Kilclief Castle and the Scandalous Bishop Sely
Kilclief Castle, situated on the western shore of Strangford Lough on the Lecale Peninsula is believed to be the oldest tower-house in County Down.
Just two and a half miles from the town of Strangford it has an unusual story that led to papal intervention!
“Among the numerous archaeological remains of antiquity which adorn the shores of fertile County Down…the Castle of Kilclief claims attention, as well as on account of its early antiquity, as of its fine preservation, and on account of some curious circumstances….”Dublin Penny Journal 1st June 1833
Kilclief Castle Location
Kilclief Castle is situated in the townland of the same name in the historic baronies of Lecale Lower and Upper. The name in Irish, Cill Cleithe means ‘church of wattle’. Using wattle and hurdles was the traditional Irish method of building.
There had been a church here since the early Christian period, said to be founded by two disciples of St Patrick, brothers Eugenius and Niall. The present Church of Ireland stands on the site of the original church.
It is recorded that in 1002 Sitric, King of the Danes, sailed into Strangford Lough and attacked Kilclief.
“Sitric son of Amlaff set out on a predatory excursion into Ulidia in his ships; and plundered Kilclief and Inis-Cumhscraigh”Annals of the Four Masters 1632
In 1413 a Leper Hospital dedicated to St Peter was opened at Kilclief. The custodians were John Young, John Mullan and Walter Ceyley. Even in the 17th century there was an area known as Spittle Quarter, ‘spittle’ being the medieval word for hospital.
“In the first of these quarter-lands is a plot called the Spittle-field, which, within living memory, contained some vestiges of an ancient building. These were the remains of an Hospital of Lepers, standing here in the fourteenth century”Rev William Reeves, Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore 1847
Just to the south of the castle is the small village of Kilclief on the Strangford to Ardglass road. In the mid-19th century, there were 351 people living in the village.
The castle is actually a fortified tower-house. It was built in the early 15th century (sometime after 1413) for the Bishop of Down, John Sely (alternative spellings: Cely/Ceely) as his summer residence. It was one of a line of defensive posts in the area.
“…it is evident that this was an outpost of the Strangford Lough defences. This castle, together with Ward’s, Audley’s and Walshe’s, made a strong combination, indicative of the importance the early settlers attached to the security of that great arm of the sea which ran so deeply into the heart of their territory”Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster 1946
The tower-house was built in a basic square shape, composed of split-stone rubble. It has four levels and fine crenellations (a wall around the top of a castle, with regular spaces in it through which the people inside the castle can shoot).
There are twin projecting turrets rising above roof level. The tower on the south-east contains a spiral staircase.
The north-east one houses the privies and latrine chute. These are known as garderobes from the French ‘garde de robes’ meaning to protect one’s clothes from soiling.
At roof level is a machicolation arch, an opening through which boiling water or oil could be dropped on invaders.
The first floor of the castle is stone vaulted. The room on the second level has a striking chimney-piece on which is carved the representation of a bird and a shield. The shield bears a cross of patee (also known as a cross formee). This cross has been linked with the Knights Templar and has long been associated with the values of dignity and honour.
The chimney mantle is made of a 13th century coffin lid (recycling is not so new!). One of the castle rooms is known to locals as the Hawks Chamber as it is said this is where Bishop Sely kept his hunting hawks and falcons.
The Scandalous Bishop Sely
In those times a bishopric was seen as much as a political or military position as a religious one. An ecclesiastical dignitary held a lot of sway within his diocese and promotion within the church was often seen as a reward for government service. Indeed, such was the influence and power of these ‘religious’ appointments that an Act of the English parliament in 1380 forbade these lucrative posts going to “mere Irish”.
“A strong castle was not an inappropriate or unnecessary description of the episcopal residence in those days, when Bishops were not infrequently, as much distinguished for their pugnacity as piety”Dublin Penny Journal, 1st June 1831
John Sely was promoted to Bishop of Down in 1429 from the Priorship of Down. Unfortunately, little is known of him apart from his ‘de criminbus et excessibus’ – his crimes and excesses.
Even before his elevation to Bishop, Sely had gained a certain notoriety. On 10th July 1414, it is noted he gained a pardon ‘acquitting him of all treasons, transgressions and other crimes, of which he had been indicted and outlawed’.
Sely does not seem to have made any attempt to hide his disreputable ways. One of the most scandalous of Sely’s actions was that he openly lived ‘in sin’ with a married woman in Kilclief Castle. This lady was Lettice Thombe (aka Thomas, or in some sources, Lettice Whailey Savage).
In 1434 the Primate Swayne served Sely with an ultimatum, remove his mistress from ‘castro de Kycleth’ or lose his position as bishop and risk excommunication. However, John Sely was determined to ‘ride the storm’. Perhaps having secured a pardon for his earlier transgressions he hoped he would do so again. The prefixed date for the removal of Lettice came and went and the pair continued to reside in the castle.
However, matters came to a head in 1441, 7 years after his first warning. A letter dated 29th May 1441 written by the Primate John Prene reached Pope Eugenius IV. In it he enumerated a lengthy list of Sely’s offences.
John Sely was indicted, found guilty, he was defrocked and ejected from Castle Kilclief.
Sely was the last Bishop of Down as the diocese subsequently became the Diocese of Down and Connor in 1442. John Sely himself passed away before 1445.
What subsequently happened to Lettice, we were unable to discover. It is said that she resided for a time in Smithing-Upon-Down in western England. She was also known to be an enthusiastic collector of ceramics. Her collection amounted to over 4,000 items. Her particular favourites were teacups. After her death the collection was sold by her son Hibner Smythe.
Sely was by no means alone in his disreputable lifestyle. One of his predecessors, John Ross, who was appointed Bishop of Down in 1387 was said to have a character “marked with almost every vice”. In 1380 he paid a fine of 6 marks to obtain a King’s pardon for his crimes and felonies.
In 1601-02, during the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill, Kilclief Castle was garrisoned by Nicholas FitzSymon for the crown. It was occupied by 10 warders.
By the 18th century the castle building was thatched and was part of a farm. It was later used as a granary store.
“It is now used as a store or barn and has been roofed and floored for that purpose…. Altogether the building is highly deserving of the attention of the antiquary”
J Hill Williams Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1834
Now Kilclief Castle is a State Care Monument. It still looks out protectively over the Bay of Kilclief. A sheltered semi-circle of golden sand. Today the summer invaders of swimmers and picnickers are more welcome!
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