Poynings' Law (1485-1494)

Patrick Weston Joyce

302. The accession in 1485, of Henry VII., who belonged to the Lancastrians, was the final triumph of that great party.

At this time all the chief state offices in Ireland were held by the Geraldines; but as the new king felt that he could not govern the country without their aid, he made no changes, though he knew well they were all devoted Yorkists. Accordingly the great earl of Kildare, who had been lord deputy for several years, with a short break, was still retained.

303. But the Irish retained their affection for the house of York; and accordingly when the young impostor Lambert Simnel came to Ireland and gave out that he was the Yorkist prince Edward earl of Warwick, he was received with open arms, not only by the deputy, but by almost all the Anglo-Irish: nobles, clergy, and people. But the city of Waterford rejected him and remained steadfast in its loyalty; whence it got the name of Urbs Intacta, the "untarnished city."

304. After a little time an army of 2,000 Germans came to Ireland to support the impostor; and in 1487 he was actually crowned as Edward VI., by the bishop of Meath, in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, in presence of the deputy Kildare, the archbishop of Dublin, and a great concourse of Anglo-Irish nobles, ecclesiastics, and officers. But this foolish business came to a sudden termination when Simnel was defeated and taken prisoner in England. Then Kildare and the others humbly sent to ask pardon of the king; who dreading their power if they were driven to rebellion, took no severer steps than to send over Sir Richard Edgecomb to exact new oaths of allegiance. In the following year the king invited them to a banquet at Greenwich; and one of the waiters who attended them at table was their idolized prince Lambert Simnel.

305. A little later on reports of new plots in Ireland reached the king's ears; whereupon in 1492 he removed Kildare from the office of deputy. These reports were not without foundation, for now a second claimant for the crown, a young Fleming named Perkin Warbeck, landed in Cork in 1492 and announced that he was Richard duke of York, one of the two princes that had been kept in prison by Richard III. And he was at once accepted by the Anglo-Irish citizens of Cork.

It was chiefly the English colonists who were concerned in the episodes of Simnel and Warbeck; the native Irish took little or no interest in either claimant.

306. The king now saw that his Irish subjects were ready to rise in rebellion for the house of York at every opportunity. He came to the resolution, therefore, to lessen their power by destroying the independence of their parliament; and having given Sir Edward Poynings instructions to this effect, he sent him over as deputy.

307. Poynings' first act was to lead an expedition to the north against O'Hanlon and Magennis, who had given shelter to some of the supporters of Warbeck. But he heard a rumour that the earl of Kildare was conspiring with O'Hanlon and Magennis to intercept and destroy himself and his army; and news came also that Kildare's brother had risen in open rebellion and had seized the castle of Carlow. On this Poynings returned south and recovered the castle.

308. He convened a parliament at Drogheda in November, 1494, the memorable parliament in which the act since known as "Poynings' law" was passed. The following are the most important provisions of this law:

1. No parliament was in future to be held in Ireland until the Irish chief governor and privy council had sent the king information of all the acts intended to be passed in it, with a full statement of the reasons why they were required, and until these acts had been approved and permission granted by the king and privy council of England. This single provision is what is popularly known as "Poynings' law."

2. All the laws lately made in England affecting the public weal should hold good in Ireland. This referred only to English laws then existing; it gave no power to the English parliament to make laws for Ireland in the future.

3. The Statute of Kilkenny was revived and confirmed, except the part forbidding the use of the Irish tongue, which could not be carried out, as the language was now used everywhere, even through the English settlements.

4. For the purpose of protecting the settlement, it was made felony to permit enemies or rebels to pass through the marches; and the owners of march lands were obliged to reside on them or send proper deputies on pain of losing their estates.

5. The exaction of coyne and livery was forbidden in any shape or form.

6. Many of the Anglo-Irish families had adopted the Irish war-cries; the use of these was now strictly forbidden.*

In this parliament the earl of Kildare was attainted for high treason, mainly on account of his supposed conspiracy with O'Hanlon to destroy the deputy; in consequence of which he was soon afterwards arrested and sent a prisoner to England.

309. Up to this the Irish parliament had been independent; it was convened by the chief governor whenever and wherever he pleased; and it made its laws without any interference from the parliament of England. Now Poynings' law took away all this power and made the parliament a mere shadow, entirely dependent on the English king and council.

This indeed was of small consequence at the time; for the parliament was only for the Pale, and no native Irishman could sit in it. But when at a later period English law was made to extend over the whole country, and the Irish parliament made laws for all the people of Ireland, then Poynings' law which still remained in force was felt by the people of Ireland to be one of their greatest grievances.

310. During the whole time that this parliament was sitting the Warbeck party were actively at work in the south. But Warbeck had at last to fly; and the rest of his career belongs to English rather than to Irish history. In 1499 he was lunged at Tyburn, with John Walter, mayor of Cork, his chief supporter in that city.

311. A double ditch or wall was at this time built all along on the boundary of the Leinster settlement from sea to sea to keep out the Irish. This little territory was called the Pale; and it remained so circumscribed for many years, but afterwards became enlarged from time to time.

* The war-cry of the O'Neills was Lamh-derg abu, i.e., the Red-hand to victory (lamh, pron. lauv, a hand). That of the O'Briens and Mac Carthys, Lamh-laidir abu, the Strong-hand to victory (laidir, pron. lauder, strong). The Kildare Fitzgeralds took as their cry Crom abu, from the great Geraldine castle of Crom or Croom in Limerick; the earl of Desmond Shanit abu, from the castle of Shanid in Limerick. Most of the other chiefs, both native and Anglo-Irish, had their several cries.