Killyleagh Castle – Vikings, Sieges, a Ghost and a Suspicious Death

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Killyleagh Castle & Gardens
Killyleagh Castle & Gardens

Killyleagh – The Oldest Continuously Inhabited Castle in Ireland

Not surprisingly for a castle, parts of which date back to 1180, Killyleagh has a stormy history involving sieges, wars, suspicious deaths, divided houses and ghostly sightings.


The first fortifications on this site in County Down, were constructed by the Anglo-Norman adventurer John de Courcy in the twelfth century. Having established his power in the north of the island, de Courcy had a string of seven defensive forts built along the shoreline of Strangford Lough as protection against the Viking raiders.

View over Strangford Lough
View over Strangford Lough Today

The original Gaelic name for Strangford Lough was Lough Cuan, meaning the quiet lough. However, the Vikings called it Strangfyorthe – fiord of the strong currents. The so-called Danes (although they were mostly from Norway) were frequent unwanted visitors to the shores of the lough. They even had a base for their ships here.

Viking Raids

The Vikings were the scourge of Irish coastal regions from the nineth to the twelfth centuries. They came in search of land, treasure, cattle and slaves. Their beautifully crafted longships were adept at sailing up rivers to attack villages and monastic settlements.

The monastery at Nendrum was attacked as were the religious houses at Kilclief, Movilla, Downpatrick and Bangor.

Killyleagh Castle – Changing Fortunes

The original castle, of which the round tower on the south side is possibly the only remains, was built on a small hill. It sits on the western side of Strangford Lough, 5 miles north-east of Downpatrick. Downpatrick was the capital of the Irish kingdom of Ulidia, until it fell to de Courcy in 1177.

Hugo White

In the 16th century the English queen Elizabeth I ‘granted’ the Killyleagh area to Hugo White.

He built a castle on the site of the earlier fort. At this time, it was known as White’s castle. However, an alliance of the Irish O’Neill’s and McCartans (McArtans), who were the native owners of the land, attacked the castle and ousted the English inhabitants.

“Shane O’Nial besieged the newly erected castle in 1567, and meeting with powerful resistance, set fire to the town; but a league being subsequently made between the McCartans and the O’Nials, they jointly attacked the castle, disposed the family of White, and usurped the uncontrolled dominion of the entire country”

Samuel Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland

Con O’Neill

In 1602, on what is thought to be trumped-up charges (see earlier Ballymacarrett post) the lands of Con O’Neill were confiscated. O’Neill was imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle on the charge of treason.

In order to secure a royal pardon, Con O’Neill had to make terms with the new English monarch James I. To gain his freedom he had to forego two thirds of his lands.

James Hamilton

Scotsman Hugh Montgomery was given the region around Newtownards and Donaghadee while fellow Scot James Hamilton gained the lordship of Upper Clandeboye and the Great Ardes. James Hamilton was the eldest of 6 sons born to the Rev Hans Hamilton, Vicar of Dunlop in Ayrshire, Scotland. His five younger brothers also settled in Ireland. James was an adviser and spy for the English king.

Some sources say that Hamilton paid the White family £40 for the castle (a very small sum for the property, even in those days).

“James who acted in the important capacity as a spy of James VI of Scotland ….After James became King of England in 1603 he rewarded James Hamilton for his services with a grant of extensive lands belonging to Con O’Neill in County Down”

H C Lawlor Belfast Telegraph 7th November 1946

Hamilton in Killyleagh

Hamilton began to populate the area with Lowland Scots. The native Irish were dispossessed and these immigrants offered the land at cheap rents. This would ensure their loyalty to the English crown and to the Hamilton family in particular. On 4th June 1622, James Hamilton was appointed first Viscount Clandeboye.

In 1625 James Hamilton moved from his residence in Bangor and made his home in Killyleagh Castle. He improved the building adding a stone bailey and erected courtyard walls.

Killyleagh Castle, C.L. Adams, Castles of Ireland 1904
Killyleagh Castle, C.L. Adams, Castles of Ireland 1904

James Hamilton died on 24th January 1644 aged 84 and is buried in Bangor.

Hamilton’s son, also James, by his third wife Jane Phillips, succeeded him. He reinforced Killyleagh Castle with a second tower. On 23rd September 1641 James married Lady Anne Carey. Anne was the daughter of Henry Carey, 2nd Earl of Monmouth and Martha Cranfield. The couple had four children James, Henry, Hans and Jane.

On 7th June 1647 James was created Earl of Clanbrassill. The title comes from the Irish Clann Bhreasail, an old Gaelic territory in north-east county Armagh.

Impact of the English Civil War

Support for King Charles I

James and Anne were staunch royalists and supported King Charles I during the English Civil War. Hamilton raised a regiment of foot soldiers and calvary in the monarchist cause and set out for Carrickfergus.

Killyleagh Under Siege

In retaliation Killyleagh Castle was besieged in 1649 by Cromwellian forces under the command of General Monk. Gunboats sailed up Strangford Lough and destroyed the gatehouse of the castle. (In later years, 3 cannon balls were extracted from one of the tower walls. These were placed over an arch in the garden).

Anne Hamilton

James Hamilton’s wife Anne however, was not prepared to submit easily to the parliamentarians. Oliver Cromwell himself, arrived at Killyleagh Castle to find the gates barred against him.

Anne and a few servants and tenants armed themselves as best they could, even using furniture as makeshift weapons to hurl at the surrounding army.

It was only after 6 long months and threatened with starvation, that Anne surrendered.

However, Lady Anne was still a force to be reckoned with. When Cromwell imposed a fine of £10,000 on James Hamilton for the return of the castle, Anne negotiated a settlement whereby her husband only had to pay £5,000 and got a pardon!

Killyleagh Castle, Belfast Telegraph 11th Nov 1953
Killyleagh Castle, Belfast Telegraph 11th Nov 1953

The Castle Ghost

It is said that Anne so loved Killyleagh Castle that she could not bear to leave it. Some believe it is her spirit who wander the corridors of her beloved home.

A female figure in a long gown has reportedly been seen flitting along the castle corridors. Others think it is the restless and thwarted ghost of her devious daughter-in-law. (See more below).

Henry Hamilton

Fortification of the Castle

On 20th June 1659 James Hamilton passed away and was succeeded by his second son 12-year-old Henry, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil.

In 1666 Henry erected the north tower.

He restored the bawn (a fortified enclosure surrounding an Irish tower house) almost 100 yards long and 50 yards wide.

The courtyard was defended by a row of high square merlons (the solid upright section of a battlement) each pierced with rectangular gun hole.

Henry and Alice

In 1667, much against the wishes of his mother and step-father, Henry married the beautiful Alice Moore, daughter of Henry Moore 1st Earl of Drogheda and the Honourable Lady Alice Spencer.

The couple lived an extravagant lifestyle between Dublin and Killyleagh. Their house in Dublin “was the centre of the fashionable world of the day”.

While renown for her attractive appearance and witty repartee, Lady Alice seems to have acquired a rather dubious reputation.

“It is well to remember the old saying ‘concerning the dead say nothing but good’ so concerning this young Countess of Clanbrassil, I shall content myself by saying that according to contemporary writers she was decidedly no better than she ought to have been”

H C Lawlor Belfast Telegraph 7th November 1946

Conflict Over Killyleagh Ownerhip

Competing Killyleagh Ownership Claims

Henry and Alice had one baby son who died in infancy.

At this point a clause in Henry’s father’s will became more significant. It stated that if Henry had no male heir, then the Killyleagh estate should be divided between the eldest sons of James’s five brothers.

This would mean that Henry’s cousins would inherit and not Lady Alice!

Alice now ‘persuaded’ her husband to make a will of his own leaving his entire inheritance to herself. Henry’s mother Anne, begged him not to sign the document, claiming if he did so, he would soon end up in the tomb with his father.

“But the young man was like Samson in the hands of Delilah. Infatuated by her enticements he put his hand to the fatal will, which was duly executed and witnessed”

H C Lawlor 1946

The Death of Henry Hamilton

The Clanbrassills left Killyleagh and set out for Dublin. While there, Henry Hamilton aged 27, died from poisoning. Only 3 months after signing the new will.

Whether this was by the hand of his wife, no-one can say for sure. However, the circumstances of his burial are rather strange.

He was quickly interred at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, rather than the family plot at Bangor (he was subsequently re-interred). Notably, Alice had Henry’s body disembowelled before burial.

Killyleagh Belfast Telegraph 7th Nov 1946
Killyleagh Story Belfast Telegraph 7th Nov 1946

The Court Case

There then followed a lengthy and acrimonious court case between Lady Alice and the 5 cousins, grandsons of the Rev Hans Hamilton.

Twenty years later the matter was finally settled when a copy of the original will was uncovered. By that time however, the 5 Hamilton cousins and Lady Alice (who had remarried the wealthy Lord Bargany) had all died.

Splitting the Killyleagh Inheritance

The last to pass away was James Hamilton, son of Archibald Hamilton. He owned Neilsbrook estate in County Antrim. Killyleagh then passed to his descendants.

By his will he divided the Killyleagh inheritance into two – one half going to his married daughter Anne Stevenson and the other half to his younger brothers Gawn and William. William died without issue, so his share went to Gawn.

Approaching Killyleagh Castle
Approaching Killyleagh Castle

In 1697 the court granted Gawn the main house and towers. Anne received the bawn and gatehouse. The deed of partition of Killyleagh drawn up on 6th September 1697, is preserved among the Dufferin Papers in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Even by the standards of the day the arrangement was very unusual. In fact, Gawn could no longer access his house as Anne owned the gatehouse! A new entrance on the north side of the castle had to be constructed.

“The Dublin Probate Court confirmed this Solomon-like disposal. It even went so far as to draw an exact mathematical line across Killyleagh Castle itself, by which the keep went to the nephew, whereas the Courtyard and the Gate House with its attendant battlements were accorded to the daughter”

Belfast Telegraph 28th June 1949
Killyleagh Castle
Killyleagh Castle

The Renovation of Killyleagh Castle

Castle Exterior

In 1850 Gawn’s descendants, Archibald Rowan-Hamilton and his wife Miss Caldwell of Cheltenham, renovated Killyleagh Castle. They employed the famous architect Charles Lanyon to complete a new design.

The existing walls were enclosed and Tudor-style turrets added. The flanking circular towers gave the castle a French chateau appearance. The work was completed by June 1851 at a cost of £7,325 6s 9d.

The courtyard was 90 yards long and 60 yards wide. It is said that within the yard is a large hidden well. The well contains two secret passages leading off it. One into the castle itself and the other out beyond the castle walls.

“No opportunity was lost to extract the maximum of excitement from the site crowning the hill at the top of the little town, and the result is a building that is grandly operatic”

Country Life 19th March 1970
Killyleagh Castle Fortifications
Killyleagh Castle Courtyard
Castle Fortifications

Castle Interior

The interior was given a grand entrance hall decorated with the initials ARH with shamrocks, roses and thistles. A flamboyant oak staircase leads to the upper floor.

Mr Fullerton of Belfast, a carpenter and stuccoist, was employed to produce the decorative plasterwork. Musgrave & Co provided the hardware and grates and four new chimney pieces were constructed and decorated with Minton tiles.

The terraced gardens lay to the south of the property. They consisted of the Box Garden, the Rockery Garden and stone steps leading to a lake surrounded with rose beds and majestic yew trees.

Resolution to the Castle Ownership

The issue of the ‘divided house’ was finally resolved in 1860 when Frederick Temple Blackwood, 5th Baron Dufferin and Clandeboye, descendant of Anne Hamilton and Hans Stevenson, donated the gate house and bawn to the Hamilton’s of Killyleagh Castle.

The Gatehouse
The Gatehouse

He also arranged for the gate house to be rebuilt in the style of the present castle. The castellated gate house was designed by London-born Benjamin Ferrars. The final stone was laid by Lord Dufferin on the morning of his wedding to distant cousin, Miss Harriot Georgina Rowan-Hamilton on 23rd October 1862.

“….it was only upon the coming of age of the late Marquis of Dufferin, who said it should never be said of him that he kept any man out of his own hall-door, that the contention ended”

C L Adams Castles of Ireland 1904

When presenting his kinsmen with this part of the property, Frederick asked an unusual rent. Every other year the Hamilton’s of Killyleagh were to present Lady Clandeboye with a red rose. On alternate years a pair of gilt spurs were to be presented to Lord Dufferin.

Killyleagh High Street
Killyleagh High Street
Killyleagh in the Pink
Killyleagh in the Pink

Killyleagh Castle Ownership Today

For over 400 years Killyleagh Castle was the home of the Hamilton family and continues to be so today. Its turbulent history and ‘interesting’ inhabitants have fuelled many stories over the years. One notable owner was the United Irishman, Archibald Hamilton Rowan.

The castle remains an impressive centrepiece, standing in the little village of Killyleagh, dominating the town square.

“Just before Killyleagh the silhouette of a castle appears on a line hills, and its appearance has an effect of thrilling romance. High conical turrets, capped with lead and pricked with finials, rise splendidly through the trees and then, as the road crosses a stream before the town, the castle appears again over the brooding roof tops”

Country Life 19th March 1970

Note that Killyleagh Castle is a private residence and is not open to the public. Visitors are asked not to proceed beyond the gatehouse entrance into the Castle grounds.

Scotty at Killyleagh Castle
Scotty at Killyleagh Castle


Killyleagh Gatehouse Archway
Killyleagh Gatehouse Archway
Tethered at Killyleagh
Tethered at Killyleagh
Killyleagh, Northern Whig 5th Nov 1929
Killyleagh, Northern Whig 5th Nov 1929
Killyleagh Colour
Killyleagh Colour
Killyleagh view tothe Lough
Killyleagh view tothe Lough
Homeward Bound
Homeward Bound

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