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As your honour knoweth: where a practice is joined with an authority how available the same may be to compass what is expected.
Sir Richard Bingham to Walsingham, 4 September 1589
In 1594, Oxford's university press produced Richard Beacon's Solon his Follie. Beacon's work, a dialogue between Pisistratus and Epimenides on the topic of reforming corrupt commonwealths, was a thinly disguised treatment of the problems of Elizabethan Ireland. With its university imprint, Solon stands as the academic high water mark of Irish studies in the late sixteenth century. The polemic has recently attracted the interest of intellectual historians because Beacon, an English planter in Munster, stands as the clearest example we have of a full reception of Machiavelli in Elizabethan England. Markku Peltonen, in particular, has outlined the extent of Machiavelli's influence on Beacon. Not only were many of the examples Beacon employed to illustrate his arguments culled wholesale from the Discorsi, much of his analysis of the political problem that Ireland posed for the crown followed exactly the same internal logic as Machiavelli's meditations on Livy. In terms of the developing situation in Ireland, the year of publication is particularly suggestive: in 1594, Ireland was already on the verge of tumbling into that stop-start conflict, later called the Nine Year's War.
[A]uthority was to me but a sweet poison that would in the end turn to my confusion and utter discredit, rather than to the increase of my poor reputation.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert to Secretary Cecil, 18 October 1569
As is well known, Lord Treasurer Burghley spent time and effort trying to conceptualise the terms under which the Elizabethan settlement and his own political career could withstand the appalling possibility of the queen's sudden death. One problem that faced him on the occasions when he tried to square this circle was a simple constitutional one: where would sovereignty be located within the commonwealth during an interregnum? The 1585 act for the security of the queen's royal person was ambiguous about where that sovereignty might lie following the queen's assassination. Burghley envisaged that under such circumstances a great council could be created, made up of the existing privy council and recruits from the House of Lords which would hold sovereignty during the interregnum acting ‘in the name of the imperial crown of England’. A similar, but much more immediate, ‘inter-regnal’ problem had earlier vexed Sir Nicholas Malby far away from Whitehall in 1579: at the time, he was sheltering from a hail of bullets in the ruins of Askeaton Abbey in Munster. The volleys came from the castle on the other side of the river Deel, where the beleaguered earl of Desmond was lodged. Malby lacked ‘imperial crown’ authority to do what was necessary to bring his enemy down.
Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgements, turned away the fat knight with the great belly-doublet; he was full of jests, and gipes and knaveries, and mocks; I have forgot his name.
Henry V, Act IV, Scene 7
In 1584, Sir William Cecil, Baron Burghley, wrote his son Robert a letter containing ten common-sense precepts for ordering his life. The advice was blunt – especially where he advised his hunchbacked son not to marry a dwarf for fear he might ‘beget a race of pygmies’ – and betrayed much about Cecil's prejudices. ‘Suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps’, he intoned ‘for they shall learn nothing but pride, blasphemy, and atheism’ he was also eager to add ‘neither … shalt thou train them up to wars’. Here he was unequivocal. To train a son for war was hazardous because
he that sets up his rest only to live by that profession can hardly be an honest man or a good Christian, for war is of itself unjust unless the good cause may make it just. Besides it is a science no longer in request than [its] use for 'soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer.
To Burghley's mind, soldiering and the life of virtue were incompatible, and martial men were quick to grow rotten once their season had elapsed.
Yes. Why do we all, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less.
The urge to praise soldiers has proved strong in most cultures. This stems from a number of emotions commonly held: gratitude towards those who fight, kill and sometimes die for what we might identify with; sheer envy of the sudden action, the rare clarity and decisiveness of mortal combat; and, not least, the persistent belief that those who have engaged in that sudden action can attain some sort of heightened moral quality forged in them during their time in the gap of danger. Samuel Johnson famously said that ‘were Socrates and Charles XII of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say “Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;” and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me and dethrone the Czar;” a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.’ This sort of admiration has been (for a long time, anyway) particularly strong in England.
And sometimes through the greatness of their minds, [those] that gallop after glory, are carried away to seek out new kingdoms, and refuse their old habitation. A matter falling out well, worthy to be liked, but otherwise, a heavy tale to be told.
Churchyardes Choise (1579) sig. miii.
When William Flower, Norroy king of arms, arrived incognito at the Abbey of St Remy in Rheims on 7 June 1557 carrying Mary I's declaration of war on France, he was heralding a conflict that would end with shame and defeat for England. On the same day, a proclamation displayed throughout London enjoined all Englishmen to regard ‘the French King, and his vassals as public enemies … and to harm them wherever possible’. Whatever this shift in foreign policy portended for the citizens of London, it held immediate significance for Nicholas and John Malby, both of whom at that time were soldiers in Henry II's camp at Cambrai. According to Thomas Churchyard (the source of the tale), the brothers had served with the French against Charles V for nine years. Despite this, the Malbys, heeding Mary's commandment, immediately defected to the imperial forces. This volte-face and the cursory way in which Churchyard deals with it beg a number of questions.
My words are not well chosen; I care little for that. Merit shows well enough in itself. It is they who have need of art, who gloss over their shameful acts with specious words. Nor have I studied Greek letters. I did not care to know them, because they had not taught their teachers virtue. But I have learned by far the most important lesson for the good of my country – to strike down the foe, to keep watch and ward, to fear nothing save ill repute … to sleep on the ground, to bear privation and fatigue at the same time. It is with these lessons that I shall encourage my soldiers.
Marius to an assembly of the people in Sallust's Bellum Jugurthae.
The Christian humanist case against the ‘martialist’ was straightforward. There was a place for everything, even fighting, but everything had to be in its proper place; those who followed soldiering tended to bring conflict back into society with them. Simply put, Christ had told His followers to turn the other cheek. But even the import of this non-violent maxim was contentious.
When considering English government in Ireland during the Elizabethan period, the metaphor of ‘the state as a work of art’ seems the least appropriate one to use. From the crown's perspective, Ireland resembled a hopelessly cluttered desk covered with remnants of pieces of work started once upon a time but subsequently abandoned, sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually. While England had achieved a strong framework of government complete with regnal solidarity, a wealthy nobility and a confident juridical identity, Ireland seemed a place of confusion, a place where generalisations were irritatingly useless, a place where micro-diplomacy mattered more than grand design.
THE FAILED CONQUEST
The English crown's constitutional claim over Ireland, based on the papal bull Laudabiliter of 1155, had begun in earnest from the moment Henry II of England had taken up his lordship of Ireland in 1171 coming in on the harvest of the original English conquistadores, Strongbow, Robert Fitzstephens and Hervey de Montmorency. Many of the Irish kings preferred to submit to him in the hope of outmanoeuvring the first invaders. Subsequently, the English influence in the country spread far and wide, disrupting the Irish septs, turning many of them out of their territories, engulfing them using technologically superior military might.
This book studies the careers and political thinking of English martial men, left deeply frustrated as Elizabeth I's quietist foreign policy destroyed the ambitions that the wars of the mid-sixteenth century had excited in them. Until the mid 1580s, unemployment, official disparagement and downward mobility became grim facts of life for many military captains. Rory Rapple examines the experiences and attitudes of this generation of officers and points to a previously overlooked literature of complaint that offered a stinging critique of the monarch and the administration of Sir William Cecil. He also argues that the captains' actions in Ireland, their treatment of its inhabitants and their conceptualisation of both relied on assumptions, attitudes and political thinking which resulted more from their frustration with the status quo in England than any tendency to 'other' the Irish. This book will be required reading for scholars of early modern British and Irish history.