THE Tudor reign ushered in the most anti-Catholic period ever endured by Irish people under the English crown. But at the end of the day, it was a problem for all religions, as the conclusion of this story will confirm.
It encapsulated a period of English rule in Ireland, with the exception, of course, of Mary I who, while giving Catholicism a short break, treated Protestants just as bad as her father and siblings had treated the Catholics. This is why the Tudor era has so much history attached to it. Although most of the decisions were made in London, their effects on Ireland were catastrophic. So although you may feel our story is about England, it is a pale mirror image of what took place here, for it was in London that all decisions which would affect Irish Catholics in this era were made.
I want to look back at the history of the Anglican Church in Ireland from its beginning in 1536 when King Henry VIII, the first of the Tudors, declared the crown (himself) to be head of the church on earth (this included the church in Ireland). And we will refer to the actions of Henry as we go along.
It was the continuation of the reformation of the Church of England under King Edward VI which, by association, affected Ireland more than Henry’s actions, although neither was overly-kind to our country. Prior to reformation in England, this path was embarked upon in Europe when Martin Luther, supported by other early Protestants such as John Calvin, created a schism (a division between strongly opposed groupings) within western Christianity. This led to the creation of new Protestant churches, the largest being the Lutherans in Germany, the Baltics and Scandinavia.
King Edward, the son of Henry VIII, was nine years’ old when he succeeded his father. He was crowned on 15 February 1547. His reign was short lived, as he died aged 15 on 15 July 1553. That being said, his reformation of the church severely challenged, created many hardships and all but destroyed a resilient Catholic Church, which was the principal religion in this country.
The man Edward trusted most to reform the English church was the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. It was he who changed the Protestant church from one which, although rejecting papal rule, remained essentially Catholic to a church that was institutionally Protestant. All Catholic property was seized, a process which began under Henry VIII, whose efforts at reformation were more relaxed, especially in the time leading up to his death.
Edward seemed to have completed reformation as a priority: charities were dissolved and, by the end of his reign, the Catholic Church was practically non-existent and totally ruined. This was now a political issue more so than a religious one.
The reformation was also attached to Ireland, initially by Henry, when he ordered the Irish parliament to change the country from a lordship to a kingdom, although it was 1541 before he became king of Ireland. Later, Edward would impose draconian laws similar to those he was using in England. Despite the best efforts of the Irish parliament to comply with reforms compatible to those in Europe and England, the Irish refused to accept them, the majority remaining Roman Catholics.
During Henry’s reign there were over 400 Catholic religious houses in Ireland, which Henry was determined to close, and in 1537 he forced the Irish parliament to legalise the closure of the monasteries. This did not work either, with only 16 houses being closed. In 1541, during the Tudor conquest of Ireland, this was one of his principal objectives. Deals were done with clan chiefs, who would swear allegiance to the Crown, but at the end of the campaign, only half of the monasteries were suppressed. The remainder would remain defiant until well into the reign of Elizabeth I.
Meanwhile, Mary, Henry’s only daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was proclaimed queen (following Edward’s demise) on 19 July 1553. Her coronation was held on 1 October of that year. Mary would rescind a lot of the reformation programme, and whereas her Tudor predecessors had committed horrible crimes against Catholics, Mary would restore a Catholic dynasty in both England and Ireland, but it would inflict the same atrocities on the Protestant population. However, her reign was also short, as she died on 15 November 1558.
Elizabeth I then took the throne and again we had a reversal of policy, as she would continue the reformation standards of her father Henry by immediately reinstating the Act of Supremacy in 1559. And once again, the crown was declared to be the supreme head of the Church of England instead of the pope.
The Irish Act of Uniformity was passed in 1560. This made worship in churches adhering to Church of Ireland dogma compulsory. As in England, those taking office in either church or government were compelled to take the Oath of Supremacy, declaring their allegiance to the monarch as the supreme governor of the Church of England. Failure to take the oath would be treated as treasonable and punishable by hanging and quartering.
Attendance at Church of Ireland services became obligatory. Those who did not attend were also liable to punishment and fines. This was a time when an unusual alliance took place between the landed Gaelic Irish families and the Norman ‘Old English’, who had been enemies for centuries but were now united in remaining Catholic. The logic was that religion had changed so often that it was likely to change again.
Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by James I (also King James VI of Scotland), the first Stuart king, who would rule until 1625, during which many changes took place. The Flight of the Earls in 1607 was followed by the plantation of Ulster. Although reports vary as to the religion of the settlers – some were English and Scottish Protestants – I believe the majority were Presbyterians and not Anglicans. There was a temporary relaxation for the Irish, but not much more. In fact, James followed in the footsteps of his predecessors by asserting the supreme authority and divine right of the crown, suppressing both Catholics and puritans who objected. He was probably one of the first world leaders to declare that smoking was bad for the lungs, and he imposed a tax on cigarettes in 1604. Also, the burning of heretics at the stake ended in 1612.
The 1641 rebellion began when a group of Irish gentry tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland to force concessions for Catholics living under English rule, but it failed. This led to what we know as the Confederate Wars, fought between Irish Catholics on one side and English and Protestant (Anglican) settlers on the other. And this proved to be the catalyst for Cromwell’s arrival in 1652 (we have previously detailed his destruction and massacres in this country). This was a result of the Catholic federation setting up a de facto government in 1642 (which ruled until 1652). Its capital was located in Kilkenny and it gave some kind of freedom to Catholics for ten years.
Its objective was to persuade King Charles I (second son of James) to give full rights to Catholics and accept their religious beliefs. Charles, a highly religious Anglican, first agreed in 1644 but then failed to follow though. This war saw a lot of peace deals, which were then broken before being re-established. The confederates suffered heavy defeats to loyalist forces in Leinster, Ulster and Munster, so it came to a stage where it was time to get what they could, under the circumstances.
King Charles and Butler, his general in Ireland, offered generous terms, such as toleration of the Catholic religion, the return of lands taken from them during the war, and restoration of some of the Ulster plantations. Again, Charles went back on all of these promises and instead ordered the confederation to disband and placed all of its troops under loyalist command. However, his reign was cut short. Two civil wars had taken place and the eventual loss to Cromwell at Preston was the catalyst for his eventual arrest, trial for treasonable acts against the realm, conviction and execution. He was beheaded on a scaffold outside the banqueting house in Whitehall, London on 30 January 1649.
The ascendancy, as it is called, saw the domination of Ireland on all fronts – political, economic and social – by a minority of Protestant landowners. These were drawn from members of the Church of Ireland and Church of England. This was seen as not only excluding Catholics, but also Presbyterians, other Protestant groups, Jews and non-Christians. But this time it was a blatant transfer of wealth from Catholics to Protestants. It seemed also as if English soldiers and traders were now part of the ruling class in Ireland and controlled parliament.
Through the 1790s, resentment among Catholics began to surface, mainly nationalists using the term ‘ascendancy’ as a focus for their feelings, while Protestants, who were mostly unionist, said “it gave a compensating image for lost greatness”. In 1792, as land prices began to fall, Dublin Corporation sent a message to the monarch of the time, George III, calling on him to preserve the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland inviolate.
But things were changing, and some non-Catholics were unhappy with the law imposed on Ireland, which also curtailed their freedom. In 1791, a small disgruntled group of liberal Protestants, led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, set up the Society of United Irishmen. Its aims were Irish nationalism and liberalism. This organisation crossed all divides, truly showing the resentment of English rule. Its principal objective was to banish the English and have equality between all religious. The United Irishmen was comprised of Protestant, Methodist, Presbyterians, other dissenting Protestant groups, even some members of the ascendancy, but most of all a large force of Catholics. The organisation quickly spread throughout the country and by 1797 had a membership of well over 200,000.
The Defenders, active from the late 1780s, was a Catholic agrarian group that was formed in Armagh. Its numbers peaked in 1796, having originally formed to counter a similar Protestant group, the Peep ’O Day Boys. They were supported by France, and it was bad weather which caused a French force of 10,000, which landed at Bantry Bay in 1796, to abort their mission and return home. Had they landed, we could be talking about the 1796 rebellion rather than 1798.