Una Watters’ 1956 work, “Silken Thomas in the Tower” is her only history painting on a nationalist theme.
Ideas of nationhood appear in Una’s work e.g. Thar an GPO (1965) – discussed in the blog of November 4, 2020 – with its ideal republic undertones, and her winning design for the 1966 Easter Rising commemorations which drew on Celtic and nationalist myths. But Silken Thomas in the Tower (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) is overt in its intentions.
The painting depicts the tenth Earl of Kildare, Lord Thomas FitgGerald, who was imprisoned by Henry VIII, for leading a Geraldine rebellion against the crown in 1534, as stoic hero.
He was known as Silken Thomas because of “the gorgeous trappings of himself” according to Patrick Weston Joyce’s A Concise History of Ireland (1910).
His is a tale of fake news and plague.
In 1534, the young lord – he was just 21 – was left in charge by his father, Garret Og, who had been summoned to London by the king. As soon as he was gone, his father’s enemies in Dublin spread the rumour that he had been beheaded. The rash young Silken Thomas reacted immediately. He gathered a force of a couple of hundred men, showed up at St Mary’s Abbey (off Capel Street in Dublin where the king’s council met) and openly renounced his allegiance to Henry, intent on avenging the death of his father.
He laid siege to Dublin, where the denizens of the city weakened by plague, admitted him. In the course of the fighting, Archbishop John Allen, appointed by Cardinal Wolsey and a sworn enemy of the FitzGeralds, tried to escape. He had got as far as Artane when Silken Thomas and his band caught up with him. The young lord reportedly ordered his men to “take away this churl” – his followers took him at his word and murdered the archbishop. Afterwards, Thomas maintained that he meant only that the archbishop should be remanded in custody. For that crime he was excommunicated.
In the meantime, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, his father – not dead, after all – hearing of his son’s rebellion, fell seriously ill and died within days.
Although Thomas had gathered allies among the Irish tribes – the O’Neills, the O’Connor Falys, the O’Moores, the O’Carrolls and the O’Briens – his rebellion foundered when Maynooth Castle, a FitzGerald holding, was overwhelmed after a nine-day siege. His support among the chieftains began to dwindle and Thomas surrendered on condition that his life be spared.
In 1535 he was brought to England where he spent eighteen months locked up in the Tower where conditions swiftly deteriorated. In a letter to a servant, quoted in Weston Joyce’s book, Silken Thomas asked for a loan of £20 to buy food and clothes.
“I never had any money since I came into prison but a noble, nor I have had either hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; not any garment but a single frieze gown for a velvet furred with a budge [a velvet cloak with lambskin fur] and so I have gone wolward [shirtless] and barefoot and barelegged divers times (when it hath not been very warm); and so I should have done still, but that poor prisoners of their gentleness hath sometimes given me old hosen and shoes and shirts.”
But worse was to happen. On this day, February 3, 1537, despite guarantees that he would be saved, Silken Thomas and his five uncles were put to death – hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
In Una’s depiction, the young lord’s clothes – whether his own or borrowed – are given due emphasis. (As has been remarked elsewhere in this blog, Una was very interested in clothes herself and was an accomplished seamstress.) He wears a camel-coloured diaphanous cloak – the single frieze gown he describes in his letter? – over a cream shirt of silk – what else – a red cummerbund and a rather dainty pair of slippers. I’m never sure whether the mark on his cheek is a scar or some fancy barbering but his well-tended hair and general style support his reputation as a dandy, though the gauziness of his clothes seem entirely unsuitable gear for the dank Tower of London.
They reflect both his “gorgeous” trappings and the ultimate frailty of his rebellion in the face of the might of Henry VII’s monarchy. His cell in the tower, is in comparison, heavy, solid, impenetrable; a flinty facade like Henry’s himself. Una was fascinated with stonework – see Clonmacnoise (1958) or Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain (1959) – where the textures and formations of the built world are rendered with great brio.
While this work may lack the animation and abundant colour of much of Una’s other work, the mood, in keeping with the subject matter, is sombre (it’s literally a brown study) and the figure of Silken Thomas is represented in a regal pose, rather than individualised. It begs the question whether this was a commissioned piece.
The son of the owner of the painting (to whom it was gifted) told me his father, a friend of Eugene Watters, was involved in amateur dramatics and he believed the painting had been used as part of a theatre set. But it’s unlikely that was its original purpose. Perhaps like Thar an GPO, it was earmarked for an Oireachtas exhibition.
A writing quill is the only prop in the cell, an ironic touch, perhaps, given Thomas’s reputation as a man of the sword.