In December 1661 Roger Palmer was created Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine by Charles II. Palmer’s elevation to the peerage was thanks to his wife – from whom he was by this date already estranged – Barbara Villiers, the king’s maîtresse-en-titre. She had already given birth to one child and over the next dozen years would go on to have another six, none of them by her husband (an indication of their paternity is that they were all given the surname FitzRoy, although the last of them – also called Barbara – is widely thought to have been the result of an affair between her mother and John Churchill, future Duke of Marlborough). Palmer was quiet and studious, devoted to both the Stuart cause and to his Roman Catholic faith; as a result of the latter, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on several occasions. Beautiful, wilful, promiscuous, Barbara Villiers was temperamentally unsuited to be his wife: before the marriage, Palmer’s father had warned the groom that she would make him one of the most miserable men in the world. The prediction proved correct. Her infidelity – and not just with the king – was widely known and being granted an earldom only had the effect of making Palmer the most famous cuckold of the era; it is notable that he never took his seat in the Irish House of Lords (although he was happy to use the title). Barbara Villiers would go on to be created Duchess of Cleveland in her own right, and to receive many presents from the crown, not least the great Tudor palace of Nonsuch, which she arranged to have pulled down, so that the materials could be sold to pay her gambling debts. She also persuaded Charles II to grant her Dublin’s Phoenix Park, but the Lord Lieutenant of the time, James Butler, Duke of Ormond – with whom she had a long-standing feud – successfully ensured that the land did not pass into her hands.
Why was Roger Palmer given Irish, rather than English, titles? Both his family and that of Barbara Villiers had links with this country. On the latter’s side, the connection began with Sir Edward Villiers, born in Leicestershire and the elder half-brother of the early 17th century’s best-known royal favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. In 1625, James I appointed Edward Villiers as Lord President of Munster: this may have come about because Villiers’ wife Barbara St John was a niece of the Tudor adventurer Oliver St John, who had previously held the same office (he also became Lord Deputy of Ireland), and who in 1620 was created Viscount Grandison of Limerick. Since he had no male heir, it was arranged that William Villiers, eldest son of his niece Barbara (wife of Edward Villiers), should inherit the title. The notorious Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, was William Villiers’ daughter. In due course, a member of the Villiers family inter-married with the FitzGeralds of County Waterford: their descendants live still at Dromana, County Waterford.
The origin of the Palmers’ association with Ireland is less clear. It would appear that around the middle of the 17th century, one Thomas Palmer, son of a Norfolk landowner, came to this country and when he died without issue, his brother Roger inherited the deceased sibling’s property here. A grant of land in County Mayo to this Roger Palmer was confirmed by the crown in 1684 (two years earlier, his name had been included in an address of loyalty to Charles II from the nobility and gentry of the same county). Successive generations, usually with the same name of Roger, followed and in 1777 one of these was granted a baronetcy. Sir Roger, as he now became, had some 25 years earlier married Eleanore Ambrose, daughter of a wealthy Dublin brewer. Miss Ambrose was a Roman Catholic whose good looks and ready wit had previously caught the attention of Lord Chesterfield while he was serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. On one occasion, he informed George II that he had found only one ‘dangerous papist’ in the country – Eleanor Ambrose – since ‘the brightness of her eyes and the charms of her conversations are indeed perilous.’ At a ball in Dublin Castle to mark the birthday of William III, Miss Ambrose appeared wearing orange lilies on her bodice. Lord Chesterfield wrote her the following lines:
‘Tell me Ambrose, where’s the jest
Of wearing orange on thy breast,
When underneath that bosom shows
The whiteness of the rebel rose?’
The Palmer baronetcy continued until the death without heirs of Sir Roger Palmer, fifth baronet, in 1910. By that date, through a series of judicious marriages, the family owned some 115,000 acres in Ireland, Wales and England.
When Roger Palmer was created a baronet in 1777, it was as Sir Roger Palmer of Castle Lackin. This was an estate in County Mayo, some miles north of Killala, the same land the grant of 1684 had confirmed as belonging to his ancestor. It would appear that around the same time Sir Roger received his baronetcy, he embarked on building a fine residence, looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean and known as Castle Lackin. This was a long, two-storey house, its rather plain exterior distinguished by with a wide curved bow at one end and a sequence of yards, some of them surrounded with battlemented walls and accessed through a pair of castellated gate piers. It is difficult to know how much time the Palmers ever spent in this beautiful but remote spot, since they also had a number of properties in which to live, not least Kenure Park on the outskirts of Dublin, Cefn Park in North Wales and Glen Island in Berkshire. Early in the 19th century, the house was occupied by James Cuffe, first Lord Tyrawley, and subsequently by his daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Charles Knox. In 1841, it was leased to Edward Knox and valued at £58. However, by 1911 – a year after the last baronet’s death – the house was listed as vacant, and in 1916 the former Palmer estate in Mayo was sold to the Congested Districts’ Board. Within a couple of decades, the house here had become derelict, and that remains the case.
For more information on the Palmer estates in County Mayo, readers are encouraged to see The Impact of the Great Famine on Sir William Palmer’s estates in Mayo, 1840-49 by David Byrne (2021).