The Chief Governors: the rise and fall of reform government in Tudor Ireland, 1536-1588

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

The Chief Governors: the rise and fall of reform government in Tudor Ireland, 1536-1588
Ciaran Brady
(Cambridge University Press, £35)

Anglicising the government of Ireland: the Irish privy council and the expansion of Tudor rule, 1556-78
Jon Crawford
(Irish Academic Press, £37.50)

Sixteenth-century Ireland: the incomplete conquest
Colm Lennon
(Gill & MacMillan, £14.99)

Brady’s Chief Governors is a major contribution to the study of Tudor Ireland and to any understanding of the general course of Irish history. It is a self-consciously revisionist work—not so much aimed at long-standing interpretations of the period but rather against the widely propagated theories of recent historians, most notably Brendan Bradshaw and Nicholas Canny. Bradshaw’s Irish constitutional revolution of the sixteenth century (Cambridge 1979) comes in for some heavy blows. Thomas Cromwell’s reforming impetus in Ireland is shown to be half-hearted, the intellectual reformers of the Pale are nowhere to be seen, Lord Leonard Gray is rehabilitated and St Leger’s constitutional revolution is transmuted into a drive to create, independent of the existing Irish factions, a king’s party with the king’s money in a squalid deal with Treasurer Brabazon. If Brady drives a coach and horses through the carefully crafted history of Bradshaw, he appears to have taken a steamroller to Canny’s claims in The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland (Hassocks 1976) that a pattern was established by Lord Deputy Sidney between 1565 and 1576 for subsequent Tudor undertakings. Most of Sidney’s early ideas for instance on colonies and on provincial presidencies had already been expounded by his predecessor, the Earl of Sussex. And he shared a similar preoccupation with Shane O’Neill. As Brady says ‘Sidney’s instructions constituted not “a programme of striking originality [Canny]”, but an excellent summary of the conventional wisdom of the day’. Canny’s theories on the influence of early modern anthropology on Elizabethan attitudes to the Irish are invisible in this analysis and in making extravagant claims for Sidney’s early years, he is shown to have ignored the same governor’s more innovative scheme attempted during his third tour of duty.
Brady’s history is not so much about ideology as about interest groups and administrative techniques. The framework for analysis is not the dichotomy of indegenes and invaders but the bastard feudal alliances of Geraldines (headed by the Earl of Kildare) and Butlers (headed by the Earl of Ormond) and the system of protection and exaction known as coyne and livery which underpinned them. The object of crown policy is not the pursuit of conquest but rather the establishment of the common law. The steady progress made in the 1540s was thrown off course by the debasement of the currency, the threat of French invasion and the discovery of St Leger’s massive embezzlement. Sussex, a courtier who took charge of the Irish government in 1556, is the first of Brady’s programmatic governors. His methods were to propagandise, problematise, schematise, prioritise, militarise. He promised to solve certain nodal problems—e.g. Laois-Offaly, Shane O’Neill—which would accelerate the reform of Ireland and win him glory at court. He spent a fortune but failed to beat Shane O’Neill or cower the Palesmen. Sidney, a commoner, had to play for bigger stakes. He took over Sussex’s programme but promised to achieve it in three years at less cost. He tried to be all things to all men and achieved nothing. He got rid of Shane but could neither settle Ulster nor Munster partly because he could not get the queen on his side because Ormond and Sussex had her ear. On his second outing he called parliament to legislate on a grandiose scheme whilst simultaneously encouraging a whole crew of colonial adventurers. The outcome was the unprecedented joint revolt of the Butlers and Geraldines. Sidney got a third bite at the cherry. This time he planned a ‘composition’ by the conversion of coyne and livery levied by lords and ‘cess’ levied by the state into rents and taxes respectively which would demilitarise the lordships at the same time as providing a revenue for the government. Sound in theory but an absolute failure at national level through a combination of bad luck and stalwart opposition from the Pale.
Having dealt with the modes of government, Brady has separate chapters on government relations with the feudal magnates, the Palesmen and the Gaelic Irish. The regional councils known as provincial presidencies are shown to be far less of a threat to the great lords than hitherto supposed. Sussex relied on the Butlers but this provoked a Geraldine alliance with the Earl of Leicester against him. Sidney was pro-Geraldine but his short-    termism left Kildare to his own devices, Desmond friendless and in the end rebellious, Clanrickard victimised and Ormond redundant. The chapter on the Palesmen is the best yet written on them. Their increasing alienation was not because of religion or the loss of place but the extraordinary abuses involved in cessing the garrison which had increased from 500 under Gray to 3,000 under Sidney. Brady puts detailed figures together showing how troops were billeted at a half or third the market rates and the mounting debts the government owed the country not to mention the unrecorded violence and extortion perpetrated against the ordinary citizenry and unquantifiable damage done to the economy. The result was again unprecedented—a unified, organised country opposition using strikes, petitions and loyalist appeals to court. The explanation of relations with the Gaelic Irish is equally compelling. The role of colonisation is reviewed and massacres at Belfast, Rathlin and Mullaghmast are seen as acts of force majeure to impress the enemy with overwhelming intimidatory power. The use of seneschals (local commanders with emergency powers) to introduce law and order into Gaelic localities is revealed in a masterly exposition to have produced the opposite effect. Gaelic chiefs appointed as seneschals continued as before but with even less regard for the consequences and English soldiers so appointed adopted Gaelic methods, involved themselves in clan wars, took coyne and livery, deliberately frustrated ameliorative policies and escalated the level of violence to an inordinate level.
Brady has changed the study of the Tudor conquest utterly but he too will have his critics. This is a ‘castle-centred’ history with a vengeance and will be subject to corrosion from regional and ethnic perspectives. However Brady’s approach does at least provide a national overview and has extra explanatory force as a result—for instance Clanrickard’s predicament in the 1570s is explained not just in relation to the new provincial council but by the fact that he was the weak link in the Butler network. In this new explanation contigency plays an important role—the Kildare rebellion of 1534 is an accident taking place unfortunately for Ireland at the very onset of the Reformation crisis. What is needed after Brady is more analysis of the primary motivations lying behind policy formation. Obviously Ireland must be seen in a more general early modern pattern—subject to the interplay of court politics and budding enterpreneurship of the new class of government servants—it was alleged that Sidney had taken all Ireland ‘to farm’. Ireland had become by default a laboratory for Renaissance political experimentation. Absolutist and arbitrary rule may not have been so visible in contemporary England but it was surely making an impact in Ireland. Brady says this sotto voce but should have shouted it from the rooftops. The country had acquired a standing army and in the jurisdictions of seneschals and provincial presidents martial law was frequently used in peacetime. Martial law was used as an expedient to try and execute the Catholic archbishop of Cashel, Dermot O’Hurley, in 1584 because the Irish law officers could not find an appropriate law with which to charge him. Parliaments were seldom held after 1534 and extensive use was made of privy council proclamations. The programmatic governors abused the right to household purveyance to levy a cess for the whole military establishment. More critically from the absolutist point of view Sidney and Perrot attempted to establish permanent taxation in its place which would have obviated the need to call parliament at all so as to get supply. And what was absolutist in theory was becoming increasing arbitrary in practice. Speaker Walshe complained in his closing speech at Perrot’s parliament that Ireland had become ‘an instrument without a sounding board’. The ultimate climax of the programmatic style of government was of course Wentworth in the 1630s. But why Ireland? Surely the answer must lie in a colonial heritage stretching back to the original Norman invasion which conditioned certain approaches and responses. Did Queen Elizabeth commend Essex for his annihilation of the MacDonnells and Clandeboye O’Neills simply for reasons of state? Perhaps Bradshaw and Canny were asking the right questions after all!
Complementary (and at times contrapuntal) to Brady’s thesis is Crawford’s study of the Irish council in Anglicising the government of Ireland. ‘Anglicising’ in this book denotes the extension of the common law in Ireland but for the development of the council itself perhaps ‘reform’, ‘modernisation’ or ‘centralisation’ would have been better terms since it was a long-standing English institution. Crawford explains the difference between the council and great council, the acquisition of a signet seal and a secretary of state, the establishment of the castle chamber (the Irish equivalent of the star chamber), the overseeing and victualling of the army and the growing financial problems with the related cess controversy. Yet this overlong book is still not comprehensive. The arguments of other historians are tediously and not always correctly rehearsed and their theories badgered incessantly so that even the most committed reader loses interest. There is nothing on the council’s role in religious policy in what is a critical period nor are its relations with the real privy council in England or with the Irish parliament systematically explored. This is a great pity because Crawford has an argument worth considering—that the Tudors aimed at conciliar rule in Ireland under the auspices of the common law for which military back-up and fiscal overhaul were necessary expedients and that any idea of a Tudor conquest before 1579 should be abandoned. Had this argument been succinctly and lucidly executed, it might have challenged Brady from inside the walls of the castle.
Many of the issues not touched by Brady and Crawford are addressed in Colm Lennon’s Sixteenth-century Ireland. Such matters as the difficulties of transport especially by road and river, the slowness of postal communication and the effect of disease on life-expectancy are detailed. His chapters on town-life with new information on urban government, civic ritual and trading conditions and on religion both before and after the Reformation are excellent. He also provides summaries of the researches of others with chapters on Gaelic society, the Kildare supremacy, two chapters on mid-century reform and four on the late-sixteenth century province by province. This provincial approach is justified by the regional governments the Tudors themselves were imposing though arguably Lennon’s best chapter here is on Leinster which was putatively under the charge of the central government. Each chapter opens with an illustrative or emblematic incident e.g. the shipwreck of the Armada in the case of Connacht and proceeds to a careful blending of themes and issues in a chronological fashion. Lennon tends to steer a cautious middle course on matters polemical—the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, ‘howevers’ and ‘neverthelesses’ which signify more dialectical and ironic discourses are absent here. For instance he endorses Bradshaw’s view on the humanist reform and sees the 1534 revolt not as an accident but a series of miscalculations by both sides prompted by a series of governmental changes and factional clashes. Later he adopts Brady’s concept on programmatic government and his line on cess and composition. It is one thing to eschew controversy but it is surely a mistake not to state that certain areas such as gaelicisation, government reform policy, evangelisation strategies and ideological influences are the subject of fierce debate. Similarly putting the portrait of Elizabeth Fitzgerald on the book-cover and then giving a mere half-a-dozen pages on women (though an accurate reflection of the amount of research available) is a sure hostage to fortune in these politically correct times. Overall it would be churlish to choose between Lennon’s Sixteenth-century Ireland and Ellis’s Tudor Ireland (London 1985) with which it will obviously be compared. Ellis majors on administrative history with an emphasis on the early century whilst Lennon highlights social history and is strong on later decades. In the New Gill History of Ireland series itself, Lennon’s book is both more comprehensive and less quirky than the volumes which immediately precede and succeed it.

Hiram Morgan


Copyright © 2021 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568