The Ormond lordship in County Kilkenny, 1515–1642: the rise and fall of Butler feudal power

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

 David Edwards
(Four Courts, £45)
ISBN 185182578


This is the book many historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been waiting for—a thorough, detailed and well-researched analysis of a single Irish lordship in the turbulent years between 1515 and 1642. This era probably represents one of the greatest periods of political, cultural, religious and economic change in Irish history, and David Edwards’s study of the Ormond lordship is an invaluable insight into this change at local level.

The book is equally fascinating because it represents a story of Irish history that is often ignored—the Irish lord who adapted to the predominantly English political and religious regime rather than the lord who attempted to defy the English system. Unlike most previous studies, it also continues the story of the lordship from the sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, thus encompassing the era of Stuart centralisation and the Counter-reformation.

Edwards contends that Irish historians know relatively little about the framework of everyday life in Irish lordships. Most studies have been confined to how the great lordships engaged in rebellion and were overthrown. Therefore the emphasis has been on a lord’s relationship with the English government or with international powers such as France, Spain and the papacy. He argues that to understand the politics of an Irish lordship one needs to understand its internal workings and how the dominant family, in this case the Butlers of Ormond, interacted with other local families. His book certainly supports this thesis.

Edwards opens with a succinct description of the social, economic and political context of the Butler lordship in the sixteenth century. He gives details of such aspects of local life as the rents charged per acre, land quality and land usage. He examines the local economy, urban and rural population distribution, Gaelic and Anglo-Irish interaction, as well as clientage and kinship networks. One of the strongest aspects of this book is Edwards’s comprehensive illustration of the extent of Ormond power on the ground in Kilkenny and the consensus the earls reached with the local gentry regarding the management and regulation of various aspects of local life. The Ormond estates increased dramatically in the sixteenth century from approximately 45,000 to 90,000 acres by 1614. Their political dominance increased correspondingly, and Ormond created a community of friends, clients, relations, landlords, merchants, lawyers, soldiers and clergy who were dependent upon him. With the aggressive Ormond expansion of the sixteenth century the lordship became more militarised, which further increased Ormond power. Important families such as the St Legers and Graces were forced to seek the economic as well as the political protection of the Ormonds. In the urban areas Ormond general policy was to protect the wealth and trade of the towns, although Kilkenny grew at the expense of other urban centres.

Interestingly, the earls’ treatment of sub-tenants—particularly those in the midlands—was repressive. The earls demanded a tithe of all the produce of the land, as well as pastoral dues. From 1570 a meticulous account was kept of all these levies, which appear to have paid for the upkeep and expansion of the lordship. An important element emphasised by Edwards was the diverse nature of the Ormond lordship. The authority of the earls was regionalised, stronger in some places than in others, and definitely more beneficial for some places than for others. Each parcel of land that the Butlers and their ancestors acquired over the centuries had its own status in law. Similarly, the labour services they demanded seem to have varied from manor to manor, while in some places they controlled large areas of river and road but not in others.

By the early seventeenth century it was impractical to rule Kilkenny without the assistance of the earl. Nearly all the major families of the area were bound to the earldom, so that if it was attacked they felt threatened too. While contemporary English commentators claimed that Irish lords acted as tyrants within their lordship, Edwards argues that successive earls of Ormond rarely tried to override the opinion of the gentry. Power was apportioned relatively evenly among the local landlords, merchants and lawyers, and this power was collaborative. This compared unfavourably with the new English officials, who often attempted to force through unpopular crown policies without consulting or recruiting local gentry.

Edwards also examines the impact of English expansion on the Ormond lordship. For three centuries Kilkenny had been regarded by English rulers as the ‘second Pale’. Stretching from Wexford to Limerick, the support of the Ormond lordship was seen as vital to the security of Dublin, while Ormond support greatly assisted the introduction of the Reformation. Edwards contends, however, that while Ormond had always been considered the most favoured of the Irish lords, from as early as the 1530s the earls struggled to maintain an independent power base in the face of constant encroachment from Dublin. Crown policy towards the earls remained ambiguous, and significantly James I promoted the dubious legal claim of Elizabeth Butler and her Scottish courtier husband in 1614 in an attempt to destroy the legally recognised Irish male heir. Edwards argues that Thomas Butler, the tenth earl, only survived because of his connections and because he was able to prove that he and not the lord deputy was in the best position to control his territories.

Finally, although the Ormond dynasty made a temporary comeback under Charles I, the authority of the earls of Ormond in their own lordship was essentially undermined during the 1610s and 1620s, when the anti-Catholic programme was at its height. Certainly James, the Protestant twelfth earl of Ormond, soared to prominence in Dublin and was eventually made duke of Ormond. However, after 1603 County Kilkenny was no longer as strategically important to the crown, and the loyalty of the local population was ideologically suspect because of their adherence to Counter-reformation Catholicism. Loyalist and rebel lords alike were expected to bow to the supreme authority of the central government. The twelfth earl’s authority at home in Kilkenny deteriorated rapidly as anti-Catholic policies were put in place against all local gentry and merchants—the traditional clients of the house of Ormond. The urban and rural élites were excluded more and more from government positions; Castle Chamber was used against recusancy, while successive attempts were made to reduce the level of Catholic landownership.

It is difficult not to be convinced by Edwards’s argument that the development of greater government control over the county contributed to the Kilkenny revolt of 1641–2. However, the revolt was not just grievance at the loss of local privileges. Edwards contends that the Catholic community of the lordship had become so alienated from Ormond that the uprising of 1641 was as much anti-Ormond as it was a revolt against what the county perceived as tyranny on the part of the local English government. He points out that James Butler, the twelfth earl, had little regard for the concerns of the local gentry. In the 1630s he hiked up rents at a time of economic hardship. He evicted some of the family’s oldest clients and failed to act as a buffer between the Kilkenny community and the state. Indeed, he tried to profit from his promotion by helping to advance the Wandesford and North Tipperary plantation schemes and other Protestant interests in the area. Significantly, by Easter 1641 only a handful of tenants continued to pay rent to the countess of Ormond, and during the 1641–2 revolt the Ormond estate was particularly targeted for attack. Edwards dismisses other historians’ claims that any real ‘Ormondist’ party emerged during the subsequent negotiations with the Confederates in 1643. Most of the Confederate leadership felt that ‘Ormond had traded “good lordship” for personal gain at their expense’.

Edwards concludes with his central thesis—the vitality of feudalism in the context of an administration that was colonial and sectarian. He argues that all the earls up to the eleventh earl exercised checks and balances on the extension of royal authority into the area, as well as offering protection from the excesses committed by some of the earl’s own army and relatives. The county administration in Kilkenny in the 1620s and 1630s, dominated by newcomers with few connections to county society, seemed by comparison intrusive. Eventually the 1641 revolt in Kilkenny reflected the failure of Wentworth’s policy of replacing regional power with undiluted central power.

It is hard to find fault with this excellent study. There is a good deal of repetition in the book but the narrative is refreshingly clear. Edwards appears to almost assume that the earls of Ormond were always fundamentally in agreement with crown policy (except, of course, when it encroached on their own authority). Historians might contest this, but then that question is essentially outside the brief of this study, which is subtitled ‘the rise and fall of Butler feudal power’. More serious, I feel, is Edwards’s failure to make any real attempt to examine the strata of society below the gentry in the lordship, their relationship with the earls and their possible contribution to the 1641 revolt. Nor does Edwards address any possible links between the earls and the Butler connections in Europe. These, however, are side issues. Overall the detail in this book is phenomenal, and it is a major contribution to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Irish history.

Gráinne Henry


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