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Home truths about Raleigh and Spenser: Sir Thomas Norris and the rebuilding of Mallow Castle
by Tadhg O’Keeffe

When I talk to students about the plantations I show them a view across Kilcolman Bog and I explain that the small grey clump on the skyline is pretty much all that remains to be seen of the residence wherein lived for more than a decade the most esteemed English poet of the Elizabethan age. I then ask how many of them have seen The Blair Witch Project movie. Some get my point before I make it: how many nights did Spenser sit bolt upright in his bed, blood chilling, having been stirred from sleep by a nightwatchman reporting distant and unexplained sounds – breaking branches, birds taking rapid flight – through the scrub and woodland near the castle? Spenser would not have feared them as sounds from a spirit world, as supernatural voices and warnings from an otherworld; on the contrary, it is apparent that his imagination was fired by such possibilities. But, as a man who had witnessed slaughter, the prospect of violent attack must have concerned him, and isolated in Kilcolman he must have regarded it as an ever-present danger, no matter how successful his relations with his native neighbours (and, in some cases, in-laws). The emptiness of Kilcolman’s surroundings made his castle, propped up on a low bluff overlooking the bog, the focal point in a natural theatre for a violent denouement. Violence, were it to visit his house, would announce with sound its approach through that bog or across the fields. Every stirring of nature, especially at night, when herds were normally brought into walled yards (like his own yard at Kilcolman) for safety, was a reminder to Spenser of his isolation and therefore of his vulnerability.

One cannot determine the full range of what Ireland and his experience there brought uniquely to the palette of Spenser’s imagination in the 1580s and 1590s. Perhaps the difficulty of making such a determination about Spenser and Ireland in that period resides less in Spenser’s own work, which, for all its depth of meaning, has an incontestable manifestation on the printed page, than in the multiple meanings of ‘Ireland’ itself, one of which Spenser furnished in A View of the Present State of Ireland. To observe Spenser in Ireland, as the historian would do, reflects some light back and forth between the poet and the place, but to follow Spenser into Ireland, looking for what he saw and occupying the spaces that he occupied, is perhaps the only way to connect really with what he understood Ireland to be, to comprehend how he came to that understanding, and to evaluate his Ireland against other Irelands. Spenserians who traipse across the fields to Kilcolman undoubtedly recognise this investigative process as experiential, and repeat visitors might even identify it as iterative. But going to Kilcolman is not enough; one has to enter the building and allow that its role, while seemingly passive, was active in Spenser’s life, at different times directing, accommodating, controlling, limiting, frustrating him. The subjectivity of an experiential engagement with a place, a landscape or a building is only problematic if one regards the subject of scholarly enquiry to have fixed, retrievable, answers, and if one thinks the scholar’s responsibility is to produce a bleached reportage. Spenser was a poet, so it is legitimate to enter the spaces of his world in search of the very things – surfaces and spaces, customs and symbols – that might have twitched the antennae of his imagination, and to engage one’s own imagination in writing about those things. Accordingly, in this essay I want to bring Spenserians back, in their imaginations, across the fields and into the Kilcolman house. My principal aim is to lead that tour from Sir Thomas Norris’s house in Mallow, allowing that vice-presidential residence inform how Kilcolman is ‘read’, and ultimately to lead the tour from Youghal, Co. Cork, from a table at which I invite readers to imagine Raleigh and Norris sitting together with paperwork about the plantation laid out in front of them.


The realisation of an ideal? Sir Thomas Norris and Mallow Castle


Youghal was one of the main urban places acquired by the crown through its confiscation of fitzGerald lands in the mid-1580s. It was a medieval port-town and had long enjoyed the patronage of the earls of Desmond. Its medieval wealth owed much to the fact that it was at the mouth of the Blackwater, the great river which, fed by many tributaries, flowed west-east across the middle of Munster. Walter Raleigh’s great seignory straddled in parts the tidal reaches of the Blackwater between Lismore and Youghal. It is likely that every planter in the Blackwater catchment area passed through the town. Whether they met Raleigh there is quite another matter, as he spent little time in the town. Edmund Spenser and Thomas Norris were among those who did. 

Raleigh did not get possession of the entire town at the plantation but merely of properties and rights previously possessed by the fitzGeralds. So, to describe it as ‘his town’ in the late sixteenth century would be incorrect, although as its mayor in 1589-90 he briefly wielded power disproportionate to his portfolio of real estate there. One of the rights he acquired was the patronage of the wardenship of the college of priests in the town. This had been founded by Thomas fitzGerald, 8th earl of Desmond, in 1464, and was attached to the town’s great parish church. Raleigh was actually granted the patronage conditionally in 1587, with the grant was to be activated in the event of him being denied the full amount of land ear-marked for him. It is apparent that it was activated (contra the view of Goddard Orpen[1]); four messuages were to be delivered to Raleigh as part of the same conditional grant, and these he certainly received. Raleigh appointed Thomas Wethered (or Witherhead) warden of the Youghal college in 1588, and he in turn, evidently with Raleigh’s blessing, gave a 60-year lease of the college with its spiritualities and temporalities to Sir Thomas Norris, vice-president of Munster from December 1585 and president of the province from 1597 until his death in 1599.[2]

In 1584 (and again in 1586 and 1587) Norris’s brother, Sir John, appointed president of Munster in 1584, named Mallow among the escheated lands to be set aside to support the president. In March 1587 John Popham, the attorney-general, was given the Mallow escheat but showed little interest in it, allowing Thomas to apply to be the undertaker of the 6,000-acre seignory. He was awarded the seignory and was knighted in 1588, the year of the Youghal lease.[3]

We know little about Thomas Norris and his activities in Youghal. In a letter of July 5, 1598, written in Mallow, he permitted the Lord Bishop of Down and Connor to have lodgings in the college house in Youghal, so he had retained an interest in that property. The house in Mallow in which Norris wrote that letter was the presidential residence, having previously been the vice-presidential residence. It survives, albeit in ruins. It is known today as Mallow ‘Castle’ (Fig. 1), although the earliest references to it label it a house.[4] There is no contemporary record of its construction, but Sir Thomas was identified as its builder in 1622.[5] With both John Norris and John Popham excluded from consideration on the grounds that neither seems to have invested a noteworthy amount of money in Mallow, I think that there can be no doubt that Sir Thomas built the house, and I can see no reason from an architectural-historical point-of-view to move its start-date any later than 1588-92.[6] It is the oldest surviving residence built more or less ab initio during the Munster plantation, and the only one to have been built before 1600. As such, it is central to a cultural history of the plantation.

Fig. 1: The façade of Mallow Castle. The entrance doorway is in the central turret but was not visible from the front of the building.Fig. 1: The façade of Mallow Castle. The entrance doorway is in the central turret but was not visible from the front of the building.

We know that there was a medieval castle at Mallow up to the mid-1580s (see below) and we can be confident that it was on the same site as the Norris house, but we do not know whether Norris actually lived in that medieval castle for any length before he replaced it with the present building, or whether he used Youghal as his main base while waiting for the new Mallow house to be made habitable.

Exact dating of Mallow Castle is not possible, but there is one fascinating clue to the genesis of its design. Preserved in the State Papers is the famous drawing of early 1586 labelled ‘The platte fro a parishe in Irlande’ (Fig. 2a).[7] Identified as the work of Arthur Robins, one of the surveyors tasked with measuring plots for the undertakers, it shows an idealised Munster parish, its lands divided into parcels and its nodal points marked by buildings. The building in the top-left corner (Fig. 2b) is an undertaker’s house, and it has the same type of façade – three towers with intermediate gables – that we see at Mallow (Fig. 2c).

Fig. 2: (a) 'The platte fro a parishe in Irlande’ redrawn, with the undertaker’s house highlighted; (b) the undertaker’s house enlarged; (c) Mallow Castle façade, based on Harold Leask’s drawing (1944).Fig. 2: (a) ‘The platte fro a parishe in Irlande’ redrawn, with the undertaker’s house highlighted; (b) the undertaker’s house enlarged; (c) Mallow Castle façade, based on Harold Leask’s drawing (1944).

Denis Power’s description of the resemblance between the drawing and the house as ‘uncanny’ falls well short of an explanation.[8] I am confident that Robins’ drawing represents what was built at Mallow. The house’s basic plan – a long block with turrets at either end of the façade and a perpendicular stairs wing at the rear – is not entirely unique in Ireland, although the parallels (which include Coppinger’s Court, Co. Cork, and Richhill Castle, Co. Armagh) date from the seventeenth century. However, the projecting turret in the middle of its façade and the use of polygonal turrets at the corners of the façade are both unique, and these are the very features which we see on the Robins drawing. The similarity between the drawing and the building must, then, be significant. So, how do they relate to each other, given the chronological gap between the plat and Thomas Norris’s acquisition of the Mallow seignory in 1588? Suffice it to say that Robins could not have copied the standing building in Mallow in 1586. Suffice it to say also that Robins’ drawing is not an architect’s drawing. Although one hesitates always to posit lost sources when explaining anomalies, I think that we must be missing drawings of the mid-1580s from which both the physical house and the stylised house drew their basic appearance. Such drawings existed in early modern architectural culture, allowing designs to leap-frog across Europe. That suggestion has already been made in respect of the great Burke house in Portumna, Co. Galway, built in Italianate character in the early seventeenth century;[9] I think that Rathfarnham Castle, the residence of Archbishop Adam Loftus in the mid-1580s, is also the product of a drawing or set of drawings made outside Ireland, and not necessarily in England.

So, Mallow was almost certainly built around 1590 with guidance from a drawing, probably even one specifically prepared under commission from John Norris for the presidential house, and it makes sense to think that the ‘platte’ used its shape to represent an idealised undertaker’s house. The Norris building and the Robins drawing are, I suggest, the only surviving evidence in Ireland of a portfolio of images and annotations pertaining to undertaker architectural culture at the dawning of the Munster plantation.

It is difficult for us to grasp today how radically the Norris house in Mallow differed from the elite residences of pre-plantation Munster, but the plantation surveyors give us some help. A description was made in 1584 of the existing (mainly fifteenth-century) castle in Mallow, the property of Sir John fitzGerald, brother of the earl of Desmond, until its confiscation. Basically, it had three courtyards, one of which had, like many castles of its period (including the smaller-scale Kilcolman), both a large hall for administrative and prandial gatherings, and a multi-storey tower with a private chamber under its roof.[10] The castle buildings (but possibly not the enclosures) were almost entirely cleared away, presumably not long after Norris took up the Mallow seignory, and replaced with the new house which we see today.[11] The act of its destruction was itself symbolic. More importantly, the new house had a different layout, reflecting a different set of domestic priorities and rituals. The hall and chamber in the original castle were in separate buildings, but now their functions were accommodated within the one structure. Based on what we know of seventeenth-century buildings in Ireland, Mallow’s original medieval hall had no real equivalent in the new house, and if there was a space identified as a hall – there probably was – it was already transforming into what we understand a hall to be today, which is a space of through-movement close to the main entrance, rather than a space of communal gathering in itself. The communal functions addressed by the common hall in the medieval castle were distributed among new grades of chamber in the new house, arranged laterally at first-floor level. The loss of timber partitions means that we cannot reconstruct the rooms, but we can be sure, based on English evidence in particular, that individual rooms accommodated different cohorts gathered for different types of audience with the head of the house. There was also plenty of room for Norris’s own sanctum, a place for him to retreat. Unlike John fitzGerald’s corresponding space in the original castle, however, it was not high up in a tower and accessible only by a narrow spiral stairs, but was to the side of less private rooms on the same horizontal level. Had the builder of the original Mallow Castle in the fifteenth century time-travelled to the Norris house, he would not have understood the choreography of social relations scripted by its architecture. Planters, in turn, would have experienced the medieval buildings they inherited in Ireland as alien places. Hold that thought: Spenser lived in a medieval castle just like the original Mallow Castle, and never managed to rebuild it.

It is probable that, wherever the original was actually drawn up, the blueprint (or a copy of the blueprint) for Mallow, whether that was a lone drawing with instructions or a set of drawings showing variations on the theme, was in Youghal when Raleigh was there. There are two reasons to think this. First, the plat is preserved in the same batch of State Papers as materials collected by Dr Meredith Hanmer with whom Raleigh, through his agent, William Jones, was engaged in litigation in respect of the wardenship of the Youghal college.[12] Second, and more decisively, is the ‘strangely turreted’ lodge which Raleigh built at Sherborne Castle in Dorset after 1592 (Fig. 3).[13] This was similar in design to Mallow, though square in plan: it had corner towers of polygonal plan, and it had a side-wall entrance in a turret (rather than an entrance facing outwards from the centre of its façade). I wonder whether its curvilinear gables were also paralleled in Mallow: after all, as at Sherborne, the Mallow gables do not rise from the corners but from short stretches of horizonal parapet.

Fig. 3: Sherborne Lodge before the addition of wings, based on a painting by J.H.P. Gibb and reproduced by Girouard 2009, Fig. 13.Fig. 3: Sherborne Lodge before the addition of wings, based on a painting by J.H.P. Gibb and reproduced by Girouard 2009, Fig. 13.

My suggestion, then, is that Norris’s house at Mallow and Raleigh’s lodge at Sherbourne are first cousins (with no surviving close cousins of their own on either island), that their common features reflect a common origin in drawings which were produced at the start of the plantation – 1585 – as part of its visual imagining, and that these drawings were able to inform both buildings, as well as the stylised house on the Robins’ drawing, precisely because they were kept in the college residence in Youghal around the time that Norris took over the lease from Raleigh. In my imagination I place Raleigh and Norris in the parlour – the talking-place – of the college, both bent over plantation-related materials brought to Youghal by the vice-president.


What Raleigh could have done but didn’t


The identification of Mallow Castle’s design in the ambit of Raleigh in Youghal and in Raleigh’s new Sherbourne estate in England fits neatly with the conclusions which David Kelly and I have recently drawn about Raleigh’s domestic arrangements in Youghal.[14] We are satisfied that he did not build a new house for himself in the town. Myrtle Grove, long regarded as his house, was originally the earl of Desmond’s house, and we are certain now that it was not refurbished until Richard Boyle’s era. Raleigh spent so little time in the town that building a house was possibly never on the cards for him. Had Myrtle Grove not been identified incorrectly as his house in the nineteenth century, historians might never has imagined him to have had a permanent residence there.

While staying in the town for brief periods Raleigh might well have occupied one of the four messuages which he was granted along with the wardenship, but that would have been an option for him only if those were in the most secure English part of the town, close to the church. Unfortunately, we do not know where they were located. There is no reason to suspect that they were near the church: as rent-generating properties for the college from the late fifteenth century, they could well have been scattered around the town’s docks. The likelihood, we concluded, is that Raleigh simply stayed in the college in the short time that he was in Youghal.

In the letter of 1598 in which he permitted a bishop lodgings in Youghal, Norris reveals himself to be Raleigh’s tenant-at-will in the college.[15] It is an important point of self-identification as a tenant, as it shines light on Raleigh’s lease of the college. Under tenancy-at-will arrangements both tenant and landlord can terminate the relationship at will, and the tenant – Norris in this case – has no right to pass on the tenancy to another without the landlord’s permission.  It seems that, by the late date of 1598, and with Mallow his place of residence, Norris did not need (and had probably never needed) the formal protection of a conventional lease in respect of his rights in the Youghal college. More importantly, though, the letter indicates that, from the outset, Raleigh had maintained control of the college through tenancy-at-will leasing. It seems that he was unwilling to enter into any leasing agreement which would cut off his right of access to the college buildings. Why? He needed the college to be available to him always as a place of lodgings in the town. And he needed lodgings because he did not build a house for himself.


What Spenser might have done but couldn’t


Spenser has elicited little sympathy in Ireland, and, as an archaeologist who occasionally parachutes into the vortex of Spenserian studies, I would be reluctant to suggest that he has ever been treated unfairly. But I think we can spare a thought for Spenser as a visitor to Mallow. Kilcolman was a promising seignory when Sir John Norris was plotting the plantation and Mallow was emerging as a central place, if not the central place. Spenser surely saw the Norris house being erected, and probably also saw its medieval predecessor being demolished in preparation. He, by contrast, continued to live in a medieval castle, similar to but smaller than medieval Mallow Castle. And the alterations which he made to his castle – in order to give it an Elizabethan social topography, as I have suggested elsewhere – were modest.[16] Nothing speaks louder of the modesty of his interventions than his apparent failure to replace its narrow, shuttered, medieval windows with big, multi-pane, windows of the type installed in Mallow. We cannot see inside Spenser’s head to know whether the transformation of Mallow affected him, but human nature suggests that, given his spatial proximity to Norris’s vice-presidential house as well as his friendship with Raleigh, he must surely have been more acutely aware than many undertakers of his domestic conditions and how they reflected on him. In the realisation at times that he was equal to neither Norris nor Raleigh, albeit for different reasons, he perhaps found the sort of cussedness that fires the ambition of a gifted writer.


Some closing thoughts: salvaging Kilcolman


Were it not for the fact that it was Spenser, and not some other undertaker, who occupied it, Kilcolman Castle would remain off the radar of early modernists, and we might overlook even more than is already the case what it tells about the Munster plantation and its leading lights. First, it was a rural plantation. The political and cultural geographies of Desmond before the mid-1580s determined that the first foot-fall of undertakers like Spenser was going to be in places like Kilcolman. When the modern visitor recovers from the shock of Kilcolman’s modesty as a residence, he or she should ruminate on the significance of the fact that no road goes it. Town-foundation (or, in the case of older towns, re-foundation) was not considered a fundamental strategic action in the planning of the plantation, which was perhaps a decisive oversight given how new towns later helped to ensure the success of the Ulster plantation. Second, being rural, the plantation lacked spatial foci to which resources for sharing among planters might have been directed, and so it depended heavily on what the undertakers inherited in terms of local infrastructure. Thus, they found themselves in an old enclosed landscape, with layered field and townland names in an alien language, and a low population. And even if it had elements which were not temporally old, they were culturally old: Kilcolman Castle itself was certainly less than two centuries old when Spenser acquired it, but was squarely in a tradition of both architectural form and domestic planning that dated further back. When he first set foot in it Spenser stepped back into the middle ages, and the Irish middle ages at that. Tudor culture had barely penetrated Irish court circles by the late 1500s, much less trickled down to the layer of minor gentry responsible for castles like Kilcolman. Ireland’s medieval culture should not be adjudged backward on that account – by what authority could Tudor England have claimed northern Europe’s cultural gold standard? – but it was not progressive.


In one sense, though, we can, to borrow Willy Maley’s term, salvage Kilcolman. It was the appropriate entry-level castle for Spenser. It, like him, was not a product of high aristocracy, but it was high enough for him to marry his children to the scions of families of similar rank owning similar small castles. Therein, perhaps, lies a contradiction. Spenser’s relative success, and indeed his survival for so long at Kilcolman, might have depended as much on his possessing a residence in visual rhythm with the architecture of native gentry culture as it did on his lawyers’ ability to challenge native landowners like Maurice Roche. But let us not assume that, climbing a stone spiral stairs to his bedroom, he was happy!

Tadhg O’Keeffe

University College Dublin

[1] G.H. Orpen, ‘Raleigh’s house at Youghal’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol. 33 (1903): 345-352, at p. 346.

[2] The history of Youghal and its college from the later fifteenth century into the plantation era is detailed in David Kelly and Tadhg O’Keeffe, ‘An old world man in a  new world town: the identification of Sir Walter Raleigh’s residence in late sixteenth-century Youghal, Co. Cork, Ireland’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology (2018): 1-33 (

[3] For the Norris brothers. Popham and Mallow, see  SP/63/112/78; 113/6; 115/41, 42; Cal. Carew MSS, 1575-88, 406-07; SP/63/123/47; 125/37; Cal. SP Ireland, 1586-88, 89, 125, 278, 324. For John Norris and the plantation see John S. Nolan, Sir John Norreys and the Elizabethan military world (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), passim.

[4] Harold G. Leask, ‘Mallow Castle, Co. Cork’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol. 49 (1944): 19–24, esp 20-21.

[5] Robert Dunlop and George O’Brien, ‘An unpublished survey of the plantation of Munster in 1622’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 6th series, Vol. 14 (December 1924): 128-146, at 143.

[6] Not everybody agrees. Colin Breen described the new house in Mallow in terms of ‘conversion’ and assigned the start of the work to the period before 1597 but attributed its completion to the Jephsons before 1610 (An Archaeology of Southwest Ireland, 1570-1670 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007): 127-28. For Eric Klingelhofer ‘the present structure of Mallow Castle may not be that in which Norris lived before the Nine Years War’ but a building which he stared and which was completed ‘by his daughter and son-in-law Sir John Jephson’ (Castles and Colonists: an Archaeology of Elizabethan Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010): 107, n15). Neither writer presents an actual argument. Nor, in fairness, do I for the date-range 1588-92, but that date-range fits the historical context, so the onus is on dissenting scholars to explain why it needs to be assigned a later date.

[7] SP 63/122/55; Kew NA MPF 1/305.

[8] ‘The archaeology of the Munster plantation’, in Audrey Horning, Ruairí Ó Baoill, Colm Donnelly and Paul Logue (eds), The Post-Medieval Archaeology of Ireland, 1550-1850 (Bray: Wordwell, 2007): 23-36, at 29.

[9] For the use of such drawings c.1600 see Michael McCarthy, ‘Locating Portumna in contemporary theory and practice in European architecture’, in Jane Fenlon (ed), Clanricard’s Castle. Portumna House, Co. Galway (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012): 100-106.

[10] See Henry F. Berry, ‘The manor and castle of Mallow in the days of the Tudors’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol. 2 (1893): 21-25, 41-45; see also, for context, Tadhg O’Keeffe, Medieval Irish Buildings, 1100-1600 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015): 266-75.

[11] Some possible traces of the fitzGerald castle were uncovered when the site was cleared and conserved in the 1930s, but the plan of the Norris house was not affected by any older fabric left in place.

[12] The legal wrangling is recorded in Chatsworth House manuscripts and is discussed in Kelly and O’Keeffe, ‘A new world man’. Its outcome was unfavourable to Hanmer.

[13] The phrase ‘strangely turreted’ comes from Mark Girouard, Elizabethan Architecture. Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009): 11.

[14]  Kelly and O’Keeffe, ‘A new world man’.

[15] CM/1/31 (Chatsworth House).

[16] Tadhg O’Keeffe, ‘Kilcolman Castle: a new interpretation of Edmund Spenser’s residence in plantation Munster’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 21 (March 2017): 223-239.


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Cite as:

Tadhg O’Keeffe, "Home truths about Raleigh and Spenser: Sir Thomas Norris and the rebuilding of Mallow Castle," Spenser Review 48.3.2 (Fall 2018). Accessed December 9th, 2023.
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