Henry the Eighth of England succeeded his father on the throne, early in the year 1509. He was in the eighteenth year of his age, when he thus found himself master of a well-filled treasury and an united kingdom. Fortune, as if to complete his felicity, had furnished him from the outset of his reign with a minister of unrivalled talent for public business. This was Thomas Wolsey, successively royal Chaplain, Almoner, Archbishop of York, Papal Legate, Lord Chancellor, and Lord Cardinal. From the fifth to the twentieth year of King Henry, he was, in effect, sovereign in the state, and it is wonderful to find how much time he contrived to borrow from the momentous foreign affairs of that eventful age for the obscurer intrigues of Irish politics.
Wolsey kept before his mind, more prominently than any previous English statesman, the design of making his royal master as absolute in Ireland as any King in Christendom. He determined to abolish every pretence to sovereignty but that of the King of England, and to this end he resolved to circumscribe the power of the Anglo-Irish Barons, and to win over by "dulce ways" and "politic drifts," as he expressed it, the Milesian-Irish Chiefs. This policy, continued by all the Tudor sovereigns till the latter years of Elizabeth, so far as it distinguished between the Barons and Chiefs always favoured the latter. The Kildares and Desmonds were hunted to the death, in the same age, and by the same authority, which carefully fostered every symptom of adhesion or attachment on the part of the O'Neils and O'Briens. Neither were these last loved or trusted for their own sakes, but the natural enemy fares better in all histories than the unnatural rebel.
We must enumerate some of the more remarkable instances of Wolsey's twofold policy of concession and intimidation. In the third and fourth years of Henry, Hugh O'Donnell, lord of Tyrconnell, passing through England, on a pilgrimage to Rome, was entertained with great honour at Windsor and Greenwich for four months each time. He returned to Ulster deeply impressed with the magnificence of the young monarch and the resources of his kingdom. During the remainder of his life he cherished a strong predilection for England; he dissuaded James IV. of Scotland from leading a liberating expedition to Ireland in 1513-- previous to the ill-fated campaign which ended on Flodden field, and he steadily resisted the influx of the Islesmen into Down and Antrim. In 1521 we find him described by the Lord Lieutenant, Surrey, as being of all the Irish chiefs the best disposed "to fall into English order." He maintained a direct correspondence with Henry until his death, 1537, when the policy he had so materially assisted had progressed beyond the possibility of defeat. Simultaneously with O'Donnell's adhesion, the same views found favour with the powerful chief of Tyrone. The O'Neils were now divided into two great septs, those of Tyrone, whose seat was at Dungannon, and those of Clandeboy, whose strongholds studded the eastern shores of Lough Neagh. In the year 1480, Con O'Neil, lord of Tyrone, married his cousin-germain, Lady Alice Fitzgerald, daughter of the Earl of Kildare. This alliance tended to establish an intimacy between Maynooth and Dungannon, which subserved many of the ends of Wolsey's policy. Turlogh, Art, and Con, sons of Lady Alice, and successively chiefs of Tyrone, adhered to the fortunes of the Kildare family, who were, however unwillingly, controlled by the superior power of Henry. The Clandeboy O'Neils, on the contrary, regarded this alliance as nothing short of apostasy, and pursued the exactly opposite course, repudiating English and cultivating Scottish alliances. Open ruptures and frequent collisions took place between the estranged and exasperated kinsmen; in the sequel we will find how the last surviving son of Lady Alice became in his old age the first Earl of Tyrone, while the House of Clandeboy took up the title of "the O'Neil." The example of the elder branch of this ancient royal race, and of the hardly less illustrious family of Tyrconnell, exercised a potent influence on the other chieftains of Ulster.
An elaborate report on "the State of Ireland," with "a plan for its Reformation"--submitted to Henry in the year 1515--gives us a tolerably clear view of the political and military condition of the several provinces. The only portions of the country in any sense subject to English law, were half the counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin, Kildare, and Wexford. The residents within these districts paid "black rent" to the nearest native chiefs. Sheriffs were not permitted to execute writs, beyond the bounds thus described, and even within thirty miles of Dublin, March-law and Brehon-law were in full force. Ten native magnates are enumerated in Leinster as "chief captains" of their "nations"--not one of whom regarded the English King as his Sovereign. Twenty chiefs in Munster, fifteen in Connaught, and three in West-Meath, maintained their ancient state, administered their own laws, and recognized no superiority, except in one another, as policy or custom compelled them. Thirty chief English captains, of whom eighteen resided in Munster, seven in Connaught, and the remainder in Meath, Down, and Antrim, are set down as "rebels" and followers of "the Irish order." Of these, the principal in the midland counties were the Dillons and Tyrrells, in the West the Burkes and Berminghams, in the South the Powers, Barrys, Roches--the Earl of Desmond and his relatives. The enormous growth of these Munster Geraldines, and their not less insatiable greed, produced many strange complications in the politics of the South. Not content with the moiety of Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, they had planted their landless cadets along the Suir and the Shannon, in Ormond and Thomond. They narrowed the dominions of the O'Briens on the one hand and the McCarthys on the other. Concluding peace or war with their neighbours, as suited their own convenience, they sometimes condescended to accept further feudal privileges from the Kings of England. To Maurice, tenth Earl, Henry
The event, however, which most directly tended to the establishment of an English royalty in Ireland, was the depression of the family of Kildare in the beginning of this reign, and its all but extinction a few years later. Gerald, the ninth Earl of that title, succeeded his father in the office of Lord Deputy in the first years of Henry. He had been a ward at the court of the preceding King, and by both his first and second marriages was closely connected with the royal family. Yet he stood in the way of the settled plans of Wolsey, before whom the highest heads in the realm trembled. His father, as if to secure him against the hereditary enmity of the Butlers, had married his daughter Margaret to Pierce Roe, Earl of Ossory, afterwards eighth Earl of Ormond--the restorer of that house. This lady, however, entered heartily into the antipathies of her husband's family, and being of masculine spirit, with an uncommon genius for public affairs, helped more than any Butler had ever done to humble the overshadowing house of which she was born. The weight of Wolsey's influence was constantly exercised in favour of Ormond, who had the skill to recommend himself quite as effectually to Secretary Cromwell, after the Cardinal's disgrace and death. But the struggles of the house of Kildare were bold and desperate.