Medieval and Early Modern Ireland: High Kingship to Tudor Kingdom 600 to 1600

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Medieval and Early Modern Ireland: High Kingship to Tudor Kingdom 600 to 1600

<p>The assimilation of the Celtic and Christian cultures, begun by 600 AD, became irrevocable by 1600. High Kings were central to Celtic Christian Ireland’s sense of itself for 700 years until


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The assimilation of the Celtic and Christian cultures, begun by 600 AD, became irrevocable by 1600. High Kings were central to Celtic Christian Ireland’s sense of itself for 700 years until thwarted by Norman invasions around 1170. A social balance was re-established between Gaelic and English cultures and communities but the Tudor demand for centralisation dictated that religious Reformation must lead to political re-formation, plunging Ireland into a century’s re-conquest.


  • R F Foster, Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, Oxford 1989
  • T W Moody and F X Martin (eds), The Course of Irish History, 3rd edn Dublin, Mercier 1990


  • Celtic Christian Ireland / 600-795: Celtic and Christian elements shaped the millennium from 600 AD. Provincial kingly dynasties and social order, ebulliently Celtic, changed under Christianity. Irish law and social institutions, poetry and learning. Ireland is altered under the new religion. Irish art, mainly religious works, reached their highest flowering and Irish mythology was recorded. Monasteries flourished as frontier foundations in wood consolidated into stone ‘cities of the Gospel’. The diocesan system constituted a parallel Church.
  • Viking impacts / 795-1014: Viking incursions brought the first major cultural change since Christianity – the Norse civilisation of the sea, international trade and town-life. Raiding and settling also thwarted the centralisation of kingship on the island. By the 900s, the Norse were being drawn into the Irish way of regional governance. The O’Neill High Kings of the north checked the Norse, but the decaying leadership of the south failed to arrest their advance. Yet a new southern leader not only contained the Norse but reconstituted the High Kingship with lingering effects for two centuries.
  • Civil and Church governance / 1000-1170: Between the Vikings and the Normans, Ireland experienced a peaceful trend towards European integration, led by the Church rather than the civil power. Continental monastic orders overtook the Irish foundations and the diocesan system conformed to Continental models. The High Kingship reached its apogee – and its eclipse – as it failed to complete its development. Celtic independence won out against the European trend to national monarchy. By the 1160s Ireland was highly Romanised but still not centralised.
  • Ireland invaded / 1170-1400: Ireland by 1170 was the latest outpost in the Norman world and a colony under English hegemony. Henry II secured his overlordship in the Treaty of Windsor with the last High King. Contrary to its terms, independent, unauthorised, and ruthless expeditions headed north, south and west to conquer new territories. Within two generations, half of the island was ‘Norman’ – the landscape dotted with drum-tower castles and smaller tower-houses, towns, churches and markets. The Irish took over 100 years to forge a concerted fight-back over the next century and more.
  • Irish Wars of the Roses / 1400-1485: Irish fight-back merged with the dynastic English Wars of the Roses as Irish contenders played off the antagonists. Hiberno-Norman magnates, royal officers of state, influential colonists, and warlike Irish lords all vied for ultimate control. The Tudor accession consolidated its hold by brute force in England but, in outlying Ireland, resorted to backing the most likely candidate to keep the Lordship of Ireland safe for the English Crown. In the result, Henry VII and Garret Fitzgerald chose each other.
  • Tudor reorganisation / 1485-1558: Early Tudors, more concerned with Europe to the east than Ireland to their west, avoided the realities of ruling Ireland by exploiting the equivocal status of the Fitzgeralds. But Henry’s break with Catholic Europe in 1533 rendered urgent the need to consolidate his hold on Ireland by terminating the Fitzgerald hold on Irish government and instituting direct rule, involving civil, judicial, religious and military means. Tudors pursued different strategies and tactics though all desired to implement strong, centralised control. Each used methods wavering between ‘gentle persuasions’ and outright conquest. Military campaigns, civil plantations and the deconstruction of the Gaelic lordships all rendered Ireland the complete colony that Norman invasion had predicted but had not achieved.
  • Elizabeth and Ireland / 1558-1603: Elizabeth I’s long reign witnessed the final subjugation of Ireland – but it was neither easy, speedy nor cheap. For 20 years Elizabeth found it expedient to continue her father’s policy of negotiating her way around the surviving Gaelic lordships. She had to leave matters largely to her local loyal subjects who used martial law to cover aggressive government. The Irish Church floundered, as it had under Henry VIII, without leaders and clergy, and lacking popular support throughout the country. Neither civil nor religious governance acceded to Tudor will to satisfy authorities in Dublin or London. Continental Catholic powers threatened Tudor supremacy at home: Ireland and Scotland looked set to become staging posts for Counter-Reformation aggression against England.
  • Conquest and Plantation / 1570-1610: The second half of Elizabeth’s reign saw the escalation of English-style legal devices to terrorise and dispossess native landowners and leaders. Military might soon surpassed even notionally legal processes. Geraldine Rebellions in the south-west produced the Plantations of Munster. Other factors accelerated the settlement of non-Irish groups on Irish land in Connaught and Ulster. Elizabeth also bolstered the Irish Church and expelled the Catholic hierarchy and clergy. Under the Stuarts, Ireland was ripe for wholesale domination.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Trace the evolution of Ireland from the Middle Ages to the end of the historical period known as ‘Early Modern’, and to explain their meanings and significance.
  2. Compare and contrast the national policies of English kings and ministers with the aspirations of Ireland’s dominant power groups.
  3. Focus on religion and ethnicity in Irish life and governance over 1000 years.