or rather as she was told they had been)

voted up and interesting

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on October 10, 2011:

I'm not an expert on the Elizabeth I but I have the impression she was her father's daughter. I think he would have been pleasantly surprised that a daughter did such a good job of following in his footsteps!

Caerleon from USA on October 10, 2011:

What do you think Henry VIII would have said about his daughter if he had been able to meet her at the end of her life given how much he wanted a son to rule after him?

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 06, 2011:

Can't imagine why I've never heard of Grace O'Malley before this, but would love to have been a fly on the wall when she and Elizabeth met! Grace certainly took the right tack in presenting herself as an equal and not a subject.

Great hub! ;D

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on May 02, 2011:

Certainly neither of these two women could be accused of being passive princess types!

shellyakins from Illinois on May 02, 2011:

I love a good, strong, female story. Thanks for sharing.