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What was the Tudor conquest of Ireland?

Adapted from The Oxford Companion to Irish History, edited by S.J. Connolly, OUP, 1998, 0-19866-240-8, 553-4


What is meant by the Tudor conquest?
Tudor conquest, a term denoting the extension of English lordship, which had previously been effective only in the Pale, to full 
English sovereignty throughout Ireland. This was the result of a reform policy which invariably ended being applied by force. Sir John Davies’s Discovery of the True Causes (1610), trumpeting the subsequent establishment of the common law, did not hesitate to use the term ‘conquest’.


The process, generally seen as getting under way in 1534 and lasting until 1603, involved conflicts of increasing scale: the Kildare rebellion, the war of the Geraldine League, the revolt of Shane O’Neill, the Desmond and Baltinglass revolts, and the Nine Years War.


Why was the conquest undertaken?
An important reason for the Tudor conquest was the existence of a frontier and the related problems of defence and grand strategy.


The original objective in 1534 was merely the reform of the Pale under the closer direction of Whitehall. This departure coincided with England’s break with Rome, which left her diplomatically isolated and strategically vulnerable.


Creating own momentum & problems
An English lord deputy with 
a standing army and little local support was always apt to take the military option. Such actions in Ireland created strategic threats where none had hitherto existed. The military activities of Lord Deputy Grey in the 1530s resulted in the establishment of the Geraldine League with its appeals to the Scottish king.


The creation of the kingdom of Ireland (1541) necessarily entailed consideration of administrative centralization across the whole island. When the related integrative policy of surrender and regrant faltered, the placement of garrisons in Leix and Offaly caused theO’Mores and O’Connors to appeal to France. The line of the Pale was breached, the frontier was now moving, and the process continuous.


Provoking conflict?
The crown became anxious to assert control for fear that foreign powers would exploit the situation. It is not unreasonable to 
suggest that the New English, as captains, constables, seneschals, and provincial presidents, deliberately provoked conflicts so as to reap rewards in the lands and offices which subsequently became available.


The commissions of martial law to local commanders introduced by Sussex in 1556 escalated the level of violence involved. A new English colonialism justified by old chauvinist ideas and new religious prejudices was generated, with land-hungry younger sons acquiring confiscated Irish estates as a means of providing an income and gentry status.


Role of lords deputy: reform or conquest?
The role of lords deputy as architects of the conquest is a subject of debate. The most aggressive policies belong to Sussex, Sidney, 
Grey, and Perrot, but ironically those of the corrupt, reactive, and underfinanced Fitzwilliam caused the most bother.


Canny asserts that Sidney produced a blueprint of plantations and provincial presidencies for the establishment of Tudor rule. Brady insists that the government’s intention was always the establishment of the common law by reform not conquest, and concentrates on Sidney’salternative policy of composition. Crawford emphasizes the role of the privy council. This executive body had an obvious interest in making English sovereignty effective. At local level the object was shire government with sheriffs, justices of the peace, jailhouses, and visiting assizes. Most of Ireland was shired on paper by the mid-1580s, but it was physical control of the country after 1603 that enabled the system to operate.


Military matters
Military matters bulk large in any account of the Tudor conquest. The army grew to a peak of 16,000 during the Nine Years War (1).


Expeditions into the interior against errant Gaelic lords were pointless. The only effective strategy was the establishment of garrisons followed by spoliation of the people, their crops, and their livestock, bringing starvation and eventual submission. These tactics were very expensive to maintain and were employed only in the Desmond and Nine Years wars.


Massacres took place at Rathlin, Belfast, Mullaghmast (2), and Smerwick. Hostages were frequently taken to guarantee ceasefires during wartime and to secure compliance during peacetime. Irish revenues never sustained the cost of the standing army, which had always to be subsidized from England.


The Irish lords also increased and modernized their forces. They employed large numbers of redshanks (light infantry usually hired for the summer months from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland during the summer) and then utilized the supply system these developed to increase local infantry recruits. Firearms aided Irish guerrilla tactics, and assisted in victories such as Glenmalure (3) and the Yellow Ford (4), but the infrastructure needed for siege warfare was lacking.


Success or failure?
Steven Ellis concludes that Ireland was a 'Tudor failure'.


Irish nationalism and Irish alienation from English rule were chiefly a consequence, rather than a cause, of the Tudor conquest.


Moreover, the new kingdom of Ireland, controlled from London but without a substantial input into the political process there, proved a serious and continuing source of instability in the developing British state. It left a series of unresolved tensions between King James’s three kingdoms which later came back to haunt the Stuart monarchy, precipitating its collapse and the creation of a republic (1638-51).


Canny, N., The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland (1976); Beady, Ciaran, The Chief Governors. The Rise and Fall of Reform Government in Tudor Ireland (1994); Crawford, J., Anglicizing the Government of Ireland: The Irish Privy Council and the Expansion of Tudor Rule 1556-78(1995); Ellis, S., Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603. English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule (1998).

1. Nine Years War (Apr. 1593-Mar. 1603), also known as Tyrone’s rebellion, after the state’s main antagonist in the conflict, Hugh O’Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone. It arose from Fitzwilliam’s partition of Monaghan, which broke up the MacMahon lordship and threatened other Ulster lordships with a similar fate. The state’s other main antagonist, Red Hugh O’Donnell, was O’Neill’s son-in-law. Their alliance transcended traditional rivalry in Ulster and came to include many other Gaelic lords in an oath-bound confederacy which initially took the form of a secret conspiracy.


The first action of the war was an exercise in manipulation and deceit by O’Neill. After the ejection of a sheriff from Fermanagh, O’Neill fought on the side of the government while simultaneously directing his brother Cormac, and other relatives whom he allegedly could notcontrol, against the state. This was a delaying tactic, because the northern lords were hoping for aid from Spain, where they had sent agents as early as 1592. O’Neill disclosed his true role in February 1595 when he ordered the destruction of the garrison on the river Blackwater. The state finally proclaimed him a traitor in June 1595.


Irish tactics during the war were primarily defensive. The buannacht system (billeting of mercenary soldiers on civilians) used to accommodate redshanks was reoriented to put local troops into the field. These were well trained and leavened with English and Spanishveterans. Up to a third of the confederates fought with firearms, supplied by Scottish and Old English merchants, which enhanced their traditional guerrilla-style tactics. A major lack was artillery, which made the taking of forts and towns, other than by ruse or betrayal,impossible. The English army, surprised by the discipline oftheir opponents, suffered from a divided command, between Lord Deputy Russell and Lord General Norris in 1596-7, and between Black Tom Butler of Ormond and Henry Bagenal in 1598. Their offensive tactics usually amounted to no more than a single expedition to establish or relieve outlying garrisons. The resulting Irish victories were in fact large ambushes - the Ford of the biscuits (1594), Clontibret (1595), the Yellow Ford (1598). These successes, together with the fall of Sligo and Cavan, allowed the war to spread to Connacht and Leinster in 1595 and to Munster in 1598.


For the Irish, politics was an extension of war. O’Neill used ceasefires and long-drawn-out negotiations as a delaying tactic in which thehard-pressed and factionalised state acquiesced. A compromise, which would have left O’Neill supreme in Ulster, was negotiated in 1596 but aborted by the timely arrival of Spanish agents. Further negotiations, prolonged in the case of Ormond in 1598, and short and secret in the case of Essex in 1599, worked toO’Neill’s advantage. After the debacle of Essex’s lieutenancy, O’Neill and his confederates controlled the greater part of Ireland. Unable to take the towns by force, O’Neill now tried to win over the Old English Catholics. In November 1599 he issued a proclamation requesting the Old English to join his fight for faith and fatherland. A final negotiating position with the crown, which would have provided for an autonomous Catholic Ireland run jointly by its great lords and the Old English, was drawn up. Cecil, the English secretary of state, marked these 22 demands with the word ‘Utopia’.


O’Neill’s adoption of the concept of fatherland frightened the crown more than it encouraged the Old English. Mountjoy was rapidly dispatched to Dublin and Docwra established at Lough Foyle behind confederate lines. The strategy was now the establishment of small garrisons, closely placed and mutually supporting, to wear down the economy that supported the irregular warfare of the Irish. The long-heralded Spanish expedition finally landed at Kinsale, only to withdraw ignominiously after O’Neill and O’Donnell abandoned their defensive tactics and risked all in a pitched battle. The garrisons in Ulster brought famine in their wake. One by one O’Neill’s allies sued for peace and he went into hiding. In September 1602 Mountjoy destroyed the symbol of his authority at Tullaghoge.


However,the garrison policy was proving very expensive and could be sustained only by the debasement of the Irish currency. The state was therefore glad when O’Neill submitted at Mellifont in March 1603 (5). The war had cost the English exchequer nearly £2 million - eight times as much as any previous Irish war and as much as Elizabeth’s continental wars. But it had given England complete control of Ireland for the first time since the Anglo-Norman invasion. (pp 338-9)

Morgan, Hiram, Tyrone’s Rebellion(1993).


2. Mullaghmast, massacre of (Nov.-Dec. 1577), the slaughter of Moris O’Moreand at least 40 others after they had been summoned to the fort of Mullaghmast, Co. Kildare, by the soldier-colonists Francis Cosby and Robert Hartpole to do military service. This bloody episode in the troubled relations between the Laois-Offaly planters and the displaced O’Mores and O’Connors occurred at a time when Lord Deputy Sidney was trying to quell the revolt of Rory Óg O’More. (p. 372)


3. Glenmalure, battle of (25 Aug. 1580). The newly arrived Lord Deputy Grey decided on an immediate prosecution of the rebel forces of Viscount Baltinglass and Feagh MacHughO’Byrne, which had withdrawn into Glenmalure in the Wicklow Mountains. Grey sent half hisarmy under George Moore to flush them out. Soldiers fresh from England in bright coats and officers in armour made easy targets, especially for the hundred ‘shot’ (soldiers with firearms) at O’Byrne’s disposal. At least 30 Englishmen were killed, including Moore himself. (p. 222)


4. Yellow Ford, battle of (14 Aug. 1598), the greatest single defeat suffered by English forces in 16th-century Ireland. The queen’s army under Henry Bagenal, taking supplies to the beleaguered Blackwater Fort, was ambushed in difficult terrain north of Armagh by Hugh O’Neill. Bagenal and 800 of his men were killed and the Blackwater and Armagh garrisons had to be abandoned. O’Neill gained unimpeded access to the midlands enabling in turn the overthrow of the Munster plantation. (p. 601)


5. Mellifont, treaty of (30-1 Mar. 1603), ending the Nine Years War. Moryson’s account has Hugh O’Neill making an unconditional surrender to Mountjoy, unaware of the death of Queen Elizabeth. However, it has been shown that, while the queen’s death was indeed kept secret, O’Neill’s submission was the result of hard bargaining at Tullaghoge and later Mellifont. O’Neill avoided confiscation, gaining a pardon and a new patent for his lands. He abandoned the O’Neill title but crucially retained control of O’Cahan, his principal uirrí (sub-kingship). His position was consolidated at a subsequent meeting with the English privy council. (p. 356)