Culture & Religion in Tudor Ireland, 1494-1558.

1. The state of Gaelic culture

In the past historians gave too much credibility to negative accounts of Gaelic culture from hostile English commentators who coveted Irish land. In more recent times scholars have invested considerable energy into studying the large body of Irish manuscripts which have survived from the later middle ages. They have shown that the image of Gaelic society and culture as unchanging is misleading. Gaelic society was indeed rooted in tradition, but it was neither static nor declining and it showed itself capable of responding constructively to outside influences.

In the early Tudor period Ireland was not divided neatly between two ‘nations’ or cultures. The Irish language was the vernacular across Ireland, even in the Pale where ‘all the common folk … for the most part are of Irish birth, Irish habit and of [the] Irish language’. The landowners in the Pale, and the richer merchants in the larger towns across Ireland, were English by descent, culture and loyalty. These elites dominated the political, economic, legal and social structures in those areas and maintained their ‘English’ character. However, beyond the Pale ditch, which enclosed quite a small area around Dublin and Drogheda, and the walled town, there was considerable cultural interaction and, indeed, much assimilation, most notably in the Anglo-Irish lordships to the south and west.

It is difficult to characterise the state of Gaelic culture in the early Tudor period because it remains a relatively neglected topic in history. Several scholars have intermittently published editions of late medieval Irish manuscripts, identified their authors, their schools and sources. This is very important work, but sufficient research has not yet been done on Irish learning to make possible a convincing synthesis about Gaelic culture at the end of the middle ages.

Irish learning, or seanchas, included Irish law, poetry, history and genealogy, and medicine. These various branches of learning were associated with different hereditary learned families, such as the Uí Dhálaigh, Mic Aodhagáin and Clann Fhir Bhisigh. These families conducted secular schools which were not attached to the Church in the later middle ages, though it may be that some of these families may have been associated with monasteries prior to the twelfth century reforms in the Irish Church. In truth, historians are not at all clear as to the origins of Ireland’s many learned families.

Training in each branch of seanchas was rigorous, and high standards were maintained, not least for those aspiring to become an ollamh in their branch of learning. Teaching and practice were underpinned by written manuscripts, with oral traditions being a very subsidiary component in Irish learning. A number of composite manuscripts of seanchas known as ‘great books’ have come down to us from the later middle ages, preserving a wealth of Irish learning from the centuries prior to the Tudor conquest of Ireland.

How, precisely, students were trained in seanchas is not entirely understood, though it is clear that there was a very great deal of memorisation required. The relationship between the traditional Irish schools of learning and the Church schools is also unclear, but one can safely assume that there was much interaction between them, and cross-cultural influences. Many of the Irish clergy were drawn from hereditary learned families, and many of the coarb and erenagh families who formed a key component of the Church in the North were actively engaged in the study of seanchas. The Annals of Ulster, possibly the single most important record of events in Irish history in the middle ages, was penned by one Cathal Mac Manus, a diocesan priest who was neither a member of a ‘learned family’ nor of a religious institution. It is possible to identify at least one Irishman who was a graduate of Oxford University, and taught there, before returning to Ireland to establish his own school. Irish medical texts show that Irish physicians kept up to date with the latest developments in medicine outside of Ireland. It is very clear that the Irish schools were not isolated from broader European currents.

The leading members of the Irish learned class, the ollaimh, enjoyed the patronage of the greater landowners beyond the Pale, both those of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish descent. Through their work they legitimised and supported the power structures of the society in which they lived, for personal gain but also to help to sustain the political and social order around them. The hereditary historians and genealogists endowed their patrons with inspirational family histories and hallowed pedigrees to bolster their standing and authority in the contemporary world. The attention of modern historians has been focused on two branches of Irish learning in particular, law and poetry, though the large surviving body of Irish medical manuscripts has recently begun to attract scholarly consideration also.

2. Law in Tudor Ireland

Until comparatively recent times medieval Irish legal texts seemed arcane, but the hereditary Irish lawyers or brehons were adept at adapting them for use in the changing circumstances of Tudor Ireland. The role of the brehon was to act as an arbitrator in legal disputes. Following their adjudication they would impose a fine or éiric on the guilty party to compensate their victim(s), and levy a fee for themselves and the local lord. In the early Tudor period both Gaelic magnates and Anglo-Irish lords beyond the Pale widely employed brehons in the provision of public justice within their various lordships. The brehons administered laws which were based predominantly on old Irish law tracts, but also reflected contemporary conditions as well as influences from the Church’s canon law and the English common law. In the marchlands or transition zones between the Pale and the Gaelic lordships ‘march law’, a hybrid of brehon law with common law elements, was widely enforced. A key feature of the brehon law was ‘kincogish’ (cin comhfhocuis), the practice whereby the extended family was held responsible for the actions of its members. It was a fairly crude, but not ineffective, way of maintaining order in an unsettled society.

As the Tudor state extended its jurisdiction in Ireland from 1534 many of the newly-appointed brehons were proficient in the English common law, and adapted their interpretation of brehon law to take account of new political realities. That adaptability and flexibility of brehon law and its practitioners was recognised by the Tudor state and they were employed within the English legal institutions which were newly-established across more and more of Ireland from the mid-sixteenth century.

3. Bardic poetry

Poets, filid or baird, enjoyed an exalted place in Irish society. Their power to praise or satirize won them respect and patronage from both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords beyond the Pale. Their success in transcending the historic divide between the Gaeil and Gaill reflects the very porous nature of that division (beyond the Pale ditch and the walled towns) and also their flexibility in adapting to the requirements of their clients, best reflected in the following lines from Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s poem to the earl of Desmond:

‘In the foreigners’ poems we promise that the Irish will be driven from Ireland; In the Irishmen’s poems we promise that the foreigners shall be routed across the sea’.

Bardic poetry was seen as important to contemporaries in underpinning the authority of the Irish lords. Poets eulogised their patrons, celebrating their martial qualities and achievements, and magnified the prestige of the ruling dynasties. One reflection of the powerful influence exerted by the bardic poets was the hostility they encountered from Tudor reformers from the mid-sixteenth century who realised that the poets played an important role in sustaining the Gaelic order which the English crown was intent on sweeping away.

Today bardic poems are acknowledged to be valuable as reflections of the culture and mentalité of the Irish elites in the Tudor period, but scholars have been hesitant in exploiting their potential as historical sources. Several collections of bardic poetry, known as duanairí, have yet to be edited, while those that have been edited have yet to enjoy systematic attention from historians. In the late twentieth century a debate flared up as to the interpretation of bardic poems as historical documents. On the one hand it was argued that bardic poets employed highly-stylised motifs from an ageless repertoire which could not be used to throw light on contemporary events. On the other hand, it was argued passionately that the poems did indeed throw light upon contemporary developments because they reflected the standpoint of their patrons, and sometimes offered indications of wider contemporary opinions. Certainly, in the absence of many administrative records from the courts of Irish lords, the bardic poems hold much promise as historical sources for the Tudor period, but their interpretation is fraught with controversy.

4. Conclusions

Our knowledge and understanding of Gaelic culture remains limited and unsatisfactory. However, much progress has been made in editing Irish manuscripts and many insights have been gleaned. Indeed, there is no shortage of material to study. The advances of recent years have shown that Irish culture was rich and sophisticated. It valued tradition, but was not locked into the past and its learned practitioners were well-trained, professional, creative and flexible enough to adapt to the greatly changing circumstances, in the intellectual, political and social realms in the Tudor period.

5. The Pre-Reformation Church

Only one Irish diocese, Armagh, still possesses episcopal registers from the sixteenth century to show how it functioned. However, Armagh was unique in that the administration of the diocese was effectively split in two. The late medieval archbishops, who were usually either English by birth or descent, were directly and actively involved in administering the Church in the parishes in the Pale while they delegated much of the routine administration of the Church beyond the Pale to Irish subordinates, particularly the cathedral chapter at Armagh city. Separate synods were held for the clergy from the parishes in the Pale and those from Ulster. The exceptional case of Armagh has given rise to the mistaken impression that the Irish Church as a whole was clearly divided between two ‘nations’. In fact, the Church encompassed the whole of Ireland and in the English lordship clergymen of English and Irish backgrounds generally worked side by side. Even in the Pale the great majority of the parishioners were Irish-speaking, and so too were most of the priests. Nonetheless, it is helpful in studying the Church in Tudor Ireland to deal with it within the ‘two nations’ framework since the Church in the most anglicised parts of Ireland was most affected by the Tudor reformations, while the Church beyond the English lordship was least affected.

There was a dense network of one church or chapel per 2,500 acres inside the Pale ditch in County Louth. A cursory survey of records from Dublin and Meath dioceses suggests that that high density was typical of the inner Pale as a whole. By contrast, the number and density of parish churches in Ulster were much lower— averaging one parish church for every 10,000–15,000 acres, and there were very few chapels. The relatively sparse and uneven distribution of churches in Ulster reflected, to no small degree, the relatively limited and uneven economic productivity across the province compared with the Pale. It was easier for parishioners to gain access to churches and pastoral care in the Pale and in the towns, than it was over much of Ireland.

A study of the Armagh registers revealed that the administration of the Church in that part of Armagh diocese in the Pale was efficient and effective. Annual synods were used to promote modest reforms, to address on-going matters of concern and as opportunities for what might now be termed ‘in-service training’. The archbishops, either directly or through commissaries, visited the parishes in the Pale regularly to monitor the state of church buildings, assess the quality of the pastoral care provided by the parish clergy and to uncover any problems needing attention. Serious matters were referred on to the archbishop’s consistory court, which seems to have been fairly effective in ensuring that people obeyed the Church’s regulations, paid their tithes and had their wills processed properly. It may be assumed that the Church across the inner Pale was administered in like manner.

The laity, particularly the gentry of the Pale and the merchant oligarchs in the towns, had a Church that was amenable to their wishes and expectations. Lay men exercised much influence over the appointment of their parish clergy, both as patrons to many benefices and also as jurors on the inquisitions held before a man was appointed as a rector or vicar. As churchwardens lay men exercised a degree of control over parish finances. They could make complaints against priests during the bishop’s regular parish visitations, or directly before the consistory court, though in Armagh the laity seem rarely to have complained in practice. In one case, though, two curates found themselves summoned before the archbishop’s court within a week of being accused of eating meat on a fast day! Lay criticism of the parish clergy may have been rare, but it certainly had an effect.

The religious atmosphere in the Pale and in the outlying towns had much in common with contemporary England. There was a very rich and sophisticated religious culture in Dublin, with many religious and craft guilds, such as St Anne’s Guild in St Audeon’s Church, which supported priests to celebrate Masses for members, living and deceased, and enacted pageants and mystery plays on major festivals like Corpus Christi and St George’s Day. Many urban churches across Ireland had chantries with priests to celebrate Masses for the dead, and chantry colleges to house such priests, such as that built by Philip Gould, a merchant of Cork, in 1483. Urban-based friars preached regularly in the towns and their hinterlands to inspire the faithful.

Evidence from Ulster shows that synods and parish visitations were held regularly, but the church courts there were not very effective in imposing the Church’s regulations on the laity, nor even on the clergy. The Church over most of Ireland was not able to force people to attend church, or pay their tithes in full. Irregular marriages and divorce were common, and even the clergy were often married. One priest from Fermanagh, Cathal Mac Manus, was praised as being a ‘turtle-dove of chastity’ though he had fathered twelve children! Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that in the early Tudor period most Irish people accepted it as natural that a priest should marry and have children. Indeed, the rector of Knocktopher in County Kilkenny told Bishop Bale of Ossory in 1552 that it was counted a mark of honour for a priest to have a bishop of an abbot as his father! People did not see it as a poor reflection of his ministry.

The role of the laity in Gaelic and gaelicised Ireland has yet to receive scholarly attention, except for the erenaghs who were such a feature of the Church in much of the north of Ireland. Erenaghs were tenants on episcopal land who enjoyed some residual prestige (and carried some residual responsibilities) from the abbots who held their title before the twelfth century reforms of the Irish Church. Many of the clergy of Ulster came from erenagh clans. Erenaghs were responsible with the local clergy for maintaining the local parish church. They were visited along with the clergy during parish visitations. They certainly played a significant role in the life of the Church in the north of Ireland, but for most of the island the role of the laity has yet to be investigated.

The religious culture of rural Ireland has yet to attract historians’ attention. The impression given by the sources, though, is of a fairly rich popular religion which would strike modern observers as being laced with much superstition. Probably there were no very striking differences between the religious culture of the more gaelicised parishes within the English lordship and those in purely Gaelic parishes in the north and west of Ireland.

Evidence for the quality of pastoral care provided by the Church in Gaelic Ireland is hard to come by, but the visitation of Tullyhogue, in mid-Ulster, in 1546 shows that in every parish, with one possible exception, there was a priest who celebrated the Mass and prayed. It shows that every church visited had the necessary ecclesiastical equipment. The visitation report warns against unproven assumptions that the Irish Church was on the verge of ‘total breakdown’—as indeed does work done on the adjoining dioceses of Clogher, Derry and Dromore. Nonetheless, the impression made by the 1546 report is of a very basic provision of pastoral care. The report on Clogher cathedral in 1517: ‘Mass is celebrated only on Sunday; one set of vestments; a wooden cross; a chalice; one bell’, seems to confirm that impression.

6. State of the church

The conventional image of the Church in Ireland on the eve of the Tudor reformations was based mainly on a number of state papers from the reign of Henry VIII. One observer in 1515 stated that ‘there is no archbishop nor bishop, abbot nor prior, parson nor vicar, nor any other member of the Church, high or low, English or Irish accustomed to preach the word of God, except the poor mendicant friars’. A letter of 1525 from the earl of Kildare to Cardinal Wolsey stated at ‘all the churches, for the most part, within the counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary are in such extreme decay … that no divine service is kept there …’. Such reports persuaded historians that there was ‘an overall degree of disorder in the late medieval Irish church not far short of the total breakdown in the organised religion in that war-torn country’. However, recent work has revealed that the Irish Church was experiencing a revival at the close of the middle ages.

From c.1450 onwards there was considerable investment in the extension and ornamentation of parish churches and chapels in the Pale, and many were completely re-built. There is evidence that this pattern of increased spending on the Church was replicated in the outlying areas in Ireland. It seems that a general economic recovery in the English lordship allowed the devotion of greater resources to the Church. It is likely that the greater spending on religion also reflected some increase in piety.

Evidence from Armagh diocese strongly supports the case for a religious revival. There were many religious associations in early Tudor Dublin, and reflections of lay piety there which proved strong enough to withstand the Tudor reformations and formed a fertile seed-bed for the Catholic-reformation in Elizabeth’s reign. Intense lay piety has also been revealed among the gentry of Kildare, while ‘significant investment in the pre-reformation Church’ in Meath is seen as a strong indication of popular support for religion there. Studies of Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick and Galway uncovered evidence of a strong revival of religion which historians have associated with the mendicant friars.

Generally, late medieval wills (although these survive in relatively small numbers and chiefly for middling to wealthy townspeople) reflect a strong concern for testators’ souls after death. The wills invariably include bequests for the celebration of intercessory Masses, as well as gifts to the local parish clergy, some money for the fabric of the local church, together with a bequest to one or more of the local mendicant communities. Interestingly, a small sample of wills from Cork in the mid-sixteenth century seems to show a diminution of such piety under the impact of the Tudor reformations.

The evidence suggests that in the most anglicised parts of Ireland the diocesan Church in the reign of Henry VIII was in relatively good order by English standards and the laity engaged in forms of piety which would have been readily recognisable to their contemporaries in England. Yet England’s experiences of the Tudor reformations suggest, by analogy, that a popular attachment to Catholic beliefs and practices was not, in itself, sufficient to guarantee the survival of Catholicism as the religion of the people in Ireland.

Studying the Church in Gaelic and gaelicised regions is difficult because of the relative scarcity of documentation. Nonetheless, between 1400 and 1508 no fewer than ninety new friaries were founded in Ireland, chiefly in Gaelic and gaelicised areas. Half of those were Franciscan Third Order foundations with small communities who supported the ministry of the local diocesan clergy and offered education to children. This remarkable expansion may safely be taken as a reflection of a contemporary religious revival. Nor was this simply a matter of numbers; many of the new communities of friars were ‘Observant’, committed to a stricter observance of their rules. Observantism won over most of the existing communities of friars, including those in the Pale and in outlying towns – another indication of how unwise it is to think of the Irish Church as being sharply divided between two ‘nations’. The work of the friars has long been seen as a factor in the survival of Catholicism across Ireland in the face of the Tudor reformations.

Research into the Church in Ulster suggests that poverty was the greatest problem facing the institution. The prevalence of subsistence agriculture among the Irish, and the frequency of petty wars and raids depressed clerical incomes from land and tithes. Archbishop Dowdall’s register suggests that the average income of fourteen rectors in the Ulster parishes of Armagh diocese in 1544 was only £1 8s 6d sterling, and of eight vicars a mere 18s 1d sterling. It may be argued that these values are incredibly low, but they are comparable to the values recorded in the southern dioceses of Cashel and Leighlin in 1538/9. Understandably, the beneficed clergy and erenaghs had great difficulty in maintaining the parish churches from their own resources alone. In fact, most defects in church buildings can be accounted for by the underdeveloped state of the Irish economy beyond the Pale. This is reflected, for instance, in the 1546 visitation report for the parishes in mid-Ulster. Yet, though church buildings were often in a poor state, the same report shows that there were resident priests in place to meet the pastoral needs of the laity - except in districts ravaged by war. Indeed, it is the resilience of the diocesan Church in conditions of widespread lawlessness and sporadic warfare across much of Ireland that was its most striking feature.

Close study of the Irish material in the papal registers has revealed that the number of criticisms brought against Irish clergymen each year was small, and only a very small fraction of them involved (unproven) allegations of serious misconduct or negligence. That should serve as yet another warning against exaggerating the failings of the parish clergy of Ireland. The latest research suggests that the great majority of them carried out their pastoral responsibilities to the general satisfaction of contemporary expectations.

Beside the evidence of widespread breaches of the Church’s canon law by the laity and clergy, most notably in terms of sexual relationships, there is a growing realization that the Church continued to provide a level of pastoral care which was comparable with that over much of Latin Christendom, and there is also an increasing appreciation of the strength of late medieval piety in Ireland.

7. Henry VIII’s Reformation

Until recent times it was generally believed that the Irish people had such a ‘fundamentally Catholic disposition’ that the Protestant reformations were doomed to inevitable failure. That assumption was mistaken and it is now realised that the eventual outcome of the Protestant reformations in Ireland was not a foregone conclusion. The political and ecclesiastical elites, especially in the Pale and outlying towns, generally conformed to the early Tudor reformations. As long as they did so there was a possibility of a Protestant breakthrough in Ireland.

8. The Kildare revolt

On 11 June 1534 Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, son of the ninth earl of Kildare and vice-deputy of Ireland, dramatically renounced his allegiance to Henry VIII and launched a major rebellion. The rebels boasted that ‘they were of the pope’s sect and band’ and they declared that Henry was ‘accursed’. Religion was not the central motive for the rebellion, but it was a key aspect of the rebel leader’s strategic planning, both for maximising its support within Ireland and for attracting crucial help from mainland Europe. He insisted that all men in Ireland take an oath of allegiance to the pope, the Holy Roman emperor and to himself. The initial success of the Kildare rebellion owed something to the wide appeal of the ‘crusade’ in defence of religion. Clergy throughout the Pale played an active part in rousing support for the crusade. According to a letter from Deputy Skeffington and the council of Ireland, ‘in effect all the inhabitants’ of the Pale were involved. The Kildare insurrection was easily crushed once the expected foreign aid failed to materialise. Yet it demonstrated the widespread hostility towards the extension of Henry VIII’s religious programme to Ireland. On the other hand, the elimination of several of the leading opponents of the reformation weakened the Catholic cause. In the immediate aftermath of the Kildare rebellion there was a large garrison of English troops quartered in the Pale, a guarantee that the crown’s wishes could not be ignored.

9. Irish Reformation Parliament

The Irish reformation parliament was convened on 1 May 1536, and within a month the Lords and Commons had endorsed the reformation bills. However, the crown’s legislative programme was blocked by the Convocation House, the third house within the Irish parliament where the lower clergy of the lordship were represented by clerical proctors. On 17 May 1536 Brabazon complained of the proctors: ‘Loath they are that the king’s grace should be supreme head of the church’. A year later they were still engaged in a strategy devised by themselves and ‘their masters the bishops’ to prevent religious change.

The main focus of lay opposition in the parliament was the bill to dissolve a number of monasteries. Patrick Barnewall, M.P., was outspoken in the Commons in opposing the dissolution. He even led a deputation to the king to defend the monasteries. Barnewall’s opposition, and that of the Commons generally, has been dismissed as being motivated by mercenary concerns rather than religious principle. Yet for some considerable time there continued to be hope that a universal dissolution of the religious houses might be prevented. Deputy Grey, yielding to local pressure, licensed a deputation of friars to visit Henry VIII late in 1538 to persuade the king not to dissolve the friaries. Only when it became clear that their appeals were hopeless did several of the colonial élites take a share of the monastic spoils. Barnewall himself secured a grant of the convent at Gracedieu - but he and his family supported the nuns of Gracedieu long after the dissolution of their convent by Henry VIII.

To overcome the opposition in the Irish reformation parliament Henry VIII sent four commissioners to Ireland in September 1537. They read a letter from the king warning that if anyone persisted in opposing his wishes ‘we shall so look upon them with our princely eye as his ingratitude therein shall be little to his comfort’. This threat, from a king with so much blood already on his hands, could hardly be ignored. On the other hand, the commissioners also came to the Irish parliament with a bill confirming a royal pardon for those involved in the Kildare revolt. The final session of the parliament enacted the reformation programme.

All of the reformation statutes sanctioned by the Irish parliament were subsequently enforced, with varying degrees of effect, throughout the period of the Henrician reformation. Henry VIII assumed the Pope’s place as the head of the Church over much of Ireland. The crown succeeded in displacing the papacy when it came to levying taxes on the Irish Church across the English lordship, in issuing faculties and dispensations, and as the final court of appeal in church court cases.

10. Dissolution of the monasteries

Under Henry VIII about 77 monasteries and 80 friaries were dissolved, the survivors being mainly located in Gaelic and gaelicised regions in the west and north. The dissolution was the most dramatic feature of the Henrician reformation in Ireland. Contrary to traditional impressions, the dissolution did not have catastrophic consequences. Still, it did lead to the closing of several hospitals and schools in those areas where Henry VIII’s writ ran. The suppression of the friaries affected people in a direct fashion because the friars were professional preachers and there had been a great reliance upon them to deliver the quarterly sermons required in parish churches. Yet, the loss was not complete. About eight religious communities, all Observant Franciscans, maintained their ministry clandestinely, while others took refuge beyond the Pale or outlying towns, in the hope of returning one day when circumstances allowed.

An important result of the dissolution of the monasteries was the transfer of their rights of patronage to benefices and curacies, to the English crown. However, the crown made no attempt to reform the clergy in the Irish Church. No university was established in Ireland, nor a training college for ministers, which meant that the parish clergy throughout the period of the early Tudor reformations were educated and trained in the late medieval Catholic tradition. The poverty of the benefices and the dismal stipends available to curates made it extremely difficult for the crown to promote priests in Ireland who were graduates or Englishmen who might have favoured the reformation, even in the Pale. Continuity rather than change characterised the clergy of Ireland throughout the first half of the sixteenth century, despite the early Tudor reformations.

11. Religious change

Lord Deputy Grey had a small garrison of only 340 men from September 1537 and with such meagre resources he reckoned that he could not impose the reformation too vigorously without provoking political disorders. There was practically no propaganda campaign, and such reformation preaching as there was depended largely on the efforts of one individual: George Browne, the newly appointed archbishop of Dublin (1536- 1554). Browne, who had been the provincial of the English Augustinian friars, arrived in Dublin in July 1536 to spearhead the reformation campaign in Ireland. However, the delay in enacting the reformation programme and the lack of a royal commission left the archbishop feeling unable to promote religious change for an entire year, prompting Henry VIII to rebuke him in July 1537, together with Bishop Staples of Meath, for failing to advance his ‘affairs’ in Ireland.

Browne found that the pope’s authority was ‘not a little rooted among the inhabitants here’. He subsequently complained that of the twenty eight most senior clergymen in Dublin there was ‘scarce one’ who favoured the reformation. He admitted that ‘neither by gentle exhortation, evangelical instruction … nor by threats of sharp correction, can I persuade any, either religious or secular [priests], since my coming over, once to preach the word of God, or the just title of our most illustrious prince’. They stubbornly refused to ‘open their lips in any pulpit’ but instead did everything they could behind the scenes to thwart the archbishop’s reformation campaign. He encountered the most virulent hostility from the Observant friars.

Spurred into action by the king, Archbishop Browne conducted a visitation early in 1538 and promoted the royal supremacy. In October 1538 he published Cromwell’s New Injunctions, not only in Dublin, but throughout south eastern Ireland. The injunctions' decree to pluck down ‘any notable images or relics’ was widely carried out in the Pale. The annalist of the monastery at Lough Key wrote that ‘there was not a holy cross, a statue of Mary nor a venerable image within their jurisdiction that they (i.e. the English) did not destroy’.

Yet Deputy Grey hindered Archbishop Browne’s efforts to bring about religious change. He released Canon James Humphrey, the leading Catholic dissident in Dublin, from the prison to which Browne had condemned him. Browne complained that that action destroyed his credibility. On another occasion Grey ‘heard three or four masses’ before Our Lady’s statue at Trim, County Meath, while the suffragan bishop of Meath, whom Browne had arrested, together with a number of friars, were being tried in the town for breaching the statute against the pope’s authority. Grey’s public action encouraged the jury not to indict the clergymen. The actions of the deputy, whether from personal or political motives or a combination of both, suited the colonial élites in the Pale who did not want religious change, and who were condemned by one English-born reformer as ‘papists, hypocrites and worshippers of idols’.

The aspects of the Henrician reformation affecting religious beliefs and practices were largely blocked by the clergy. Instead of using their annual diocesan synods to promote the Henrician reformation in the archdiocese of Armagh, Archbishops Cromer and Dowdall employed them to promote traditional goals. Their synods maintained continuity with the pre-reformation period in terms of the agendas they presented to the parish clergy. The record which survives of the visitation of the Ulster parishes in Armagh in 1546 reflects Archbishop Dowdall’s very conservative religious disposition. While he was eventually prepared to accept the king as head of the Church, he did nothing to promote the reformation in his archdiocese.

The assault on Catholic beliefs and practices ground to a sudden halt when Henry VIII issued his ‘Six articles’ in 1539. These articles endorsed most traditional Catholic doctrines and ceremonies—except those relating to purgatory, religious images and saints. They even upheld the obligation of clerical celibacy. Archbishop Browne, because he was married, was at risk from this partial reversal of the reformation. He put his wife aside and took on the role of a more traditional bishop.

Anthony St Leger, the king’s deputy in Ireland from July 1540, continued his predecessors’ policy of avoiding religious controversy as far as possible. The remaining years of Henry VIII’s reign saw no further attempts to change the religion of the peoples of Ireland. St Leger won wide acceptance for a schismatic if essentially Catholic religious settlement. In 24 dioceses out of 32 there was a bishop who acknowledged the royal supremacy. When the first Jesuits arrived in Ireland in 1542, they formed a very bleak impression of the prospects for the Catholic Church there. St Leger showed that many of the elites in Ireland, landowners, urban oligarchs and senior churchmen, were prepared to turn their backs on the papacy as long as they could retain their Catholic religion and practices.

12. Edward VI’s Reformation

The Edwardian reformation got off to a slow start while St Leger remained as Deputy in Ireland. However, after he was recalled in May 1548 and replaced with Deputy Bellingham the pace of religious change accelerated. Archbishop Browne drew up a ‘book of reformation’ for use in parishes throughout the ecclesiastical province of Dublin. He oversaw the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer in the following year. This Book of Common Prayer had the Mass translated into English, and allowed the laity to receive wine and bread for communion. It was received with strikingly little opposition. Bishop Staples distinguished himself by preaching Protestantism in Meath diocese – which greatly upset his congregations. Armagh was the only diocese of the Pale where the Edwardian reformation was held at bay.

St Leger returned as Deputy in August 1550 but, despite his own religious conservatism, he actively promoted the official religious programme throughout the English lordship. He replaced the aged bishops of Waterford and Limerick with younger men who would support the Edwardian reformation, and he sent a royal commission to Limerick and Galway in January/February 1551 to impose religious changes in those cities. In response to local hostility to Church services being in English he had a Latin version of the Book of Common Prayer translated in Limerick on an experimental basis.

Archbishop Dowdall of Armagh continued to resist the young king’s religious programme until the summer of 1551 when St Leger was replaced by Deputy Croft. Dowdall fled and took refuge in the monastery at Centre in the Netherlands, having written to his cousin, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, that he would ‘never be bishop where the holy Mass (as he called it) was abolished’. Dowdall’s Protestant successor, Hugh Goodacre, never reached Armagh (he was allegedly poisoned by Catholic priests!), and the diocese may well have escaped the Edwardian reformation altogether before the young king died in July 1553.

Deputy Croft appointed to Ossory diocese the fiery Protestant John Bale who later wrote a colourful account of his time in Ireland. Bale found that the first Book of Common Prayer was still in use in Ireland (“used like a popish Mass”), though it had officially been superseded by the more Protestant second Book of Common Prayer (1552). Bale insisted on using the new Book and he built up a considerable following through his Protestant preaching in Kilkenny, especially among young men. His success shows that Protestantism could have taken root in Ireland. The local clergy conformed sullenly to the full blast of Edwardian Protestantism, but they were delighted when Edward VI died and they spontaneously restored Catholic ceremonies in the city. By the end of Edward VI’s short reign Protestantism had still gained little support beyond a ‘small official group and its supporters’ in Dublin, and some young men in Kilkenny.

13. Marian restoration

The Marian restoration was widely welcomed. In October 1553 Queen Mary sent St Leger back to Ireland as her Deputy with instructions to restore the Catholic religion. She reinstated Archbishop Dowdall in Armagh, and appointed local men to vacant Irish dioceses. Dowdall, who had met with Cardinal Pole while in exile, was a key figure in the Marian restoration in Ireland, along with William Walsh, subsequently bishop of Meath, and Thomas Leverous, subsequently bishop of Kildare, who were also associated with the cardinal.

Dowdall held an important synod for the ecclesiastical province of Armagh at the close of 1553 which ordered the restoration of Catholic rites and practices, and allowed for the reconciliation of clergy who had used Protestant rites. He also ordered the burning of Protestant books and the setting up of inquisitions to deal with any recalcitrant heretics. Judging by the archbishop’s register, the work of restoration was soon achieved.

Queen Mary, following her practice in England and Wales, established a royal commission in April 1554 to remove any married clergymen from office in Ireland. Five bishops and a few lesser clergy were deprived, though Browne was subsequently rehabilitated and ended his days as a canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Catholic appointees were put in their places.

In June 1555, at Cardinal Pole’s request, Pope Paul IV erected Ireland into a kingdom, to which Pole was appointed as a papal legate in July. In April 1556 Mary, on appointing Lord Fitzwalter as Deputy, instructed him to prepare for a parliament, to facilitate the legatine visitation of the Irish Church planned by Pole, and to assist the bishops in rooting out heresy. The parliament finally met in June 1557 to repeal the Henrician reformation legislation, and to revive the anti-heresy laws, though there were no true ‘heretics’ in Ireland to burn.

Cardinal Pole was unable to conduct his visitation of the Irish Church, and his plans to re-direct the taxes which the English crown levied on the Irish Church to tackle the great problem of clerical poverty and to establish diocesan seminaries never reached fruition. Archbishop Dowdall’s proposals for an Irish university and for free schools likewise came to nothing. By November 1558 Pole, Dowdall and Queen Mary were dead and the Marian restoration dwindled to an end.

During the Marian restoration the Catholic religion was restored throughout Ireland, with popular support. However, there was no return to the halcyon days of the Church before the Reformation. With only a couple of exceptions, the monasteries and friaries were not restored. Plans to improve the training of the Catholic clergy, and their incomes, came to nothing. The Catholic counter-reformation made no real impact in Ireland in Mary’s reign.

14. Conclusions

Recent studies of the pre-reformation Church in Ireland have challenged the traditional view of it as an institution on the verge of ‘total breakdown’ and have shown that it was vibrant, popular and reasonably effective in meeting the pastoral needs of the laity. In the inner Pale and in the towns the Church functioned particularly well in an environment with a high degree of social and political order, and a modest degree of economic stability. In the more unsettled conditions prevailing over most of Ireland, though, the Church struggled, to a surprisingly successful degree, to maintain its pastoral ministry with limited resources in an environment blighted by widespread lawlessness and intermittent warfare.

In the Pale and in the outlying towns the early Tudor reformations were imposed to a striking degree. The monasteries and friaries and convents across the English lordship were dissolved with co-operation from members of the local elites. Henry VIII succeeded in displacing the papacy’s jurisdiction over the Church in terms of appointments to bishoprics, final appeals in church court cases, and in levying taxes on the Church. Pilgrimages in the Pale were suppressed and many venerated religious images were destroyed. The first Edwardian Book of Common Prayer was widely used in parish churches and chapels in the English lordship. As long as the clergy and secular élites were prepared to acquiesce in the Tudors’ royal supremacy over the Church, and generally conform with little demur to the Edwardian reformation, there remained a possibility that Protestantism might eventually triumph, at least in the most ‘English’ part of Ireland.

The early Tudor reformations made relatively limited impact on the Church beyond the English lordship, because of the limits of the English crown’s authority. Yet, the great majority of the Irish bishops in the 1540s acknowledged Henry VIII to be Head of the Church, and the Jesuit missionaries who went to Ulster in 1542 reckoned that all of Ireland was lost to the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the early Tudor reformations in Ireland failed to attract any sizeable following, either within the Pale or beyond, by contrast with England where Protestantism, together with a much wider feeling of antipathy to the papacy and anticlericalism, was already a force to be reckoned with before Mary became the queen. With practically no indigenous support the progress of the Protestant reformation in Ireland was to depend entirely upon the efforts of the English crown. The crown, however, would not commit sufficient resources to enforce religious change rigorously and unwittingly left the way open for the peoples of Ireland to determine their own religious destinies.

Dr Henry A. Jefferies