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Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community and the…
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Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603

by Steven G. Ellis

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Perhaps it is just because I am getting used to the subject, but I found this book much more lucid and informative than either of the other two I have read on the sixteenth century in Ireland. In particular, I feel I have finally sorted out the geography in my own mind: most of the island divided up among Irish-speaking chieftains, and the English-speaking areas concentrated in two large chunks - the Pale and the Kildare / Fitzgerald lands near Dublin, and the Ormond / Butler and Desmond / Fitzgerald regions farther south, the former centred around Waterford, the latter sprawling erratically from Cork to Limerick to Dingle.

Ellis deliberately rejects any inevitability about the forging of Irish nationhood in the heat of English oppression. Instead, he argues that if the Henry VIII / Anthony St Leger policy of "surrender and regrant" had been consistently applied, Ireland could have been integrated into the Tudor realms without much more difficulty than Wales or the far north of England, with the Gaelic chieftains converted to loyal-ish subjects rather than fractious objects of military adventure. (The idea was that they would surrender their ancient claims to their land to the King, and he would then regrant them their territory and give them peerages; there were also usually provisions about adopting English dress and customs.)

This didn't happen, of course. Partly, Henry VIII had doubts about the policy, and died almost as soon as he had got over them; but mainly, a succession of English governors got sucked into expensive military adventures which then developed their own logic. At times, the accounts of London and Dublin trying to identify which former enemy faction could be this year's ally are uncomfortably reminiscent of the travails of the US in Iraq. The result of the military approach was that the potential loyalty of the Gaelic chieftains, and indeed the previous loyalty of the "Old English" magnates, was lost; and the island itself politically and economically devastated by the Nine Years War at the end of the Tudor period. (My one complaint about Ellis is that he rather runs out of steam in the 1590s.)

There were two further exacerbating factors. One was that the military policy created a new political dynamic - the "New English", those who had come to Ireland and made good on grants of confiscated land and offices of state, had a vested interest in conflict rather than conciliation. They weren't all that numerous, but had a critical mass in the machinery of government and the courts. Their policies were not always adopted; the Old English magnates still retained influence in London, especially when one of their number briefly married Henry VIII and more substantially when her daughter became Elizabeth I. But they were a new element in the Irish political equation which the rest of the island didn't quite know how to adapt to.

The second exacerbating factor was the Reformation. Ellis confesses himself rather baffled as to why it did not work in Ireland. The dissolution of the monasteries was far from unpopular. Henry's breach with Rome had little practical effect on the ground. There was no Irish equivalent of the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the end his conclusion seems to be that the Protestant leadership in England simply did not try hard enough to impose religious change on the neighbouring island; confusing instructions, failure to counter the Vatican's fairly desultory defensive response, and a lack of suitably qualified staff - Trinity College was not founded until 1592, and by then it was too late; language was also an issue here. By the end of the century, the New English were by and large Protestants, and the Old English and their former Gaelic enemies by and large Catholics; but there was no inevitability about this.

Ellis mentions, and I'll pursue it a bit further here, the other contemporary European country where the Reformation did not have the result desired by its rulers: the northern Netherlands, where Philip II actually lost sovereignty of a large chunk of territory. The Spanish supply lines to Brussels were of course much more difficult to maintain than the British lines to Dublin; also, in all fairness, the Spanish behaviour in the Netherlands was far more extreme than that of the British in Ireland; also it has to be admitted that Hugh O'Neill was not as gifted a statesman as William the Silent.

My reason for interest in this period is my ancestor and namesake, Sir Nicholas White, who I'm glad to say comes out of his three mentions in Ellis' book rather well, as a consistent opponent of the military line and supporter of conciliation. He complains to the Queen about one of the more aggressive governors and helps get him sacked; he helps institute a revised version of "surrender and regrant" in Connacht in 1585; and he warns London against too much innovation in policy. Unfortunately the point where he fell from grace and died in the Tower of London is precisely the point (1592) where Ellis seems to lose interest in the narrative and there is no reference to this particular crisis. Despite this shocking omission, I very much recommend this book. ( )
  nwhyte | Sep 26, 2008 |
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