Rory Rapple. Martial Power and Elizabethan Political Culture: Military Men in England and Ireland, 1558-1594. Port Hope: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 350 pp. $108.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-84353-9.
Reviewed by Steven Gunn (Merton College, Oxford University)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
Soldiers and Government in Elizabethan Ireland
Making sense of Tudor Ireland has never been easy. Mutually contradictory reform proposals and myriad political and military miscalculations show how hard it was for contemporaries. More recently rival historiographies have offered contrasting keys to the course of events. Were the Gaelic and Old English inhabitants of Ireland drawing together in their Irishness against rule from London and its New English agents? Was the composite Tudor state trying to standardize and tighten its means of rule across geographically varied territories and seeking collaborators from different communities on different terms in so doing; perhaps failing only when religious loyalties began to cut too firmly across political allegiances? Were the New English, imitators of the empire-building Romans and Spanish conquistadors, seeking to impose an anglophone Protestant civility on the barbarian Gaels and the fellow-travelling Old English?
Lately it has become almost as difficult to understand Elizabethan political culture. If the old story of constitutional rivalry between crown and parliament no longer holds good, was the prevalent tone one of monarchical republicanism, the monarch’s powers limited by the Ciceronian assumptions absorbed by her councillors from their Renaissance education? Or perhaps it was the queen’s gender that structured the anxieties and conflicts of court and council; or struggles between those keen to advance and those keen to retard further Reformation. In which case, did either the assertion of an asexual princely sovereignty, necessary to waive doubts over the queen’s power to command, or the claim to a powerful royal supremacy over the church, necessary to crush Presbyterian agitation, bolster a more untrammelled vision of royal authority? Or were older models, of a crown sustained by the loyalty of a hereditary nobility of service, or by its exercise of powers and prerogatives recognized by the common law, still of more fundamental importance than any of these novelties?
Rory Rapple enters both these debates through a group of men whose careers spanned the history of Elizabethan Ireland, England, and indeed Europe, English captains serving in Ireland. He argues convincingly that their characteristic attitudes and modes of operation have been neglected not only as part of the history of Irish government, but also as part of the history of English political mentalities. Those who spent the 1540s and 1550s on the battlefields of France and Scotland emerged from the mid-Tudor years with different lessons from those who spent them in the lecture halls of Cambridge and the council chambers of Edward’s godly governors. Where civilian humanists mocked chivalry, prized a pious self-discipline far from the soldierly norm, and saw war as the task for citizens defending the common weal, not swordsmen aspiring to personal glory, soldiers felt that they and the values they prized were neglected.
Defeats had led to shameful treaties, diplomatic compromises at best, in 1550, 1559, 1560 and 1564. More than twenty years of peace ensued thereafter. The queen did not reward fighting men as her father had done, and younger sons of the gentry who had chosen to make their way as captains rather than in trade or the law faced downward social mobility. Their literary spokesmen, Thomas Churchyard, Geoffrey Gates, Humphrey Gilbert, Barnaby Rich, and George Whetstones, voiced their frustration and called for a state-sponsored revival in the military profession. Fighting for foreign rulers kept body and soul together, but heightened the sense that a Henry II of France or even a Philip II of Spain knew how to reward a hero when an Elizabeth did not, and could place captains under suspicion when they returned to English service. In extreme cases--Thomas Stukeley, Sir William Stanley--those frustrated might indeed defect spectacularly to England’s political and religious foes.
Only Ireland offered opportunities. They increased with the spread of English fortifications and plantation schemes from the 1540s and became more lucrative with the drive to fund garrisons by composition in the 1570s. Captains aspired to lordship, seeking lands around the fortresses in their charge, but they were also given delegated royal authority, as seneschals, presidents, or governors, in a way unusual in the Tudor realms. In its exercise they revealed both their personal ambition, the quarrelsome quest for pre-eminence of the aspiring knight, and their attitude to the queen’s power. Tasked, as they saw it, with extreme measures to crush local obstruction to the establishment of a workable English-style judicial, political, and social system, they deployed an imperial might to defend with exemplary force what they called "the dignity of the state." It could be brought to bear, in what they judged to be cases of necessity, to cut through the constitutional niceties favored by the Old English establishment and the harmful tyrannies exercised by the Gaelic lords over the queen’s poor Irish subjects. Such power was, as Humphrey Gilbert put it, a "sweet poison" to those who exercised it, drawing them into self-aggrandizing and, in his case, grotesquely violent confrontations with local rivals. Provided captains were secure in support at court, they could even ignore the attempts of lord deputies to restrain them. In Sir Richard Bingham’s presidency of Connacht, independence of action and brutality of method reached such a peak that local Gaelic leaders were driven to the radical stance they would adopt in the Nine Years War.
The book is fluently written and persuasive and Rapple’s research is impressively deep. Unfortunately he threatens to forfeit the reader’s confidence with minor errors. The battle of Bannockburn and siege of Metz are misdated (pp. 25, 88); Sir Edward Poynings, Hubert Languet and Philibert, prince of Orange are given the wrong Christian names (pp. 53, 138, 213); and the apocryphal marquis of Southampton is dispatched on embassy to France in 1551 in place of the genuine marquis of Northampton (p. 97).
Rapple succeeds in linking his analysis to other themes of interest. In the realm of political ideas, he shows that Gilbert expressed a high view of royal power in the English parliament as well as in Ireland, and that Bingham was held up as an exemplar in the deployment of necessary violence as dictated by reason of state in Richard Beacon’s Machiavellian Solon his Folie (1594). In the Irish context, he is able to show that few of his captains were rigorous reformed Protestants and that they associated freely with Irishmen of Gaelic extraction and happily used their military and political services. Yet he perhaps misses opportunities to connect his work to other relevant contexts. He dissents from David Trim’s characterization of the Elizabethan military community as a hotbed of godly enthusiasm for intervention in continental religious warfare, but he never confronts Trim’s calculations that more Englishmen were fighting in the Netherlands and France, even before 1585, than in Ireland. The Champernownes, Morgans, Veres, and other godly captains who loom large in Trim’s work are absent from Rapple’s and perhaps it is predictable that the English military had its more and less godly ends, just as the contemporary French and Netherlandish military establishments were sufficiently polarized in religion to man two sides in civil wars.
Rapple also fails to link his ideas on the frustrations of chivalry in Elizabethan England with those of Richard McCoy (focused more on the higher nobility), his ideas on the political attitudes of military men faced with constitutionalist obstruction with those of Mervyn James (considering Essex’s followers in the 1590s), or his ideas on chivalry, troop-raising and military careerism under Henry VIII with those of David Grummitt, Luke MacMahon, and others. He seeks parallels for the captains’ ambitions to make themselves lords, not in the hackneyed conquistadors, but in those who grabbed monastic lands under Henry; but might not closer parallels be the Plantagenet and Lancastrian captains who carved out their fortunes in France, like Sir Robert Knolles or Sir John Fastolf? Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, he fails to ask what Englishmen who served under a duke of Guise or a duke of Alba learnt about the relations between princes, subjects, and soldiers in and out of wartime. Ireland, after all, was not the only place in sixteenth-century Europe where armies charged with enforcing obedience, led by ambitious captains and manned by trigger-happy plunderers, met sullen resistance from peasants and townsmen and constitutional carping from local elites; not the only place where noblemen whose local judicial pre-eminence was under threat from centralizing jurisdictions dispatched life and limb under martial law. What lessons might a Nicholas Malby or a Richard Bingham have brought home from their travels to point the way in serving their queen and advancing themselves among her less than obedient subjects?
. David Trim, "Fighting 'Jacob's Warres': The Employment of English and Welsh Mercenaries in the European Wars of Religion: France and the Netherlands, 1562-1610" (PhD diss., London University, 2002), and "Calvinist Internationalism and the English Officer Corps, 1562–1642," History Compass 4, no. 6 (2006): 1024-48.
. Richard McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Mervyn James, "At a Crossroads of the Political Culture: the Essex Revolt, 1601," in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 416-65; David Grummitt, "The Court, War and Noble Power in England, c.1475-1558," in The Court as a Stage: England and the Low Countries in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Steven Gunn and Antheun Janse (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 145-55; Luke MacMahon, "Chivalry, Military Professionalism and the Early Tudor Army in Renaissance Europe," in The Chivalric Ethos and the Development of Military Professionalism, ed. David Trim (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 183-212.
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Steven Gunn. Review of Rory Rapple, Martial Power and Elizabethan Political Culture: Military Men in England and Ireland, 1558-1594.
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