The Confiscation of Ulster in the Reign of James the First


Accession of James the First—Act of Oblivion—Extension of the English law to Ireland—Persecution of Roman Catholics—Risings in Waterford and Cork— Spies set upon the Great Earl.

On the 5th April, 1603, James the First ascended the throne which had been just vacated by one of the ablest sovereigns that ever wielded the English sceptre. Surrounded by a nation of courtiers, his progress to London was a continual triumph. He was received with the wildest transports; and the people hurried from all sides, with un-reflecting loyalty, to welcome to his throne the first of the Stuarts. No English monarch had commenced his reign under better auspices. The despotic genius of his predecessor had removed every difficulty of government in England, and James’s title, though far from being unquestionable, was freely admitted by the people. The vices of his character had not yet disclosed themselves; and a tumultuous joy hailed the accession of one of the worst and weakest of the English kings.

And in Ireland James was the first monarch who enjoyed entire dominion. After a war of several years’ duration, in which the English power was nearly destroyed, and in which England triumphed only by the profound policy of Mountjoy, Hugh O’Neill* had submitted to do homage to the crown, and to waive the hereditary honours of his name for the title of an English earl. But Elizabeth, to whom the merit of the conquest of Ireland is justly attributed, did not live to enjoy her own success. The capitulation with Hugh O’Neill was not signed until after her death, and probably would never have been concluded by the Irish Chief if he had been aware of the removal of his formidable enemy. This was, however, wisely concealed by the Lord Deputy until O’Neill’s submission was complete; and thus it was reserved for James to enjoy the fruits of a conquest achieved by the wisdom and policy of his predecessor.

*Hugh O’Neill, created Earl of Tyrowen by Elizabeth, was son of Mathew of Dungannon, who was son of Conn O’Neill the Lame. The latter was the first O’Neill who accepted an English earldom. Conn had other sons, and one of them was a most distinguished chieftain of Tyrowen, John the Proud. On the death of John, Tirlogh Lynnogh O’Neill was invested with the Principality of Tyrowen, but Hugh having made interest with Elizabeth, obtained both the lands and earldom, some provision having been made for the security and well-being of Tirlogh Lynnogh. After Hugh’s investment, he shortly threw off his foreign honours, assumed the ancient title of “The O’Neill,” and led his countrymen, through the course of a long and brilliant war, against the English. His biography is fully and most eloquently told in Mitchel’s “Life of Hugh O’Neill.”

Hugh O’Neill and Roderick O’Donnell* were carried to London in a state of honourable captivity; a formidable escort attended them on their journey, not to reflect lustre on their arrival, but to protect them from the vindictive fury of the people, who could scarcely be withheld from laying violent hands upon those “wicked and ungrateful traitors by whose rebellion so many of their friends had fallen.”

Their reception at the court was of a flattering description; they were welcomed by James with marks of distinguished favour;** Roderick O’Donnell was created Earl of Tyrconnell; Hugh O’Neill was confirmed in his Earldom of Tyrowen, and in all his properties and possessions; the submission of the leaders in the great war was complete and unreserved, and all was prepared “for a final establishment of the English power upon the basis of equal laws and civilized customs.”

James’s first measures were conciliatory. He published an Act of Oblivion and Indemnity by proclamation under the great seal, whereby all offences against the Crown, and all offences amongst subjects, committed before his accession were pardoned and extinguished, never to be revived or called into further question.

The peasants, tillers of the soil, mechanics, and artisans, hitherto, as Leland says, left under the tyranny of their chieftains, were received into the king’s immediate protection. If we are to believe the flatterer of James, his measures were of such a nature, and bred such comfort and security in the hearts of all men, as that thereupon ensued the calmest and most universal peace that ever was seen in Ireland. Sheriffs, the first of those officers of English law that ever administered its provisions in the old principalities of O’Neill and O’Donnell, were appointed in counties which had owned the supremacy of the two great Northern chieftains.*** Tyrowen and Tyrconnell were converted into shires, and the territorial divisions of baronies and counties became universal over Ulster; Judges of Assize held their circuits in every quarter; and Sir Edmund Pelham accompanied by Sir John Davies visited, in their judicial capacity, all the counties in the North, a visitation, as the latter quaintly remarks, which, though distasteful to the Irish lords, “was sweet and most welcome to the common people.” But lords and common people had yet to learn what things could be wrought under the semblance of English law, and what was the true import of that protection into which they had been graciously received.

*Roderick O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, and chieftain of the ancient race of Tyrconnell (now Donegal) was brother of one of the most remarkable men of his day. Hugh Roe O’Donnell, or Red Hugh O’Donnell. Red Hugh, well knowing the comparative merit of the men, matched his army into Tyrowen, and compelled Tirlogh Lynnogh to resign the principality of Tyrowen in favour of Hugh O’Neill. Be carried on incessant war against the English and their allies. He defeated Sir John Norris, Earl of Kildare, and Lord Burrows, and assisted Hugh O’Neill in defeating and killing Marshal Bagenal at the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the Blackwater. Three of these English generals were killed on the field of battle. He marched with Hugh O’Neill to relieve Kinsale in 1602, where these two distinguished friends differed about the honour of leading the attack upon the English ; the consequence was, a want of concert amongst the troops, and the irreparable destruction of the Irish League against Elizabeth. After the defeat before Kinsale, Hugh O’Donnell went to Spain to induce Philip to invade Ireland. He fared badly in this mission, and worn out with vexation of spirit and the fatigues of war, he died at Simancas, near Valladolid, 10th September, 1601. His brother Roderick was created Earl of Tyrconnell by patent of 29th September, 1603. The King’s letter creating Roderick earl, is a valuable historical document, and will be found in Sir William Betham’s memoir of the O’Donnells, p. 185 of his Antiquarian Researches, Part I. After his flight with Hugh O’Neill he was attainted with his brother Calvagh. He died at Rome 28th July, 1617, and was buried in the Abbey of St. Francis. A branch of this illustrious family is settled in Spain, of which are the Conde de Abispal and his brothers. Another O’Donnell married a princess of Cantucacine, one of the descendants of the Greek Emperors of Constantinople and Trebisonde Sir W. Betham’s Ant. Res. p. 192.

**”He (Tyrowen) was graciously received by the king, and returned with honours.”—Borlase, p. 184.

***”1603. Sir George Carey, Treasurer at War, June 1, was made Lord Deputy; he, in the first year of his majesty’s reign, made the first sheriffs that ever served to Tyrowen and Tyrconnell, and shortly after sent Sir Edmund Pelham, Chief Baron, and Sir John Davies of Ireland, the first Justices of Assize in those countries, which were welcome to the Commons, though distasteful to the Irish Lords.”—Borlase’s Reduction of Ireland to the Crown of England, p. 185.

As a preliminary measure towards the establishment of English power, the old laws and customs of Tanistry and Gavelkind, and all “cuttings, cosherings, and sessings”* were abolished, and the English law of inheritance, and English tenures substituted in their stead. The “Commission of Grace” issued,** and in pursuance of its provisions most of the Irish lords yielded their estates to the crown, and received them again under the English titles of Knight Service or Common Soccage; inquisitions were holden into the amount of land possessed by the chieftains, in order that none of them should receive a re-grant of more than what was actually in his possession; and the tenants under each lord, relieved of uncertain contributions and exactions, held their lands subject to an annual rent and by free tenure.***

*Coigne and Livery, Cuttings and Cosherings, were various names for the several forms of contribution which an Irish Chieftain was entitled to receive from his clansmen, or, as English writers universally phrased it, from his “tenants.” “Coigne and Livery” meant man’s-meat and horse-meat (Spenser’s State of Ireland), which a chief seems to have been invested with power to require in rather indefinite quantities, according to the exigencies of his station; and “Coshering” was the privilege of the chieftain to make progresses among his clan, and live, with all his train, at their expense; “wherein he did eat them,” says Sir John Davies, “out of house and home.”—Historical Tracts, p. 134. Sir John, indeed, who was a main instrument in establishing the new systems of tenure, is highly indignant against the old, which he says “made the lord an absolute tyrant, and the tenant a very slave and villein”—being unable apparently to understand the fact, which, however, is indisputable, that the Chieftain was not a “lord,” nor the clansmen “tenants,” much less “villeins;” that all these “cosherings,” &c. were the ancient payments which custom required every clan to make to its elected leader; and that, far from being oppressive, they were gladly submitted to by every clan without exception, “for their common saying,” says Spenser, “is, Spend me and Defend me”—a phrase which clearly indicates the mutual obligations of chief and people, and the mode in which they were to be discharged.

**Lascelles ‘says “The Commission of Grace was merely a device for raising money. Lawyers were the financiers of the day. And this device of a new tenure was a mere tax, ever renewable like a phoenix, but not so fabulous. Though these Commissions of Grace are interlarded with many specious professions of ‘pity for the poor’ ‘love of justice’—’the prosperity, trade, and commerce of the country’—’ civility’—and the like; yet so is every declaration even of war, which is sure to lay prostrate all those blessings. We might as well believe the preambles of many statutes, which, nevertheless, every man of common sense knows are nothing else but the pretexts, not the true reasons of the law.”—Liber munerum publicorum Hibernia; under the heading of Res gestae Anglorum in Hibernia, chapter 6, p. 47, being a very excellent history of Ireland by Mr. Lascelles of the Middle Temple.

***These changes, which would at the first glance appear to be beneficial to the people, were suggested by a far-seeing policy, having a very different object. The destruction of the custom of Tanistry rooted out the very principle of Irish government—election; and with it that ancient system of clanship which is found pervading the history of Ireland from the earliest periods, {Moore, vol. 1, pp. 169, 170,) and which principally depended on this, and on the other institution of Gavelkind. The latter made all lands the common property of the sept, for, on the death of the Prince, his Tanist (who during his life time had been elected to succeed him) assembled the sept, and made a partition of all the lands amongst them. This was a system quite different from the Anglo-Norman, or feudal, forms of social organization, and was certainly unfavourable to agricultural improvement. But the English monarchs saw a greater evil in it. It gave the princes only a life-estate— a restricted and not descendible interest; and the life estate only, and not the remainder, was forfeitable by treason. By giving the “fee-simple” to the Chief, his estates became subject to the law of Forfeiture; and what was more important to the objects of England, the sept lost that common bond of interest and union with the Chief, which gave them power and consequence. A similar result occurred in the system of Highland clanship in Scotland by similar policy.

In this scheme of government, which at one blow destroyed the institutions, habits, laws, and customs of ages, which substituted one form of civilization for another essentially different, there was, to the eyes of an Englishman, much apparent wisdom. The ancient laws of Ireland had been tried, say English writers, and were found not to be beneficial. From the customs of Tanistry and, Gavelkind, and from the subdivision of power amongst the numerous chieftains, resulted incessant contentions, which rendered any great National movement unlikely, if not impossible, and fatally impeded the progress of the people to refinement and high civilization. A social system without any settled appropriation of property,* and with no established line of hereditary descent, divided and contentious, where all differences were brought to the arbitrament of the sword, or decided by a code in which the punishment for the gravest crimes was commuted to pecuniary mulcts;—a military system capable of producing the noblest instances of heroism, and occasionally of gallantly resisting foreign invasion, but incapable of affording permanent internal security, gave way before a newer and more vigorous order of things, and yielded, not without honourable resistance, to the arms and policy of an united enemy.** It is now a matter of mere speculation whether, if Ireland “had not tempted the cupidity of her neighbours, there would have arisen in the course of time some Egbert or Harold Harfager to consolidate the provincial kingdoms into one hereditary monarchy.” It is most probable that such a consummation might have been effected; but the spirit of adventure carried the invader to the shores of Ireland before her Legislator appeared, and the country fell beneath the internal dissensions of her own sons as much as by the force and treachery of a foreign foe. It has been her unfortunate lot that those who, after the loss of her independence, obtained power in Ireland, perpetuated those evils—ruling first by the conflicting interests of different races, and afterwards by the angrier antagonism of different creeds. This policy will develop itself in the course of this narrative.

*”The fruits of the Irish Gavelkind was the total desolation of the country. When the English entered the fertile fields of Ulster, they found an idle desert; the general subjugation of the Celtic tribes, who, though gifted, and in no ordinary degree, with strength, courage, and intelligence, have yielded to every stranger, may probably be traced to their stubborn adherence to this system, which annihilated all inducements to industry, destroyed the sources of individual opulence, and exposed the nation at large to all the evils of sloth and indolence.”—Sir F. Patgrave’s Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth, vol. 1, p. 75. He says that Gavelkind is a variation of an universal Teutonic custom.

**Noble instances occur in Irish history of resistance to foreign aggression. The very crimes and abominations committed by the Danes prove how violent and persevering must have been the opposition of the Irish to the northern invaders. The most signal triumph over foreign enemies was achieved by Brian, a wise and successful usurper, who had nearly consolidated in his own person the entire monarchical power of Ireland. Had he survived the bloody and glorious triumph of Clontarf, he might perhaps have completed his scheme of wise usurpation, and realized in his own person, or in that of one of his descendants, the theory contained in the text. Scarcely had he fallen when contentions arose between his sons and the chief of another tribe, who laid claim to the throne of Munster; and on their march homewards the former were opposed by the Prince of Ossory, Mac Gilla Patrick, who demanded hostages. “Hostages or battle?” “Let it be then battle,” said the sons of Brian, “for never within the memory of man did a prince of the race of Brian give hostages to a Mac Gilla Patrick.” The sequel of this characteristic episode is given in one of Moore’s exquisite melodies.

After the final and irreparable defeat of Hugh O’Neill, but little resistance was offered to the introduction of English law in Ulster. In a few years the entire province was under its control; it was filled with English garrisons;* patrolled by English Judges of Assize; and the public peace was confided to the guardianship of Sheriffs. There was no trace of Irish customs, the new order of things was established without difficulty, and the natives “were for the first time admitted to the privileges of subjects.” Peace, the daughter of famine and the sword, was proclaimed throughout the devastated districts of Ulster; and the time had indeed arrived when it had become possible for England to lay the foundations of her power widely and securely in the soil of Ireland “Equal laws and civilized customs” had been proclaimed through the land; the English judges every half year (like good planets in their several spheres and circles) carried the light and influence of justice round about the kingdom; and it appeared as if the long contest of the two races had ceased for ever by the subjugation of the Chiefs and Clans of Ireland.

*”The following list of garrisons held by the British in Ulster, in May, 1603, compiled from Moryson, (Hist. i. 73, 155, 253; and ii. 131, 184, 208, 356,) will convey some idea of the military state of the province:—Down. Newry, 100 men; Lecale, or Downpatrick, including Dundrum and Ardglass, 200; Narrow-water; Greencastle. Antrim Carrickfergus, 650; Toome; Olderfleet. Armagh Armagh, 150; Mountnorris, 150; Ennislaughlin. Monaghan Monughan and Ruske, including some other castles, 350. Cavan Cavan, 100; Gloughaughter; Ballinicargy. Fermanagh Enniskillen and some castles garrisoned from Ballyshannon. Tyrone. Omagh, 100; Charlemont, 150; Mountjoy, 350; Newtonstewart, 100; Dunman, 150; Augher. Derry Derry, 350; Culmore, 20; Ainogh, 100; Coleraine, 100. Donegall.—Donegall, Asheraw, Ballyshannon, including castles in Fermanagh, 900, Lifford, 350; Dunalong, 150; Kilmacrenan, 100; Ramullan, 100; Doe, 100; Cargan, 100; and Burt, 150.”—Reid’s Hist. Presb. Church in Ireland, vol. i., p. 76, n. 3.

But it was soon discovered that, from the extensive scheme of “equal laws and civilized customs,” the greatest portion of the Irish nation was to be carefully excluded by strongly constructed barriers. It had been thought by the Roman Catholics that James was favourable to the faith of his long and princely lineage; and relying upon this erroneous conviction, the people rose in Cork* and Waterford,** with the consent and co-operation of the magistracy, to restore the old religion; they resumed the churches and expelled the ministers, who possessed as little of the spirit of martyrs and confessors as they did of the piety of saints;*** abbeys and monasteries were repaired; the Temples of worship and of charity once more raised their heads over the barbarism which had profaned them; and the ceremonies of the national religion were, for a short period before the darkness set in, celebrated openly and without fear. Leland says, and indeed the local historians of the South of Ireland seem to encourage the statement, that the Catholic clergy went further, and, “with an insolence which no religious principles could excuse,” presumed to usurp the functions of the established tribunals, and to enjoin the people, on their salvation, to obey their decisions and not those of the law. But James soon undeceived those who trusted to his clemency or his toleration; he might, and possibly did feel some tenderness towards the religious tenets of the Catholics; but the doctrine of papal supremacy was a stumbling-block to the pride and egotism of Royalty; it was “an imperial civil power over kings and emperors, to dethrone and de-crown them at the Pope’s pleasure.” The result of this jealous and ignorant construction of that which necessarily involved neither the safety of kings, nor the loyalty of subjects, was a fierce persecution against the priests. The King’s Council published in Dublin an Act of Uniformity, passed in the second year of Elizabeth’s reign in a Parliament of the Pale, by which attendance on Catholic worship was prohibited under severe penalties. It was speedily followed, on the 4th July, 1605, by a proclamation, in which James dissipated the delusions of those who expected religious toleration at his hands. He told his subjects—”his beloved subjects”—that he would not admit any such liberty of conscience as they had fondly expected, and he commanded that by a certain day the Catholic priests should depart the realm.

*Smith in his history of Cork gives the following amusing account of the proceedings in that city:— “The citizens every day grew more rebellious; for they burned all the bibles and common-prayer books they could find; they raised out the ten commandments, and other parts of the scripture that were in the churches, that they might wash them over, and paint their old Popish pictures in their stead. They publicly set up the mass, and posted sentinels at the doors of the churches. They had a person named a Legate from the Pope, who went about in procession with a cross, and forced people to reverence it; they buried the dead with the Romish ceremonies, and numbers took the sacrament to defend that religion with their lives and fortunes.”—Smith’s History of Cork, vol. 2, p. 99.

**The same author gives a similar account of the proceedings in Waterford. Speaking of the Catholics, he says, “They broke the doors of the Hospital, and admitted Doctor White to preach a seditious sermon in St. Patrick’s Church, wherein, amongst other invectives, he said that Jezabel (meaning Queen Elizabeth) was dead.”—Hist, of Waterford, p. 143.

***”In many places there is no minister at all; in many places a number as good as none; even a dumb dog that cannot bark, an idle shepherd, who is not apt to teach nor able to confute; in other places a lewd and scandalous minister, whose not gospel-like behaviour is a stumbling-block to them that are without. Even as the Prince of Cuba in India said that he would not go to heaven if the Spaniards went thither, because he thought that there could be no good place where such tyrants were; so many of this country will not be of our religion, because they think that there can be no true religion which hath such unconscionable ministers.”—Leslie’s Sermon at Drogheda, p. 52. This refers to a period much earlier than the date of the Ulster Plantation; but it continued to be true for a long while afterwards.

And then commenced a religious war of great cruelty and greater folly. The magistrates and chief citizens of Dublin were enjoined to repair to the churches of the establishment. Repeated admonitions and conferences, says Leland, served but “to render them more obstinate”—it was strange that it should be so—and the stern logic of fine and imprisonment was freely adopted. The prisons were peopled with recusants; the priests were forced to fly the country or else to conceal themselves in secret places to avoid the gibbet and the lash. The terrors of the penal laws, let loose by the theologie fury of the King, were increased by the avarice and cruelty of the sanguinary Chichester. Up to the year 1605 the sees of Derry, Raphoe, and Clogher, which extended over the greater part of Ulster, had been occupied by Roman Catholic prelates; and the abbeys and monasteries which had been formally dissolved half a century before, still continued to be the centres round which flocked numerous priests, friars, and other ecclesiastical persons. But the publication of the Proclamation was the signal for resuming into the King’s hands those edifices of religion, and ejecting their “useless inmates.” And what made these oppressions more bitter in the North was, the striking fact that there, as we may conclude from Davies’s Account of Chichester’s progress in Ulster in 1607, there was not a single Protestant outside the numerous garrisons of the English. By the same authority we find, that up to this period it was impossible that the principles of the Reformation could have been at all known in Ulster, for no religious teaching had been provided for the people. The tidings of a reformed religion were preached from no pulpit; the rectors and bishops who had been appointed were non-resident; and the Catholics were reduced to the alternative of enduring penalties for the profession of the faith they had been reared in, or embracing a religion in which they had received no spiritual instruction.

We may well imagine it was not without deep rage and disappointment that Hugh O’Neill looked out from his retirement upon the sufferings of his people. His eyes were accustomed to the sights of War, and his mind was familiar with the images of heroic suffering; they would have awakened no pity or pained no sensibility in his heart; but when he sheathed the sword and abdicated his ancient principalities, he had reason to hope that peace would have visited the nation, and that civil oppression would not have followed so closely on the track of famine, fire, and murder. He had seen the province, which was the old inheritance of his house, reduced by the most frightful agencies to the lowest state of poverty and wretchedness—He had seen its harvests reaped by the sword and had mourned over a ghastly peace produced by desolation. The country was nearly un-peopled, and its pastures wasted by ruthless war. The miserable survivors of the last contests of Liberty, were exposed to the more grievous calamities of famine and pestilence. That wild sensual and warlike people, whose lives were spent between martial contest and the sports and labours of the field, who had roved in freedom through their ancient forests, and driven their flocks from pasture to pasture, were now the victims of the sword, or were chased by their conquerors into the wild fastnesses of the land that once was their own. This was the fate of war; but the oppression that ground them to the earth, and which taught them all the bitterness of defeat, came in the placid guise of law. Their religion was proscribed; their churches were seized upon; and their sanctuaries were defiled; their priests were banished the land, or else exposed at home to torture, to infamy, and death. A code framed in legislatures, the abject agents of foreign tyranny, was revived to torture and degrade them. And these cruel oppressions, whilst they inflamed the people, fell far more bitterly on the spirit of their Chief, of him who had left the still unreaped harvest of war, and, vainly trusting perfidious foes, had sheathed the sword in the hope of restoring peace to his afflicted land.

Nor was he without private and peculiar sorrows, which weighed upon his soul, and might well have provoked the treasons of which he was afterwards accused. He had scarcely left the court of England and retired to his own principality, oppressed with the grievous weight of his new dignities, when he found himself struggling in the network of English policy. His rich lands had been turned into Shires; where his will had been the law, the officials of a hateful power were securely settled to distribute new and unheard-of codes; the Commissioners of James surveyed his passes, foreign armies garrisoned his towns, and patrolled the wide and once fertile plains their arms had rendered desolate. But this was not all; his own steps were dogged by spies; every act of his was noted; official zeal even exalted itself to prophecy. “Notice is taken of every person that is able to do either good or hurt. It is known not only how they live and what they do; but it is foreseen what they purpose or intend to do; insomuch that Tyrowen has been heard to complain, that he had so many eyes watching over him that he could not drink a full carouse of sack, but the state was advertised thereof a few hours after.” The import of their prophetic visions is now to be seen; it was a prophecy which fulfilled itself in the destruction of the most ancient families of the Island, and the confiscation of its finest province.

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