Sir John Norreys and the Elizabethan Military World, John S. Nolan. (University of Exeter Press, £40) ISBN 0859895483

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

This study of Sir John Norreys is a refreshing departure from the many derivative biographies of better known Elizabethan figures such as Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh. It is a detailed and well researched account of one career, that includes a great deal of reflection on the nature of Elizabethan land warfare, and its impact on the English élite. In Ireland Norreys was reputed to be in league with the devil. Here the reader is presented with an account of Norreys’s whole life, which is more complicated and convincing than a simple study of Norreys’s Irish service.
This, however, is a book of variable quality. John Nolan has elected to tell his story through a series of narrative chapters which entails giving more weight than is deserved to aspects of Sir John Norreys’s career which either fail to interest the author, or are of no great historical significance. There are good chapters recounting Norreys’s soldiering in the Netherlands in the late 1570s and early 1580s, his part in the preparations to defend England against the Spanish Armada in 1588 and his command of English forces in Brittany in the early 1590s. Norreys managed to keep his contingent supplied, if not regularly paid. Through his ingenuity and daring he won a reputation for himself in a series of small actions, often in desperate circumstances. In the winter of 1580-81 he was a hero to Protestant Europe for his defence of the town of Steenwick in the Netherlands. The semi-independent command of several companies of men was the role for which Norreys was best suited: he had bad relations with superiors when placed too directly under their supervision.
The account here of the Grand Muster of 1588 is based on the author’s 1991 article in Albion, but it deserves another outing. Norreys like other experienced officers was anxious to be involved in the planning of England’s defences. Not only was the nation in peril, but the prospects of months of continuous pay and perquisites beckoned. Despite these mixed motives Nolan argues convincingly that the forces assembled in southern England would have overcome the Spanish invaders, even if scorched earth policies and continual guerrilla warfare looked to be more successful tactics than open battle against the best troops in Europe. John Norreys had the forward command in Kent, where the invaders were most likely to land, and the failure of the Armada to land the Spanish army deprived Norreys of a more prominent place in the history books.
Norreys’s deployment in Brittany between 1591 and 1594 was a classic example of Elizabethan parsimony. Instead of the decisive contribution to the cause of Henry IV envisioned by Norreys it was a badly supported peripheral operation. The important aims of denying the Spanish unrestricted access to the Breton channel coast, and of preventing the encirclement of Brest by the combined forces of Spain and the Catholic League were achieved, but there was precious little glory to be won. Nolan’s narrative of this operation, as with his account of Drake and Norreys’s 1589 descent on Lisbon, provide a good contrast with the magnificent antics of the second Earl of Essex at Rouen in 1591 and in Cadiz in 1596 which achieved far less in strategic terms at a much greater cost. The detailed account of this forgotten front is this book’s greatest strength.
The biographical format of this work necessitates the obvious chapters on Norreys’s early life, on the interludes in his career and on his death, but these sections, though vital for the narrative, are uninspiring. The extensive sources consulted by Nolan give little insight into Norreys’s mind, and therefore there is little chance to follow the way in which his thinking changed. He never married, so there is no family life to speak of and since this work understandably concentrates on John Norreys alone the opportunity to study the whole Norreys family, and their semi-private military organisation is lost.
The most disappointing sections are the four chapters that concern Norreys’s service in Ireland. In the footnotes and bibliography there are references to only three monographs, two collaborative works and two articles concerning Ireland, only one of which was published after 1980, and none in the last decade. Any historian who has published a major study of Elizabethan Ireland in the last ten years has good cause to feel affronted. The inevitable result is that Nolan’s solid archival work is not placed within any context that those interested in Irish history can readily understand. Essex’s private colonising scheme is seen as ‘a typically Elizabethan idea’ whereas in fact it was the last such venture to proceed outside government control. Norreys’s part in the 1575 massacre of over 500 men, women and children on Rathlin Island—he commanded the land forces while Drake patrolled at sea—is not neglected, but it would have been interesting if Nolan had probed his subject’s motivation more closely. What led a young man of twenty-five to perpetrate such an atrocity? Surely a biography is a useful format to try to understand such an act, even if only through the eyes of one individual?
In his account of Norreys’s period of actively governing Munster as Lord President from July 1584 until May 1585 Nolan credits his subject with substantially devising the scheme for the Munster Plantation, and with helping to get the dead Earl of Desmond’s attainder through the Irish parliament, where Norreys sat in the commons as a member for Cork. To be fair to Norreys though the first Munster Plantation took shape in ways very different from what he intended. Norreys wanted the province to be controlled by a powerful presidency, with lands around Askeaton in Limerick, Mallow in North Cork, and Tralee or Castleisland in Kerry. Supported by the revenues from these blocks of lands and by a class of ‘soldier settlers’ the presidency would make Munster safe for large-scale English settlement. In fact after Norreys departed the plantation proceeded with the hope that individual colonists would ‘civilise’ the lands they had been granted, and provide for their defence. When the plantation was overthrown by a native uprising in 1598 the then Lord President, Thomas Norreys, Sir John’s brother, had nothing like the number of troops needed to protect the plantation. Sir John Norrey’s plans for a powerful military presidency, though expensive, might have been a more secure basis for its defence.
Norreys’s last tour of duty in Ireland began in May 1595. He was despatched at the request of the Lord Deputy Sir William Russell, who had requested an experienced soldier be sent to command the army. He had probably not meant Norreys, with whom he had an old grievance dating back to the 1586 and 1587 Netherlands campaigns they had both fought in. Appointed Lord General Norreys was perfectly placed to enjoy bad relations with the Lord Deputy. They appear to have differed on how to deal with Tyrone. Norreys, a long-standing client of the Cecils, preferring conciliation, whereas Russell, allied with the second Earl of Essex, distrusted Tyrone. In Nolan’s account Russell thwarted Tyrone’s attempts to reach a settlement with Norreys. The steady build up of English troops, despatched from England by Essex, placed impossible demands on the Pale. There is a whiff of the railway timetables of 1914 in Nolan’s argument that the necessity of foraging for supplies made clashes in border areas and a breakdown of the peace likely. There is nothing in this account of ideological roots of the conflict stressed by Hiram Morgan, whose work Nolan does not appear to have read.
This book is a competent biography but this limits the discussion of the book’s most important theme: the reliance of the Elizabethan state on soldier-entrepreneurs, often from the minor nobility. Norreys is a classic example of this class, but this book cannot stray too far from its narrative to really contribute to our understanding of such men.

Jason Dorsett


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