Enforcing the English reformation in Ireland: clerical resistance and political conflict in the diocese of Dublin, 1534–1590

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

Enforcing the English reformation in Ireland: clerical resistance and political conflict in the diocese of Dublin, 1534–1590
James Murray
(Cambridge University Press, £60, $120)
ISBN 9780521770385

Lacking the requisite documentation for an English-style study of the Reformation in Dublin (p. 15), James Murray presents an over-arching hypothesis: that Dublin’s clerical élites were committed to a ‘Laudabiliter-inspired and intrinsically English version of Catholicism’ that was ‘decisive in shaping the overall response of the Englishry to the Tudors’ religious innovations during the sixteenth century’ (pp 48–9). Laudabiliter was the papal bull that granted Ireland to the English crown. According to Murray, the doctrinal or liturgical aspects of the Tudor reformations were ‘of little concern’ to Dublin’s clerical élites (p. 80). Rather, they opposed the reformations because the rejection of papal authority, Roman canon law and the liberties of the clerical estates threatened their ‘historic role in Ireland: the reformation of Gaelic Irish society along conventional canonical lines’ (pp 56, 80). Murray declares that the sex lives of Irish clergymen lay ‘at the heart’ of the papally sanctioned ‘mission’ to Ireland (p. 61), that clerical celibacy was the ‘litmus test of canonical rectitude’ (p. 247) and that Protestantism was ‘discredited’ by the fact that Protestant clergymen married (p. 220).
Central to Murray’s thesis is an exaggerated dichotomy between the Church within the Pale and beyond. He writes of the ‘aberrant and uncanonical behaviour of the Irishry’, ‘a society where sexual expression was uninhibited’, where the clergy were ‘sexually active’ and ‘secularisation was arguably the most pronounced characteristic of the Church’ (pp 35–6). Yet that characterisation is not based on evidence garnered from the extensive Irishry that encompassed two-thirds of Dublin diocese (p. 27); there isn’t any, apparently. It takes no cognisance of the fact that half of the papal dispensations for illegitimacy among the clergy of Dublin diocese were secured by men of the ‘English nation’, and successive archbishops of Dublin had to secure acts of parliament to recover diocesan lands that had been secularised by their (invariably) English (by birth or descent) predecessors. The Pale ditch did not, in fact, separate saints from sinners!
Murray is convincing when highlighting evidence of the colonial outlook of Dublin’s clerical élites. Despite much discussion, however, he does not present hard evidence to prove the existence of a Laudabiliter-inspired ‘reforming, canonical mission’ (pp 57–8). No record exists with an explicit articulation of that sense of mission. The closest thing to such an enunciation presented is a phrase in a will of 1505 in which Dean Aleyn of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, restricted entry to his almshouse to ‘faithful Catholics . . . of the English nation’. It is a chimera. Repeated assertions about the English–Irish ‘canonical mission’ are no substitute for evidence, and without hard evidence Murray’s thesis about the failure of the reformations is unconvincing.
Murray asserts that a ‘Laudabiliter-inspired canonical ethos’ made Silken Thomas’s clerical counsellors promote his rebellion against Henry VIII because ‘they believed that the English were there [in Ireland] under papal sanction to reform the Irishry along conventional canonical lines’ (pp 86–7). There is no evidence, however, of anyone justifying the rebellion on such obtuse grounds. Dublin’s clerical élites did not join in the rebellion and they subsequently acknowledged the royal supremacy.
Murray asserts that Archbishop Dowdall of Armagh was responsible for virtually every ecclesiastical initiative undertaken in Dublin in Mary’s reign (Chapter 6). There is no reason to believe, however, that the decrees endorsed by Armagh’s provincial synod in 1553/4 were framed with the Pale in view. There is no evidence to support the contention that Dowdall instigated the papal bull that erected Ireland as a kingdom (indeed, one of Cardinal Pole’s associates testified that it was Mary’s initiative). There is no evidence to indicate that Dowdall instigated the restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Again, there is no evidence for the assertion that Mary appointed Hugh Curwen as the archbishop of Dublin with the ‘express purpose’ of implementing Dowdall’s supposed strategy. Too much of Murray’s discussion consists of conjectures based on very tenuous foundations indeed.
Murray discusses a ‘genuine debate’ among the Pale clergy about how to react to the Elizabethan reformation, but admits that there is no documentary record of such a debate (pp 254–5). He asserts that Archbishop Curwen subverted the Elizabethan settlement ‘from day one’ (p. 257), but his evidence of Curwen’s conservatism consists only of oblique references—to the ringing of the bells of Christ Church for the ‘mind’ of a former precentor and the erection of wayside crosses by a priest in Templogue (p. 258). He associates Curwen with two amendments to bills in the 1560 reformation parliament (the vestments clause was not actually an amendment!), while admitting that there is no evidence for doing so (p. 257). In fact, Curwen conformed fully to the Elizabethan reformation, and was more than happy to be translated to Oxford as its bishop in 1567.
Murray’s final chapter, dealing with Archbishop Loftus, the most important prelate in the Elizabethan Church of Ireland, is the best in the book. It is soundly based on a rich vein of documentation, shows how he struggled to impose religious change and marks a major advance in our knowledge and understanding of the Elizabethan reformation in Ireland. HI

Henry A. Jefferies is the Head of History at Thornhill College, Derry, and Visiting Fellow in the Academy of Irish Cultural Heritages in the University of Ulster.


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