April Books 10) Anglicising the Government of Ireland, by Jon Crawford

Another step in my investigations of my sixteenth-century ancestor Sir Nicholas White. This is a forensic and detailed examination of the role of the Irish Council (strictly the Privy Council of Ireland, but normally referred to just as the Council) which carried out the executive functions of government from Dublin Castle, focussing on the period from 1556, when Thomas Radcliffe, shortly to become Earl of Sussex, arrived with a reforming mandate from Queen Mary, to 1578, by when a generational change in the Council’s members had been completed. Sir Nicholas White was appointed to the council in 1572 as an early part of that generational change (and stayed on it until 1592 when he was chucked in the Tower of London and died there the following year).

Crawford argues, contra many other recent historians, that there was no grand colonising plan inspired in London and implemented by its minions and appointees. rather he sees a genuine and even partially successful attempt to extend the Queen’s writ throughout the island, building on the surrender and regrant policy of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, eventually running foul of a lack of attention from London and a succession of poor leaders.

Policy development and implementation was anyway very tricky even in the best of circumstances. The chief executive, the Lord Deputy, would arrive with a political mandate from the Queen, but usually without the means to execute it, which had to be negotiated locally through the Council (and occasionally the Parliament); and he was also vulnerable to back-channel messages to Whitehall, either directly to the Queen from the Irish nobility (Anne Boleyn had been an heiress of the Butler Earls of Ormond) or by connections between the Irish Council’s members and the Westminster administration (Sir Nicholas White had a close personal tie with William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who ran the English government).

I think Crawford makes a good case against conspiracy to colonise, and in favour of bureaucracy being much more interesting than people had hitherto thought. I think he is less good at building that into the bigger picture – it’s not surprising and indeed excusable if you are mining a rich seam of material which has been unjustly ignored by previous writers, but by concentrating on the paperwork, he does miss the important role of military coercion from both sides. I can accept that the violence of the period has been perhaps over-emphasised by other writers, but it’s underplayed here.

One very nice touch is that Crawford goes against historiographic tradition by actually using the spellings that his subjects themselves used – Sir Henry Sydney rather than Sidney; Sir Thomas Cusake rather than Cusack; Sir Edward Fyton rather than Fitton. It is a slight shock if you are well-read in the history of the period, but a healthy one to remind us to allow the people we are reading about to speak in their own voice, and their own name.