Mitchelstown Castle – ancestral pile of the King family
On this day -18 May 1798
When the members of the Irish House of Lords tried a fellow peer they did it in style. Such was certainly the case with Robert King, tried for murder in 1798. His proper title was the 2nd Earl of Kingston and he was being tried for the killing of the nephew of his wife. Elsewhere, his son, also called Robert was tried for the same offence, the murder of Colonel Henry FitzGerald.
The 2nd earl had married well. His wife, Caroline Fitzgerald, was one of the wealthiest heiresses in Ireland when she was married off to Robert King, who was worth a few shillings in his own right, when they were both 15 years old, in 1769. They settled into the family home in Mitchelstown, Co.Cork. The couple was probably more distinguished for one of their governesses than for anything they every accomplished themselves. Hired to educate their children was Mary Woolstenecraft, novelist, historian, 18th century feminist and the mother of the woman who wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
She would have been hard put to devise the narrative that saw her employer and one of her pupils arraigned for murder.
This all came about because of the acceptance into the King family of a nephew of Caroline Fitzgerald, one Henry FitzGerald, a child born out of wedlock. There were, indeed, rumours to the effect that Henry was not actually Caroline’s nephew, but her illegitimate half-brother, the result of a liaison involving her own father.
Henry Fitzgerald, who went on to become a colonel in the military, rewarded the generosity of the King family by seducing one of Caroline’s daughters – who may of course, have been his half-niece. When Henry Fitzgerald’s body was discovered and the truth of the seduction came to light, Robert King junior and senior were both charged with his murder. Whether or not he was guilty Robert King junior was acquitted at the Cork Assizes in April, 1798 when no witnesses came forward to testify against him.
His father, as a peer of the realm, faced his own peers the following month, in the Irish House of Lords, a building still preserved in the Bank of Ireland in College Green in Dublin. The symbolism of the occasion, to paraprhrase, W.S. Gilbert, fitted the crime. During the trial an executioner stood beside Kingston with an immense axe, painted black except for two inches of polished steel. This served to remind their Lordships of the fate the Earl of Kingston faced, should they find him guilty. Though his actual fate would have been to be hanged by the neck until dead. Only afterwards might his head have been separated from his body. However, it never came to that. As with his son’s trial at the Cork assizes no witnesses appeared for the prosecution, and Kingston was acquitted.
An interesting footnote. The Directory of the United Irishmen had discussed using the occasion of the trial to kill key members of the government. But the vote of one Francis Magan, a leading member of the organisation, caused the scheme to be abandoned. Magan, it later emerged, was a government agent.
The dramatic and colourful trial of the 2nd Earl of Kingston took place 215 years ago, on this day.