The story of Henry Conway and the Plantation of Londonderry
Henry Conway was sent to Ireland in 1623 by the Vintners’ Company to resolve the finances of Vintnerstown, formerly Bellaghy, the main settlement of the Vintners’ Portion in the barony of Loughinsholin; the town had been granted to the Company in 1613 as part of the plantation of Londonderry. Henry’s relationship with the company was tenuous but his position was improved by the intervention of the Crown which led to the compilation of the Great Parchment Book. However, it was disrupted again during the 1641 Irish Rebellion when he was accused of acting “most treacherously”. Dr Bethany Marsh from the University of Oxford tells the story of Henry and looks at sources for tracing refugees who travelled to London after the outbreak of the Rebellion.
The Vintners Company and the Plantation of Ireland
On the 17 December 1613 a meeting was held at the Guildhall in London to determine which parcels of land would be allocated to the livery companies of London for the plantation of Londonderry in Ireland. The Vintners’ Company, one of the Great Twelve livery companies, was granted 32,600 acres of land in the barony of Loughinsholin. The first agent to be employed by the Company was named Henry Jackson, who arrived in Ireland in 1614. Jackson chose the town of Bellaghy to be the main settlement of the Vintners portion and renamed the town Vintnerstown. The construction of new houses began in 1615, but progress was slow. Consequently, the Company employed John Rowley to continue the work.
Rowley had been an eminent figure in the early years of the plantation. In 1610 he had been appointed as the Chief Agent for the Honourable the Irish Society of London (the consortium of livery companies invested in the plantation of Ireland) and served as the Mayor of Londonderry. Rowley, however, was known to be a sly character. He was found guilty of defrauding city expenses in Londonderry to line his own pockets, though surprisingly he was never dismissed from office.
In 1617 Rowley died and his land in Bellaghy devolved to Baptist Jones, who had been an Agent for the Salters’ Company. Like Rowley, Jones was also of questionable character. In 1616 he was arrested by the Salters’ on the charges of misappropriating funds and failing to fulfil the duties of his commission. The court found him innocent, but the Salters’ Company pushed him to vacate his land and paid him £291 11s 8d in settlement costs. Shortly following his dismissal, Jones formed a partnership with Rowley. Upon Rowley’s death, the Vintners’ Company granted Jones a new fifty seven year lease of land at an annual rent of £120.
While Jones’s trustworthiness as an Agent was dubious, significant building work was completed in Bellaghy under his supervision. In a survey of the Londonderry plantation, conducted by Captain Nicholas Pynnar between 1618 and 1619, it was noted:
“[Bellaghy] is in the Hands of Baptist Jones, Esq., who hath built a Bawn [fortified house or castle] of Brick and Lime, 100 feet square, with two round Flankers, and a good Rampart, which is more than any of the rest have done.”
In 1618 Jones also secured funds to build a church, though his financial troubles meant the building of the church was not completed for several years. Regardless, Jones received a knighthood in 1621 for his work on the plantation. By 1622 many of the buildings in Bellaghy were complete. Thomas Raven’s map of the town shows fifteen timber-framed houses with brick gables, the Bawn at the top of the main street, a market cross and a church.
The appointment of Henry Conway
In 1623 Jones died leaving debts of over £300 to the Vintners’ Company. These debts were taken up by Henry Conway, who was sent to Ireland by the Company to resolve the town’s finances. Conway married Jones’s widow, Elizabeth, and was granted a lease of fifty one years in 1625, on the condition that he pay off Jones’s debts.
Conway was likely appointed due to his military background. The Native Irish were regarded widely in England as barbarous and needed to be bought under control. It was believed that this could be achieved by “rooting out or transporting the barbarous or stubborn sort, and planting civility in their rooms”. In practical terms this meant imposing English laws and customs through the plantation of English and Scottish Protestants. As Edmund Spenser, a poet and advocate of the plantation scheme, wrote: “Nothing doth sooner cause civility in any country than many market towns by reason that the people repairing often thither for their needs will daily learn civil manners”. Military men were essential for protecting the new plantations, particularly following outbreaks of violence against settlers in 1623. Conway had served as a cornet under Sir Arthur Chichester making him an attractive Agent for the Company.
Henry Conway and the Great Parchment Book
Conway’s position with the Vintners’ Company, however, appears tenuous. Throughout the 1620s and 1630s he failed to pay back the money owed to the Company, leaving him dependent on the support of his influential relatives to secure his future. Conway particularly relied on his kinship with Sir Edward Conway, appointed Secretary of State in England in 1623. Sir Edward wrote to Sir William Blake, “being a chief Instrument for the plantation of Ulster in Ireland”, in 1628 requesting Blake to use his connections with the Vintners’ Company to extend Conway’s lease in Londonderry. The implication being that Conway was possibly in danger of losing his estate for failing to pay Jones’s debts.
In the 1630s Conway’s position significantly improved due to the intervention of the Crown. In a case held in the court of Star Chamber it was declared that the London Companies had failed to fulfil their duties of plantation, resulting in the forfeit of all livery company estates to the Crown. By claiming these estates, King Charles I gained the power to create new and more profitable contracts for leases. The Great Parchment Book outlines these new contracts, including a new lease created for Henry Conway [ff. M6r-M7v]. Conway was granted lands in Bellaghy, including the town’s Bawn, and lands in the surrounding area. In return for these lands Conway had to build two “good and sufficient houses of timber, stone or brick in the manner and fashion of English houses”, plant “fifty young trees of oak, ash, and elm fit and likely to grow to be timber trees”, and keep five muskets, five corselets and pikes.
Henry Conway and the 1641 rebellion
On the evening of the 23 October 1641 armed rebellion broke out in Ulster. Members of the Catholic Irish gentry sought reparations for the loss of their lands to Protestant settlers, but the violence soon spread amongst the rest of the Irish Catholic population. The upheaval caused by the rebellion affected everyone in Ireland in some form, including Henry Conway. The vicar of Bellaghy, Charles Anthony, recounted that upon hearing news of the rebellion Conway persuaded all the residents of the town to retreat to the safety of his Bawn. Charles Anthony’s full account can be read on the 1641 Depositions website – MS 839, ff. 096r-097v, Deposition of Charles Anthony (12 June 1642).
It would be a mistake, however, to regard Conway as heroic. From the outset of the rebellion he denied military assistance to neighbouring towns who needed help resisting the rebels. Secret letters were also sent by Conway to rebel leaders to arrange terms of surrender. According to Robert Waringe, a resident of the nearby town of Magherafelt, Conway was in communication with Sir Pheilm O’Neill, an Irish nobleman who was one of the rebellion’s chief conspirators. They agreed that the town would surrender and in exchange the town’s inhabitants would be allowed to leave safely and Conway could retain his personal possessions. For Waringe, Conway acted “most treacherously” and “basely suffered this deponent and the rest that were protestants to be despoiled of their arms and ammunition and left all the other arms and ammunition…to the rebels” [MS 839, ff. 108r-111v, Deposition of Robert Waringe (12 August 1642)].
Refugees and the London metropolis
It is unclear where Conway and his family fled following the surrender of Bellaghy. Like many refugees, it is possible they travelled to England, Scotland, Wales or the Continent for safety and relief. Between 1641 and 1651 thousands of refugees fled to England in the wake of the Irish rebellion and subsequent Confederate Wars, with a large number fleeing specifically to London. The London metropolis was the economic and political hub of the nation, including within its environs the city of Westminster, the Royal Court, the Court of Burgesses, both Houses of Parliament, Guildhall, the Royal Exchange and the port of London. London’s political and economic importance attracted thousands of economic migrants, both foreign and domestic. Consequently, the population of the capital grew significantly during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By the 1650s London was the largest urban centre in Western Europe, with a population of around 400,000. In perspective, Norwich was the second largest city in England at this time and had a population of only around 20,000 to 30,000. London was a popular destination for wandering refugees by virtue of its size. The large migrant population in the capital made it easier for refugees to find permanent settlement, in comparison to smaller towns and villages where they would be recognised more readily as strangers and likely asked to move out of the area. The presence of Parliament was also attractive to refugees as those of a higher social status were able to petition Parliament for financial assistance.
The accounts of parish officers – churchwardens, constables and overseers of the poor – held at London Metropolitan Archives give an indication of the number of refugees who travelled to London after the outbreak of the Irish rebellion. Churchwardens in the parishes of St. Dunstan in the West and St. Dunstan in the East, for instance, provided relief to a minimum of 502 and 305 refugees respectively between 1641 and 1651. In some accounts the parish officers included interesting details about the people who fled Ireland. Mary Langhon, for example, received 2s 6d on 7 June 1644. She was travelling with her daughter and two grandchildren, their husbands having been “slain in Ireland” [P69/DUN2/B/011/MS02968/003, f. 678v, St. Dunstan in the West Churchwardens’ Accounts (1641-1645)]. On 11 September 1648 Elizabeth Leader received 1s. Elizabeth was a “poor widow whose husband and 2 of her children were killed at Waterford in Ireland by the Rebels and she herself so wounded that a piece of her skull was taken out of her head and lay a long time in the hospital for cure of her wounds” [P69/DUN2/B/011/MS02968/004, f. 100r, St. Dunstan in the West Churchwardens’ Accounts (1645-1651)]. Moreover, on 24 January 1642 Ellen Bourke received 2s in relief, her “husband was burnt in Ireland” [P69/DUN1/B/008/MS07882/001, St. Dunstan in the East Churchwardens’ Account Book (1635-1661), p. 174].
By 1659 Henry Conway had reclaimed his property in Bellaghy, amounting to 508 acres, which he likely retained until his death. On the surface Conway’s life appears to have left very little mark on the history of the Londonderry plantation or indeed the history of seventeenth century Ireland. His inability to pay the debts of his predecessor, Baptist Jones, meant his relationship with the Vintners’ Company waned over the course of the 1620s. The intervention of the Crown in the 1630s allowed Conway to retain his land under a new contract, but the disruption of the 1641 rebellion meant he was unable to fulfil the terms of his lease and improve the town of Bellaghy any further. Conway’s actions during the 1641 Irish rebellion, however, have left one significant legacy. Conway’s agreement with Sir Pheilm O’Neill ensured the survival of the Bellaghy Bawn. While most plantation castles and fortified houses were destroyed during the rebellion, the Bellaghy Bawn was spared and stands today as a monument to the history of the Jacobean plantation scheme and the 1641 rebellion. The Bawn is now a museum and is open to visitors all thanks to the “treachery” of Henry Conway.
Hill, An Historical Account of the Plantation in Ulster at the Commencement of the Seventeenth Century 1608-1620 (Belfast, 1877), p. 586.
C. Dickinson and G. Donaldson (eds.), A Source Book of Scottish History (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1961), III, p. 261.
B. Grosart (ed.), The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser (9 vols., London 1882), IX, p. 247.
The Down Survey of Ireland, accessed 30.03.2020.
Stedall, Men of Substance: The London Livery Companies’ Reluctant Part in the Plantation of Ulster (London, 2016).
Clarke, ‘The Colonisation of Ulster and the rebellion of 1641’, in T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin (eds.), The Course of Irish History (Revised and enlarged edition, Dublin, 2001), pp. 152-164.