Buckingham in Ireland, Victor Treadwell. (Four Courts Press, £45) ISBN 1851822739

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

Victor Treadwell’s early works on Irish customs reform and the Irish Commission of 1622 have long been fundamental reading for anyone seeking to understand the inner workings of Irish administration during the early Stuart period. He has produced another major contribution to both Irish and English historical scholarship by concentrating on the political and social networks created in Ireland by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham. In the process, the author reveals the substantial, albeit hidden, economic and political pillars supporting the royal favourite’s rise to power in England. Treadwell then goes on to detail the impact of Buckingham’s previously unrecognised Irish connections on the high politics of Caroline England, and concludes with some general remarks concerning Buckingham and the Irish dimension to the ‘general crisis’ of the seventeenth century. This is no mean feat, and the author laboured hard, in his own words, ‘to ride several horses at once’ in his quest to delineate the political interrelationships linking Ireland with England. In doing so, Treadwell successfully captures a dimension of Buckingham’s career curiously absent in the works of the duke’s several biographers. Thus the author’s introductory remarks excoriating the narrow and provincial nature of past and current British historiography seem appropriate.
The story begins with the death of Sir Robert Cecil in 1612, and the displacement in Ireland of government officials linked to Cecil and the Irish Lord Deputy Sir Arthur Chichester. The key personage behind this metamorphosis proved to be the well-connected Irish servitor Sir John Graham whose contacts with the English Privy Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury succeeded in manoeuvring the youthful but unknown George Villiers into the royal presence at court. So began an infamous royal infatuation, that inspired James I to bestow an avalanche of offices and honours on the young favourite. But as Treadwell shows, it was the Irish connection that served to launch and sustain Buckingham’s ambition at court. Predictably the Villiers ascendancy brought about the removal of an earlier regime of New English predators in favour of characters more supple and pliant toward the favourite and his supporters in Ireland. This led to the appointment of Buckingham’s first major client and distant kinsman, Sir Oliver St John, as lord deputy in Ireland. From here Treadwell patiently takes the reader through the labyrinth of kinship, patronage and public office that formed the Villiers Irish clientele. Buckingham and his cronies built their Irish fortunes by openly exploiting monopolies, titles, and estates and enthusiastically pursuing earlier policies of confiscation and plantation. During the financial crisis of the 1620s, such occurrences attracted the attention of English fiscal reformers and parliamentary men apprehensive of the royal prerogative. This led no less a figure than the Lord Treasurer, Lionel Cranfield, the first Earl of Middlesex, to investigate matters so that Ireland ‘may live of its own’. The ensuing Commission of 1622, launched to investigate abusive governmental practices in Ireland, threatened the Villiers Irish interest. Treadwell skilfully recounts how Buckingham impeded Cranfield by intriguing in English parliamentary politics and foreign policy, ultimately thwarting the Lord Treasurer and the standing commission for Irish affairs.
By showing the interaction between English policies in Ireland and the impact of Irish lobbies on the English Privy Council and parliament, Treadwell illuminates much that historians have overlooked in 1620s Anglo-Irish relations. Especially interesting are Treadwell’s comments on the creation of a transnational British aristocracy arising from the plethora of Irish estates and titles bestowed by early Stuart monarchs. During the period 1616 to 1630, the Irish peerage increased from twenty-four to ninety-nine. This expansion of peerages and estates, not to mention the creation of 258 new knighthoods, led to the appearance of members of both English and Irish parliaments with land and titles on both sides of the Irish Sea. This, according to Treadwell, also led to specialised Irish lobbies that first made their appearance in the English parliament of 1621. As Treadwell further observes, an expanded Irish peerage fostered by Buckingham undoubtedly contributed to Lord Deputy Sir Thomas Wentworth’s ability to manage the Irish House of Lords in the parliament of 1634 through proxies supplied to the government by absentees. For those interested in fixing a chronology to Ireland’s place in the seventeenth century crisis, Treadwell’s concluding remarks about Wentworth’s tenure as Lord Deputy seem to suggest that it was Buckingham who had unwittingly paved the way for Wentworth’s demise and his royal master’s destruction. There is little to criticise in this important work.  But it would have been useful to understand how the native element perceived Villiers and his supporters. This is also a detailed and densely argued book accessible only to the serious student. While the author apologises for the book’s density and complexity, it fundamentally alters our understanding of the early Stuart period in Ireland, and will long remain a classic study.

Hans S. Pawlisch

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