The Graces comprised fifty-one concessions promised by Charles I on 14 May 1628 after protracted negotiations, primarily with representatives of the Old English (Catholic) community. In the bitter disputes that followed, however, the term tended to be used as a convenient way of referring to the substance of the two articles that dealt with the central question of land titles. The Old English, who felt threatened and alienated by official policies of land confiscation and religious discrimination in the previous reign, had for some time looked for assurances that their origins and proven loyalty entitled them to be treated on the same footing as their fellow English colonists rather than in the same way as their Irish fellow Catholics. They were also critical of the failure of the post-conquest administration to bring Irish administrative and judicial procedures into conformity with those of England and to guarantee due legal process.
Their opportunity to take positive action came some months after Charles's accession in March 1625, when the English government began preparations to wage war on Spain and confronted the problem of defending Ireland against counterattack. An offer by the Old English to raise forces to defend Ireland at their own expense was brokered by the courtier Sir John Bath of Drumcondra, who argued forcefully that a demonstration of official goodwill was essential to the retention of Old English allegiance. The offer was rejected on the advice of the Dublin administration, which was reluctant to "put arms into their hands of whose hearts we rest not well assured" (Clarke 1968, p. 8). Fresh negotiations were aimed at securing Old English support for an enlarged standing army financed by voluntary taxation in return for concessions; they resulted in a royal offer to suspend the collection of recusancy fines and to do away with religious requirements for inheritance, appointment to public office, and legal practice. These proposals were presented to a representative assembly in Dublin in April 1627. They met with opposition from the Protestant episcopacy, who declared that to offer to suspend the collection of fines for nonattendance at divine service (recusancy) was "to set religion to sale" (Clarke 1968, p. 13). Less predictably, the offers were received coldly by the Old English, for whom the change of emphasis, from a policy founded upon trust to one redolent of distrust, confirmed their original suspicions that the government doubted their loyalty and inclined them in turn to distrust the sincerity of the king's overtures. They reiterated their willingness to defend Ireland themselves.
The negotiations were transferred back to England, where eleven provincial representatives, eight Old English and three New English, concluded an agreement in May 1628. The demands made in this final phase reflected the experience of the previous three years of negotiations. The Old English agents no longer sought to persuade the administration to trust them, but rather to guard against the most likely consequence of its evident distrust, which was that the Crown would exploit the widespread deficiencies in titles to Irish land to expropriate them. Their chief demands, therefore, were for an act of limitation of royal title, by which the Crown would renounce all claims older than sixty years, and a supplementary act to secure titles in Connacht and Clare, where sixty years would not provide sufficient protection. The New English agents capitalized upon Protestant resistance to the original proposals to secure the withdrawal of Charles's offers to suspend recusancy fines and to allow Catholics to qualify for governmental office by taking an oath of secular allegiance rather than the statutory oath of supremacy, which involved recognizing the king as supreme governor of the church and renouncing all foreign jurisdictions. They also took the opportunity to secure the indemnification of planters from the consequences of their widespread failure to introduce the stipulated number of settlers, make adequate arrangements for defense, and observe the prohibition against taking Irish tenants.
The fifty-one articles of the final agreement included many beneficial reforms of administrative practice and legal process that went well beyond what the king had offered previously, but it was Articles 24 and 25, which contained new royal pledges to guarantee the existing distribution of land ownership by statute, that were of outstanding value to the Old English. The agreed price was a national contribution of 160,000 Irish pounds toward the support of an army of 5,000 men, to be paid over three years. Fatally, responding to the impatience of an administration that was now at war with both France and Spain, the representatives agreed that the money could be collected before the meeting of the Irish parliament which was to enact the promised bills. That Parliament was summoned so hastily that the mandatory procedures were not followed and the writs had to be recalled. This accidental delay proved decisive because time revealed that the government's position was stronger than it seemed. The contribution continued to be paid. This was paid, partly because the alternative was the billeting of the enlarged army in private houses, but mostly because most of the other Graces did not require legislation and their benefits were significant. As the international situation improved and the danger of invasion receded, the army was reduced, the bargaining power of the Old English declined, and the administration was able to renege on the king's promises.
The Denial of the Graces
When Viscount Wentworth came to Ireland as lord deputy in 1633 his objective was to maximize royal revenues, his intention was to convene a parliament and his difficulty was the outstanding Graces. If these were enacted, the most promising source of enhanced income, the king's title to Irish land, could not be realized. Wentworth resolved the problem without scruple. He assured the Old English that the king's promises would be honored, convened Parliament, secured assent to the revenue measures he needed, and, in November 1634, abruptly announced that "their two darling articles" would not be enacted. In the following years the consequences rapidly unfolded. Arrangements to plant Connacht and Clare were forced through, with no distinction made between Old English and native Irish proprietors. Defective titles were exploited to revise the conditions upon which land was held. Moreover, legal challenges to borough charters changed the future balance of parliamentary representation decisively to Protestant advantage. Within very few years, in short, not only were the property rights of the Old English seriously impaired, but the possibility of mounting political resistance was sharply reduced.
Nonetheless, when a new parliament was summoned in 1640 to assist the king in dealing with his rebellious Scottish subjects, circumstances conspired to favor the Old English. Wentworth's authoritarianism had also offended the New English, Charles's absolutist tendencies had aroused opposition in England, and a complex network of alliances took shape. The two colonial communities in Ireland entered into a parliamentary coalition, sealed by an agreement not to proceed with a bill for the confirmation of the plantation arrangements in Connacht and Clare. Having done so, they formed links with the English opposition, which in turn developed covert connections with the king's Scottish enemies. The immediate collective aim was to secure the impeachment of Wentworth, but the dominant Old English concern was to secure the enactment of the Graces. In April 1641, at a critical moment in Wentworth's trial, when impeachment was replaced by a bill of attainder, the king yielded to the demands of the Old English members of an Irish parliamentary delegation and ordered the Irish government to prepare a statute of limitations and a bill to revoke the plantation proceedings in Connacht and Clare. The government complied, while urging that this legislation be balanced by measures to compensate for the loss of revenue. Early in August, when it became known that the draft bills had received royal approval and were about to be returned for enactment without this condition being fulfilled, the Irish administration suspended Parliament until November. Before it met again, the Irish in Ulster had risen in rebellion. A minority opinion held that the way to prevent the outbreak from spreading to the Old English was to affirm the government's intention of having the Graces enacted, but it did not prevail.
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Clarke, Aidan. The Graces, 1628–1641. 1968.
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Moody, T. W., F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne, eds. Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691. Vol. 3 of A New History of Ireland. 1976. Reprint, 1991.
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