Randal MacDonnell, 1st Marquis of Antrim, 1609-83

Powerful Irish magnate and chief of the MacDonnell clan who supported the Royalists, the Confederates and the Cromwellians during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

Portrait of Randal MacDonnell, 1st Marquis of AntrimRandal MacDonnell was the eldest legitimate son of the first Earl of Antrim, also called Randal MacDonnell, and his wife Alice, daughter of Hugh O'Neill, the second Earl of Tyrone. Randal was brought up as a Roman Catholic at Dunluce Castle in County Antrim until 1625 then went to France for eighteen months to complete his education. In 1627, he was presented as Viscount Dunluce at the court of King Charles I, where he set about finding a suitable wife. In 1635, after several failed courtships and entanglements, he married Katherine Villiers (née Manners), the highly eligible widow of the Duke of Buckingham.

MacDonnell succeeded as the second Earl of Antrim upon the death of his father in 1636. The inheritance made him the most powerful landowner in Ulster. Lord and Lady Antrim lived in great splendour in London until 1638, when mounting debts forced them to leave for Ireland.

Antrim enjoyed an extensive network of family and clan connections in Ireland and among the Highland Scots, notably with his kinsmen the MacDonalds, with whom he shared a common heritage and animosity towards their enemies the Campbells.

War in Scotland & Ireland

During the preparations for the First Bishops' War, King Charles commissioned Antrim to raise an Irish army to invade western Scotland on the understanding that he could retain any former MacDonald lands that he recaptured from the covenanting Campbell clan. Antrim levied a force of 5,000 foot and 200 horse and proposed to invite veteran Irish officers fighting in Europe to command it. However, this proposal alarmed the King's Lord-Deputy Sir Thomas Wentworth who discouraged the scheme and persuaded the King to abandon it. Although Antrim's army never left Ireland, news of its formation alienated Archibald Campbell, the powerful Earl of Argyll, from the King's cause and added to the rumours of Catholic conspiracies that were circulating in London.

On the outbreak of the Irish Uprising in October 1641, Antrim agreed to act as an intermediary between the insurgents and the English government. However, on learning that his lands in Ulster had been occupied by Scottish Covenanters he travelled to Dunluce in the hope of negotiating with the Scottish commander Robert Monro. Antrim was arrested by the Scots in May 1642 and imprisoned at Carrickfergus Castle until November when he succeeded in escaping in disguise. He fled to England and made his way to York where he became involved in plotting with Queen Henrietta Maria for a Royalist uprising in Scotland supported by an Irish Catholic army. Their plans were revealed when Antrim was again taken prisoner by the Scots upon his return to Ireland in May 1643. His captured papers were later forwarded to the Westminster Parliament and were instrumental in encouraging the alliance between Parliament and the Scots under the Solemn League and Covenant of September 1643.

Meanwhile, after a brief imprisonment at Carrickfergus, Antrim once again managed to escape. He began negotiations with the Confederate Assembly to gain support for his scheme to raise 2,000 men for an invasion of Scotland and an army of 10,000 to fight for the King in England. The Assembly agreed to the Scottish expedition but postponed a decision on the army for England pending the outcome of negotiations with the King at Oxford.

Antrim proceeded to raise three regiments of foot in Ulster to be commanded by his kinsman Alasdair MacColla. In June 1644, MacColla invaded western Scotland with a force of 1,600 Confederates which became known as the Irish Brigade and was the nucleus of Montrose's army in his spectacular campaign against the Covenanters during 1644-5. Although Antrim's main objective was to wrest control of the Western Isles from the Campbells, King Charles rewarded him for his services to the Royalist cause by creating him Marquis of Antrim.

During 1645, Antrim negotiated with the Marqués de Castel Rodrigo, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands. He received two frigates in exchange for a promise to recruit 2,000 men from his Irish estates to serve the Spanish in Flanders. In November 1645, Antrim sailed his frigates to Cornwall to support the Prince of Wales and to supply beleaguered Royalist garrisons in the region. Early in 1646, he returned to Ireland and used the frigates as the basis of a successful privateering operation. After acquiring another four vessels, Antrim was able to ship supplies and reinforcements to Scotland. In May 1646, he arrived in the Western Isles with a force of 600 men. That same month, Charles I surrendered to the Scots and issued orders that all Royalist forces in Scotland should disband. Anxious to keep the recaptured MacDonnell lands in Scotland, Antrim was reluctant to obey the King's command and remained in arms until the autumn of 1646. He finally disbanded his forces when the King personally intervened with a promise that Antrim would receive the Marquis of Argyll's disputed estates in Kintyre when the King was again in a position to grant them.

Changing Allegiances

From January to April 1647, Antrim played a prominent role in the seventh Confederate General Assembly at Kilkenny where he sat as a member of the Supreme Council. He allied himself with the hardline Roman Catholic faction led by Archbishop Rinuccini and opposed negotiations with James Butler, Marquis of Ormond, for a treaty between the Confederates and the Royalists. In March 1648, Antrim went to Paris as a member of the Confederate delegation appointed to continue the negotiations with leading Royalists. He opposed both the Inchiquin Truce and the Second Ormond Peace and attempted to lead a Catholic insurrection when Ormond returned to Ireland in the autumn of 1648. However, Antrim's uprising was easily suppressed and he was obliged to seek refuge with the Ulster army of Owen Roe O'Neill.

When Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649, Antrim unexpectedly shifted his allegiance to the Parliamentarians. He was in communication with Colonel Jones, the governor of Dublin, from the end of 1648 and made contact with Henry Ireton upon his arrival in Ireland in the summer of 1649. Antrim helped to secure the surrender of New Ross to the Parliamentarians in October 1649 and persuaded his former followers to surrender Carlow peacefully in July 1650. When the subjugation of Ireland was complete, Antrim was granted an annual pension of £500, which was later increased to £800. His first wife having died in 1649, he married a Protestant heiress, Rose O'Neill, daughter of Sir Henry O'Neill, in 1653. He remained in eastern Ulster throughout the 1650s.

At the Restoration, Antrim presented himself at the court of Charles II and was immediately imprisoned in the Tower of London. However, with support from the Queen Mother and her courtiers, and even from creditors who wanted to ensure that they would be repaid, Antrim was released in May 1661. Although he was accused both of involvement in the Catholic rebellion of 1641 and of collaboration with Cromwell, and despite the protests of speculators who had gained possession of his lands, he was finally granted a full pardon and restored to his estates in Ulster in 1665. Thereafter he retired from politics and withdrew to his estates in Ireland.

Antrim died childless in February 1683. The marquisate became extinct and he was succeeded as third Earl of Antrim by his brother Alexander.


Kenyon & Ohlmeyer (eds), The Civil Wars, a military history of England, Scotland & Ireland 1638-60, (Oxford 1998)

Pádraig Lenihan, Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49, (Cork 2001)

Jane Ohlmeyer, Randal MacDonnell, marquess of Antrim, Oxford DNB, 2004