Martial power and Elizabethan political culture: military men in England and Ireland, 1558–1594

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Martial power and Elizabethan political culture: military men in England and Ireland, 1558–1594

Rory Rapple
(Cambridge University Press, £60)
ISBN 9780521843539


78_small_1274267448An enduring symbol of Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Merry England’ is Falstaff, Shakespeare’s comic creation. The playwright almost certainly conjured him from the many unemployed army captains loitering about London. When not jossing with the Bankside prostitutes, one can well imagine them shouting ‘They don’t like it up ’em’ into their cups as they remembered their Irish service. It is the task of reconciling these contrasting images in relation to England’s military cadre that is the subject-matter of Rapple’s book; the results are challenging and revelatory.
England’s soldiers faced many frustrations in this period. Many of them were younger sons with no right to landed inheritances and who were born too late to avail themselves of the bonanza that was the dissolution of the monasteries. Their penny-pinching queen was anxious to avoid foreign wars. After the ignominious intervention to succour French Protestants at Le Havre in 1562, she avoided Continental engagement as long as possible until forced into war with Spain in 1585. Furthermore, the queen’s chief advisers, the so-called ‘Cambridge connection’ led by William Cecil (Lord Burghley), regarded soldiering as a necessary evil as much as a civic duty. In these circumstances, English swordsmen had to fend for themselves in Ireland, on the high seas or in the wars of other European sovereigns. Underpinning his argument with a mass of detailed research, Rapple proceeds to lay bare the thinking and psychology of the Elizabethan military men.
Their soldierly discontents—annoyance at the queen and tensions with the long robes in government—are apparent in the writings of Thomas Churchyard (1579) and Barnaby Riche (1581). After a decade of war in the nearby Low Countries, the queen was still refusing to become involved. Riche’s Allarme to England argued that the lack of interest in things military threatened to leave the country defenceless when the time for action arrived, and Churchyard’s Rehearsal of the wars made it plain that English captains were being better rewarded and held in greater esteem by foreign princes than by their own sovereign. Indeed, high-ranking Elizabethan loyalists such as Sir Henry Sidney and Sir John Perrot, who as young men had stored up such hopes for Edward VI, were well aware that service of an ambitious, energetic prince such as Philip of Spain would have been far more rewarding than serving their own unmarried female monarch. It is this context of disenfranchisement and distrust that enables Rapple to explain the treasons of the famous renegades Thomas Stukley and William Stanley. When Stukley’s ambitions were thwarted in Ireland, he defected to Spain and then approached the pope in the hope of pursuing his ambitions there. The more Catholic Stanley had failed to obtain satisfactory reward after wading through blood fighting for the queen in Munster. In 1587, after six months without pay in the Low Countries, he took his mostly Irish regiment, and the town of Deventer with it, over to the Spaniards.
Having learned their trade in Continental wars, the most able, such as Nicholas Malby and Richard Bingham, obtained newly created offices in Ireland, variously known as seneschalships, chief commissionships and presidencies, which combined administrative and military responsibilities. These mini-military dictatorships, which were promoted by Lord Deputies Sidney and Perrot and supported as an expedient by the government in London, caused enormous tension with the legal establishment in Dublin and open provocation to native elites. These would-be conquistadores were Machiavellian new men, entirely unscrupulous in respect of race, religion or class. They were a law unto themselves, killing and robbing or alternatively protecting and taxing with as little reference to Dublin or London as they could get away with. Their violence was blood-curdling and exemplary, and often entirely wanton on the part of their hirelings and hangers-on. When forced to explain their activities, Rapple shows how their rhetoric changed to tacit evasion, the need for pre-emption, defending their queen’s honour and straightforward lies. The worst of these, Richard Bingham, plainly deserves the reputation he has received in Irish history. He waged a series of brutal wars against the MacWilliams of Mayo and openly coveted the lands of O’Connor Sligo whilst defying and making a mockery of any Dublin authority that sought to investigate him. Far from creating the conditions for the triumph of the common law, absolutist agencies such as Bingham’s merely provoked total war.
Rapple answers questions and poses new ones. He shows that as well as killing opponents and bystanders under martial law, the captains also offered clemency by securing pardons for those who lived in their jurisdictions. In these circumstances, he wonders whether they really were in the game of provoking full-scale war to secure confiscations. They had a lot to lose and certainly did not benefit much from the carve-up of Munster, where courtiers and financiers came out on top. We may quibble about whether the ideas of these men were more arbitrary than absolutist—as much to do with the situation in which they found themselves as with any adherence to an ideology—or whether the detailed scrutiny of a myriad of events can bear the conclusions the author derives from it. Rapple’s hard book, if not a game-changer, nevertheless raises the intellectual stakes in this field and goes some way towards making a forensic response to Brendan Bradshaw’s demand to deal with trauma in Irish history.  HI

Hiram Morgan teaches history at UCC.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568