Magnates 14th Century

The central government attempted to extract formal submission from local lords on an ad hoc basis. Jurisdiction was exercised indirectly over individual lords to the extent practicable. Indentures sought an act of royalty to the King as overlord an undertaking to abide by the King’s peace and an agreement to render some modest tribute, generally military service.

These arrangements did not limit the lord’s sovereignty within his own lordship in a significant way. The undertaking of the lord to be on the King’s peace guaranteed a peaceful relationship between the crown and the lordship and implied an obligation on the part of the lord and responsibility for the behaviour of his followers.

In effect there was a dual government. The English law acknowledged that the subjects of the non-feudal lords, i.e. the Gaelic lords, were effectively beyond their jurisdiction.

The Pale

The 15th century saw the establishment of a Pale within the colonial area. The crown government confined its administration to the four shires in the hinterland of Dublin. Legislation continued to apply to the area of Englishry as a whole and the government aspired to exercise control over that area.

From the perspective of Crown government, the Irish areas were beyond the law. Within those areas the feudal system was not accepted including that in relation to succession in property. Titles were validated in accordance with Gaelic law and custom. Within the Irish areas there were no centralised institutions of government. There was a common cultural heritage and social institutions.

Gaelic Structures

The concept of high kingship had been established at the beginning of the second millennium but was arrested by the Anglo-Norman invasion. In practice the system remained based locally and local dynasties. The lord took responsibility for the internal peace and security of the lordship.

The Gaelic political structure was based on territorial units. To some extent, the organisation was tribal rather than territorial. There was a pattern of personal political relationships. There were lordships in which powerful dynasties might be central. The power position shifted and the relationship of overlord and lesser-lord depended on military strength from time to time.

The Gaelic structure was dynastic in nature. During the 14th and 15th century both the Gaelic and feudal systems underwent a parallel development which strengthened the power of the great magnet.

Old English and Gaelic Ireland

The Gaelicization of the older Anglo-Irish lords is a theme of this era. The expression, becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves has been employed. The great Anglo-Irish lords, Desmond, Ormond and Kildare adopted significant elements of the Gaelic system.

The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords organised themselves within their own lordships to be as self-sufficient and autonomous as possible. In return, the lord offered protection to his people and their leaders.

The Dublin administration feared the annexation of the Pale shires in the same way as the outlining shires into the adjoining earldoms. From the perspective of the Pale, the four shires of the Pale were now surrounded by Gaelic septs, since the magnates had taken over control of the defence and military organisation of their area.

Many Anglo-Irish magnets made alliances with Gaelic lords and in the eyes of the Dublin administration disregarded their loyalty to the Crown. In practice there was a high degree of social, cultural and economic links between the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish population.

Magnates 15th Century

In official writings there emerged a distinction between the King’s faithful subjects and the disobedient Irishry. The administration in the Pale sought methods and means to restore greater loyalty to the Crown.

Proposals in the 15th century included the curtailment of magnate power, in particular the exploitation of the use of the office of Lord Deputy. Proposals that  the defensive burden was to be borne by landowners of the locality rather than the great lords of the region, elimination of retinues maintained by the Lord Deputy and magnates, prescriptions of a social character for the maintenance of law and order and control of relationship with Gaelic borderers.

The Pale administration opposed the practice of appointing the local magnate to head the government in Ireland. They favoured an English head of government. Proposals were made to extend the colonial boundaries to strengthen it at strategic points including the recovery of some mountainous areas from Gaelic lords. There were more ambitious programs to extend the western border to the Shannon.

Attempts to Limit Magnates

There were proposals to bring the magnates under the Crown while not necessarily dispossessing them. The proposals involved permanently dividing their lands into individual freeholds under English tenure instead of the Gaelic systems if corporate ownership with the individual use of a life interest only and consequent re-division of holdings at death.

They would be required to relinquish their right to levy exactions from their tenant for the maintenance of military retinues and to disperse their bands of gallowglasses and Kerns, putting them to farming and labour. The proposal was that of reformed Gaelic landowning class would live side by side with the new English gentry class providing a strong influence in favour of loyalty, order and agricultural enterprise rather than military prowess.

As an alternative, if the inhabitants refused to accept reform, it was proposed that the magnate be unseated and replaced with loyal landowners on their traditional lands. A more radical alternative was proposed but dismissed as impracticable, as the expulsion of the entire Gaelic population and planting of a new community.

It was claimed that the magnates placed undue onus on their population by the practice of billeting their private armies. This reform view saw the King as owing a duty to all his subject, not simply for the benefit of the lords.

A constabulary system was to apply along the Anglo-Norman model. The network of royal towns and castles first built by the Anglo-Normans settlers were to be reconstructed and placed under the charge of constables upon whom the government of the area would devolve. Castles and towns would provide a refuge for peaceful inhabitants in times of attack.

The reform entailed the notion that the Gaelic and Gaelicised areas would be assimilated into the colonial area. Over time the great Irish lords are to receive noble status and titles of inheritance under royal patent and to enjoy all the prerogatives of the King’s parliament as other lords did. Lesser lords would receive a knighthood assimilating them to the colonial gentry class.

They would attend parliament and participate in the administration of justice as justices of the peace in their locality. The assimilated lords were to send their heirs to school in one of the Anglo-Irish towns to read, write and speak English, and learn the manners of Englishmen.

Henry VII & Poynings Law

King Henry VII sought to curb the possibility of Ireland being used as a springboard for English pretenders to the throne in the aftermath of the War of the Roses. The Earl of Kildare was ousted as Lord Deputy arrested and detained for treason. It was sought to prevent the exploitation of government institutions for subversive purposes. An Acts of parliament provided that all government offices were held at king’s pleasure. This was designed to break to kill their monopoly on office.

Parliament was pressed into enacting legislation, formally establishing the subordination of the Irish parliament. The infamous Ponying’s’ law withdrew the power of initiating legislation from parliament in Ireland to the Irish council which in turn required approval under the English Great Seal.

In towns, traders sought the requisite economic and political stability required for trade. They had close contacts with the major trading centres in the south of England and the continent.

Revival of Kildare Power

Kildare was reinstated as lord deputy in 1496 largely for economic reasons and the pattern of development followed the trend of the previous two centuries for the next twenty years. The Earldom of Desmond drifted from control of the crown government. Some Gaelic overlords sought an continental overlord as an alternative to the English king.

In the early 16th century the Earl of Kildare was Lord Deputy and his family, the Kildares virtually held the office as of right. The three major Earldoms were Kildare, Ormond and Desmond and the virtually defunct Earldom of Ulster. By that stage they had been transferred into self-contained lordships that were autonomous for military tax and judicial purposes. They had absorbed adjoining shires in the process.

The old English had withdrawn from the Earldom and its adjoining shires. The inheritances had passed to English absentees and had been taken over by Gaelic and in some cases technically unlawful Anglo-Irish encroachers, who did not accept the jurisdiction of the Crown

Henry VIII Initiatives

Henry VIII sent a military and administrative expedition to Ireland led by the Earl of Surrey to devise how Ireland might be reduced and restored to good order and obedience. Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, later Duke of Norfolk was a central figure in English politics.

He took the title of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland rather than Lord Deputy. A two-year stint cost substantial money without making any substantial impact politically, economically or administratively.

Although the expedition was unsuccessful, it marked the commencement of what is now regarded as early modern history. It commenced correspondence between the King and Lord Lieutenant on a matter of Irish policy on the eve of the Tudor conquest.

The campaign sought to construct a framework for the conduct of Crown government on the basis mentioned above. It involved military and diplomatic activity seeking to reconcile the feudal system magnates to the Crown and each other and to extract submissions from the Gaelic lords.

New Relationship

The new departure proposed a model in which all inhabitants of the Ireland would form a single community of obedient subjects and the government of the Ireland would be conducted under the jurisdiction of the Crown. The earlier concept of co-obedience of existence and disobedient communities with the Crown’s overlordship and a dual system of government was dropped. In effect this made the subjugation of the whole Ireland an objective of policy.

A key element was the acceptance of the Crown’s rights in the area of title to land and judicial jurisdiction. A special legal code for adapting Gaelic and English practice was envisaged.

Some Anglo-Norman feudal holdings had reverted to the Crown by feudal inheritance by reason of the failure of the male line but were taken over by expanding Gaelic areas. King Henry VIII made it clear he would hold out for the rights of the Crown, which would have entailed surrender of large parts of the territories of powerful Gaelic families. Surrey became convinced that the only way to secure the subjugation of Ireland was by conquest.

After the end of Surrey’s mission, the most economical course was found to be to appoint the Butlers of Ormond as Lord Lieutenant. However, for practical and political reasons, the Earl of Kildare was allowed to return to Ireland. He had been detained during Surrey’s administration, but in 1524 was reappointed lord deputy with Ormond as treasurer.

In 1527 Henry VIII appointed his illegitimate son Richmond as Lord Lieutenant in absentia and delegated his authority to a Secret Council of Tree. Following a number of other iterations Kildare was restored again as Lord Deputy in 1532.

At the same time Thomas Cromwell rapidly rose to prominence and a new phase in political reformation in Ireland began. This ultimately involved displacement of the Kildares and other Irish magnates as lord deputies with English appointees. After the Fitzgerald/Kildare rebellion their lands were forfeited. Although many of the rebels were pardoned, they were greatly weakened.


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