The story of the Wingfields at Powerscourt begins with a grant of lands in north Wicklow to Sir Richard Wingfield (1550 – 1634) by Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. Richard was an army officer and adventurer from Sussex who arrived in Ireland during the Tudor conquest, soon after Elizabeth took the throne. He was the nephew of Sir William Fitzwilliam who probably arranged to have him come to Ireland. As well as soldiering on the continent, Richard was involved in the Nine Years’ War in Armagh fighting against the Earl of Tyrone’s Irish forces in 1594. After an injury, he returned to England, where family legend records that Queen Elizabeth, wishing to reward her “faithful and beloved soldier” for his soldiering, asked Sir Richard what he would like as a reward. He replied that “the scarf which Your Majesty wears will be sufficient reward for me.” The portrait of Richard shows him wearing the scarf, but of course, he would soon get a lot more.
Sir Richard returned to Ireland in 1600, when he was appointed Knight Marshal of the military forces in Ireland. This led to his return to Ulster in that year, and to Kinsale the following year where he was involved in the defeat of the Irish forces at the Battle of Kinsale. Along with Lord Mountjoy, he was an English signatory on the Articles of Surrender of the Spanish forces at Kinsale.
After the defeat at Kinsale, the Tudor conquest progressed and the plantations of Ulster and elsewhere began. Richard applied for a grant of the territory known as Fercullen, a parcel of land about 30 square miles south of Dublin. It was of strategic importance as it formed a natural barrier between the Wicklow mountains and Dublin. For a period in the sixteenth century, Brian O’Toole was instated by Henry VIII in 1546 to hold the lands at Powerscourt in his “Surrender and Re-grant” policy of settlement. He was succeed by Phelim in 1549. However, the next 50 years saw a surge in rebellious activities, and Garrett O’Toole, was involved in an uprising in 1581, and having been captured at Glencree was beheaded. When Phelim finally died in 1603, an Inquisition at Kilmainham Gaol on 1st October 1603 found that his grandson Tirlagh had by the activities of his father forfeited the terms of their agreement, and hence no longer had the possession of Powerscourt.
Queen Elizabeth died later that year. Richard continued to display military prowess, including the defeat of the O’Doghertys at Derry in an Ulster rebellion against plantation in May 1608. The following year, James I confirmed the monarchy’s support of Wingfield by granting him the lands at Fercullen forever. The original grant stated:
“the manor of Powerscourt, containing one ruinous castle… and all lands in the whole countrie of Fercullen conteininge in itself 5 miles in leinth and 4 in bredth, for the most part mountaine and stonie… to hold for 21 years at a rent of £6 Ierishe”.
The area (as well as the manor) became known as Powerscourt, and the parish that formed there took this name. The name Powerscourt probably derives from an earlier ownership of the Le Poer family, with Le Poer’s Court becoming Powerscourt. The “court” suggests there was a castle on the site, and as the Wingfield grant indicates, there was a ruined castle in 1609.
By now Richard was a senior figure in the Irish administration, and heavily involved in the plantation of Ulster. He was granted 2,000 acres in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone in 1610 (the Benburb Estate) and in 1613, he was granted lands at Wexford, along the border with Wicklow, named the Manor of Wingfield, where he was also involved in administering plantations. The Tyrone and Wexford estates remained in the family until the Land Acts of the 1880s.
In 1618, aged about 68, Richard was elevated to the Peerage of Ireland as Viscount Powerscourt. This cost him a considerable fee (2,000 pounds) which surprised some given that he did not have a direct heir, and thus the title would become extinct on his death. Perhaps it was the final achievement for the man who had everything.
After his death in 1635, the title expired as Richard and his wife, Frances Cromwell, had no children of their own. The lands and wealth he had accumulated over his lifetime passed to his cousin, Sir Edward Wingfield of Carnew, who married Anne Cromwell, a daughter of Sir Richard’s wife from her first marriage.