STORY OF IRELAND

By A. M. Sullivan

CHAPTER XXX.

From the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900)

« Chapter XXIX. (War of the Roses) | Contents | Chapter XXXI. (Geraldines) »

HOW THE NEW ELEMENT OF ANTAGONISM CAME INTO THE STRUGGLE—HOW THE ENGLISH KING AND NATION ADOPTED A NEW RELIGION, AND HOW THE IRISH HELD FAST BY THE OLD.

THE time was now at hand when, to the existing elements of strife and hatred between the Irish and the English nations, there was to be added one more fierce than all the rest; one bitterly intensifying the issues of battle already knit with such deadly vehemence between the Celt and the Saxon. Christendom was being rent in twain by a terrible convulsion. A new religion had flung aloft the standard of revolt and revolution against the successors of St. Peter; and the Christian world was being divided into two hostile camps—of the old faith and the new. This was not the mere agitation of new theories of subverting tendencies, pushed and preached with vehemence to the overturning of the old; but the crash of a politico-religious revolution, bursting like the eruption of a volcano, and as suddenly spreading confusion and change far and wide.

The political policy and the personal aims and interests of kings and princes gave to the new doctrines at their very birth a range of dominion greater than original Christianity itself had been able to attain in a century. Almost instantaneously, princes and magnates grasped at the new theories according as personal or state policy dictated. To each and all of them those theories offered one most tempting and invaluable advantage—supremacy, spiritual and temporal, unshadowed, unrestrained, unaccountable, and irresponsible on earth. No more of vexing conflicts with the obstinate Roman Pontiffs. No more of supplications to the Holy See "with whispering breath and bated humbleness," if a divorce was needed or a new wife sighted while yet the old one was alive. No more humiliating submissions to the penances or conditions imposed by that antique tribunal in the Eternal City; but each one a king, spiritual as well as temporal, in his own dominions.

Who would not hail such a system? There was perhaps not one among the kings of Europe who had not, at one time or another, been made to feel unpleasantly the restraint put on him by the pope, acting either as spiritual pontiff or in his capacity of chief arbiter in the disputes of the Christian family. Sometimes, though rarely, this latter function—entirely of human origin and authority—seemed to sink into mere state policy, and like all human schemes, had its varying characteristics of good and ill. But that which most frequently brought the Popes into conflict with the civil rulers of the world was the striving of the Holy See to mitigate the evils of villeinage or serfdom appertaining to the feudal system; to restrain by the spiritual authority the lawless violence and passion of feudal lords and kings; and, above all, to maintain the sanctity and invioliability of the marriage tie, whether in the cottage of the bondman or in the palace of the king. To many of the European sovereigns, therefore, the newly propounded system (which I am viewing solely as it affected the public policy of individual princes, prescinding entirely from its doctrinal aspect) held forth powerful attractions; yet among the Teutonic principalities by the Rhine alone was it readily embraced at first.

So far, identity of faith had prevailed between England and Ireland; albeit English churchmen—-archbishops, bishops, priests, and monks—waged the national war in their own way against the Irish hierarchy, clergy, and people, as hotly as the most implacable of the military chiefs. With the cessation of the civil war in England, and the restoration of English national power during the reign of the seventh Henry, the state policy of strengthening and extending the English colony in Ireland was vigorously resumed; and the period which witnessed the outbreak of the religious revolution in Germany found the sensual and brutal Henry the Eighth engaged in a savage war upon the Irish nation. Henry early entered the lists against the new doctrines. He wrote a controversial pamphlet in refutation of Luther's dogmas, and was rewarded therefor by an encomiastic letter from the pope conferring on him the title of "Defender of the Faith." Indeed, ever since the time of Adrian, the popes had always been wondrously friendly toward the English kings; much too ready to give them "aid and comfort" in their schemes of Irish subjugation, and much too little regardful of the heroic people that were battling so persistently in defence of their nationality. A terrible lesson was now to awaken Rome to remorse and sorrow. The power she had aided and sanctioned in those schemes was to turn from her with unblushing apostasy, and become the most deadly and malignant of her foes; while that crushed and broken nation whom she had uninquiringly given up to be the prey of merciless invaders, was to shame this ingratitude and perfidy by a fidelity and devotedness not to be surpassed in the history of the world.

Henry—a creature of mere animal passions—tired of his lawful wife, and desired another. He applied to Rome for a divorce. He was, of course, refused. He pressed his application again in terms that but too plainly foreshadowed to the supreme pontiff what the result of a refusal might be. It was, no doubt, a serious contingency for the Holy See to contemplate—the defection to the new religion of a king and a nation so powerful as the English. In fact, it would give to the new creed a status and a power it otherwise would not possess. To avert this disaster to Catholicity, it was merely required to wrong one woman; merely to permit a lustful king to have his way, and sacrifice to his brute passions his helpless wife. With full consciousness, however, of all that the refusal implied, the Holy See refused to permit to a king that which could not be permitted to the humblest of his subjects—refused to allow a wife's rights to be sacrificed, even to save to the side of Catholicity for three centuries the great and powerful English nation.

Henry had an easy way out of the difficulty. According to the new system, he would have no need to incur such mortifying refusals from this intractable, antiquated, and unprogressive tribunal at Rome, but could grant to himself divorces and dispensations ad libitum. So he threw off the pope's authority, embraced the new religion, and helped himself to a new wife as often as he pleased; merely cutting off the head of the discarded one after he had granted himself a divorce from her.

In a country where feudal institutions and ideas prevailed, a king who could appease the lords carried the nation. In England, at this period, the masses of the people, though for some time past by the letter of the law freed from villeinage, were still, practically, the creatures of the lords and barons, and depended upon, looked up to, and followed them with the olden stolid docility. Henry, of course, though he might himself have changed as he listed, could never have carried the nation over with him into the new creed, had he not devised a means for giving the lords and barons also a material interest in the change. This he effected by sharing with them the rich plunder of the church. Few among the English nobility were proof against the great temptations of kingly favor and princely estates, and the great perils of kingly anger and; confiscations. For, in good truth, even at a very early stage of the business, to hesitate was to lose life as well as possessions, inasmuch as. Henry unceremoniously chopped off the heads of those who wavered or refused to join him in the new movement. The feudal system carried England bodily over with the king. Once he was able to get to his side (by proposing liberal bribes out of the plundered abbey lands) a sufficient number of the nobles, the game was all in his hands. The people counted for nothing in such a system. They went with their lords, like the cattle stock on the estates. The English bishops, mostly scions of the noble houses, were not greatly behind in the corrupt and cowardly acceptance of the king's scheme; but there were in the episcopacy noble and glorious exceptions to this spectacle of baseness. The body of the clergy, too, made a brave struggle for a time; but the king and the nobles made light of what they could do. A brisk application of the ax and the block—a rattling code of penalties for premunire and so forth—and soon the troublesome priests were all either killed off or banished.

But now, thought Henry, what of Ireland! How is the revolution likely to be received by the English colony there? In truth, it was quite a ticklish consideration; and Henry appears to have apprehended very nearly that which actually resulted—namely, that in proportion as the Anglo-Irish lords had become hibernicized, they would resist that revolution, and stand by the old faith; while those of them least imbued with Irish sentiment would proportionately be on his side.

Among the former, and of all others most coveted now and feared for their vast influence and power, were the Geraldines. Scions of that great house had been among the earliest to drop their distinctive character as Anglo-Norman lords, and become Anglo-Irish chiefs—adopting the institutions, laws, language, manners, and customs of the native Irish. For years the head of the family had been kept on the side of the English power, simply by confiding to him its supreme control in Ireland; but of the Irish sympathies of Clan Gerald, Henry had misgivings sore, and ruefully suspected now that it would lead the van in a powerful struggle in Ireland against his politico-religious revolution. In fact, at the very moment in which he was plunging into his revolt against the pope, a rebellion, led by a Geraldine chief, was shaking to its foundations the English power in Ireland—the rebellion of "Silken Thomas."

« Chapter XXIX. (War of the Roses) | Contents | Chapter XXXI. (Geraldines) »


Library Ireland Facebook