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  • Henry A. Jefferies

Unreformable Ireland? The Failure of the Reformation in Ireland

Henry A. Jefferies on the contentious debate about why the Reformation failed in Ireland

What makes Ireland so interesting for Reformation studies is that it stands out as the classic exception to the general rule of ciuis regio, eius religio. Despite the endeavours of successive monarchs to extend the English Reformation to Ireland since 1534, by the end of the sixteenth century the number of Irish Protestants was reckoned by contemporaries at between 40 and 120 individuals. In Dublin, the capital of Ireland, only twenty Irish householders attended Protestant church services, and only four of those would receive communion by Protestant rites. By any criteria the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was comprehensive and absolute.

Because the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was so overwhelming it had long seemed inevitable, and historians had generally seen no need to try to explain it before Brendan Bradshaw’s exploratory essay, “Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland,” was published in 1978. However, that article prompted Nicholas Canny’s rejoinder of the following year: “Why the Reformation Failed in Ireland: une question mal posée?” Not only did Canny declare the question as misconceived, he presented a new paradigm for Irish Reformation studies. He claimed that until the 1590s the Reformation in Ireland was characterized by a “quiescent phase” during which the Irish were not bothered about the theological debates that concerned Christians elsewhere in Europe. He asserted that throughout that period they were as liable to be absorbed into the Protestant Church of Ireland as to be lost forever to the Counter Reformation. He argued that the Reformation was rejected at the fin de siècle, not for any religious reasons but because it came to be seen as merely another facet of an English government program for Ireland that was characterized by despotism, militarism, and Anglicization. Tellingly, though, it was not made clear how political alienation from English governance could suddenly have inspired a general commitment to Counter-Reformation Catholicism after more than six decades of supposed religious indifference.

Canny’s reformulation of Ireland’s Reformation debate in constitutionalist as against religious terms resonated with an Irish historical establishment that was anxious to disassociate itself from the Catholic or Nationalist orthodoxy that had characterized much of the writing of history in the Republic of Ireland until the 1970s. It also reflected the Zeitgeist of a time when the onset of the secularization of Irish society was contentious, and a growing number of intellectuals were keen to exorcise Catholicism as a powerful force from Ireland’s past as well as its present. The fact that Canny was one of a cohort of recently-appointed early modern historians who would retain tenure in Ireland’s universities for another three decades ensured that his Reformation paradigm was propagated in undergraduate lectures, post-graduate seminars, conferences, and textbooks until very recently. However, that Reformation paradigm was formulated before there had been any significant research conducted on Ireland’s ecclesiastical records and before any consideration had been given to the means by which the Reformation was propagated in Ireland or to Irish responses to it. Indeed, it was based on an impressionistic survey of a very limited volume of evidence and was predicated on an assumption that the doctrinal controversies of the time were of little or no interest to the Irish, a basic premise that constitutes the paradigm’s most fundamental flaw. Yet despite its tenuous foundations that paradigm assumed a canonical status and historians who question it are still liable to be castigated for their audacity.

When Bradshaw presented a pioneering comparative study of the progress of the English Reformation in Wales and Ireland, two comparable borderlands of the Tudors’ dominions, Karl Bottigheimer criticized the work heavily. He dismissed it as “a troublesome distraction which reanimates the partisan polemics of an earlier age.” He condemned Bradshaw as an Anglo-Irish historian clinging to “antipodal sectarian verities” instead of striving for “ecumenical interpretations of the past.” He compared Bradshaw’s analysis to “a catechetical question to which there is a pre-determined and singular ‘right’ answer.” He accused Bradshaw of assuming that the failure of the Reformation was “inevitable.” It is not my intention here to vindicate Bradshaw’s scholarship against arrant allegations – his own rejoinder in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History did so very effectively. However, I will point out that it was Bradshaw, in a series of landmark studies published from 1969, who demonstrated that the failure of the Reformation was not inevitable. He showed how the Irish parliament of 1536/7 endorsed Henry VIII’s reformation bills, how the religious houses over much of Ireland were dissolved with the co-operation of members of the local élites, and how the king’s royal supremacy was acknowledged over much of the country. He showed that elements of Edward VI’s more radical Reformation was extended from England to parts of Ireland after modest time-lags, and he concluded that even on the eve of the young king’s death in 1553, there was a possibility that the Reformation might have succeeded in Ireland. There is no basis to Bottigheimer’s claim; Bradshaw never argued that the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was inevitable.

Work done over the past quarter of a century and more has confirmed that the failure of the Reformation in Ireland was not inevitable. There is no need for Bottigheimer’s counter-factual speculation as to what might have happened if Gerald, ninth earl of Kildare (1513 – 1534) and oft-times the viceroy of Henry VIII, had had “a Luther in his chapel.” In fact, Martin Luther’s theology was shaped by specific influences brought to bear on him in Saxony, before it evolved in directions that he himself never foresaw in combative reaction to challenges from mostly German critics. In any case, an Irish Luther is simply inconceivable when Ireland had no university and no printing press. On the other hand, one can plausibly propose that aspects of the Reformation could have struck a chord in the four shires of the Pale around Dublin where conditions seemed conducive to the successful extension of the forms of the Reformation promoted by Henry VIII and his Protestant children. The Pale was the part of Ireland most directly subject to English royal authority. Its social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical élites were English by descent and identity. Its parliament, local government, and law-enforcement institutions were directly modelled on England itself. Furthermore, in terms of its structures, the Church in the Pale was more amenable to a crown-sponsored Reformation than that in Lancashire, a northern English shire situated directly on the other side of the Irish Sea, in that its parishes were more compact, and its bishops supervised smaller dioceses. At the time of Henry VIII’s breach from Rome three of the region’s four bishops were Englishmen, while a number of its other most senior clergymen were also graduates of England’s universities. In addition, the Pale encompassed the most remunerative benefices in the Irish Church such as could support well-educated clerics. The election of churchwardens and the formation of religious confraternities reflected English influences at the parish level before the Reformation. In sum, one can reasonably argue that, prima facie, it was possible that the English Reformation could have been extended successfully to the most English part of Ireland, at least.

Indeed, under Henry VIII the official English Reformation was extended to the Pale more or less in tandem with England. George Browne, the king’s archbishop of Dublin, an Englishman, considered the Henrician Church of Ireland as simply part of the “Church of England and Ireland” and acted accordingly. In terms of jurisdiction Henry VIII’s royal supremacy was profoundly effective in the Pale, and aspects of it were extended to much of the Church beyond the Pale. In 1542 the first Jesuits to visit Ireland concluded that Ireland was irretrievably lost to Rome.

Under the next Tudor monarch, Edward VI, England’s increasingly radical Reformation was duly extended with little demur to those parts of Ireland subject to English authority. In 1551 George Dowdall, whom Henry VIII had appointed as the archbishop of Armagh and the primate of all Ireland, went into exile after declaring that he would “never be bishop where the holy Mass (as he called it) was abolished.” As Bradshaw recognised, and recent work has confirmed, if Edward VI had lived as long as might reasonably have been expected the Reformation might have struck enduring roots in Ireland. However, the young king died at fifteen in 1553, and he was succeeded by his fanatically Catholic sister, Mary I. Nothing was inevitable!

Nonetheless, it is necessary to move on from the superficial question of inevitability to examine how much progress the Reformation actually made in Ireland. Arguably, because there was no “Irish Reformation” as such, simply the extension to parts of Ireland of religious policies designed by a series of Tudor monarchs, the evidence for the Reformation in Ireland is best considered within a wider English or Tudor-dominions framework. That broader perspective has revealed significant commonalities between the religious experiences of people on either side of the Irish Sea on the eve of the Reformation and during it. As Richard Rex has outlined on this forum, over the past half-century English Reformation scholars have demonstrated the strength of Catholic convictions among the English people before Henry VIII’s breach with Rome, and their consequent opposition to the crown’s efforts to promote religious changes. Recent work on Ireland tallies in many ways with the latest work on England.

Comparisons show that the critical difference between England and Ireland was that key aspects of the Reformation resonated with a number of English people from the start, whereas there is no evidence that it resonated among the Irish. Peter Marshall, in his magisterial Heretics and Believers, reminds us that the first “Protestants” in England used to be Catholics and that “what they were saying, and how they said it, resonated in challenging ways with what Catholic Christians already understood to be true.” Without them there would have been no Protestant Reformation in England: Henry VIII and his Protestant children could not have changed the religion of the English by themselves. In Ireland, however, there is no trace of any cohort of Irish Evangelicals or early “Protestants.”

One may speculate that the Reformation did not resonate in Ireland as it did in England in the first half of the sixteenth century because there was no university in Ireland to provide a receptive audience for new theological thinking. In addition, few Irish clergymen were graduates of universities. Furthermore, there was no printing press established in Ireland before 1551, and there were no Irish authors of printed books or pamphlets. Nor is there evidence of an established network for the sale and distribution of books or pamphlets in Ireland such as might have become a conduit for Reformation theology. The absence of direct trade links between Ireland and the north of mainland Europe reinforced the country’s relative isolation from the religious turmoil sweeping other parts of northern Europe after the 1517. Nonetheless, Ireland was not wholly insulated from the Reformation, especially once Henry VIII, the lord of Ireland from 1509 and its king from 1541, asserted his royal supremacy over the Church in England and Ireland.

Opposition to Henry VIII’s Reformation was expressed powerfully during the Kildare rebellion of 1534/5. The rebel leader, Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, heir of the ninth earl of Kildare and deputy viceroy to Henry VIII, renounced his allegiance to the king, whom the rebels castigated as “accursed,” and he had men swear oaths of fealty to the pope, the Holy Roman emperor, and to himself. The rebels’ chief ideologue, Dr John Travers, was an English priest who wrote a book defending the pope’s authority against the pretensions of Henry VIII. Many clergymen, including George Cromer, enthusiastically promoted the rebellion; Cromer was the archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, an English cleric who had been Henry VIII’s chaplain at the time when he wrote his Assertio against Luther. Cromer was promoted to Armagh around the time that Pope Leo X granted Henry VIII the title “Defender of the faith” in recognition of his fidelity to Rome. The rebellion enjoyed wide support from across the Pale, and much of Ireland beyond it, not just for religious motives. However, when the 12,000 Spanish soldiers promised by the Holy Roman emperor to support the rebellion failed to materialize the rebels were crushed and an uneasy calm descended on the Pale. The Anglophone élites had to come to terms with the reality that there would be no external support (imperial or divine) forthcoming for Catholicism in Ireland, and their dependence on the English crown was underlined by the presence of a standing royal army in the Pale and the destruction of the premier nobleman in Ireland. Their willingness to conform to Henry VIII’s religious settlement after the rebellion was born out of that reality.

Yet, compared with England, the Henrician Reformation in Ireland is better characterized as “Catholicism without the pope.” That is particularly clear from the strikingly conservative agendas set before the parish clergy in the synods convened by Archbishop Cromer and his successor, George Dowdall. While royal authority displaced papal jurisdiction over much of the Church in Ireland, Henry VIII’s lesser kingdom did not experience the kind of sustained campaign of religious indoctrination waged in England by royal authority through pulpits and the printing presses. Vernacular Bibles were not placed in Irish churches. No Evangelical clergymen are known to have been appointed to Irish parishes.

Acquiescence in the extension of crown-authorized religious changes persisted into the first part of the reign of Edward VI. Yet as the religious changes sanctioned in Edward’s name grew increasingly radical, their extension to Ireland became more protracted. There were strong objections made to the use of the second Book of Common Prayer. There was no “stripping of the altars” as occurred systematically across Edwardian England, and even the chantries in Ireland survived the boy-king’s reign.

Even in Edward’s reign there was no Protestant preacher in Dublin or the Pale around it except for a Scot who disappears from our records after November 1548. Archbishop Browne of Dublin failed to preach in favor of religious change throughout the young king’s reign, while Bishop Staples of the neighboring diocese of Meath received such a viscerally hostile reaction to his first Protestant sermon that he feared for his life. After the reaction to a second sermon Staples showed “no great haste” to risk a third. Hugh Goodacre, the Edwardian archbishop of Armagh, may never have seen his diocese before he died, allegedly poisoned by Catholic priests. Thomas Lancaster, the Edwardian bishop of Kildare—an Englishman like Browne, Staples, and Goodacre—made little if any impact in his Gaelic-speaking diocese. Therefore, while priests in some Anglophone parishes (and there were few such parishes in Ireland) were compelled to use the first Book of Common Prayer (often in a very traditional guise), their congregations were not exposed to Protestant preaching and were not persuaded to become Protestants. In fact, apart from Bishop Bale’s very short-lived ministry in Kilkenny, in Edward’s reign we are confronted with the spectacle of a Reformation virtually without reformers.

The evidence we have suggests that as late as 1553 there were only about half a dozen local Protestants in Ireland, mostly in Dublin, and isolated individuals elsewhere. No one was burned for heresy in Ireland under Mary I, and only one man in Ireland, whose surname was unusual, supplicated Cardinal Reginald Pole for a pardon for heresy. When Elizabeth I had the English and Irish parliaments endorse her Reformed religious settlement in 1559 and 1560 respectively there was enough support in England to transform her ecclesiastical legislation into a true Reformation, while in Ireland there was not.

Elizabeth I was acknowledged as the supreme governor of the Church of Ireland just as she was the supreme governor of the Church of England. Her Book of Common Prayer, which was a slightly amended version of that of her brother Edward VI’s, was authorised for use in all religious services in her kingdom of Ireland as in her kingdom of England. The one difference between the two kingdoms was that a Latin translation of the Prayer Book was authorised for use in Irish parishes where English was not understood, which comprised the vast majority of parishes outside of Dublin and the inner Pale, and several outlying cities and towns. Otherwise, the same official Reformation was to be established across Elizabeth’s two kingdoms.

The ecclesiastical legislation endorsed by Elizabeth’s English parliament was quickly given effect in England. A new, Protestant bench of bishops was promoted to lead the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer replaced the Latin Catholic liturgies in parishes across England. A visitation was conducted which cleansed churches and chapels of most physical manifestations of “popery,” and tendered the oath of supremacy to the clergy. A book of homilies was produced for the English parish clergy to propagate Protestant theology, even if they were not capable of preaching. Priests who refused to co-operate with the new religious dispensation either resigned voluntarily from their benefices or were forced to resign. Oxford and Cambridge universities were purged of Catholic teachers whose places were taken by Protestants who set about generating a Protestant preaching ministry to take the Reformation into every parish of the kingdom. Within two decades of the start of Elizabeth’s reign the English people were well on their way to becoming a Protestant nation.

By contrast, Elizabeth’s Reformation faced extraordinary difficulties in Ireland from the start. Even though it was decided to restrict efforts to promote the Reformation to Dublin and the Pale surrounding it, that part of Ireland most directly under royal authority, it took four years to find men willing to be promoted as bishops of the Church of Ireland even in the three dioceses closest to Dublin. The attempt to tender the oath of supremacy in Dublin and beyond had to be abandoned because so many refused it that the church was in danger of being left bereft of clergymen. Secular officials across the Pale refused it too. People responded to the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in church services in Elizabeth’s reign by boycotting them. Whenever they were forced to attend services against their will many people disrupted them, acting as though they were at a “May game.” They ostentatiously talked so loudly among themselves that the minister could hardly hear himself speak, and congregations walked around the churchyard while Protestant sermons were being delivered. Elizabeth’s viceroy, the earl of Sussex, explained to her that the scale of the problem was so great that parliamentary legislation was needed to tackle it.

Since she could not be confident of mustering a majority in parliament for repressive legislation, the queen chose instead to establish the Irish Ecclesiastical High Commission in 1564 to compel people to attend Protestant church services and not to disrupt them once they attended. However, Elizabeth’s ecclesiastical commissions were designed to deal with isolated dissidents not well-nigh universal dissent. The Irish Commission only succeeded in imposing some spasmodic outward conformity on a sullen population. Boycotts and disruptions persisted. Fynes Morrison later reported that the operation of the Ecclesiastical Commission “wrought in their hearts a hatred of the government and in time a detestation of our religion.” He wrote that it was “more easy … to bring a bear to the stake than any one of them to our churches.”

In 1565, almost half a century since Luther wrote his 95 theses, Elizabeth I was informed that the only Protestant preachers in all of Ireland were two bishops of the Church of Ireland, one of them an Englishman, the other Irish, as well as a vicar visiting from Greenwich. By the end of the sixteenth century the tally of Irish Protestant preachers had increased to eight, with most of the other sixteen preachers being chaplains to the English Army. Bottigheimer recently acknowledged my work, which showed that there was, in his words, “a stunning lack of reformers in Ireland,” but he declared that the absence of indigenous reform-minded clerics “need not have been an insuperable obstacle.” He claimed that the Irish could have been coerced into becoming Protestants anyway.

That raises the question of how Elizabeth I could have physically coerced the Irish into becoming Protestants. She had no police force or standing army with which to impose her will. In fact, Tudor government functioned through the cooperation of the local élites in the shires and in the boroughs. In Ireland those élites did not cooperate with the imposition of the Elizabethan religious settlement. They generally refused to swear the oath of supremacy and would not enforce religious changes on the ground: Bishop Brady complained that they were “all thwarters and hinderers” where the Reformation was concerned. Archbishop Loftus complained to the queen that the élites condemned her religious changes even more manifestly than the rest. As for the rest, royal officials told the queen that they dared not “meddle” with the “multitude” who rejected her Reformation.

The build-up of an English military establishment in Ireland facilitated the coercion of congregations into attending Protestant services in some Irish cities for a time in the middle of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1579 the leading men of Dublin were forced to sit through Church of Ireland services in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, something one official remarked that he had never expected to see in his lifetime. The result, however, was a “settled hatred” among those coerced. Once a rebellion backed by Rome and Spain erupted later in 1579, the attempt made to compel attendance at Protestant services had to be suspended for fear of fanning the flames of rebellion. In fact, the crown’s wish to coerce the Irish into religious conformity was constantly tempered by the fear of provoking political unrest. When John Perrot, Elizabeth’s viceroy, sought to resume religious coercion in 1585 the queen wrote to tell him that she “marvelled” that he intended to disregard her direct instructions not to indulge in such provocative folly.

In any case, one must wonder how, without Protestant preachers of any nationality and without the widespread sale and distribution of Protestant books and pamphlets either, the Reformation could have been propagated in Ireland. It would be naïve to imagine that one had only to coerce people into attending services conducted with the Book of Common Prayer in order to make them Protestants, especially when most such services were comprised of readings from a Latin translation of the Prayer Book, often of no more than an extract from a gospel.

The almost complete absence of Irish Protestant preachers throughout the sixteenth century obviously stymied the propagation of the Reformation in Ireland, but it was as much a result of the Reformation’s failure as a cause. Without an indigenous community of Irish Protestants it was not possible to recruit an indigenous Protestant ministry, and contemporaries were aware that the employment of English Protestants in the Elizabethan Church of Ireland was counter-productive in terms of winning Irish hearts and minds. Without royal investment in schools and a university in Ireland, or bursaries for Irishmen to study in Oxford or Cambridge, and without the sponsorship of vernacular Bibles and Protestant literature to be disseminated in Ireland, the English Reformation failed to take root among the Irish, even among the Anglophone élites who were most susceptible to appeals to remain loyal to the crown.

Instead, the people in Ireland, Anglophone and Irish-speaking, chose their own religious destinies. Not only did they resist the crown’s admittedly less than whole-hearted efforts to change their religion, they made conscious efforts to preserve their own beliefs. From the very start of Elizabeth I’s reign, people continued to secure access to Catholic sacraments, and people at all social levels were willing to pay to do so. The élites employed Catholic tutors to educate their children, or they sent them to Catholic schools, and they removed their children from school if a Protestant schoolmaster was appointed. Their young men studied at Catholic colleges overseas, rather than at Oxford or Cambridge. From the late 1570s some of those young men returned to Ireland as Catholic priests and helped to create a disestablished “people’s church” that galvanised popular resistance to the Reformation. My conclusion is that “[o]nly when the Catholic Church in Ireland was reorganised on a sustainable footing as a disestablished ‘people’s church’ in the 1580s, and infused with the confidence inspired by the Counter Reformation, can the Reformation be stated to have failed in Ireland definitively.”

Bottigheimer disputes my conclusion that the failure of the Reformation was definitive by pointing out that “in Bohemia persistent coercion ultimately defeated strong Protestant convictions.” However, the Bohemians did not generally hold “strong Protestant convictions,” as Bottigheimer wrongly assumed, but were mostly members of the Ultraquist Church. Despite the use of Czech as well as Latin in their church services, and the laity’s reception of communion in both kinds, Ultraquists were formally in communion with Rome, rather like the Eastern-rite Catholic Churches or Uniate Churches. Their clergy were generally ordained as Catholic priests by Catholic bishops. Their shared beliefs and the ordination of their priests facilitated the subsummation of the Ultraquist Church into the Catholic Church from 1622. Recent research has revealed that the conversion of Bohemia was “less a product of violence and force than of negotiation and persuasion.” Therefore, the religious situation in Bohemia was not analogous to that in Ireland and offers no support to the argument that the Irish could have been coerced into becoming Protestants even as late as the seventeenth century.

Indeed, Bottigheimer’s argument that the Reformation could have succeeded in Ireland only if a degree of coercion was employed that was beyond the English crown’s ability to deploy is tantamount to an admission that the Reformation had actually failed. Adam Loftus, Elizabeth I’s archbishop of Dublin, acknowledged in September 1590 that “[t]he sword without the word is not sufficient, but unless they be forced they will not come to hear to Word preached … It is a bootless labour for any man to preach in the country outside of Dublin for want of hearers.” We know that ten years later only 20 Irish-born householders attended Protestant church services in Dublin. Any dispassionate consideration of the available evidence obliges one to acknowledge that the Protestant Reformation did not resonate among any significant cohort of people in Ireland in the sixteenth century, not even among the Anglophone élites of the Pale, and that simple fact made its failure probable, though not inevitable.

Arguably, by 1585, when John Long, Elizabeth I’s archbishop of Armagh, wrote that there were hardly 40 Irish Protestants in the entire kingdom of Ireland the die was cast. A new generation of young adults by then provided the Catholic Church in Ireland with committed congregations, new priests, and a smattering of martyrs. Young men in Cork, for example, went to Mass wearing their swords, daring the English authorities to try to prevent them. Bishops like Dermot Creagh of Cork and Cloyne and seminary priests like Dr Tadgh O’Sullivan in County Tipperary worked tirelessly to copper-fasten people’s fidelity to Rome, despite the grave risk of suffering torture and death, such as the gruesome fate meted out in 1584 to Dermot O’Hurley, Catholic archbishop of Cashel.

Nonetheless, my key point is this. The evidence we have points to the early 1560s as being the crucial period for the Reformation in Ireland. It was then, particularly in the Pale, the region most directly amenable to English influences and control, long before the political alienation that was manifest in the latter half of Elizabeth’s reign, that a collective decision was made to resist Elizabeth I’s Reformation. My feeling is that ultimately the rejection of the English Reformation was not the result of political alienation, but that the political alienation, which had a number of different bases, was exacerbated by the religious differences that grew between the peoples of England and Ireland as the English became increasingly Calvinist Protestants while the Irish were drawn towards Tridentine Catholicism. By the 1580s the chasm between the two versions of Christianity was so great that there was virtually no prospect of significant numbers of the Irish embracing the Reformation. The religious persecution that punctuated the two centuries that followed did nothing to alter that central feature of Irish history.


Henry A. Jefferies is a Research Associate in History in Ulster University. He has written or edited eight books and published scores of papers, mostly about the Church and religion in Tudor Ireland. His obsession with the Reformation dates to a time when he was a young (Protestant) Church of Ireland scholar, and he encountered the 1978/9 debate between Brendan Bradshaw and Nicholas Canny about the reasons why the Reformation failed in Ireland.


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