The Tudor Conquest
The rebellion of Silken Thomas provided the English king. Henry VIII, with an opportunity to destroy the Garladine supremacy and extend his authority over the whole island. Whether he planned so complete a conquest as occurred is uncertain, but there were good defensive reasons for subduing Ireland, for it might have been used as a base for Spanish aggression. The English also looked on the neighbouring island as suitable for commercial exploitation, and Irish ‘plantations’ were the forerunner of American colonies.
In October 1534 Sir William Skeffington landed with a large army and installed himself as deputy. Silken Thomas’s stronghold at Maynooth was captured the following March, and those who surrendered were executed for ‘the dread and example of others’. The ‘pardon of Maynooth’, as it was called, proved to be a portent of new levels of violence in Ireland. Silken Thomas himself surrendered in August, and was executed in London in 1537 with five Geraldine uncles. The ninth earl had also died, and of the house of Kildare, only Thomas’s ten-year-old half-brother Gerald remained. Henceforth, for almost four centuries, there would always be an Englishman at the head of the Irish government.
The Gaelic and Old English lords still offered some resistance, however, and a Geraldine league was formed to ensure the survival of the young heir, who was sent to safety in Italy. Henry opted for a peaceful policy of ‘surrender and regrant’, by which the Gaelic and Old English lords pledged allegiance to him and gave up their lands to the crown, receiving them back as feudal grants. The ‘Irish enemies’ and ‘English rebels’ had to accept English laws, language and customs, and to recognise Henry rather than the pope as ‘the only Supreme Head on Earth of the whole Church of Ireland’.
Silken Thomas’s followers had murdered John Alen, Archbishop of Dublin, in 1534. In 1536 he was succeeded by George Browne, to whom Henry VIII entrusted the task of imposing reform on a church little touched by the intellectual ferment of the Protestant Reformation. A ‘Reformation parliament’ met under the new deputy, Lord Grey, and passed acts confirming Henry’s supremacy, making it treason to describe the king as a heretic, and outlawing anyone who supported the pope as head of the Church. Despite opposition from the bishops an act was passed to dissolve the abbeys of Ireland. Outside the pale many monasteries survived, although their lands had been granted to Gaelic and Old English lords. Where monasteries did disappear, they left a gap in social and educational activities which the Established Church seldom filled.
Edward VI was nine years old when he became king in 1547, and power rested with his uncle and Protector’, the Duke of Somerset. An attempt was made to impose the use of the English Book of Common Prayer, but there was widespread resistance to changes in the form of the Mass, and the government was not strong enough to support Archbishop Browne in punitive measures. By this time Henry Viii’s peaceful policies had been supplanted by a more aggressive attitude towards the Gaelic rulers, and the ‘English land’ was being extended by forfeiture of land accompanied by the establishment of new military garrisons.
When Mary Tudor came to the throne in 1553 an attempt was made to reduce the military commitment. land which had been confiscated from the O’mores and O’Conners in counties Laois and Offaly was allocated for plantation by settlers from England or from the Pale, and they were renamed Queen’s County and King’s County. Mary was a devout Catholic and acknowledged the supremacy of the pope, but she continued to nominate the Irish bishops and made no attempt to restore the monasteries.
Queen Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who immediately set about restoring Protestant dominance. An Irish parliament met briefly in 1560, and passed an Act of Supremacy, confirming Elizabeth as head of the Irish church and requiring holders of various offices in Church and State to swear an oath accepting her as such. An Act of Uniformity imposed the new Book of Common Prayer on all clergy, although few people in Ireland understood the English language in which it was written, and church attendance was made compulsory. Although both acts were implemented with discretion, so that there was no substantial religious persecution, resistance to the Protestant religion became a factor in the hostility of Irish and Old English rulers to the Tudor regime.
Ulster was to prove the most difficult province to subdue, but Elizabeth also faced resistance in other parts of the island. In 1569 James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, the able cousin of the fifteenth Earl of Desmond, led an unsuccessful rebellion after an English adventurer called Sir Peter Carew had laid claim to estates belonging to the Fitzgeralds and the Butlers. James then escaped to the continent, and in 1579 returned with a small force of Italians and Spaniards, together with a papal nuncio, to engage in ‘a war for the Catholic religion’. The second Desmond rebellion was also defeated, but this time Munster was laid waste and much of the province was declared forfeit so that it could be planted by English settlers.
When the Spanish Armada was routed in 1588, the surviving galleons sought shelter off the west coast of Ireland, where most were driven ashore or sank in bad weather. those Spaniards who reached dry ground were quickly executed, except in Ulster, which remained largely untouched by Tudor conquest and the attempt to anglicise Ireland. It had become clear, however, that Ulster would have to fight to retain its independence. Hugh O’Neill. Earl of Tyrone, took up the challenge, and was to prove a formidable statesman and soldier. His principal ally was Red Hugh O’Donnell, the ruler of Tyrconnell, whose bitter hatred of the English stemmed from his youthful imprisonment in Dublin as a hostage.
Fighting broke out in 1594, but not until 1598 did O’Neill show his potential strength as a national leader by defeating Sir Henry Bagenal at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in Armagh. In Munster a general uprising swept away the English plantation. Elsewhere a number of Irish rulers rebelled. In 1599 the Earl of Essex arrived in Ireland with a large army, but O’Neill outmanoeuvred him, and Lord Mountjoy assumed command in the following year. Mountjoy set about garrisoning the country and used his troops to destroy O’Neill’s food supplies and communications. O’Neill sought help from Spain, but the Spanish army landed in 1601 at Kinsale in the south. O’Neill and O’Donnell marched to join the invaders, but were heavily defeated in unfamiliar country. O’Donnellsailed to Spain, where he died soon afterwards, but O’Neill continued the war. One by one the Gaelic rulers yielded, and in 1603 O’Neill himself signed the Treaty of Mellifont. Queen Elizabeth had died a few days before his surrender, and James I did not impose a harsh settlement. However, there was no doubt that the Tudor conquest was now complete and that the old Gaelic society doomed.