The Elizabethans

A. N. Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Elizabethans
Part One
The Early Reign
The Difficulty
After thirty years of fighting and more than 3,000 deaths in the province of Northern Ireland, peace was agreed. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the Northern Ireland Assembly held democratic elections.
There have been sporadic outbursts of violence since, but most people, in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland and in the rest of Britain, seem to think that peace has come, and that the compromises on all sides have been worth the peace. The Republic has, in effect, abandoned its claim over the six counties of the North. It has accepted the partition of Ireland. The peoples of the six counties now enjoy, in effect, self-government, with power shared between Catholics and Protestants. The government in Westminster, while keeping a toe-hold in the province, and while retaining a special Minister for Northern Ireland, has given up any notion of 'making Ireland British' against its will.1
Ireland was Britain's first, and least willing, colony, the most unsuccessful of all British colonial experiments. The pattern of Elizabethan failure in Ireland was to be replicated at other periods of history: first an attempt to woo the Irish, to persuade the people themselves to adopt laws and customs that were alien to them. Next, this wooing having known only partial success, or abject failure, an attempt at coercion; and one method of such coercion was a resettlement of Irish land by English, Welsh or Scottish incomers. Third, when neither gentle persuasion nor dispossession achieved the desired result - viz. the rule of English law on Irish soil - there was a resort to outright violence and massacre.
It was not, initially at least, a specifically religious matter, though by the end of the sixteenth century the rebels Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell could see themselves as champions of 'Christ's Catholic religion' against the English heretics. The fundamental point of contention, though, was English interference in Irish affairs: English attempts to make Ireland less Irish. As a matter of fact, in the early stages of the Reformation, the Irish went along with Henry VIII's religious revolution more peaceably than the English did. There was no Pilgrimage of Grace, there were no Irish martyrs for the faith, no Irish Thomas More2 or Bishop Fisher. More than 400 Irish monasteries and abbeys were sold to Irish laymen during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
The Irish did not protest when Henry VIII made George Browne the Archbishop of Dublin - that was, the former Augustinian friar who performed the marriage ceremony between the King and Anne Boleyn. Perhaps, if a Gaelic Bible and Gaelic Prayer Book had been made available in Ireland, as a Welsh Bible and Prayer Book were in Wales by 1567, Ireland might have remained Protestant. It was not until the beginning of James I's reign that the Prayer Book appeared in Irish.3
Outside the Pale - that is, the small area twenty miles to the east and north of Dublin that was English-speaking - Ireland had its own language, literature, culture. The Reformation bishops were bidden to preach to the people in English,4 a language understood by Irish congregations no better than they understood Latin. But it was not Protestantism per se that the Irish rejected, it was English cultural imperialism, which had been just as strong in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. It was in 1521 that the Earl of Surrey, as Lieutenant of Ireland, had first proposed plantation as a means of subduing the recalcitrant island. That is, removing the Irish from their land and replacing them with English or Scots. George Dowdall, the Catholic appointed as Archbishop of Armagh by Mary Tudor, urged a continuation of the policy. The only solution to the Irish 'problem' was, according to the archbishop, to get rid of the Irish: either expel them or kill them, and give their land to the English.5
What made Ireland so ungovernable, so anarchic - not merely in the eyes of English colonists, but also in the eyes of many Irish people themselves? 6 Central to the problem was the Irish method of determining both succession and property-ownership. Conn Bacach O'Neill (c.1482 - 1559) was proclaimed The O'Neill - that is, head of his tribe or sept - though he was actually the younger son of Conn More O'Neill, chieftain and lord of Tyrone. The English never came to grips with this system of tanistry, whereby the clans or tribes chose the new leader on grounds of quality rather than those of primogeniture.
Henry VIII made Conn O'Neill Earl of Tyrone in exchange for his submission to English law and English ideas of land ownership, or as his own people saw it: 'O'Neill of Oileach and Eamhait, the king of Tara and Tailte has exchanged in foolish submission his kingdom for the Ulster Earldom'7. When Conn O'Neill died, Shane - his youngest son, by his second wife, Sorcha - was elected O' Neill by his sept. By English law, the earldom of Tyrone passed to Conn's eldest son, Matthew, but Shane argued that as head of the sept he should receive the earldom. Queen Elizabeth (anything for a quiet life, as far as her view of Ireland was concerned) wanted her Deputy in Ireland, Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, to recognise Shane's claim. This Sussex was extremely unwilling to do, with the result that within the first year of the Queen's reign the English Pale was being raided by Shane's troops, many of them mercenaries from Scotland; and Ulster, the Northern Kingdom, was an anarchy of warring O'Neills, fighting one another.
So within a year of Elizabeth becoming queen were to be seen, in the clash between Shane O'Neill and the Earl of Sussex, many of the key ingredients of the Irish phenomenon. There was the fact, for example, that chiefs such as O'Neill were able to command large private armies of gallowglasses from the Western Isles of Scotland and Redshanks - unsettled mercenaries who sailed the coasts in their galleys plying for hire as soldiers, either in Irish quarrels among themselves or in their wars against the English. In the last years of Mary's reign and the first of Elizabeth's, Sussex had secured the consent of the Crown to make naval attacks on the Hebrides to try to cut off the supply of gallowglasses at source.8
While Sussex attempted out-and-out defeat of O'Neill and extirpation of the enemy, the Queen was undermining him by attempting to pacify O'Neill. Here is another ingredient of the Elizabethan story of Ireland: a perpetual tension between the Englishmen on the ground, trying to defend the interests of the Crown, and the Crown itself wishing to avoid trouble and expense. In all this, during Elizabeth's reign, there was also a strong element of misogyny. Sir Henry Sidney, for example, complained to Walsingham, 'Three tymes her Majestie hath sent me her Deputie into Ireland, and in everie of the three tymes I susteyned a great and a violent rebellion, everie one of which I subdued and (with honourable peace) lefte the country in quiet.' Yet he felt himself undermined by the Queen's allowing herself to be bamboozled - as Sidney thought - by the Earl of Ormond.
(Yet another ingredient in the anarchic mix there! The clash between the old families such as the Ormonds and Desmonds, descended from Norman settlers in Ireland and tending to identify with Irish septs and Gaelic culture, and the new English settlers.)
Sidney looked back nostalgically to the days when their monarch was male. He had been a courtier to the boy king, Edward VI. 'Sondry tymes he bountifully rewarded me ... Lastly, not only to my own still felt grief, but also to the universal wo of England, he died in my armes.'9 Sidney was less overtly misogynistic and disrespectful of the Queen than a later Deputy, Sir John Perrot, a notoriously choleric figure who exclaimed with fury, 'Silly woman, now she shall not curb me, she shall not rule me now.' Taking orders from the Queen was, he intemperately believed, 'to serve a base bastard piss kitchen woman.'10 As one who was himself spoken of as a bastard son of Henry VIII, Perrot was perhaps a pot calling a kettle black.
Sir Henry Sidney was one of the prime movers in bringing Reform to Ireland: in confirming the Protestant Reformation, in introducing the rule of law to replace the more anarchic Gaelic traditions relating to inheritance and property, in inaugurating a system of education. Elizabeth allowed him to summon an Irish parliament upon his arrival in 1566, the first Irish parliament to meet for six years. Every single reform that Sidney proposed met with opposition from the Palesmen, from the English-speaking parliamentary representatives. They rejected his proposal for an Irish university - it was not until 1592 that Trinity College, Dublin, was established. They rejected his attempts to set up grammar schools all over Ireland. They were deeply suspicious of trial by jury being introduced to Ireland. Sidney had two terms as Deputy: 1566 - 71 and 1575 - 8. Like those of the other Elizabethan deputies, his Irish career ended in failure. In 1577 his son, Philip, aged twenty-three, wrote a defence of his father's career in Ireland. It was also a job application to succeed him as Deputy. He told the Queen that she had three options when it came to attempting to rule Ireland. The first was military conquest - not an option, as he realised, not least because the parsimonious monarch would have deemed it far too expensive. Second was the path of complete military withdrawal. Again, this was not an option, for it would lead to the loss of Ireland altogether. The only other option, the third way, was to raise revenue in Ireland itself to meet the costs of extended government. The rebellions of 'Shane O'Neill and all the Earl of Ormond's brethren' must be put down by the Irish themselves. Of course Ireland and its inhabitants were 'in no case to be equalled to this realm [of England]'. Of course one symptom of this was the 'ignorant obstinacy in papistry'. But they would never forget 'the fresh remembrance of their lost liberty', 'until by time they find the sweetness of due subjection'.11
Funnily enough, the Irish never did find due subjection as sweet as the young Philip Sidney believed that they should. But the matter is more complicated than we should suppose, when viewing it from the perspective of today. Ireland is today at peace. It could be said that it is at peace because it has at last got rid of English interference. Another way of describing the current, early twenty-first-century picture of Ireland, however, is that, for the first time in 400 years, Ireland is governed by a rule of law accepted by all sides. The secularised values of modern Ireland derive from the Renaissance and Reformation, which the English Elizabethan deputies were trying to persuade the Irish to adopt. After the scandals of child abuse and the decline in priestly and religious vocations, Ireland has abandoned its 'papistry'. The days of de Valera's Ireland, in which it was impossible to purchase a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses in the city that inspired it, have gone for ever.
This has led to a divergence among the Irish historians themselves. On the one hand, there are those who do not baulk at comparisons between the Elizabethans in Ireland and the butchers of the Third Reich.12 On the other hand, there are more moderate voices among Irish historians13 who argue that Celtic, or Gaelic, Ireland was in any event dying in the sixteenth century. It had to be replaced by something. An historian such as Patricia Coughlan (Spenser and Ireland) has some sympathy with the actual administrators in Ireland itself during this period, and blames the failure on a 'loss of nerve' in London - by the Queen and her court. The planters were, Coughlan argued,14 constantly urging London, from the 1540s onwards, not to abandon Ireland, not to give up helping the Irish emerge from a collapsing Gaelic community of life.
But - is it true that Gaelic culture in Ireland was collapsing? True, Ireland was an outpost, in a changing Europe, of a way of life that was totally unlike the mercantile, urbanised world of Elizabethan London, or the city states of Italy. But how much did the English colonists know of Irish culture? How much, come to that, do modern historians know of it? Edmund Spenser was unusual among the English in Ireland. His antiquarian curiosity led him to obtain translations of old Irish poems. And he learned a smattering of Gaelic.
A much more typical Elizabethan picture of Ireland came from the famous traveller Fynes Moryson - chief secretary to Sir Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy - in 1600 Lord Deputy of Ireland and younger brother of Sir George Moryson, Vice President of Munster 1609 - 28. Fynes Moryson, who in 1616 published an itinerary of travels in places as far afield as Turkey and Poland, gave what was the stereotypical view of Ireland. The Irish speak 'a peculiar language, not derived from any other radical tongue (that ever I could hear, for myself neither have nor ever sought to have any skill therein)'. He regarded the Irish, of whatever degree, as no better than savages. 'They willingly eat the herb shamrock, being of a sharp taste, which, as they run and are chased to and fro, they snatch like beasts out of the ditches ...'

Many of these wild Irish eat no flesh, but that which dies of disease or otherwise of itself, neither can it scape them for stinking ...
I trust no man expects among these gallants any beds, much less feather beds and sheets, who like the nomads removing their dwellings, according to the commodity of pastures for their cows, sleep under the canopy of heaven, or in a poor house of clay, or in a cabin made of the boughs of trees and covered with turf, for such are the dwellings of the very lords among them.15

Edmund Campion, later a Jesuit, wrote a History of Ireland, in ten weeks in 1571, and dedicated it to his patron the Earl of Leicester.16 It was in part intended as a defence of Sir Henry Sidney. It is doubtful whether Campion ever went beyond the Pale, and he based his frequently satirical picture of the Irish on the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis - whose visit to Ireland was in 1185 - 6. Typical in tone is Campion's account: 'In Ulster thus they used to Crowne their king, a white cow was brought forth, which the King must kill, and seeth in water whole, and bathe himself therein stark naked. The sitting in the same Caldron, his people about him, together with them, he must eat the fleshe, and drinke the broath, wherein he sitteth, without the cuppe or dish or use of his hand.'17
In fact there is no particular evidence for any so-called 'decline' in the clan system in Ireland during the sixteenth century when the Elizabethans decided to abolish it - just as the London government waged its war on the Scottish clans in the eighteenth century, and systematically attempted to eliminate tribal structures in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.18 'The Gaelic way of life stood in the path of Progress.' Those who have studied sixteenth-century Ireland from a non-imperialist viewpoint for example, in the lands belonging to the Desmonds, found 'an organized State, with an elaborate fiscal system, providing a settled annual revenue for the sovereign and his various sub-chiefs. This revenue was definitely assessed on certain areas of land. It postulates fixed metes and bounds, a considerable amount of tillage. Every clan, every sub-sept, had its own territory; and on this territory the amounts due for the support of the hierarchy of chiefs were systematically applotted.'19
This is very different from the barbarous anarchy seen by the Elizabethan deputies, their assistants and their sympathetic English, usually male, historians. They did not trouble to learn Gaelic, so they were hardly in a position to know whether or not the Gaelic culture was 'in decline'. In fact, the bardic poets were a group detested by the Elizabethan governments because of the influence they exercised over the Gaelic aristocracy. Sir Henry Harrington, seneschal and chief English officer of the O'Byrne territory in County Wicklow in 1579, was instructed to 'make proclamation that no idle person, vagabond or masterless man, bard, rymor, or other notorious malefactor, remain within the district on pain of whipping after eight days, and of death after twenty days.'20 In the same year, 1579, Hugh MacShane O'Byrne died, Gaelic chieftain and leader of the resistance in Wicklow. You can read his Poem Book and see the vigour with which the bards responded to the Elizabethan Reform movement:

Who buyeth a piece of nine verses,
Even though he get the purchase thereof?
To the men of Leinster, though high their repute,
I know that is a difficult question.

The answer the O'Byrnes make us is:
'Let not the verses, eight or nine, be heard;
Until the Sasanachs have retired overseas
We shall pay for neither poem nor lay.

He who never bowed to Foreigner's custom
Hugh MacShane, of comeliness renowned
It is with him I have tried my fortune
With a piece in verses eight or nine.'21

In fact there is a great deal of manuscript evidence that a vigorous bardic tradition survived in sixteenth-century Ireland. Nor could even the most repressive of the settlers always manage to sustain the classic justification for colonialism the world over - namely, that the natives existed in an anarchy from which imperialism alone could rescue them. In 1556 the O'Moore lands in Leix were confiscated by settlers. For fifty years the O'Moores and their supporters resisted plantation and carried on their old tribal way of life unless interrupted by English attempts to civilise them. In 1600 Lord Deputy Mountjoy raided Leix. It was none other than Fynes Moryson who left the desperate account:

Our captains, and by their example (for it was otherwise painful) the common soldiers, did cut down with their swords all the rebels corn, to the value of 10,000 and upwards, the only means by which they were to live, and to keep their bonaghts [hired soldiers]. It seemed incredible that by so barbarous inhabitants the ground should be so manured, the fields so orderly fenced, the towns so frequently inhabited, and the highways and paths so beaten, as the Lord Deputy here found them. The reason whereof was, that the Queen's forces during these wars, never till then came among them.22

Edmund Spenser did not like the conclusion to which his View of the Present State of Ireland drove him: that it was the introduction of English law - that bedrock of English stability - that made Ireland in fact anarchic and ungovernable. Yet he and all his fellow planters and administrators were:

... in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.23

In the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Munster plantations served as a model for settlements in Virginia and the Carolinas.24 In the sixteenth century, as the Irish seemed less and less amenable to 'the sweetness of due subjection', we can now see that as there was so little chance of subduing the Irish by persuasion, it had to be done by coercion. And for this the English looked for role models among the Spanish Conquistadors in the New World. It was an unhappy example to follow, but entirely compatible with Elizabethan attitudes to cultures that got in their way of progress, or people who could if necessary be reduced to sub-human or non-human status for the sake of commercial gain. And it is to the painful subject of slavery and its relation to colonisation that we must now turn.
Copyright © 2011 by A. N. Wilson