The Celtic World: The Pacification of Ireland by the English


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

The Irish situation was worsened when Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church. England was in potential conflict with major Catholic European players, particularly Spain. Ireland was a weak point, security-wise, because Spain could invade England through Ireland. Thus, the English government had to take measures toward the pacification of Ireland.

Natural stone with antique celtic symbols.
The English had never completely conquered Ireland, and, as a result, there was an uneasy coexistence on the island between the Irish and the English settlers. (Image: ATeam/Shutterstock)

Anglicization and Protestantization of the Irish

These strategies for the pacification of Ireland primarily included two expedients. Although the English government would adopt the military solution whenever they needed to, the other two strategies were Anglicization and Protestantization.

Anglicization stemmed from the English assumption that the Irish were savages, which made them resistant to accepting the English rule. Therefore, if they were to take on the English way of living, they would stop resisting them as they were convinced of English superiority.

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Surrender and Regrant

Protestantism was the English state religion, and the English government felt that the Irish would be more peaceful if they converted to that religion. These two strategies were adopted primarily during the reign of Henry VIII. Making the Irish Protestants and English-like was part of a policy later known as “surrender and regrant.”

Catholic rosary beads and bible
The English thought that if the Irish became Protestants, then there would be more peace. (Image: PhilipYb Studio/Shutterstock)

It involved giving the titles of English lords to Irish community leaders, which led to creating loyal lords and, as a result, loyal subordinates. They thought that if they could make the Irish behave like the English, their political allegiance would also change toward loyalty to the English.

The English government had taken away the Irish lords’ right to land. So, if they accepted the rule of the English king in Ireland, they would be granted the right to the properties they already had. Major landowners would also receive an English title like an earl or a baron. These titles led the Irish to be recognized as English and no different from English noblemen according to the law. What the Irish lords had to do in return was to observe English customs and learn the English language.

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A Unified Legal System

The surrender and regrant policy was helpful in giving the legal system of Ireland a unified harmony. Before that, there was widespread confusion in the Irish legal situation with both the English law and the old traditional Brehon law enforced in different cases. There was also a mix of English and Irish law called “marcher” law followed in some areas.

The new unified legal system in Ireland involved new courts, and a new system of Justices of the Peace was introduced and expanded in areas that were once entirely Irish, where the English people had to turn to Brehon law. Now the situation was reversed. So, the English courts were the primary go-to place for legal redress.

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Complexities With the Uniform System

Although this uniform system seems to be perfect, the surrender and regrant program could not be adopted in all situations due to some structural complexities. One such problem was the ownership of land by the English and the Irish and the way they handled it. For the Irish, extended family members had rights in the property that a landowner could not entirely alienate. Through the surrender and regrant system, these rights were lost.

Under the surrender and regrant system, the incentives for the chiefs were straightforward, which made it work well in many cases. In order to be recognized by the English, the Irish chiefs would go through a small ceremony and take an oath. Then, they would be free, which was completely worth it. Therefore, a vast majority of Irish chiefs surrendered their properties and got them back along with their new English titles.

But because of the dynamics of land ownership, the extended family members of these Irish lords were not fine with these developments. They would not benefit from these changes, which created serious problems in Irish families.

Therefore, the new policy, which was introduced to solve the Irish problem and create more stability, would ironically lead to opposite results.

Although surrender and regrant was effective in making many Irish chiefs a part of the English system, it caused many problems. Many Irish people thought that the chiefs had betrayed the Irish culture by adopting the surrender and regrant system.

Common Questions about the Celtic World: The Pacification of Ireland by the English

Q: What is surrender and regrant?

Surrender and regrant was a policy of the English government to make the lords and their subordinates of Ireland follow the English rule. Their lands were taken away from them, and to take them back, they had to promise to follow the king. So, their lands would be regranted to them.

Q: What is meant by Irish Anglicization?

The Anglicization of the people of Ireland was a policy adopted by the English to make the Irish follow the English rule. They would make them follow English traditions and culture, and the English way of living.

Q: What is meant by Irish Protestantization?

Protestantism was the state religion of England. So, the English thought if the Irish converted to Protestantism, they would be more peaceful. It was a part of a strategy to make Ireland follow the English king.

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