James I and Ireland

Eleanor Hull
James I and Ireland

James I came to the throne under what seemed favourable auspices for Ireland. The descent of the Stuarts from Fergus Mór, the Irish prince who had founded the Scottish colony of Dalriada in Argyllshire in the sixth century, gave the Irish a feeling of personal attachment to the Stuart kings—an attachment shown in acts of enthusiastic loyalty on more than one occasion during the struggle of Charles I with his Parliament.

It was proved, too, by the fidelity with which the Irish clung to the Old Pretender through all the years of his retirement at St Germain and to the hope with which they looked forward to the return of “the fresh young branch,” the young Pretender.[1]

Another cause of their satisfaction at the accession of James sprang from the general belief that, as the son of Mary Queen of Scots, he would be favourable to the open practice of the Catholic religion, even if he were not, as many supposed, at heart a Catholic. This belief found expression in the sudden re-opening of the Catholic churches in the South of Ireland and in processions of priests and friars parading the streets with banners “with as much pomp as in Rome itself.”

Mountjoy, as Deputy, made a hasty descent on Waterford to suppress this rising Catholic spirit, reinforcing his orders alike by quotations from St Augustine, a copy of which he always had in his tent, and by the more material argument of placing small garrisons in the recalcitrant towns. At Cork he feared trouble; the Recorder, William Meagh, urged Thomas Sarsfield, the Mayor, not to submit; but Mountjoy's appearance with a thousand men reduced the city to obedience, and Meagh took refuge abroad.

This was Mountjoy's last act in Ireland. He sailed from the country on June 2, 1604, and never returned, though as Earl of Devonshire his advice was often sought in Irish affairs. He left Sir George Carey to administer the country with Davies as his adviser, but Carey was soon replaced by Sir Arthur Chichester, who was sworn in on February 3, 1605, and remained at the head of the Government until the close of 1615.

Chichester is the leading figure in the events that followed the flight of the Earls. He was a Devonshire man, like Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir George Boucher, Sir George Carew, and many others who played their part in the Ireland of the Tudor and Stuart periods. They were men who had seen hard service and cruel deeds in many parts of the world before they came to repair ruined fortunes in Ireland.

It is remarkable that many of the principal planters and officers who came to Ireland were from the county that gave to England “the sea-dogs” whose daring recklessness was carrying the flag of Britain from Cadiz to the Spanish Indies and round the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific. Their sensibilities were blunted and their greed and ambition aroused by the lives they led. Their creed resolved itself into killing Spaniards and glorifying England and the Maiden Queen; their business was the selling of negroes and the capture of gold-ships. Their puritanism was fired by the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, which had dragged their fellow-seamen to rot in the dungeons of Spain, and their passion for revenge was stirred by deeds like the assassination of the Prince of Orange, or by threats of fanatics like Somerville “to shoot the Queen with his dagg [pistol],” or of officers of distinction like Sir William Stanley who said that he would “pull Elizabeth down, yea, even from her throne.”

Chichester had served under Lord Sheffield against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and had commanded one of the Queen's ships in Drake's last expedition in 1595. He was with Essex at Cadiz in 1596; and at Ostend he was picked out by Cecil for service in Ireland, in which country he had passed some years of his turbulent youth in hiding, having, while a student at Oxford, “robbed one of Queen Elizabeth's purveyors.” In the execution of his offices in Ireland he was said to be “swift of dispatch and easy of access.” In the matter of legal fees he was “found to be upright”; but this did not prevent him from enriching himself with some of the best lands in Ulster.

The laws against the public profession of the Catholic faith had been fitfully enforced. The close of Elizabeth's reign had seen a great revival of the Catholic religion in Ireland. The laws against priests had been relaxed with the passing away of the dread of Spanish invasion, and they were flocking back in large numbers into the country; everywhere the exercise of the religion of the people was being carried on with apparent connivance by the authorities. During the whole of the Stuart period the enforcement of recusancy fines, a constant source of irritation to the rich and of oppression to the poor, depended largely on the position of affairs in England.

The alarm caused by the Gunpowder Plot, universally believed to have been the work of disaffected Catholics, led to their rigorous enforcement, while the negotiations for the Spanish marriage of the King's eldest son Charles caused their relaxation for a long interval, during which Spanish and Italian clergy and friars came over freely and opened churches and schools with little interference from the Government.

A Scottish bishop in 1611 says that these foreign clergy seemed to be the chief burden of the ships coming to Ireland, and the commission sent over to inquire into the Parliamentary election in 1613–14 was struck with the number not only of Popish priests, friars and Jesuits, but also of Catholic schoolmasters.[2] Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites were busy repairing and roofing their monasteries and abbeys, and Lady Kildare was building a beautiful church in Dublin.

In 1628 Sir John Bingley reports that “there are at present in that city fourteen houses for the exercise of the Mass and one more remarkable than the rest for the Jesuits”; and the Bishop of Ossory gave the names of thirty priests working in his diocese.

The general relaxation of the penal laws could not be better shown than by the multitude of English priests and Jesuits who took flight to Ireland for safety from the severe enactments that were the result of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, two years after James's accession to the throne, and by the advice given by Davies that priests and Jesuits, when captured in Ireland, should be sent over to England, where the penal laws could deal with them.

The same thing happened in the North. Catholics from Scotland came flocking into Ulster to escape the severe penal laws “which gave them no rest” in their own country. They settled on the estates of the Earl of Abercorn and of Sirs William and Richard Hamilton, and of other Scottish nobles who welcomed them on their properties in accordance with the planters' desire to encourage English and Scottish tenants.

It looked as if the efforts of James to make Ulster Protestant as a part of his “civilizing” policy were destined to failure, and that Ulster would speedily become as Catholic as the South; the Bishop of Derry complained to Claude, Master of Abercorn, that his diocese had become “a sink for all the corrupt humours purged out of Scotland.” It is probable that many families of the present population of the North, looked down upon by the Protestant interest as Irish Catholics, are descendants of this immigration of Catholic Scots.

It cannot be said that James gave his approval to this relaxation of the penal laws. His declaration on his accession repudiated the idea that he intended “to give liberty of conscience or toleration of religion to his Irish subjects contrary to the express laws and statutes enacted” in that country. He was constantly being warned that the foreign priests were devoting themselves to undermining the allegiance of the people, and it was rather the political than the religious aspect of their mission, and the ever-lurking dread of interference from Rome, from which centre the priests officially took their orders, that weighed with James in his enforcement of the oaths of supremacy and allegiance from the foreign as well as the native clergy.

His view was tersely expressed when he wrote in 1616, “I confess I am loth to hang a priest only for religion's sake and saying Mass; but if he refuse to take the oath of allegiance … those that so refuse the oath and are holy pragmatic recusants, I leave them to the law. It is no persecution but good justice.”

The idea that the spread of the Roman faith meant the extension of Roman political power, anti-English in its sentiment, was an article of belief strongly grounded in the mind of every Englishman. To James, his Catholic subjects were “but half-subjects,” and entitled only to “half-privileges.”

In his shrewd, sardonic way he reminded the Irish peers in his Parliament of 1613 that the Pope was their father in spiritualibus and he in temporalibus only, “and so you have your bodies turned one way and your souls drawn another way, you that send your children to the seminaries of treason. Strive henceforth to become good subjects, that you may have cor unum et viam unam, and then I shall respect you all alike.”[3]

It was this underlying sense of a double allegiance, which could, in fact, hardly be denied, that made the whole question of religious tolerance so difficult. A different religion implied, at least, a different orientation of the mind and an uncertain acceptance of the authority of the Crown. James, therefore, felt no hesitation in levying the recusancy fines for non-attendance at the Protestant service. In 1623 these fines were regularly collected even from the poorest Catholics, £500 a year being raised in Co. Monaghan alone. In Co. Cavan the sum thus raised is said to have amounted to no less than £8000 in the year 1615, though this seems hardly credible. The money was supposed to be spent on the repair of churches, but by far the larger part went into the pockets of the collectors. To them it was a profitable business. In Co. Cork an English observer says that five thousand people were prosecuted at one assize; “and without question,” he remarks, “the clerks, sheriffs, and their like do make an extraordinary hand this way.”[4]

Later on Charles used the threat of recusancy fines as a means of raising revenue, and when Wentworth went over to Ireland and found the revenue in a depleted condition the Roman Catholics offered £20,000 on condition of escaping the hated tax for another year. Nevertheless, Catholics met with little hindrance in the exercise of their vocations; barristers trained at the English Inns of Court practised their professions in Ireland, and it was a long step toward toleration when one of the ‘Graces’ proposed that they should be admitted on taking a simple oath of allegiance, without abjuration of the Papal authority. They became Justices of the Peace, sheriffs, Privy Councillors, and were admitted to many offices of trust, both civil and military, where Protestants were discountenanced.

A Catholic Justice of the King's Bench, Sir John Everard, universally respected for his learning and honourable life, contested the Speakership of the House in James's Parliament of 1613, the first Parliament held in Ireland since Perrot's Parliament of 1585. It was a Parliament largely composed of Catholics both in the Upper and Lower Houses.

James freely created new boroughs to redress what he considered an unfortunate balance of power; thirty-nine new boroughs, many of them in the freshly planted and growing towns of Ulster, but others made out of wretched villages, were enabled to send members to this Parliament.

he Catholic Lords refused to attend an assembly so irregularly constituted, and the Commons protested against their liberties, which were to be under consideration, being entrusted to the goodwill of ignorant and prejudiced representatives of country villages, sent up entirely for the purpose of voting against them.[5]

The Parliament was not a success. An unseemly struggle took place between the supporters of Sir John Everard and those who had elected Sir John Davies to the Speakership; it ended in the withdrawal of the Catholic party in a body and the drawing up of a formal protest to the King, which, with Chichester's full permission, was sent over by Lords Gormanston and Dunboyne, with Sir Christopher Plunket, Sir James Gough, Edward FitzHarris, and Sir William Talbot. The last named acted as legal adviser to the opposition, and was the father of the afterwards famous Dick Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnel, who played his part in the wars against William of Orange in Ireland. The petition they carried over was the model of many subsequent petitions to the Crown during the Confederate Wars.

It is well, therefore, to see what the Catholic gentry of Ireland, most of whom remained during the whole Stuart period unswervingly loyal to the Crown, put forward as their considered grievances. In the first place the Bill of Attainder against Tyrone was passed by the Catholic representatives without a single dissentient voice. Sir John Everard spoke in favour of it. “No man,” he strangely said, “ought to arise against the Prince for religion or justice,” and he regarded the many favours bestowed on Tyrone by the late Queen and present King as greatly aggravating his offence. In their letter to the King they speak of themselves as those “by the effusion of whose ancestors' blood the foundation of that empire which we acknowledge your Highness by the laws of God and man to have over this kingdom and people, was first laid and in many succeeding ages preserved.”

After setting forth the main cause of their complaint, the packing of the Parliament then sitting with ignorant men, absentees, officers, and clerks under the control of a few great men, and others from new corporations “never before heard of by us,” they go on to complain of the extortions of the soldiers ranging through the country and impoverishing the people on a number of pretences; the deciding of cases in the Council Chamber that ought to be brought before the civil courts; the threats held over jurors who refused to give a perjured verdict that they would be brought before the Star Chamber, and fined, tortured or imprisoned; the inquiry into old rights in land with a view to its transfer to new applicants; the shilling fine for non-attendance at church, and the greed and heavy charges of the lawyers.

Their complaints were well founded. For example, the army was often two years in arrear, and is said to have been composed of men with “tottered carcases, lean cheeks, and broken hearts.”[6] If they sometimes mutinied or provided themselves with what they could get in the country it is hardly to be wondered at.

The King, whom Chichester had taken care to influence by sending over a counter-deputation, received the petitioners in a characteristic manner. At his first interview he was cordial, receiving the Irish lords with all respect, and discoursing with them at large about conditions in Ireland. But he suddenly posed them with the question, “Whether they thought the Pope had the right to depose princes, or deprive them of their lives on religious grounds?”

Some of them answered doubtfully that they thought he might; whereupon two, Talbot and Luttrell, were committed prisoners, one to the Tower and the other to the Fleet, while Sir Patrick Barnewell was closely examined and forced to make submission, stating that such a doctrine “is most profane, impious, wicked, and detestable.”

The others were kept in London from May 1613 to April 1614 awaiting a reply. It could not have encouraged them to hope for a favourable answer to find Chichester standing beside the King at their final audience, high in favour and fully acquitted of any hard dealing or maladministration.

The King treated the Irish Lords to a long disquisition, flavoured with that canny Scotch wit and those frequent Latin quotations which caused Henry IV of France to call his royal brother “the wisest fool in Christendom.” He had heard, he said, of Church recusants, but Parliament recusants were new to him; and of the complaints presented to him of the Irish Government he had discovered nothing faulty, “except you would have the kingdom of Ireland like the kingdom of heaven.” “As to the newly created boroughs, what is it to you whether I make many or few boroughs? … The more the merrier, the fewer the better cheer. … God is my judge, I find the new boroughs, except one or two, to be as good as many of the old boroughs, comparing Irish boroughs new with Irish boroughs old”; wherein the jocular monarch probably spoke the truth.[7]

Thus, rated like naughty children by their monarch, the disappointed noblemen of the Pale, Norman or Englishmen all by descent, and loyal by habit and tradition, returned to Ireland.

The immediate result of their petition was that during the year all counsellors-at-law in Ireland who would not take the oath of supremacy were forbidden to plead, and pensioners in similar circumstances were deprived of their pensions.

In Dublin a young man, more pliant than his seniors, took the oath and was elected Mayor of Dublin, while around him were “many grave and grey-haired men, whose turn was to have been mayors before him,” but who would not take an oath which practically shut them out of their own communion.

The Parliament was prorogued and finally dissolved on October 24, 1615, after passing an abortive Bill for abolishing the Brehon law, and some minor measures. No other was called till Wentworth's Parliament of 1634.

Much of the reign of James was taken up in additional projects of plantation in Wexford, Wicklow, Monaghan, Fermanagh, and Leitrim. Settlements were also projected in Connacht, but these were postponed for a time. Had these settlements been carried out as originally planned by James and Chichester, they would have been accepted without much difficulty by a people weary of war and of the uncertainty of land tenure.

The Wexford commissioners reported in 1613 that a tract of land containing 66,800 acres, chiefly belonging to the sept of the Kavanaghs, was claimed by the King as having passed to the Crown on the submission of Art MacMorrogh Kavanagh in the reign of Richard II; a claim more respectable for its antiquity than for its justice.

Certain lands held by patent were first confirmed to Sir Laurence Esmonde, Sir Edward Fisher, Sir Richard Cook, and others, after which the surrender of one-fourth of their land was called for from the original inhabitants, to be placed in the hands of new settlers, on condition of retaining the remaining three-fourths on a firm title as freeholders. Little objection was made to this, and had the arrangement been honourably carried out the people might have felt themselves not unfairly treated. But in practice quite half instead of one-fourth of the country was made over to new settlers, and to nearly fifteen thousand of the population no grants whatever were made. About fifty-seven freeholders of Irish and English descent were created out of the old inhabitants, but only about one in ten got any lands at all; others were, if not turned out of their holdings, yet shifted about and pressed steadily out of the better into the worse districts.[8] Of these unfortunate people a contemporary writer observes:

“They have no wealth but flocks and herds, they know no trade but agriculture or pasture, they are unlearned men, without human help or protection. Yet, though unarmed, they are so active in mind and body that it is dangerous to drive them from their ancestral seats, to forbid them fire and water. … Necessity gives the greatest strength and courage, nor is there any sharper spur than that of despair.”[9]

Bishop Rothe spoke truly. These outlaws joined bodies of desperate men from Ulster and the other plantations; they took to the mountains or swarmed down upon the towns. In 1622 the Lords Justices reported that they were coming up to Dublin in multitudes, seeking for sustenance. The country was pestered, too, with the smaller gentry, whose easy, thriftless life spent in living upon their tenants and fighting their neighbours had passed away with the clan system which made these things possible.

St John reported in 1619 that the country was full of the younger sons of gentlemen “who have no means of living and will not work.”[10] They were elements of danger to the community and ready for all sorts of misdeeds and reprisals. This was the fuel which the spark of rebellion in 1641 was to set on fire. As Carew had long ago foretold, “events were marching towards an explosion.”