Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

William Cecil, Ireland and the Tudor State, by Christopher Maginn

Second paragraph of third chapter:
William Cecil's Irish correspondence began in earnest within months of his appointment in early September 1550 as secretary of state and a privy councillor. By comparison with Elizabeth's reign, Cecil's Irish correspondence in the early 1550s is slight: all that have survived are the less than two down letters written by members of the Tudor administration in Ireland to the young councillor. Still, this number is greater than all of the surviving letters which three of Edward's other councillors who maintained Irish correspondence — William Paulet, Edward Seymour, and John Dudley — received from Ireland in Edward's reign combined. Some letters offered observations on the state of politics and society in Ireland, reporting back what had been heard or witnessed; others contained the hope that Cecil would, through his influence with the sovereign and his access to the corridors of power in England, further one's own (or one's client's) political position or economic well-being. In these respects, Cecil's Irish correspondence was no different from the many other communications which he received as principal secretary and later as lord treasurer. What made this correspondence so markedly different, however, was that it almost invariably contained suggestions for how best to effect the 'reformation' of Ireland — that is, to improve, strengthen, and extend Tudor rule in the kingdom. Roughly half the kingdom lay beyond the effective control of the crown, with large swathes of territory in the north and west still under the control of dozens of more or less independent Irish chiefs. Areas answerable to the crown outside the English Pale and the major cities and towns, moreover, often bore little resemblance to English norms, inviting usually negative comparisons with society in England. The letters that Cecil received from and about Ireland and the kingdom's affairs thus regularly carried with them a prescriptive quality and an urgency for action absent from most of his other correspondence. It was through this medium that the secretary became acquainted with the realities of Tudor rule in Ireland.
I'm pretty sure I met the author at the conference on Elizabeth I and Ireland that I attended in 2009. This is a great analysis of the historical evidence for the interests and policies of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief minister, towards her other kingdom, firmly rooted in the manuscript records of the reign, which Burghley himself ensured would be preserved to the present day. The extract above fortunately happens to encapsulate the core theory of the book: that Burghley was deeply interested in all parts of Ireland, both the Pale and the wilder regions, and his overall policy objective was to bring about better government; he was more committed to the surrender and regrant policy as the bedrock of the new Kingdom of Ireland than to colonisation, but he still accepted that colonisation had its place.

I'm still trying to get to grips with the nature of the Dublin Castle government in the Ireland of this period. I think there may be good comparisons to be made with contemporary weak states, where the population as a whole may accept the country's borders as a definite political framework, but that doesn't necessarily translate into loyalty to the authority of the government sitting in the capital city, and in particular local chieftains resort to coercion to settle their differences because there is no reason to expect anyone else to take much interest. The Irish situation has the extra wrinkle that the Dublin Castle government had no secure funding of its own and therefore remained very vulnerable to royal whim, and the people causing them problems locally often had sufficient standing to appeal over their heads to London and nudge the royal whim in their favour. There's a lot of detail but it's all very fluent.

My own interest is of course my ancestor, Nicholas White, who was a close contact of Cecil's from the early days until things went wrong for him in the early 1590s. There are lots of juicy quotes to mine here, but two points I particularly wanted to note. The first is that the Palesmen in general referred to themselves as English, and never as Irish. I guess we tend to project nineteenth-century concepts of nationality back into the past. But it's clear that White and his contemporaries thought of themselves, and were thought of by others, as members of the English nation who happened to reside in the Kingdom of Ireland. White was occasionally derided by his rivals from England because he was from Ireland, but he was never described as being Irish - it's a subtle difference but I think an important one.

The second is that I'm still not much the wiser about the circumstances of White's fall from grace. There's a tantalising hint that his evidence was crucial to the conviction of Sir John Perrot. It looks as if Cecil did very little to help him once he ended up in prison in London, despite their long personal history of friendship. More research needed, I think.

Tags: bookblog 2017, people: sir nicholas white, tudor history, tudor ireland

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