Portrayed by: David Melhuish
Born: c. 1510 at Piers Hall near Ingleton, Yorkshire
Buried at: Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland
Father: Richard Piers
Married: Ann Holt of Holt Castle, County of Cheshire
Children: Henry, Mary and Anne
- by David Melhuish
William Piers was an English constable who spent most of his life in Ireland.
He was the first mayor and practical founder of Carrickfergus and was noted for his attempts to drive out the Scots from Ulster and the great lengths that he went to in attempting to enhance the power of local chiefs at the expense of the Scots. Granted Tristernagh Abbey as a reward for his military services, he made it into his family home from the late 1560s until his death in 1603.
Piers, described by a deposition in the high court of admiralty dated 27 November 1555, as “a tall burly man with a big, brown beard,” came to Ireland about 1530 and on 12 Sept 1556 he and Richard Bethell obtained a grant of the constableship of Carrickfergus Castle with the command of twelve ‘harquebosiers,’ five archers, one doorkeeper, and two bombardiers. He became captain of a ship given to him by James Fitzgerald, 13th Earl of Desmond. and took part in an expedition under Sussex against the Scots, led by Clan MacDonald, in September 1558. In 1562, however, he developed diplomatic relations with James MacDonald, but although he remained in contact with the MacDonalds for several years he would soon do all he could to limit the power of the Hebridean Scots who found in him an active and vigilant enemy.
Noted for having saved Princess Elizabeth "from the rage and fury of her sister Queen Mary by conveying her privately away", he earned her favor in the 1560’s after she became Queen Elizabeth, received considerable military rank, and was selected by her to go to Ireland in an official capacity in 1566. His astuteness and vigilance at this time won for him high praise from Sir William Fitzwilliam and Sir Henry Sidney and, for his services in behalf of the Crown, the constableship of Carrickfergus was confirmed to him in June 1566 as well as the reward of a large land grant, including Tristernagh Abbey, which he made his family home. In 1567, he received a reward of 1000 marks for bringing the head of Shane Ó Neill, "pickled in a pipkin", to Sir Henry Sidney, to display on the gates of Dublin Castle (although it has been reported that Piers dug up Ó Neill's body and decapitated him).
Piers was appointed governor of Carrickfergus, Seneschal of County Antrim in 1568. Despite the determined efforts of the Scots to extend their settlements southward into Ulster, Piers succeeded in holding them at bay and, early in 1569, he defeated them with great loss in the neighbourhood of Castlereagh. He was subsequently created seneschal of Clandeboye and, in July 1571, he transmitted to the queen ‘a device for planting Ulster and banishing the Irish Scots,’ based on a recognition of the rights of the native gentry to the territory claimed by them. From this point on he filled the role of local representative of the Crown and diplomatic intermediary between the central administration and local political leaders in the Irish community. He used his position to develop the commercial potential of Carrickfergus and from 1572–3 he served as its mayor, strongly supported by influential local chiefs.
In 1578, he was documented as sending proposals to the central London government to create an incorporated company which would control the trade of the coast and gain control of the area by leasing the land to local chiefs, effectively banishing the Scots from Ulster. Piers succeeded in interesting both Sir William Drury and the Queen in this plan to the extent that, on 8 April 1579, instructions were sent to Drury to assign him fifty horse and one hundred foot; but there was unaccountable delay in arranging the details of the scheme and it was apparently not until the summer of the following year that Piers returned to Ireland. By that time the situation had materially altered and opposition at Court scuttled his plans.
After another disappointing trip to England, Piers returned to Ireland in the autumn of 1582, retiring to Tristernagh Abbey. Though verging on seventy, he was still able to sit in the saddle and his willingness to serve the State, coupled with his long experience, rendered him a useful adviser in matters connected with Ulster. In 1591 he obtained permission to revisit England, ‘that he may behold and do his duty to her majesty … before he dies.’ He apparently survived till 1603, and is said to have been buried at Carrickfergus, of which town he was the first mayor and practical founder.