Beyond Reform: Martial Law & the Tudor reconquest of Ireland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Volume 5

Historians of sixteenth-century Ireland have often grappled with the question of when the English Tudor monarchs decided to reconquer the country. Although it is clear that Ireland was almost totally subdued by the death in 1603 of Elizabeth I (the last of the Tudors), it is by no means certain when the Tudor reconquest began.
It was once assumed that the appointment of the Earl of Surrey as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1520 by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, marked the beginning of a policy of deliberate English reconquest, but this interpretation has long been disregarded by experts, not least because it has been shown that Surrey himself dissuaded King Henry against prolonged military involvement. The year of the Kildare revolt, 1534, has also been dismissed as the probable starting point for the process of conquest; some historians have argued that a commitment to reform began then, but not a commitment to military subjugation. Other dates of clear military significance once pinpointed by scholars (the Laois/Offaly plantation and a new network of royal garrisons under Edward VI [1547-53]) have likewise bitten the dust—again, because of the weight now given to the continuing prevalence of reformist thought in government circles during the mid-to-late sixteenth century. Increasingly interested by the reform issue, historians have constantly moved the start of the reconquest forwards, with some citing 1579, others 1588, as the year when all hope of assimilating Ireland by reform died and a commitment to a military solution began. In just a few generations, then, the very notion of the Tudor reconquest of Ireland has given way to that of the failure of Tudor reform. Instead of portraying a long drawn-out conflict filling most of the sixteenth century, the reconquest is now seen as an accident rather than a design of Tudor rule, a short-term phenomenon that occurred between circa 1580 and 1603 because the English monarchy had no other way to control the country at a time of mounting crisis.
This all seems unsatisfactory, even irrational. By concentrating so heavily on sixteenth-century theories of reform and state expansion (i.e. on what the Tudors and their advisers hoped to achieve) scholars have rather lost sight of what the practitioners of Tudor policy actually did around the country, outside Dublin, in the provinces. Few historians would disagree that most of the reform treatises for Tudor Ireland were impracticable without the threat of force. What most have failed to address, however, is that far beyond the walls of Dublin Castle, at a local level, strategies of brutal repression were set in place to prepare the way for the introduction of reformist programmes purporting to bring about assimilation and coalescence. As a result, for all too many of the Tudors’ ordinary Irish subjects, to experience reform was to experience conquest, in that they found themselves ruthlessly disempowered and subjugated, coerced into conformity, their civil liberties ignored. If the Tudor era was a time of growing state power in Ireland it was also one of mounting state terrorism.
At the centre of this development were a group of officials who have long remained unexamined, the commissioners of martial law, heavy-handed vanguardsmen who spearheaded the advance of Tudor authority by all the considerable means at their disposal. Thanks to their activities the ancient independence of many native rulers was curtailed and more and more of the country was opened up to central control. Through powers of martial law, like the conquistadores of the Spanish New World they urged compliance to the crown on pain of death whilst carving out sizeable spheres of influence for themselves. It is high time they received notice, for they left an indelible imprint on the chronology and character of the Tudor reconquest of Ireland.

Pre-emptive coercion

The Oxford English Dictionary defines martial law as ‘military government superseding ordinary law for a time’. A harsh reactive measure in periods of emergency, it confers powers of summary execution on government officials charged with confronting the enemies of the state. From the fourteenth century onwards, in regions subject to the crown of England, it appeared only in time of rebellion, and was only used against people who were actively engaged in revolt. However, in the middle years of the sixteenth century—during the mid-Tudor crisis, a time of profound economic, religious and political dislocation in England and Wales—it underwent a major transformation, and was reinvented as a pre-emptive measure by hard-pressed officials anxious to quell the growing threat of unrest. This technical alteration of martial law was a crucial development, a major addition to the crown’s capacity for repression. Henceforth dissent could be crushed before it progressed to full-blown insurrection. Persons suspected of holding oppositionist sympathies could legitimately be ‘disappeared’, lawfully executed without trial, purely on the grounds that they might enter into a treasonous conspiracy. Under the mid-Tudor monarchs, the Protestant Edward VI and the Catholic Mary I, the English state came closer to embracing despotism than ever before.
This novel pre-emptive version of martial law was soon in force in Ireland, introduced in 1556 by Queen Mary’s new chief governor, Lord Deputy Sussex. Ireland at this time provided a perfect breeding ground for the advance of royal draconianism, as the crown faced a genuine state of emergency. In Ulster the ongoing infiltration of Antrim and Down by the Scottish highland MacDonnells was causing grave concern, especially as Shane O’Neill had entered into an opportunistic alliance with them in order to consolidate his own position in the province. Equally disconcerting, in Leinster, along the borders of the Pale, the O’Mores and O’Connors were continuing successfully to resist the government’s attempts to establish an Anglo-Welsh colony—the Laois/Offaly plantation—in their territories. To cap it all, it was widely feared that a French invasion of Ireland was imminent.
Together, these factors provided Sussex with more than enough justification to introduce martial law—yet they are not enough to explain the peculiar zeal he displayed towards the measure, and continued to display after conditions had settled down. For one thing, as Ciarán Brady, an expert on his career, has put it, Lord Deputy Sussex had ‘a marked intolerance of dissent’. For another, Sussex was the first of a new type of Irish viceroy, the programmatic governor, declaring himself able to deliver a better, more cost-effective form of government in Ireland—a vow made necessary by the crown’s determination to reduce its Irish expenditure. Martial law offered him a way to keep security costs low, for it was alluringly cheap. It did not require a large army to be effective; all that was needed was a suitable crown representative—usually an army officer or a gentleman—who, armed with a commission of martial law and supported by a gang of followers, was willing to go forth into the Irish interior to cow the native lords into submission. Commissioners of martial law did not have to be paid; rather, they were licensed to collect the profits of their work, being legally entitled to ‘traitor’s goods’ which amounted to a third of the movable goods and possessions of those they put to death. In turn, this acted as an incentive to slaughter: the more ‘suspected traitors’ the commissioners killed, the more traitors’ goods they and their followers received.
Sussex was enchanted by the opportunity martial law presented to privatise state coercion. Even when the London Privy Council denied him permission to extend its use beyond disaffected clansmen in Laois/Offaly and eastern Ulster to include all ‘shameless offenders’ whatsoever—a deliberately vague term—he pressed on regardless in direct defiance of its orders. In November 1556 he and his advisers on the Irish Council drafted a commission granting powers of de facto martial law to commissioners who were directed to target (a) tax offenders and (b) displaced wandering poor and unemployed. Both groups were to be executed without trial. For the first time in its history, martial law was to be used against ordinary peaceful subjects who were not even suspected of treason. And this from an administration that promised assimilationist reforms aimed at bringing the common law and ‘good government’ to the Irish.
Sussex’s liking for martial law initiated a new pattern of government that long outlasted him (he left office in 1563) in which the central executive attempted to prepare whole areas of the country for assimilation through the unlimited use of terror. In other words, regions were partly conquered by centrally-sanctioned aggressors before reforms of local society were attempted. To an extent Sussex’s successors in the chief governor’s office, his brothers-in-law Sir Henry Sidney and Sir William Fitzwilliam were his protégés in that they too were greatly enamoured of martial law which seemed so effective, so terrifying, so cheap. Hence, throughout the 1560s and ‘70s martial law became commonplace in Ireland. In all, in the twenty-year period following the 1558 accession of Elizabeth I, a total of 259 commissions were issued, an average of more than twelve commissions a year (or one a month). At first, commissions were confined mainly to the east of the country, from Carrickfergus and the marches of Meath south to Waterford, but soon a wider area was affected, and during Sidney’s first lord deputyship (October 1565-April 1571) martial law became countrywide. All of Munster and the south-west was given over to it for the first time in 1566-7, and in 1569 commissions were issued introducing it to the whole of Ulster and Connaught. Moreover, as martial law spread, its personnel began to change, with gradually fewer and fewer native Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish employed as commissioners. By the early 1580s they were forced to make way for a predominantly New English (and increasingly Protestant) group.

Mounting severity

Most significantly, however, the actual form that martial law took was being constantly amended during this period to suit changing circumstances as the power of the crown grew, becoming more severe with each passing year. At the start of Elizabeth’s reign, martial law, when used against non-rebels, was directed usually against the poorer elements of Irish society, against those unfortunate enough to occupy land valued at less than twenty shillings or own chattels worth less than IR£10. By the mid-1570s this had changed dramatically, and martial law was being used against nearly all sections of society, including the rich and powerful. Thus in 1573 the chief commissioner for Connaught, Edward Fitton, was authorised to use martial law at his discretion ‘without any limitation’, and in 1576 Francis Agard was granted the same powers for use anywhere in County Dublin. Only the titled peerage—a tiny, highly privileged group —remained exempt from the threat of summary execution (unless, of course, they rebelled and so fell foul of the Tudor law of treason). Peers apart, by the 1570s martial law was, often as not, targeted at the local Irish elite—at untitled native lords, at chieftains and gentry—something which upped the stakes in political affairs, and created an environment for increasing conflict.
Twenty years of continuous martial law had encouraged the emergence of an uncompromising state ideology, one that automatically assumed the political and military independence of native lords must be reduced by any means whatsoever for their territories to be reformed. For the local lords themselves, pledges of loyalty and obedience to the crown no longer offered freedom from outside interference; with martial law commissioners marauding around the countryside, they must cede their ancient autonomy to the state or face the consequences. In Dublin the orthodox government view of the Irish became increasingly racialist and supremacist, maintaining that only force would make them governable. Without terror, without martial law, they would remain beyond reform.

Zero tolerance

Predictably, the more martial law became the norm in Ireland, the more the level of violence escalated drastically. Commissioners waged what one historian has called ‘little wars’ in the areas under their jurisdiction; it seems to me in doing so the commissioners made many little conquests. Region by region, lordship by lordship, the limited capacity of native rulers to continue to offer protection to those under their rule was ground down. Powers of pre-emptive martial law enabled commissioners to initiate war and to put entire villages to the sword with relative impunity; many native rulers appeared powerless to stop them. Across the country the body-count grew, for thousands were killed on the commissioners’ orders. Soldiers employed in the private armies of native lords were ruthlessly hunted down if their employers failed to ‘book’ or register them—a failure that was read as a sign of incipient rebelliousness. The unemployed of the Pale were routinely rounded up and hanged on the orders of Captain William Collier, one of the commissioners appointed ‘for the repression of idle persons and malefactors’ there.
As the political atmosphere darkened, government atrocities proliferated. The mid-1570s is rightly remembered as a time of massacres: late in 1574 two hundred of the Clandeboye O’Neills were killed after going to attend Christmas festivities with the newly appointed governor of Ulster, Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex; in 1575 forces commanded by Francis Drake and John Norris butchered 600 of the Antrim MacDonnells at Rathlin Island (on Essex’s orders); in 1577 approximately fifty of the O’Mores of Laois were killed by treachery after agreeing to attend a parley with crown officials at Mullaghmast in County Kildare. Yet, infamous though these events have become, it is not generally recalled that the perpetrators of all three slaughters were empowered to do what they did by commissions of martial law passed under the royal seal in Dublin. The massacres had official sanction. Essex was authorised to kill the O’Neill and MacDonnell clan members ‘without limitation’ by virtue of a commission of martial law of 30 December 1573; likewise Francis Cosby and his accomplices (who included the native O’Dempseys) arranged the slaughter of the O’Mores in accordance with a commission dated 18 March 1577 that was signed by Lord Deputy Sidney. It should also be noted that both Essex and Cosby were highly esteemed for their actions: Essex was being considered for the lord deputyship in between the Clandeboye and Rathlin atrocities and Cosby was knighted after Mullaghmast.


Because of these episodes (and countless others around the country), the government’s widespread use of martial law was soon a controversial issue. As early as 1573 the Baron of Louth dissuaded his kinsman, the Earl of Kildare, against using his martial law powers to execute a bandit in the Pale named William McShane Boy. Although Louth agreed with Kildare that McShane Boy deserved a swift death, he pointed out that killing him by order of martial law would not serve Kildare’s interests. On the contrary it would, he said, undermine the earl’s credit and destroy his good name. For such was the public perception of martial law at this time that it was generally assumed to be little more than an instrument of murder, something which empowered the crown’s representatives to do away with whomsoever they wished, guilty or innocent. The crux of Louth’s advice was that, should Kildare have McShane Boy strung up from the nearest tree by power of martial law, he would bring suspicion upon himself, for it was well known that executions by martial law were usually conducted suddenly, in secret, without any pretence of trial. As Kildare later explained to a senior statesman in London, ‘If I had hanged him by martiall lawe, it would have been said that I had hanged him for fear of [a trial jury] discovering [too much]’.
A few years later the greatest lord in Connaught, the Earl of Clanricard, wrote a letter roundly denouncing the execution without trial of one of his clients by the commissioner Edward Fitton. Fitton, he said, was not using martial law properly, but applied it without restraint against all persons in the province, even wealthy squires and gentry. Clanricard was wrong to claim Fitton was not entitled to execute gentlemen, but the fact that he thought members of the upper echelons of Irish society were exempt from the measure points to the shock impact martial law was having around the country. It seemed no-one was safe.
Discontent with the draconian behaviour of the martial law commissioners came to a head in the 1580s. Slowly a number of government representatives—many of them legalists with a background in the common law—began having second thoughts about the advisability of permanent unbridled coercion in Ireland. Far from preparing the ground for the better reform of the country, bringing it within the English system of government, it seemed the practitioners of martial law had only succeeded in making conditions more volatile. Brute force on such an unprecedented scale had antagonised as many as it terrorised, and in some areas it backfired, causing revolts instead of preventing them. Since martial law had first gone countrywide in the 1560s, a number of rebel lords and chieftains—the likes of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, Rory Oge O’More and Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne—had gained widespread sympathy and found allies among their traditional enemies. The severity of martial law commissioners improved the profiles of those who resisted them, so much so that leading rebels were often able to claim legitimacy for their position and promote themselves as defenders of order.
The rebellions in 1579-80 of the Earl of Desmond in Munster and of Viscount Baltinglass in Leinster caused enormous concern for the state, for it seemed the ancient loyalty of the Anglo-Irish areas of the country was rapidly falling away. Though martial law was liberally applied against the rebels, large sections of the Anglo-Irish population became increasingly surly towards the crown. Without entering into revolt themselves, major landowners and gentry in royalist strongholds such as Kildare, Meath, Kilkenny and Wexford failed to co-operate with the royal authorities, and some even harboured rebel fugitives or helped them to make their escape. The bloody-minded policies of Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton, the new Lord Deputy, did not help matters. Following the advice of his predecessor, his friend Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Grey was utterly ruthless in his campaigns in Ireland. According to his own words, during his two years in office (September 1580-August 1582) he executed nearly 1,500 ‘chief men and gentlemen’ by power of martial law, ‘not accounting those of meaner sort…and killing of churls, which were innumerable’. His harshness knew no limits. In County Kilkenny, the heart of the Ormond lordship, and an area that was not in revolt, Grey’s servant Francis Lovell put almost 400 people to death by martial law, including twenty-two women, between December 1582 and September 1583. In response to Lovell’s actions, some of the local gentry were on the verge of rebellion in 1583, and tried to have him killed.

Martial law abandoned

As the Desmond and Baltinglass conspiracies collapsed, moves were instigated to have martial law abandoned in Ireland. Involving a loose alliance of feudal magnates such as the Earl of Ormond, New English legal officials such as the Chancellor-Archbishop, Adam Loftus, and Anglo-Irish spokesmen from the Pale like Sir Nicholas White, these disparate interests combined (not always very comfortably) to exert pressure on Queen Elizabeth and her Privy Council in London. In the words of White it was time for Elizabeth to embrace ‘temperate and peaceable government’ in Ireland. With the prospect of war with Spain looming ever larger—and therefore the need to mollify her Irish subjects all the more urgent—the queen was at length persuaded to lighten the yoke of oppression. Having sacked Lord Grey in 1582 and decided upon Sir John Perrot as Lord Deputy in 1584, in 1586 she ordered Perrot to reduce his use of martial law in the country. The common law, involving trials by jury, was to be used wherever possible against malefactors and traitors; summary executions were to decline in frequency. Wholesale martial law had proved too provocative and, she reckoned, it was no longer necessary. Reform of the country must henceforth proceed without it.
Despite deep personal reservations, Perrot and his successor Fitzwilliam—reinstalled in the deputyship in 1588—had no option but to comply with her wishes, and less than ten commissions of martial law were issued in Ireland between 1586 and 1591. Encouraged by this sudden change of direction, members of the native elite began sending delegations to London to seek redress for the injustices that the captains and martial law commissioners had committed against them. Further embarrassed by the scandalous stories of manifest misrule that were brought to her notice, in October 1591 Elizabeth I authorised the final abolition of martial law. Announcing an overhaul of Irish government procedure, she wanted the entire network of discretionary justice to be sundered completely, and power over the provinces to be ceded to ordinary legal officials.

Martial law returns

Of course the queen took this decision much too late. By the 1590s many of her provincial officials around Ireland had grown used to arbitrary power of life and death. Their power rested on their capacity to kill without restraint. They were not prepared to acquiesce in the abandonment of draconianism. Gradually they too made representations in England. A series of treatises were composed to explain how Ireland would forever remain beyond reform without the spectre of terror. The most famous of these treatises was Richard Beacon’s Solon his Folie and Edmund Spenser’s A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande. In the event circumstances conspired to support their case. In Ulster, first Red Hugh O’Donnell and then Hugh O’Neill proved unwilling to co-operate in the reform of their territories if that entailed losing power to central officials, and in Leinster Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne was once more engaged in thwarting the government’s movements at every turn. After a time the prospect of foreign aid from Spain encouraged these leaders to rise in rebellion. A new state of emergency was created. By 1596 it was widely expected that the Spanish would attempt an invasion of Ireland to support the rebels, and in London a Council ‘war party’ led by the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, urged the ageing Elizabeth I to reimpose martial law in Ireland as quickly as possible as an emergency measure. The queen eventually agreed, and from 1597 until the end of the Nine Years War in 1603 the Irish population suffered constant martial law. This, together with a policy of scorched earth imposed by the army, ensured that thousands were killed and the rebellion was crushed.
And so it was that having helped to bring about a series of ‘little conquests’ earlier in Elizabeth’s reign, in the final years of her life martial law played its part in achieving the completion of the Tudor reconquest of Ireland. It enabled a blanket of government terror to be thrown over the country, so that eventually Hugh O’Neill and his forces were compelled to surrender at Mellifont Abbey, having run out of supporters. Its undoubted success between 1597 and 1603 as a reactive counter-insurgency measure guaranteed its survival as a tool of government into later periods, its manifest failings as a pre-emptive measure apparently forgotten. After 1603, in the new post-conquest political atmosphere of Ireland, English government officials were not inclined to question the rights and wrongs of pre-emptive summary justice, for the country was theirs to do with as they saw fit. Historians, however, cannot be so complacent. Would reconquest have ever become so necessary if Elizabeth I had abandoned martial law much earlier than she did? How much force did the Tudor state really need in Ireland in order to achieve its reform and assimilation?

David Edwards lectures in history at University College Cork.

Further reading:

C. Brady, The Chief Governors: The Rise and Fall of Reform Government in Tudor Ireland, 1536-1588 (Cambridge 1995).

N. Canny, The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland: a pattern established, 1565-76 (Hassocks 1976).

J.V. Capua, ‘The early history of Martial Law in England from the Fourteenth Century to the Petition of Right’, Cambridge Law Journal, 36 (1977).

S.G. Ellis, Tudor Ireland (London 1985).


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