lordship of Ireland

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Ireland first emerges into the light of history with the introduction of Christianity in the 5th cent. in documents ascribed to the British missionary St Patrick. Thereafter it developed a highly literate society, which has left us a substantial corpus of Latin and vernacular literature. The 7th–8th‐cent. law tracts, heavily influenced by the Scriptures, portray a society that was intensely hierarchical.

At the highest rung of the ladder stood the kings, around whom society revolved. Ireland was a land of many kings, the law tracts defining three grades: kings of petty local kingdoms, overkings ruling several of these, and ‘kings of overkings’ who effectively ruled a whole province. Although the laws rarely refer to a high king of all Ireland, it is clear that for several centuries the leading dynasty, the Uí Néill (based in the northern half of the country), did claim, and were occasionally able to enforce, supremacy throughout the island. Their primacy was smashed by the upstart Munster king Brian Boru (d.1014).

*Viking incursions in the late 8th cent. for a time seemed likely to overwhelm the country. Certainly, the Vikings increased the intensity of warfare, and by developing towns at Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, and Cork, they added to the wealth of what was otherwise a largely pastoral economy. In time, the Viking enclaves were assimilated into the Irish political superstructure, and those Irish kings who succeeded in asserting dominance over them gained an advantage over their rivals in the race for the high kingship. This was especially true in the case of Dublin, overlordship of which was, by the late 10th cent., generally asserted by successful claimants to the high kingship.

What might have been the evolution of a national monarchy was cut short in the mid‐12th cent. by the Anglo‐Norman invasion. The invaders were led by Richard de Clare, earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow. At this point, late in 1171, Henry II (who had received a papal licence to invade Ireland) came to Ireland himself, the first English king ever to do so, and established the English lordship. A widespread process of colonization then began, which involved the introduction to Ireland of English common law and institutions. By the end of the 13th cent., English rule was effective over perhaps two‐thirds of the island.

At this point a gradual decline began to take place in the fortunes of the English colony. This was accompanied by a dramatic revival in the power of the native Irish lords, whose culture many of the settlers had begun to adopt, in spite of frequent attempts by the Irish Parliament to legislate against it. Costly military campaigns in the second half of the 14th cent., two led by Richard II, failed to turn the tide. A preoccupation with the war with France meant a curtailment in the English commitment to the government of Ireland in the 15th cent., resources being channelled into a cordoned enclave surrounding Dublin known as the Pale.

A growing separatist tendency among the Anglo‐Irish community, culminating in a declaration of parliamentary independence in 1460 (though checked by the passage of Poynings's Law in 1494), led to the emergence of the earls of Kildare as effective masters of the Pale, though nominally the king's deputy. The Kildare ascendancy continued until the rebellion by Thomas FitzGerald, son of the 9th earl, in 1534, which was used by Henry VIII as a pretext for destroying Kildare power. The Irish ‘Reformation Parliament’ convened in 1536 declared Henry supreme head of the church, while that of 1541 gave the English monarch for the first time the title of king (as opposed to lord) of Ireland, in the process bringing the medieval lordship to an end.


Subjects: British History.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.