Granuaile was the most powerful woman in 16th century Ireland. She was a fearsome leader who inspired as much loyalty among her soldiers and supporters as any man. That was a remarkable achievement in a male dominated society.
It’s not surprising then that she should attract the attention of that other towering female figure of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth of England. The two were contemporaries and shared several characteristics; both were strong willed women who inspired devotion in their male followers.
Both were highly intelligent and could be charming and ruthless in equal measure. They were on opposite sides as the English attempted to subdue the rebellious Irish, but they did meet each other and by all accounts, got on surprisingly well.
In 1593, two of Granuaile’s sons and her half-brother were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham.
Granuaile’s response was to travel to England to meet with Queen Elizabeth and petition for their release. In terms of power, Elizabeth had the advantage but Granuaile was not to be intimidated.
Nor was she without bargaining power. Her military strength had made her a thorn in England’s side and Elizabeth was prepared to make concessions if necessary to prevent Granuaile causing more trouble in future.
The meeting between these two imperious women has become the stuff of legend. Granuaile refused to bow to Elizabeth because she wanted to show that she did not regard her as the Queen of Ireland.
The courtiers were outraged but Elizabeth seemed not to mind. She was concerned, however, when it was discovered that Granuaile was carrying a dagger.
The meeting might have ended then with the dangerous visitor being thrown in a dungeon but Elizabeth seemed to accept Granuaile’s explanation that the dagger was merely for her protection.
There was further drama before the meeting ended. Granuaile sneezed and one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting gave her a lace handkerchief. Granuaile apparently blew her nose once and then tossed the handkerchief into the open fire. The court was outraged that the ungrateful guest had thrown away such an expensive gift.
Granuaile insisted that in Ireland, a used handkerchief was considered dirty and no one of breeding would keep it to use a second time. It seemed that Granuaile was deliberately going out of her way to shock in order to show that she would not be intimidated by Elizabeth and her English courtiers.
The two women did eventually get to hold their meeting and spoke in Latin because Granuaile could not speak English, and Elizabeth could not speak any Irish.
They apparently got on well despite their difficult start and managed to reach a satisfactory agreement. Granuaile’s sons and half-brother were released and Elizabeth agreed to remove Bingham from Ireland. In return, Granuaile agreed to stop supporting the Irish rebellions.
Bingham was removed and Granuaile withdrew her support for the rebels. However, Elizabeth later reinstated Bingham so Granuaile considered their agreement to be void and went back to her rebellious ways.
Her anti-English stance and support for the rebels made Granuaile a symbol of Ireland and Irish nationalism.