CHAPTER VIII. THE CHURCH IN IRELAND DURING THE REIGNS OF HENRY VIII. AND EDWARD VI. (1509-1553)

When Henry VIII. ascended the English throne, though he styled himself the Lord of Ireland, he could claim little authority in the country. The neglect of his predecessors, the quarrels between the English colonists, especially between the Geraldines and the Butlers, and the anxiety of both parties to ally themselves with the Irish princes, had prevented the permanent conquest of the country. Outside the very limited area of the Pale English sheriffs or judges dare not appear to administer English law; no taxes were paid to the crown; no levies of troops could be raised, and the colonists could only hope for comparative peace by paying an annual tribute to the most powerful of their Irish neighbours. The barony of Lecale in Down paid £40 a year to O'Neill of Clandeboy, Louth paid a similar sum to O'Neill of Tyrone, Meath paid £300 a year to O'Connor of Offaly, Kildare £20 to O'Connor, Wexford £40 to the McMurroughs, Kilkenny and Tipperary £40 to O'Carroll of Ely, Limerick city and county £80 to the O'Briens, Cork £40 to the McCarthys, and so low had the government fallen that it consented to pay eighty marks yearly from the royal treasury to McMurrough.[1]

During the early years of his reign Henry VIII. was so deeply interested in his schemes for subduing France and in continental affairs generally that he could give little attention to his dominions in Ireland. Sometimes the Earl of Kildare was superseded by the appointment of the Earl of Surrey (1520), and of Sir Piers Butler, the claimant to the Earldom of Ormond (1521), and of Sir William Skeffington (1529), but as a general rule Kildare, whether as Deputy or as a private citizen, succeeded in dictating the policy of the government. By his matrimonial alliances with the Irish chieftains, the O'Neills, the MacCarthys, O'Carroll of Ely, and O'Connor of Offaly, his bargains with many of the other Irish and Anglo-Irish nobles, and by his well-known prowess in the field, he had succeeded in making himself much more powerful in Ireland than the English sovereign. But his very success had raised up against him a host of enemies, led by his old rival the Earl of Ormond, and supported by a large body of ecclesiastics, including Allen, the Archbishop of Dublin, and of lay nobles. Various charges against him were forwarded to England, and in 1534 he was summoned to London to answer for his conduct. Before setting out on his last journey to London he appointed his son, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald (Silken Thomas), then a youth of twenty-one, to take charge of the government. The latter had neither the wisdom nor the experience of his father. Rumours of his father's execution, spread by the enemies of the Geraldines, having reached his ears, despite the earnest entreaties of Archbishop Cromer of Armagh, he resigned the sword of state, and called upon his retainers to avenge the death of the Earl of Kildare (1534).

The rebellion of Silken Thomas forced Henry VIII. to undertake a determined campaign for the conquest of Ireland. His hopes of winning glory and territory in France had long since disappeared. He was about to break completely with Rome, and there was some reason to fear that Charles V. might make a descent upon the English coasts with or without the aid of the King of France. Were an invasion from the Continent undertaken before the conquest of Ireland had been finished it might result in the complete separation of that kingdom from England, and its transference to some foreign power. It was well known that some of the Irish princes were in close correspondence with France and Scotland, that Silken Thomas was hoping for the assistance of the Emperor, and that once England had separated herself definitely from the Holy See, many of the Irish and Anglo-Irish nobles might be induced to make common cause with the Pope against a heretical king. Hitherto the king's only legal title to the Lordship of Ireland was the supposed grant of Adrian IV., and as such a grant must necessarily lapse on account of heresy and schism a new title must be sought for in the complete conquest of the country. The circumstances were particularly favourable for undertaking such a work. The royal treasury was well supplied; England had little to fear for the time being from Francis I. or Charles V., as the energies of both were required for the terrible struggle between France and the Empire; the friends of Ormond and the enemies of Kildare, both Irish and Anglo- Irish, could be relied upon to lend their aid, and even the Irish princes friendly to Kildare might be conciliated by fair promises of reward. Relying upon all these considerations Henry VIII. determined to reduce Ireland to submission, and at the same time to put an end to its religious and political dependence on the Holy See.