Thomas FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Kildare (1513–1537), also known as Silken Thomas (Tomás an tSíoda), was a leading figure in sixteenth-century Irish history.
He spent a considerable part of his early life in England: his mother Elizabeth Zouche was a cousin of Henry VII. In February 1534, when his father, Gerald FitzGerald, the 9th Earl of Kildare, was summoned to London, he appointed Thomas deputy governor of Ireland in his absence. In June 1534 Thomas heard rumours that his father had been executed in the Tower of London and that the English government intended the same fate for himself and his uncles. He summoned the Council to St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, and on 11 June, accompanied by 140 horsemen with silk fringes on their helmets (from which he got his nickname), rode to the abbey and publicly renounced his allegiance to King Henry VIII, Lord of Ireland.
In July he attacked Dublin Castle, but his army was routed. He ordered (or at least permitted) the execution of Archbishop Alen, who had tried to mediate, at Clontarf; this lost him any support from the clergy. (According to a long-established tradition, his men misunderstood his order, given in Irish, to “take this fellow away” as an order to kill). By this time his father had taken ill and died in London, and he had technically succeeded as tenth earl, but the Crown never confirmed his title. He retreated to his stronghold at Maynooth, County Kildare, but in March 1535 this was taken by an English force under Sir William Skeffington by bribing a guard, while Thomas was absent gathering reinforcements to relieve it. The surrendered garrison was put to death, which was known as the “Maynooth Pardon.” Thomas had wrongly assumed that his cause would attract overwhelming support, in particular from Catholics opposed to Henry VIII’s English Reformation. But Henry’s new anti-Papal policy also outlawed Lutheranism, and so Henry was not finally excommunicated until 1538. Historians disagree on the exact date of the excommunication: Winston Churchill puts the date the bull was made official as 1535; G. R. Elton as November 1538; and J. J. Scarisbrick as 17 December 1538, through promulgation by Pope Paul III.
In July, Lord Leonard Grey arrived from England as Lord Deputy of Ireland; Fitzgerald, seeing his army melting away and his allies submitting one by one, asked pardon for his offences. He was still a formidable opponent, and Grey, wishing to avoid a prolonged conflict, guaranteed his personal safety and persuaded him to submit unconditionally to the King’s mercy. In October 1535 he was sent as a prisoner to the Tower. Despite Grey’s guarantee, he was executed with his five uncles at Tyburn, on 3 February 1537. According to G.G. Nichols, the five uncles were “…draune from the Tower in to Tyborne, and there alle hongyd and hedded and quartered, save the Lord Thomas for he was but hongyd and hedded and his body buried at the Crost Freeres in the qwere…”
Silken Thomas’s revolt caused Henry to pay more attention to Irish matters, and was a factor leading on to the creation of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1542. In particular the powers of the lords deputy were to be curbed, and policies such as surrender and regrant were introduced.