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Review Essay: Elizabeth I and Ireland
by Willy Maley

Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xv, 341 pp. ISBN 978-1-10704087-8. £65.00, $99.00 hardback.

David Beers Quinn’s pioneering monograph, The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966), was an outward-looking study that argued for Ireland as part of the westward enterprise. While Quinn’s title implied that the Irish of the second half of the sixteenth century were not Elizabethans, the work itself encouraged links with the Atlantic world that Quinn had already explored in his short book on Walter Raleigh, published four years earlier. Reviewing The Elizabethans and the Irish in New Blackfriars in 1967, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was full of praise, but queried the extent to which questions of language and identity were adequately covered: “Professor Quinn’s account is necessarily limited; it does not pretend to disentangle the delicately complex relations of Gaelic society and the older English colonies.”[1]

Elizabeth I and Ireland is at once a more inward-looking study than Quinn’s, and yet much deeper and more diverse. It does not pretend to the sweep and majesty of Quinn’s Atlantic overview, but it does attempt to meet Ní Chuilleanáin’s demand for a criticism attuned to the nuances of native and newcomer societies. At the end of their introduction, Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle draw a fascinating and provocative analogy: “In the vast literature assessing the Tudor period, the places accorded both Elizabeth I and Ireland might be said to mirror each other: they have been acknowledged as important to the story of the age, yet not seen as vital to the real decisions that drove it. As such, they were things to be studied largely in isolation” (14). This collection aims to show that “neither queen nor Ireland and the Irish was as peripheral as generations worth of scholarship might suggest.” Grammar aside, I wondered if we were comparing like with like here, and whether it was true to say that the monarch had been marginalised in this way, or that crown and colony were in the same boat. The queen’s name still sells books.

In the collection’s opening essay, “Ireland’s Eliza: Queen or Cailleach?” Richard McCabe begins by looking at how Elizabeth’s earlier Catholicism was played on by her opponents once she came to power, and how this haunted her writerly subjects: “Spenser committed himself to looking in the ‘glass’ of her Irish polity and what was reflected there was as much banshee as fairy queen. Ireland reminded him that his Gloriana was once his Duessa and might ultimately become his Lucifera” (15-16). McCabe cites the trial of Sir John Perrot as exemplary of attitudes to Elizabeth in Ireland, where distance from her court afforded some freedom of speech. According to McCabe, “The changes [sic] levelled against Perrot” included “complicity in the dissemination of bardic satires against Elizabeth and, in what became known as the ‘treason of the picture’, the alleged desecration of an image of the queen by the Gaelic chieftain, Brian O’Rourke. Contrary accounts of this incident suggested that the picture being abused was not of the queen but of an old hag (the Gaelic ‘cailleach’) who was being ritually humiliated in a traditional form of charivari” (16). Although there have been studies of anti-monarchical misogyny, Elizabethan hagiography has largely blinded us to depictions of a less flattering kind, especially prevalent in the Irish colonial context where subjects were on a long leash. As McCabe notes, “The iconography of ‘England’s Eliza’ is familiar, that of Ireland’s Eliza far less so” (17). McCabe points to recent studies of Elizabeth that remain resolutely Anglocentric, and says this is understandable given that absentee monarchs were a hard sell, so Ireland is not an obvious place to look for Tudor iconography. Yet it is also the site from which Spenser mapped out his myth of Gloriana. As McCabe observes, Elizabeth may have had no court in Ireland but she had subjects vying for her attention: “Elizabeth’s Irish image was as nuanced as the situation was complex. Gaelic, Old English, and New English factions drew political benefit from exploiting one another’s discontent. All attempted to fashion the absent queen to their own ends by misrepresenting her representation among the others—a game ruthlessly played out in the charges levelled against Perrot” (17). But Elizabeth’s absence meant that all efforts to appropriate her image resulted in failure: “Successive attempts to adapt English strategy to the Irish situation, to hang a royal portrait under the cloth of state in lieu of an absentee, merely emphasised the sense of distance, difference, and alienation” (39).

McCabe’s essay sets the tone for the chapters that follow, each contributor searching out subtleties and teasing out tensions in relations between crown and colony. Leah Marcus, in a remarkable intervention entitled “Elizabeth on Ireland,” starts with a confession or at least an acknowledgement of an earlier omission, one that reinforces the arguments of this volume’s editors:

In 2000 and 2002, my coeditors Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose and I published a volume entitled Elizabeth I: collected works. In that edition, we tried to offer a representative sample of Elizabeth I’s letters, along with speeches, poems, and other writings. But we included only a handful of Elizabeth’s letters about Ireland—seven letters as opposed to twenty-three about Scotland, most of which were addressed either to Mary, queen of Scots, or to James VI. This is a remarkable imbalance if we consider that Ireland was a country Elizabeth actually reigned over while Scotland was an independent kingdom with its own monarch. The imbalance derives in part from our scholarly orientation: we are all scholars of English literature as opposed to history, and all of us had a special interest in Elizabeth herself as a writer. (40)

Marcus sets out to correct this oversight, but before doing so she makes a remarkable admission:

In shortchanging Ireland in our volume of Works we were doubtless influenced by an anachronistic view of Britain as comprising its present territories and therefore including Scotland, but not most of Tudor Ireland. We were likewise influenced by the fact that James VI of Scotland went on to become James I of England. But we were, I suspect, also motivated by a desire to present Queen Elizabeth I in a positive light. The project of editing her writings was hatched during the heyday of second-wave feminism: we wanted to show that a woman could demonstrate all the skills and savvy that were usually attributed to men, and Elizabeth was for us a prime example. (40) 

I have always felt that new historicist and cultural materialist perceptions of Elizabeth were rose-tinted, but I have never seen this particular case being made for the positive spin put on her reign. In her conclusion, Marcus points to the so-called “Kitchenmaid letters” in which Elizabeth picked up on and played with Mountjoy’s allusion to burning crops and advancing by fire and sword as working in Tyrone’s kitchen, prompting the queen to joke with her lord deputy that he had with his “‘frying pan and other kitchen stuff […] brought to their last home more rebels […] than those that promised more and did less’” (57). Marcus might have linked this metaphor with Spenser’s frying pan analogy in the View.[2] Instead she homes in on the tension between Mountjoy’s domestic metaphor and the colonial policy of starving and burning out the Irish. Marcus maintains that “it was only the most extreme version of Elizabeth as vehicle of divine retribution that could reduce the starvation of thousands of her subjects to the playful antics of a transgendered epistolary Kitchenmaid. Even as she playfully praised Mountjoy for his successes, she was privately mourning Essex: her exultation fuelled her sense of guilt and loss” (59). Robert Devereux, an insufficient killing machine who talked man-to-man with O’Neill, is contrasted with Blount, the blunt instrument who brought the Irish to “their last home” while engaging in kitchen banter with his ailing and allegedly grieving monarch. I found this chapter a hard sell, and felt that it simplified and personalised the politics and history.

Peter McQuillan’s contribution follows on from Marcus insofar as he focuses on an Irish poem written in the wake of the Nine Years’ War that preoccupied Mountjoy and Elizabeth. In “A Bardic Critique of Queen and Court: ‘Ionmholta malairt bhisigh’, Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, 1603,” McQuillan, after an elaborate contextualising of Ó hEodhasa’s Gaelic verse, uses George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesy (1589) to suggest that the poet “fully exploits the possibilities that the medium of poetry offers for dissimulation and beneath his urbane exterior is every bit the hard-nosed pragmatist of Castiglione’s Courtier” (85). According to the ODNB entry, “In 1610–11 [Ó hEodhasa] was allotted a plantation grant of 210 acres at Clanawley barony (adjoining Magheraboy to the south), a fact suggesting an accommodation with the new order, which is borne out by a reference in his obituary to the esteem he enjoyed among the English,” so McQuillan’s conclusion would appear to hold water. “Ionmholta malairt bhisigh” addresses the supposed patron, the newly knighted earl of Tyrconnell, Rory O’Donnell, during his absence in England, and is a meditation on the nature and purpose of poetry, suggesting that a change of times entails a change of style. I found this a perceptive and valuable essay but I was left wondering how far it was an intervention on the subject of Elizabeth and Ireland and whether Ó hEodhasa’s earlier work and life might have yielded more fruit. I also wondered how far the poem was “A bardic critique of queen and court” as opposed to “A bardic critique of earl and accommodation (or surrender and regrant).” I was also puzzled as to the pertinence of Puttenham, as persuasive as the ending appeared, and wondered whether there was a bardic context that might better explain the poem’s complexities. This chapter, richly researched and insightful as it was, appeared out of kilter with the scope of the collection.

Brandie Siegfried’s “Recognising Elizabeth I: Grafting, Sovereignty, and the Logic of Icons in an Instance of Irish Bardic Poetry” takes us back to the essay by Marcus and offers a fascinating sidelight on the Celtic myths at the root of Elizabeth’s reign. Siegfried opens in an arresting fashion with the letter sent by five English bishops in 1559 urging Elizabeth to restore the Catholic faith, and the queen’s reply. The latter is a fascinating document, drawing on Gildas and the claim that Britain had its Christian faith direct from Joseph of Arimathea:

As Elizabeth saw it, if her father had strayed from the truth, it was thanks to these very advisers whose nature was thrown into revealing silhouette by the light of Gildas’s ancient English monument. Though effecting a clever rhetorical move, the new monarch has essentially linked the ancient authority from which she derives her especially Anglican sovereignty to a source famously dependent upon Irish chronicles for its legitimacy. (89) 

Siegfried identifies a tension at the heart of the queen’s protestation of faith:

In short, when Elizabeth referred to the Gildas monument in her response to the Catholic bishops, she was linking her own genealogy to the Welsh myth of a Christian church established by Joseph of Arimathea and quite distinct from the later institution developed by Roman missionaries. Or, to put it another way, one of Elizabeth’s first public defences of her sovereignty as a Protestant monarch involved Irish genealogies and Irish-Welsh ancestry, ancient lineal claims to legal precedent that antedated those of the Catholic Church. (90)

This tension is explored in a series of subtle and perceptive readings of bardic poetry that show the extent and intricacy of native engagement with the colonial claims of the English crown. The key source here is the Seanchas Búrcach, or Historia et genealogia familiae de Burgo, an Irish-Latin text dating from the late 1570s and early 1590s. The History of the Burkes offers a rich resource that Siegfried exploits with elegance and insight, showing how the poetic resistance operated even as she acknowledges the entrenched nature of Elizabeth’s assertion of sovereignty:

Though Elizabeth began her reign by invoking the monument of Gildas—and the legal weight of ancient, Irish-oriented genealogies—the bards who composed the poems of the Seanchas Búrcach turned those genealogies back upon the Protestant monarch with wit and philosophical sophistication. We have no pugnacious letter suggesting that Elizabeth was aware of this particular instance. What we do know is that she remained firm in her conviction that her ‘Teudor’ ancestry confirmed the logic of her claims to sovereignty over all of Ireland. (112)

Ciaran Brady’s contribution, “Coming into the Weigh-house: Elizabeth I and the Government of Ireland,” has an arresting opening, citing the dramatic encounter between Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley in the 2007 Broadway musical The Pirate Queen as though it were historical truth in order to highlight the extent to which fiction supplants fact in accounts of the period: “It indicates […] the degree to which, in the absence of substantial evidence, the life of Elizabeth and the history of sixteenth-century Ireland have both been subject to unverifiable anecdote and folklore which, though frequently entertaining, require continuous critical scepticism” (115). Brady then brings to the table a rich array of critical and archival sources that offer an antidote to anecdote. Yet when he cites official correspondence and detects “the true voice of Elizabeth” one wonders if he is sufficiently sceptical of the “fiction in the archives,” as Natalie Zemon Davis called it, upon which so much history is built. Brady seems to take at its word a state paper archive that could be viewed as loaded: “Elizabeth’s letter to Lord Grey de Wilton congratulating him on the massacre of the expeditionary force at Smerwick reveals an uncharacteristically vicious streak, while her sympathetic and engaged private conversation about Ireland amidst a hunt and under a chestnut tree as reported by Sir Edward Fitton shows a rather different side” (127). Brady cites neither document directly, but Richard McCabe has argued elsewhere for ambiguity in the correspondence with Grey, and Brendan Kane in this volume shows that Elizabeth could rebuke Fitton when he stepped out of line beyond the spreading chestnut tree (275).

There is no denying the importance of Brady’s contribution, the breadth of learning, or the wealth of archival material he draws on, but manuscripts have their mythology too, and the state papers also “require continuous critical scepticism.” Marshalling considerable evidence, Brady concludes that in her dealings with Ireland, Elizabeth “intervened only occasionally in the affairs of its government, and did so in the firm conviction that she was acting justly and for the good […] she persisted, like Spenser’s Eudoxus […] in the innocent belief that with sufficient persistence, firmness, and justice the norms of English public culture could be developed in Ireland” (141). This claim comes too late for Brady to spell out “the norms of English public culture.” Instead, he simply declares that by failing to implement the draconian policies of “the most perceptive of her officers there […] she inadvertently made it inevitable that the far more radical alternative advanced by Spenser’s terrifying Irenius should steadily come into play” (141). Eudoxus and Irenius are literary inventions, of course, and so too is Brady’s Elizabeth. For all its erudition and scholarly spadework, I felt that Brady lacked a thesis, and was unwilling to dig deeper when real skepticism about sources was called for.

Mark Hutchinson’s chapter is cut from a different cloth. Writing on Sir Henry Sidney and Reformation thought, Hutchinson is aware from the outset of the iconoclastic nature of his argument:

This chapter will argue that Sidney’s ‘extreme’ Protestantism did not lead straight to a policy of conquest, as Nicholas Canny suggests, but that the lord deputy also looked to offer the Irish redemption. It will further demonstrate, in contrast to Ciaran Brady’s view, that an English system of land tenure and law was not the primary reform model, since reformed theology raised fundamental questions about man’s ability to govern himself and as a result about the efficacy of such an approach. This chapter also moves beyond the recent reassessment offered by Ciaran Brady and James Murray in ‘Sir Henry Sidney and the Reformation in Ireland’ (2006), by directly examining the efforts Sidney made to provide for the dissemination of God’s word. (143-4)

Hutchinson considers the extent to which “Ireland, with its distance from Elizabeth, may have been viewed as a sort of reformed Protestant experiment,” and notes an intriguing possibility had John Knox taken Christopher Goodman up on his invitation to minister in Ireland (147). Hutchinson’s conclusion seems too neat, as he sets out the key distinction, as he sees it, between Elizabeth and her councillors:

On the one hand, Elizabeth remained confident in the ability of an English model of government, on its own, to bring her subjects to act for the wider good. On the other hand, her reformed Protestant councillors took the position that man, born in sin and without free will, could not be brought to act for the common good without the action of God’s grace. (161)

Hutchinson’s contrasting of “a basic level of political stability” in England with “perceived Irish civil disobedience” again struck me as a somewhat glib way of summing up what had been a complex engagement with Elizabethan reform thought and policy (162). Like Brady, Hutchinson did all the work, laying out the complexities and contradictions, but the ending felt forced and flat.

Valerie McGowan-Doyle’s contribution is about counsel of a different kind. In “Elizabeth I, the Old English, and the Rhetoric of Counsel” she maps out the efforts of key Old English figures to remain good subjects in a context where their authority and legitimacy—as well as their land and titles—were under threat. The apparent alienation of the Old English has, says McGowan-Doyle, too often been viewed as a conflict between the Old English nobility and the queen’s viceroys acting in the interests of New English upstarts:

However, this element within the Old English community often registered their opposition by petitioning Elizabeth directly. Their appeals to Elizabeth as a strategy of opposition to viceroys are necessarily referenced in studies of the period, but they have not yet been studied systematically. Attention to their petitions reveals their employment of the rhetoric of counsel in response to their displacement. (165)

By removing the intermediary of the New English administration, McGowan-Doyle uncovers, or at least reveals in starker detail than hitherto, the nuances of Old English responses to the challenges posed by an interloping colonial community that refused to respect their prior claims, and that misrepresented them as irredeemably Romanized and irremediably Gaelicized.

McGowan-Doyle’s reading of the royal response to the Old English petitioners is that “Elizabeth was not universally opposed to the Old English” (182), which, while not groundbreaking, is a conclusion that helpfully complicates the tendency to see Spenser and his fellow administrators and planters acting unopposed or readily endorsed by the crown. Yet after maintaining a degree of trust in her Old English subjects for most of her reign, through a series of rebellions and increasing New English pressure, Elizabeth appears to have left them to their fate: “At a pivotal moment during the Nine Years’ War, when it was in her hands to reverse the declining status of the Old English, against the advice of virtually all her advisers and administrators, Elizabeth invoked royal prerogative to reject out of hand the request for an Old English appointment to the Irish council, thus personally exacerbating their decline” (182). This is a crucial point, because while much has been written on the end of Gaelic Ulster and the Flight of the Earls, the power vacuum left by the disempowering of the Old English is arguably as significant in laying the groundwork for subsequent conflict. McGowan-Doyle is to be commended for offering such a careful analysis of their gradual decline, and the elegant arguments they constructed in an effort to halt their displacement by the New English. 

Paul Hammer’s chapter is narrow in focus and characteristically dense in detail and layered in argument. Hammer examines the relationship between Elizabeth and Essex through his Irish campaign of 1599, homing in on the ways in which “royal displeasure” manifests itself in response to Essex’s knighting of his followers in the field – an action that echoes Lord Grey’s bestowing of gifts that displeased the queen two decades earlier. There is a wonderful passage on the efforts of John Harington to retain his title, fearing that Elizabeth’s proposal to strip dozens of men of their knighthoods would upset many ladies (185). In the end, the queen abandoned her plan to demote those dubbed by her errant earl after Cecil, without buying into Harington’s claim that knighthood was like baptism, did nonetheless take the view that to tamper retrospectively with such titles was risky.

The original element of Hammer’s argument, though, is that historians have accepted at face value Elizabeth’s criticisms of Essex’s Irish campaign: “Her hectoring letters to Essex expressing amazement that he was having difficulty defeating mere ‘bushe kerne’ and ‘base roagues’ which have been quoted with approval by so many historians over the centuries are, in fact, demonstrations of Elizabeth’s profound lack of understanding of the challenges of fighting in Ireland” (187). Hammer’s careful complicating of our view of Essex’s Irish venture, and analysis of Elizabeth’s lack of understanding coupled with her unabated anger at his knighting of so many of his officers, leads to a highly effective exit line: “The scene was being set […] for some of those about Essex to suggest that swords should be used for more than merely dubbing new knights” (205). The essay is accompanied by two useful appendices, “The names of Essex’s knights in 1599, by date” and “Essex’s dubbing of knights in 1599, by date” (205-8).

Hiram Morgan’s essay on “Elizabeth and the Irish Crisis of the 1590s” is the perfect companion piece to Hammer’s, equally erudite and insightful, and with the same desire to debunk commonly held views. Morgan’s opening gambit sets the tone:

We use the term ‘Elizabethan Ireland’, even though Elizabeth I was never in Ireland. The term remains an apt one because the English queen’s reign had a huge impact there. The decisions she made in relation to Ireland, the decisions she omitted to make, and what she simply let happen there had enormous significance in the country’s history. Yet until very recently little attempt was made to pass judgement on Elizabeth’s relationship with Ireland and her Irish subjects. (209)

It should be noted that no English or British monarch ventured to Ireland for three hundred years after Richard II’s disastrous campaign there. Ironically Shakespeare’s play of that reign allegedly prompted Elizabeth to identify herself as Richard, when in fact the king could more accurately be seen as a precursor to the earl of Essex, whose own disastrous campaign led to his “deposition.”

Morgan’s excellent essay leads to an audacious claim, namely that the author of the hitherto anonymous “Supplication” of 1598 is Edmund Spenser. Morgan has made this claim before but never with such clarity and conviction. Since I transcribed the original manuscript for publication, perhaps I should have strong views on this, but in fact I do not.[3] Authorship issues are endlessly fascinating, but for me the trap here is that we assume a stunning piece of planter prose from the period must be by Spenser. My own experience of reading early modern Irish texts tells me that there were quite a few talented individuals around. Moreover, given Morgan’s past urging of us to move “beyond Spenser” I think it is ironic that he should seek to ascribe this particular text to a poet who wrote what is already accepted as the most significant work of the colonial crisis of the 1590s—the View. What Morgan has done here is to construct an elaborate context for a work that ought to have had more attention than it has hitherto received. He is to be commended for his stringent scholarship. Whoever authored the “Supplication,” it is a document of culture, and a record of barbarism, that should be more familiar to all those interested in Elizabethan Ireland.

Ray Ryan, an editor at Cambridge University Press, once described Andrew Hadfield as “Spenser’s representative on earth.” Hadfield’s magisterial essay in this volume goes some way towards justifying that claim. (Conversely, I have always seen myself as “Malfont”.) But while Hadfield makes extensive use of Spenser in his chapter on “War Poetry and Counsel in Early Modern Ireland,” the most fruitful passages for me focused on the writings of Ralph Byrchensa (Birkenshaw) and Lodowick Bryskett. It is ironic that while Morgan is determinedly attributing a key text to Spenser, Hadfield’s purpose is to blow open the colonial milieu and show the intimate web of connections that tie the New English community together. My sole dismay reading Hadfield came with his conclusion (the contributors to this collection have a problem with endings). Perhaps the archival digging means that they run out of steam when they surface. Hadfield closes with Spenser’s death, and Elizabeth’s, and the fallout from both:

Spenser died thinking that his worst fears were about to be realised and that the result of years of bad female rule would be the triumph of a pincer movement – or even an alliance – between the Stuarts and the Spanish to outflank and threaten the rump of England. In fact, English military might reasserted itself under the astute command of Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Kinsale (24 December 1601). This paved the way for the Ulster plantation and the transformation of Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to an English colony. But the triumph was almost a disaster, and Elizabeth herself died before the Irish lords had finalised their surrender, a fact that was cunningly hidden from them during negotiations. Of course, this phase of Anglo-Irish history is hardly a simple tale of male fortitude and female negligence: had Philip III of Spain supported his general, Don Juan del Águila with more troops, he might have been the victor in Ireland. (260)

This paragraph discusses what might have been, and arguably misrepresents what actually happened. Can we safely say the Battle of Kinsale led to the Ulster Plantation? Was it not the accession of a Stuart to the throne that made the Ulster project possible? “Anglo-Irish” history has yielded to archipelagic perspectives in recent years, and Hadfield’s Anglocentric line here is perplexing, given that he has ably led the charge in complicating earlier historiography. The Ulster Plantation did not transform Ireland into an English colony; it transformed an English colony into a British or Anglo-Scottish colony. Moreover, English negotiations with Spain proceeded apace throughout the first half of the seventeenth century until Cromwell broke cover in 1655 with his “Declaration.” If we consider the emphasis upon Scotland in Milton’s Irish Observations of 1649 and his involvement in the 1652 Spanish treaty negotiations we can see the holes in Hadfield’s thesis. This is not to detract from the essay’s strengths, merely to point out that its final flourish is rather less persuasive than its exemplary main argument.

In “Elizabeth on Rebellion in Ireland and England: semper eadem?” Brendan Kane investigates “the similarities between rebellious actions in the two kingdoms and the queen’s role in effecting their suppression” (262). Kane’s starting point is the earl of Sussex’s proclamation against the Northern Rebellion of 1569, which he declared to be as unpatriotic, as “foreign,” as, say, the Butler Revolt of the same year in Ireland—Sussex, remember, had served in Ireland. Of course, all rebellions are foreign as far as the crown is concerned. Kane’s purpose in connecting English and Irish revolts is to challenge the historical consensus that Elizabeth’s reign was a peaceful one, and that between the Northern Rebellion and the Essex Rebellion all was quiet on the western front. Kane offers three key points. First, “that the queen did not see rebellions in her realms as fundamentally different.” Second, “that ‘Tudor’ rebellions occurred in both realms.” Third, “Elizabeth’s views highlight the domestic aspects of even the most violent of Irish affairs: they can be studied alongside other instances of unrest in the realms and, thus, they demonstrate the continuing phenomenon of internal rebellion throughout the entire Tudor period” (262). Kane makes his case forcefully, but what does “domestic” or “internal” mean here, especially in the context of Sussex’s proclamation? Are all rebellions where the crown claims authority foreign, or domestic? This is the crux of Kane’s argument. Do we see Irish rebellions as colonial, or as part of the list of “Tudor rebellions”?

My own view is that by domesticating the Irish revolts and seeing them as part of an Elizabethan or Tudor pattern we risk normalising what were extraordinary and external struggles to establish an empire and an enlarged English—soon to be British—state. While I sympathise with Kane’s eagerness to debunk the myth of a peaceful reign, and follow the logic of linking risings led by nobles that were rooted in grievances over land and power, region and religion, I can see the limits of a comparison that fails to take the colonial dimension into account. Part of the problem lies in the constant slippage between “Tudor” (1485-1603) and “Elizabethan” (1558-1603), since these are overlapping but not identical. For the first fifty years of its existence “Tudor England” was Catholic. It was Roman England. The Reformation and the 1541 act of kingly title, which altered the legal and regal relationship of the English crown to Ireland, changed all that. In modern historiography “Tudor” emerged as a territorial claim, with its English base and its borderlands, in the formulation of Geoffrey Elton, taken up by Steven Ellis.

The main body of Kane’s essay is occupied with a detailed discussion of Elizabeth’s response to the various rebellions her regime faced, which left me wondering what “Anglicisation” actually means in an Irish context. One of Kane’s closing remarks bears close scrutiny: “The material presented here is not intended to deny the frequent brutality of English-Irish relations but simply to suggest that a queen’s-eye view on rebellion in the Tudor realms may complicate our notions of subjects’ violent resistance against the state in the late sixteenth century” (284). “English-Irish relations,” “queen’s-eye view,” “Tudor realms,” and “subjects’ violent resistance” are all terms that need unpacking. Scotland and Wales are mentioned in passing elsewhere in the essay, but this is a top-down vision of Elizabethan Ireland, one where a Tudor state, in the second half of its history, having declared itself an empire in order to break with Rome, goes about its business as though it were business as usual. Kane complains that the colonial model “does not describe adequately an ‘Elizabethan’ mindset, for it does not take into account the monarch’s own outlook […] as sovereign, she was in the unique position of seeing all below her as merely subjects” (284). Have we not had enough of the queen’s-eye view in historiography, the “law and order” line that nullifies and neutralizes invasions, occupations and atrocities? What about crown-sanctioned violence? Are we being iconoclastic yet?

For those of us still living with an Elizabethan mindset—Scotland, today, as I write, is Elizabethan, having been Stuart (Marian and Jacobean) during the reign of Elizabeth I, while England, Ireland and Wales were all Elizabethan—subject status remains an issue, as does the queen’s-eye view of today’s equivalent of the state papers. Am I living in a parliamentary democracy or an imperial monarchy? Elizabethan history may be nothing but the same old story—always the same—but if that is the case then historians and critics more generally have a duty, not to change the facts on the ground as they find them, but to challenge official versions designed to maintain the status quo, a sameness achieved at the expense of others. Going back to the point made by Leah Marcus, “Ireland was a country Elizabeth actually reigned over while Scotland was an independent kingdom with its own monarch” (40). There was no “Elizabethan Scotland,” but there was an “Elizabethan Wales,” and one absence from this book is an awareness of the links between Ireland and Wales, Henry Sidney being an obvious example.

The final essay in the volume—there is no editors’ conclusion or afterword—is Marc Caball’s “Print, Protestantism, and Cultural Authority in Elizabethan Ireland.” The flavour of Caball’s contribution can be gleaned from a couple of choice phrases in his opening pages: “There was no Reformation from below in Ireland and, unlike England, there was no Reformation from above either. Rather, Reformation was externally imposed in Ireland” (288); “Importantly, the Protestant Reformation in England involved not just a process of ecclesiastical, theological, and liturgical renewal and reconfiguration; it also served to enhance the prestige of the English language through its use as a medium of worship and theological discussion and argument” (289); and “A form of linguistic colonialism was informed by a close association between Protestantism and English national identity” (289). What is the precise relationship here between religion, nationalism and colonialism? The anti-colonial struggle for freedom from Rome becomes bound up with the colonial desire to subjugate another nation. A declaration of independence becomes a declaration of empire. Caball’s aim in his essay is to examine a neglected text, “the 1571 Irish primer of religion” compiled by Seaán Ó Cearnaigh, “the first Gaelic book printed in Ireland,” and to do so “with a view to elucidating aspects of the promulgation of the message of reform in Elizabethan Ireland” (286-7). Reconstructing from fragments a biography of Ó Cearnaigh and a context for the primer, Caball contends “it is the most lasting product of Sidney’s subtle but ambitious religious agenda” (298). I confess never to having found much subtlety in Henry Sidney, or the other hackers-off of heads who were his contemporaries and subordinates, nor much religion. Ambition, yes, there’s that in spades.

In keeping with the collection as a whole—and echoing Brady’s claim that Elizabeth “inadvertently made it inevitable that the far more radical alternative advanced by Spenser’s terrifying Irenius should steadily come into play” (141)—Caball’s conclusion is full of wishful thinking and anti-history:

Ó Cearnaigh’s text is hybrid in its presentation of the message of Elizabethan reform in a vivid Gaelic guise. In matters of faith and political allegiance, however, there seems to be no reason to question his commitment to Elizabeth’s aspiration to political consolidation and religious reformation in Ireland. Ironically, it was perhaps the sophistication of Ó Cearnaigh’s vision of a vibrant Gaelic Irish Protestantism accommodated within a benign Tudor state that ensured its rapid negation by the primal but potent influences of sectarianism, colonialism, and nationalism. (308)

In other words, history happened and innocence was lost. The “primal” forces overpowered the benign ones. The very thought of a “benign Tudor state” after Kane’s essay, and others in this volume, is hardly credible, but Kane and Caball share a propensity to believe in the good will and good intentions of the queen and her chief officers. I don’t. I’m not even interested in their personalities or personal faith. There seems to be a tendency throughout the essays to take “evidence”—texts—at face value, and to resort to psychology when what is called for is theory. Does this help us to understand the history of “sectarianism, colonialism, and nationalism”? Does it aid our understanding of the cabal who ruled Elizabethan Ireland, beyond identification of—and with—their own alleged motives? Only insofar as it enables us to see the extent to which Elizabethan ideology still holds sway today. My PhD thesis originally bore the title “Marx and Spenser: Elizabeth and the Problem of Imperial Power.” At a dinner for graduate students in Cambridge shortly after my arrival in 1985 a senior scholar asked about my title. He said: “What’s the problem?” His query told me something of his attitude to empire. I answered with a question: “Which Elizabeth?” I searched this volume for evidence of a different attitude, but in the end I closed it with Elizabeth’s motto, “semper eadem.

Willy Maley
University of Glasgow

[1] Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, New Blackfriars 48, 564 (May, 1967): 444-445.

[2] Edmund Spenser, A View of the State of Ireland (1633): from the first printed edition, edited by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 110-11.

[3] See Willy Maley, “The Supplication of the blood of the English, most lamentably murdred in Ireland, Cryeng out of the Yearth for Revenge (1598),” introduced and transcribed, Analecta Hibernica, 36 (1994): 3-91.



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  • Sacramento Dumpster Rentals 4 months, 1 week ago

    Spenser committed himself to looking in the ‘glass’ of her Irish polity and what was reflected there was as much banshee as fairy queen.

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  • Lafayette Auto Glass Repair 4 months ago

    This collection aims to show that “neither queen nor Ireland and the Irish was as peripheral as generations worth of scholarship might suggest.

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Cite as:

Willy Maley, "Review Essay: Elizabeth I and Ireland," Spenser Review 45.2.33 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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