Sidney, Henry

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Sidney, Henry

The Elizabethan administrator, diplomat, and courtier Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586) was lord deputy of Ireland from 1565 to 1571 and from 1575 to 1578. Having made a promising beginning as one of the principal gentlemen of the privy chamber in 1550, and enjoying a particularly close relationship with King Edward VI, Sidney was one of a number of ambitious courtiers whose career declined steadily during the reign of Elizabeth through loss of favor, for which he himself believed his Irish service to have been primarily responsible.

Sidney's service in Ireland began in 1556 when he came to serve under his brother-in-law Thomas Radcliffe, earl of Sussex, as vice-treasurer and treasurer-atwar. His first years in Ireland (1556–1559) were especially successful, and his careful administration of the army's finances made him popular with both the soldiers and the community of the Pale upon whom they were billeted. During two short terms as governor in Sussex's absence, Sidney established his reputation both as an effective commander and as a skillful diplomat, particularly in regard to his handling of affairs in Ulster. His success in Ireland secured him promotion in 1560 as lord president of Wales, a post he was to hold along with several other commissions until his death.

The collapse of Sussex's administration in 1564 to 1565 made Sidney a highly popular choice as the new governor in Ireland. But from the outset Sidney's first term in office was marred by the bitter court rivalries that attended on his appointment and by his perceived dependence on the powerful but deeply mistrusted favorite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Sidney sought to overcome such prejudices against him by devising a broad program of political and religious reform that incorporated the most orthodox prescriptions in every area. His attempts to implement it were obstructed by two imperatives that Elizabeth imposed on him: the reduction of the over-mighty Ulster lord, Shane O'Neill (1530–1567), and the resolution of the conflict between the great feudal lords of Ormond and Desmond. After a failed military expedition Sidney enjoyed unexpected success in Ulster when O'Neill was assassinated by the MacDonalds of Antrim, probably with Sidney's connivance. But his perceived sympathy for Desmond and hostility toward Ormond marred this achievement, and when Sidney sought permission to commence the implementation of his reform program, he was ordered to bring both Desmond and his brother Sir John as prisoners to court. Delay ensued, and by the time Sidney returned to Ireland (August 1568) with power to inaugurate reform, this time under the auspices of an Irish parliament, Munster was in a state of open rebellion, and a new O'Neill overlord (Turlough Luineach, 1530?–1595) had risen to prominence in Ulster. While suppressing the rebellion in Munster (in an increasingly bloody manner) and containing disorder in Ulster, Sidney's reformist ambitions were again frustrated. His efforts to provide a new statutory basis for tenurial reform in the Gaelic lordships failed to bear fruit, and his attempt to establish a conventional provincial council in Connacht ended in fiasco.

The disasters of 1568 to 1571 taught him a lesson, however, and in the early 1570s Sidney, in collaboration with his adviser Edmund Tremayne, developed a radically new strategy that was to form the basis of his last administration in Ireland. He termed it simply "composition" (in effect, a deal). Accepting the failure of conventional legal and administrative means of bringing about change, composition posited that only the threat of superior force would persuade the great lords to abandon their own methods of intimidation and protection. Thus a great army was to be introduced into Ireland, not to attempt conquest or dispossession but to enforce a series of permanent financial settlements between the lords and their vassals and between both sides and the Crown. These settlements would form the basis for transforming a social structure predicated on obligation and service into one predicated on rent.

The risks inherent in the radical nature of the new policy were deepened by a number of concessions in cost and duration that Sidney was required to make in order to regain office. But the most serious opposition to composition arose not in the Irish provinces where, though controversial, it made considerable progress, but within the English Pale, where it was seen, quite rightly, to entail dangerous implications of taxation without parliamentary consent. The Irish chancellor's acknowledgment that this was so, and Elizabeth's ultimate unwillingness to countenance an extension of the royal prerogative, caused the abandonment of the policy and Sidney's recall under the charge that he had sought "to take the land of Ireland to farm." Sidney's readiness to envisage an annual tax to be assessed and collected by royal provincial administrators with the support of the local nobility, who were to enjoy exemptions as the reward for their complaisance, is strongly redolent of the system that was to emerge in continental Europe under the ancien régime; it is tempting to speculate that in his thinking about Ireland, Sidney was less influenced by Spanish notions of colonization (as has sometimes been suggested) than by certain aspects of contemporary French constitutional thought. Such speculation in the absence of hard evidence must remain inconclusive, and it is equally arguable that in reaching his conclusions, Sidney was drawing simply on his own experience in Ireland.

SEE ALSO Desmond Rebellions; English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690); Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690; Old English


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

Brady, Ciaran, ed. A Viceroy's Vindication? Sir Henry Sidney's Memoir of Service in Ireland. 2002.

Canny, Nicholas. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established, 1565–76. 1976.

Crawford, Jon G. Anglicising the Government of Ireland: The Irish Privy Council and the Advancement of Tudor Rule, 1556–1578. 1993.

Ciaran Brady