English Government in Medieval Ireland

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English Government in Medieval Ireland

The Anglo-Norman intervention in Ireland from 1167 onwards had little official involvement until King Henry II decided to intervene in person in October 1171. From then on, Ireland was an English colony and had to be governed as its new lord, the king of England, thought appropriate. Henry stayed less than a year and can have made little headway in instituting a system of government in a territory that was still a volatile frontier. At an organizational level his biggest achievement was to assemble a church synod at Cashel, which issued decrees for ecclesiastical reform, specifying that the Irish church should henceforth be modeled on that of England. As it was vital that the invasion be a stimulus to commerce, Henry also, having taken the towns into his own hands (Dublin implicitly being made the capital), issued charters of privileges allowing them access to a de facto free-trade zone within his territories in Britain and France. He legalized the status of invaders who claimed territory in Ireland by granting charters specifying the extent of their lands and the terms under which they held them. Finally, he appointed as his deputy the new lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy, whose role as chief governor was similar to that of the justiciar of England in the king's absence.

From the start, and expressly by order of King John (1199–1216), the law of the new colony was the common law of England, Irish Brehon law being regarded as barbaric. The native Irish had no direct access to the law, and although a few exceptions were made and an individual grant of access could be bought, by and large they remained the enemy in the eyes of the law, and without legal remedy throughout the Middle Ages. Legislation passed in England tended to apply also in Ireland, a copy of Magna Carta, for instance, being sent to Ireland in 1217. It was only in the fifteenth century that the Anglo-Irish began to question the mandatory application to Ireland of legislation enacted in England, and the subject was one of great controversy thereafter.

Although Irish cases were sometimes heard in the courts of England, by the reign of Henry III (1216–1272) a system of itinerant justices was in place in Ireland, holding courts in various towns throughout the colony. Dublin was also home to a resident court of common pleas dealing with civil cases. But as his name suggests, the justiciar governing in the king's name had his own court, over which he presided in dispensing justice as he traveled about. He was also head of the civil administration and chief military officer; he had his own armed retinue and summoned the king's tenants to perform military service; for example, campaigning against Irish rebels. The justiciar (later known as the lieutenant) was advised by a council of ministers and by the great magnates of the land, an informal body that gradually gained a fixed structure during the thirteenth century. Parliament was an extended version of this council and existed in Ireland by at least the 1260s, but it was closer to the end of the century before it had matured into a formal judicial and legislative assembly composed of both individuals and representatives of communities.

Since the courts levied fines and the king was entitled to rents and (with Parliament's approval) taxes, the oldest department of state was the exchequer where these were accounted for. It was based in Dublin and had the treasurer as its chief clerk. The latter, second in importance to the justiciar in the early years, was subsequently superseded by the chancellor, who ran the chancery, the letter-writing office of government. Because the chancellor had possession of the great seal that authenticated government documents, he traveled around the colony with the justiciar. They dealt with the local agent of government, the sheriff, who collected revenues and debts due to the Crown from the localities (for which he accounted at the exchequer), had the task of arraigning persons charged to appear before the justiciar's court, had custody of prisoners, and also administered the county court. The county or shire was the system of local government inherited from England, Dublin being the first to make an appearance, followed gradually by Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary, Louth, Kerry, Connacht (or rather part thereof), Roscommon, Kildare, Carlow, and part of Meath. Some of these subsequently became liberties, like Ulster (the only earldom in the colony until 1316), Wexford, and the rest of Meath. Although not entirely exempt from central control, liberties were free on a day-to-day basis from government interference and had similar, if smaller, structures as the central government. At any one time about half of the colony was held as liberties, and the division of the country into counties was never completed in the Middle Ages.

The ecclesiastical equivalent of the shire was the diocese, the system established before the invasion remaining largely intact thereafter, although diocesan sees were sometimes relocated to more heavily colonized centers, and a rather half-hearted attempt to give primacy to Dublin over Armagh was solved by awarding the archbishop of the former the title "primate of Ireland" and the latter "primate of all Ireland." Senior clerics, particularly the archbishop of Dublin, were frequently royal nominees, and as such they were government ministers and instruments of English royal policy in Ireland: it was useful to be certain of their loyalty. Armagh, on the other hand, was in hostile Irish territory, so that its incumbent rarely visited the primatial see itself and resided in safety in one of his manors in County Louth.

Louth was one of the most heavily anglicized areas where the government's writ ran efficiently except in troubled times, but the Irish revival that began in the late thirteenth century eroded the authority of government in regions where it had previously functioned well. The consequence was that local settler communities were less subject to government control and all the safeguards that it brought in terms of protection of life and limb and access to legal redress. The corollary was that they could literally get away with murder, and we find that the lords of the great liberties, especially after the creation of the three new earldoms of Kildare, Desmond, and Ormond in the early fourteenth century, were not amenable to external authority and ruled their lordships with impunity, having their own private armies, meting out their own justice, and adopting from Gaelic society the onerous exactions claimed by lords in terms of the abuse of hospitality and the billeting of troops on local communities.

Central government abandoned its responsibilities in outlying areas out of sheer financial exigency. Annual revenue that amounted to about £6,000 at the start of Edward I's reign in 1272 had dropped, because of constant warfare and agricultural decline, to less than a third of that a century later under his grandson, Edward III, after which point an annual subsidy was habitually provided by the English exchequer. Government had to concentrate its limited resources on the area where they could be most effectively employed, the four "obedient" counties at its core—Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare—and by the mid-fifteenth century these were known as the Pale, and were literally protected from beyond by a ditch that ran intermittently from the vicinity of Dundalk to Dalkey. Of this area alone, by the end of the Middle Ages, one could say that English government in Ireland operated effectively.

SEE ALSO Bruce Invasion; Legal Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Magnates, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish; Monarchy; Norman Conquest and Colonization; Norman Invasion and Gaelic Resurgence; Richard II in Ireland; Primary Documents: The Treaty of Windsor (1175); Grant of Prince John to Theobold Walter of Lands in Ireland (1185); Grant of Civic Liberties to Dublin by Prince John (1192); Magna Carta Hiberniæ (The Great Charter of Ireland) (12 November 1216); The Statutes of Kilkenny (1366); King Richard II in Ireland (1395); Declaration of Independence of the Irish Parliament (1460); Poynings' Law (1494)


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Watt, John Anthony. The Church and the Two Nations in Medieval Ireland. 1970.

Seán Duffy

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