Gloriana's Bloody Age

by Dr James O'Neill

Massacre and Misrule in Elizabethan Ireland

Chapter 1: Introduction

The Elizabethan period is one of the most lauded eras of English history. The long reign of 'Good Queen Bess' is considered a 'golden age' and has inspired more than a few films and television series. With the stirring address at Tilbury, 'I know I have the body but of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too', it is pretty understandable that the English psyche could cleave to such an icon. David Starkey said, 'few monarchs have been better loved by their subjects. None have exercised a more powerful hold over the imagination of succeeding generations’. Almost daily, blogs and Twitter feeds extoll the magnificent reign of England's Gloriana. So it may come as an uncomfortable surprise when their Irish neighbours look on with some bewilderment and maybe propose a counterpoint to the lauding of Elizabeth I and her golden age. Golden? Golden for whom? Certainly not the Irish.

At the start of the sixteenth century, Ireland, though nominally controlled by the king of England, was run by a patchwork of lordships ruled by Irish and Anglo-Irish lords. However, the rebellion of Thomas Fitzgerald, 10th earl of Kildare, in 1534 resulted in the imposition of a new system of direct rule from England through a viceroy based in Dublin. Terror and violence became central components of enforcing crown authority. Massacres like that at Maynooth in 1535, where perhaps 50 were executed days after they surrendered, appalled the Irish, where hostage-taking was the norm. The pardon of Maynooth became a term for accepting surrenders on the pretence of mercy before putting all to death. The deputyship of Lord Grey De Wilton expanded on this policy, and 'Grey's Pardon' became a synonym for post-capitulation execution. Grey transformed the war against the Irish, as military forces underpinned English authority. This pattern continued into Elizabeth's reign; indeed, it escalated.

Elizabeth 1 Armada Portrait
Figure 1 The Elizabeth I Armada portrait is perhaps the epitome of Elizabethan grandeur, but cross the Irish sea and you will find a much darker picture (Woburn Abbey)