The Irish church and the Tudor reformations Henry A. Jefferies (Four Courts Press, €55) ISBN 9781846820502

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

82_small_1290262196The past twenty years or so have witnessed an upsurge in the academic study of Tudor Ireland. A number of young scholars were inspired by a series of important essays dealing with the Irish reformation by Brendan Bradshaw, Nicholas Canny and Karl Bottigheimer in the 1970s and 1980s and influenced by diocesan studies undertaken by scholars such as Christopher Haigh in England. By the 1990s, this interest had led to the study of the impact of the Tudor reformation in Ireland on a diocesan level, resulting in the publication over the past thirteen years of monographs on Armagh, Dublin, Kildare and Meath by Henry Jefferies, James Murray, Mary Ann Lyons and this reviewer. There has not, however, been an overall survey of the Tudor reformation in Ireland since Robert Dudley Edwards’s Church and state in Tudor Ireland, published in 1935. With the plethora of articles and monographs published over the past twenty years, a survey containing a synthesis of this new research has been urgently required. Henry Jefferies, who has worked on the Irish reformation for many years, has provided us with such a work.


In an interpretation that is consistent with the seminal work of Eamon Duffy in England, Jefferies weaves together convincing evidence that indicates that the Irish pre-reformation church (particularly at a parochial level) was not in decline. Indeed, the parish church seems to have benefited at the expense of the religious orders (bar the Observant Franciscans, who were experiencing a resurgence in their popularity) at this time. More, however, on the early reformation attempts in Ireland would have been welcome—only 54 pages (out of 302) are devoted to the reformations under Henry VIII, Edward VI and the restoration of Catholicism as the state religion under Mary. For example, it would have been useful to include more comment and analysis on the monastic dissolutions—one of the only successful strands of the Tudor reformation in Ireland—and its effect on the landowning gentry, especially of the Pale, where the dissolutions were most effective. The distribution of monastic land at bargain prices became especially important in securing the outward obedience to the reformation of senior figures in the Dublin administration such as Thomas Cusack. What sweeteners were there for the Pale gentry a generation or two later?

Jefferies places religion right at the heart of much of the civil strife of Elizabeth’s reign, quoting William Cecil, the queen’s secretary, who ‘was not alone in thinking that “there is no enmity so great as that for religion”’ (p. 279). I would have been interested to learn, however, just who else shared this belief. Jefferies sees religious dissent as a major factor in Irish politics in the late sixteenth century. For Cecil, in actuality, the subject of religion never took up as much of his time as other matters in Ireland, the minister believing that religious reform could not be implemented until civil obedience and royal authority were accepted in Ireland.

The 1580s—a period of social and civil unrest in Ireland—Jefferies rightly marks as a watershed in the Irish reformation. Here he states that it was not the alienation of the Palesmen from the Dublin administration through the cess controversy and the fallout from the Baltinglass rebellion that led to the failure of the reformation in Ireland at this time. Rather it was Elizabeth I who forced Lord Deputy Perrot to ‘terminate his programme for rigorous [religious] enforcement, and to adopt a more laissez faire stance in religion’ (pp 239–40). Following the bloody aftermath of the Baltinglass rebellion, the queen was unwilling to alienate further the Palesmen at a time of heightened tensions between the English and the Spanish. In effect, it was Queen Elizabeth I, supreme governor of the Church of Ireland, who allowed the practice of Catholicism to continue unabated throughout the 1580s and 1590s, by which time the counter-reformation was beginning to take hold among the Pale gentry and the opportunity to introduce successfully the reformation in Ireland was squandered.

Jefferies disagrees with many previously held concepts regarding the Irish reformation and no sacred cow escapes filleting here. He takes issue with various aspects of the research of Ciaran Brady, Steven Ellis, Nicholas Canny, Brendan Bradshaw, Mary Ann Lyons and especially James Murray. Whether any of the above-named historians (or, indeed, some young Turk) have the hunger for a duel reminiscent of the seminal Bradshaw–Canny–Bottigheimer debates of the 1970s and 1980s remains to be seen. But on the strength of the copious amount of research that Jefferies has corralled here, it is obvious that anyone looking to dispute issues raised in this book would have a real fight on their hands. Jefferies has consulted a large and varied array of sources for this study and it is fair to say that few know them as well as he does. There is much to ponder here, and this book represents a significant step forward in our understanding and perception of the reformation and its failure in Tudor Ireland.  HI

Brendan Scott lectures in history at NUI Maynooth.

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