Elizabethan Foreign Policy: Ireland

Irish and English Social Systems

The Pale was a fence that divided the English-controlled Dublin and the rest of Gaelic Ireland. The Old English (decendants of the original settlers in Ireland), the Ango-Irish Lords (decendants of the Norman conquerors of Ireland).

Ireland was mainly in the control of the Gaelic Chieftains. They generally refused to accept the authority of the English crown and enforced Gaelic Law. In Gaelic law, the tribe would vote for their new chieftain and the land would be redistributed amongst the freemen. This caused a lot of violence.

Gaelic Ireland was remarkably localised, even by the standards of Tudor England. Chieftains travelled with a retinue for protection and as a display of strength. There were very few towns and wealth was measured in livestock.

The constant movement of livestock to and from castles and pasture land led the English to believe that the Irish were inferior nomads.

The English therefore felt threatened and confused by a society that they didn't understand and most believed that the Irish were uncivillised.

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Henry VIII's Changes in Ireland

Until the reign of Henry VIII, Ireland was governed by a deputy chosen from one of the Anglo-Irish lords on the king's behalf. The deputy had power that overcame the differences between the two cultures.

In 1550, the reliance of feudal lords was open to challenge in two aspects: the Anglo-Irish Earls were too similar to the overmighty subjects that caused chaos during the War of the Roses & Henrican reformation made it dangerous to be involved in Ireland as England's enemies could use Ireland's loyalty to Catholicism and Gaelic society as a weapon against England.

Henry replaced the delegation to an Anglo-Irish earl with a direct rule from London. Lord Lieutenants (or deputies) were chosen from London coutiers instead of the Anglo-Irish or the Old English from the Pale.

Henry changed his title from Lord of Ireland to King of Ireland in an attempt to anglicise the Gaelic chieftains. 

Through 'surrender-and-regrant', the chieftains would give the King their territory as an insurance of their loyalty and would then be given their land back, an earldom and the ability to pass the title onto an heir via Gaelic laws. This was unlikely to civilise Ireland and would cause resentment.

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Difficulties Ireland Would Pose

Due to the clash between English and Gaelic cultures, Ireland had no central authority.

The traditional system of allowing overmighty subjects to govern Ireland in the monarch's name had been found lacking. 

Post-Reformation England knew that Ireland could become a pawn in a Europe-wide conflict. For Elizabeth, there were unforgettable parallels between Ireland and the Netherlands. 

The attempts to expand the crown's power over Gaelic Ireland by Henry VIII had been unsuccessful.

Ireland was expensive since it was becoming increasingly obvious that a standing army under the control of London would be necessary to mainatain English interests.

The imposition of a deputy from London would likely cause resentment from the Anglo-Irish earls.

Policy towards Ireland had to take into account the fact that many of the English, particularly the Puritans, detested the Irish who they regarded as beast-like papists.

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Possible Solutions to the Irish Problem

Elizabeth could ignore the rest of Ireland beyond the Pale and southern counties but this was inadvisable due to the internal and international situation. Endemic violence of the Gaelic chieftains meant that English areas would be constantly under attack and the Europe crisis meant that Ireland could never be a matter of simply domestic policy.

Elizabeth could attempt to colonise Ireland where English influence was limited or non-existence which might prove attractive to the Anglo-Irish feudal lords and the land-hungry English of the mainland. It would also pander to the English view that the Irish were barbarians and justify colonisation as the gift of civilisation but the Gaels were unlikely to see it in that way. Colonies would need to be defended by a system of fortresses or garrison towns to be secure against Gaelic attack.

The third option was a military conquest of Ireland. This would be difficult due to the chieftains’ preference of guerrilla warfare and would then need to be followed up by a system of fortresses or colonisation. This would require long-term planning and a substantial investment.

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Hugh O'Neill

Hugh had become the Earl of Tyrone in 1585. However, he rose up in rebellion against Elizabeth in 1595. Tyrone was motivated by cultural factors, political ambition and religion.

For the Crown, the rebellion was especially troubling as they rightly assumed the Spanish would try and exploit the situation for their own gain. 

At first Elizabeth sought a truce but with the support of the O'Donnells and Maguires (who the O'Neills hadn't had a good relationship with in the past), Tyrone's rebellion spread beyond Ulster.

The Spanish tried to exploit the situation by including an Irish contingent in the Armada of 1596, but this was unsuccessful. The fact that the Spanish had signalled their intentions caused great unease for Elizabeth and the Privy Council.

English forces under the command of Sir Henry Bagenal were defeated in August 1598 at the Battle of Yellow Ford. 

Tyrone was clearly in control of Ulster, the O'Donnells controlled Connaught and the O'Mores controlled Leix-Offaly and the Munster Plantation had been destroyed. Ireland beyond the Pale was outside of English control. It looked like Tyrone would create and independent, Catholic state.

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The Earl of Essex in Ireland

In desperation, Elizabeth sent the Earl of Essex to Ireland as the Lord Lieutenant in 1599. This was a mistake as Essex was willing to disobey her orders.

Essex had a large force but instead of moving north to Ulster, stayed in Leinster and then Munster. 

He was ordered north by Elizabeth, but didn't confront Tyrone. Instead, he made a truce with him before defying the Queen's orders and returning to court. 

As soon as the truce expired, Tyrone moved south and camped near Kinsale on the coast, and then to the south-west of Cork where he hoped to link up with the Spanish army. This was the high point of his power. 

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Mountjoy and Carew

Free of Essex's weak leadership, England made progress under the new Lord Lieutenant Lord Mountjoy and Sir George Carew.

Carew secured Cork and gradually regained most of Munster. Mountjoy, supported by Sir Henry Docwra, pushed Tyrone back to Ulster.

Tyrone's forces were saved from destruction by the Spanish landing at Kinsale in September 1601. Mountjoy was forced to rush south to counter the 3000 troops.

Tyrone managed to move south and join forces with Hugh Roe O'Donnell and engaged the English on Christmas Eve 1601. The English won and O'Donnell fled with the Spanish while Tyrone retreated back to Ulster to make a treaty with Mountjoy.

The treaty with Mountjoy was generous as Mountjoy wanted to go back to England to meet the new king, James I. Tyrone had no idea that Elizabeth had died in March 1603. 

James was committed to returning to the policy of allowing Ireland to be ruled by the local nobility, which included Tyrone. Meanwhile, Ireland had been destroyed and impoverished. The English crown had spent much money in Ireland, to only irritate the natives.

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