Written By Fergal Browne
Beneath a collapsed headstone in Kilmonoge Cemetery, lie the remains of Commander Henry Knolles, R.N. K.T.S. The stone, which was legible 20 years ago, states that Commander Knolles died at Oatlands on 2nd August 1877. While the letters ‘R.N’ clearly show that Knolles was a Commander in the Royal Navy, the ‘K.T.S’ abbreviation is more curious, and points to the interesting naval career which Henry Knolles enjoyed.
Henry was born at the Knolles residence of Killeighy, in the townland of Killeagh, in 1793. He was the son of Thomas Knolles and his wife, Sarah Meade of Killaney, near Kinsale. The Meades of Killaney were a sub branch of the extensive Meade Family of Innishannon.
Henry was the 3rd son of the family. His eldest brother, Thomas, would inherit the family estates. However, Thomas also joined the Wexford Militia, in which he served as a Captain. Thomas’ copy of the Army list of 1814 is in the possession of the author.
Lacking any substantial inheritance, the younger Knolles sons needed to carve out careers for themselves, usually either in the church or the military. Henry’s older brother Robert William Knolles joined the 14th Regiment and served in India. Letters that Robert wrote to his colleague Lt. Col Charles Joseph Doyle about the Maratha War 1818-1818 are preserved in India. Robert died on 25th June 1821 in Bordeaux, France, while on his way back from India.
Henry Knolles entered the Royal Navy at a young age in 1808. He served for nearly four years with Admiral Hon. Michael De Courcey, to whom his mother Sarah Meade was related and under whom, in HMS Tonnant, he assisted in the embarking of the British Army from Portugal after the Battle of Corunna, in which the British had been defeated by the French and in which the British Commander, General Sir John Moore, had been killed. Henry clearly made an impression on Admiral de Courcy, as he is mentioned in at least two of De Courcy’s letters home.
After four years’ service with the admiral, Henry Knolles served in HMS Foudroyant off the coast of Brazil. By September 1813 he had moved to a Frigate – HMS Revolutionnaire – under Captain John Charles Woolcombe. He was aboard this ship when it took part in the siege of San Sebastien – at the Bay of Biscay, where the Duke of Wellington’s army captured the city from Napoleon’s troops.
At this time, in order to be promoted to Lieutenant, a young officer had to pass an examination. Henry Knolles successfully accomplished this in 1814, and after serving an intermediate period in various ships, was promoted to full Lieutenant on 3rd June 1824, aboard HMS Windsor Castle, under Captain Charles Dashwood. This promotion seems to have been specifically requested by King John VI of Portugal. The Portuguese Royal Family had moved to Brazil when Portugal was invaded by Napoleon in 1807. The promotion document states that King John requested that Knolles be promoted due to the fact that he, while Mate of the ‘Windsor Castle’, had been in especial attendance to the King’s family while they were aboard. A Knolles family tradition maintains that Henry paid particularly close attention to one of King John’s daughters, who had the title of Infanta, with whom he found himself a success romantically!
King John also made Henry Knolles a Knight of the Order of the Tower and Sword of Portugal (K.T.S.) as a further mark of favour. This was an honour revived by the king during the Napoleonic Wars to be granted to officers of foreign armies who had been of service to the monarch but who could not be granted regular Portuguese honours owing to their religion. (Portugal was a predominantly Catholic country). In order to receive the honour from another country, permission had to be granted by King George IV of England. A copy of the letter from King George IV granting the favour is still amongst the Knolles family papers today.
Henry was put on half pay in 1825 – whereby he was not assigned to a ship but would be entitled to half a serving officer’s wage ashore. He returned to Ireland, where his eldest brother Thomas Knolles had constructed a new house for the family entitled ‘Oatlands’, in the townland of Knocknahowlea Beg. Again, a family tradition states that this was because Thomas’ wife – Frances Walton – refused to move into the old house at Killeighy. A memoir of Belgooly Village from the mid-1840’s recalls retired Commander Henry Knolles regularly hunting on foot with a pack of beagles around the countryside. Henry Knolles must have been particularly small in stature. His naval uniform was kept by the Knolles family and when a daughter of the family, aged 14, tried it on, - it would not fit. When the Knolles family left Ireland in 1937, a family tradition maintains that Henry’s uniform was donated to the maritime museum in Brighton. Unfortunately, the museum has no record of this. Henry died at Oatlands, then the residence of his nephew Thomas Walton Knolles on 2nd August 1877.
The death notice in the ‘Cork Constitution’ stated that the funeral was strictly private.
Henry Knolles lies under a headstone which has been collapsed for more than 20 years. The graveyard itself is maintained by the parish, preventing the grave from being completely obscured. The inscription, like his memory, is slowly fading to obscurity.