John Kennedy, Abbot of Bangor, Co. Down

Copyright © 2008 Iain Kennedy last update 11th June 2013

Whilst researching the Kennedys of Cultra in Co. Down, I came across some interesting references to some much earlier Kennedys in Ulster. A number of works on the archaeology and antiquities of Ulster describe a pair of seals connected with the ancient Abbey of Bangor and bearing the name John Kennedy. As the following extract shows, this man may have been one of the very first Scottish Kennedys. This may not be the only such connection, which I was previously alerted to by Alan Milligan.

Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1895 Vol 1 pt 1


The Seals and Armorial insignia of corporate and other towns in Ulster

John Vinycomb MRIA Belfast

'... the most authentic records concur in stating that in about 555 St Comgall founded here an abbey of regular canons, which may have led to the foundation of a town...

In 613 the town was destroyed by fire and in 674 the abbey burnt. In 818 the Vikings massacred the abbot and about 900 monks. In 1125 the abbey was rebuilt by Malachy O'Morgair, then abbot, with an oratory of stone said by St Bernard to have been the first building of stone and lime in Ireland. ... the abbey continued to flourish and was endowed with extensive possessions whch after the conquest were considerably augmented; and amongst its lands was a townland in the Isle of Man called Clenanoy...

A great part of its lands were held by the O'Nials to the time of the dissolution when it was forfeited to the crown. James I granted the site of the abbey with all its former possessions in this county to Sir James Hamilton afterwards Viscount Claneboye.

The ancient vesica-shaped brass seal of the abbot of Bangor was found in the ruins of Saul Abbey Co. Down; a representation of it appears in the Dublin penny journal 1832 from which the annex is copied. It was then stated to be in the possession of Mr. James Underwood of Sandymount. It represents an ancient abbot, St. Comgall, the founder of Bangor abbey, standing in a gothic niche his left hand holding the pastoral staff, and his right raised in the act of benediction; in a shield beneath the figure are the arms of the abbot to whom the seal belonged, viz: [Argent] a chevron [gules] between three crosslets fitchee [sable] which are the arms of the Kennedys of Cultra*. Outside the device is the following abbreviated inscription in the rude monkish letter of the 14th century:



The seal of the Rev. Father John Kenedy, Abbot of Bangor

As to the date of the seal, the Rev. Charles Scott MA supplies the following:

'concerning abbot John Kennedy, whose seal was found in the ruins of the abbey of Saul, and is that used as the device of the County Down railway, we have hitherto known nothing. It appears however from the Co. Down inquisitions of 18 Richard II, that on the death of Maurice O'Cassor, abbot, Abbot John Kennedy obtained restitution of the temporalities, March 26, 1395 (?).'

Of course these events far predate the Kennedys of Cultra who only came into possession of their estate in 1671; their true connection with the noble family of Dunure is unclear to me. A man who flourished in 1395 would be no later than a second generation from John Kennedy of Dunure and a contemporary of Sir Gilbert Kennedy of Dunure, founder of the Bargany branch of the family. Some caution must be exercised, however, in drawing too firm a conclusion from the displaying of arms, which may have been done without permission.

According to Henry Lawlor in 'Ulster: its archaeology and antiquities' there are two surviving seals, one now at Bangor Castle and the other at the National Museum in Dublin; 'the two are almost identical, the difference being that in one, trefoils are substituted for cross-crosslets on the Kennedy shield in the base'.

Update 11.1.08

The above reference to the inquisitions isn't particularly helpful, but a more accurate lead is contained in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy vol. XXX (1912/13) in an article 'Some matrices of Irish seals' by E.C.R Armstrong:

'the name of John Kennedy has not been preserved in the records in the Abbey of Bangor but Dr. Lawlor has pointed out a reference to him dated March 26 1395 in the Rotulus Clausus of 18 Richard II (no. 31 p154 Rotulorum Patentium et Clausorum Cancellariae Hiberniae Calendarium, 1828).'

I have now tracked this latter reference down in the National Library of Scotland and reproduce the entry:

Rotulorum Patentium et Clausorum Cancellariae hibernia calendarium

Vol 1 pars 1

Hen II - Hen VII

printed by command of King George IV


p154 Claus. 18 Ric. II

Rotulus Clausus de anno 18 Ric. II

no. 31

R. Johi Aldelyme esc' Hib' (recit qd sumus pontifex nup vacante ecclia conventuali S. Congalli de Bangore in Ulton'p mortem Mauri Ocassore ult' abbis ejusd' que de patronatu Rogi de Mortuo Mari com' March' existit, eid' ecclie de fre Johe Knydy pviderit), mand'qd tempalia dce abbie dco abbi restitui fa'. T.Re, apd Dub', 26 Mar

Update 1.4.09 Added the following new records relating to this individual.
Calendar of Patent Rolls
21 Richard II Part II

Membrane 24

1397 Dec. 2 Westminster
Special protection for John Kenedy, provided by the Pope to the abbey of St Cungall, Bangore in Ulster, in the diocese of Down, void by the death of Maurice, the last abbot, and of the patronage of Roger de Mortuo Mari [de Mortimer], earl of March, a minor in the king's wardship, the king having granted restitution and commanded the temporalities to be delivered to him; upon his petition and for his security and the security of his men, household and servants, their goods and chattels, as they go to and fro in Ireland.

Calendar of Papal Registers - Letters IV 1362-1404

Lateran Regesta Vol XXIV - 3 Boniface ix

De Regularibus

8 Id Nov Perugia (f. 316d)

To John Kendy, Augustinian canon of St Mary's, Louth, in the diocese of Armagh. Dispensation, as the son of a priest religious and a married woman, to accept the abbey of Bangor, in the diocese of Down, provision of which the pope intends this day to make him.

Other records from the papal archives and the Irish Justiciary rolls indicate O'Kennedys in several areas in Ireland in the 14th century including Louth and Meath. The latter entries are curious and may relate to some Munster O'Kennedys fighting as kern for the English in their local feuding or rebellions against London, particularly the one seen accompanying the de Bermingham family in 1305 (McKrath Okenedy at the town of Drogheda on the side of Uriel, Cal. Just. Rolls v2 p32; ironically the plea was heard by Edmund le Botiller [Butler] whose family were overlords of the Ormond O'Kennedys. de Bermingham claimed to be on his way to Scotland on the king's business at the time; it was he and his men who eventually killed Edward Bruce in 1318 at Faughart near Dundalk.).