The New Policy of Henry VIII (2)

Eleanor Hull
The New Policy of Henry VIII | start of chapter

It was an unusual thing for an alliance to be formed between the O’Donnells and O’Neills, such as that which momentarily held together Conn Bacach, or “the Lame”, O’Neill and Manus O’Donnell, on behalf of Garrett FitzGerald. How far either of these chiefs were playing fair toward Garrett on the one hand or toward the English Government on the other it would be difficult to say.

Manus’s protection, as a sworn liegeman of the Crown, was clearly not to be implicitly relied upon. Conn O’Neill had gone even farther; as representative of the Northern princes he had acknowledged the sovereignty of the English King over all Ireland and made submission to him.

After the fall of Maynooth and the break up of the rebellion of Silken Thomas in 1535 he had twice made a formal submission to Lord Leonard Grey, but this may have been only to secure his own safety. Grey was uncertain of him. He found him “very tractable in words, but obstinate in refusing to put in pledges for his good behaviour.” He was, in fact, then secretly forming his league for the protection of young Kildare. But in 1541, when Garrett was safely in France, he sent in his son as hostage and offered unqualified submission. He even crossed over to London to make his formal act of allegiance to Henry VIII in person. In October 1542 he was received with great ceremony by the King in the Queen’s closet at Greenwich, which was “richly hanged with cloth of Arras and well strewn with rushes” for the occasion.

In return for his surrender of his hereditary title of O’Neill he was created Earl of Tyrone, with remainder to his illegitimate son Matthew, who was made Baron of Dungannon. Conn would have preferred the title of Earl of Ulster, but that was held from old times to be an adjunct to the Crown, and Henry would not consent to part with it.

For the solemnity, Conn was led in by the Earls of Hereford and Oxford, while Viscount Lisle bore the sword before him. He wore the robes of state proper for his new title, and the King placed round his neck a collar of gold worth threescore pounds and presented him with a hundred marks in money. His style was henceforth Du très haut et puissant Signeur Con, Conte de Tyrone, en la Royaulme d’Irlande.[14]

O’Donnell and Magennis were knighted on the same occasion, and when Conn had returned thanks in a speech translated by his chaplain a state dinner followed. Conn remained long in London. Like Calvagh O’Donnell he seemed to prefer the “civility” of the capital to the troubles of his own province. But when he did return to his native land it was to hold the ancient tribal possessions of his ancestors with the name, state, and title as the “mere gift” of the King.

Conn’s complications were not over. The tyranny of officials on the spot went far to bring to naught any policy of conciliation. A series of letters show that he was imprisoned on his way back through Dublin; and he complains not only of this unexpected and unjust imprisonment, which is, he says, injuring his own province, but of the harsh treatment he had received from Lord Chancellor Cusack.[15]

The submission of the head of the oldest family of Irish princes made a great sensation in Ireland. Since the days of Richard II, nearly a hundred and fifty years before, such a thing had not been heard of, and the clans of the North had drifted back into their old position of haughty independence, holding themselves aloof not only from English entanglements, but also, so far as was possible, from the wars and quarrels of their own country.

Having got rid of the de Courcys and de Burghs out of the North, their efforts were directed to holding back the Scots from their coasts, and the only feuds in which they took part were those of their own and the Connacht borderland. The old pride of superiority over the South, as a race which had, in ancient days, placed forty-seven kings upon the throne of Tara, while the South, during all its long history, had only once been in undisputed occupation of the coveted honour of the High Kingship, was as strong as ever. “Forty-seven kings to one” is the theme of the Ulster poems in the Contention of the Bards,[16] sustained in a lively poetic controversy during the seventeenth century.

The fact gave the North a pre-eminence that Ulster was not likely to forget. Thus the act of submission of Conn O’Neill was a matter of high importance. It was speedily followed by that of O’Brien, who was created Earl of Thomond, representing Munster, and MacWilliam Burke from Connacht, now created Earl of Clanricarde.

Thus once again the three independent provinces acknowledged fealty to the Crown. If we ask what was the inducement which made these leading families submit we find it in the promise of support offered by the Crown to the selected ruler as against all applicants to the chiefdom, with the right of descent in a single line, thus giving an hereditary interest in the tribal lands. The acceptance of the English system of descent from father to son entirely altered the old method of succession by concentrating in the hands of a single branch of the princely houses the rights belonging in former days also to the collateral branches of the family, and requiring the confirmation of the suffrages of the whole clan.

Many of the chiefs, either through avarice or through weariness of the system of election by tanistry, which introduced an element of uncertainty into every succession and tore the fair provinces to pieces from century to century in endless internecine strife, hailed the hope of a quiet possession passing on from father to son in regular descent and assuring in their own branch the hereditary ownership of the tribal lands. It tended to make each of these chiefs supreme in his own clan against all comers.

The immediate result of the new system seemed to be all that could be desired. Sir Thomas Cusack reports in May 1553 that

“the policy that was devised for the sending of the Earls of Desmond, Thomond, Clanricarde, and Tyrone, and the Baron of Upper Ossory, O’Carroll, Magennis, and others into England was a great help in bringing those countries to good order, for none of them who went into England committed harm upon the King’s Majesty’s subjects. The winning of the Earl of Desmond was the winning of the rest of Munster at small charges. The making of O’Brien an earl made all that country obedient. The making of MacWilliam Earl of Clanricarde made all the country during his time quiet and obedient, as it is now. The making of MacGillapatrick Baron of Upper Ossory made his country obedient.”[17]

All looked well for the success of the new experiment. The country was as near ‘settlement’ as ever it had been in the course of its history. It was therefore a particular misfortune that Conn, for what reason we know not, chose as his heir not his eldest son Shane, who ought to have succeeded him under the English rule of descent which he had just accepted, but a boy irregularly born into his family, if indeed he belonged to his family at all, which seems doubtful. This boy’s mother was a woman of Dundalk, the wife of a blacksmith named Kelly. At the age of fourteen she presented this lad to Conn as his son, and Conn was so delighted with the boy that he not only adopted him into his family, but made him his heir.[18]

The English authorities accepted Ferdoragh (called in English “Matthew”) on Conn’s recommendation, giving him the title of Baron of Dungannon, with succession to the Earldom of Tyrone, but Shane on coming to manhood refused to acknowledge him, and naturally asserted his own superior claims.

Thus the family strife which it was the aim of the new settlement to heal was destined soon to break out afresh and to make the succeeding years the most turbulent that Ulster had known in the course of its long history. Nevertheless, St Leger might well think that Ireland was at last at peace.

The submissions of the great lords were followed by those of the minor chiefs, each contented to be confirmed in the territory he ruled by Henry’s policy of surrender and regrant, which made him independent of the suffrages of his people, and enabled him to feel behind him the support of English authority.

It was at a Parliament in which, for the first time in history, native princes sat side by side with Anglo-Norman lords that Henry VIII was proclaimed King, instead of Lord, of Ireland. This Parliament met on June 13, 1541, in the presence of the Earls of Ormonde and Desmond (here seated for once together), of Donogh O’Brien, the O’Reilley, and a great company of nobles and ecclesiastics, both Irish and Anglo-Irish; and it was proclaimed, amid universal rejoicings, that “forasmuch as your Majesty had always been the only defender and protector, under God, of this realm, it was most meet that your Majesty and your heirs should from henceforth be named and called King of the same.”

The proclamation was repeated in the Lower House, “where it was likewise passed with no less joy and willing consent,” and it was publicly announced after solemn Mass in St Patrick’s Church in the presence of two thousand persons “with great joy and gladness to all men.”

The contents of the Act were translated into Irish by the Earl of Ormonde, “greatly to the contentation” of the said lords.[19]

Such are the official reports of this important event. St Leger, reporting the proceedings to the King on June 26, declares that he felt “no less comfort than to be risen again from death to life.”

When St Leger left Ireland for the first time in the spring of 1546 it was amid the weeping and lamentation of the people, and the Earls of Desmond, Thomond, and Tyrone promised to see the country defended to the uttermost of their powers until the Deputy’s return. None could be found of better conformity than those Irish lords, and the “honest obedience” of the land warmed the heart of men like Sir Thomas Cusack. “Thanks be to God,” he exclaims, “those who would not be brought under subjection with 10,000 men, cometh to Dublin with a letter, which is no small comfort to every faithful heart to see.”

It was twelve years later, in May 1553, that Cusack, who had become Lord Chancellor in 1551, made the tour round the South of Ireland to which we have already referred. It is interesting to note the actual results of Henry’s pacific policy after the lapse of these twelve years and before the South was again devastated by the Desmond wars. He reports that Munster, under the rule of such lords and captains as be there and of the Earl of Desmond, is in good quiet so that the Justices of the Peace ride their circuit in the counties of Limerick, Cork, and Kerry, being the farthest shires west in Munster, and the sheriffs are obeyed.

“The lords and captains of those countries, as the Earl of Desmond, the Viscount Barry, the Lord Roche, the Lord FitzMorris and divers others [all lords of old English blood], which within few years would not hear speak to obey the law, beeth now in commission with the Justices of the Peace to hear and determine causes. … The Irish captains in those quarters do not stir, but live in such quiet that the English captains at Cork with forty horsemen cause the offenders to stand to right. MacCarthy Mór, who is the most powerful Irishman in Ireland, is now very conformable to good order."

Leinster also he reported to be “in meetly good stay,” the Kavanaghs being weakened and even the O’Byrnes and “such other of Irish sort dwelling in the rest of Leinster being of honest conformity.”

Thomond was quiet since O’Brien had been created earl, and the wild country that lay between Limerick and Tipperary, where a few years before the MacWilliams, O’Mulryans, and other Irishmen of good power were all wild, was now so conformable and well-ordered “that men may pass through the countries at pleasure, quietly, without danger of robbing or other displeasure.”

The same cheerful report of peace and progress comes even from Clanricarde’s country, long wasted by the family quarrels of the Burkes. Where, at the time of Cusack’s first visit, there were not forty ploughs in all the country “but all waste through war,” two hundred ploughs were now at work, and the number was increasing daily. The country was universally inhabited, and people were able to leave their ploughs, irons, and cattle in the fields without fear of their being stolen.[20] Such a report is a remarkable testimony to the beneficial effects of the stability brought about by the new system.

It is the fashion among certain writers to scoff at the idea of any quiet or “good conformity” brought about by English rule, but there is no doubt that many of the large owners of property were heartily weary of the incessant wars which turned their fertile lands into a waste and depleted them of inhabitants, and that they were anxious to bring them under the more regular working of English law.

The Irish in early times never disliked English law, though they strenuously resisted its abuse as a means of repression.

This report was written just before the accession of Queen Mary, twelve years after the declaration of the King’s supremacy. Again, it is often said that the troubles in the Tudor period were caused by the dissatisfaction of the small holders because their rights as tenants were overlooked in the new arrangement under which the chief held directly of the Crown.

Theoretically, indeed, these rights were ignored; they were not, in fact, affected by the new relations between the lord and the Government; for while the lord’s position entered on a new phase, that of the tenant toward his lord remained exactly as heretofore. He received his portion of land and paid his dues in cattle and kind after the submission of the chiefs exactly as he had done before.[21]

Up to the time of the plantations his position with regard to his chief was unaltered in any way. The lot of the tenant in the native parts of the country does not appear to have been at all a happy one. According to Fynes Moryson he paid no regular rents, but the lord exacted from him all that he needed for his spendings and maintenance, “the countrypeople living under the lord’s absolute power as slaves” and having no settled property, for their portions were partitioned among them only for one, two, or three years, so that they had no encouragement to build or improve their holdings.[22]

Certain changes he was conscious of under the new system, of which the most important one to him was that he had no longer any choice in the election of his chief, which was now settled over his head between the Government and the ruling house; and, secondly, that the sheriff made his appearance in the country—a token that chief and tenant alike were henceforth to be ruled by English law. Both these changes, when realized, led to disturbance. The chosen chief might welcome them as signs that his authority would be upheld against all pretenders, but to the clansman they were the symbols of a lost status which he never afterward was able to regain.

Thus, in theory, the individual rights of every clansman passed into the hands of his lord, who now held them under the Crown; but the actual conditions as between the lord and his tenant remained unchanged until the uprooting of all the old native ways came about with the confiscations and replantations after the Desmond and Tyrone wars.

The system of pacification was at this time fairly attempted, and the plans for the settlement of the luxuriant but wasted provinces of Munster and Ulster with English, which had been recommended by successive travellers and considered by successive Viceroys as a possible alternative to the old native rule, were for the moment set aside, to be revived again and carried out with rigour when the experiment of ruling through and with the concurrence and help of the native chiefs and Anglo-Irish lords had proved a failure. The causes of this failure are not far to seek.

Garrett of Kildare was still abroad, a centre round whom the affections of the people twined. The jealousies of the great lords were irrepressible and ready at any moment to break out afresh. But, beyond these local causes of unrest, the determination of the sovereigns to force the recognition of their new claim to be the Head of the Church, which to a Catholic people was sacrilege, and the effort to oblige them to attend Protestant services and accept the revised Book of Common Prayer, aroused widespread discontent, especially when it was accompanied by the destruction of the monasteries and the breaking up of images and relics.

The new causes of disturbance were religious, not political or social. Catholic leagues began to be formed throughout the country, and as the efforts to enforce the tenets of the Reformation grew more vigorous, carrying with them the persecution of priests and friars, the smouldering discontent was ready to burst into a flame.

The closer connexion with Spain and France, both from an educational and political point of view, brought in agents who encouraged and guided the movement, and fanned the growing antagonism to English dictation into a passion.

Yet both the O’Neill rebellion in the North and that of the Geraldines in the South arose out of personal and private quarrels, as we shall see, and might in other circumstances have been easily dealt with.

The union of the North and South made them formidable, and the proclamation of a religious war turned them into a crusade. The work of reconciliation was suddenly to be cast to the winds on both sides. Persecution, rebellion, and plantation were to follow each other in rapid succession, and the whole conditions in Ireland were to be radically changed.