17th Century Ireland – the Dynamics of Myth and Fact

Introduction • Modern Popular Perceptions of 17th Century Ireland • 17th Century Ireland : PreludeStuart ReformPlantations • Graces and Covenanters • 1641 InsurrectionConclusion • Works Cited • Additional Bibliography


In 1625, the Old English saw their chance to put their wealth to use and regain some of their former influence. They offered the new king, Charles I, to pay for the fortification of Ireland which had been denied him by Parliament. The Protestants of Ireland sounded an uproar; the idea of the Old English having influence on Ireland’s defences was unacceptable. Charles I, however, accepted the offer, presumably thrilled at the opportunity of bypassing Parliament’s decision. Charles I regarded sovereignty as a superior power that should not be encumbered or restricted by any other institution. The Old English, who remained true blue royalists, and in particular their wealth, were a means that might allow Charles to assert himself in the face of the Parliament that would dictate to him.

In return for a subsidy of £ 3,000 a month to be used for the fortification of Ireland and the arming and training of an Irish force, it was agreed that the laws imposed on Catholics in Ireland would be alleviated. This included the annulments of the demand of divine service, the insistence on the Oath of Supremacy and the ban from court on Catholic lawyers. These exceptions would be known as the Graces. In 1628 Catholic priests were permitted to return to Ireland.

The Graces would be the first spadeful with which Charles I would dig his own grave, as he was seen to put religion up for sale by his Protestant subjects.

However, in 1629 peace broke out in Europe and negotiations between England and its enemies France and Spain were conducted. This meant that there no longer was any urgency for the fortification of Ireland. Over the next few years new sanctions against Catholics took place and although the Graces had been formally agreed upon and some already had been put into effect, all the while that the subsidy flowed from the Old English purse, the Graces were not legislated upon. Eventually, the Old English ceased the subsidy to which Charles promptly responded by threatening with the reinstalment of former laws – which is what happened.

The Old English would never be able to reply or react to this threat, for the letter pertaining to it would never reach them. Why this was, is a matter of speculation, but it may be that the newly appointed Thomas Wentworth as Lord Deputy of Ireland, who assumed office in 1633, had a hand in this. Certainly, he took pains to sabotage the implementation of the Graces.

Wentworth was above all a practical man and a king’s man. His sole purpose in Ireland was to raise the revenue. A stout believer in the Stuart plan of civilising Ireland by plantation, he would do his all to ensure its success and keep unwanted Catholic influence from interfering with it. Objective in public, in truth he despised both Catholics and what he deemed to be Protestant extremists, i.e. the Scots, as his private correspondence shows (Canny 279). The Scots population had a marked tendency to concentrate in certain areas and many Scots planters were related by blood and marriage. Moreover, they kept close communications with their relatives who remained in Scotland. Wentworth saw this as a threat to the ideal of religious conformity. The Old English were entirely an evil in Wentworth’s mind; they were directly responsible for undermining the Church of Ireland and the civilisation of Ireland. That the Old English should benefit from the Graces was entirely unacceptable. Wentworth would shock the Old English when they realised that he, along with most English and Scots, saw them and the Gaelic Irish as being one people, the Irish. No longer could the Old English remain confident in their elitist perception of themselves. With the planning and initial preparations for a plantation in Connacht, Wentworth would altogether antagonise the Old English.

Meanwhile, Charles I was well underway to antagonising most of his Scots and English subjects. His grand plan for the kingdom was, like his predecessors, stability based on conformity, that is to say a conformity dictated by him personally. Along with a number of select bishops, he devised a reformation of the Church of England. His particular brand of Protestantism was Arminian in nature, with ceremonies and service bordering on that of the Roman Catholic Church. Taking the doctrine of one people under one church under one king quite literally, he deemed he had the sovereign right to mould the Church of England, and consequently the faith of all his subjects, according to his own religious beliefs. His new prayer book, which he published without Parliament’s consent, was received with outrage by Scots Calvinists and Presbyterians in particular. It was considered popish and even treasonable. Charles further managed to also antagonise nobles throughout Scotland and England by declaring that all who had in their possession former monastic lands only occupied that land with his good graces, i.e. it was in his power to deprive them of selfsame land at his whim and convenience.

The prayer book would set alight the Covenanter Rebellion in Scotland. What Charles had failed to include in his calculations was that, according to Calvin doctrine, if you find your monarch lacking in godliness it is your duty to depose him – which was what the Scots set about to do. As a direct consequence, Scots in Ireland were demanded to take the infamous Black Oath, in which they vowed allegiance to the English Crown and stated that they would fight their own kinsmen if need be.

Meanwhile, the Old English had had all they could stand of Wentworth and pressed for his removal, making the best of the few advantages they had while they still had them and the little influence they still had at court. Wentworth would eventually be charged with treason, condemned and executed. However, even before the death of Wentworth, the Old English would discover their mistake when they became aware of the dire straits their king was in and with what incompetence he dealt with his Scottish predicament. Wentworth, albeit political differences, had been one of Charles I’s most capable and loyal supporters. The Old English had now only Charles and his supporters at court and in office were dwindling by the hour.


© 2006, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

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