The Meeting of the Two Queens, Grace O’Malley at the English Court
July 1593: A woman, dressed as it seems – although it is clearly not as glittering as the gowns around her – in her best gown enters the room where the English queen, Elizabeth I, is waiting for her. From an old weather-beaten face two vivid eyes observe the place: Queen Elizabeth in front of a fireside surrounded by her attendants. The English queen has seen better days as well as the pirate queen, who has just set foot in Greenwich Castle, London. Self confidently, she reaches out her hand to greet the other woman and helps herself to a chair next to the fireside.
Who was this woman who greeted the queen of England as equal among equals? Many an author has tried to find out the true story about the “meeting of the two queens” (Cook 2004, p.143) as some like to call it.
Grace O’Malley, Chieftainness, Pirate Queen, wife, mother and female authority in a patriarchal world, had so far succeeded in resisting all attempts to put her into the place where most people would have liked to see her. This place being at home, far away from the battlefield, thinking about what her husband would like to have to eat when he comes home. She commanded her own fleet, controlled the waters on the west coast of Ireland and had succeeded in inheriting her father’s title as Chieftain, although she had a half-brother, who would have been the obvious successor.
This was her situation until her worst adversary, Sir Richard Bingham, entered the stage. In short, Bingham had found a way to take away most possessions from Grace O’Malley’s family, brutally killed her oldest son Owen, and imprisoned her other sons Murrough and Theobald, as well as her half-brother Donal. Grace did not hesitate, but immediately took action and sent a petition to the English Queen herself. The petition asked for the liberation of her relatives and the authorisation to carry on her politics the way she wanted. As a result, Queen Elizabeth soon granted an audience to the Pirate Queen.
Legend over legend tells the story about these two interesting women meeting, most of them depicting Grace’s boldness towards the English Queen. Irish tradition, especially, tends to tell us that Grace O’Malley not only felt equal to Queen Elizabeth but even behaved in a shockingly disrespectful way during the audience. Sean McCann, for instance, reports a story in which Grace O’Malley is said to have made fun of Queen Elizabeth’s present to her. It is told that Elizabeth I wanted to give a lapdog to her. This only made the Pirate Queen laugh and tell the English Queen that she should keep it herself, if she was idle enough to have time to play with it. The story also describes how Grace told the Queen that she was a Queen herself, equal to Elizabeth I (McCann 1972, p.133). Nevertheless, none of these anecdotes are recorded. It seems to be rather doubtful that a person merely begging for her relatives’ lives, and her own welfare, would risk her own and her kinsmen’s necks, by insulting the person who holds their future in her hands.
Only Grace’s refusal to bow in front of the English Queen is recorded, and this does not necessarily mean that Grace O’Malley felt equal to the English Queen. The documentary Warrior Women states that it could also be seen as a gesture to show that she did not accept Elizabeth I as the queen of Ireland (Warrior Women 2003). Even this seems to be a very brave gesture, given her situation.