Richard Boyle (1566-1643)
Richard Boyle, the father of the famous scientist Robert Boyle, is an enigmatic character. He attributed his great success in the world to the providence of God, adopting the motto ‘God’s providence is mine inheritance.’ He also sought to establish a protestant Ireland, delivering it from rebellious Catholics who were liaising with the Spanish. His critics call him an unscrupulous opportunist, however there is no evidence that he was dishonest, he simply turned situations to his own advantage.
After graduating from Corpus Christi College in 1583, Richard Boyle pursued a legal career at the Middle Temple as a clerk to the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. His parents had died, and being a second son, he had insufficient means to support himself. He was acquainted with a neighbour, Sir Edward Waterhouse, the chancellor of the Irish exchequer and in 1588, Boyle decided to leave with him for Ireland and seek his fortune.
Boyle arrived with a gold bracelet, a diamond ring, and £27 3s. in cash, just enough to buy a top-of-the-range iPhone today. He found many opportunities open to him and confessed, ‘It pleased the Almighty by his divine providence to take me, I may say justly, by the hand, and lead me into Ireland.’ Seven years later he married Joan Apsley, giving him a yearly income of £500, which continued after her death in childbirth in 1599.
Coping with his enemies
Richard Boyle seems to have invested his income in land deals, becoming so successful that he aroused the envy and hostility of some notable figures such as Sir Robert Gardiner and Sir Richard Bingham. They complained to Queen Elizabeth I that his deals were so expensive they must be financed by Spanish sources and that they heard he kept monks who said masses continually, obviously a false accusation for such a staunch protestant. King David had a similar experience: ‘But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good’ (Psa. 38:19-20).
Richard wanted to defend himself before the queen, but the outbreak of the Munster rebellion in 1598 wasted his lands and depleted his finances. He testified, ‘Yet God preserved me,’ set sail for Bristol and back to the Middle Temple to continue his legal studies.
Boyle was soon recommended to a position under Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and encountered Sir Henry Wallop, the treasurer of Ireland, who suspected Richard had heard about some financial misdemeanours of his deputy, his eldest son Henry, which could ruin Wallop’s reputation. Boyle had no intention of revealing his suspicions, yet Wallop misrepresented him to the queen, who had him imprisoned in the Gatehouse for two months and seized all his papers and possessions. No evidence incriminating Boyle was found. If he had dealt in any way unscrupulously, his enemies would have discovered it now.
A time of blessing
Following this enquiry, Queen Elizabeth acquitted him, took him into her service and sacked Wallop, replacing him with Sir George Carew. She enlarged Boyle’s estate, paid all his costs and gave him her hand to kiss: ‘Which I did heartily, humbly thanking God for that deliverance.’
The queen made him clerk of the council of Munster, and his first bold decision was to purchase Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship ‘Pilgrim’. He loaded it with arms and supplies and set sail to relieve the troops who were trying to retake a strategic castle in Kerry which had been occupied by rebels and Spaniards. Having done this, he was sworn in as clerk and justice over the whole province: ‘This was the second rise that God gave to my fortune.’
Boyle was knighted on the day of his marriage to Catherine in 1603 and shortly afterwards his father-in-law gave him an unexpected dowry of £1000 in gold. It was his wife, rather than the gold, that Richard described as ‘the crown of all my blessings; for she was a most religious, loving, virtuous and obedient wife unto me all the days of her life, and the happy mother of all my hopeful children, whom with their posterity I beseech God to bless.’
Boyle purchased and then made Lismore Castle his principle residence, becoming MP for Lismore in 1614, and Lord Boyle, Baron of Youghal, the same year. In 1620 he was created Earl of Cork and Viscount Dungarvan. A few years later he became Sheriff, then Lord Justice and finally in 1631, Lord Treasurer of Ireland.
Boyle tackled urban development and created about 4000 jobs for the local people. He founded iron-smelting and linen-weaving at Bandon, and brought in settlers from Bristol. He founded the town of Clonakilty with a charter from James I in 1613. He built alms houses, churches and bridges and his improvements at Bandon amounted to £14,000.
Throughout his whole life, Boyle was involved in conflicts, and he died at the start of the Irish Confederate (Eleven Year) War, when perhaps a fifth of the total Irish population of 1.5 million died from fighting, famine and plague. It was brought to an end by Cromwell in 1643 who is reported to have said of Lord Cork, ‘If there had been an Earl of Cork in every province, it would have been impossible for the Irish to have raised a rebellion.’
Trusting in God’s providence
Little is known of the deeper aspects of Boyle’s Christian faith. He certainly trusted in God’s providence, both in times of blessing and times when his assets were seized. He carried on working at what he knew best, political management, financial government and legal matters and like Paul would have been able to say:
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (Phil. 4:12).
Boyle took advice from wise and influential friends as the writer of Proverbs exhorts:
Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war (Prov. 20:18).
He refrained from taking personal revenge on his enemies, leaving matters for God to judge:
Then hear from heaven and act and judge your servants, repaying the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness (2 Chr. 6:23).
Boyle invested in land, buying it legally, since any fraudulent deed could result in losing both his job and his head. In his later years he bought manors at Stalbridge in Dorset and Temple Coombe in Somerset, and a house in Bideford, from where he could sail to Youghal. His famous seventh son, the Hon. Robert Boyle, resided at Stalbridge and commenced his scientific researches there.