Religion: 1500 to 1690

views updated

Religion: 1500 to 1690

In 1500 there was only one religion in Ireland—medieval Catholicism. By 1690 this situation had changed completely: There were the three major churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, and the Presbyterian Church, as well as numerous sects like the Baptists and Quakers. The religious makeup of Ireland had been substantially changed through the long-term effects of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, although in terms of winning the majority of the population of Ireland to Protestantism, the Reformation had undoubtedly failed and Catholicism had succeeded.

The chronology of the failure of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland has been much debated in Irish historiography and the discussion has certainly not led to a consensus about the exact chronology of the failure of Protestantism and the success of Catholicism among the Irish. Whereas an older, Catholic nationalist historiography saw Ireland as naturally and unchangeably Catholic, scholars since World War II have come to ask why and how the Protestant Reformation failed in Ireland. The suggestions regarding the time frame of this development have varied considerably: from a suggestion that the failure of the Reformation was already determined in the reign of the Protestant Edward VI (1547–1553) (as proposed by Brendan Bradshaw), to the thesis that neither the failure of Protestantism nor the success of Catholicism was decided during the early modern period (1500–1800), but that the die was cast in the nineteenth century (Nicholas Canny). However, these periodizations have not been widely accepted, and in the 1990s a consensus evolved which sees the 1580s and 1590s as a watershed in the religious development of Ireland. The following, therefore, is an interpretive summary of the religious and ecclesiastical development of Ireland between 1500 and 1690 based on this rough consensus chronology.

Ethnic, Cultural, and Political Divisions

The religious evolution of Ireland between 1500 and 1690 was deeply influenced by the long-standing ethnic and cultural divisions of the island and by its troubled political development. In consequence of the Anglo-Norman conquest between 1169 and 1170, late medieval Ireland was ethnically and culturally divided between the indigenous Gaelic-Irish population on the one hand and the medieval Anglo-Norman colonizers, the so-called Anglo-Irish, on the other hand. The Anglo-Irish consisted of essentially two groups: the aristocracy, many of whom frequently intermarried with the Gaelic-Irish nobility and who were thus gradually integrated into the social and political structure of Gaelic Ireland; and the gentry and burghers in the English Pale and the Anglo-Irish towns. The Pale, the region around Dublin, and the towns, most of which were situated in the east and southeast of Ireland, were the only areas effectively under English government control in the fifteenth and for most of the sixteenth centuries. The Anglo-Irish gentry and burghers retained a firm separate identity, seeing themselves as upholders of English culture in Ireland.

Ireland under England's Rule

In the early sixteenth century, Ireland came under "direct rule" from England, that is, government by Anglo-Irish noblemen was replaced by government by English-born lord deputies and other English officials. In 1541 the Irish parliament declared Henry VIII "King of Ireland," thereby superseding the title "lord" granted by Pope Adrian IV in 1155. Subsequent efforts at building a state and commonwealth in Ireland after the model of the English kingdom foundered. English policy toward Ireland was not systematic and consistent, but vacillating. Although the aim of creating a unified "Irish kingdom" remained unchanged, policies varied considerably—from peaceful integration of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords to military campaigns to suppress them. When in the sixteenth century Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords rebelled against English efforts at state formation, the English administration responded by deploying a standing army and by opting for the policy of "plantation," settling "New English" planters on the confiscated lands of defeated lords. This policy was pursued into the seventeenth century, with the plantation of Ulster from 1607 as the largest colonization project to date. In the early seventeenth century Ireland seemed at last to be peaceful, but this changed when the so-called Irish rebellion broke out in 1641. Ireland was then drawn into the British Civil War and was conquered by Cromwell between 1649 and 1650. In the following years Ireland participated in the vicissitudes of the British state. In 1660 Charles II was restored as monarch, and in 1685 he was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II. It was Ireland to which James came when fleeing William of Orange's invasion of England (the so-called Glorious Revolution). Here were fought the battles in which James was defeated, namely, the Battle of the Boyne.

Political and Legal Reformation (1534–1558)

In constant interaction with these political and cultural developments, the religious makeup of Ireland was changing dramatically. The first phase of change from 1534 to 1558 brought political and legal Reformation through Henry VIII's break with Rome, which was legalized by the Irish parliament in 1536 and the act of 1541 declaring him king of Ireland in 1541. This period was not characterized by religious changes at the popular level. Henry VIII's Reformation was political, dynastic, and legal, and the two subsequent reigns in Ireland, that of Edward VI (1549–1553) and Mary Tudor (1553–1558), were too short to allow religious identities in Ireland to become fixed. There were signs of resistance to a Protestant Reformation in the reign of Edward, and, according to the Protestant Bishop John Bale, people in Kilkenny rejoiced over the return of Catholicism in Mary's reign, but as the research of the 1990s on England has shown, they also welcomed the return of the Mass in England.

Political Tensions and Religious Uncertainty (1558–1580)

Largely owing to dynastic coincidences, the religious future of Ireland remained undetermined when Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558, and in this respect Ireland was not so different from England and Wales. It was, however, different with regard to its political situation. Ireland was clearly not under the control of the English monarchs, but was politically fragmented between the Gaelic Irish, the Anglo-Irish lordships and the "English districts," that is, the Pale and the Anglo-Irish towns. This political complexity was crucial for Ireland's religious development in the later sixteenth century.

The following phase between 1558 and about 1580 was characterized by increasing political tensions in an atmosphere of religious uncertainty. After the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 it soon became clear that she would separate her dominions from the Catholic Church. This became law in Ireland when in 1560 the Irish parliament adopted the English Act of Supremacy, declaring the Church of Ireland independent of Rome and Elizabeth "supreme governor" of this state church. The English Book of Common Prayer was introduced to Ireland through an Act of Conformity. At least theoretically, the Church of Ireland took control of the medieval church, its fabric, and its personnel. This political and legal Reformation was followed up by an attempted religious Reformation. It was hoped that the Church of Ireland would gradually be transformed into a true Protestant church and that the people of Ireland would be educated in the new faith. However, Protestant reform strategies of all kinds, whether persuasive or coercive, lacked the means to be fully implemented. The principle of "one monarch, one faith," which was successfully applied in many, if not all, European countries, did not succeed in Ireland; or rather the "mechanisms" necessary to achieve this were never really set in motion.

This situation had two important consequences: First, the all-embracing, but not all-controlling Church of Ireland produced a vacuum, which was filled by traditional Roman Catholic religion. This vacuum was most obvious in areas that were not politically controlled by the Dublin government. But even where the queen's writ more or less ran, a similar situation prevailed: There was no active resistance to Protestantism, some conformity, little enthusiasm, and a lot of "clinging to the old ways." Catholic survivalism—also called crypto-Catholicism or church papistry—thrived in a church that, while having to rely on the existing personnel, did not have the means to ensure that person-nel's conformity with the new ecclesiastical laws. From the point of view of the government and the Church of Ireland, this period was one of "missed opportunities," which afforded "a crucial breathing space" to Catholicism in Ireland (Ford 1997, p. 222).

However, this phase saw important developments in the political sphere. The Desmond rebellions of 1569 and 1579 brought together two forms of noble resistance that would prove explosive in the future: Resistance to expansionary English rule on the one hand and militant Counter-Reformation with backing from the papacy and continental Catholic powers like Spain on the other. The aim and justification of this kind of opposition was a combination of political resistance with the idea of religious war against Protestantism.

The second decisive political development was the Anglo-Irish resistance to the so-called cess, a particularly galling and burdensome tax. Owing to the financial strain on them caused by the English military presence, the loyal Anglo-Irish burghers and gentry, who had originally been in favor of increased English involvement in Ireland, developed a political grievance and began to resist English power in Ireland. Although the religious climate was still preconfessional (i.e., not yet marked by sectarian antagonism), political opposition to the cess became intense.

Transition to a Religiously Divided Society (1580–1603)

The subsequent phase of religious development in Ireland from about 1580 to 1603 was marked by a gradual transition to a religiously divided society. This phase began with the Baltinglass and Nugent rebellions of 1580 and 1581, two highly symbolic events whose psychological consequences exceeded their real political significance. The government was shocked that the kind of fusion between political resistance and Catholicism, which they had previously associated only with the "unruly" lordships not under government control, now suddenly occurred so close to Dublin. Its reaction was swift and harsh, but in its turn shocked and antagonized the loyal Anglo-Irish community of the Pale. Moreover, the executions following the rebellion produced the first Catholic martyrs in Ireland, as some of the convicted declared on the scaffold that they died for their religion, not for the political crime of treason.

A fusion of religion and politics had begun: Political opposition, which focused on the traditional rights and privileges of the Anglo-Irish community, coalesced with religious opposition, understood as the defense of liberty of conscience. Catholicism, the "old religion," was seen as an integral part of the traditions, rights, and privileges to be guarded from an encroaching government. As a consequence, important decisions for the future were taken: Sons of Anglo-Irish families were increasingly sent to Catholic universities on the continent and a decisive "generation shift" occurred. The children came back imbued with Tridentine Catholicism and often as missionaries for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

In terms of aims and justification, the Nine Years War (1593–1603) was a climax of the fusion between political and military resistance and the idea of a "religious war" against Protestantism. This was powerfully propagated by the Gaelic lord Hugh O'Neill, but not persuasively for the Anglo-Irish burghers and gentry who sided with the government and preferred constitutional opposition in parliament to open rebellion.

During this phase both the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Protestant Church of Ireland took their first steps toward church formation, that is, toward building fully developed confessional churches—processes that would come to fruition in the early seventeenth century. The religious vacuum left by the state church was increasingly filled by seminary priests and missionaries returning from the Continent, who brought with them a well-defined confessional alternative in the form of Catholicism as articulated by the Council of Trent (1545–1563). In contrast to the Catholicism that was customary among the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish up to this point, Tridentine Catholicism precluded conformity or any other compromises with the state church. Toward the end of the sixteenth century the most important order of reformed Catholicism, the Jesuits, successfully and permanently established themselves in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the Church of Ireland's status as an allembracing state church was literally crumbling. Older conformist clergy died out or clergy even left their Church of Ireland benefices to live and work as Catholic priests. Recusancy (that is, the refusal to attend the services of the state church) increased drastically. The Church of Ireland had difficulty recruiting clergy in Ireland and increasingly resorted to "importing" Protestant clergymen from England and Scotland. As a consequence, the Church of Ireland became a colonial church, embracing only the "New English" community in Ireland. This was the phase in Irish religious history, which, through gradual church formation on both sides, eliminated a conservative "middle way" within the state church. While the religious divide hardened, clergy and people were forced to decide "which side they were on."

Opposition of old English to the State church (1603–1632)

The next phase of Irish religious development from 1603 until 1632 was one in which the religious divide between Protestantism and Catholicism grew even sharper, although the period was on the whole peaceful because the London government often exercised a moderating influence from fear of rebellion. The year 1603 saw the end of the Nine Years War and the period that followed was—from the point of view of the government—characterized by a sense of new possibilities. In the early years of the reign of James I the Irish government believed that, as a consequence of the complete military conquest of Ireland, political and religious control could now be established effectively and completely.

But particularly with regard to the Church of Ireland's claim to a religious monopoly in Ireland, this reform program did not succeed. After the demise of the great Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords in the Nine Year's War, the religious conflicts focused on the Anglo-Irish gentry and burghers, who from the late sixteenth century onwards called themselves the "Old English" in order to stress their difference from the more recent Protestant settlers, the "New English." They were still a very powerful group in Irish society, controlling the towns and much of the land and wielding great political influence, not least in the Irish Parliament. Their religious allegiance was the issue at stake, for, as a political elite, their religious conformity was essential to establish the Church of Ireland in the whole island. Protestant efforts to force this group into conformity with the state church achieved effects that were the opposite of their intentions: It provoked fundamental opposition of the Old English to church and state.

Again, the political and the religious aspects of this confrontation coalesced, particularly in the towns. Whereas the Protestant effort "from above" to enforce conformity was combined with an attack on urban political and economic privileges, Catholic resistance "from below" also meant defending urban liberties against state encroachment. For example, the recusancy revolt of 1603 in the Munster towns was sparked by a combination of political, economic, and religious grievances. This also suggests that strong Catholic identities had been formed during the preceding period.

In 1626 English foreign-policy considerations brought about a new development in Irish history. In return for their financial support of the army, Charles I offered the Old English "graces," concessions which would have made life easier for the Catholics in Ireland by, for example, abolishing recusancy fines and enabling the Old English to inherit property and practice law despite their religion. The graces could have prepared the way for an official toleration of Catholicism and a biconfessional settlement in the Irish kingdom. However, the failure of the graces was inherent in that they did not grow out of, and thus did not find sufficient support in, Irish society as a whole. They had been suggested by the monarch as a response to foreign policy and without consultation from the "New English" elite; therefore, "New English" opposition against them was massive, and the Crown eventually retracted.

This period of religious development also saw an unprecedented level of rival church formation in Ireland. The Church of Ireland had become a Protestant minority church, with its personnel recruited in England and Scotland. In 1615 the convocation (the assembly of the Church of Ireland clergy) agreed upon the markedly Calvinist 104 Articles. Thus the Church of Ireland was put on a consciously broad, but nevertheless clearly defined, Protestant footing. For the time being, Scottish Presbyterians and their ministers, who had settled in Ulster in the course of the plantation there, were kept within the hierarchical structure of the Church of Ireland.

After establishing a Tridentine mission at the end of the sixteenth century, Catholic Church formation accelerated in the early seventeenth century. Major synods were held in 1614 and 1618 to ensure acceptance of the decrees of the Council of Trent and to regulate Catholic Church formation in Ireland along Tridentine lines. And by establishing a resident hierarchy, Catholicism developed from a mission into a visible "underground" but institutionalized church.

Political and Religious Upheaval (1632–1660)

The last phase of religious development in Ireland, between 1632 and 1660, was mainly determined by influences and developments from outside Ireland, namely, by the British and European contexts of Irish political and religious history. From 1633 to 1641, the new lord deputy, Thomas Wentworth, attempted to transform the Church of Ireland into an all-embracing state church. Wentworth believed that Catholic strength and the economic weakness of the Church of Ireland had produced a situation where conformity with the state church could not be successfully enforced. Moreover, he realized that the Church of Ireland could not be effectively controlled by the state because of the strong New English lay influence over it. Therefore, Wentworth intended to transform the Church of Ireland into an institution that could be controlled by the state and become a formidable opponent to Catholicism. This program was to advance in two steps.

The first step required condoning Catholicism for the time being and meanwhile transforming the Church of Ireland. The state church was to be put on a sound financial footing and at the same time New English lay influence was to be reduced. The Church of Ireland's theological and doctrinal basis was to be tightened, and at the same time it was to be given greater capacity to control its own personnel. Despite vigorous resistance, Wentworth succeeded in forcing convocation in 1634 to replace the 104 Irish by the 39 English Articles, thereby removing the broad Calvinist consensus on which the Irish state church had been based since 1615. As a consequence, Puritan and Presbyterian-minded clergy were forced out of the parishes of the Church of Ireland.

The second step of Wentworth's program targeted Catholicism. First, he wanted to render the Old English elite politically and economically powerless, a means to which were additional "plantations." Second, with the help of a "streamlined" Church of Ireland, Wentworth intended eventually to suppress Catholicism in Ireland. But his attempt at this transformation ended when he was impeached in England and into the power vacuum he left behind came the rising of 1641.

The period after 1641 was marked by political and religious upheaval of the most extreme kind. In political terms, the rising of 1641 led to the Irish Confederate War (also called the Irish Civil War) between 1641 and 1653. After the outbreak of the rising, which was initiated by the Ulster Irish, the Old English of the Pale for the first time joined a Catholic war in Ireland and consequently made possible the so-called Confederation of Kilkenny, which met in 1642. In the territory that was controlled by the confederation, Catholicism experienced a new phase of church formation. During his presence as papal nuncio to the confederation, Archbishop Rinuccini of Fermo in Italy was an agent of Tridentine Catholicism in Ireland. The aims of Rinuccini's mission were derived from his continental background. On the one hand, he advocated a militant Counter-Reformation, aiming at the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion in Ireland. This, however, caused the latent differences of opinion within the Confederation of Kilkenny to intensify. Whereas the Old English sought an accommodation with the Protestant king, the Gaelic Irish refused to accept such a solution and were strongly backed by the nuncio. On the other hand, Rinuccini also brought his strict Tridentine convictions to bear on his Irish mission. Consequently, he criticized the Catholic Church in Ireland for adapting to its underground status and compromising Tridentine principles.

The political and social upheaval of this period also resulted in massive religious changes on the Protestant side of the religious divide. The Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster, who had previously been part of the Church of Ireland, set up a separate Presbyterian Church structure. And in the south of Ireland, soldiers and new settlers, especially after the Cromwellian invasion of 1649, brought with them the religious pluralism that had developed in England during the Civil Wars. Thus the Quakers, Baptists, and Independents came to Ireland, adding to its religious diversity.

The Protestant-Catholic Divide after 1660

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, another phase of religious history in Ireland began because the ecclesiastical settlement resulted in the reestablishment of the Church of Ireland as an episcopal state church. Other Protestant groups, notably the Scottish Presbyterians, were henceforth regarded as "Dissenters" because they did not accept the newly restored state church. The Presbyterians, however, made up a substantial number of the Protestants in Ireland, and the government did not want to alienate them. In fact, from 1672 they were granted a fixed sum of money by the Crown for the maintenance of their ministers, the so-called regium donum. The Church of Ireland thus became even more of a minority church in Ireland.

Although some land was returned to Catholics after the Restoration, the Old English elite had lost their political and economic power as a result of the Cromwellian land settlement. And the Catholic Church after 1660 became again a "visible underground church," whose situation was in many ways precarious. For example, during the so-called Remonstrance controversy of the 1660s it was again debated whether Irish Catholics could declare their loyalty to the Protestant King Charles II. Moreover, anti-Catholic measures were, just as in the early seventeenth century, periodically adapted by the government, especially during the Popish Plot scare of 1678 to 1681.

The tide turned again for a short time when the Catholic James II acceded to the throne in 1685. The new king made it clear that he intended to promote the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the Church of Ireland was clearly in danger of losing its status and privileges as state church. However, the victory of William of Orange in 1690 meant that the Church of Ireland continued to be the Irish state church until its disestablishment in 1869. The Catholic Church remained an illegal underground church. Although the rule of Mary Tudor, the Confederation of Kilkenny, and the reign of James II were the only short periods in early modern Irish history in which Catholicism was practiced publicly and openly, Catholicism remained the religion of the vast majority of the population of Ireland.

SEE ALSO Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690; Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; Edwardian Reform; Marian Restoration; Protestant Reformation in the Early Sixteenth Century; Primary Documents: On Catholic Ireland in the Early Seventeenth Century; Confederation of Kilkenny (1642)


Bottigheimer, Karl S. "The Failure of the Reformation in Ireland. Une Question Bien Posée." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36 (1985): 196–207.

Bottigheimer, Karl S., and Ute Lotz-Heumann. "The Irish Reformation in European Perspective." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 89 (1998): 268–309.

Bradshaw, Brendan. "The Reformation in the Cities. Cork, Limerick, and Galway, 1534–1603." In Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland: Studies Presented to F. X. Martin, O.S.A., edited by J. Bradley. 1988.

Canny, Nicholas P. "Why the Reformation Failed in Ireland. Une Question Mal Posée." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 30 (1979): 423–450.

Connolly, S. J. Religion, Law, and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760. 1992.

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

Gillespie, Raymond. Devoted People: Belief and Religion in Early Modern Ireland. 1997.

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

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

Lotz-Heumann, Ute. Die doppelte Konfessionalisierung in Irland. Konflikt und Koexistenz im 16. und in der ersten Hälfte des 17. Jahrhunderts [The dual confessionalization process in Ireland: Conflict and coexistence in the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century]. 2000.

Meigs, Samantha A. The Reformations in Ireland: Tradition and Confessionalism, 1400–1690. 1997.

Ó hAnnracháin, Tadhg. Catholic Reformation in Ireland: The Mission of Rinuccini, 1645–1649. 2001.

Ute Lotz-Heumann

About this article

Religion: 1500 to 1690

Updated About content Print Article