Tudor conquest of Ireland

Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I, sets out from Dublin Castle. Detail from a plate in The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick (London, 1581).[1]

The Tudor conquest (or reconquest) of Ireland took place under the Tudor dynasty, which held the Kingdom of England during the 16th century. Following a failed rebellion against the crown by Silken Thomas, the Earl of Kildare, in the 1530s, Henry VIII was declared King of Ireland by statute of the Parliament of Ireland, with the aim of restoring such central authority as had been lost throughout the country during the previous two centuries.

By conciliation and repression the conquest continued for sixty years, until 1603, when the entire country came under the nominal control of James I, exercised through his privy council at Dublin. This control was increased after the Flight of the Earls in 1607.

The conquest was complicated by the imposition of English law, language and culture, as well as by the extension of Anglicanism as the state religion. The Spanish Empire intervened several times at the height of the Anglo-Spanish War, and the Irish found themselves caught between their widespread acceptance of Papal authority and the requirements of allegiance demanded of them by the English monarchy.

Upon completion of the conquest, the polity of Gaelic Ireland had been largely destroyed and the Spanish were no longer willing to intervene directly. This left the way clear for extensive confiscation of land by English, Scots, and Welsh colonists, culminating in the Plantation of Ulster.

Ireland in 1500

Ireland in 1500 was shaped by the Norman conquest, initiated by Anglo-Norman barons in the 12th century. Many of the native Gaelic Irish had been expelled from various parts of the country (mainly the east and southeast) and replaced with English peasants and labourers. A large area on the east coast, extending from the Wicklow Mountains in the south to Dundalk in the north (covering parts of modern counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Kildare, Offaly and Laois), became known as the Pale. Protected along much of its length by a ditch and rampart, the Pale was a defended area in which English language and culture predominated and where English law was enforced by a government in Dublin.

The Gaelic Irish were, for the most part, outside English jurisdiction, maintaining their own language, social system, customs and laws. The English referred to them as "His Majesty's Irish enemies". In legal terms, they had never been admitted as subjects of the Crown. Ireland was not formally a realm, but rather a lordship; the title was assumed by the English monarch upon coronation. The rise of Gaelic influence resulted in the passing in 1366 of the Statutes of Kilkenny, which outlawed many social practices that had been developing apace (e.g. intermarriage, use of the Irish language and Irish dress). In the 15th century the Dublin government remained weak, owing principally to the Wars of the Roses.

Beyond the Pale, the authority of the Dublin government was tenuous. The Hiberno-Norman lords had been able to carve out fiefdoms for themselves but not to settle them with English tenants. As a result, in the 14th and 15th centuries, in the wake of Irish rebellion, Scottish invasion, the Black Death and a lack of interest on the part of the London government, the territories controlled by those lords achieved a high degree of independence. The Butlers, Fitzgeralds and Burkes raised their own armed forces, enforced their own law, and adopted Gaelic language and culture.

Beyond those territories large areas of land previously held by authority of the English crown were taken by the resurgent Gaelic Irish, particularly in the north and midlands. Among the most important septs were the O'Neills (Uí Néill) in central Ulster (Tir Eoghain)—flanked to their west by the O'Donnells—the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles in County Wicklow, the Kavanaghs in County Wexford, the MacCarthys and O'Sullivans in County Cork and County Kerry and the O'Brien (Ó Briain) lordship of Thomond in County Clare.

Henry VIII

By 1500, English monarchs had delegated government of Ireland to the most powerful of the Hiberno-Norman dynasties (the FitzGeralds of Kildare) to keep the costs of running Ireland down and to protect the Pale. The King's Lord Deputy of Ireland was chief of the administration, based in Dublin Castle, but maintained no formal court and had a limited privy purse. In 1495 laws were passed during Poynings' parliament that imposed English statute law wholesale upon the lordship and compromised the independence of the Irish parliament.

The head of the Kildare FitzGeralds held the position of lord deputy until 1534. The problem was that the House of Kildare had become unreliable for the English monarch, scheming with Yorkist pretenders to the English throne, signing private treaties with foreign powers, and finally rebelling after the head of its hereditary rivals, the Butlers of Ormonde, was awarded the position of Lord Deputy. The Reformation also led to growing tension between England and Ireland as Protestantism gained sway within England. Thomas, Earl of Kildare, a fervent Catholic, offered control of Ireland to both the Pope and Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry put down the rebellion by executing the leader ("Silken Thomas" FitzGerald), along with several of his uncles, and imprisoned Gearoid Og, the head of the family. But now the king had to find a replacement for the FitzGeralds to keep Ireland quiet. What was needed was a cost-effective new policy that protected the Pale and guaranteed the safety of England's vulnerable west flank from foreign invasion.

With the assistance of Thomas Cromwell, the king implemented the policy of surrender and regrant. This extended Royal protection to all of Ireland's elite without regard to ethnicity; in return the whole country was expected to obey the law of the central government; and all Irish lords were to officially surrender their lands to the Crown, and to receive them back in return by Royal Charter. The keystone to the reform was in a statute passed by the Irish parliament in 1541, whereby the lordship was converted to the Kingdom of Ireland. Overall, the intention was to assimilate the Gaelic and Gaelicised upper classes and develop a loyalty on their part to the new crown; to this end, they were granted English titles and for the first time admitted to the Irish parliament. One of the more important was the earldom of Tyrone, which was created for the Uí Néill dynasty in 1542. In a felicitous phrase, the king summed up his efforts at reform as "politic drifts and amiable persuasions".

In practice, lords around Ireland accepted their new privileges but carried on as they had before. For the Irish Lordships the English monarch was but another overlord similar to that found in the Gaelic system. It was however the Tudors' increasing encroachment upon their local autonomy by the development of a centralised state that was to bring the English system into direct conflict with the Gaelic Irish one. Henry's religious Reformation—although not as thorough as in England—caused disquiet; his Lord Deputy, Anthony St Leger, was largely able to buy off opposition by granting lands confiscated from the monasteries to Irish nobles.


After the king's death, successive Lord Deputies of Ireland found that actually establishing the rule of the central government was far more difficult than merely securing the lords' pledges of allegiance. Successive rebellions broke out, the first in Leinster in the 1550s, when the O'Moore and O'Connor clans were displaced to make way for the Plantation of Queen's County and King's County (named for Mary I of England and Philip II of Spain; modern counties Laois and Offaly). In the 1560s, English attempts to interfere in a succession dispute within the O'Neill sept, or clan, sparked a long war between Lord Deputy Sussex, and Shane O'Neill. Irish lordships continued to fight private wars against each other, ignoring the government in Dublin and its laws. Two examples of this are the Battle of Affane in 1565, fought between the Ormonde and Desmond dynasties, and the Battle of Farsetmore in 1567, fought between the O'Donnells and O'Neills. Elsewhere, clans such as the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles continued raiding the Pale as they had always done. The most serious violence of all occurred in Munster in the 1560s, '70s, and '80s, when the Fitzgeralds of Desmond launched the Desmond Rebellions to prevent direct English influence into their territory. After a particularly brutal campaign in which up to a third of the population of the province was reported to have died, the rebellion was finally ended when the Earl of Desmond was killed in 1583.

There were two main reasons for the chronic violence that dogged the central government in Ireland. The first was some of the aggressive acts of the English administrators and soldiers. In many instances, garrisons or "seneschals" disregarded the law and killed local chiefs and lords. In other cases, it was the seizure of native-owned land that provoked rebellions.

The second cause of violence was the incompatibility of Gaelic Irish society with English law and central government. In Irish custom, the chief of a "sept" or clan was elected from a small noble lineage group called a derbfine. This often caused violence between rival candidates. However, under Henry VIII's settlement, succession was, as was the English custom, by inheritance of the first-born son, or primogeniture, which was intended to result in fewer disputes over inheritance but also in an increasing reduction in the distribution of landed wealth. Imposing this law forced the English to take sides in violent disputes within Irish lordships. Finally, important sections of Irish society had a vested interest in opposing the English presence. These included the mercenary class or gallowglass and Irish poets or file – both of whom faced having their source of income and status abolished in an English-ruled Ireland.


Multilingual phrase book compiled by Sir Christopher Nugent for Elizabeth I of England.

Under Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, the English in Ireland tried a number of solutions to pacify the country. The first such initiative used martial government, whereby violent areas such as the Wicklow Mountains were garrisoned by small numbers of English troops under commanders called seneschalls. The seneschal was given powers of martial law, which allowed execution without trial by jury. Every person within the seneschal's area of authority had to be vouched for by the local lord—"masterless men" were liable to be killed. In this way, it was hoped that the Irish lords would prevent raiding by their own followers. However, in practice, this simply antagonised the native chieftains.

The failure of this policy prompted the English to come up with more long-term solutions to pacify and Anglicise Ireland. One was composition, where private armed forces were abolished, and provinces were occupied by English troops under the command of governors, titled Lords President. In return, the pre-eminent septs and lords were exempted from taxation and had their entitlements to rents from subordinate families and their tenants put on a statutory basis. The imposition of this settlement was marked by bitter violence, particularly in Connacht, where the MacWilliam Burkes fought a local war against the English Provincial President, Sir Richard Bingham, and his subordinate, Nicholas Malby. In Munster the interference of the Lord President was one of the major causes of the Desmond Rebellions. However, this method was successful in some areas, notably in Thomond, where it was supported by the ruling O'Brien dynasty. Composition merged into the policy of surrender and regrant.

The second long-term solution was Plantations, in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown. Plantation had been started in the 1550s in Laois and Offaly, the former being shired by Queen Mary as "Queen's County", and again in the 1570s in Antrim, both times with limited success. In the 1590s, after the Desmond Rebellions, parts of Munster were populated with English in the plantation of that province, but the project was half-hearted and ran into legal difficulties when Irish landowners chose to sue; the largest grant of lands was made to Sir Walter Raleigh, but he never really made a success of it and sold out to Sir Richard Boyle, who later became Earl of Cork and the wealthiest subject of the early Stuart monarchs.

After a neutral period in 1558–70, Pope Pius V declared Elizabeth a heretic in his 1570 papal bull Regnans in Excelsis. This complicated the conquest further, as her authority to rule was denied and her officials were considered by observant Roman Catholics to be acting unlawfully. Most Irish people of all ranks remained Catholic and the bull gave Protestant administrators a new reason to expedite the conquest. The Second Desmond Rebellion in 1579–83 was assisted by hundreds of papal troops. Religion had become a new marker of loyalty to the administration.

The prospect of land confiscation further alienated the Irish. But the alienation wasn't confined to the Gaelic Irish: those who claimed descent from the original conquerors under Henry II were increasingly referred to as the "Old English", to distinguish them from the many administrators, captains and planters (the New English) who were arriving in Ireland. And it was mostly amongst this Old English community that fervent commitment to Catholicism was gaining ground.


Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone

The crisis point of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland came when the English authorities tried to extend their authority over Ulster and Hugh O'Neill, the most powerful Irish lord in Ireland. Initially it appeared that O'Neill supported a minor action against the Maguire clan that had ruled County Fermanagh. Then in 1595 O'Neill joined the rebel side in the Nine Years War, which was mainly conducted in Ulster; instead of seeking to bring English authority to terms he was hoping to end it altogether. In wider European terms, it was a part of the Anglo-Spanish war that ran from 1585 to 1604. O'Neill enlisted the help of a minority of lords throughout Ireland, and his most significant support came from the Spanish, whose king, Philip III of Spain, sent an invasion force, only to see it surrender after a winter siege at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Outside Kinsale, O'Neill's own army was defeated. In early 1603 the war ended, and thereafter crown authority was gradually established throughout Ireland. O'Neill and his allies were treated relatively generously, considering the cost of the rebellion, and were regranted their titles and most of their lands. Unable to live with more restrictive conditions, they left Ireland in 1607 in the Flight of the Earls, their lands in Ulster were confiscated, and thereafter great numbers from all over Britain were encouraged to move there in the Plantation of Ulster.

As plantation policy expanded to outlying districts including Sligo, Fermanagh, and Monaghan the English occupation of Ireland grew increasingly militaristic. The Counter-Reformation created an environment of anti-Protestantism within the native population which hindered English influence and led to a massive uprising ending in 1603. It became increasingly clear that the only profitable gain from its recent subjugation of Ireland was the land it yielded. Tens of thousands of Protestants, mainly Scots, were emigrated to Antrim and Ulster, replacing the Irish residents.


The first and most important result of the conquest was the disarmament of the native Irish lordships and the establishment of central government control for the first time over the whole island; Irish culture, law and language were replaced; and many Irish lords lost their lands and hereditary authority. Thousands of English, Scottish and Welsh settlers were introduced into the country and the administration of justice was enforced according to English common law and statutes of the Parliament of Ireland.

As the 16th century progressed, the religious question grew in significance. Rebels such as James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald and Hugh O'Neill sought and received help from Catholic powers in Europe, justifying their actions on religious grounds. However, the Pale community and many Irish lords did not consider them to be genuinely religiously motivated. In the new century, the country would become polarised between Catholics and Protestants, especially after the planting of a large population of English into Ireland and Scots Presbyterians in Ulster (See Plantation of Ulster).

Under James I, Catholics were barred from all public office after the gunpowder plot was discovered in 1605; the Gaelic Irish and Old English increasingly defined themselves as Catholic in opposition to the Protestant New English. However the native Irish (both Gaelic and Old English) remained the majority landowners in the country until after the Irish Rebellion of 1641. By the end of the resulting Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the 1650s, the "New English" Protestants dominated the country, and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 their descendants went on to form the Protestant Ascendancy.

See also


  1. Black, Jeremy (2004). The British Seaborne Empire. Yale University Press. pp. 32–34.
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