The Making of the Montgomery Manuscripts

by Dr Raymond Gillespie

A striking, though little commented on, feature of late seventeenth-century Ulster society was the writing of family histories. The two best examples of the phenomenon are the histories of the families of Montgomery, written by William Montgomery of Rosemount, Co. Down in the years 1697 to 1704, and of Hamilton, written by William Hamilton in the 1690s. Of these two compilers William Montgomery is of most relevance here. He was born on 27 October 1633, the eldest son of Sir James Stewart of Rosemount. He spent a good deal of the 1640s in Scotland, a refugee from the war of the early 1640s, and from 1649 in university at Glasgow and Leiden, a refugee from the parliamentary regime. On his father’s death in 1652 he returned to London and spent most of the 1650s engaged in land disputes in Co. Down. A convinced royalist and loyal member of the Church of Ireland he was active in Restoration politics and was a member of the Irish parliament of 1661-6. During the 1660s he acted as agent for the earls of Mountalexander and occupied a number of county offices, including sheriff in 1670 and deputy custos rotulorum. After 1688 ill health forced him to retire from political life. He spent his remaining years at Rosemount, apart from a brief period in Scotland in 1689-90 during the Jacobite war, during which that text we now know as The Montgomery Manuscripts was written. He died in January 1707 and was buried in Greyabbey.

Both the Hamilton Manuscripts and The Montgomery Manuscripts have long been available in print. The Hamilton Manuscripts as they are known first appeared in the pages of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology and later in book form edited by T. K. Lowry in 1867. Perhaps better known are The Montgomery Manuscripts, selections from which appeared in the columns of the Belfast Newsletter in 1785 and 1786 and were reprinted in the Newsletter in 1822. These extracts were subsequently published in book form together with a preface by William McKnight in 1830. Over thirty years later George Hill prepared a new edition and included some fragments omitted from the 1830 edition. Hill’s edition was published in 1869 by James Archer of Wellington Place, James Cleeland of Arthur Street and Thomas Dargan of Castle Lane in Belfast. It was published as a volume of 472 pages although it was never completed, because Hill never compiled the appendices that were to occupy the final ten pages.

This was George Hill’s first substantial publication on the history of seventeenth-century Ulster. From 1834 until 1850 he was minister of the Remonstrant Presbyterian congregations at Ballymoney and later Crumlin. He retirement from the ministry, on grounds of ill health, occurred just as the newly established Queen’s College, Belfast was looking for a librarian and Hill was appointed to the post until 1878. In the late 1850s he contributed a number of articles on the history of north Antrim to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology and later to the Coleraine Chronicle. The circumstances under which he began work on The Montgomery Manuscripts are not known. It may derive from the publication of a previously missing part of the text, the life of Hugh Montgomery of Ballymacgoun, in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology for 1861-2. The editor of this part, Revd William McIlwaine, commented that the 1830 edition of the manuscripts ‘has become so rare’ that a reprint was urged with any new parts of the manuscript that could be found and the publishers may have been inspired by this call to commission Hill to re-edit the text. Certainly one of the publishers, James Archer, would have been aware of McIlwaine’s views since he was also the publisher for the ill-fated first series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology which ceased publication in 1862. George Hill subsequently turned his attention to other projects, producing in 1873 his monumental An historical account of the MacDonnells of Antrim and in1877 his still unsurpassed An historical account of the plantation of Ulster at the commencement of the seventeenth century as well as a number of smaller volumes on seventeenth-century Ulster. He died on 4 July 1900 with the importance of much of his work still unrecognised.

The value of the Hamilton and Montgomery Manuscripts lies in the fact that they provide a contemporary graphic and colourful account of the experience of these two families in seventeenth-century Ulster, and not surprisingly they have been widely used both by historians and genealogists to study the settlement of seventeenth-century Ulster. However, to evaluate these sources properly for historical purposes a detailed examination of how and why they were constructed is needed.

Montgomery Manuscripts1

This essay attempts such an examination for The Montgomery Manuscripts. The printed text of The Montgomery Manuscripts is of particular value since not only did it make available a contemporary account of the settlement in north Down, but also because the original manuscript from which the Belfast Newsletter published the Montgomery Manuscripts was lost even before George Hill prepared his edition (although it was known to William McIlwaine in 1861) and so we can only work from the printed text in dating the various parts of the document. It is clear, however, even from a superficial examination that the text known as The Montgomery Manuscripts is not a single work but was written over a period of time. Since the author, William Montgomery, often referred to current events or gave the date of writing particular passages it can be established that there were at least three phases of writing.

The earliest section, comprising the first 15 chapters, was written in 1697-8, and dealt with the history of the first four Viscount Ards.1 It is probable that chapters 17 to 19 and chapter 24 were also written at this stage, and they deal with the life of the author’s own father. Sir James Montgomery, a younger son of the first Viscount Ards, and with episodes of William’s own life. While no date of writing is given in these three chapters they are clearly written after the history of the first four Viscounts but before the history of the Savage family where references to them appear. The History of the Savage Family was completed in March 1701.2 Also part of the 1698 phase of writing was chapter 20 on Captain George Montgomery, another younger son of the first Viscount Ards. On the basis of internal evidence it seems that there may have been some rewriting after this part of the text was finished. Chapter 15, for example, dealing with the fourth Viscount who died in 1716 was updated at a later stage, thus explaining the occurrence of material relating to 1699 in a chapter said by William to have been written in 1698. The history in its earliest form was thus concerned with the main branch of the family and with the author’s own line.

In late 1701 the second phase started: the plan seems to have been altered as the author began to work on the histories of some of the subsidiary branches of the family, mainly the Montgomeries of Gransheogh and of Ballymagoun in Co. Down. He seems to have written histories of both these branches of the family in 1701 and, in the case of the Gransheogh branch at least, he sent the text of the history to the living representative of that branch in order to have details checked. It was apparently never returned, and thus was not included in the final text.3 It is possible that the Montgomeries of Ballymagoun were also approached with a 1701 draft for their approval, which they gave, for this draft appears to have been revised in May 1702. That William developed an interest in the minor branches of the family around this time is also evident from other sources. For example, he included references to the minor branches of the family in his 1701 Description of the Ards which had not been featured in the 1683 version.4 Also belonging to this phase of activity was a substantial redraft of William’s own life, which was completed in 1702.

The third phase of activity began in 1704 with the writing, or probably the revision of chapter 16 which brought the life of the fourth Viscount Ards up to date, and added more material on other branches of the family connected with the fourth Viscount. At this stage William appears to have been assembling the work into a coherent whole. The work was now paginated, and to judge from the page numbers allotted, was inserted into a larger volume, possibly that which he refers to as his Opera Senilia, and two final chapters were added to complete the work, chapters 23 and 25.5

Neither of these chapters is characteristic of the remainder of the work. Chapter 25, on the Montgomeries of Scotland and England, to judge from a note at the end, was intended to be a preface to the larger work. Unlike the other chapters it is annotated with references to sources such as Camden’s Britannia (1635 edition apparently) and John Speed’s History of Great Britain, probably the 1614 edition. Chapter 23 was written with the intention that it formed the last section of the collection and it dealt with other miscellaneous branches of the Montgomeries, and also featured William’s views on subjects ranging from education to poetry. Much of this material seems to have been gathered as part of the 1701-2 researches into the minor families when families such as the Montgomeries of Lisduff in Co. Longford were approached and agreed to supply William with ‘small matter of discourse’.

Colonial Ulster Front Cover

This complex textual history creates problems for interpreting the text. It cannot be used as if it were a straightforward first hand account of the early seventeenth-century settlements for it was not written as such. Although a good guide to the general outline of the settlement, there are difficulties in using the Montgomery Manuscripts as a genealogical or historical source and as will be seen below these are compounded by the purpose for which the manuscripts were constructed. Given William Montgomery’s sources as outlined by him at the beginning of the work: his own memories; what he had ‘credibly heard’; and documents, probably the least important since most of these were destroyed in the burning of Rosemount House in 1695, it would be reasonable to suppose that the family history would be strongest on recent events.6 In fact, the reverse is true. Of the lives of the first, third and fourth Viscounts Ards, the life of Sir Hugh Montgomery, first Viscount Ards is the longest by far, while the least amount of space is allotted to the fourth Viscount who was still alive when the Manuscripts were written. Clearly the family’s origins were of more concern to the author than their contemporary affairs.

A second characteristic of the work is the concentration on certain branches of the family. Pride of place was given to the main line, the fourth Viscount being described as ‘the chief of that nation or tribe in Ireland’.7 These two features combine to illustrate a central concern of the settlers of the seventeenth century: that of establishing the place of their family in the new social order which had been created by them. Most settlers, including the Montgomeries, had risen from relatively humble origins to be powerful magnates and it was the expectation of the early settlers that they would found a great lineage in a new and profitable land.8

It was William Montgomery’s aim to demonstrate that such expectations had been fulfilled.

He painted a picture of land obtained legitimately by his ancestors by purchase from Conn O’Neill.

Strangely, however, in dealing with the conveyance of that land, William pointed out that the O’Neill title had been bad, by virtue of rebellion, tanistry, and the attainder of Shane O’Neill. The implication of this was that the conveyance was void. It may be that William was relying on later royal grants to establish family title but even these would have been contestable since royal title had not been proven by inquisition before the later grants.

It seems more likely in the circumstances that what William was demonstrating here was the legal convention whereby title acquired by a conveyance which was technically void, but acquired in good faith, had become good through the passage of time, and thus he was demonstrating the relative antiquity of the Montgomery family in Ulster.

William painted a picture of an idyllic settlement on the Montgomery lands: women spun and men ploughed and each family had their own cabins complete with an (anachronistic) potato patch.9 Other evidence would suggest that the potato was in fact a late-seventeenth-century innovation in Ulster and William’s picture of the early settlement can at best be regarded as a projection backwards of circumstances from William’s own day or what he wished had been the case:

the golden peaceable age renewed, no strife, contention, querulous lawyers … disturbing the tranquillity of those times; and the towns and temples were erected with other great works done.10
Plantation Aspects Front Cover

Portions of his idyllic picture would have required a certain amount of rewriting of history, or as William put it ‘the truth (especially the whole truth) should not be told in all times and places where it may be a scandalum acceptum’.11

Perhaps the clearest example of this principle in practice was in the religious loyalties of the family. In a late seventeenth-century context the admission that one’s ancestors might have had Presbyterian leanings would not only have been social death but would also have been politically unwise. To William personally, the Presbyterianism of the first Viscount, albeit of a moderate kind, would also have been unacceptable, since William was not only a close friend of the vehemently anti-Presbyterian bishop of Down and Connor, Jeremy Taylor, but also seems to have had High Anglican leanings.12 Thus the first Viscount Ards was portrayed as a repairer of Anglican churches, a purchaser of Bibles and of Books of Common Prayer, and ‘a firm professed friend of episcopacy and our liturgy as all his race have continued to be and are at this day’.13 The third Viscount similarly, was described as ‘entirely addicted to worship God by the Common Prayer Book’ despite evidence of the strong Presbyterian stance he adopted in the 1640s — although defecting to the Anglicans in 1649 for political reasons — all of which is a flat contradiction of William’s characterisation of a ‘pure and unmixed’ devotion ‘being done for duty’s sake not to serve secular ends’.14 There may even have been an attempt to reduce the emphasis on the family’s Scottishness since in his discussion of the Montgomeries of England and Scotland more space was given to the English origins of the name than the Scottish implying that ultimately the family could be described as English.

Seen in this context. The Montgomery Manuscripts take on a new significance. They represent a new departure in the writing of Irish history since they are a conscious attempt by a settler family to portray its history since coming to Ireland in a way which demonstrates the success of the settlement. It is not a justification of the colonization but rather a description of the founding of a dynasty.

That this was already possible at the end of the seventeenth century was due to two developments. The first was a desire to learn more about Ireland itself as part of the general development of learning exemplified by the founding of such bodies as the Dublin Philosophical Society in Ireland and the Royal Society in London. Ulster landowners had been prominent in these intellectual developments. The Antrim landowner, Sir John Clotworthy, was one of the early fellows of the Royal Society, and Lord Clandeboy had even considered patronising the continental educational reformer, Comenius.15 In Co. Armagh, Arthur Brownlow, the owner of an estate around Lurgan, was conducting scientific experiments with fossilized wood in Lough Neagh and collecting manuscripts of local historical interest.16 William Montgomery was firmly in the same tradition. He was educated in Holland at Leyden, one of the most important continental centres of scientific learning. His own views on learning were distinctly practical, eschewing classical learning in favour of mathematics, medicine, physics, navigation, and merchandising although including more traditional subjects such as rhetoric, logic and oratory in the curriculum,17 Montgomery was also involved in the late seventeenth-century process of gathering information about Ireland. In 1683 he participated in assembling The Description of Ireland by William Molyneux and George Ussher for Moses Pitt’s Atlas, by writing a description of the barony of Ards which he later revised in 1701 for the Savage family.18

Moreover, to judge from the discourse given to the Duke of Ormonde on the history of Carrickfergus, William was conversant with the local history of east Ulster. He had also had an interest in the history of the family for some time. He described, for example, a conversation in 1690 with one Stephen Montgomery about ‘the family of Ards and Mount Alexander, of their descendants, their estates, titles and misfortunes’.19 It seems however, that no serious work was begun on the writing of the family history until after the burning of Rosemount in the mid-1690s in which much of the material which William might have used was destroyed.

The second development of the late seventeenth-century which made the writing of The Montgomery Manuscripts possible was a growing awareness of the distinctiveness of Irish society, among contemporaries. At its high point it was represented by what historians have described as the ‘colonial nationalists’: Molyneux, Swift, and King, who argued that Ireland, while sharing a common king, was not subject to the rule of the English Parliament.20 While certainly not in the forefront of this development, the Montgomeries were not isolated from it. Their links with Scotland had grown much weaker as a result of the sale of their lands there in the 1670s to pay for debts incurred during the Cromwellian period.

Again by the 1690s the family was related to almost all sections of Irish society. William’s stepmother, Frances, was a daughter of Nicholas St Lawrence, Lord Howth, one of the chief Old English lords of the Pale, and William’s aunt, Jean, had married Patrick Savage, one of the Catholic Old English of the Upper Ards. One of their daughters, Sarah, William’s cousin, had married a native Irishman, Brian O’Neill. One of Patrick Savage’s sisters was also married to a native, Cahal O’Hara of county Antrim, the dowry being provided by loans to Patrick from the first Viscount Ards. There were also complex marriage connections within the settler community, William having relations among the English, Scottish and Welsh settlers.21

There was also a growing sense of a community among the landowners of the individual counties. William, for example, was quick to gloss over the serious feuds which had existed between the Montgomery and Hamilton families in the early years of the settlement, ‘because of the love and kind deference now among us’ as they were now ‘interwoven neighbours’.22 The pattern of landholding, along with this complex pattern of inter-marriage, and a developing sense of community accelerated the processes of accommodation which were going on between native and newcomer, and by the late seventeenth-century had created a degree of unity within Ulster society. This is not to say that native and settler had formed a common interest, but rather they had reached a position of co-existence. The problem for the settler was to relate this new situation to his homeland, and to the new land in which he found himself.

Landlords Image1

In The Montgomery Manuscripts, William was concerned with all these things. He was concerned to document the relationship of the family with the Scottish earldom of Eglinton in order to give his own family, which had risen rapidly from relatively humble origins, an acceptable pedigree. He stressed, however, the distinctiveness of the Irish branch of the family; while the motto of the Montgomeries was the same as that of Eglinton, ‘because our Montgomeries were from that family’, the arms were very different and he stressed ‘but now Sir Hugh’s posterity (and none else) may pretend to carry the arms and use the motto of the Lord Viscount of Ards’.23 The family was now in a position to stand on an equal footing with the earls of Eglinton, especially after the creation of the third Viscount as Earl of Mount Alexander in 1661. They were no longer in the position of feudal vassals as a 1630 agreement between first Viscount Ards and the earl of Eglinton had decreed.24

The underpinning of the new position was to be provided by the evidence of the family history assembled in The Montgomery Manuscripts which intended to demonstrate how the family had been founded by Sir Hugh Montgomery who was ‘most conspicuous and powerful as the first introducer and encourager’ of the settlement, and how against ‘great troubles, toils and losses’ they had acquired honour without prejudice or bribery but by honourable means. In this way the Montgomeries as a ‘nation or tribe in Ireland had developed.25

We must not, however, over-stress the point. Most late seventeenth-century settlers were not as enthusiastic as William Molyneux in defending Ireland’s rights as a separate kingdom and not to be bound by English legislation. William Montgomery was still referring to the third Viscount as the ‘most regarded Scottish man in Ireland’ in the late seventeenth century.26 But the beginnings of an awareness of distinctiveness were already there: while Sir James Montgomery, William’s father, was born in Scotland – ‘his native country’ – he was regarded by William as a ‘subject of Ireland’, one of William’s distinctive ‘three kingdoms’.27 It was from this base that the eighteenth-century Ulstermen were to build.

Thus while The Montgomery Manuscripts may prove of dubious accuracy for the historian or genealogist in search of material on the minutiae of the development of Scottish settlement in County Down, they may have a more important role in illuminating Ulster society at the end of the seventeenth century. They are not eye witness accounts of colonization in operation, but rather the late seventeenth-century understanding of what the settlement might have been like under the founders of the great families and the impression created was that of an idyllic world of women spinning, men ploughing, and disputes unknown. The Manuscripts are of very considerable importance precisely because they reveal this late seventeenth-century attitude towards the early settlement, for in so doing they display the distinctiveness of Ulster society and how that was revealed through the writing of local and family history.

The Montgomery manuscripts: (1603-1706)