Tudor Parliaments

Poynings’ Law curtailed parliament’s judicial role.  Parliament met rarely and began to resemble its English counterpart.  During the Tudor monarchy (1485-1603) fifteen parliaments only were called in Ireland, each of relatively short duration.  Only three were summoned by Elizabeth in Ireland in her 45-year reign.

The famous parliament of 1540 to 1541 which declared Henry the King of Ireland contained Anglo-Irish magnets and many of the Gaelic Lords who had accepted the policy of surrender and re-grant.

Sir Anthony St.  Ledger who was Lord Deputy of Ireland for most of the time between 1540 and 1556 envisaged a more powerful Irish parliament with the Commonwealth state linked to the English Crown.  This would assert the authority of the King in Ireland, in particular over the Gaelic Lords.  It sought to accommodate the Gaelic Lords under the policy of surrender and re-grant.

However, this relatively liberal approach was not ultimately seen through and the process of surrender and re-grant was never completed.  Only a handful of Gaelic Lords subscribed, ultimately.  The latter half of the 16th century saw a stronger handed approach of conquest and colonisation.  Parliament ceased to function entirely.

Stuart Parliaments

The government was not inclined to undertake the military cost of complete conquest until the end of the 16th Century.  Ultimately, however, the nine years war, the so-called Earl of Tyrone’s rebellion led to the breaking of the Gaelic and Old English power and an established church judiciary.

1603 marked the end of the nine-year war and the final assertion of the new powerful Tudor monarchy over the whole of Ireland.  Ironically, this occurred days after the death of the last Tudor monarch and the passing of the Crown to King of Scotland James VI.  There shortly followed in the early 17th century the so-called fight of the Earls and the first Ulster plantation. At the same time, the common law was employed as an instrument to assert English law over the whole of Ireland.

Parliaments met rarely in the 16th and 17th century.  The assertion of a powerful monarchy by the Stuart  Kings in the 17th century led to major conflicts with the English parliament in the 1640s and 1680s which ultimately asserted the power of parliament over the King.  The first 40 years of the 17th century saw the Stuart monarchs asserting the all powerful monarchy developed by the Tudors with minimal parliamentary involvement.

Parliamentary Functions

Parliament’s principal function was to raise taxes.  Parliaments were convoked and dissolved as and when the King required them.  The motivation was generally financial.

Parliament had the power to pass statutes.  However, the common law had a much greater influence in the 16th and 17th century in developing everyday substantive law than did parliament.  Parliament interventions were often occasional and on narrow particular points.  substantive civil law was largely judge made.

The parliament did enact revolutionary change in some areas, in particular in the ecclesiastical  sphere in 16th century English.  England is included in particular the creation of the established church.

The Irish Parliament had a quasi-judicial role in the medieval era.  This revived particularly in the late 15th century.  The Parliament heard petitions on matters where the courts offered little remedy or were powerless to enforce remedies.

Parliament’s judicial and administrative role devolved to the Council with the aid of the Chancery Department.

Judges Resolutions

The judges had a unique position in defining law and in particular, the principles of the constitutional law in Ireland.  Judicial resolutions by an assembly of judges declared the law on occasions, binding in all subsequent cases.  These collective resolutions were not undertaken in the context of specific cases.  They were effectively taken extra judicially.

They reflected the then practice in England and operated in a quasi-legislative manner.  The authority given to extrajudicial resolutions was very high in view of being the collective opinion of judges.

In Ireland, these resolutions in the absence of parliament, even where motivated by the political opinions of the judges had a powerful effect in asserting the common-law through Ireland.  In particular, the judges sought to assert common law over traditional Gaelic law.

Most pointedly, in the case of land tenure, the Irish customs of succession and landholding were declared void.  The famous Case of Tanistry  in 1608 involved a dispute between two Gaelic families in Cork.  One party took a claim as taniste or heir apparent in relation to the lands that had been surrendered and the subject of a new grant from the Crown. The common law was enforced over the Gaelic law rules which were not accepted as a binding custom.

In Ulster, a number of prominent cases voided titles that were obstacles to the Ulster plantation. A number of judicial resolutions also maintained the crown right to raise revenue in certain case where it had been the subject of doubt and dispute.

The autonomy of towns was undermined by judicial resolutions which enforced religious conformity by extending English penal laws passed by Elizabethan parliaments to Ireland by proclamation, elimination of liberties to create collect custom revenue and resolutions affecting the national currency.  These cases validated a crown right to Irish customs duties and were employed against all port towns.

The currency had been debased during the nine years war and merchants refused to accept the debased currency.  However, judicial resolution required a one-to-one acceptance of the old sterling and newly amended debased currency.  This effectively involved the repudiation of war debt by its payment in the debased currency.  The cases involved, in effect, a radical assertion of crown sovereignty within Ireland.

Similarly, in Munster, the judiciary supported the plantation.  The Earl of Desmond’s freehold tenants argued that his attainder did not hold good against them and that it should be limited to his demesne lands.  However, the judges determined that an English statute on the matter had not been extended to Ireland and validated the grants to be undertakers.


Revenues were raised from a variety of sources.  Customs were collected by exchequer and varied in efficiency.  They were levied at the principal ports.  Some were farmed out to officials at fixed sums. Crown lands and fee farm rents were worth periodic values.  Certain manors of the Crown and other lands were let and yielded rent.

Income also arose  from judicial fines and fees etc. Certain feudal dues including fines for homage, livery of lands,  reliefs, wardship and escheats  raised revenue.  The Statute of Uses was extended to Ireland in 1634 to prevent the evasion of feudal dues, but quickly became redundant.

The principal outlay of costs were defence and the salaries of officials.  The exchequer had primacy in finance.  It accounted for revenue and expenditure.

After the Kildare rebellion and the increased presence of English administrators, government sought significant increases in taxation to meet the  deficit between expenditure and income.  Various levies and taxations were levied by Parliament from time to time.  They included levies and duties on goods and offices.

Purveyance or cess was levied for the provision of  governor’s household and retinue.  Military service was a duty on able-bodied men between 16 and 60.  Service could be compelled without payment for periods per year or a fine in lieu.

Commutation of the duties represented a substantial form of income for the government.  Purveyance involved the transfer of agricultural products for the provisioning of military installations and garrisons.

In effect, through these mechanisms, the administration achieved more in the way of income than was granted by Parliament.  Parliament grudgingly gave consent but frequently refused financial bills.  Parliament sat only four times in the 70 years between 1543 and 1613.


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