Politics: 1500 to 1690

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Politics: 1500 to 1690

In large measure political divisions in late medieval Ireland still reflected the pattern of earlier English colonization. This in turn had been shaped by geographical divisions between arable lowlands and predominantly pastoral regions of mountain, wood, and bog. Medieval English settlement had been concentrated in the eastern and southern lowlands, which remained the heartland of the English lordship into early Tudor times. By then, however, little remained of the less heavily colonized regions of English Connacht and Ulster. English rule in these parts had mostly been swept away by the Gaelic revival (c. 1300–1460), leaving small coastal strips around Galway and extending north from Carlingford to Carrickfergus; and even the English heartland had been somewhat reduced by Gaelic military pressure on the frontier borders. Thus, by 1500, Ireland as seen by English officials was divided politically and culturally into three main regions. First, there was the "English Pale," first so described in 1494. In the narrow sense, this meant the fortified area of English law, language, and culture around Dublin—the "four obedient shires" of the eastern coastal plain inhabited by "the king's loyal English lieges," although even here Gaelic customs retained a hold. The Pale also referred more loosely to the wider English lordship, particularly the royal port-towns and cities, and other densely settled areas like south Wexford and the Barrow-Nore-Suir river basin, which were readily accounted part of the Tudor state. Second, there was the area of the "king's English rebel," that is, various lordships of mixed English and Gaelic law and custom ruled by families of English descent, which were effectively independent or only intermittently answerable to royal government. Finally, there were those regions inhabited by "the king's Irish enemies," the Gaelic clans and chiefs who ruled over sixty independent lordships and a host of dependent chieftaincies by Gaelic law and custom.

Politically, therefore, Ireland around 1500 was a highly fragmented land, in which the effective unit of authority was the lordship. English kings usually governed their Irish territories—like other Tudor borderlands—by appointing as their deputy the most powerful magnate among the local English, in this case, the earl of Kildare. By this means the Crown could harness to defend the English both the earl's personal manraed ("counsel of men," including his tenants, members of his household, and other supporters) on the Pale's southern borders and also his extensive political connections elsewhere, so as to supplement the meager resources traditionally available to the Dublin administration. With royal support successive Kildare earls had gradually built up an effective system of peels (tower-houses), dikes, and fortified bridges to defend the Pale. They had also reduced and recolonized key outposts long reoccupied by the Irish in exposed marchlands. Thus English rule was consolidated during the Kildare ascendancy, and the English lordship was again made financially and militarily self-sufficient.

To the Tudors, however, there were also disadvantages in this system of devolved administration through a powerful regional magnate (known as aristocratic Home Rule to an earlier generation of nationalist historians). As long as Henry Tudor concentrated on reestablishing royal authority in lowland England, and Kildare refrained from backing Yorkist pretenders, the arrangement worked well; and initially too, Henry VIII was far more interested in reviving the Hundred Years' War against France than in fostering good rule in remote borderlands. By 1520, however, when the earl of Surrey led a reconnaissance in force to establish "by which means and ways your grace might reduce this land to obedience and good order," Tudor expectations of their ruling magnates had advanced beyond the mere preservation of a precarious peace in the Pale. Moreover, English merchants and gentry of the maghery (Pale heartland) increasingly demanded "good English order and rule" instead of march law (a local hybrid of English and Gaelic law specific to the borderland) and feudal excesses that left the king's subjects "in no better case than the wild Irish." The Kildares therefore became a victim of their own success. An effective system of defenses fostered the growth in the Pale maghery of an ordered society akin to that in lowland England, and with like expectations of "good rule." Yet, so long as Ireland remained overall a turbulent society—with a military frontier between two nations, cultures, and political systems—defensive needs necessarily remained paramount.

The Origins of the Tudor Conquest

The Kildare rebellion of 1534 to 1535 was in effect precipitated by growing tensions between traditional magnate power and the heightened expectations of Tudor monarchy and Pale society. Hitherto, the Tudors had generally declined the option of an English-born outsider as governor, with the consequent expense of supplying a military retinue to enforce royal authority. Yet the crushing of the rebellion also destroyed the earl's political connection by which the English in Ireland had been defended, thus bringing the Tudor monarchy for the first time into direct contact with the turbulent border chieftaincies hitherto controlled by Kildare. This left the Crown with little option but to retain as a standing garrison the nucleus of the English relief army sent to crush the rebellion, together with its administrative backbone, the financial officials, and army captains headed by the successive military commanders (Sir William Skeffington, deputy, 1534–1535, and Lord Leonard Grey, deputy, 1536–1540).

Government through an English-born outsider transformed the Crown's immediate problem from supervising a wayward deputy to finding additional revenues to meet the extra expenses of what some historians have termed direct rule. The so-called Irish Reformation Parliament (1536–1537) not only applied to Ireland Henry VIII's religious initiatives and arrangements for the royal succession but also attempted to put the Irish revenues on a more secure footing. Acts for the attainder of Kildare and his supporters, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the confiscation of the lands of English absentees all swelled the supply of Crown lands, nominally tripling the annual Irish revenues. In practice, however, much of this land was marchland that the new regime, lacking Kildare's cross-border connections, was unable properly to defend. Lord Leonard Grey worked wonders with the small army at his disposal, but the events surrounding the Geraldine League underlined the fact that both financially and militarily his administration was seriously undersupplied.

The long rule of Sir Anthony Saint Leger as governor (1540–1548, 1550–1551, 1553–1556) provided more continuity in the Dublin administration and a more consistent attempt to adapt for Ireland the characteristic Tudor reform policies—reducing outlying parts to good rule. The ground was prepared by the so-called surrender and regrant initiative. A statute of 1541 in the Irish Parliament confirmed Henry VIII as king of Ireland—so that what had been a mere land or lordship annexed to the Crown was now erected into a separate kingdom. By these means a mechanism was belatedly established for turning Irish enemies into English subjects and incorporating Gaelic lordships into the Tudor state. Gaelic chiefs would hold their lands from the Crown, with leading clansmen transformed into tenants by a process of subinfeudation; Gaelic lordships would become English shires; and English law and administrative structures would replace Gaelic law and customs. In short, the extension of English government throughout Ireland would eliminate the traditional constitutional divisions between the Irish and the English.

Administratively, this initiative closely resembled the so-called Welsh act of union (1536–1543), whereby Welsh marcher lordships had been shired (made into counties or shires) and the "mere Welsh" granted English law. Yet Wales had been conquered by 1283, was part of the same land mass, and its peoples regarded the Tudors as Welsh. Ireland, by contrast, was not only a separate island four times as large, but more than half of it was inhabited by hostile clans—part of a wider Gaelic world extending into Scotland—that had no natural ties with the Tudors. The decision to turn Ireland into a second Tudor kingdom (albeit still a dependency, not a sovereign kingdom) perhaps reflected some appreciation of these essential differences that Ireland could not simply be submerged into a greater England. Yet the Tudor aim was nothing less than to erect on the flimsy foundations of medieval English settlement—a mere patchwork of lordships and port-towns scattered through Leinster and Munster—a centralized early modern kingdom comprehending the whole island, which was also thoroughly English in law, government, culture and, eventually too, in religion. This was probably the most ambitious project that the Tudors ever attempted. Yet for much of the century Ireland ranked a bad fourth, after English domestic concerns, continental developments, and relations with Scotland, in the priorities of Tudor government, and so also in the resources which successive monarchs were prepared to commit to this enterprise.

The inevitable result of scanty resources matched to great ambition was very slow progress. Paradoxically, this worked initially in the government's favor. With only five hundred men available and the old king already grumbling about an annual deficit of IR£5,000, Saint Leger had little option in his dealings with Gaelic chiefs but to prefer inexpensive compromise and conciliation over coercion. Henry VIII's death (in January 1547) saw surrender and regrant completed only in regard to three of the more powerful chieftaincies: O'Brien and O'Neill were created earls of Thomond and Tyrone respectively, and MacGiolla Phádraig was ennobled as Lord Fitzpatrick of Upper Ossory. In addition, two lords of English descent were reconciled to the Crown: James FitzGerald, earl of Desmond, and Ulick Bourke, who was created earl of Clanrickard. Yet transforming Gaelic chiefs into feudal magnates like Kildare did little to foster the kind of ordered society that Tudor officials increasingly saw as the only authentic expression of English civility. The deployment of Gaelic kerne (unarmored, variously armed foot soldiers) in France and Scotland in 1544 to 1545 temporarily eased the problem of underemployed professional soldiers in these lordships, but the replacement of Gaelic succession and inheritance customs by English tenures and primogeniture, as envisaged by surrender and regrant, proved very divisive in the erstwhile ruling clan. Thus Ireland still looked very disturbed and disorderly to English observers, despite the optimism engendered by these new initiatives. And not until 1557 was any Gaelic lordship actually shired, and then only in very different circumstances.

The English saw the Irish as living in idleness and brutality in mountains, woods, and bogs, in insubstantial dwellings, and practicing other, apparently bizarre customs, and officials automatically relegated them to the lower rungs of the great chain of being. Surrender and regrant accordingly presented a great opportunity to adopt a better way of life. Yet, instead of eager acceptance of this generous offer, English officials detected reluctance on the part of Gaelic nobles to embrace the benefits of English civility. The slow progress of Tudor reform was soon blamed on the malice of chiefs and clansmen who seemingly wished to preserve their privileges and tyranny over the poor earthtillers who were without rights in the lands they worked. Thus, once Henry VIII's death had eased the purse strings, the regency council of the young Edward VI developed more coercive strategies to force the pace, and was prepared to pay for results. The army was quadrupled in size, military control south of a line running from Carlingford to the Shannon was quickly established, and, following disturbances by the O'Mores and O'Connors in the Gaelic midlands, Leix and Offaly were declared forfeit to the Crown. Having established Forts Governor and Protector to control these lordships, the government then took steps to plant them with colonies of Englishmen—Pale gentry or New English servitors—in a bid to screen the Pale.

Yet increased coercion proved both expensive and counterproductive. By 1552 the annual deficit had soared to IR£52,000, which the government could not afford. The army's lack of discipline and the increased cost of purveyance to support it alienated the local English, as did other sporadic attempts to shift the financial burden onto them: the disastrous Tudor experiment of debasing the coinage, which ruined trade; and various attempts into the 1580s to commute purveyance (called cess in Ireland), which was opposed as a system of military taxation without parliamentary consent. The Irish too were unsettled by the activities of an enlarged army, seeing its exploits, particularly the Leix-Offaly plantation, not as a development of Tudor reform but as a reversion to the more traditional English ambition of military conquest. Moreover, although Leix and Offaly were shired as queen's and king's counties in 1557, the struggling English settlement of soldier-colonists proved both a financial drain and a military liability. The expropriated Gaelic clans never accepted this purported oasis of English civility planted in their midst, and these new shires, lying beyond the standing defenses of the Pale, also proved difficult to defend.

By the time the young Queen Elizabeth tried to rein in costs—following a second bout of military adventures in Ulster by Saint Leger's successor, the enthusiastic but inexperienced earl of Sussex—an army of fifteen hundred was about the minimum force that could be contemplated to maintain order. And in the longer period of peace down to the outbreak of the Spanish war (1585–1604), the Irish service was almost the only outlet for younger sons of English aristocrats bent on soldiering to make their fortunes.

Contrary to the contention that English captains were swayed by ethnological and anthropological distinctions between Irish and English, research from the 1990s suggests that they thought conventionally in terms of good subjects and rebels, and generally felt themselves bound by the normal rules of war as practiced elsewhere. Yet the increasing resort to martial law did nothing to promote respect among the Gaedhil (Gaelic Irish) for English law and government; and neither ministers in London nor in Dublin could effectively check the abrasive conduct of local captains and officials more concerned to establish themselves as landed gentry than to advance Tudor reform. Growing political and military pressure exerted by the Dublin administration mainly prompted disaffected Gaelic chiefs and feudal magnates to band together to resist Tudor centralization. Late Tudor politics was punctuated by major rebellions as native opposition became more generalized and ideological. And by 1579 originally distinct movements of political and religious opposition were coalescing. Widespread withdrawal from Church of Ireland services fostered a settled recusancy among Gaelic and Old English peoples alike.

In appealing to Gaelic chiefs for support James Fitzmaurice combined the appeal of faith with fatherland. Likewise, Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, who mounted the most serious challenge to Tudor rule during the Nine Years War (1594–1603), courted Old English support from 1596 onwards by attributing to Ireland and the Irish a common faith and a common fatherland. Within thirty years this new nationalist ideology was to erode earlier differences of race and culture, but in the 1590s Gaelic particularism and the traditional politics of ethnicity proved insuperable obstacles in Tyrone's efforts to build a national movement against the Tudor conquest. Despite English fears of an Old English rising in support of their fellow Catholics, or the Spanish landing at Kinsale, Lord Deputy Mountjoy's commanders at the decisive battle of Kinsale (1601) included the Gaelic earl of Thomond and the Old English earl of Clanrickard.

A British Kingdom

Tyrone's surrender to Mountjoy at Mellifont in March 1603 brought the Tudor conquest to completion at the same time as the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English Crown created a new multiple monarchy extending throughout the British Isles. These twin developments transformed the character of Irish politics. In the first place, Ireland was now governed as a centralized early modern kingdom. Within three years the normal officials of English shire government were operating in the erstwhile Gaelic lordships, and English laws and customs had ousted Gaelic ones. Similar moves against Gaelic law and custom in Scotland removed the political underpinning of the Gaelic system there too, thus facilitating the partition of medieval Gaeldom between two composite kingdoms. Behind these changes lay a subtle redirection of Crown policy. King James sought the gradual assimilation of his patrimony into a British polity following best practice in politics, government, and religion. Rather than imposing "civility" like the Tudors by a rigid enforcement of English norms and values, his aim of erecting a "perfect union" on the union of the crowns envisaged detailed differences between his three kingdoms. He was also more familiar with, and indulgent of, Gaelic traditions. Gaelic bards were indeed conscious of the Stewart dynasty's Gaelic lineage, extolling James in traditional praise poetry as "our true king."

In consequence, early Stuart Ireland witnessed the rapid advance of what might be described as national politics in the modern sense, focused on king and country, faith and fatherland. The Crown and institutions of English government were soon accepted in Gaelic Ireland, so much so that during the War of the Three Kingdoms (1638–1652) support for a restoration of the old Gaelic system was negligible. A striking indication of this change was the creation of a new political vocabulary in Gaelic, attuned to the changed circumstances, with terms like dúthaigh and athartha now denoting native land and fatherland. The poets quietly decided that the Gaill (foreigners) were Irish Catholics like the Gaedhil. Accordingly, the common denomination

Éireannaigh (the people of Ireland) now applied to these Catholic descendants of medieval Gaedhil and Gaill, whether of English or Gaelic speech and culture. The real foreigners, for whom the term Gaill was now reserved, were the New English, followers of Luther and Calvin and other Protestant heretics. Also excluded were the Gaedhil of Scotland: though no less Gaelic in language, law, and customs, these Gaedhil were neither Catholic (in many cases) nor living in Ireland. Yet surviving Gaelic landowners increasingly adopted English law and language to protect their estates in the new Ireland. The descent of the Gaelic learned classes into poverty mirrored the language's declining status. By 1700 a series of predominantly spoken dialects had ousted the standard literary language, common classical Gaelic.

These changes engendered real bitterness among the Gaelic literati: In satires such as Parliament Chloinne Tomáis (The parliament of Thomas's clan) they denounced the accompanying social revolution that transformed oppressed Gaelic laborers into smallholding tenants of New English landlords. By contrast with the autocratic Gaelic system, the model of English local government envisaged comparatively humble freeholders and copyholders (yeomen, husbandmen, and even artisans) serving as parish constables, churchwardens, and members of grand and petty juries. Similarly, English tenures held out the prospect of protection at common law for erstwhile Gaelic laborers. In practice, however, the parallel intrusion through plantation projects of numerous British settlers frustrated English efforts to build an ordered society and an English pattern of politics. In the aftermath of the Desmond rebellion (1579–1583) earlier experiments with small-scale plantation projects gave place to more sweeping measures. The expropriation of native landowners was still more thorough in the Ulster plantation of 1610, covering six escheated counties in the northwest, even though many native smallholders remained on the land. Thus the apparent success of anglicization masked growing tensions within the political system, focusing on land and religion.

Throughout James I's reign the basis of support for Crown policy remained disturbingly narrow, with central government dominated by an unrepresentative clique of New English adventurers, backed by a small standing army, fixed initially at eleven hundred men. Under the English model, local government was traditionally run by the major landowners acting as justices of the peace and sheriffs; but outside the major plantation districts, these remained predominantly Catholic, whether Gaelic or Old English. The government's difficulty was highlighted by the events of the 1613 to 1615 Parliament (repeated in the 1634–1635 Parliament), when most shires and traditional boroughs elected Catholic members (temporal peers in the Lords were also predominantly Catholic) and the government was forced to create new boroughs to engineer a compliant and Protestant Commons majority. Further plantations (as proposed, most sweepingly, for Connacht in 1635) gradually produced more Protestant landowners, but also deepened the divisions between Catholic tenants, threatened or dispossessed landowners, and Protestant newcomers, thus highlighting the regime's predominantly colonial character.

With Charles I's firm backing, the able but unscrupulous Viscount Wentworth (deputy, 1633–1640) was able to recover some freedom of maneuver for the Crown by balancing natives against planters, but when the king's policies of centralist "personal rule" collapsed in his other two kingdoms and Wentworth was recalled, the weakly directed Dublin administration proved quite unable to contain the ensuing Ulster rising (1641). Catholics exploited the political paralysis in England to launch a preemptive strike in a bid to disarm the Protestant communities of Ulster and the Pale. The revolt quickly got out of hand, precipitating the worst civilian massacres ever seen in the British Isles: perhaps three thousand Protestants were slaughtered, and many more fled to England. The ensuing civil war (1641–1649) was nakedly sectarian: English and Scots armies were sent over to prop up the Protestant and settler interest still holding out in small pockets; the "Confederate Catholics of Ireland" (from July 1642) established control elsewhere. Yet the Confederates were riven by internal dissentions, chiefly between the Old English anxious for a speedy settlement with the king to safeguard their estates and the already dispossessed Gaedhil who were more eager to prosecute the war. These divisions in turn prevented the Confederates from supporting the king effectively against the English parliamentarians and Scots, with the result that, following Charles's defeat and execution (1649), Oliver Cromwell was able to redeploy the New Model Army to accomplish the military subjugation of Ireland and the restoration of English authority (1649–1651).

Ireland under Cromwell

With the important exception of the land settlement, the establishment of Ireland's first republic (1653-1660) had little long-term impact on the political system. Over one-third of the land was confiscated and redistributed to English soldiers or investors, but even with a large army of occupation, the republic's efforts to transplant the Catholics to Connacht proved beyond its administrative capacity. In 1653 Ireland and Scotland were accorded representation in the 460-member English parliament, but the 30 Irish members who sat in the three succeeding parliaments were chiefly army officers. The republic's speedy collapse following Cromwell's death (1658) not only discredited what little antimonarchical sentiment had existed in Ireland but also occasional proposals in the settler community for a parliamentary union.

The Restoration

With the monarchy's restoration (1660) came also a return of the old constitutional relationship with England, the Church of Ireland, and the early Stuart system of politics and government. What was not restored, however, was the land confiscated from Irish Catholics. While his throne remained insecure, Charles II dared not alienate the Irish Cromwellians (who had supported the Restoration). Thus, despite the king's sympathy for the dispossessed, and despite the selective restoration of lands to a few leading royalists like the duke of Ormond, the most that could be achieved was a piecemeal modification of the Cromwellian settlement. In 1641 Catholics had still held 59 percent of the land; by 1688, the Catholic proportion had fallen to 22 percent. Moreover, when Parliament first met in 1661, very few restorations had occurred, and so the Cromwellian interest dominated an exclusively Protestant Commons. Restoration Ireland had the form of a parliamentary constitution, but it was essentially a colony governed through deputy and council.

Under the circumstances, political stability depended on the English connection. As before, many of the dispossessed soon departed to Catholic Europe or took to banditry. Protestants feared another Catholic insurrection, as in 1641. The hysteria surrounding the Popish Plot (1678–1681) prompted the execution of the Catholic archbishop of Armagh for treason, and new orders for the expulsion of Catholic clergy and the surrender of arms by Catholics. With the accession in 1685 of a Catholic king, James II, however, the Restoration settlement soon unraveled. Initially, James denied any intention to alter the land settlement and moved cautiously to admit Catholics to office and replace Protestant army officers, but Catholic expectations of great changes arose. Many Protestant merchants sold up and moved to England. The pace of change quickened considerably in 1687 after a Catholic deputy, Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconnell, was appointed. In preparation for Parliament, Tyrconnell selected Catholic sheriffs, remodeled the corporations, and greatly increased the size of the now Catholic army.

The Glorious Revolution and the Subjugation of Ireland

By the time Parliament met in the summer of 1689, however, James had been deposed in England in favor of William of Orange. Tyronnell still held Ireland (excepting Londonderry and Enniskillen) for James who had since arrived in person. The overwhelmingly Catholic Parliament asserted Ireland's legislative independence, removed civil disabilities imposed on religious grounds, overturned the land settlement, and attainted over 2,400 Protestants, including almost all the landowners. Yet this program could only be implemented by military victory since a Williamite army had meanwhile landed near Belfast and recovered Ulster for William. The Jacobite forces were strengthened by 7,000 French troops in March 1690, but William's arrival tipped the balance. William's victory at the Boyne did not end the campaign, but with James's immediate departure for France the issue was no longer in doubt. The Boyne restored Protestant political control, and Catholic influence was soon reduced still further by renewed expropriation of Catholic landlords. It also marked the climax of a political conflict that had grown steadily more explicit and intense since the mid-Tudor period.

SEE ALSO Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690; Legal Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Monarchy; Surrender and Regrant; Primary Documents: From Solon His Follie (1594); On Catholic Ireland in the Early Seventeenth Century; From A Direction for the Plantation of Ulster (1610); Ferocity of the Irish Wars (1580s–1590s)


Beckett, James C. The Making of Modern Ireland, 1603–1923. 1966.

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

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

Moody, T. W., F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne, eds. A New History of Ireland. Vol. 3, Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691. 1976.

Steven G. Ellis

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Politics: 1500 to 1690

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Politics: 1500 to 1690