A View of the State of Ireland by Edmund Spenser Andrew Hadfield & Willy Maley (eds.) (Blackwell Publishers, £40)ISBN 0631205349 Solon his Follie, by Richard Beacon. Vincent Carey & Clare Carroll (eds.) (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), Reviews, Volume 6

The political writings of Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet, have long been familiar to students of Irish history. In particular, his 1596 treatise A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland has achieved a certain infamy for the violent attitudes it expressed towards the Irish, among whom Spenser had lived and worked for almost twenty years. Books and specialist articles dealing with Elizabethan Ireland are regularly peppered with quotations from this work, noting how Spenser described the Irish as savages, ‘the moste barbarous nacion in Christendome’. Elsewhere in the text, when discussing the most effective means by which to subjugate the Irish to English rule, he advocated that the government of Elizabeth I starve and terrorise the population into submission through the prolonged, even routine, use of famine and martial law. The Vewe is perhaps most significant for the justification it offers of a policy of genocide. Spenser presented an elaborate pseudo-history to show that the Irish were descendants of ancient barbarians, his purpose being to demonstrate they were inborn traitors, genetically incapable of obedience to good (English) government. And the lesson to be drawn from this ‘history’? The necessity of unflinching coercion: only the prospect of certain extermination would induce the wild Irish to become civil like the English.
In recent years two groups of scholars have paid increasing attention to the Vewe—English literature experts, in order to explain its relationship to the rest of Spenser’s work (especially Book V of his epic poem, The Faerie Queene) and Irish historians, in order to determine the extent to which Spenser’s harsh outlook was typical of the English colonial mentalité that pertained in Ireland in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The result has been a lively debate about the contemporary and near-contemporary importance of the Vewe, with some perceiving it as ‘a founding document of English colonial culture’ in Ireland and a key text of the emerging Protestant ascendancy, while others maintain that it was of no real consequence and that it failed to appear in print while Spenser was alive—he died in 1599—because the opinions it expressed were much too extreme. Neither side has a monopoly of the evidence. Those who support the notion of the Vewe as a seminal Protestant colonial text can point to the fact that in 1633 a version of it, re-titled A View of the State of Ireland was published in Dublin as part of a collection of Ancient Irish Chronicles edited by the English colonist and antiquarian, Sir James Ware. For the previous thirty years it had circulated widely in manuscript, influencing other English colonial commentators such as Sir John Davies and Fynes Moryson; the belated appearance of Ware’s edition insured the longevity of Spenser’s depiction of the ‘very wilde [Catholic] Irish’ well into the nineteenth century. However, those who assert that its importance has been exaggerated out of all proportion by Spenser’s posthumous fame—i.e. that it only seems important because Spenser wrote it—can also point to the 1633 edition for proof of their case that it was too inflammatory to be persuasive. For in the preface Ware apologised for the extremity of Spenser’s opinions and in some places he actually found it necessary to amend the text, toning it down for a seventeenth-century readership. Had the Vewe been a genuinely accomplished treatise (so the argument goes) no such changes need have been made.
The appearance of a new paperback edition of Ware’s version of the Vewe, carefully prepared for a non-specialist audience by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, is bound to raise the temperature of this debate. Mindful that other scholars might complain that Ware’s text is corrupt, Hadfield and Maley have overcome this problem by including an appendix (pp. 170-6) of those passages that were omitted from Spenser’s text by Ware. This is arguably the most important part of their attractive and accessible little book, and it should guarantee that their edition will become a standard reference for academics as well as general readers.
Overall one is struck by the very limited nature of Ware’s editorial interference. True, in his hands Spenser was prevented from denigrating the ancestors of some of the early seventeenth century Old English establishment, but for the most part he allowed Spenser free rein. Hence, while Ware deemed it wise to curb some of Spenser’s most hostile descriptions of the Irish, his edits were minimal. It is still a monumentally anti-Irish tract, retaining Spenser’s lengthy discussions of ‘evill customes among the Irish’ (p.75) and his countless references to the sins of the natives who ‘wallow in such deadly darknesse’ (p.85). All the essential elements of the poet’s argument are here, including the contention that the Irish be starved and terrorised into submission. Perhaps Ware’s censorship of Spenser has been overstated. Indeed, it is striking that Ware praised Spenser for his ‘learning and deep judgement’. Although the extent of the poet’s harshness towards the Irish seemed regrettable to him, Ware did not intimate that this was wrong, or unjustifiable. On the contrary, he ends his preface (p.7) by claiming that, of all the writers to expound upon the reduction of Ireland in the sixteenth century, Spenser came closest to pointing the surest way forward to more extensive English rule in the pages of the Vewe.
Also re-published is the 1594 treatise on Ireland, Richard Beacon’s Solon his Follie. Apart from preceding Spenser in writing in dialogue form, Beacon had much else in common with the poet. Like Spenser, he served as an English government official in Ireland in the 1580s and through the Munster plantation, gained a large colonial estate in County Cork; where Spenser had a serious legal dispute with the Old English Lord Roche of Fermoy, Beacon experienced major difficulties at Bantry with the local Gaelic chieftain, Donal MacCarthy More, Earl of Clancare; and while in 1591 Spenser fell foul of the authorities for insulting the Queen’s principal minister, Lord Burghley, Beacon was later that year accused of committing extortion in Munster by Burghley’s client there, Sir Thomas Norris. Is it possible that the problems experienced by both men at this time were caused by the death in England in April 1590 of one of the chief architects of the plantation, Sir Francis Walsingham? Whatever the answer, it is interesting that both sought salvation through the influence of Walsingham’s successor as leader of the Protestant military party at the Elizabethan court, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex—Spenser’s Vewe was dedicated to Essex, while Beacon’s Solon was dedicated to Essex’s supporter, Sir William Russell, who in 1594 was placed in charge of the government of Ireland. There are other similarities too. The corrective measures that both authors prescribe for the reduction of the lawless Irish are essentially the same—the rigorous prosecution of all offenders and, if need be, the imposition of uncompromising repression through martial law. It is no coincidence that both praise the valour of Sir Richard Bingham, the governor of Connaught, notorious for executing thousands of ‘wrongdoers’ in the west since taking up his post there in 1584. If Spenser was more strident in his demands for draconian measures than Beacon, this was because he wrote in 1596, two years after the beginning of a major national revolt led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. As the editors of Solon observe, in 1595, a year after getting his treatise published, Beacon anticipated Spenser’s harshness by advocating the combined use of ‘sword and famen’ to bring the treacherous Irish to their knees (p.xxviii). In a number of ways, therefore, Beacon and Spenser were two peas of the same pod. Clare Carroll and Vincent Carey have done a great service in bringing Solon his Follie to press. In addition, they should be praised for tracing the abundance of sometimes obscure literary allusions that litter Beacon’s text; their efforts have thrown some fascinating insights into the intellectual world of sixteenth-century English imperialism in Ireland.
There are some unfortunate errors in the notes to Solon, viz. Lord Leonard Grey, not Sir William Skeffington (d. 31 December 1535) was Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1536 (p.46); Sir John Pollard, not Sir John Perrot, was appointed Lord President of Munster in 1568 (p. 64); and Lord Deputy Perrot (1584-8) introduced the composition of Connaught in 1585, not 1589 (p.108). But notice of these should not be allowed to detract from what is otherwise an exemplary production.

David Edwards

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