Wentworth in Ireland (2)

Eleanor Hull
Wentworth in Ireland | start of chapter

It is from the remarkable series of Wentworth’s own letters that we learn best his aims and character. From his first appearance among his Council the gauntlet was thrown down. He made no attempt to be conciliatory, and he prepared for the great struggle against the Graces by an attempt to make both the Council and the Parliament subservient to his will. His first demand was that a “voluntary contribution,” made in 1628, early in Charles’s reign, should be continued for another year, to meet the urgent costs of the army and the government. The earlier contribution had been made by the Catholics, but he warns the gentry that on this occasion the appeal would be to Protestants, and he advised them to save themselves by offering the contribution with a request for a Parliament in return. He made them “so horribly afraid that the money should be assessed on their properties that it was something strange to see how instantly they gave consent with all the cheerfulness possible.”

The history of this contribution and of the ‘Graces’ with which it was connected leads us back into the previous reign. Even before the time of James I the experiments in plantations had resulted in a general sense of uncertainty and unrest all over the kingdom. No owner of land, whether he were an Irishman holding by immemorial custom and in complete ignorance of English land laws, or the old settler who now saw his property included in the vast tracts claimed on one excuse or another by the Crown, could any longer feel security for his possessions. In the universal fear of losing all they owned Englishman and Irishman suffered alike.

In Connacht a confiscation had long been threatened and as far back as 1585, when Sir John Perrot was Deputy, the gentlemen of the province had safeguarded their rights by entering into a pact known as the Composition of Connacht, which secured them in their properties. By far the largest landowner was the Lord St Albans and Clanricarde, whose vast estates about Portumna made him practically Lord Palatine over the larger part of Co. Galway.

By some oversight, which it is impossible in the conditions of the time to ascribe simply to forgetfulness, the legal formalities required to make these arrangements binding in law were never carried out. The enrolments were not correctly entered, and though in James’s reign a sum of £3,000 had been paid by the landlords to the King for the completion of their patents, it was found that there were legal flaws in them which permitted the Courts to regard them as a dead letter. It was now proposed to take advantage of these flaws to carry out the general confiscation and replantation of the province.

The new plantations in Ulster, Wexford, and Longford gave urgency to the claims of the Connacht gentlemen to have their rights made clear; and early in Charles’s reign they approached him with a petition embodying their desires. Charles received the representatives graciously. He was intent on making himself independent of his English Parliament, and for this purpose he was anxiously looking elsewhere for the necessary funds to carry on his government. The result of the agreement made between him and the Irish gentry was the confirmation of certain privileges to the Connacht landlords, called ‘Graces,’ in return for a voluntary contribution from them of another sum of money, this time £120,000, to be paid in quarterly instalments spread over three years.

The Graces originally contained fifty-one articles dealing with a number of matters relating to the better government of Ireland, such as the regulation of trade, the excesses of the soldiery and their support, the oppressions of the Court of Wards, the non-residence of landlords, and the maladministration of justice in the courts of law. But the two Graces[10] most eagerly sought after were those clauses concerning the surrender of titles in Connacht and Clare or Thomond, and for the recognition of a sixty years’ title to property, as settled by the Act, 21 Jacobi, but since brought seriously into question.

The first of these Graces demanded the legal enrolment in Chancery of the surrenders of property made under James on the faith of his promise of confirmation of their titles, for which they had so long waited; the second made illegal the ancient and half-imaginary titles of the Crown to lands, such as had been made the excuse for the Wexford and other plantations, and confirmed the present owners in their rights.

A civil oath was substituted for the Oath of Supremacy, which would enable Catholic lawyers again to practise, and in the earlier drafts the fines for non-attendance at Protestant worship were to be withdrawn. It is to be said for Wentworth that he never was in favour of these recusancy fines, willing as he was to lay heavy taxes on the wealthy, whatever their religion; he thought them irritating and not satisfactory in their results.

Even in their amended form the Graces might well have been looked upon as an Irish Petition of Rights which would have satisfied the real needs of the country, and placed all parties on a footing of security. They would have given a moderated but real toleration in religion, fixed ownership in property, and a prospect of justice in the Courts of Law. As such their confirmation was anxiously awaited by the parliament and people.

A Parliament had been promised for November (1628) to confirm these Graces, but by a legal flaw in the writs of summons, which had not obtained the official sanction of the King, as stipulated for by Poynings’ Act, they were declared to be void. In the light of what afterwards occurred it is difficult to believe the omission to have been accidental; it was, in any case, one that could easily have been remedied.

Time drifted on, the Church party taking full advantage of the interim to stir up opposition to the relaxation of the recusancy laws; then came Falkland’s recall and, in 1633, the arrival of Wentworth to succeed him. The new Viceroy had come over with fixed views. He intended to encourage trade and commerce, especially the linen trade, in order by natural means and through the prosperity of the country to raise large funds to make Ireland pay its own way, instead of being a constant source of expense to England; and he intended to proceed with the plantation of Connacht.[11]

For the expediting of the second project he proposed to re-establish the Commission upon Defective Titles, or, in other words, to give full rein to the discovery of flaws in titles to ownership of lands, which had proved so lucrative a means of ousting landowners out of their properties in all parts of the kingdom.

In the carrying out of this second project two obstacles stood in the Viceroy’s way; first, the Graces, designed to put a stop to this very evil which Wentworth now proposed to revive; secondly, the promise of a Parliament, which could hardly be longer ignored, and which was urgently required for the passing of money bills.

Wentworth’s Parliament of 1634 was a study in tactics. It was divided into two parts, the first session for the voting of supplies, the second, which was to be deferred till the autumn, for the consideration of the Graces. As the Deputy put it succinctly to the King:

“The former session for yourself; the latter for the enacting of all such profitable and wholesome laws as a moderate and good people may expect from a wise and gracious King.”

His next step was to balance the parties by the free use of his power as Deputy to name proxies for absentees, and thus to secure a majority of subservient members whom he could sway any way he pleased.

In view of the expected passing of the Graces the parliament met in a conciliatory spirit, and scarcely needed the Deputy’s threat, made in his opening speech, that they must either submit to his Majesty’s demand or “he would find a just occasion of breach, either of which would content the King.” Charles, who had lately expressed his opinion of Parliaments as “that hydra … cunning as well as malicious,"” would have undoubtedly preferred the latter event. Parliament took the hint and passed the grant of six subsidies by a voluntary and unanimous vote.

In the next session the question of the Graces could no longer be deferred. The Commons pointed to the immense gifts and loans amounting to £310,000, raised in the last two years, exclusive of the last large grant, and they pressed in return for the carrying out of the royal promises, and especially the confirmation of their titles. Even the King feared they had “some ground to demand more than it was fit for him to give.”

But the Graces, as transmitted by Wentworth to the King, were accompanied by his recommendations, dividing them into three parts—those not at all to be granted, which he did not even transmit (an exercise of prerogative clearly illegal), those which might well be granted, and those which might be accepted by way of instruction but not passed into law.

Among those “not at all to be transmitted” were the two Graces (Nos. 24 and 25) so anxiously coveted by the gentry of Ireland. The act of perfidy was complete, and the plantation of Connacht ready to proceed. A Commission was sent down to the West, mock courts were set up to secure obedience, and by intimidating juries, inflicting heavy fines on recalcitrant jurors, and the brow-beating of the Deputy himself, who presided at these mock Courts, verdicts were found for the King over the larger part of Connacht.

So successfully did Wentworth cajole the jurors and so patiently did Serjeant Calelin “wipe away” all objections, that in Roscommon, Sligo, and Mayo his Majesty’s title was found “with great freedom and forwardness of affection.”

But in Galway, on Lord Clanricarde’s property, in spite of the example of the other counties and the absence of the Earl in London, men “with great want of understanding” were found who “most obstinately and positively” refused to find for the King. Only a packed jury and fines to the amount of £1000 imposed on the sheriff and of £4000 on each of the jurors, with the still more effective threat of the Star Chamber, brought them to a more pliable state of mind.

The old Earl died suddenly a short time afterwards, and “it was boldly said that the Deputy’s hard usage broke his heart.” Wentworth, who complains that there were none but Irish tenants on the Clanricarde estates, considered that the opportunity ought to be taken to people them with English. But in fact the plans of Wentworth came to naught, and Connacht remained unplanted until the great ‘trek’ into that province of English and Irish together in the days of Cromwell, twenty years later. In 1640 the Deputy, who was created earl of Strafford in this year, was recalled to England.