Frontiers, states and identity in early modern Ireland and beyond: essays in honour of Steven G. Ellis

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Four Courts Press
ISBN 9781846826054

Reviewed by: David Edwards

David Edwards is Senior Lecturer in History at University College Cork.

For 40 years Steven Ellis has been a significant figure in the history of late medieval and early modern Ireland. An authority on the Tudor monarchy, specialising particularly in the reigns of Henry VII (1485–1509) and Henry VIII (1509–47), he has published extensively on the formation of the Tudor state and Ireland’s place within it. Perhaps one of his principal achievements has been to broaden awareness of Ireland among the international community of historians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—something not always easily attainable, especially in his native England, where for so long the prevailing narrative of the Tudors barely looked beyond the Thames Valley, with Ireland merely an afterthought. Ellis has been prolific. Since the mid-1970s he has had more than 80 essays appear in a wide range of English, Irish, European and, recently, Asian peer-reviewed journals, besides also authoring seven monographs, the best known of which is probably his textbook Tudor Ireland (1985) and its revised and expanded successor, Ireland in the age of the Tudors (1998). Both books remain key contributions to this day.

Just as important have been Ellis’s ideas. I recall as an undergraduate during the 1980s the reaction his publications provoked among a mainly older generation of Irish historians. Confronting an embedded nationalist tradition, howls of anguish greeted his declaration that the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare were not the all-but-kings of an all-but-independent Ireland. The Kildares, he said, were the main leaders of English Ireland. They were deeply involved in England, and behaved much the same as English magnates who ruled over the more distant territories of the English realm. The howling grew loudest when he insisted that to understand the course of Tudor Irish policy it was necessary to see Ireland as an outlying region of an expansionary English state, subject to many of the same policies as other English ‘borderlands’, a heresy indeed to those accustomed to viewing the Tudors and their officers as an entirely alien and hostile force.

Since then Ellis has continued to challenge and probe, always using documentary evidence, especially English government papers, as the basis for his observations. In 1999, in the pages of History Ireland, his insistence that scholars stop using the term ‘Anglo-Irish’ to describe the descendants of twelfth-century Anglo-Norman settlers, and instead call them ‘the English of Ireland’, sparked a lively debate with other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century historians (me included) which is still ongoing. Undoubtedly, few have done as much as Ellis to redefine the English dimension of Tudor-era Ireland and how it is discussed.

This collection is a fitting tribute to his career, published to mark his recent retirement as Professor of History at NUI Galway. Ably edited by Christopher Maginn and Gerald Power, it gathers together eleven essays written in his honour by a select band of friends, colleagues and former students. All are accomplished scholars in their own right, and are active in some of the main research areas developed by Ellis over the years.

The opening essay by Brendan Smith is a must-read for anyone interested in the exercise of English government in the lordship of Ireland during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Instead of a steady decline of English power (the traditional view), he follows a recent reassessment by Robin Frame to show that the English administration was stubbornly durable and capable of periodic renewal, albeit mostly along the eastern seaboard. Two essays by the editors bring the subject of English government in Ireland on through the duration of the Tudor period. In the first of these, Power investigates those English-born men who crossed the Irish Sea to serve in Dublin and other parts of the country before the 1530s. A richly detailed piece, it compounds the impression left by Smith of an active administration closely tied to England by a stream of new arrivals; for the most part these were welcomed by the community of the English Pale, precisely because their presence ensured that the lordship remained tied to English control. Maginn’s essay is sure to excite further research. With the spread of English power across the entire island later in the sixteenth century, he suggests that a distinct Irish ‘state’, separate from the monarchy, gradually emerged into view. On the one hand characterised by the retreat of personal royal power under Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and on the other by the enhanced authority of government institutions, this helped to propel the Tudor kingdom of Ireland along a very different trajectory from the kingdom of England. Coverage of English Ireland is rounded out by Kieran Hoare’s valuable study of the Pale economy and Joseph Mannion’s close examination of the remarkable Gaelic Irish servitor Sir Francis Shane, who at the height of Tyrone’s rebellion managed to project himself as ‘as trew Englische as any man borne in Myddlesex’.

The contributions of Henry Jefferies and Brendan Scott build on Ellis’s work on the progress of the Reformation in Ireland. Jefferies pursues an insightful comparison between the Pale and Lancashire to show how two regions seemingly very similar experienced very different outcomes, while Scott shows how the early reforming zeal of the Lancashire-born bishop of Meath, Thomas Jones, gradually dissipated. Fittingly, the book also includes two very fine studies of Ellis’s other main research area, the north of England. Richard Hoyle gives an expert and wryly amusing treatment of the struggles of landlords and tenants to furnish the men demanded by the government for the border defences with Scotland, and the half-truths and outright lies that they sometimes deployed. Andrew Sargent addresses the Dacre rebellion of 1570, and in an exemplary investigation succeeds in turning established views on their head; hopefully he will develop this study further. This all amounts to a valuable and pleasing book, which is highly recommended.


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