This is Past Tense Podcast, and we’re talking about the British Civil Wars, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. If you’re just joining us here, I recommend starting from the beginning, so you don’t miss out on any introductions in the meantime.
Before we delve back into the history, I want to take a moment to do some housekeeping. Our release schedule is planned so that an episode, either a full episode or one of the smaller bonus ones, comes out every two weeks. Sometimes that’s going to be a few days later than on-the-dot-next-Friday, and maybe even a bit later than that. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly and most importantly, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed, there’s a lot happening in the world at the moment, and a lot happening in the UK in particular. We can’t talk about a massive period of constitutional crisis in the UK without referring to what’s going on here at the moment, and it’s very important to me, and to us here at Feasibly, to do justice to that. Past Tense has been eighteen months in the making so far, but the majority of that is research - right now, I’m pretty much writing the episodes you hear in real time. There are definite pros to this, because it means I can compare it to things happening in the UK at the moment as they happen. But it also means there’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff to orchestrate, like getting other historical consultants on board, and following lines of inquiry as they become relevant to us right now.
Secondly, whilst all of us here at Feasibly wish that creating this podcast were our actual day job, sadly it is not. I spend probably a bit more of my week than I strictly ought to on Past Tense, mostly because I just find it so much fun, but sometimes the rest of life and bill-paying and so forth can get in the way, and that means delays are occasionally going to happen. This is a good an opportunity for me to thank our current Patreon patrons, for helping make Past Tense a sustainable thing - they’re all wonderful and I’m so grateful for their support. If you’re able to join their ranks, please do check out our Patreon at patreon.com/pasttensepod, or even if you can continue to spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes and enthusing loudly about us to your friends, we’d be much obliged.
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Back to the seventeenth century, then! This episode is going to be about Ireland. I’ll level with you now, it’s been a hard episode for me to put together - probably the most difficult one so far. There’s not quite so much information to be had on Ireland between 1600 and about 1660, so purely from a research perspective, I’ve had to do a bit more rooting around than usual - I usually like to get a couple of different perspectives on something, to hear about a place or a situation from the points of view of several people who are interested in different things. So that’s the first problem I’ve faced this time around. More pressingly, though, is the fact that before I started researching this podcast, I didn’t know very much at all about the history of the English in Ireland. And if you’re English, then, chances are, neither did you.
You should know from the outset: I have feelings about this. Anglo-Irish history is a difficult thing to talk about, not just because it’s politically charged - which it is - but because as far as I can tell, the effect of that political charge is that these days we have a tendency to pretend the whole thing isn’t there. Anglo-Irish history is where we descend into euphemisms, skirt around things, darkly mention the word “Troubles” but don’t really elaborate on what that means. Often it’s because we don’t even know what that means - you probably know, like I did, that Oliver Cromwell went across to Ireland and did something. What did he do? People died, but that’s about as far as we ever get. It’s so easy to make an offhand reference to Cromwell in Ireland, and then just move on - but that doesn’t tell us anything, it doesn’t pass on any information, and it turns an actual real-life person into a bogeyman. And that’s no use to anybody. We can’t disapprove of a person purely on the basis of dark mutterings. There are plenty of reasons to have a problem with Oliver Cromwell without turning him into some kind of fairy tale villain.
Which brings me back around to something that, if anything, is what I want to be the central idea of this series. The reason I think we kind of gloss over the British Civil Wars in popular history is that there’s no clear narrative of who to cheer for, which side or even which individuals we want to win. Ireland in the Civil Wars is a particularly thorny part of that, because I think every person on some level naturally wants their ancestors to have been the good guys - either on a systemic level, or on a personal level. And sometimes they’re just not - Royalist or Parliamentarian; English, Scottish or Irish - and that’s much easier to get your head around intellectually than it is emotionally. So we distance ourselves from the history of the British Civil Wars because we don’t know who we want to align ourselves with, and - I’m speaking as an English person here, but it goes broader than that - we distance ourselves from Anglo-Irish history because on some level it’s awkward to think of your own ancestors having done the wrong thing. It’s personal. There’s no getting away from that. But it’s always, always better to understand than not to understand. Even if it invites dialogue that might not always be comfortable. Oliver Cromwell in Ireland is about ten or fifteen years away from the events we’re largely going to be looking at today - he’s still a lowly Member of Parliament with not a lot of political clout; already a supporter of the English Parliament, but very far away from the main action. But Cromwell isn’t the only person who made waves in Ireland at around this time, and he certainly didn’t come out of nowhere.
At any rate, if this is your first introduction to seventeenth-century Anglo-Irish history, know now that there is no way I can do it justice in fifty-five minutes. I have biases based on the academic books I’ve read, and probably also the climate I’ve grown up in. If you have questions, do get in touch with me on Twitter or the Past Tense Facebook page; if you want to know more about this subject and this period, I’ll put a reading list in the show notes on pasttensepod.com; and if you’re an early modern historian, this week more than usual I apologise in advance for butchering your subject. My story isn’t the only story to be told about this part of history, besides which it’s going to be woefully short and leave out an awful lot of detail. I encourage you, if at all possible, not to just take my word for it.
That being said… let’s do this.
The English presence in ruling Ireland goes back centuries before the time we get to now - all the way back to 1169, when Henry II had attempted to invade Ireland and establish an English colony. He was vaguely successful, in that the colony happened, and English monarchs since then put “Lord of Ireland” in amongst their various titles, but for a long time there wasn’t a lot of English power in Ireland, and the main effect of that colonisation attempt was to create a second main ethnic group in Ireland - so alongside the Gaelic Irish there were now what we’d call the Old English. And they rubbed along fairly happily together until 1534, when Henry VIII came to the throne in England, and the power dynamics in Ireland shifted slightly too far out of his favour for his liking. There was a rebellion, led by a gentleman with the delightful moniker of “Silken Thomas”, and Henry took it upon himself to bring Ireland back under direct English rule. And so it remained, with varying levels of hands-on-edness, for the next sixty years. There were a few rebellions, of varying sizes, but none was successful.
So here we go - Ireland in the late sixteenth century prominently featured English people in Dublin, running the show. But with that direct rule came a wave of settlers, particularly in Munster, which is to say the south and south-west quarter of Ireland. The word “plantation” has very different connotations today - we might think of it as farmland, or associate it with estates on which slaves were held in the Americas, but originally it came from the same root as settlement. You count as having settled in a place if you grow crops there, and plantation has its attention in the same place - basically, planting stuff. Now, traditionally, the idea is that you’re the settler of a place if you’re the first person to grow crops there - but let’s be honest, that’s never been the case, particularly with the British. It’s always involved pushing people out of their homes, and off their land. So in the latter half of the sixteenth century, we start to see a third ethnic group making up a substantial part of the population in Ireland: the New English settlers - very distinct from the Old English from a few centuries earlier, not least because the New English, or a lot of the New English, were Protestant.
The second half of the sixteenth century was when the Reformation was happening across northern and western Europe. We’ve already seen how that played out in Scotland - letting in a Calvinist strain of Protestantism that would become the Presbyterians we all know and love. In England, the Protestant reformation was largely driven by Henry VIII and his regime, and it had quite a different character to the Protestant reformation in Scotland because in England, it very quickly became tangled up with the state religion. In Ireland, both the Gaelic Irish and Old English groups were Catholic - the -Old English may have “English” in their name, but they’d been in Ireland for 400 years now, their loyalties lay largely with their homeland rather than with England, and they were as uninterested in having the Church of England foisted on them as the Gaelic Irish were. But they didn’t have much choice in the matter - by the end of the sixteenth century, the rulers of Ireland were delegates of a Protestant government. There were Protestant, episcopal bishops. Ironically enough after all we’ve seen about Scotland, for the Irish, English Arminianism wasn’t Catholic enough.
In the last couple of years of the sixteenth century, there were rebellions across Ireland to English rule - in Munster in the south-west, and Ulster in the north-east. Irish Catholics had links to Spain, which was still taking regular potshots at Elizabeth I in England - any instability in Ireland played directly into Spanish hands, and it was that, as much as anything else, that convinced the English in the last couple of years of Elizabeth’s reign, to take the government of Ireland seriously. The Munster plantations became unsustainable as they were - and as the Gaelic and Old English tried to take back their ancestral lands from the newcomers. So already, within a very few years of Protestantism turning up in Ireland, there’s already a rift between Protestant and Catholic that’s tied up very heavily with ethnic group, with power and class, with ideas about ancestry and identity. That period, between 1594 and 1603, is known in Ireland as the Nine Years’ War. Depending on how you want to consider the British presence in Ireland at this time, this is a series of rebellions by localised groups against the government, lasting a long time, which people refer to as a war. You could - and some people do - think of this as a conquest or a reconquest by an English government whose control had waned in the intervening time. But honestly, if you squint, the Nine Years’ War looks rather like a civil war. It’s almost a bit silly to take the middle of the seventeenth century and say wow, surprise, civil war in Ireland. Because, as a very general rule throughout the last nine hundred years, where you find the British in Ireland, there shall you find civil war also.
When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne and became James VI and I in 1603, the situation in Ireland changed again. For a start, a peace treaty closing the Nine Years’ War was signed six days after James became the English king, leaving a country heavily divided along geographical lines. The ruling English had clearly won the Nine Years’ War - the leader of a large chunk of the rebellions, an Irishman called Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, had been forced to surrender. But despite all the division, after 1603 Ireland started to rebuild itself, to settle a bit more into peacetime. There are a couple of changes you could probably predict from having this particular new monarch. For a start, the plantation project which had ground to a halt in the face of local opposition now started up again in earnest - and now it included Scottish settlers as well. Over the next twenty-five years or so there was an increasingly large Scottish presence in Ireland, particularly in Ulster in the north-east.
With Scottish settlers came Protestantism, which was becoming more hard-line Presbyterian by the day. And remember also that James was involved in religion in a way that Elizabeth before him hadn’t been - this is the King James responsible for commissioning the King James Bible, after all - and so we start to see the religious divide growing both in terms of Protestantism being heavily associated with the ruling elite and Catholicism with other, lower sections of the populace, and also in terms of different areas of the country being deeply immersed in one religion or another. You can still see some of those divides today - the English and Scottish settlement projects particularly in the early seventeenth century are where a lot of that came from. In terms of governance, after the Catholic Gunpowder Plot in 1605, the government in Dublin started to crack down on people of influence who didn’t turn up for worship at the established Protestant church. But there were enough Old English Catholics in positions of influence, particularly outside Dublin itself, that they had to back down. It was still easier to be openly Catholic in Ireland at this time than it was in England or large parts of Scotland at this time - in England in particular there were fines being heaped on practising Catholics up and down the country. And yet, still, you can’t attempt a crackdown like this on such a significant population without it having an effect on how people live and work together.
To sum all of that up, then, by the time Charles I came to the throne in 1625, Ireland was an English colony. I mean that in the technical sense of the word, which involves three parts: the settlement of a foreign territory, the maintenance of rule over a subordinate population, and the separation of the ruling group from the subject population. In 1603 when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England, large parts of Ireland were plantations, and because of the recent rebellions, those plantations were expanding, but mostly up north in Ulster rather than down in Munster - which is to say, a lot closer to Scotland, and with a much more obvious English, and Scottish, controlling presence. In terms of actual numbers, the amount of Scottish settlers in Ulster exploded from 1603 onwards, so that by the 1620s there were pretty much equal numbers of English and Scottish settlers in the region. The English government directly ruled Ireland. And the new English rulers were separated from the Gaelic Irish and Old English population by, apart from anything else, religion. Catholicism and Protestantism in Ireland, right from the very beginning of there being any Protestants in Ireland, was not just about the religion. It was about social stratum, it was about closeness to and protection offered by the people in power. It’s about the Irish relationship with the English - which has not always been a one-sided story of exploitation and oppression, but between 1534 and Home Rule in 1920 has at least had some of that flavour baked into the middle of it.
This all being said, for the first quarter of the seventeenth century, everyone in Ireland rubbed along comparatively well. The Old English and the Gaelic Irish were fairly happy to get along with each other, feeling in the current political and religious climate that they had quite a lot in common. There was no repeat of earlier rebellions - there was pretty much peace, for quite a long time, and when Charles succeeded his father as king, the problem that seemed the biggest to him was the problem that Charles always had, permanently and forever - which is to say, governing Ireland was a drain on his finances. This wasn’t his fault - it was largely inherited from his father, who had spent the last few years of his reign chucking an awful lot of money at the Irish army, at sending Protestant preachers round Ireland and putting in place religious rules with the goal of converting the Irish to the new religion - which, I might add, was almost completely unsuccessful - and at shoring up his administration. The Duke of Buckingham, who you might remember for being James’s lover and later on one of Charles’s closest advisers, was heavily influential in shaping the policies towards plantations in Ireland. You might also remember Buckingham for being, on balance, a pretty rubbish adviser, all things considered - so by the time Charles came to power, a lot of the plantations were horrendously corrupt, very exploitative, and lining the pockets of the Duke of Buckingham and his allies. Not the most promising situation for Charles to take over, and it meant that a lot of money was going out, and not a lot was coming back in.
Speaking of unpromising situations for Charles to take over, where you find Catholics in early seventeenth-century Ireland, you also find people who are diplomatically friendly with the Spanish. You’ll remember, Charles’s early financial problems in England stemmed from the fact that he was trying to fund a war with Spain. So that influenced Charles’s policy in Ireland - he was more defensive than he might have been, and more insistent on visible shows of loyalty, and also he was trying to get his hands on some money. This was round about the same time as the cracks were beginning to show back in England and Scotland, in fact - Ireland was the third kingdom of Charles’s in which he was trying to recoup as much money as he possibly could. And just like in England and Scotland, in Ireland Charles managed to upset a wide variety of people from all walks of life - and this included the New English and Scottish settlers, because one of the things Charles was doing was concentrating the power over Ireland back into England. That deprived them of a lot of the autonomy and privileges they were hoping for as what they thought of as new settlers - and which other new settlers across the Atlantic were much more able to get, simply by virtue of distance. So between all of those things Charles had a lot of mistrust for his Irish subjects, and they entirely reasonably responded in kind.
In March 1628 - so this is two months before the Petition of Right back in England, which you might remember from Episode 2 was a petition from the English Parliament asking Charles to commit to things like habeas corpus and not levying illegal taxes - that was in May 1628, but in March, a delegation of eight Catholic Old Englishmen and three Protestant settlers went to London with a list of sixty requests to negotiate from Charles. A lot of them were similar to the requests in the Petition of Right - things like not making civilians have to take in billeted soldiers, and again, making the king promise not to enforce any illegal taxes. There were some others as well, giving rights to the Protestant settlers, as well as securing the property rights of Old English landowners against Charles just requisitioning and redistributing whatever he wanted - like he’d just done in Scotland, as well, with the revocation of land that had been so unpopular.
Eventually those sixty requests were condensed down into fifty-one, in exchange for which, Ireland would give Charles £40,000 a year for three years - that’s about £9 million a year in today’s money - and those fifty-one requests were known as the Graces. And actually, the Irish delegates were in quite a good position to negotiate in 1628, partly because £40,000 is nothing to sniff at if you’re in Charles’s financial position, and partly because it was in Charles’s best interests to keep his Irish citizens sweet so that they wouldn’t end up helping the Spanish invade England. So he heard them out. But where the Petition of Right involved four requests, and that was hard enough for Charles to stomach that he ended up dismissing Parliament and ruling by himself from the very next year, the Graces were thirteen times as big, and that’s a lot of criticism for a man who doesn’t like being criticised.
But he couldn’t outright say no, because the Spanish threat was still looming, and also he did want those £40,000, so instead, he dragged his heels. There was an old piece of law in Ireland called Poyning’s Law, which held that the king had to approve the summoning of an Irish Parliament, as well as any draft bills they wanted to pass. In practice, it was a delay tactic - the Scottish Covenanters weren’t the only ones to try and use red tape to their advantage - and Charles and his Privy Council insisted that everything had to be done absolutely by the book. Then in 1629, Charles’s Personal Rule began, and peace was negotiated with Spain, and suddenly appeasing the Irish was far further down Charles’s list than it had been. So he shelved the Graces, and turned his attention back to England.
It’s round about this time that a gentleman becomes very important, by the name of Thomas Wentworth. We met Wentworth a little bit at the end of Episode 4, although that was later in his story - about the time he came back from Ireland. Thomas Wentworth is one of those men who catapulted himself into the aristocracy and flitted about from title to title - at various points throughout his career her was the Sheriff of Yorkshire, then the delightfully named Lord President of the North, which I think has a fabulous “winter is coming” ring to it, then at the point in his life we’re about to join him at he was Lord Deputy of Ireland, and finally the Earl of Strafford. I mention this in case you’re looking for him anywhere else - you’ll quite often see him being referred to just as Strafford. I’m not going to do that. It might have been Wentworth’s highest promotion, but he was the Earl of Strafford for less than two years, and that was still about a decade away at this point. So for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to call him by the name he kept all his life, which was Wentworth.
Thomas Wentworth is an interesting man to me because he spent so much of his life clearly out to improve his own social position, and on top of that he was a very clever man, and a fantastic strategist both in military matters and in peacetime, in a way that makes the Duke of Hamilton tiptoeing around the Glasgow Assembly last episode look like an absolute dilettante. In 1628, when the Petition of Right was presented to Charles in England, Wentworth was a Member of Parliament, and he was actually one of the Petition’s signatories. Two years earlier, he had tried to get himself appointed as Lord President of the North, but he’d failed abysmally, in a way that had put him both directly in Charles’s sights, and also directly in his bad books. So it was only understandable that Wentworth would sign the Petition of Right - in 1628, he and Charles were hardly great friends.
And yet, a couple of months along the line, he was appointed to the Privy Council and he quickly rose in the ranks of Charles’s executive. He was very quickly given the job of Lord President of the North, and by all accounts he did a pretty good job of it, steering a difficult course through several years of plague and poor crops. If that sounds like a massive about-face after signing the Petition of Right, then yes, a lot of people over the years - including his contemporaries - saw it as a prime example of Wentworth having very flexible principles and primarily being out for what he could get. I mean, another explanation could be that he was, for his time at least, a political moderate - who signed the Petition of Right because he thought the King was overstepping his powers, but who was fundamentally loyal to the king, and then got the job he’d had his eye on. There’s no doubt that Wentworth was personally very ambitious, but another person who signed a petition against the king and then went back to champion for him afterwards was the Marquis of Montrose - who we talked about in Scotland last episode, and who’s basically a Scottish folk hero. Which I think just goes to show that ascribing motives to people in the past is often as much about their popularity and how we understand the historical narrative in general as it’s about their actual characters.
Because by the time it got to late 1631, Thomas Wentworth was both very effective as an administrator, and not nearly as popular as he’d have liked to be. Charles didn’t like him personally, I think because he saw Wentworth as being a bit too obviously ambitious for its own sake, and Queen Henrietta Maria didn’t like him because she was very Catholic and very sociable and Wentworth was not Catholic and also by all accounts a bit of a killjoy. But because he was so effective at governance, Charles decided to send him across to Ireland to act as his deputy. It was a harder job than the north of England had been to govern, for sure - and not least because two of Wentworth’s biggest weaknesses were foreign policy and religion - he hadn’t really got involved with foreign policy before, Yorkshire definitely doesn’t count, and he had a tendency to ignore how important religion was in people’s lives. At the moment, in Ireland, he could largely get away with that - religious diversity was still a secondary concern, tied more to social and ethnic group than yet being important to Irish social dynamics its own right, certainly to the extent we think of it these days.
It’s strange, in a way, that religion and ethnic group were so deeply intertwined, half a century after the Protestant Reformation hit Ireland. If you think about other parts of northern and western Europe, Protestantism spread fast, and it spread deeply. Even in countries with very devoutly Catholic populations, anyone who went in really wanting to spread Protestantism could usually manage it in some areas, even if they didn’t manage it across the board. And yet, in Ireland, there were plenty of attempts to convert the Old English and Gaelic Irish to the Church of Ireland - which was basically an export of the Church of England - and there were the usual raft of measures like fining anyone who didn’t go to the right flavour of church on Sundays, sending missionaries around the country, and building Protestantism into the infrastructure of government. But it didn’t take, or it didn’t take nearly as much as you might reasonably expect it to. I don’t have a single answer for you about why that is, although there are plenty of factors that probably affected it - Ireland was very rural, even by standards of the time, which affected how information and ideas spread among people. Catholic institutions were still quicker on the uptake with providing education than Protestant institutions. And by the time the 1630s came around, the interests of Wentworth and his government were much more focused on civil rather than religious matters. Even considering all of those things, it strikes me as unusual even for a British colonial project, and there have been plenty of those with Protestant missionary aims built into them over the years. But the upshot is that in early seventeenth century Ireland we can - not completely, but largely - draw religious boundaries in the same place as ethnic ones.
At any rate, at the beginning of his tenure in Ireland Wentworth was, and these are other historians’ words, naturally insensitive, and very authoritarian, so when he cared about a thing - like money, or having a standing army - he’d pay a lot of attention to them. Otherwise he tended to just ignore them. So when he arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1633, the first things on Wentworth’s mind were keeping the government on a fairly even keel, raising as much money as he could so as to keep Charles happy, and not giving in to the Graces. So he dragged his feet as far as he was able to, and in the meantime he tried to cosy up to some of the prominent Catholic Old English leaders to get them on his side, and finally in April 1634 he received permission from the king to call a parliament in Ireland, starting in July. For reference, at about this time in 1634, in England, Charles was just starting to levy Ship Money (although nobody had started to complain about it too hard yet), and he’d also just given the Scottish bishops the first draft of the Book of Common Prayer and asked for their opinions on it.
In the Irish halls of power, meanwhile, the composition of the Irish parliament was unusually heavily skewed away from Catholic Old Irish and Old English, and away as well from new Scottish Protestant settlers (who at any rate didn’t have nearly as much political influence as the English landowners). Instead, the halls of power in Ireland leaned in favour of Englishmen who’d been appointed as lords because they’d been friends with the Duke of Buckingham before he’d been assassinated. Those men didn’t really care about Ireland except that they wanted their new titles and land, and given that a lot of those men weren’t even in Ireland, in practice it turned out that Wentworth’s own supporters and friends made up the majority. All well and good for Wentworth - he passed all the laws he wanted about getting everyone to pay subsidies, and then moved on to the question of the Graces. No decision was made - of course - but Wentworth agreed to look into the Graces, and parliament was adjourned on 3rd August.
Four months later, in November 1634, he made his decision: the Graces would not be happening. The king would do as he liked, and give no concessions to the Irish, not on property rights, not on promising not to levy illegal taxes, not on anything. In fact, instead of Charles promising to give up his claim on the plantations in Ulster, like the Old English wanted, Charles decided he was going to confirm the plantations in law - good for the New English settlers, but bad for everyone else. I think Wentworth’s idea here was to have enough New English in attendance when he made this judgement that everyone else wouldn’t feel like they were able to object. Unfortunately for him, a lot of the New English lords who weren’t so interested in Ireland hadn’t even bothered to turn up, so there was a much bigger proportion of Old English in that parliamentary session than he had anticipated. But Wentworth, being ever so sensitive and understanding, blamed the disagreement on the fact that the dissenters were Catholic, and therefore obviously trying to stir up trouble, and he assured Charles that he didn’t have any obligation towards Catholics anyway. Case closed. The Graces were dead. And Wentworth had completely lost the trust of the Old English population.
Where do you go from there? More administration. More taxation. And rolling out plans for more plantations further south than Ulster, in Connacht on the western side of Ireland, taking away more native Irish lands, and chipping away further at their language, their religion, other parts of their culture. The expansion of the plantation policy did create a few new Irish landowners as well as English and Scottish ones, but the project was, essentially, another expansion of the colonial project in Ireland. An inescapable part of that was was the subjugation of the Gaelic Irish and the Old English, and inevitably those two groups started to see themselves more as allies under a common oppressor. As far as Wentworth was concerned, though, everything was fine - he reported to Charles that Ireland was carrying on well with most people being relatively happy, and as far as he was concerned, that was true. Back in England at this time, Wentworth was corresponding quite often with Archbishop William Laud, and the two of them got on really well. In 1635, the Lord Treasurer of England died, and Wentworth really wanted the job, but Charles seemed to be a bit sick of his constant need for more promotion, and gave the job to someone else. In England, the political woes of the dissenters in parliament started to take up more of Charles’s attention, and in Scotland, the Presbyterian dissenters to the Book of Common Prayer started to get organised, and signed the National Covenant. In Ireland, there was nothing like that amount of drama. It was practically quiet.
In 1638, when the Covenanter movement started to get going in Scotland, many of the Scottish settlers went back across to go and take the Covenant - and there started to be murmurings of more religious dissent among the Scottish settlers that remained. It was obvious that there was going to be some kind of fighting with the Covenanters, and Charles sent a message to Wentworth requesting Irish troops to come across and help. Honestly, there weren’t that many to be had at such short notice - and then in the summer of 1639, Charles called Wentworth back to England to help with the Second Bishops’ War. He never returned to Ireland again. When Thomas Wentworth left Ireland he was successful in the sense that he’d done the administrative things that he wanted to do, but he wasn’t terribly popular with anyone, and even less popular in England for the fact that he was good friends with Archbishop Laud. And Ireland was left a different place from how it had been before he got there. It seemed to be less volatile, on the surface. But in those five or so years, the religious and ethnic divisions had intensified, and when Wentworth left, the people who had been most severely repressed - the Catholic Irish - now had space to breathe out.
The Second Bishops’ War started in the spring of 1640 - this was where we left off last episode, and we’ll come back to it in more detail in Episode 6, but where we left it before, Charles was stalling for time, and building his army to take up to Scotland. In Ireland, that meant that an army was put together to go across to England and fight for Charles, but just the local demographics meant that a lot of that Irish army was Catholic. And then the Second Bishops’ War fizzled out, and what was left at the end of 1640 was a large army of Irish Catholics, with no obvious, immediate purpose. In England and Scotland, that was a very scary thing! Both of those places were very scared of Roman Catholicism, don’t forget that in Scotland their fears about the prayerbook were often condensed into the idea that some shadowy figures were trying to secretly slip Catholicism back into Scotland. Down in England, Queen Henrietta Maria was a Catholic, quite a few members of Charles’s court were Catholic, and that again fuelled their fears of a Catholic coup, coming from France or Spain. Remember as well that the idea of a shadowy group of Catholics plotting to take down the government was not outside the realms of possibility - this is only thirty-five years after the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and that scared people. The English Parliament was increasingly militantly Protestant - there were a lot of Puritans in positions of power, that was the direction that English and Scottish cultures were heading in. So when people in England and Scotland, with the sort of Puritan or Presbyterian disposition that made them already worried about whether the king was going to crack down on their religious expression, when they saw that Charles suddenly had this Irish Catholic army at his disposal with nothing much to do at the moment… that’s worrying. That makes people jumpy.
And yet in Ireland itself, the Catholic parts of society were the ones with less political power. We’ve barely talked about the native Gaelic Irish so far, even though they were by far the largest group, because they had hardly any say in government, in land ownership - these were the people whose lands and cultures and status were being taken away from them, increasingly over the last fifty years, and so they, also, were running scared. And not only that, but they’d just seen the native Scottish one country across doing really rather well in the Bishops’ Wars, and taking back a fair amount of power for themselves. So if the Scottish could do it, why shouldn’t they?
So at the end of 1640, as the Bishops’ Wars finished and the English and Scots started to negotiate what would happen next, everyone took a step back and suddenly just noticed that sectarian tensions in Ireland had skyrocketed. Thomas Wentworth found himself in hot water in England - in circumstances which we will definitely return to later on, because they are extremely juicy - and by May 1641 he was dead. England was on the brink of civil war, and Scotland was effectively controlled by the Covenanters. Neither of them was looking west any more. In Ireland, Wentworth’s tactics of ignoring the Graces, planting aggressively, and taxing everyone into oblivion were thrown into sharp focus, and on top of that, now he was dead there was a power vacuum. The Protestants in Ireland didn’t trust King Charles because they thought he was too sympathetic to Catholicism. The Catholic Irish didn’t trust him because he still wasn’t giving in on the Graces, which meant that their land rights were still hanging in the balance. Everything was about to go very swiftly south.
1641 in Ireland is one of those years, like 1066 or 1939, which has become a shorthand for the things that happened during it. And yet, on top of that, it’s difficult to be sure of exactly the magnitude of what went on. Partly because Ireland was so heavily divided into groups with very different ideas about where the balance of responsibility lay, and who did what to whom, and partly because the spread of information was unusually patchy, even for the seventeenth century, it’s hard to tell you exactly what went on in October and November of 1641, how big and widespread it was, what the death toll in that first month or so ultimately was. Let me try and explain.
Sir Phelim O’Neill was an Irish Catholic nobleman and member of the Irish Parliament. He was also, in fact, the nephew of the Earl of Tyrone who a generation earlier had led the Irish side in the Nine Years’ War. And this O’Neill also wanted a change in the balance of power, and to protect his and his fellows’ property in Ulster. So he planned, in the autumn of 1641, to take some key strongholds of the planters - either by force, or by subterfuge. On the night of 22nd October, he arrived at Charlemont Castle in County Armagh, was invited in for dinner, and promptly seized the place. Within two days rebels held Dungannon, Mountjoy, Newry, Carrickmacross, Castleblaney. The plan to take Dublin Castle failed, but they had done enough. The law, and public order, in Ulster broke down almost immediately.
Taking the castles took three days, and if that seems to you to have come out of nowhere, then it was the same for most of Ireland at the time - one minute Ulster was one way, and the next it was another way. Within a few weeks, most of the people involved in the administration of Ulster - justices of the peace and local sheriffs and so forth - were either among the insurgents, or they were dead. O’Neill and his colleagues’ intentions weren’t to incite widespread violence, just to change the regime in Ulster. Unfortunately for them, such a quick, out-of-the-blue change, right on your doorstep, in a place where tensions were running as high as they were running in 1641 Ulster, is terrifying. And terrified people either fight, or they fly.
We don’t know how many people died in Ulster in October and November 1641. Protestant settlers were massacred. Many people were turned out of their homes, and died either from starvation, or from exposure in the freezing early winter. Rumours spread that the insurrection had been planned for years, that Wentworth had been involved, that the King was dead and the Queen captured by Puritans, that Edinburgh Castle had been taken over by Catholics - in short, nobody knew anything at all and both Protestants and Catholics were in full-scale panic. And who can blame them? Out of nowhere they had gone from being abstractly scared of their neighbours, to fearing immediately for their lives, their families, their homes. In the months and years that followed, there was an inquiry by the Protestant authorities, and hundreds of eyewitness reports were collected, but the more that were collected, the more outlandish they seemed to get - stories of children being boiled alive, of rape and horrific torture, one of a Catholic priest tearing apart a Protestant minister with his bare hands. Of course, many of them weren’t true, their purpose was to paint a picture of the Catholic insurgents as practically inhuman, and to justify reprisals against them. There were reports of up to two hundred thousand people being murdered. Protestant refugees flocked to England, where there started to be fears of a full-scale Catholic invasion. Of course, no such invasion existed, and 200,000 is a grossly overinflated number of victims, if nothing else because there were barely that many Protestant settlers in the whole of Ireland at the time. But what is true is that people died, with the number well into the thousands, and the rest, Protestant and Catholic, were terrified. There was a bad harvest in 1641, and famine spread throughout Ulster, compounding everything else. People started to double down on the things that gave them the biggest sense of certainty. And that, of course, was religion.
On 6th November, Phelim O’Neill produced what he claimed was a commission from King Charles, authorising his actions. It was a blatant forgery, but it had the desired effect - just as in Scotland, the Covenanters had started out believing that the king would absolutely have agreed with them, if only he had all the information, in Ireland the Old English Catholics believed that Charles would definitely understand how persecuted they had been. As it happened, Charles was in Edinburgh trying desperately to placate the Scots, so he sent 3000 soldiers under the Old English Duke of Ormond back to Ireland to try and keep the peace. In his absence, the English parliament took the opportunity to send 2000 more soldiers in with the aim of protecting the New English Protestants in Ireland. And on top of that, the Scottish Covenanters sent an army across to protect the interests of the Scottish planters. It was chaos. Immediately. And that marks the beginning of the Irish Confederate Wars. The Civil Wars - the British ones, in the sense of British as a geographical region - had begun.
What I think is important about all of this is context. The events of October and November 1641 in Ireland didn’t come out of nowhere - they came out of centuries of Anglo-Irish interaction, they came out of a political and social climate created by Ireland, England, Scotland, to some extent the entirety of western Europe. In another eight years when Oliver Cromwell and a few others would come across to Ireland and commit another wave of atrocities that would go down in history, part of the way they rationalised doing that was because of what they called the natural barbarism of Catholics and the native Irish in particular - and they pointed to 1641 to rationalise that. None of this happens in a vacuum, not the most violent acts, not the most horrific omissions. They happen because people are scared, because they feel trapped, or they want to feel safe, or they want revenge. Some of those reasons are understandable - sometimes understandable reasons lead to the kinds of actions that make me lie awake at night wondering how a person can do that to another person.
But this is history. There’s no real moral to the story, because it’s real. It’s still real. Everything that happens in the British Isles between Great Britain and Ireland is in some way, directly or indirectly, coloured by the things I’ve just told you. And that’s why it’s important - or I think so - that we make a point of looking it in the eye.
Before we go, let’s take a minute here to step back and talk about what Ireland looked like in the first half of the seventeenth century in terms of population. The reason I’ve waited to talk about this until after we’ve discussed the events of the early 1600s, rather than jumping straight in with it like usual, is that the demographics of Ireland are tied up with politics orders of magnitude more heavily than they are in either England or Scotland. Different historians’ findings vary enormously, and records from the time disagree. For example, it might be important to some commentators to suggest that there was a gigantic influx of Scots and English to Ulster in those first few decades of the seventeenth century - one historian puts it at around 100,000 Scots and 20,000 English. Another puts the figure at 20,000 Scots. That’s a huge difference, and even without any further information than those few figures, if you’re like me you’re already catching a whiff of an agenda here.
So the first conclusion we can draw, before I start throwing any more figures at you, is that just like in England and Scotland, there’s a serious lack of information about population demographics in Ireland - and even more than in England and Scotland, we have to take any figures we come up with, with a pinch of salt.
With all that in mind, the best estimate I can find for population in Ireland in the year 1600 is round about a million people - round about the same as in Scotland at the same time, although in a slightly larger area. In 1641, the best estimate I’ve come across is just over two million people. But we’re not looking at continuous growth - and this is why I waited to tell you about the population of Ireland, because early on in the seventeenth century, the population rocketed, as the new plantation projects took off and there was a huge amount of immigration from England and Scotland. The best estimates I can find are 14,000 Scottish settlers in Ulster before 1625, and then double that in the 1650s. Between 1625 and 1650 it’s harder to tell, because the upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s mean that records were less reliable and much more likely to be burned to a crisp or otherwise destroyed. We do know that in the 1640s, in the wake of the events of 1641, the population of Ireland contracted sharply. Many people died. Others who had been settlers from the east went back to England and Scotland. Plenty more headed out to the Americas, in the hope that it would be safer there. Ireland in the 1640s under the Catholic confederates was not a safe place to be, and the next few decades in Ireland were - and I don’t say this lightly, at all - terrifying.
Another thing that made Ireland very different from England and Scotland at the time was how the population was spread out - in England, by 1650, nearly 9% of the population lived in towns with more than ten thousand people in them. In Scotland, that figure was closer to 3%. In Ireland, it was barely 1% of people, and that was all pretty new - Ireland was significantly more rural, with a much more spread out population than either of the other two countries. Again, that makes it difficult to count the people, and to spread accurate information about what was going on. That being said, Dublin was probably bigger than any city in England except for London - in 1641, there were probably 20,000 people living in Dublin, and it was four times the size of the next biggest town in Ireland, which, just like today, was Cork.
Some contemporary accounts put the death toll of the 1641 rebellion at more than 100,000 people, even as far as nearly 200,000. Others - and these ones are much more recent and also I think a lot more accurate - put the number at about 12,000. That’s still a huge number of deaths, especially in such a short time - compare it with the Bishops’ Wars over in Scotland two years earlier, where around five hundred people died in total. Even if the number is twelve thousand people killed, rather than a tenth of the population like some people at the time were convinced it might be, that tells us something about what it was like to be in Ireland in 1641. Imagine the effect that might have on you, living in a country where 1% of the population had just been killed, in a few short weeks, but where it was plausible to believe that one in ten people were dead. If you just think about the region of Ulster, that proportion skyrockets again. It’s no wonder that people of all ethnic groups felt desperate. In a climate like that, in a century like that, it’s hard not to feel like civil war in Ireland was inevitable.
But we’ll come back to that later on in this series.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was written by me, Fiona Barnett. The producer is Emily Benita, and the sound editor and technical producer is Ali Alnajjar. Our regular historical consultant is Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and performed by Harry Harris. Thank you also to Peter Geoghegan, primarily for making sure that my Irish pronunciation isn’t completely off-course. As I said at the beginning of the episode, this is one story among many about this time in Ireland. If you go to our website at pasttensepod.com, you’ll find episode notes and a bibliography for this episode, as well as all the other ones - and if this has piqued your interest, I’ve also included a couple of really great books for lay readers about this part of Irish and Anglo-Irish history. Do check them out, they’re a fascinating read.
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