Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Comerford Profiles 2: William Comerford (ca. 1486-ca. 1539): the Reformation Dean of Ossory

2.1: Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny ... William Comerford was dean of the cathedral for 30 years from 1509 until 1539 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

William Comerford (ca. 1486-ca. 1539) was the Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, for about thirty years from 1509 to 1539, holding office at the time of the Reformation and while the Reformation Parliament met in Kilkenny. However, very little has been written about his life,[1] his origins have been obscured by fanciful family myths and his own apparent testimony, and some historians have managed to omit his name from the lists of the Deans of Saint Canice’s.

Compared with other Church dignitaries born in Co Kilkenny, William Comerford receives little attention from Canon William Carrigan in his four-volume history of the Diocese of Ossory, published at the beginning of the 20th century.[2] And, despite indications in the Ormond Deeds that he was a nephew of his predecessor as Dean of Ossory, Edmund Comerford, the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns (see: Comerford Profiles 1: Edmund Comerford (d. 1509): the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns), it now appears that William Comerford was the bishop’s own illegitimate son, and was imposed on the chapter of Saint Canice’s Cathedral as dean in a series of acts of naked and brazen nepotism that defied not only the chapter of Kilkenny but the Vatican itself.

Sources for William Comerford’s life

Grattan Flood, Carrigan and Leslie were working before the Ormond Deeds were edited by Edmund Curtis in the 1930s and 1940s, and until the publication of the Calendar of Papal Letters by the Irish Manuscripts Commission at the end of the 20th century, much of the information about William Comerford’s life and his “uncle” the bishop came from either the Ormond papers, or was distilled through information gleaned by Carrigan in the years after the publication of his history and still contained in his unpublished notebooks in the library of Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny.

The difficulties in establishing the dean’s family background were compounded by an official family tree registered in the Genealogical Office, Dublin, in 1724 on behalf of Joseph Comerford by Sir William Hawkins, Ulster King of Arms.[3] That pedigree claimed that Bishop Edmund Comerford was the second son of “Fucus de Comerford” of Danganmore, Co Kilkenny. However, the document has little to do with historical facts and more to do with the fanciful claims of this colourful 18th century merchant from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and his pursuit of the titles of Baron of Danganmore and Marquis d’Anglure and his claims to kinship with the Comberford family of Staffordshire. This pedigree has since caused difficulties for everyone researching Comerford family history: although dismissed in a pencilled note by George Dames Burtchaell.[4]

Now, however, the publication of the Calendar of Papal Letters has revealed the interesting details of William Comerford’s parentage, and make it worth reassessing the career of one of the richest most powerful cathedral deans in the in the south-east of Ireland at the time of the Reformation.[5]

Family background

Despite Joseph Comerford’s genealogical fantasies, the Comerfords Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford originated in the village of Quemerford in Wiltshire.[6]

Documents from the time William Comerford was Dean of Saint Canices’s show that he was closely related to the Ballybur branch of the family, and was probably a nephew of Richard Comerford, who established himself at Ballybur in the early 16th century. In 1520, while he was Dean of Saint Canice’s, William described himself as “heir of Richard and Edmund Comerford,” but the only land-holding Richard Comerford of note in Co Kilkenny at the time was Richard Comerford (ca 1462-post 1532), who came into the possession of Ballybur, Co Kilkenny, through his marriage to Ellen Freny (or French), daughter and co-heir of Patrick fitzFulk Freny, and heiress of Ballymaclaphry and of the moiety of the manor of Ballymacuogue, Co Wexford.[7] Richard Comerford ‘Senior’ was still living on 23 June 1532, then aged 70,[8] and was the ancestor of the Comerford families of Ballybur, Kilkenny City, and Bunclody, Co Wexford.

William Comerford’s parentage

William Comerford’s father, Bishop Edmund Comerford, was educated at Oxford[9] and entered the priesthood as an Augustinian friar. At first, he may have been attached to either the Augustinians at Saint John’s Hospital in Kilkenny, or their priory in Callan, his probable home town.

In 1486, as “Edmund Comortun,” he was a canon in the chapter of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.[10] A year later, in 1487, Edmund Comerford became Rector of Saint Martin’s or Tompugh and Dean of Saint Canice’s.[11] By now, Edmund was living openly with an woman, whose name has not been passed down to us, and sometime after he became a canon but before he became Dean, or around 1486-1487, she gave birth to a son, William Comerford, who would later claim some of his father’s offices and seek respectability by disguising his origins and claiming Edmund was his uncle rather than his father.[12]

However, the child’s parentage probably remained secret for another few years, except in the files of the Vatican and the Lateran.

In 1493, Edmund Comerford’s position was endangered when he was accused of involvement in the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck and he was ordered in Parliament to resign as dean. However, his connections with the Butlers of Ormond appear to have helped him and he was acquitted of the charges.[13]

In 1498, Edmund Comerford became Rector of Saint Mary’s, Callan, and Prior of Saint John’s, Kilkenny.[14] He continued to hold office as Prior of Saint John’s and Dean of Saint Canice’s at the same time.[15]

Dispensation for ordination

Meanwhile, Papal officials in Rome knew that Edmund Comerford was living with a woman who was in effect his wife, and allowed him to petition for a dispensation allowing his young son, William Comerford, to be ordained to the priesthood. On 14 May 1502, a mandate was issued in the Papal Court in the Lateran to the Prior of Inistioge, the Dean of Waterford, and Robert Heydan, a canon of Cashel Cathedral, in which the Papal authorities gave instructions that William Comerford was to succeed Maurus Olealonyr (Maurice Lalor) as Rector of the Parish of Culcrahyn, and the parish was to be made a prebend for his personal benefit in Ossory Cathedral.[16]

In the mandate, it was conceded that William Comerford was born “the son of the dean, then a chaplain, of the Church of Ossory, an unmarried woman,” and that despite his illegitimacy, delicately described as “a defect of birth,” he had been ordained or “marked with clerical character.”[17]

So, despite the knowledge in the Papal court on Rome about Edmund Comerford’s domestic arrangements, William Comerford was given a life-time sinecure as a canon in the chapter of the cathedral where his father was the dean, and he was to become the rector of the parish that Edmund Comerford, as Dean of Ossory, had held onto in 1491 despite a legal battle over claims to patronage of the parish. It was a blatant case of nepotism, corruption and disregard for the moral standards of the day, but it appears to have done little damage to either father or son and their personal, political and ecclesiastical ambitions.

Bishop of Ferns

On 11 April 1505, there is a reference in the Vatican Registers to “Edmund Chimunfurt” in Kilkenny “who claims to be a cleric” and who is holding the deanery of Ossory.[18] However, there were no questions about Edmund’s clerical status, and within weeks he had been appointed Bishop of Ferns, and was consecrated in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.[19] Not surprisingly, Edmund continued to hold office both as Dean of Saint Canice’s and as Prior of Saint John’s, Kilkenny, throughout his episcopacy. We find him as Prior of Saint John’s between 22 August 1506 and 22 August 1507,[20] and as Dean of Saint Canice’s on 25 and 26 October 1508.[21]

In November 1506, a dispute arose in the Diocese of Ossory over the parish of Coolraheen, where William Comerford was the Rector.[22] The Bishop of Ferns, Edmund Comerford, was asked by the Lateran to adjudicate in the dispute, although it must have been obvious to all that the bishop was going to find in favour of his own son. In the Diocese of Ferns, a separate dispute arose over who was the rightful incumbent (parish priest or rector) of the parishes of Kilrnys (?Kilrane) and Saint Cormac (Kilcormack) in Co Wexford. In a mandate to a number of senior ecclesiastical figures in the Dioceses of Ferns and Ossory aimed at settling these disputes, the Papal officials admitted that one of these officials, Canon William Comorthyn (i.e., Comerford), had received an apostolic or papal dispensation some years earlier allowing him to be ordained to the priesthood although he was the son of an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.[23]

Canon William Comerford and the other officials were ordered to summon Bishop Edmund Comerford and the Chapter of Ferns so that the disputed parishes could be wrested from Thomas Val (Wall) of the Diocese of Waterford and given to one William Lassi (Lacy). Here again, the nepotism was blatant, with William Comerford being asked to invite his own father to adjudicate in an ecclesiastical court.

Appointment as Dean of Ossory

2.2: The seal of the Dean and Chapter of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny

Within the next two or three years, William Comerford became Dean of Ossory on papal orders issued at the end of 1508 after a series of events involving William and his father.

On 25 October 1508, Edmund Comerford was still Dean of Saint Canice’s when he was described as ‘venerabilis vir Edmundus Comerford, Decanus ecclesiaes S Canici, Kilkeniae.’[24] Within weeks, though, it emerged that although Edmund Comerford had retained the Deanery of Ossory while he was Bishop of Ferns, he had done so without papal permission. The Vatican learned that Edmund had “detained” the Deanery of Ossory “without any title or support of law in respect of it but of his own temerity and de facto for a certain time as he still does.”[25]

2.3: Pope Alexander VI: ordered the appointment of William Comerford as Dean of Ossory

Pope Alexander VI ordered Walter Weslelley, a canon of Kildare Cathedral, and two canons of Ferns, Donald Lacy and James Machduyll (Doyle) to summon “Bishop Edmund and others concerned.” But in another concession to an already corrupt administration, although they were to remove Edmund from office, they were to hand over the position of Dean to “William Qum’ford” (i.e. Comerford), a canon of Ossory.[26]

However, the Vatican recognised that there were three difficulties in removing Edmund Comerford and replacing with this other member of the family: William Comerford was still a minor, there were questions about whether he had been validly ordained because he was underage, and once again it emerged that William was also the illegitimate son of Edmund Comerford and an unmarried woman, born when Edmund was still only a canon of Saint Canice’s.[27]

Pope Alexander VI now moved to remedy any defects and gave William yet another papal dispensation, allowing him to be tonsured and ordained should he have reached the canonically legal age. These concessions appear to have been retrospective in their application; it was agreed William was to be installed as a canon and a prebendary of Kilkenny Cathedral and the Pope decreed that despite “the defects of birth and of age,” William should be installed as Dean of Saint Canice’s “immediately” and given the other dignities and at least two parishes to ensure he had a proper income to accompany the dignity of his new ecclesiastical offices. William was not bound to be ordained to the priesthood for a further seven years, provided that within two years he became a subdeacon, although this too may have been merely a retrospective clause in case of any irregularities in William’s previous preferments, and he was allowed not to reside in any of the parishes he acquired while he was studying at university.[28]

Within months, Bishop Comerford was dead – he died on Easter Day, 8 April 1509.[29]

The Reformation dean

On an initial reading, it might seem that the case of the dean, his illegitimacy and his errant father had been brought to the attention of the Vatican by outraged, jealous or rival Irish clergy, hoping to remove William Comerford and his father, Edmund Comerford, from some of the many offices they had accumulated.

However, this is unlikely, for the astonishing fact remains that only weeks before his death, Bishop Edmund Comerford had obtained Papal approval for passing on the office of Dean of Saint Canice’s, which he had retained illegally, to his own illegitimate son, a bewildering feat of hereditary churchmanship that would have shocked Edmund Comerford’s contemporary Augustinian, Martin Luther, and others demanding reform of the Church at the time.

William Comerford appears to have held office a Dean in Kilkenny for almost 30 years, from early 1509 until 1539.[30]

At a local level, William used his office of dean to play a key role in the politics throughout the region: as Wilelmus Quemerford decanus ossoriensis, he was among the witnesses to a deed on 9 April 1519 involving the efforts to enforce claims to the prisage of wine between New Ross and Waterford by Pierce Butler (ca 1467-1539), 8th Earl of Ormond. Ormond’s legitimacy had been secured 18 years earlier in 1501 in a celebrated court case over his parents’ wedding, and an important role had been played in that case by William’s father, Bishop Edmund Comerford.[31]

By then, William had long secured his office and his social respectability. A year later, in 1520, 11 years after Edmund Comerford’s death, William described himself as heir or Richard Comerford and Edmund Comerford. On 9 August 1520, Richard Comerford and William Comerford, Dean of Saint Canice’s, son of Philip Comerford and heir of Richard Comerford and Edmund Comerford, admitted themselves bound to Piers Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, in £100 Sterling. Four seals are attached to this document, which has been kept in the Ormond collection of papers, and which provided the first real historical clues to Edmund Comerford’s family connections – unlike the family tree composed for Joseph Comerford 200 years later there were no references to any ‘Fucus de Comerford’ of Danganmore, real or imagined, but neither was there any acknowledgment that William Comerford was the illegitimate son of the Bishop of Ferns.[32]

William Comerford was still in office as Dean of Saint Canice’s on 7 February 1523, and on 4 October 1532.[33]

When the wealth of the Church in the southern part of Ireland was surveyed in 1537, it emerged that the Dean of Saint Canice’s had the third largest income of the cathedral deans in the Church of Ireland. Outstripped only by the dean of the fabulously wealthy Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and the Dean of Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns. The annual income of the Dean of Saint Canice’s was estimated at £27.13s.4d., while the Dean of Saint Patrick’s could boast £145 and the Dean of Ferns had £33.6s.8d a year. The deans of Waterford, Cashel and Leighlin were all notably poorer than their neighbouring colleague in Kilkenny, Dean William Comerford.[34]

As dean, William Comerford was now becoming a witness to the major turmoils of the age during his time as Dean of Saint Canice’s: the Reformation Parliament that proclaimed Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Irish Church, met briefly in Kilkenny while William was Dean of Saint Canice’s. In 1538, when the Royal Commissioners came to Kilkenny to proclaim the royal injunctions against the Pope, they received a warm welcome in the city and in his cathedral.[35]

William Comerford’s successor as Dean of Saint Canice’s, James Cleere, is not named until 1539. So, it appears William Comerford held office a Dean in Kilkenny for almost 30 years, between 1509 and 1539.[36] And so William Comerford, who had benefited from Papal dispensations handed down in the Vatican and in the Lateran by Pope Alexander VI, managed to hold on to his office by welcoming the first stages of the Reformation in Ireland, making father and son, Bishop Edmund Comerford and Dean William Comerford, the last pre-Reformation and the first post-Reformation Deans of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.

References and footnotes

[1] This essay includes information first published in my paper, ‘The last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns and his ‘nephew’, the Dean of Ossory,’ Journal of the Wexford Historical Society, No. 20 (2004/2005), pp 156-72.
[2] William Carrigan, The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory (4 vols, Dublin, 1905), passim.
[3] Genealogical Office Dublin,, Mss No 160, ff 102-104.
[4] The pencilled note in Burtchaell’s hand reads: ‘All this is pure and unadulterated rubbish.’ G.O. Mss No 160, f. 102.
[5] Calendar of Papal Letters relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol 19, 1503-1513, Julius II Lateran Registers, Part 2 (ed M.J. Haren, Dublin, 1998) # 75, pp 40-41.
[6] See my ‘The Comerford family: How origins became confused,’ Old Kilkenny Review, No 24 (1972), pp 29-32. This paper dismisses the claims that the Comerfords of Kilkenny were descended from the Comberfords of Comberford, Staffordshire; since then, my research has brought me to conclude that similar claims on behalf of the Comerfords of Co Wexford must also be rejected, and to hold that the Comerfords of Co Wexford are the same family as the Comerfords of Co Kilkenny and Co Waterford. See my ‘John Comerford of Ballybur (1598-1667): tracing his later life,’ Old Kilkenny Review, No 46 (1994), pp 22-36.
[7] Carrigan 3, pp 393-394; Healy i, p. 61; Burke’s Peerage, various eds., s.v. de Freyne (1851).
[8]Ormond 4, pp 155-156.
[9] Foster 1, p. 314; AB Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to AD 1500 (Oxford, 1957), p. 475 (although he says Anth Woods gives no authority for this statement); Cotton 2, pp 293, 334.
[10] Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Papal Letters, vol 14, 1484-1492, ed. J.A. Twemlow (London, 1960), p. 117.
[11] Carrigan 1, p. 237, 4, p. 333; Carrigan Mss, notebook dated 1920 (National Library of Ireland, Dublin, microfilm Pos 909), f. 52. Comerford is not named in Leslie’s list of the Vicars of Saint Martin’s (see Leslie, Ossory, p. 352), but Leslie points out that the Vicars Choral of Saint Canice’s served in turn as vicars of this parish and that the rectory was impropriate in the Vicars Choral. In the Church of Ireland, the parish is now part of Kilkenny Union, with the dean as rector.
[12] See Calendar of Ormond Deeds 4, p. 60; R.J. Hayes (ed), Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilisation (Boston, 1965), 1, p. 655.
[13] Carrigan 3, pp 250-251.
[14] Carrigan Mss, loc. cit., Calendar of Papal Letters Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol 18, Part 1, 1495-1503, Alexander VI (ed. AP Fuller, Dublin, 1994), # 575, p. 369, citing Reg. Lat. 1093, fols 391v-394v. Cantwell, Oclere and Comerford are not listed by Leslie in the rectors and vicars of Callan, although Sir Dermot O’Clery was vicar in 1510 and very old; Cantwell is probably the same John Cantwell who became Precentor of Ossory and died on 18 November 1531 (Leslie, Ossory, pp 212-213).
[15] Leslie, Ossory, p. 57; Ormond 3, pp 269-270, 296-299, 329.
[16] Cal Pap Lett 18, Part 1, # 645, p. 405, citing Reg Lat 1098, fos 109r-110r. Neither Oleanlonyr nor Comerford is mentioned by Leslie in reference to this parish, see Leslie, Ossory, p. 234.
[17] Cal Pap Lett 18, Part 1, # 645, p. 405, citing Reg Lat 1098, fos 109r-110r
[18] Calendar of Papal Letters Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol 18, Pius II and Julius II, Vatican Registers (1503-1513), Lateran Registers (1503-1513) (ed. MJ Haren, Dublin, 1989), # 21, p. 20, citing Reg. Vat. 901, fos 65v-71v.
[19] Cotton 2, p. 334; Grattan Flood (1916), p. xi; Grattan Flood (1899), pp 172-173; Cal Pap Lett 19, # 2031-2032, p. 596.
[20] Carrigan 3, p. 252.
[21] ibid., p. 237; iv, p. 333; Calendar of Ormond Deeds 3, pp 329; Leslie, Ossory, p. 57, quoting Ormond Mss then in Kilkenny Castle; Hayes 1, p. 653.
[22] Cal Pap Lett 18 # 616, citing Reg. Lat. 1180, fos 313r-315r. Comerford is not listed by Leslie for this parish, see Leslie, Ossory, p. 234.
[23] Cal Pap Lett 18 # 783, p. 540, citing Reg. Lat. 1194, fos 312r-316v.
[24] Grattan Flood (1899), p. 172.
[25] Cal Pap Lett 18 # 75, p. 40, citing Reg. Lat.
[26] do.
[27] ibid., p. 41.
[28] do.
[29] Grattan Flood (1899), pp 172-173; Grattan Flood (1916), p. xi; Leslie, Ossory, p. 57; Cotton 2, p. 334.
[30] Leslie, Ossory, p. 57; see Ormond 3, p. 321, where William is Dean of Saint Canice’s on 7 February 1523.
[31] Ormond 3, p. 239.
[32] Ormond 4, p. 60; Hayes 1, p. 655.
[33] Ormond 3, p. 321; Newport D White (ed), Irish Monastic and Episcopal Deeds 1200-1600 (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1936), p. 18.
[34] Gillespie, pp 49-50.
[35] Gillespie, pp 51-52.
[36] Leslie, Ossory, p. 57; see Ormond 3, p. 321, where William is Dean of Saint Canice’s on 7 February 1523.

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