Sir Thomas de Rokeby, a soldier and senior Crown official in fourteenth-century England and Ireland, who serves as Justiciar of Ireland, dies on April 23, 1357. He is appointed to that office to restore law and order to Ireland, and has considerable early success in this task, but he is recalled to England after the military situation deteriorates. He is later re-appointed Justiciar, and returns to Ireland to take up office, but dies soon afterwards.
The Rokebys are a prominent landowning family from Mortham in North Yorkshire. He is probably the son of Thomas de Rokeby, who dies in 1318. His nephew, also named Thomas, the son of his brother Robert, is closely associated with him in his later years and the elder Thomas is often called “l’oncle” to distinguish him from his nephew.
Rokeby first comes to public attention in 1327 when, after his return from prison in Scotland, he receives the thanks of the new King Edward III for being the squire who had first pointed out the approach of the Scots army during the invasion of the previous July. As a reward he is knighted and given lands worth £100 a year. He sees action against the Scots regularly between 1336 and 1342 and has charge of Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle while they are held by the English. He is High Sheriff of Yorkshire from 1342 to 1349. He is one of the English commanders at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, and it is said, “gave the Scots such a draught as they did not care to taste again.” He is then entrusted with bringing King David II of Scotland as a captive to London, and he receives further grants of land as a reward for his good services.
In 1349 Rokeby is appointed Justiciar of Ireland, and given a large armed retinue to accompany him, as it is recognised by the English Crown that “Ireland is not in good plight or good peace.” While there is some surprise at the appointment of an old soldier to such a sensitive political position, the more informed view is that Rokeby is well suited to the task of enforcing justice by military force. He arrives in December and makes a quick circuit of the south of Ireland, mainly to keep watch on the powerful but troublesome magnate Maurice FitzGerald, 1st Earl of Desmond.
Rokeby is praised by his contemporaries for his regard for justice and his zeal in checking extortion by Crown officials. He undertakes a general overhaul of the Irish administration, aimed particularly at the detection and prevention of corruption and the removal of incompetent officials. Arguably he shows excessive zeal in arresting and imprisoning the Lord High Treasurer of Ireland, Robert de Emeldon, a man who enjoys the King’s personal regard. Admittedly the charges against Emeldon are very serious, including rape, robbery and manslaughter, but the King, out of regard for their long friendship and Emeldon’s record of good service to the Crown in Ireland, had already pardoned Emeldon for killing one Ralph de Byrton, a knight, in 1336. Emeldon is once more pardoned and quickly released.
In November 1351 Rokeby holds a Great Council at Kilkenny. It deals partly with the problem of official corruption already mentioned, partly with the problem of defence of the Pale, and partly with the question of intermarriage and other close contacts between the Anglo-Irish and the Old Irish. Otway-Ruthven notes that little of the legislation is new, apart from the application to Ireland of the English Statute of Labourers of 1351, and that much of it is repeated in the better-known Statutes of Kilkenny of 1366.
In 1353 the Clan MacCarthy of Muskerry, the dominant clan in central County Cork, who had until then been loyal to the English Crown, rebels. Rokeby shows considerable skill in crushing the uprising and succeeds in replacing the rebellious head of the clan, Dermot MacCarthy, with his more compliant cousin Cormac. Cormac’s descendants gain great wealth, extensive lands and the title Earl of Clancarty.
This promising state of good order does not last long. A rebellion by the O’Byrne Clan of Wicklow in 1354 is followed by a general uprising headed by the MacMurrough-Kavanagh dynasty. Although Muirchearteach MacMurrough-Kavanagh, the self-styled King of Leinster, is captured and executed, Rokeby suffers several military defeats. He is unable to suppress the O’Byrnes’ rebellion, and other risings take place in Tipperary, Kildare and Ulster.
Rokeby, now an ageing and discouraged man, is recalled in 1355. His replacement, rather surprisingly, is that Earl of Desmond whom it had been one of his main tasks to keep in check. Desmond dies a year later on July 26, 1356. Rokeby is reappointed Justiciar, and returns to Ireland, only to die soon afterwards on April 23, 1357 at Kilkea Castle.
Rokeby is married and his wife is named Juliana, but little else is known of her. They have no children, and his estates pass to his nephew, the younger Thomas.
(Pictured: Portrait of Sir Thomas de Rokeby, painting by Godfried Schalcken)