Surrender and Re-grant in Tudor Ireland: fact and myth

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During the Tudor period of Irish history there was an unprecedented level of warfare and brutality which resulted in the destruction of the old Gaelic political order. However during this period of harsh fighting, there was a more civil policy pursued by Henry VIII historians have titled ‘surrender and regrant’. This policy sought to integrate individual Irish lords, both politically and culturally into the Tudor state. The Tudor government introduced this broad initiative in Ireland in the 1540s in order to try and extend and expand English control over Ireland. Its aim was to “incorporate the Gaelic lordships by consent into a new fully anglicized kingdom of Ireland comprising the whole island. To this end the Gaelic chiefs had to be induced to hold their lands of the King and the king to forgo many of his ancient but unrealizable feudal claims (a concession which he had refused in 1520) in return for full recognition of his sovereignty.”

This policy was a device for lasting social, political and constitutional change and it provided the elements for the merging of the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic population of Ireland into an expanding Tudor state. In 1541 the English crown departed from its medieval relationship with Irish Gaelic leaders by recognizing them as English subjects, following their submission to King Henry VIII. What was also a massive change was the willingness of these independent Gaelic chiefs to be subjects of the crown and to abandon their Irish titles in favour of English ones. Added to this was the satisfaction of the Anglo-Irish population, who saw this as a possible end to the hostility shown towards them by the Gaelic population at the time. In order for the policy to come into effect the Irish “chiefs were to surrender their lands to the crown, and to receive them back again by letters patent, to hold in accordance with English law.” In addition to the surrendering of land the Irish chieftains also had to renounce the Roman Catholic church and convert to Henry’s new Anglican church. “The Irish chiefs, under Grey, agreed to accept the overlordship of a king who demanded the observance of his fashions, the payment of his tributes, and the renunciation of any rivals, particularly the Pope.”

Anthony St. Leger was the new English Governor of Ireland at the time and it was his responsibility to launch the “surrender and regrant” policy among the Gaelic Irish. In a great propaganda coup, Conn O’ Neill, head of the O’ Neill dynasty in West Ulster, surrendered his Gaelic title in 1542 and with great pomp and ceremony was created the Earl of Tyrone. Many more followed and in 1541 a clear majority of the Gaelic Irish chiefs had swapped their Irish title for a royal one. So loyal had the Irish supposedly become, that St. Ledger dispatched an Irish contingent to the English army besieging Boulogne in 1544.

It soon became clear however that St. Leger had no real success with the policies as many problems arose within the Gaelic ranks from the new policy. An example of this was St. Leger’s inability to control Shane O’ Neill. He was not his father’s declared successor, however he had appointed himself as heir to the Earl of Tyrone. He claimed that under English law it was he who was first heir to the Earl of Tyrone because he was the first born and that Matthew the named successor had only been legitimate under Gaelic law. He brought his claim to court to put forward his case for the Earldom of Tyrone, armed with advisors who were versed well in both Brehon law and English common law. O’ Neill raised a large volume of additional matters during this case and these questions were not able to be adequately reconciled by either Brehon or English law.

Even though it was the achievement with which St. Leger was most associated with, and most praised, it was always doomed to fail. It could do nothing but destabilise Gaelic Irish society. Traditionally Gaelic chiefs held their title for life only, but surrender and regrant sought to turn a temporary chief into a permanent dynast. The problem with this was that while many of the Gaelic chiefs saw advantages for themselves and their sons in these royal titles, the excluded sons and relatives saw few or no gains for themselves. The result of this was that the disgruntled Gaelic Irish opposed other reform policies and tried to increase the possibility of all out war. As the poet Edmund Spenser concluded “that the provision of law as an instrument of reform suffered from flaws arising from the fundamental inability of the Irish population to embrace English ‘civility’.”

Ultimately there was a failure for the English and Gaelic systems to meet a middle ground, which would have allowed for the expansion of Tudor England into Ireland within conciliatory means. Following Shane O’ Neill’s spectacular rise and fall, much of Gaelic Ireland withdrew its support from surrender and regrant. In retrospect St. Leger’s governance was not a great era for humanist reform policies, carried out in a conciliatory way, but in fact signalled the start of a campaign to destroy Gaelic Ireland and then the initiation of a new policy of colonisation which gradually brought around the full conquest of Ireland. The policy of surrender and regrant was a very important and unique experience between Ireland and England and marked an opportunity for England to integrate Ireland peacefully into the Tudor state.

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Article name: Surrender and Re-grant in Tudor Ireland: fact and myth essay, research paper, dissertation