The late 1530s is said to mark the end of the medieval and commencement of the modern phase of Irish (and European) history.  In 1534, Fitzgerald’s of the Kildare who had monopolised the role of Lord Deputy for over a half a century rebelled were defeated, attainted and tried for treason.

It marked the end of a continuous line of Irish born Lord Deputies and commenced an unbroken line of English Lord Deputies, which lasted for centuries.  It led to a significant increase in the English army in Ireland, and ultimately to a concerted attempt by King Henry VIII to assert control over the whole of the Ireland.  This culminated in him being crowned King of Ireland in 1541.

The period coincides with the renaissance and reformation and the opening of the Americas to trade and immigration.  It marked a more powerful monarchy culminating the reformation. The reformation arose from the English crown’s need to assert royal ecclesiastical supremacy.  Loyalty to the Pope, a foreign prince or overlord came to be seen as incompatible with loyalty to the King.

Henry VIII King of Ireland

The King was proclaimed by the Irish Parliament as King of Ireland on 18th June 1541.  Sovereignty was affirmed on a hereditary basis. The  kingdom was not separate but of this land as united, annexed and knit forever to the imperial crown of the realm of England.

In constitutional terms, it was asserted that the Gaelic Irish were no longer beyond the law.  The general policy against Irish dress, laws and customs remained.   Irish Chiefs sat in Parliament in a number of sessions bearing witness to the success of the Lord Deputy St Leger’s policies.

The policy of surrender and re-grant of lordships involved surrender of the Gaelic chief’s estates and possessions to the King in return for a re-grant acknowledging him as the lord.  This was intended to anglicise the Irish nobility.  The Earl of Desmond was reconciled to the crown and O’Neill was made Earl of Tyrone and O’Brien Earl of Thomond.

Religious Reformation

The Irish Act of Royal Supremacy declared the King and the successor, the supreme head on earth of the Church of Ireland, Hibernica Ecclesia. The  Church of Ireland is not a separate entity to the Church in England.  The reforms shifted the centre of administration and authority from Dublin to London.  It transferred the Dublin administration as  a regional government/council.

The Irish Reformation Parliament of 1534 passed legislation dealing with the religious reformation. The Parliament produced 42 statutes in two years.  This exceeded the 25 statutes enacted in the previous 40 years.    A campaign for the dissolution of the religious orders commenced and was pursued.

 The rejection of Papal jurisdiction involved the establishment of ecclesiastical machinery under the crown.  Bills were prepared for the Irish parliament to enact the relevant machinery to match that in England.  That appellate jurisdiction of papal realm was replaced with appellate jurisdiction to London.

Kildare’s Rebellion

The indentures entered with Ossory /Ormond obliged the Earl to resist papal jurisdiction within his area,It was clear that it had been intended to cause Kildare to subscribe to an indenture along the same lines as Ossory.

The strength of the Kildare and alliances in court encouraged him to resist.   In February 1534, Kildare was summoned to London to answer accusations of disloyalty and appointed his son his Deputy.  He was then charged with offences and refused leave to return.  He died of natural causes in 1535 and Sir William Skeffington was named Lord Deputy.

The Earl of Kildare’s son and deputy Silken Thomas FitzGerald was given information, that there was a commission to arrest him and his relatives and that they were to be tried and executed.

He declared an open rebellion before the Irish Council denouncing the King as heretic and appealing to Irish men to abandon their loyalty to the King.  Implicit in this  declaration was that Ireland was a demesne of England granted by the Pope and that  Henry’s excommunication, ceased.

Suppression of Rebellion and Consequences

The Lord Deputy Skeffington  put down the rebellion with a large force. The Geraldine  stronghold of Maynooth was captured and the rebellion  ended.  In 1537 the Earl of KIldare and five leading members of the FitzGerald family were executed for treason.  After the Kildare rebellion, leadership amongst the Anglo-Irish magnets passed back to Piers Butler, Earl of Ossory.

Control in Parliament passed to a new Anglo-Irish group who were determined to reverse the diminution in colonial rule over the previous two centuries.  Old laws were reinforced including the Statutes of Kilkenny and laws prohibiting use of the Irish language and dress.  Lord Deputyship was kept firmly in the hands of English appointees.

The Kildare rebellion was a symptom of this new more assertive monarchy.  The Kildare rebellion was a result of the crown’s new more intense involvement in Ireland and not as sometimes portrayed its cause. It was clear that the first target of the proposed reforms was the Kildare Earldom.  The recently established liberty of Kildare was abolished.

International Context

The Kildare rebellion occurred in a period of high tension between Henry VIII and Emperor Charles V.  The Kings divorce from the Emperor’s  aunt Catherine of Aragon had asserted royal ecclesiastical supremacy. The Pope secured a ten- year truce between the Spanish Empire and French King and a bull of ex-communication was prepared against Henry VIII.

The Emperor did not contemplate using Ireland as a steppingstone to invade England.  Rather, he saw it in terms of nuisance value. Deputations from Kildare to the Spanish King while were received with courtesy did not meet with any substantial tangible assistance.

The developments in Ireland paralleled an assertion of authority by the crown in Wales and Calais.  The Council of the North in England which enjoyed a measure of autonomy was substantially reorganised.  This reflected a principle of a unitary sovereign. A permanent English garrison was established, which should be primarily responsible for the defence of the crown government.

Attainder and Forfeitures

The Attainder of the Earl of Kildare Act 1536 was passed to permit his execution and the confiscation of his property.  The Earldom and liberty of Wexford was confiscated.

The rebels’ property was confiscated, and compensation was demanded of their Gaelic allies. A special commission in 1537  prohibited Brehon law and Gaelic exactions and procure that the levy of crown taxes in the Kildare lands.

Restoration of Crown Government

The desire for change arose from a powerful source in the English administration, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell set about implementing the King’s agenda of reviving crown government in Ireland.

There were significant reforms in central government.  The revenue department, the  Treasury was reformed.  Provision was made for audit of the vice-treasurer’s account.  A general audit was instituted in the tri-annual basis.

The government was comprehensively reorganised with new appointments to the principal courts, the Chancery  and other key positions.  The first English Lord Deputy in many years was appointed, together with a number of key English appointments to key offices.

Suspension of Poynings Law

Ponying’s law required prior license under the great seal of the Privy Council for parliament in Ireland to be convened and for specific legislation to be proposed to it.  This had been enacted to prevent political subversion in circumstances where the Fitzgeralds (Kildare)  were all powerful.

Ponying’s law was suspended, and authority was given to enact the program devised in England.  The  suspension did not lead to a restoration of the legislative powers and initiative of the parliament and was a temporary expediency.  The program of legislation was certified by the Irish council.


Ordinances were made to restore crown government to the colony and abolished the type of political organisation associated with the quasi-feudalism found in Ireland.  The Ordinances attacked so-called abuses by which the crown’s sovereign jurisdictions had been transferred to self-contained local political units akin to Gaelic lordships.

The Ordinances targeted the large private army of the lords, the system of coyne (coign) and livery, and other traditional Gaelic exactions which maintained them.  The second focus was the usurpation of the crown’s political jurisdiction by the Lord’s exaction of protection from neighbouring lordships both Gaelic and feudal.

The third was the supposed usurpation of the crown’s function in local government with  the replacement of the crown by a local system of judicial and financial administration with elements of feudal and Gaelic systems.  In essence, the ordinances sought to reassert the crown’s English style of political organisation within Ireland.  In place of armies, lords were to be allowed a small revenue according to their status.

Local Government

Local governments in the English style was to be restored.  The Ordinances provided for the appointment of local officers of the crown, justice of the peace and the establishment of jails in each Shire.

The central judges were to go on circuit hold quarter sessions and conduct gaol  delivery. Royal towns were to recognise the jurisdiction of the central court judges on circuit. A court of chancery along the English style was to be provided.

The proposal attacked liberty jurisdiction and franchises which were autonomous of the crown.  The liberty of Kildare was abolished.  The liberty of Wexford was to be administered by crown officers.  Shire administration was to be reinstated in South Carlow and Kilkenny which had been subject to the administration of the Earls of Kildare and Ormond.

Ealrdom of Ormond

The Earl of Ormond had not participated in the rebellion and he temporarily ceded his title to Earl of Ossory in recognition of the fact that the Kings father-in-law laid claim to be the earl’s heir genera .

An indenture between the King and Ossory/Ormand spelled out the Earls’ agreement to bind themselves to the King and his heirs as any other nobles or peers within the realm of England.

It upheld the Earl’s status of leadership in his own locality but redefined it in a manner compatible with English lordship.  His internal jurisdiction was reduced, and he agreed to the revival of crown government in Kilkenny, Waterford, and Tipperary.  He agreed to the admission of judicial and revenue officers from the central administration.  He agreed to stop exercising personal jurisdiction over local Gaelic lords.

Gaelic Areas

Beyond the Anglo-Irish border, the government sought to enter a framework of indentures between the crown and individual great lords which sought to draw, combine and adhere to the King as many of the great Irish rebels as possible. The government proposed to grant status and title by patents to Lords who were willing to accept English law and the crown’s sovereign jurisdiction.

Land bordering Gaelic areas were allocated to men of assured loyalty and military strengths. Some were leased to captains of English garrisons or to local Anglo-Irish magnets.

The reforms did not seek to conquer the Gaelicised areas.  Their conquest would not have been financially feasible.  The objective was to maintain a level of control consistent with available revenue.

Geraldine League

The clear intent of parliament led to the reformation of the Geraldine League ostensibly to protect the surviving heir of the KildareIt was in effect a political alliance of Anglo-Irish and Gaelic magnets.Part of the League’s justification and rationale was opposition to the reformation.

The movement ultimately grew to encompass the goal of expelling the English from Ireland. The league had significant forces but ultimately were no match for the government’s forces.  A raid into the Pale in 1539 by O’Neil lead to defeat with the crown army reaching Duncannon in the North and Galway in the west.

The Geraldine League reached a certain accommodation with the crown  and succeeded in having the Lord Deputy Grey  removed and government  policy replaced with a more constructive policy of engagement.  The League gradually dissolved over the course of the next few years with the arrival of a new Lord Deputy, Anthony St. Leger.


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