'The Great Earl of Cork'
1st Earl of Cork (1620-1643)
1st Baron of Youghal (1616-1643)
Born 1566 Died 1643

Richard Boyle was born at Canterbury in Kent on the 3rd October 1566, the second son of a Roger Boyle and his wife Joan Naylor. Educated locally at the King's school, in 1583 Richard was admitted to Bennet College (now Corpus Christi College), Cambridge. However he failed to graduate and instead left to study law at the Middle Temple and became clerk to Richard Manwood, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, thereby acquiring some legal and secretarial experience.

But before long Richard became frustrated at the lack of propsects, and decided to head west to seek his fortune. In late Elizabethan England the west meant Ireland and so Richard Boyle landed in Dublin on the 23rd June 1588, with little more than the clothes that he wore and a small amount of gold coin. Almost immediately he began to enjoy success; in 1590 he obtained the post of deputy escheator to John Crofton, the escheator-general, and in 1595 married Joan Aplsey daughter and co-heiress of a William Appsley of Limerick by which means he obtained an estate worth £500 a year in Munster.

The function of the office of escheator-general was to deal with properties that had reverted to the Crown and such an office ample opportunities for individuals to enrich themselves. Whether Richard took advantage of these opportunities is not clear, but there were those at the time who believed that he had. Henry Wallop the Treasurer of Ireland was at the forefront of those who accused Richard of fraud and he found himself imprisoned on more than one occasion.

Richard's response to such charges was to argue that they had no foundation and were simply a product of envy at his success and wealth. He was on the verge of returning to England to appeal directly to the queen when, in October 1598, Munster erupted into revolt against the crown and Richard was forced to return to London. Now reduced to poverty by the rebellion, he found some temporary relief when he entered the service of the Earl of Essex, but then found himself summoned before the Star Chamber to answer further charges of fraud brought by his old enemy Henry Wallop.

Remarkably Richard was able to turn the table on his adversaries; not only did they fail to substantiate their allegations but Richard was able to produce evidence of several instances of fraud by Henry Wallop. Thus was the biter bit and Wallop found himself dismissed from office whilst Richard was exonerated and declared by Elizabeth I as "a man fit to be employed by ourselves". With the rebellion in Munster now partially suppressed Richard returned to Ireland where he was made clerk of the council of Munster and brought to a grateful queen the news of the victory at Kingsale in December 1601.

The real turning point in his career came in 1602 when he bought 12,000 acres of land in Cork, Waterford and Tipperary, which had previously been in the possession of Sir Walter Raleigh, for the sum of £1,500. Richard Boyle then set about improving these lands; he brought in English settlers, opened mines, established mills and ironworks, built bridges, harbours and roads, and founded or rebuilt the towns of Bandon, Clonakilty, Baltimore, Youghal, Middleton, Castlemartyr, Charleville and Doneraile, whilst order was maintained by his thirteen castles garrisoned by his own retainers. He was reported to have employed a total of 4,000 men on his lands, and within a few years he was the richest and most powerful man in Ireland.

Wealth brought with it political influence and the prospect of advancement and Richard duly became a privy councillor for Munster in 1606 and for Ireland in 1613. On the 26th October 1629 he was appointed one of the two Lords Justice of Ireland (a post which he held until 1633), whilst on the 9th November 1631 he was appointed Treasurer of Ireland, becoming a member of the English Privy Council in 1640. Wealth also brought forth a steady stream of honours, and having been knighted in 1603, he entered the Irish Peerage as the Baron of Youghal on the 6th September 1616, and on the 26th of October 1620 was further created Viscount Dungarvan and Earl of Cork also in the Peerage of Ireland.

Richard Boyle thus became not only the richest but the most politically powerful subject in Ireland.

However Richard Boyle's leading position in Ireland came to an end in 1633 with the arrival of Thomas Wentworth, appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1632. Thomas and Richard appear to have immediately disliked one another; Richard regarded Wentworth as "A most cursed man, to all Ireland and to me in particular", whilst Wentworth in turn regarded the Earl of Cork as a man who was "never known to deliver one truth". Unfortunately for Richard, it was Thomas Wentworth who now held authority in Ireland and he became the subjected of a campaign of intimidation. Wentworth forced him to remove his first wife's tomb from the choir at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin and rather arbitrarily deprived of his estates at Youghal.

In all this Thomas Wentworth acted with the support with the government back home in England who appeared to regard the Earl of Cork as something of an upstart. William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury was to commend his subordinate's action with the words; "No physic, better than a vomit if it be given in time, and therefore you have taken a very judicious course to administer one so early to my Lord of Cork. I hope it will do him good."

Faced with a number of such provocations Richard was somehow able to suppress any thoughts of retaliation and even affected an admiration for Thomas Wentworth. Unfortunately for the Earl of Strafford he made a great many more enemies in addition to Richard Boyle and he therefore found himself arrested and brought to trial in 1641 on the charge of 'subverting the fundamental laws of England and Ireland'. Although Richard was not actively involved in the prosecution, he travelled to England to appear as a witness against the Earl of Strafford during his trial and was said to have heartily approved of his conviction and subsequent execution.

As soon as Richard returned to Ireland he found that yet another rebellion had broken out and threatened to devastate Munster once more. Almost the final act of his life was to successfully organise resistance to these rebels and secure peace in his adopted country.

He finally died on or about the 15th of September 1643.

Richard Boyle's biography presents the archetypal tale of the transformation from rags to riches. Endowed with a particular gift for accumulating riches, his wealth is said to have surpassed that of the king himself, and with good reason he has been described as "the prototype of a capitalist entrepreneur"1 and "Ireland's Bill Gates"2. As always those born with the capacity to make money attract the suspicion of those who do not, who frequently ascribe such success to baser motives if not a propensity to commit acts of outright fraud.

Richard appears to have been sensitive to such charges and went to the trouble of writing an autobiography entitled 'True Remembrances' (first published in 1623 and updated in 1632) in which he was at pains to present his steady rise to a position of wealth and influence as being entirely the product of a benevolent diety. (His adopted motto was 'God's providence is mine inheritance'.) He thus regarded himself as "virtuous man free from ambition, whose wealth and possessions had come to him almost by default, and which he cherished only in so far as they could be employed to honour God, serve the king, strengthen the commonwealth and enhance the reputation of his family and posterity".

As we have seen there where those that did not share this view but to his successors he remained 'Great Earl of Cork' and the founder of the Boyle family in Ireland whose descendants retain the title of Earl of Cork to this day.

The children of Richard Boyle

Richard's first wife, Joan Aplsey died in childbirth in 1598 but on the 25th July 1603 he married again, his second wife being the well connected Catherine Fenton, daughter of Geoffrey Fenton former Secretary of State of Ireland. Catherine was only about fifteen when she married, whilst her husband was aged thirty-seven, nevertheless it appears to have been a happy marriage, at least from Richard's point of view as he was later to describe his wife as "the crown of all my blessings".

It was certainly a productive union. Catherine bore their first child some three years after they were married (a son named Roger who died later at the age of nine), and thereafter produced a steady stream of fifteen children born over a period of twenty-three years. Given Richard Boyle's position in Anglo-Irish society he was able to negotiate advantageous marriages for many of his daughters; Alice married the Earl of Barrymore, Joan the Earl of Kildare, Katherine the Viscount Ranelagh, and Mary the Earl of Warwick. A number of his sons were also to become prominent; his eldest surviving son Richard junior became, in due course, the second Earl of Cork and also gained himself the title of Earl of Burlington, Lewis Boyle became the Viscount Boyle of Kinalmeaky, Roger the Earl of Orrery, and Francis the Viscount Shannon.

However the best known of all his offspring received no peerage title, but Robert Boyle was able, thanks to his father's wealth, to pursue his intellectual studies and thus became the noted experimental physicist and chemist and author of the famous Boyle's Law.

1 Nicholas Canny quoted by Charles Mollan see below
2 Charles Mollan see below


  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for CORK, RICHARD BOYLE, IST EARL OF
  • Charles Mollan Ireland's greatest entrepreneur From The Irish Scientist Year Book 2003 see http://www.irishscientist.ie/2003/contents.asp?contentxml=03p6.xml&contentxsl=is03pages.xsl
  • Boyle, Richard, 1st earl of Cork: Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2004.

Further reading

Dorothea Townshend, The Life and Letters of the Great Earl of Cork, Duckworth, London, 1904.
Nicholas Canny, The Upstart Earl, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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