The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms
The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms

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The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms

3.7 Ireland and 1641

Despite its proximity to England and the familiarity of Irish people to the English, Ireland was an object of almost anthropological curiosity. English rulers had, since Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, considered the place to be the haunt of barbarians. Rebellions by Gaelic lords in the late sixteenth century had established in many English minds that the Catholic Irish were not to be trusted. The government expropriated rebels’ land and instituted schemes to grant it to Protestant English and Scots settlers (planters), extending the region of Protestant settlement from the area surrounding Dublin to King's and Queen's counties (Counties Laois and Offaly), parts of the province of Munster, and substantial tracts of Ulster.

Much of the writing about the country either expatiated on the quaintness of the Irish (in the hopes of encouraging English families to settle there) or on their lack of civility (providing authors with opportunities to describe Irish lasciviousness and the dirt in which they lived for the amusement of an English audience and justifying the seizure of land from rebel leaders). A characteristic description is that of Barnaby Rich.

Exercise 9

0 hours 15 minutes

Read Anthology Document 3.8, ‘The nature of the Irish, 1610 (Barnaby Rich)’. What impression does Rich convey of the Irish?


Rich starts by saying how similar the English, Scots and Irish were, and how superior to other races. But he quickly remarks on the uncivilised dress of the Irish from the remote parts and on the undesirable qualities of character that he attributed to their Catholicism or, rather, their adherence to the pope in preference to the government of the King of England.

Ireland was a complex, multicultural society of Gaelic Irish, Old English, New English and Scots. There were three communities there, each of which regarded itself as culturally distinct. There were the Gaelic Irish–Catholic and Gaelic-speaking, with a clan-based society cut into by Henry VIII's land reforms. There were the descendants of the Anglo-Norman settlers of the twelfth century – mainly Catholic, sometimes married into Gaelic Irish families so often Gaelic-speaking, but who regarded themselves as preservers of English language, law and custom. These Old English, as they were known, had traditionally been loyal supporters of the English crown against the native Irish, though since the Reformation they had been considered by the English to be untrustworthy because of their religion. And there were the New English and Scots – Protestant settlers who had come to Ireland to take up land grants offered to Protestants from land confiscated from rebellious Catholic Irish families in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In 1628, Charles I recognised the loyal protestations of the Old English by assuring them, in a document known as the Graces, of titles to land they had occupied undisputed for more than sixty years and by no longer requiring of heirs that they take the Oath of Supremacy, which was unacceptable to Catholics because it declared the monarch to be head of the Church of England/Ireland. It was agreed that, in return, the Irish parliament (which was traditionally dominated by the Old English) would grant the king revenue.

Charles I had little knowledge of Ireland. In 1633, he sent Thomas Wentworth to Dublin as lord deputy, knowing that Wentworth would wish to carry out the ‘policy of thorough’ to improve the administrative efficiency of the government and, more important, to increase tax revenues. Wentworth wanted also to reform the church and improve the position of Church of Ireland bishops, but his reference in a letter to his friend Archbishop Laud to ‘reducing this kingdom to a conformity in religion with the church in England’ reveals that this was not to be achieved by negotiation (Knowler, 1740, vol. 1, p. 187).

In 1634, Wentworth called a parliament in Dublin. The Old English members wanted to grant him subsidies in return for the ratification of the Graces; the New English, however, believed that a better way of raising money would be stricter enforcement of fines levied from Catholics for not attending Protestant Church of Ireland services. Wentworth's administrative reforms removed the financial attractions of holding office in the Dublin government (antagonising the New English), while his attempts to restore to the Church of Ireland church lands that had passed to the hands of laypeople, antagonised the Old English, especially when it became apparent that parliament would not ratify those sections of the Graces that guaranteed their land titles. He also alienated those of the New English who occupied former church lands.

Had it been obvious to the inhabitants of Ireland that Wentworth was incorruptible, he might have found some support, but he appeared to be taking advantage of his position to obtain for himself nearly 60,000 acres of land and to build a magnificent palace at Naas, some twenty miles outside Dublin. Subsequent investigation, however, proved that Wentworth's acquisitions were honestly obtained. Wentworth's particular crime, in the eyes of the inhabitants of Ireland, was to regard the country as a source of men and money to help the king out of his troubles in his other kingdoms.

In October 1641, unanticipated by the governments in either Dublin or London, the Catholic Irish in Ulster erupted in rebellion (see Figure 4). ‘The uprising in Ulster was not the response to some specific English act or policy, but rather an outburst against immemorial grievances …. [The conspirators’] motives were as vague as their plans’ (Bottigheimer, 1971, pp. 30–1). Parliament in London prepared to ask the City of London for a loan of £50,000 to fund an army to be sent to Ireland.

Figure 4
Illustrations from The Teares of Ireland wherein is lively presented as in a map, a list of the unheard off cruelties and perfidious treacheries of bloud-thirsty Jesuits and the Popish faction, London, A. N. for John Rothwell, 1642, p. 23. Photo: The British Library (C.21.b.42) ©
Illustrations from The Teares of Ireland wherein is lively presented as in a map, a list of the unheard off cruelties and perfidious treacheries of bloud-thirsty Jesuits and the Popish faction, London, A. N. for John Rothwell, 1642, p. 23. Photo: The British Library (C.21.b.42)
Figure 4 Illustrations from The Teares of Ireland wherein is lively presented as in a map, a list of the unheard off cruelties and perfidious treacheries of bloud-thirsty Jesuits and the Popish faction, London, A. N. for John Rothwell, 1642, p. 23. Photo: The British Library. This is one of the more luridly illustrated of the many accounts of the Catholic assaults on Protestants in the early months of the rising

Had the rising been confined to Ulster, matters would have been relatively straightforward, but in December 1641 the Old English (a group traditionally loyal to the crown, though largely Catholic) joined the rebels. The historian Nicholas Canny characterises the change as ‘nothing short of a revolution’ – but one which was out of the control of the original leaders, who were unable to restrain the outburst of popular fury by native Irish against the Protestant settler communities of Ulster, Munster and Leinster (Canny, 1987, p. 208). The violence of the rising was branded on everyone's consciousnesses: estimates of the number of Protestants killed range from 4,000 (by historians) to 200,000 (by propagandists). Undoubtedly many more people died from famine and pestilence, and from the theft and destruction of livestock and crops.

This episode looms large in the consciousness of Ulster Protestants to this day and it is one whose history is difficult to write dispassionately, since virtually all the surviving testimony comes from Protestants’ sworn depositions about the injury and loss they had suffered, often taken some years after the event.

Exercise 10

0 hours 20 minutes

Read Anthology Document 3.9, ‘Protestant depositions in Ireland, 1641’, parts (a) and (b).

  1. What can we tell about the deponents themselves?

  2. Are these accounts likely to be accurate in all particulars?


  1. We know that these deponents were women and were all unable to write their names (from which we may deduce that the accounts were written down by clerks). One deponent was the widow of an inn-keeper and evidently quite prosperous.

  2. Both accounts contain a good deal of hearsay evidence and the similarities in the accounts, given that the women had not written them down themselves, might give rise to the suspicion that the clerks who recorded the depositions used stock phrases. But both accounts are extremely specific, naming Catholic rebels, people who were neighbours and known to the deponents, and providing details about places. Nevertheless, bearing in mind Rich's account of the Irish, it is difficult not to suspect some stereotyping of what the rebellious Irish were expected to do.


These depositions, despite their one-sided view of the events of 1641, are an extremely important source for the history of the rising because there is so little other material. Although they contain a great deal of hearsay evidence, they identify by name many of the rebels, they provide some eye-witness accounts, and they tell us about the mentality of the Protestant settlers, many of them people of humble circumstances.

The spread of the rebellion beyond Ulster increased the urgency of defeating the insurgents and to do this the king had to have an army. In November 1641, parliament at Westminster resolved to send 12,000 men from England and to ask the Scots to send 10,000 more. Some troops arrived in Ireland in January 1642 and 2500 Scots finally arrived in Ireland in April. It was not until February that parliament in London passed, and the king signed, an Act for Reducing Ireland under which individuals would advance money to suppress the rebellion and in exchange be guaranteed lands in Ireland from those yet to be confiscated from the undefeated rebels. Slowly, an army was gathered in England under the command of Philip Lord Wharton, but in July 1642 his officers were ordered by parliament to remain in England to serve against the king and it was not until 1649 that a serious attempt was made from England to defeat the Irish rebels.


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