Joan Fitzgerald, Countess of Ormond

Joan Fitzgerald, Countess of Ormond, Countess of Desmond (ca. 1509 or ca. 1514 – 2 January 1565) was an Irish noblewoman and heiress, a member of the Norman Fitzgerald family, who were also known as the "Geraldines".

Lady Joan Fitzgerald
Countess of Ormond
Lady Bryan
Countess of Desmond
Bornca. 1509/ca. 1514
Desmond Castle, Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland
Died2 January 1565
Noble familyFitzGerald family
Spouse(s)James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond
Sir Francis Bryan
Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond
Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond
John Butler
Edward Butler
Walter Butler
FatherJames FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Desmond
MotherAmy O'Brien

She married three times. Her first husband was James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, who had been proposed as a bridegroom for Anne Boleyn in 1522 to settle a dispute over the title and estates of the Earldom of Ormond.[1] Her second husband was courtier Sir Francis Bryan. Her third marriage to Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond brought peace to Ireland for a few years until he broke his truce with her eldest son Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond and warfare broke out between the rival Butler and Fitzgerald clans, who had been hereditary enemies for many generations.

Joan carried on an amicable correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I of England[2] who recognised Joan's skill in diplomacy, and relied upon her to restore and keep the precarious peace in Munster.[3]


Lady Joan was born in Desmond Castle, Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland in about 1509[4] or 1514,[5] the daughter and heiress-general of James FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Desmond and Amy O'Brien. She had a younger sister, Lady Honora Fitzgerald (died 1577), who later married Pierce Butler.

Marriages and issue

Sometime before 21 December 1532, she married her first husband James Butler, who succeeded as 9th Earl of Ormond on 26 August 1539. James had been proposed as a bridegroom to his cousin Anne Boleyn in 1522 in an attempt to settle a dispute over the title and estates of the earldom of Ormond to which Anne's father, Sir Thomas Boleyn had a claim as his mother had been Lady Margaret Butler, eldest daughter of the 7th earl of Ormond. For reasons unknown, the marriage negotiations came to a halt and Anne later became the second wife of King Henry VIII of England. James and Joan had seven sons:

On 17 October 1546, James went to dine at Ely House in Holborn, London. He fell victim of a mass poisoning along with his steward and 16 of his servants.[6] He died on 28 October, leaving Joan a widow in her thirties. As a widow, she could legally act independently and she regained control of her dowry. She sought the help of influential people at court to protect her children's inheritance.[7]

She had desired to marry as her second husband her cousin Gerald FitzGerald, heir to the Earldom of Desmond and many years her junior; however, she was forcefully persuaded to marry the English courtier and diplomat Sir Francis Bryan in August 1548. He was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and the couple returned to Ireland in November 1548. Due to his reputation of being a rake and libertine at the English court, Sir Francis Bryan earned the nickname "Vicar of Hell". Joan is quoted as saying, "While I was a widow and not married [to] an Englishman, I defended and kept my own, or at the least, no man went about to defeat me of my right. Well is the woman unmarried; I am bade to hold my peace, and my husband shall have answer made unto him."[8]

While Bryan lay dying at Clonmel, Joan was allegedly out on a hunting expedition with her cousin, Gerald.[9] He died on 2 February 1550, and she married Gerald in 1551. Their marriage brought about a temporary peace in Ireland between the rival families of Butler and FitzGerald. Gerald succeeded to the earldom in 1558, making Joan the Countess of Desmond. She used her considerable talent for diplomacy to act as a "peacemaker" between her eldest son and third husband.[10]

Faction fighting between the Butlers and Fitzgeralds

Joan maintained a friendly correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I, who recognised her ability, and relied on her to restore and keep the precarious peace in Munster after her husband, allegedly tired of Joan's domination over him,[11] broke the truce with her eldest son, Thomas, who had succeeded his father as Earl of Ormond. After the two factions began making raids against one another, Joan spent nearly two weeks journeying back and forth on horseback to arbitrate between the two enemy camps, before a tenuous peace was finally re-established.[12] In 1562, her husband was sent to the Tower of London for his allegedly "insolent" behaviour before the Privy Council. Joan worked hard to persuade Queen Elizabeth to release him. She was eventually successful in 1564; however, she herself died on 2 January 1565. She was buried at the Friary of Askeaton in Limerick.

Following her death, warfare broke out between the Butlers and Fitzgeralds, with her Butler son emerging the victor after the Battle of Affane in 1565.

Joan, in her roles as landowner, household manager, and parent, wielded a powerful influence upon the lives of her tenants, retainers, and children.[13] As a countess-albeit by marriage, she participated significantly in the world of Irish politics and the British royal Tudor court.[14]


  1. Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, pp.121–124
  2. Kathy Lynn Emerson, A Who's Who of Tudor Women retrieved 13 January 2010
  3. Karen Ann Holland, Joan Desmond, Ormond and Ossory: The World of a Countess in Sixteenth-Century Ireland, Providence College, 1 January 1996, retrieved on 14-01-10
  4. Emerson
  5. Holland
  6. Emerson
  7. Holland
  8. Kirwan, John. "Lady Joan FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond, Ossory, and Desmond", Journal of the Butler Society, 4, 92000), 297.
  9. Emerson
  10. Holland
  11. Emerson
  12. Emerson
  13. Holland
  14. Holland
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