The New Policy of Henry VIII

Eleanor Hull
The New Policy of Henry VIII

The net result of the Irish policy of the long Kildare viceroyalty and that of the eighth Earl of Ormonde had been the return to Irish habits and ways of the larger part of Ireland outside the Pale. The official reports of the early sixteenth century are full of this topic.

In 1515 we learn that the King’s laws were only obeyed in Louth, Meath, Dublin, Kildare, and Wexford, and only in half of these counties. In the other halves and in Connacht and Ulster there was neither justice nor sheriff, and “all the Englyshe folke of the said countyes ben of Iryshe habyt, of Iryshe language and of Iryshe condytions except the cyties and wallyd townes … and though many of them obey the King’s Deputy when it pleaseth them, yet there is none of them all that obeyeth the King’s laws.”

Ten English counties paid annual tribute to Irish chiefs, ranging from £20 to £300.

“Sir Piers Butler, knight, and all the Captains of the Butlers of the Co. Kilkenny followeth the Irish order and every one of them maketh war and peace for himself without any licence from the King.”[1]

A similar independent report addressed to Wolsey in 1526 bears the same testimony. It states that

“the great rulers have each his Irish Judge who decrees according to Irish law. Scarcely a word of English is heard in the County of Kildare. … Irish habits are also worn for the most part, tonsures above the ears, with overlips [moustaches] and garments so that they cannot be distinguished from Irishmen, except that the latter have better manners and are more obedient to order. The Earl of Kildare [Gerald FitzGerald, ninth Earl], being Deputy has power to reform all these enormities, so it must be supposed that he hath reasons for tolerating them. … Except in Dublin, Drogheda, and a few lords’ houses all the Pale has of late become Irish. … Thus is the King’s jurisdiction diminished. When the Sword of State was given to Kildare all the wolves became lambs.”[2]

Thus when Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509 only the Pale and the cities and garrison towns outside it adhered to their allegiance; the rest was purely Irish. The condition of the Irish districts showed a great increase in their forces and organization; cashels, or piles, had considerably increased in number, especially in Munster, “and where at the conquest there had not been five outside the cities, there now be five hundred.”

The forces under Irish authority amounted to a formidable army, each head of a sept being able to put a good number of horse and foot into the field—trained men, obliged to respond to an immediate summons when required. In a paper entitled A Description of the Power of Irishmen, written early in the sixteenth century, the Irish forces of Leinster are numbered at 522 horse, 5 battalions of galloglas (galloglaigh] and 1432 kerne, and those of the other provinces were in like proportion. MacCarthy Mór, commanded 40 horse, 2 battalions of galloglas, and 2000 kerne; the Earl of Desmond 400 horse, 3 battalions of galloglas, and 3000 kerne, besides a battalion of crossbowmen and gunners, the smaller chieftains supplying each their quota of men.

In the year 1517, “when the reformacion of the countrye was taken in hand,” it was reported that the Irish forces in Thomond were 750 horse, 2324 kerne, and 6 “batayles” of galloglas, the latter including 60 to 80 footmen harnessed with spears; each of these had a man to bear his harness, some of whom themselves carried spears or bows. Every kerne had a bow, a ‘skieve’ or quiver, three spears, a sword, and a skene, each two of them having a lad to carry their weapons. The horsemen had two horses apiece, some three, the second bearing the ‘knave’ or his attendant.

The galloglas was a heavy-armed footman, wearing a shirt of mail and a helmet, and carrying a halbert or battleaxe six feet in length, with a blade like a long and broad knife. The kerne (ceatharnach] was lightly armed with target, bow, and arrows, or else three darts which he cast with wonderful facility. The tract continues:

“They be for the most part good and hardie men of war, and can live hardly and fit for great misery. They will adventure themselves greatly on their enemies, seeing time to do it. Good watchers by night; as good soldiers by night as others by day. The captain or Lord Keeper [hath] none of his lands in his own hand, but giveth it to his followers, by whom he is maintained with all things necessary, or what pleaseth him to take; for all that they have is at his commandment.”[3]

A few years later, in 1529, James, Earl of Desmond, was writing to the Emperor Charles V stating that he had increased his force to 16,500 foot and 1500 horse, and that his friends and allies are

“Princeps Oberayn [O’Brien], who could place in the field 600 horse and 1000 foot; Theobald de Burgh, with 100 horse and 600 foot; O’Donyll of Ulidia, with 800 horse and 4000 foot; and seven others, his allies, with 300 horse and 18,000 foot, all ready to fight against the Deputy Sir Piers Butler and the English King’s cities of Limerick, Waterford, and Dublin. But he is much in need of artillery.”[4]

James was secretly corresponding with the Emperor Charles V, who was believed to be contemplating an invasion of Ireland, and had already in 1527 made a tentative invasion of England, by throwing twenty thousand Irish on the coast of Pembrokeshire, in Wales. He acknowledged Charles V as Emperor, and addressed him as “most invincible and most sacred Cæsar ever august.” It was James of Desmond who “first put the abominable use of coygn and livery on the King’s subjects in his country,” an example quickly followed by the other magnates.

Thomas had gone further and made it obligatory in the Pale during his term of office as Deputy, with all the other impositions used by the native captains over their people and in defiance of the King’s laws; and this was alleged to have been one chief reason of his being put to death. A Deputy who openly defied the laws was in an anomalous position which could hardly be condoned by the authorities. But the country parts of Ireland undoubtedly advanced in wealth and prosperity during the period in which this policy of encouraging native customs was in force. Markets were held all over the country, churches and castles were rebuilt, and the ports, such as Limerick, were doing a thriving foreign trade. During the fifteenth century numerous complaints are recorded from the Pale that fairs and markets were being held by “divers Irish enemies, whereby they get great profit.”

Henry’s first intention seems to have been to continue the policy of his predecessor and govern through the great Anglo-Irish lords, but so early as 1520, fifteen years before the fall of the house of Kildare, he had proposed to Surrey, then appointed Lord Deputy, a new view as to the government of Ireland. He held that “circumspect and politic ways should be used” to bring the independent Irish captains into obedience, “which thing must as yet be practised by sober ways, politic drifts, and amiable persuasions, founded in law and reason, rather than by rigorous dealing.”

Henry had come to the conclusion that

“to spend so much money for the reduction of that land, to bring the Irish in appearance only of obeisance … were a thing of little policy, less advantage, and least effect.”

He despaired of conquering the land, but he believed that if the Irish lords, instead of being “impressed by fearful words” into the belief that it was the intention, as had been already mooted, to expel them from their lands, felt that they were to be conserved in their own and brought to aid and advise the King, as faithful subjects, to recover his inheritance, each would be able not only to live quietly on his own but would see his lands inhabited, tilled, and laboured for his own most advantage.[5] He even proposed to mitigate the rigour of the laws, and find out from them under what manner and by what laws they will be ordered and governed; only, that it is of necessity “that every reasonable creature be governed by a law.”

Here was a reasonable and statesmanlike policy which was destined to lead to good results. The personal popularity of Lord Leonard Grey prepared the way for the inauguration of this new policy and for the submission of the great lords under the Viceroyalty of his successor, Sir Anthony St Leger.

Though to Grey was confided the unpleasant task of declaring at the Parliament of 1536–37 the abolition of the Papal authority and the establishment of that of Henry VIII as head of the Church,[6] and following on this the abolition of the houses of religion, his personal fearlessness and confidence in the Irish made him well liked. Even after his seizure of the Geraldines his popularity did not die out. When in 1540 he passed through the wildest parts of Munster with a small bodyguard, “trusting only to the Irish,” O’Conor had the way over Togher Croghan mended into the heart of his country, and O’Molloy victualled him and conducted him safely on his way.

Even Donogh O’Brien “played an honest and true part” toward one who so implicitly trusted himself among them. Asked to provide an escort through his country, O’Brien sent one galloglas with a silver spear or axe, and the hilt hanging full of silk, to be his guide. When Ulick Burke remonstrated with Grey on the hazard he had run he pointed to the lad, saying, “Lo, seest thou not yonder standing before me O’Brien’s axe for my conduct?”[7] Yet the country was at this time already seething with unrest, and the object of Grey’s second visit was to try to win over the “pretended Earl of Desmond,” as Sir James Fitzjohn FitzGerald is called in the State Papers, whom he met “with no English with him, where they drank wine together and chatted a long part of the night.”

Two years later, in 1542, Desmond made his formal submission to Henry, and he brought with him O’Brien, with whom he was then in league. Henry’s policy of conciliation had been especially marked toward the Desmond family. When the true heir to the earldom, James FitzMaurice, wished to lay claim to his possessions Henry had sent him home from England, where he was staying at the King’s Court, “sufficiently furnished with all things fitting for such an enterprise.”

The Desmonds had been much in England, and were in friendly relations with the King, being supported by him against the MacCarthys and O’Briens. After parting with the King, James FitzMaurice landed in Cork, in 1540, but he fell into a trap set for him by his rival and kinsman, Sir Maurice of Desmond, when passing through Lord Roche’s country, and was slain. This fierce and treacherous old man, known as Maurice na dtoitane, “of the burnings,” on account of his depredations, who lived to be an octogenarian and was still at that age furiously fighting foes and friends alike, fell at last a prisoner to his own father-in-law, and was hacked to death by his followers.

Grey’s two visits to Desmond’s country are among the first of those state progresses afterward indulged in by Lord Justice Cusack, Sir Henry Sidney, and others, the reports of which give us so vivid and personal an acquaintance with the country and with the principal actors in the drama of the Elizabethan times.

In his first tour in 1536 Grey was much impressed by the fertility and beauty of the country through which he was travelling. One of his train breaks out:

“If there be any paradise in this world, the counties from Dublin to Thomond may be accounted for one of them, both for beauty and goodness. The town and castle of Kilkenny is well walled and well replenished of people and wealthy. The city of Limerick is a wondrous proper city and a strong and standeth environed with the river Shannon; it may be called Little London for the situation, but the castle hath need of reparation."

Desmond’s island-stronghold on Loch Gur they found “desolate and unwarded” by Sir James, and it was easily captured, the roofs and windows being repaired and a garrison placed in it.[8]

At that date (1536) they failed to get O’Brien “to condescend to any conformity,” though he came in later, but Desmond “showed himself very reasonable” submitting his claims to the Deputy and Council, and giving his two sons as hostages. The orders from London were that he was to be “handled in gentle sort,” but in his own country there was much doubt of his loyalty.[9]

The child Garrett (or Gerald) of Kildare was known to be then hidden away in Munster, and Silken Thomas, his kinsman, had only recently been lodged in the Tower. When it was certainly known that Garrett was safe in France Desmond declared his readiness to come in, and on January 16, 1541, he swore fealty in the usual form, recognizing his Majesty the King of England as his sovereign, and “utterly forsaking the Bishop of Rome and his usurped primacy.”[10] He formally renounced the privilege of his predecessors exempting them from appearing in Parliaments and Grand Councils, or from entering walled towns in the King’s obedience, and declared himself ready to sit in the Dublin Parliament. Though he refused to treat with Ormonde, he made his submission on bended knees to St Leger at Youghal, and the Viceroy reports that he found him “a very wise and discreet gentleman.”

Attended by a splendid retinue, he proceeded to England, where in 1542 he made his act of submission to Henry in person,[11] being received with the greatest distinction and sent back with new honours. He left his son “to be brought up and instructed after the English sort” with the young Prince Edward, and the lad became his prince’s attached friend and companion.

On the death of Ormonde, Edward, now become king, created the Earl Lord Treasurer of Ireland and President of Munster, and he continued in office until his death in 1558. He was buried at Tralee Abbey of the White Friars. During the same year in which Desmond had made his submission the head of Lord Grey had fallen on Tower Hill on an indictment of ninety counts, among which the escape of young Garrett and his leniency to the Desmonds formed a part.

It was the formation, by the efforts of Conn O’Neill, prince of Tyrone, of the Geraldine League in 1537, after the execution of the six Geraldines, that brought the North once more into intimate touch with the South. Conn’s mother was Alice, daughter of Gerald FitzGerald, the Great Earl of Kildare, and it was in Donegal, as being the safest spot and least accessible to English troops, that the young Garrett of Kildare now lay in hiding. When his aunt, the Lady Eleanor, married Manus O’Donnell, in order to find with him an asylum for her nephew, Conn drew together a league which included, besides the Northern lords, the O’Briens, Desmonds, and MacCarthys of the South; and, until the activities of the English Government to capture Garrett made it advisable to convey the boy abroad, they formed a guard of young chiefs for his protection.

This Manus O’Donnell was a remarkable personality; he was a good soldier and a man of culture. To him we owe the most complete existing biography of his great ancestor, St Columcille, which, though founded on the Latin Life by Adamnan, adds to it the traditions about the saint current in his own district. He wrote it as a youth, and, though he tells us that he had help in translating the Latin Life and explaining the old Gaelic words, he “dictated the whole out of his own mouth with great labour” in the intervals of a life spent in warfare, chiefly among members of his own family.[12] More remarkable still are the exquisite lyrics with which he, in common with several of the FitzGeralds, Pierce Ferriter, one of the MacCarthys, and other chiefs—refined and cultivated gentlemen of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—adorned the literature of their native land. They were evidently not out of touch, even in wild Donegal, with the contemporary European tradition.

Some of the poems of Manus seem to have been written to Eleanor, whom he calls the “Earl’s daughter,” and there are two plaintive little poems—“The sorrow of parting” and “To-night my cup of sorrow is full”—which may well have been the expression of his grief when, after Garrett’s flight abroad, she decided on leaving him to return to her native province.[13] She never seems to have cared for Manus. Only force of affection for her nephew drove her, after long hesitations, to marry him, and she left him with disdainful words as soon as her purpose was fulfilled. Probably she never trusted him. Twice he had made submission to an English Viceroy, and he had promised Lord Leonard Grey to do as good service as ever his father did to the uttermost of his power.

When Lord Deputy St Leger met Manus in 1540 he was surprised to find before him an elegant gentleman, magnificently dressed in crimson velvet, who had for his chaplain “a right sober young man, well learned, and brought up in France.” He states that he found Manus “a sober man and one that in his words much desireth civil order.”

Eleanor plainly thought that her husband’s friendship with St Leger, who by Henry’s command offered to create him Earl of Tyrconnel, might even induce him to give up young Garrett. Manus had come into power in early life, for he had been responsible for the government of his territories during the absence of his father, Dark Hugh O’Donnell, who had made a pilgrimage to Rome and whose ill-health on his return obliged him to pass on the reins to his son. But his rule was embittered by the jealousy of his brothers—one of whom he hanged and two others he carried in chains to Dublin—and by the turbulence of his son Calvagh. St Leger in vain tried to settle their differences. Being finally taken prisoner by Calvagh, Manus was kept “under easy restraint” until near the time of his death at Lifford in 1564. He was buried with great respect in the peaceful Franciscan monastery on the shores of Donegal Bay.