The Chichester Family

Intimately connected with the growth and development of Belfast for over 400 years

The Chichester family, the Earls and Marquises of Donegall, have been intimately connected with the growth and development of Belfast for over 400 years. Although they no longer live in the city, they have left behind two parks at Ormeau and the Cave Hill, and a raft of street names to preserve their memory.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Chichester of Raleigh, Devon, was appointed as governor of Carrickfergus at a time when the English were seeking to extend their influence in Ulster away from sea-supported colonies. This provoked a general uprising by the native Irish under Hugh O’Neill in the period between 1595 and 1603. Chichester was captured in a battle with Randall MacSorley MacDonnell in 1597 and beheaded.

John Chichester’s brother Arthur came to Ireland shortly afterwards, perhaps to avenge his brother. He had served against the Armada in 1587 and 1588, and was a captain under Sir Francis Drake. In November 1600, he laid waste to the countryside for 30km around Carrickfergus. Chichester’s scorched earth policy was consistent with the strategy adopted by Charles Blount, the eighth Lord Mountjoy and Lord Deputy of Ireland, against O’Neill.

After the collapse of the Ulster rebellion in 1603, Arthur Chichester was appointed governor of Carrickfergus and quickly became Lord Deputy. He was rewarded for his part in the suppression of the Ulster rebellion by being made Baron Chichester of Belfast in 1612, and was granted great swathes of land in Ulster, including much of the land around Belfast previously held by the O’Neills of Clandeboye. Despite his title, Chichester preferred Carrickfergus to Belfast. He built a large house there called Joy Mount, and was buried in St Nicholas’s Church in 1624.

Arthur Chichester left no male heirs and the title passed to his brother Edward, whose son in turn, also Arthur, became the first Earl of Donegall in 1646. This Arthur had six sons and at least six daughters from three marriages, but it is a grave indicator of the life expectancy of the time that all six sons and at least four daughters died young. So the title of second Earl passed to his nephew Arthur. This earl fell foul of King James II and was attainted in 1689, but the Williamite conquest led to his lands and title being restored.

Arthur’s son, another Arthur, the third Earl, was killed fighting in Spain in 1706. His son, Arthur again, was born in 1695 and succeeded as the fourth Earl. Three of his sisters were killed in the 1708 fire at the first Belfast Castle, then in the centre of Belfast. His mother, left homeless, returned to Fisherwick in Staffordshire, England with the fourth Earl and surviving siblings.

The fourth Earl died childless in 1757, and the title passed to his nephew. The fifth Earl was created the peer Baron Fisherwick in 1790, and was also granted the additional title of Marquis of Donegall in 1791. His influence over Belfast seems to have been positive and he carefully controlled the town of Belfast. Leases were granted which obliged tenants to build houses of a particular quality and style. He also paid for fine public buildings such as St Anne’s cathedral and the Assembly Rooms, gave land for the Poor House and for the White Linen Hall, and helped to fund the Lagan Canal. The fifth Earl died in 1799.

The Shaftesbury Connection

His son, George Augustus, the second Marquis of Donegall, was born in London in 1769 and died in 1844. Constantly in financial difficulties despite an annual income of £30,000, he was released from debtors’ prison by Sir Edward May, a moneylender who also ran a gaming house. May then offered his daughter Anna in marriage, an offer that Donegall could hardly refuse. The couple came to Belfast in 1802, again to escape his creditors, and brought the May family with them. They lived in a large house in Donegall Place.

In 1807, the family moved to the second Belfast Castle at Ormeau. Donegall’s debts were now enormous, about £250,000. However, he continued his father’s policy of public benevolence, providing land for, among others, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and the Gasworks.

In 1818, Donegall arranged for his eldest son George Hamilton to marry a daughter of the Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the richest men in England. A week before the ceremony, Shaftesbury learned that Donegall had never been properly married and that George Hamilton was therefore illegitimate. (Anna May had been underage at the time of her marriage and should have had the permission of the courts in 1795.) The marriage to Shaftesbury’s daughter was abandoned. Three years later, a parliamentary change to the marriage law legitimised George Hamilton, who married Harriet, daughter of the Earl of Glengall in 1822, and succeeded to the title as third Marquis of Donegall in 1844. However, the burden of inherited debt plagued the third Marquis. Practically the whole of the town of Belfast was gradually sold off and the only lands left to Donegall were Ormeau and the deer park on the slopes of the Cave Hill.

Belfast Castle

The third Marquis decided to build a new home. WH Lynn of the firm Lanyon and Lynn was commissioned to design the building in fashionable Scottish Baronial style, and Belfast Castle was completed in 1870 at Cave Hill. The third Marquis also succeeded where his father had failed in allying the Donegall family to the Shaftesburys. His daughter Harriet married Lord Ashley, eldest son of the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1862 and restored the family fortunes. Harriet inherited the estate but not the title, and Belfast Castle became part of the Shaftesbury estates when the third Marquis died in 1883.

As the third Marquis had no sons, the title passed to his brother Edward, dean of Raphoe, who became the fourth Marquis. Dermot Richard Claud Chichester, seventh Marquis, born in 1916, is his direct descendant and lives in Waterford. The family gradually lost interest in Belfast, and after the death of Harriet, contact declined. The Shaftesburys lived on their substantial estates in England. The troubles of 1922 led them to end their involvement with Belfast entirely.

In 1934, the Chapel of the Resurrection, designed as a family mausoleum, was presented to the Church of Ireland, part of the Castle grounds were sold for housing, and the castle and the rest of the grounds were presented to the city.

Further Reading:
The family of Chichester and Carrickfergus
(1999) by Charles McConnell; ‘Lords and Landlords’ by WA Maguire in Belfast—The Making of a City (1988) edited by JC Beckett.

© Cormac Hill. Reproduced with kind permission of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign 2004.