Henry Docwra, 1st Baron Docwra of Culmore

Henry Docwra, 1st Baron Docwra of Culmore (1564 – 18 April 1631) was a leading English-born soldier and statesman in early seventeenth-century Ireland. He is often called "the founder of Derry", due to his role in establishing the city.[1]


He was born at Chamberhouse Castle, Crookham, near Thatcham, Berkshire, into a minor gentry family, the Docwras, who came originally from Yorkshire.[2] He was the only son of Edmund Docwra MP and his wife Dorothy Golding, daughter of John Golding of Halstead, Essex, and sister of the noted translator Arthur Golding.[3] His father was a prominent local politician, who sat in the House of Commons as MP for Aylesbury in the Parliament of 1571. He was later obliged by financial difficulties to sell Chamberhouse. The family's money troubles may be the reason why his son pursued a military career.[4] The Docwras seem to have lacked influential relatives, and this was to be a considerable difficulty to Henry throughout his career, in an age when family connections were of great importance.

Military career

After serving for some years as a professional soldier in the Netherlands and France, Docwra, who was still only in his early twenties, was sent by the English Crown to Ireland in about 1584. He was made the constable of Dungarvan Castle, and served under Sir Richard Bingham, the governor of Connaught, in 1586. Bingham besieged Annis Castle near Ballinrobe, and used Ballinrobe as a base from which to attempt to pacify County Mayo. He was unable to subdue the Burke clan, the dominant political force in Mayo, and the campaign ended inconclusively.[5]

Service with Essex and Vere

Docwra left Ireland around 1590. Like other ambitious young courtiers of the time, he entered the service of the Earl of Essex, the royal favourite, and fought beside him in the war against Spain.[6] He took part in the Siege of Rouen in 1591-2, and in the Capture of Cadiz in 1596 where he was knighted by Essex in person for unspecified "acts of valour". The following year he saw military service under Sir Francis Vere in Maurice of Nassau's campaigns in Brabant, and spent much of the late 1590s in the Netherlands where he distinguished himself at the Battle of Turnhout. He did not take part in Essex's ill-fated Islands Voyage expedition to the Azores in 1597.[7]

Return to Ireland

In 1599, to his "unspeakable contentment", he was sent back to Ireland to serve with Essex during the Nine Years War, acting as his chief adviser on Irish military affairs. During Essex's disastrous attempts to pacify Ireland, Docwra was mainly occupied with attempting to subdue the O'Byrne clan in County Wicklow.[8] He took no part in Essex's controversial negotiations with Hugh O'Neill, who was the overall Irish leader during the Nine Years' War. These negotiations produced a set of terms called the Cessation, which was attacked by Essex's enemies as a total English capitulation to the Irish. The Queen's reaction was to tell Essex sharply that if she had wanted to abandon Ireland altogether, it would hardly have been necessary to send him there. Docwra had returned to England with Essex in the autumn of 1599. In 1600 he was sent back to Ireland as commander of an army of 4000 men and captured the ruined site of Derry in May 1600. Fighting continued until 1603.[9]

The Cessation led quickly to Essex's disgrace, and that in turn caused his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I, which ended with his execution as a traitor in February 1601. Docwra, who had prudently remained in Ireland throughout the crisis, was not suspected of any part in Essex's plotting, and he quickly gained the confidence of Essex's successor as Lord Deputy of Ireland, Mountjoy, although they were later to quarrel over Docwra's policy in Ulster. His biographer remarks that if he was not usually highly regarded as a politician, Docwra did at least have the true politician's instinct for survival.[10]

Conquest of Ulster

In April 1600 Docwra was given an army of 4200 men to subdue Ulster.[11] He landed at Carrickfergus, and proceeded to Culmore, where he fortified both the ruined castle there and Flogh, near Inishowen, Donegal. Proceeding to what is now Derry, he fortified the hill, and laid out the first streets of the new city. Further up the River Foyle he fortified Dunnalong, a position dividing Donegal and Tyrone, in July 1600. He constructed Dutch-inspired star-shaped bastion forts, each with a strong earthen rampart, surrounded by a ditch, at the three sites of Culmore, Derry and Dunnalong. He also engaged in several skirmishes with the Irish, reportedly winning their admiration for his courage and cunning, and was severely wounded by Black Hugh O'Donnell, a cousin of Red Hugh O'Donnell, chief of the O'Donnell Clan.[12]

Throughout his career in Ulster, he showed remarkable skill in fostering divisions in the leading Irish clans, and he gained the support of several prominent Irish chieftains, including members of the dominant O'Neill and O'Donnell clans. His most notable diplomatic coup was to win for the Crown, at least for a time, the loyalty of Niall Garve O'Donnell, cousin and brother-in-law of Red Hugh.[13] A charge often levelled against Docwra by his enemies was of his gullibility in believing in the promises of loyalty made by the Gaelic chieftains, and differences over this policy later led to a quarrel between Docwra and Mountjoy. In fact, Docwra, who was a sensible man, had no expectation of any of the chieftains remaining loyal "if the Spaniards should approach these shores", or if the English suffered any decisive military defeat at the hands of the Irish. His attitude was simply that, so long as it lasted, the support of men like Niall Garve was a political asset which the English should exploit to its fullest extent.[14]

The winter of 1600/1601 was spent in further military expeditions, and in negotiations with the Irish. In 1602 he secured Dungiven Castle from Donnell Ballagh O'Cahan, the principal vassal or 'uriaght' of Hugh O'Neill. This gave him control of most of what is now County Londonderry, and led O'Cahan to switch sides, depriving O'Neill of a large portion of his remaining force. He joined forces with Mountjoy to finally crush Hugh O'Neill, who made his submission to Mountjoy at Mellifont in March 1603. The military campaign is said to have been one of exceptional savagery, resulting in the death of thousands of Irish civilians.[15]

On the death of Queen Elizabeth I, it was Docwra's firm action which prevented a rising in the north of Ireland by his chief Irish ally, Niall Garve O'Donnell, who was infuriated at not having been made Earl of Tyrconnell, a title which was instead conferred on his cousin Rory O'Donnell. Niall was, in the short term, persuaded to trust in the promise of further rewards from the Crown. Clearly his loyalty could not be depended on for much longer, but then Docwra had never had any trust in the permanent loyalty of the Gaelic chiefs.[16]

Founder of Derry

Docwra's reputation as "the founder of Derry" rests on his early attempts to develop Derry as a city, although in the short term his efforts came to nothing, as it was burnt to the ground in 1608.

Docwra had hoped that his services to the Crown in the Nine Years' War would produce rich rewards, and he seems to have set his heart on being created Lord President of Ulster; but he had never been popular, even with his own soldiers. Also, he lacked powerful friends at court, where he was regarded as something of a nuisance. It was said that there was nothing which the Queen and her Council dreaded more than yet another verbose letter from Docwra, angrily replying to any criticism of his conduct. Sir Robert Cecil eventually decided not to trouble the Queen with his letters.

He had to be content with being appointed the first governor and provost of Derry. The city's first charter empowered him to hold markets and a fair. It was his duty to appoint the sheriffs, the recorder and the justices of the peace and to hold a county court.

Docwra was beginning to tire of life in Ireland, although he did not return to England until 1608. In 1606 he was bought out of his public offices by Sir George Paulet, whose relations with the Irish leaders of Ulster, and particularly the ruler of Inishowen, Sir Cahir O'Doherty, whose loyalty Docwra had sought to win, were far less amicable.[17]

During O'Doherty's subsequent rising in 1608, O'Doherty's foster-father Phelim Reagh MacDavitt killed Paulet in battle and Derry was burned.[18] Docwra's policy of seeking to conciliate the leading Gaelic nobles of Ulster was now utterly discredited. He was accused of neglect of duty and undue leniency towards the native Irish, and retired to England in temporary disgrace. Following the Flight of the Earls, and the O'Doherty rebellion, the English Crown no longer saw any advantage in conciliating the chieftains of Ulster: Docwra's Irish allies were ruined, and many of them, including Donnell O'Cahan, Niall Garve O'Donnell, and his son Neachtain, died as prisoners in the Tower of London.

Later career

During his retirement in England, Docwra protested bitterly to King James I that he had been unfairly accused of incompetence, and of his meagre rewards for his services to the Crown: in particular he complained of the failure to make him Lord President of Ulster. In 1614 he published his Narrative, which is both a description of, and a justification for, his military actions in Ireland. While obviously self-serving, the Narrative is a valuable source of information for the period.[19]

His decade-long campaign to return to government employment, preferably in Ireland, finally bore fruit. In 1616 he was made Treasurer of War for Ireland and returned to live there. In 1621 he was raised to the peerage, with a modest grant of land at Ranelagh, now a suburb, but then a village on the south side of Dublin city, and another estate at Donnybrook. Despite his title, he was a comparatively poor man, partly because he had not been given the office of Vice-Treasurer of Ireland, which had previously been associated with the office of Treasurer of War, so that Docrwa's income was half what he might have expected. After his death all his colleagues praised him as "an honest man who died poor".[20] As Treasurer he avoided the temptation, to which so many of his contemporaries succumbed, of using his office to enrich himself; in 1618 the Privy Council of England commended him to the Lord Deputy for his care and diligence in carrying out his duties. His one serious fault as Treasurer, it was generally agreed, was his exceptional slowness in compiling his accounts.[21]

In 1628 he was one of 15 peers empanelled to try Edmond Butler, Lord Dunboyne for manslaughter after Butler had killed his cousin, James Prendergast, in a quarrel over the right of inheritance to an Irish feudal barony. Docwra was the only one to vote "guilty", and Dunboyne was duly acquitted by 14 votes to 1.[22]

Docwra died on 18 April 1631 in Dublin, shortly after retiring from his public offices, and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.[23] His fellow Irish councillors sent a petition to their English colleagues, praising him as "an excellent civil servant", who died (relatively) poor, and recommended his widow and surviving children to their care.[24]


He married Anne Vaughan, daughter of Sir Francis Vaughan of Sutton-upon-Derwent and his wife Anne Boynton, daughter of Sir Thomas Boynton.[25] They had two sons, Theodore and Henry. Theodore, the elder son, succeeded to the barony but died without issue. Little is known of him except that he was obliged to sell his Ranelagh estate and was living in poverty when he died in England in 1647: since his brother Henry had predeceased him, the title became extinct.[26] The 1st Baron also had three daughters, Anne, Frances, who died young, and Elizabeth; Anne married Captain Shore of Fermanagh, and Elizabeth married Basil Brooke of Brookeborough.[27] Lady Docwra outlived her husband and both of her sons, and survived till 1648: like her elder son she was in a state of some poverty in her later years, despite receiving a legacy from Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, who had been a close friend and ally of her late husband in his last years.[28]


As a soldier Docwra was brave, skilful and ruthless; the Irish reportedly admired him as "an illustrious knight of wisdom and prudence, a pillar of battle and conflict".[29] He showed considerable skill in negotiating with the Irish clans, and was known for fomenting quarrels among them to strengthen the Crown's position.[30] Historians have remarked that the accusations made against Docwra by his political enemies of excessive "leniency" towards the Irish would have astonished the Irish themselves, thousands of whom are said to have died directly or indirectly as a result of his actions.[31] As Treasurer of War, he had his critics, but he also enjoyed an enviable reputation for being diligent, conscientious and upright, if rather slow in conducting business.[32]

In private life he had a reputation for being honest, public-spirited, and a man of independent judgment. In religious matters he is said, by the standards of the time, to have been tolerant enough. While there is no doubt that English troops who were under his command killed a number of priests, his biographer argues that Docwra neither ordered nor approved of these killings.[33]


  1. Moore, Norman "Henry Docwra" Dictionary of National Biography 1885–1900 Vol.15 p.140
  2. McGurk, John Sir Henry Docwra 1564–1631 – Derry's Second Founder Four Courts Press Dublin 2007 p.18
  3. Some sources refer to his mother as Marjorie Puttenham.
  4. Ford, David Nash Royal Berkshire History
  5. Moore p.140
  6. McGurk pp.37–40
  7. McGurk p.41
  8. McGurk p.39
  9. William Kelly’s edition of Docwra’s Derry
  10. McGurk p.51
  11. McGurk p.53
  12. McGurk p.76
  13. McGurk p.92
  14. McGurk p.146
  15. McGurk p.198
  16. Moore, p.140
  17. New History of Ireland, vol.3 eds. Moody, Martin and Byrne (OUP 1991) p.196
  18. Docwra's Narrative edited by William P. Kelly 2003 p.2
  19. Reprinted 2003, edited by William P. Kelly
  20. McGurk p.242
  21. McGurk p.248
  22. Moore, p.140
  23. McGurk p.22
  24. McGurk p.269
  25. McGurk p.20
  26. McGurk p.21
  27. Moore, p.140
  28. McGurk p.22
  29. McGurk p.270
  30. Moore, p.140
  31. McGurk p.26
  32. McGurk p.248
  33. McGurk p,20
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