Sixteenth Century Ireland: Kingdom or Colony?

In the sixteenth century, England underwent a period of expansion and transition. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I undertook the mission of trying to govern and merge Ireland into England in the most effective and financially profitable way. However, unlike Wales, which was successfully incorporated as essentially an extension of England in the mid-1530s, Ireland remained in constant flux. The fact that Ireland received the title of “kingdom” in 1541 would only go on to make things more confusing. However, while under Henry VIII, England’s policy towards Ireland was more consistent with the rule of a kingdom, while Queen Elizabeth I’s policy towards Ireland was more consistent with that of a colony. This has led to debate among historians about whether Ireland was a kingdom or was treated more like a colony, and which method of rule, Henry VIII’s or Queen Elizabeth’s, was more effective in terms of expediting England’s expansion in the British Isles.

In 1541, Ireland was given the status of “kingdom” under the reign of Henry VIII. The English reasoning behind this decision was simple. According to Steven Ellis, “By erecting Ireland into a kingdom and offering the Gaelic peoples the status of freeborn Englishmen, the government hoped to abolish the island’s medieval partition between Englishry and Irishry and to extend English rule and administrative structures throughout Ireland.”[1] The goal was for Ireland to become assimilated into England, just like Wales had been at that same time.

Even though Ireland was not a truly independent kingdom, as it was still subordinate to England, Henry VIII adopted policies that were more in line with Ireland-as-kingdom. An example of this was Henry’s policy of surrender and regrant. This largely occurred in 1542, when many Gaelic chieftains arrived in England, surrendered their land to the crown, and then received their re-granted land from Henry who also bestowed. upon them noble titles. The hope was that this would be the beginning of the integration process of Ireland into England.[2] This policy was Henry’s way of attempting to spread his power over Ireland, while at the same time giving the Irish chieftains a sense of authority within their own country.

This idea of giving Ireland a sense of authority within its own country did not last long. As Edward Cavanagh states, “’independence’ eventually gave way to ‘occupation.’”[3] It is for this reason that some historians believe that Ireland was in reality a colony, even though it was constitutionally a kingdom. This is something that is clearly evident during Elizabeth I’s rule.

During Elizabeth’s reign, her attitude towards Ireland was more consistent with the rule of a colony, comparable to those on the North American continent. A large factor in her rule was the attempt to convert the whole of Ireland to Protestantism and to impose English ways of life there. As Roger Lockyer states, “earlier generations of Tudor statesmen had thought of Ireland as a semi-detached piece of England, with the Old English as the equivalent of the country gentry, later Tudor regimes treated it as a colony, to be subjugated by force”[4] The reason for this change in English policy is also due to the emerging idea that the English were better than their Irish neighbors, which came about during the time of expansion into the North American colonies.

James Doan draws some insightful similarities concerning how the English looked upon the Native Americans in the New World compared to how they looked upon the Irish during Elizabeth’s rule. He notes that, “the English explorers and colonists made early ethnological comparisons between the Irish and the Native American cultures….descriptions of the ‘Wild Irish’ are matched by the discourse about the Indians.”[5] Since the English were constantly drawing these comparisons, they were, as a result, placing Ireland on the same playing field as the North American colonies. That is, the English were looking upon Ireland as a colony, the only difference being that it was much larger and right next door to them. They were also equating the Irish with that of the Native Americas, and in England’s eyes, both groups of people were less than civilized.

In the sixteenth century, Henry VIII’s treatment of Ireland as a kingdom was potentially more effective than Elizabeth I’s treatment of Ireland as a colony, in terms of furthering England’s goal of incorporating Ireland as an extension of the monarchy. The Irish were evidently resistant to Elizabeth’s policies and did not take well to being subjugated to English culture. Henry’s pacifying approach to Ireland, an approach that was more in line with the treatment of a neighboring kingdom, was more effective in terms of furthering English expansion and lowering expenditures than Elizabeth’s more aggressive approach, which was more in line of ruling a colony.

-Michael Manukian


[1] Steven Ellis, “Tudor State Formation and the Shaping of the British Isles” in Conquest and Union: Fashioning a British State, 1485-1715, ed. Steven Ellis and Sarah Barber (London: Longman, 1996), 56.

[2] John Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (London: Routledge, 2004), 166.

[3] Edward Cavanagh, “Kingdom or Colony? English or British?: Early modern Ireland and the colonialism question,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 14, no. 2 (2013)

[4] Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, 168

[5] James Doan, “An Island in the Virginian Sea. Native Americans and the Irish in English Discourse.” New Hiberna Review 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1997): 80.

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