Tudor Frontiers and Noble Power: The making of the British State Steven G. Ellis (Clarendon Press, 1995, £35) The Problem of Ireland in Tudor, Foreign Policy 1485-1603 William Palmer (Boydell Press, 1994, £29.50)

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

Gone are the days when English historians ignored the question of British involvement in Ireland in the early modern period. When considered at all, the traditional narrative tended to trivialise the Irish experience and minimalise its impact on the grand sweep of English history. An example of this tendency is found in the influential England Under the Tudors by the late Geoffrey Elton. In this important survey Elton barely managed to include Ireland. Even the section on the English conquest of Ireland was undermined by a resort to vignettes like the one which laid the blame for the defeat of the joint Irish-Spanish forces at Kinsale in 1602 on a Gaelic chieftain’s longing for a bottle of whiskey. Elton’s ethnic stereotyping and cultural superiority pervade this treatment and are nicely summed up in his concluding remarks on this subject:

As for Ireland, only conquest by England gave her a chance of emerging from the prehistoric welter of tribal warfare, with its blood feuds, raidings and constant killings. It was England’s triumph that made possible the growth of an Irish nation.

That English historians no longer write like this is in part due to the influence of the now fashionable ‘British history’. Recent monographs, articles, and conference programmes suggest the integrative approach to the history of the British Isles, with its essential consideration of events in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, is a force to be reckoned with. Steven G. Ellis, an English-born historian working at University College Galway in Ireland, has done much to advance the cause of this interpretation and, in particular, to place events in Ireland in the sixteenth century in a context readily comprehensible to readers of the separate national histories of England and Ireland. Tudor Frontiers is Ellis’s most comprehensive effort to date to apply these integrative principles to the early Tudor period. This comparative study of two borderlands—the territories of Lord Dacre in the North of England and the lands of the Earl of Kildare in the lordship of Ireland—aims to alter the lowland England perspective of English history by focusing on these, the two main frontier regions of the early-Tudor state in the period 1485-1540.
This study rests on three main assumptions that: (a) the Tudors viewed their disparate territories as one unit; (b) these territories were divided into a core lowland region and a variety of intractable upland territories; and (c) the state that they ruled was an English one, i.e., their subjects considered themselves English. The first part of the study places the Tudor borderlands in both a historical and historiographical context. Ellis makes it clear that the traditional English history ignored developments in Ireland and marginalised the far north. Tudor progress towards centralisation looks different if viewed from northern England or Ireland. Irish historians also come in for criticism. The author makes it clear that while Irish nationalist perspectives will continue to offer the best means of viewing historical processes in the long term they are ‘methodologically flawed’ when it comes to the Tudor period. Quite simply, the inhabitants of the effective early Tudor lordship were recognisably English and ‘unionist’ in political aspirations. For Ellis the notions of an Irish ‘middle nation’ and ‘Gaelicisation’ are invalid when considered in his comparative frontier perspective.
Tudor Frontiers is structured to prove these assertions. The second chapter on early Tudor perceptions argues that the two borderlands suffered from a similar neglect of good rule until the era of the reformation crisis. The author argues that from the London or metropolitan cultural perspective the problems of both frontiers were similarly based on a cultural degeneracy of their Englishry rather than the more realistic failure of the centre to govern adequately. Therefore the distinctive environment of the Pale border was not so much a product of Gaelicization, as the Irish historian would assert, but rather of the frontier nature of the society and the failure of good governance.
These assertions are supported by Part II which is a comparative study of noble power and border rule. In chapters three and four the estates and connections of Lord Dacre of the North and the Earl of Kildare are studied in detail. These chapters are an excellent examination of the estates, tenures and military practices of both border nobles. Ellis is at his best when he compares the military tenures of both regions, and when he explains the development of their neo-feudal connexions. His reconstruction of the estates of the eighth and nineth earls of Kildare, with a demonstration of their methods of land and service consolidation, is exemplary. Both noble houses used their consolidated gains to strengthen their grip on their respective borderlands and, therefore, to lessen the impact of a Tudor neglect of lordship that had occurred prior to the 1530s.
Ellis’s Part III significantly reconsiders the 1534 Tudor assault on both Dacre and Kildare. Rather than see the crisis of 1534, as the result of the ‘deliberate policy of reducing noble power and centralising control in response to complaints of lack of governance’, the author blames the growth of faction at court and the king’s inept handling of the traditional ruling magnates. He finds no evidence for a conspiracy against Henry VIII in the north of England; rather he asserts this crisis arose from the king’s paranoia originating in the reformation crisis. Ellis does not see a deliberate reform or centralising strategy at play in Ireland either. Dismissing Brendan Bradshaw’s ‘reform’ thesis, Tudor Frontiers asserts that the collapse of the Kildares came about because of the failure of the Tudors ‘to make adequate financial provision for the good rule and defence of these regions’. The consequences of these actions are not downplayed in this book. In particular, the author recognises that this was the end of medieval Ireland and the beginnings of the familiar story of conquest and colonisation. From Ellis’s administrative and comparative perspective, however, the Irish lordship prior to 1534 was English, and when studied comparatively with another  English community, its early-Tudor history seems similar.
From the perspective of Irish history then two major questions arise. Is the assertion that an Irish ‘national’ approach is methodologically flawed really  the case? And can the comparison of the two borderlands be sustained? Central to both questions is the issue of the relative Gaelicisation of the Irish lordship in the years before 1534. Steven Ellis sees the notion of a Gaelicisation of the English of the lordship of Ireland as an example of one Irish historian’s ‘extreme’ appropriation of the past for Ireland’s ‘nationalist and republican tradition’. But is this really fair? Other historians of the medieval period posit such a development, e.g. James Lydon and J.A. Watt. Are they also working for the same ends? Even if this was the case, can the actual results of the comparison be sustained? It has to be admitted that similarities between the two societies existed, but can the same levels of use of a distinct language, law, dress, intermarriage and most, importantly, fosterage be found on the border with Scotland and in the Pale. It is not sufficient to merely ascribe these factors to the Marchlands generally, and then leave it at that. Pale society was more Gaelic-influenced than is suggested here. As Ellis’s own data suggests, the percentage of Gaelic tenants in the Pale is greater than hitherto supposed: surely this is significant. In addition, the use of Gaelic in Kildare was so extensive that it was a problem for Protestant clerics into the mid-sixteenth century. Ellis is careful to concentrate on the political community to the exclusion of all other groups, yet by downplaying the significance of other elements in the society, and of marriage and fosterage arrangements, is he really in a position to make assertions about collective identity? These comments are not meant to dismiss Ellis’s comparative effort, but to suggest that more work needs to be done on the issues of culture, language, identity and assimilation in the Pale before we can be certain of the nature of its complex society . Certainly the Earl of Kildare was not the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’ but can we be so sure that the fostering of his children in the Gaelic midlands was as culturally negligible as Ellis implies?
And what of the more directly historiographical issues? Ellis suggestively summarises the teleological and subjective disposition of Irish historians in the conclusion:

Irish revisionists might claim to debunk nationalist myths, but their choice of perspective can never be neutral… Hiberno-centric presentations of the Earl of Kildare as an essentially Irish figure, transcending the rival traditions of Gaedhil and Gaill, offer a fascinating commentary on the political ideas and aspirations of a more modern age, but they run counter to the most basic understanding of Tudor politics.

Ellis’s argument that border society was less anachronistic than traditional English historians have asserted implies that he is free of the teleological bias of his Irish and English counterparts. Yet his portrayal of Gaelic culture suggests otherwise. His characterisation of it as an ‘upland’ society, (and there are problems with Hechter’s historical-sociological model!) and the modern acceptance of the early modern language of ‘savagery and civility’ to explain cultural difference (often without quotation marks) offer a commentary on the Anglo- and administration-centered mind of the political historian. Is it no less reflective of a teleological bias to downplay the significance and potential influence of Gaelic society and culture on the English world in Ireland, even if Gaelic civilisation was ultimately defeated? Ellis has laboured heroically to understand the alternative Gaelic and border systems, but it is clear that this work is grounded in the assumption of the validity and legitimacy of feudal lowland government. Is it not essentially present-centered to assume the legitimacy/normality of the sheriff and the common law over coign and livery and the Brehon law? The essential premise of the language of intractability and lawlessness, indeed the very notion of a ‘problem of the borderlands’, is metropolitan and administration-centered. Ellis would no doubt consider it Hiberno-centric if an Irish historian were to publish a work which started out with the assumption that English legal institutions were the problem and that these alien impositions were largely responsible for the unmaking of Gaelic society. What if this imaginary work considered coign and livery (a Gaelic and neo-feudal system of exaction for the maintenance of military personnel) and Brehon law as the societal and legal norms. To say that such a fictional work ‘ran counter to the most basic understanding of Tudor politics’ would certainly be valid. But then we would have to admit that the ‘basic understanding of Tudor politics’ is itself a cultural, political and ideological construction. The very construction ‘Tudor history’ assumes the political legitimacy of a dynasty and privileges its history over that of the traditional Irish historical attempts.
Steven Ellis’s Tudor Frontiers is a distinguished effort of historical scholarship. It begs serious consideration. The author asks English historians to reconsider the effectiveness of the ‘Tudor revolution’ and the debates surrounding the relationship between the nobility and the central government. For Ireland, Tudor Frontiers argues for a rejection of revisionist and nationalist interpretations of the relations between the Gael and Gall. These strident assertions may not convince every reader, yet we all must recognize that this work of excellent research, and fine writing is a significant contribution to Irish and”British” history.
Ellis’s comparative focus on the borderlands downplays the significance of lreland in Tudor foreign policy. This is not so in William Palmer’s The Problem of Ireland in Tudor Foreign Policy 1485-1603 which examines the role that Ireland played in the shaping and conduct of English foreign policy during the Tudor period. The broader implications of this subject are applied to issues in the history of Tudor Ireland. This is the first major survey of this neglected subject. Despite their different subjects, however, both these works share the common aim of examining affairs in sixteenth-century Ireland in a broader context. Palmer also has his criticisms of Irish nationalist history. The nationalist treatment of Henry VII’s rule in Ireland is described as ‘extreme’, and the traditional title of the pro-Kildare Gaelic confederation, the ‘Geraldine league’, is described as misleading.
This work is not primarily focused on the controversies of sixteenth-century Irish history but is an R.B. Wernham-like narrative of Tudor foreign policy, and of Ireland’s particular place in its formulation. Similar to Ellis’s Tudor Frontiers, primary importance is given to the Kildare rebellion as a turning point not alone because it forced a policy change for Ireland but also because it forced the English to contend with Ireland in the European world. Palmer parts ways with Ellis, who is a major influence on his work, when he considers the situation after 1540. He argues that the borderland comparison of the Pale and the far north will not hold up because the threat of foreign intervention in Ireland after 1540 makes it resemble an independent Scotland to the policy makers. Prominence is then given to the international implications of religious change and to French intrigue in Ireland in the 1540’s and 1550’s. Palmer asserts that Ireland had become a locus of foreign intrigue since the Kildare rebellion, and that by the mid-1550s this factor had become a pivotal concern in the formulation of policy on Ireland. It suggests that by the mid-1560s many Tudor statesmen were convinced of an ‘invidious Catholic conspiracy’ behind events in Ireland, such as the intrigues of Shane O’Neill. Irish historians are taken to task for underestimating the role that Ireland played in English foreign policy concerns—especially for key policy makers like Cecil, Throckmorton, and the queen—concerns that were obviously heightened by the forces unleased by the Counter-Reformation and the beginnings of an anti-Spanish policy in the 1570s.
Palmer is at pains to emphasize the gravity of Hiberno-centered intrigues that Irish historians have recognised but not seen as crucial. He argues that researchers need to bear these in mind when they consider that for the ‘paranoid men who governed Elizabethan England, perceptions of reality were as compelling as the reality itself’. He writes with more assurance on the impact of the Fitzmaurice landing at Smerwick in 1579, and of the Spanish threat with the Armada of 1588. His narrative closes with a consideration of Tyrone and the fall of Ulster. This project encounters a few minor bumps along the way: Sir Nicholas Malby is described on one page as Nicholas, and on the other as William; Grey’s deputyship was not despite the defeat at Glenmalure, he was appointed before the excursion; and the earl of Kildare’s lordship in 1534 was worth at least 1,585 pounds Irish, not the 150 pounds Irish listed in chapter one.
These considerations aside, Palmer’s conclusion repeats the essential point that although foreign policy was not the sole or primary factor influencing change in sixteenth-century Ireland, it is more important than until now recognised. This exploratory survey is a first to attend to this omission.

Vincent Carey


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