The case for ‘noble studies’

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Volume 20

The nobility of Tudor Ireland are important because the nobility were key agents of change in this revolutionary period. The movement among the English of Ireland for the political ‘reformation’ of their land during the reign of Henry VIII was essentially the product of hostility between the peerage and the gentry. Without it, the Kildare revolt—and all its far-reaching consequences—might not have occurred. The stock of the nobility recovered towards the end of Henry’s reign; the so-called ‘surrender and regrant’ policy was, as much as anything else, an attempt by the Crown to use admittance to the peerage as a means of promoting loyalty to the regime and effecting a kind of social engineering among its Gaelic recipients. All in all, the peerage in the era of surrender and regrant bore witness to a noble renaissance. In later Tudor times, of course, royal policy in Ireland became increasingly dependent upon the sword. While recent research into magnates has shown that certain noblemen were capable of holding their own during this febrile period, the frequent failure of peers (or would-be peers, like Shane O’Neill) and government officials to agree on the appropriate balance between noble and state power in the provinces contributed to the wider failure of Tudor policy in Ireland. Ireland entered into a period of noble rebellion: first the uprisings of the earl of Clancare and the Fitzgeralds in 1569; then the revolts of the reluctant earl of Desmond and the zealous Viscount Baltinglass in the early 1580s; and finally, at the climax of Elizabeth’s reign, Tyrone’s rebellion. The Nine Years War was many things, including a Gaelic stand against the English and—to some at least—a Catholic crusade, but it was also a Tudor nobleman’s response to the centralising state at a time when England’s war with Spain presented disaffected nobles with unique possibilities to turn pent-up frustration into serious challenges to the monarchy.

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