- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


Upon the disgrace of Lord Leonard Gray in 1540, Sir Anthony St. Leger was appointed Deputy. He had previously been employed as chief of the commission issued in 1537, to survey land subject to the King, to inquire into, confirm, or cancel titles, and abolish abuses which might have crept in among the Englishry, whether upon the marches or within the Pale. In this employment he had at his disposal a guard of 340 men, while the Deputy and Council were ordered to obey his mandates as if given by the King in person. The commissioners were further empowered to reform the Courts of Law; to enter as King's Counsel into both Houses of Parliament, there to urge the adoption of measures upholding English laws and customs, establishing the King's supremacy, in spirituals as in temporals, to provide for the defence of the marches, and the better collection of the revenues. In the three years which he spent at the head of this commission, St. Leger, an eminently able and politic person, made himself intimately acquainted with Irish affairs; as a natural consequence of which knowledge he was entrusted, upon the first vacancy, with their supreme directions. In this situation he had to contend, not only with the complications long existing in the system itself, but with the formidable disturbing influence exercised by the Court of Scotland, chiefly upon and by means of the Ulster Princes.

Up to this period, the old political intimacy of Scotland and Ireland had known no diminution. The Scots in Antrim could reckon, soon after Henry's accession to the throne, 2,000 fighting men. In 1513, in order to co-operate with the warlike movement of O'Donnell, the Scottish fleet, under the Earl of Arran, in his famous flagship, "the great Michael," captured Carrickfergus, putting its Anglo-Irish garrison to the sword. In the same Scottish reign (that of James IV.), one of the O'Donnells had a munificent grant of lands in Kirkcudbright, as other adventurers from Ulster had from the same monarch, in Galloway and Kincardine. In 1523, while hostilities raged between Scotland and England, the Irish Chiefs entered into treaty with Francis the First of France, who bound himself to land in Ireland 15,000 men, to expel the English from "the Pale," and to carry his arms across the channel in the quarrel of Richard de la Pole, father of the famous Cardinal, and at this time a formidable pretender to the English throne. The imbecile conduct of the Scottish Regent, the Duke of Albany, destroyed this enterprise, which, however, was but the forerunner, if it was not the model, of several similar combinations. When the Earl of Bothwell took refuge at the English Court, in 1531, he suggested to Henry VIII., among other motives for renewing the war with James V., that the latter was in league "with the Emperor, the Danish King, and O'Donnell." The following year, a Scottish force of 4,000 men, under John, son of Alexander McDonald, Lord of the Isles, served, by permission of their King, under the banner of the Chieftain of Tyrconnell. An uninterrupted correspondence between the Ulster Chiefs and the Scottish Court may be traced through this reign, forming a curious chapter of Irish diplomacy. In 1535, we have a letter from O'Neil to James V., from which it appears that O'Neil's Secretary was then residing at the Scottish Court; and as the crisis of the contest for the Crown drew near, we find the messages and overtures from Ulster multiplying in number and earnestness. In that critical period, James V. was between twenty and thirty years old, and his powerful minister, Cardinal Beaton, was acting by him the part that Wolsey had played by Henry at a like age. The Cardinal, favouring the French and Irish alliances, had drawn a line of Scottish policy, in relation to both those countries, precisely parallel to Wolsey's. During the Geraldine insurrection, Henry was obliged to remonstrate with James on favours shown to his rebels of Ireland. This charge James' ministers, in their correspondence of the year 1535, strenuously denied, while admitting that some insignificant Islesmen, over whom he could exercise no control, might have gone privily thither. In the spring of 1540, Bryan Layton, one of the English agents at the Scottish Court, communicated to Secretary Cromwell that James had fitted out a fleet of 15 ships, manned by 2,000 men, and armed with all the ordinance that he could muster; that his destination was Ireland, the Crown of which had been offered to him, the previous Lent, by "eight gentlemen," who brought him written tenders of submission "from all the great men of Ireland," with their seals attached; and, furthermore, that the King had declared to Lord Maxwell his determination to win such a prize as "never King of Scotland had before," or to lose his life in the attempt. It is remarkable that in this same spring of 1540-while such was understood to be the destination of the Scottish fleet-a congress of the Chiefs of all Ireland was appointed to be held at the Abbey of Fore, in West-Meath. To prevent this meeting taking place, the whole force of the Pale, with the judges, clergy, townsmen and husbandmen, marched out under the direction of the Lords of the Council (St. Leger not having yet arrived to replace Lord Gray), but finding no such assembly as they had been led to expect, they made a predatory incursion into Roscommon, and dispersed some armed bands belonging to O'Conor. The commander in this expedition was the Marshal Sir William Brereton, for the moment one of the Lords Justices. He was followed to the field by the last Prior of Kilmainham, Sir John Rawson, the Master of the Rolls, the Archbishop of Dublin, the Bishop of Meath, Mr. Justice Luttrell, and the Barons of the Exchequer-a strange medley of civil and military dignitaries.

The prevention or postponement of the Congress at Fore must have exercised a decided influence on the expedition of James V. His great armada having put to sea, after coasting among the out-islands, and putting into a northern English port from stress of weather, returned home without achievement of any kind. Diplomatic intercourse was shortly renewed between him and Henry, but, in the following year, to the extreme displeasure of his royal kinsman, he assumed the much-prized title of "Defender of the Faith." Another rupture took place, when the Irish card was played over again with the customary effect. In a letter of July, 1541, introducing to the Irish Chiefs the Jesuit Fathers, Salmeron, Broet, and Capata, who passed through Scotland on their way to Ireland, James styles himself "Lord of Ireland"--another insult and defiance to Henry, whose newly-acquired kingly style was then but a few weeks old. By way of retaliation, Henry ordered the Archbishop of York to search the registers of that see for evidence of his claim to the Crown of Scotland, and industriously cultivated the disaffected party amongst the Scottish nobility. At length these bickerings broke out into open war, and the short, but fatal campaign of 1542, removed another rival for the English King. The double defeat of Fala and of Solway Moss, the treason of his nobles, and the failure of his hopes, broke the heart of the high-spirited James V. He died in December, 1542, in the 33rd year of his age, a few hours after learning the birth of his daughter, so celebrated as Mary, Queen of Scots. In his last moments he pronounced the doom of the Stuart dynasty--"It came with a lass," he exclaimed, "and it will go with a lass," And thus it happened that the image of Ireland, which unfolds the first scene of the War of the Roses, which is inseparable from the story of the two Bruces, and which occupies so much of the first and last years of the Tudor dynasty, stands mournfully by the deathbed of the last Stuart King who reigned in Scotland--the only Prince of his race that had ever written under his name the title of "_Dominus Hiberniae_."

The premature death of James was hardly more regretted by his immediate subjects than by his Irish allies. All external events now conspired to show the hopelessness of resistance to the power of King Henry. From Scotland, destined to half a century of anarchy, no help could be expected. Wales, another ancient ally of the Irish, had been incorporated with England, in 1536, and was fast becoming reconciled to the rule of a Prince, sprung from a Welsh ancestry. Francis of France and Charles V., rivals for the leadership of the Continent, were too busy with their own projects to enter into any Irish alliance. The Geraldines had suffered terrible defeats; the family of Kildare was without an adult representative; the O'Neils and O'Donnells had lost ground at Bellahoe, and were dismayed by the unlooked-for death of the King of Scotland. The arguments, therefore, by which many of the chiefs might have justified themselves to their clans in 1541, '2 and '3, for submitting to the inevitable laws of necessity in rendering homage to Henry VIII., were neither few nor weak. Abroad there was no hope of an alliance sufficient to counterbalance the immense resources of England; at home life-wasting private wars, the conflict of laws, of languages, and of titles to property, had become unbearable. That fatal family pride, which would not permit an O'Brien to obey an O'Neil, nor an O'Conor to follow either, rendered the establishment of a native monarchy--even if there had been no other obstacle-- wholly impracticable. Among the clergy alone did the growing supremacy of Henry meet with any effective opposition.

At its first presentation in Ireland, and during the whole of Henry's lifetime, the "Reformation" wore the guise of schism, as distinguished from heresy. To deny the supremacy of the Pope and admit the supremacy of the King were almost its sole tests of doctrine. All the ancient teaching in relation to the Seven Sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Real Presence, Purgatory, and Prayers for the Dead, were scrupulously retained. Subsequently, the necessity of auricular confession, the invocation of Saints, and the celibacy of the clergy came to be questioned, but they were not dogmatically assailed during this reign. The common people, where English was understood, were slow in taking alarm at these masked innovations; in the Irish-speaking districts--three-fourths of the whole country--they were only heard of as rumours from afar, but the clergy, secular and regular, were not long left in doubt as to where such steps must necessarily lead.

From 1534, the year of his divorce, until 1541, the year of his election, Henry attempted, by fits and starts, to assert his supremacy in Ireland. He appointed George Browne, a strenuous advocate of the divorce, some time Provincial of the order of St. Augustine in England, Archbishop of Dublin, vacant by the murder of Archbishop Allan. On the 12th of March, 1535, Browne was consecrated by Cranmer, whose opinions, as well as those of Secretary Cromwell, he echoed through life. He may be considered the first agent employed to introduce the Reformation into Ireland, and his zeal in that work seems to have been unwearied. He was destined, however, to find many opponents, and but few converts. Not only the Primate of Armagh, George Cromer, and almost all the episcopal order, resolutely resisted his measures, but the clergy and laity of Dublin refused to accept his new forms of prayer, or to listen to his strange teaching. He inveighs in his correspondence with Cromwell against Bassenet, Dean of St. Patrick's, Castele, Prior of Christ's Church, and generally against all the clergy. Of the twenty-eight secular priests in Dublin, but three could be induced to act with him; the regular orders he found equally intractable--more especially the Observantins, whose name he endeavoured to change to Conventuals. "The spirituality," as he calls them, refused to take the oaths of abjuration and supremacy; refused to strike the name of the Bishop of Rome from their primers and mass-books, and seduced the rest into like contumacy. Finding persuasion of little avail, he sometimes resorted to harsher measures.

Dr. Sall, a grey friar of Waterford, was brought to Dublin and imprisoned for preaching the new doctrines in the Spring of 1538; Thaddeus Byrne, another friar, was put in the pillory, and was reported to have committed suicide in the Castle, on the 14th of July of the same year; Sir Humfrey, parson of Saint Owens, and the suffragan Bishop of Meath, were "clapped in ward," for publicly praying for the Pope's weal and the King's conversion; another Bishop and friar were arrested and carried to Trim, for similar offences, but were liberated without trial, by Lord Deputy Gray; a friar of Waterford, in 1539, by order of the St. Leger Commission, was executed in the habit of his order, on a charge of "felony," and so left hanging "as a mirror for all his brethren." Yet, with all this severity, and all the temptations held out by the wealth of confiscated monasteries, none would abide the preaching of the new religion except the "Lord Butler, the Master of the Rolls (Allan), Mr. Treasurer (Brabazon), and one or two more of small reputation."

The first test to which the firmness of the clergy had been put was in the Parliament convoked at Dublin by Lord Deputy Gray, in May, 1537. Anciently in such assemblies two proctors of each diocese, within the Pale, had been accustomed to sit and vote in the Upper House as representing their order, but the proposed tests of supremacy and abjuration were so boldly resisted by the proctors and spiritual peers on this occasion that the Lord Deputy was compelled to prorogue the Parliament without attaining its assent to those measures. During the recess a question was raised by the Crown lawyers as to the competency of the proctors to vote, while admitting their right to be present as councillors and assistants; this question, on an appeal to England, was declared in the negative, whereupon that learned body were excluded from all share in the future Irish legislation of this reign. Hence, whoever else are answerable for the election of 1541 the proctors of the clergy are not.

Having thus reduced the clerical opposition in the Upper House, the work of monastic spoliation, covertly commenced two years before, under the pretence of reforming abuses, was more confidently resumed. In 1536, an act had been passed vesting the property of all religious houses in the Crown; at which time the value of their moveables was estimated at 100,000 pounds and their yearly value at 32,000 pounds. In 1537, eight abbeys were suppressed during the King's pleasure; in 1538, a commission issued for the suppression of monasteries; and in 1539, twenty-four great Houses, whose Abbots and Priors had been lords of Parliament, were declared "surrendered" to the King, and their late superiors were granted pensions for life. How these "surrenders" were procured we may judge from the case of Manus, Abbot of St. Mary's, Thurles, who was carried prisoner to Dublin, and suffered a long confinement for refusing to yield up his trust according to the desired formula. The work of confiscation was in these first years confined to the walled towns in English hands, the district of the Pale, and such points of the Irish country as could be conveniently reached. The great order of the Cistercians, established for more than four centuries at Mellifont, at Monastereven, at Bective, at Jerpoint, at Tintern, and at Dunbrody, were the first expelled from their cloisters and gardens. The Canons regular of St. Augustine at Trim, at Conal, at Athassel and at Kells, were next assailed by the degenerate Augustinian, who presided over the commission. The orders of St. Victor, of Aroacia, of St. John of Jerusalem, were extinguished wherever the arm of the Reformation could reach. The mendicant orders, spread into every district of the island, were not so easily erased from the soil; very many of the Dominican and Franciscan houses standing and flourishing far into the succeeding century.

If the influence of the clergy counterbalanced the policy of the chiefs, the condition of the mass of the population--more especially of the inhabitants of the Pale and the marches--was such as to make them cherish the expectation that any governmental change whatever should be for the better. It was, under these circumstances, a far-reaching policy, which combined the causes and the remedy for social wrongs, with invectives against the old, and arguments in favour of the new religion. In order to understand what elements of discontent there were to be wrought to such conclusions, it is enough to give the merest glance at the social state of the lower classes under English authority. The St. Leger Commission represents the mixed population of the marches, and the Englishry of "the Pale" as burthened by accumulated exactions. Their lords quartered upon them at pleasure their horses, servants, and guests. They were charged with coin and livery--that is, horse-meat and man's-meat --when their lords travelled from place to place--with summer-oats, with providing for their cosherings, or feasts, at Christmas and Easter, with "black men and black money," for border defence, and with workmen and axemen from every ploughland, to work in the ditches, or to hew passages for the soldiery through the woods. Every aggravation of feudal wrong was inflicted on this harassed population. When a le Poer or a Butler married a daughter he exacted a sheep from every flock, and a cow from every village. When one of his sons went to England, a special tribute was levied on every village and ploughland to bear the young gentleman's travelling expenses. When the heads of any of the great houses hunted, their dogs were to be supplied by the tenants "with bread and milk, or butter." In the towns tailors, masons, and carpenters, were taxed for coin and livery; "mustrons" were employed in building halls, castles, stables, and barns, at the expense of the tenantry, for the sole use of the lord. The only effective law was an undigested jumble of the Brehon, the Civil, and the Common law; with the arbitrary ordinances of the marches, known as "the Statutes of Kilcash"--so called from a border stronghold near the foot of Slievenamon--a species of wild justice, resembling too often that administered by Robin Hood, or Rob Roy.

Many circumstances concurring to promote plans so long cherished by Henry, St. Leger summoned a Parliament for the morrow after Trinity Sunday, being the 13th of the month of June, 1541. The attendance on the day named was not so full as was expected, so the opening was deferred till the following Thursday--being the feast of Corpus Christi. On that festival the Mass of the Holy Ghost was solemnly celebrated in St. Patrick's Cathedral, in which "two thousand persons" had assembled. The Lords of Parliament rode in cavalcade to the Church doors, headed by the Deputy. There were seen side by side in this procession the Earls of Desmond and Ormond, the Lords Barry, Roche and Bermingham; thirteen Barons of "the Pale," and a long train of Knights; Donogh O'Brien, Tanist of Thomond, the O'Reilly, O'Moore and McWilliam; Charles, son of Art Kavanagh, lord of Leinster, and Fitzpatrick, lord of Ossory. Never before had so many Milesian chiefs and Norman barons been seen together, except on the field of battle; never before had Dublin beheld marshalled in her streets what could by any stretch of imagination be considered a national representation. For this singularity, not less than for the business it transacted, the Parliament of 1541 will be held in lasting remembrance.

In the sanctuary of St. Patrick's, two Archbishops and twelve Bishops assisted at the solemn mass, and the whole ceremony was highly imposing. "The like thereof," wrote St. Leger to Henry, "has not been seen here these many years." On the next day, Friday, the Commons elected Sir Thomas Cusack speaker, who, in "a right solemn proposition," opened at the bar of the Lords' House the main business of the session--the establishment of King Henry's supremacy. To this address Lord Chancellor Allen--"well and prudentlie answered;" and the Commons withdrew to their own chamber. The substance of both speeches was "briefly and prudentlie" declared in the Irish language to the Gaelic Lords, by the Earl of Ormond, "greatly to their contentation." Then St. Leger proposed that Henry and his heirs should have the title of King, and caused the "bill devised for the same to be read." This bill having been put to the Lords' House, both in Irish and English, passed its three readings at the same sitting. In the Commons it was adopted with equal unanimity the next day, when the Lord Deputy most joyfully gave his consent. Thus on Saturday, June 19th, 1541, the royalty of Ireland was first formally transferred to an English dynasty. On that day the triumphant St. Leger was enabled to write his royal master his congratulations on having added to his dignities "another imperial crown." On Sunday bonfires were made in honour of the event, guns fired, and wine on stoop was set in the streets. All prisoners, except those for capital offences, were liberated; Te Deum was sung in St. Patrick's, and King Henry issued his proclamation, on receipt of the intelligence, for a general pardon throughout all his dominions. The new title was confirmed with great formality by the English Parliament in their session of 1542. Proclamation was formally made of it in London, on the 1st of July of that year, when it was moreover declared that after that date all persons being lawfully convicted of opposing the new dignity should "be adjudged high traitors"--"and suffer the pains of death."

Thus was consummated the first political union of Ireland with England. The strangely-constituted Assembly, which had given its sanction to the arrangement, in the language of the Celt, the Norman, and the Saxon, continued in session till the end of July, when they were prorogued till November. They enacted several statutes, in completion of the great change they had decreed; and while some prepared for a journey to the court of their new sovereign, others returned to their homes, to account as best they could for the part they had played at Dublin.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.