English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690)

views updated

English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690)

The political and religious reforms implemented in Ireland after the defeat of the Kildare rebellion of 1534 and 1535 reflected Henry VIII's anxiety over imposing a unitary sovereignty in church and state. Under the aegis of the policy, managed by Thomas Cromwell, a new English coterie was established in a Dublin administration more directly answerable to London. No major initiative with respect to Gaelic Ireland was envisaged. With the fall of Cromwell in 1540 and the arrival of Sir Anthony Saint Leger as chief governor in 1541, however, a radical new constitutional framework was put in place, within which the island's older English and Gaelic communities would share on a basis of equality of citizenship and privilege. Within the overarching design of a newly declared kingdom of Ireland, a series of agreements was to be concluded by peaceful means with the hitherto alienated Gaelic and gaelicized lordships to bring them into full communion with the monarchy. The English objectives were to introduce political and social stability by extirpating systematic taking and billeting such as coign and livery, to promote succession of the eldest son, and also to foster English economic and cultural norms through agrarian changes and religious and educational reform.

The indigenous populations responded positively to the early phase of reform. The session of Parliament that proclaimed Henry's kingship of Ireland in 1541 necessitated the unprecedented translation of the proceedings into the Irish language. The Old English anticipated that they would have a central role to play in the implementation of the reforms through civil and judicial administration in the provinces; they were further conciliated by Saint Leger by land grants of dissolved monastic property in Leinster and Munster. For the dozens of Gaelic lords who were likewise assimilated within Saint Leger's system and rewarded with monastic grants, the compacts were acceptable—their lands were assured in return for their recognition of the king's sovereignty. This was the policy of "surrender and regret" whereby the principal Gaelic and gaelicized lords surrendered their lands and titles to the Crown and received new grants of those lands and titles to be held directly from the Crown. Leading chiefs were given such titles as earl of Thomond (O'Brien), earl of Tyrone (O'Neill), and baron of Upper Ossory (Macgillapatrick). Little real social, political, or cultural change was required of them, though all were agreeable to the royal supremacy in ecclesiastical matters. Under Saint Leger's governorship, political relations were generally harmonious, and the painful effects of the religious reformation were significantly mitigated.

During the reigns of King Edward VI (1547–1553) and Queen Mary (1553–1558) there were many ominous signs that the consensus built in the early to mid-1540s was unlikely to persist. Radical religious doctrinal changes under Edward were introduced without the sanction of an Irish parliament or consultation with the Old English political leadership. The innovations proved to be unpopular in the dioceses and parishes where they were implemented. Although as yet unaffected by this Protestant Reformation, Gaelic Ireland was not to be treated as a special case in linguistic and cultural terms, for the emphasis was to be heavily on evangelization through the English language. Under Queen Mary there was an overwhelmingly popular response in the towns and countryside of the Englishry to the restoration of Roman Catholicism. During the mid-Tudor period a succession of viceroys with differing priorities came and went. The Old English community felt the weight of increased military expenditure as Sir Edward Bellingham and Sir James Croft campaigned vigorously in the Gaelic midlands and elsewhere, mainly targeting the O'Connor and O'More clans, who were regarded as having breached their "surrender and regrant" agreements. The ensuing rebellions in the region, as well as continuing succession disputes elsewhere, gave rise to questions about the efficacy of the compacts made in the 1540s. When a plantation scheme was undertaken for the newly shired King's County (Offaly) and Queen's County (Leix) in the mid-1550s, discontinuity in government policy was more manifest than ever: Although some of the compliant Gaelic clans retained land in the planted zone, as did a few selected Old English, the bulk of the new settlers were military personnel from England who were expected to do double duty as soldiers and farmers.

The advent of the earl of Sussex to the governorship in 1556 initiated a new, systematic approach to reform of the Tudor realm of Ireland. Carefully costed, preselected objectives were to be met within an agreed time frame. This programmatic style of governance drew a variety of responses from the more established communities, ranging from full acceptance to outright rejection. In the first phase, until about 1571, the continuing emphasis on assimilation and persuasion of target populations elicited native support. In respect to the religious changes introduced in the Reformation parliament in 1560, for example, a policy of leniency ensured that matters of conscience were not publicly contentious. The Old English, among whom the reformed religion was expected to take root first, remained aloof from the Anglican Church of Ireland, but their dissent was not an issue at this stage. What did rile their political leadership in the early Elizabethan period was the mounting burden of the cess (a range of government impositions, including levies on goods and services) and a burgeoning campaign of constitutional opposition in Parliament and at court began to take shape. The regimes of Sussex (1556–1563) and Sir Henry Sidney (1565–1571) persevered with the policy of surrender and regrant, and were able to win over some Gaelic lords in Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. The inclusion of some of the compliant Leinster chiefs such as O'Dempsey and Macgillapatrick in the plantation of Leix and Offaly proved the government's intent to proceed with moderation in the process of social and political engineering. Major problems arose, however, because the government failed to engage all levels of the Gaelic political system, so although sitting chieftains and their immediate families were content with the changes, those who might reasonably have expected to succeed to the chieftaincy through the Gaelic mode of election were to be disappointed. Also, if the attempted demilitarization of the Gaelic lordships were to succeed, the class of armed retainers would be left without a raison d'être.

Perhaps the most serious case of the failure of surrender and regrant occurred in Ulster, where Shane O'Neill, the successor by clan election to Conn, first earl of Tyrone, was not accommodated in the original agreement. O'Neill's bellicosity in central Ulster disturbed the arrangements already made with the lesser lords such as O'Reilly and O'Rourke. For a number of years until his untimely death in 1567, O'Neill rampaged in much of the north of Ireland, rejecting the legitimacy of his half-brother's succession and demanding royal acknowledgment of his claims to rule in Ulster. While Sussex's regime foundered because of the failure to contain O'Neill, Sidney claimed credit for Shane's killing by the MacDonalds, but into the vacuum entered another formidable O'Neill, Turlough Luinech, who dominated the region for more than two decades.

The arrival of new settlers in the territories of Old English and Gaelic families led to revolts in Leinster and Munster in the later 1560s. Besides the ongoing attacks by the O'Mores and O'Connors on the plantation of Leix and Offaly, an armed rebellion was staged in 1569 by leading members of the Butler family against the claim of an Englishman, Sir Peter Carew, to some of their land in Carlow. In the southern province a more serious outbreak was sparked by James Fitzmaurice, a leading member of the Fitzgeralds of Desmond, in response to the presence of newcomers in his territory in County Cork. His campaign was also affected by his Catholic militancy, for which he sought aid from Spain and Rome. The revolts of the Butlers and Fitzmaurice (both members of old Norman houses) were supported by disgruntled Gaelic leaders, and though both were put down by rigorous state military actions, the implications of these alliances for the whole reform program were extremely worrying.

The pace of governmental reform speeded up in the mid-Elizabethan period until 1585, with extreme reactions from the native communities. None of the viceroys—Sir William Fitzwilliam (1571–1575), Sidney again (1575–1578), Lord Grey (1580–1582) or Sir John Perrot (1584–1588)—set out to make the religious reforms central to their programs of government, but the issue became highly charged during the major rebellions of the 1570s and 1580s. Most of the Old English preferred a quietist type of recusancy that was, for the most part, tolerated in private. Their main concern at this point was the agitation against the cess, which took on the dimensions of a constitutional struggle for the preservation of traditional customary rights (including liberty of conscience) in the face of the assertion of royal prerogative. At the parliament of 1585 to 1586, the Old English leadership successfully forged a coherent opposition to government designs. On the positive side, in conjunction with the establishment of a presidency system in Munster and Connacht, a more refined type of surrender and regrant was devised under Sidney that provided for the commuting of dues and levies payable by all levels of political leadership into annual rental payments to the president. This system, known as composition, barely worked in the southern province, but it provided the foundation for an elaborate and successful framework of agreements in Connacht. There, many of the leading magnates agreed to drop all demands on lesser lords in return for the protection of the presidency, which would in turn be funded by the contributions of all. In the south of the province the earls of Clanricard and Thomond, of Norman and Gaelic backgrounds respectively, became fully assimilated in Connacht.

Elsewhere the program of monarchical expansion into the provinces provoked violent reactions. In Leinster grievances caused by the overbearing actions of local English seneschals (mayors), the burden of supporting growing numbers of troops, and the curtailment of religious freedom all combined to bring together a coalition of insurgency in 1580 headed by the Old English gentleman, James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass, and the Gaelic leader Feagh MacHugh O'Byrne. The spirit of the Counter-Reformation animated Baltinglass, and after his defeat and flight in 1581, the execution of many of his supporters helped to crystallize a growing sense of Catholic identity among Old English people.

These events were mirrored in the renewal of the revolt of James Fitzmaurice in Munster in 1579 in the form of a Catholic crusade with continental backing that drew the earl of Desmond into military opposition to the regime. The attempts to win Desmond and his cohorts to the new presidency system had broken down irrevocably, but upon his defeat and death in 1583, the vast Desmond estates in Munster were forfeited to the Crown. A highly centralized scheme of plantation was then organized under which English undertakers took over large estates with the duty of establishing socioeconomic institutions drawn from their homeland. Many of the existing occupiers claimed to be blameless in the recent uprising and made strenuous efforts to establish their rights through the courts. Meanwhile, two private colonial enterprises in Ulster—by the earl of Essex in Antrim and Sir Thomas Smith in the Ards—failed disastrously, but not before the region was badly affected by instability and agitation by the leaders of the threatened lordships and their neighbors. As elsewhere, the massacre of civilians, in this case on Rathlin Island, left a legacy of bitterness and mistrust.

The unrest spilled over in the climactic period before the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. The government pushed ahead with its policies of shiring territory in Connacht and Ulster and of reorganizing Gaelic lordships with redistributions of land and power, sparking a major conflict known as the Nine Years War (1593–1603) that eventually affected most of Ireland. For the Old English, events of the era provoked a tension between their ingrained loyalty to the monarchy and their allegiance to the Roman church, the official restoration of which came to be championed by Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone. Although many of their offspring had migrated to Catholic continental centers for university training, the Old English for the most part eschewed the politico-religious cause espoused by the Spanish monarchy. Thus, while their commitment to Catholicism deepened during the 1590s, they argued the tenability of their dual loyalty in church and state, and many became active in the government's campaign against the northern Irish confederates. Apart from preventing the Old English from siding with the insurgents, the government had few policy successes through the later 1590s. The earldoms of Thomond and Clanricard in Connacht remained bastions of loyalty right throughout the Nine Years War, providing a bulwark in the west between Ulster and Munster. And the containment of the struggle in the north until the later 1590s provided breathing space for the hard-pressed military planners in Dublin Castle. But eventually discontents in all provinces confronted the state with the very real prospect of the complete overthrow of English authority in Ireland.

The shipwrecking of Spanish sailors and troops from the ill-fated Armada on the north and west coasts of Ireland in 1588 unsettled many of the lordships there. While some of the local rulers were unsympathetic to the stranded Spaniards, others such as Brian O'Rourke provided hospitality (a deed for which he was executed in 1591). The ruthless methods of the president of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, compounded the disaffection of the leaders of the northern part of the province who were susceptible to the influence of Hugh O'Donnell of Tir Conaill (Donegal). In the southern Ulster lordships, including west Breifne (Leitrim) and Fermanagh, there was resistance to government plans to reorganize the lands and redistribute power within an English county framework, along the lines of the Monaghan settlement of 1590. In Monaghan the MacMahon lordship was broken up and individual freeholding landlords were established. The campaign of O'Donnell, Hugh Maguire, and Brian Oge O'Rourke gathered momentum and acquired a religious dimension when Catholic bishops supported the cause for Spanish intervention. Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, was faced with the dilemma of continuing to cooperate with the Dublin government and losing face with the Gaelic of Ulster, or throwing in his lot with the militant chieftains and risking the loss of all his lands and authority, as had happened to the earl of Desmond. Eventually, in 1595, he took the field on the side of the insurgents and initiated a highly successful military strategy in Ulster, culminating in his victory over the English army at the Yellow Ford in 1598. The triumphant O'Neill took the war to other parts of Ireland including Munster, and in Leinster and Connacht there were sympathetic uprisings. His most decisive move, however, was to internationalize the conflict by appealing for Spanish aid in the name of the Catholic cause. By the time of the arrival of a fleet from Spain at Kinsale in 1601, Sir George Carew was already subduing Munster, and O'Neill was under severe pressure from Lord Deputy Mountjoy. The battle at Kinsale saw the routing of the confederate forces, and O'Neill was forced to surrender just over a year later. Although the terms granted at Mellifont in 1603 were better than what he might have reasonably expected, O'Neill lost his autonomous Ulster sovereignty and was threatened with being fully circumscribed by English power.

The conquest of Ireland was more or less complete when James I began his reign in 1603, and the flight of the northern chiefs, including O'Neill in 1607, left Ulster leaderless. The consequent plantation of Ulster introduced a large number of Scottish and English settlers to the province. Yet the identities forged in the smithy of the crisis of the 1590s buoyed the older communities in their struggle to preserve their endangered heritages. For the Old English, the survival of their political, economic, and religious liberties was threatened by the absolutist-tending government of the Stuarts. The clearest manifestation of this threat came in the parliament of 1613 to 1615, when a series of constitutional and political clashes revolved around the question of representation of the recusant Old English majority. In the towns their fellows battled to preserve their guild and corporate rights in the face of government centralization and New English infiltration. These campaigns brought into sharper focus their long-established heritage of civic and religious freedom. For the Old Irish, whose senior figures had been sidelined or fled into exile, the absence of a constitutional focus in the form of a legislative forum or even a viable political leadership was damaging. The resilience of some of the Gaelic lords in adapting to the new political and social order contrasted with the failure of many more to come to terms with the market conditions brought about by colonization and the innovative estate-management techniques introduced by the newcomers. For both of the indigenous communities, the early decades of the seventeenth century were fraught with difficulty.

The prospect of an improvement over the position of de facto toleration of the Old English beckoned in the 1620s when Charles entered into negotiations with community leaders over the question of money and aid in return for a more robust form of recognition of their religious and political rights. Although the bargain was not concluded, the raising of the key issues seemed to promise the possibility of a solution. Contemporaneously, the political thought of Irish Catholic churchmen of English and Gaelic backgrounds appeared to diverge. The Old English Catholics were quite prepared to accept the legitimacy of the Stuart monarchy in return for limited toleration of their beliefs. Some exiled Gaelic priests and scholars, on the other hand, argued that the Stuarts were illegitimate because of their adherence to heresy, and they formulated a brand of Catholic nationalism that melded patriotism and religious zeal, branded "faith and fatherland" by later commentators. Meanwhile, on the ground in town and country, the Catholic Church, spearheaded by continentally trained priests, grew stronger despite the periodic bouts of repression in 1604 to 1605, 1611 to 1612, and 1629. The 1630s witnessed regression on all fronts as the absolutism of Thomas Wentworth (lord deputy, 1633–1640) alienated all groups in Ireland. Threats of a plantation in Connacht were raised, potentially affecting Old English and Gaelic Irish landowners and compounding the already existing resentments of the displaced landowners of Ulster after the resettlement in the north.

In the 1640s the Old English and Old Irish were drawn together into a major uprising that resonated throughout the British kingdoms. At stake were the constitutional, religious, and property issues that had loomed large in the previous decades, but now the monarchy, in jeopardy itself, was prepared to enter into talks with the communities in Ireland. Beginning in July 1642, the Old English, through the representative confederation of Kilkenny, sued for religious toleration and a guarantee of their political standing within the kingdom. The Old Irish, also in the assembly but with their own, separate military organization, pushed for full re-establishment of Catholicism and restoration of their lands within the kingdom of Ireland. Divisions that opened up among confederates were not exactly along ethnic lines, but the arrival in 1645 of Archbishop Rinuccini, the papal legate, complicated the matter of whether the terms offered by Ormond, the king's representative, should be accepted or not. Rinuccini, who championed the full reestablishment of the Catholic Church, lost the argument and withdrew, but the divided confederates soon had to face the English army of Oliver Cromwell, which swept all before it in 1649 and 1650.

Out of the upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s there emerged a restored monarchy by 1660, but the position of the older indigenous Irish communities had been irreparably eroded. The Old English lost their socially ascendant role in the counties, and their urban counterparts were excluded from political and economic power. The Catholic Church had suffered severe dislocation in the mid-century decades and faced a painful process of recovery. The arbitrary nature of the toleration of dissent was graphically shown in the fate of Oliver Plunkett, the archbishop of Armagh, who was executed on charges of treason in 1681. The Old Irish presence as a political grouping was further diluted by the Cromwellian and Stuart settlements: The real spiritual home of the community lay outside Ireland among the exiled literati and churchmen who fanned the flames of Catholic nationalism. Key to this resurgence was the use of the Gaelic language in print in the Tridentine catechism. The reign of James II offered a brief period of hope to the older Catholic communities that their positions could be restored, but the defeats at the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691) dashed these hopes. Thereafter, the Old English and the Old Irish ceased to exist as coherent politico-religious groupings, and the process of unification of the Catholics of Ireland, designated "Irish papists" indiscriminately by Cromwell, continued on into the eighteenth century. The era of the penal laws shaped a different kind of Catholic community.

SEE ALSO Council of Trent and the Catholic Mission; Desmond Rebellions; Lombard, Peter; Monarchy; Nine Years War; O'Neill, Hugh, Second Earl of Tyrone; Plunkett, Oliver; Rebellion of 1641; Rinuccini, Giovanni Battista; Sidney, Henry; Primary Documents: From Solon His Follie (1594); From A Direction for the Plantation of Ulster (1610)


Bradshaw, Brendan. The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century. 1979.

Brady, Ciaran. The Chief Governors: The Rise and Reform of Reform Government in Tudor Ireland, 1536–1588. 1994.

Brady, Ciaran, and Raymond Gillespie, eds. Natives and Newcomers: Essays on the Making of Irish Colonial Society, 1534–1641. 1986.

Caball, Marc. Poets and Politics: Reaction and Continuity in Irish Poetry, 1558–1625. 1998.

Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British, 1580–1650. 2001.

Clarke, Aidan. The Old English in Ireland, 1625–1642. 1966.

Crawford, Jon. Anglicizing the Government of Ireland. 1994.

Cunningham, Bernadette. The World of Geoffrey Keating. 2000.

Ellis, Steven G. Reform and Revival: English Government in Ireland, 1470–1534. 1986.

Ellis, Steven G. Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, 1447–1603. 1998.

Ford, Alan. The Protestant Reformation in Ireland, 1590–1641. 1997.

Lennon, Colm. The Lords of Dublin in the Age of Reformation. 1989.

Lennon, Colm. Sixteenth Century Ireland: The Incomplete Conquest. 1994.

Morgan, Hiram. Tyrone's Rebellion. 1993.

Morgan, Hiram, ed. Political Ideology in Ireland, 1541–1641. 1999.

Ó Siochrú, Micheál. Confederate Ireland, 1642–9: A Constitutional and Political Analysis. 1999.

Simms, J. G. Jacobite Ireland, 1685–91. 1969.

Simms, J. G. "The Restoration, 1660–85." In Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691. Vol. 3 of A New History of Ireland, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976. Reprint, 1991.

Colm Lennon

About this article

English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article