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Constructing Discord: Ideology, Propaganda, and English Responses to the Irish Rebellion of 1641

  • Ethan Howard Shagan


Historians such as Conrad Russell and Kevin Sharpe have recently stressed the “British” nature of the crisis which toppled Charles I's regime in the 1640s. England, these historians remind us, was not the first of Charles's three kingdoms to rebel but the last; the Scots rose in 1639–40, the Irish rose in the fall of 1641, but the English only belatedly followed suit in August 1642. They have thus suggested that the origins of the English Civil War cannot be explained within a purely English context but must be understood within the larger vortex of multinational British politics.

This injection of the “British problem” into the historiographical debate may seem like a neutral intervention, but in practice it has been closely associated with the revisionist interpretation of the seventeenth century. Since the 1970s, revisionist historians have contended that early Stuart England was an ideologically stable society which collapsed only after a series of sudden, contingent events disrupted the existing consensus. They have thus been at pains to find short-term, nonideological explanations for the Civil War's outbreak or else face embarrassing charges that they have proven why there was no civil war in seventeenth-century England. The “British problem” has come into the debate as just such an explanation, as an answer to thorny questions about how such a violent storm as the English Civil War could have arisen out of clear skies. After all, if radicalized Scotsmen spread the language of confessional conflict and resistance theory across the border, as Sharpe has argued, then no internal explanation for the English Civil War is required.



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1 See Russell, Conrad, The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637–1642 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Sharpe, Kevin, The Personal Rule of Charles I (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992); Russell, Conrad, The Causes of the English Civil War: The Ford Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford, 1987–1988 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Russell, Conrad, “The British Problem and the English Civil War,” History 72, no. 236 (October 1987): 395415.

2 The origins of this critique, first directed against Morrill, John for his book The Revolt of the Provinces: Conservatives and Radicals in the English Civil War, 1630–1650 (London: Allen, George and Unwin, , 1976), are discussed in Morrill, John, The Nature of the English Revolution: Essays (London: Longman, 1993), p. 188. The critique is also confronted in Russell, , “The British Problem and the English Civil War,” p. 395.

3 See Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles I; and Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies. For earlier expressions of revisionism, see, e.g., Russell, Conrad, ed., The Origins of the English Civil War (London: Macmillan, 1973); Morrill, The Revolt of the Provinces; Kishlansky, Mark, Parliamentary Selection: Social and Political Choice in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

4 Russell, , The Causes of the English Civil War, p. 213. This paragraph describes arguments made especially in Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War, chaps. 2, 5, 6, and conclusion; and Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies, chap. 10 and conclusion. Russell argues that the Irish Rebellion was contingent in terms of its effect on English history; in the Irish/British context, he argues quite plausibly that the Rebellion was not a random event but was based on structural flaws in the administration of the three kingdoms.

5 Cust, Richard and Hughes, Ann, “Introduction: After Revisionism,” in Conflict in Early Stuart England: Studies in Religion and Politics, 1603–1642, ed. Cust, Richard and Hughes, Ann (London: Longman, 1989), p. 13.

6 Harris, Tim, “Propaganda and Public Opinion in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Media and Revolution: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Popkin, Jeremy D. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), p. 48. For some important recent uses of pamphlets as sources for political history, see Cogswell, Thomas, “England and the Spanish Match,” in Cust, and Hughes, , eds.; Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet,1578-1653 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); Mendle, Michael, “Grub Street and Parliament at the Beginning of the English Revolution,” in Popkin, , ed.; Walsham, Alexandra, “ [The Fatall Vesper': Providentialism and Anti-popery in Late Jacobean London,” Past and Present, no. 144 (August 1994): 3687. Although not about politics, the best use of pamphlet literature in English historiography is Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

7 Bloudy Newes from Ireland, or the Barbarous Crueltie by the Papists Used in that Kingdome (Marke Rookes, 1641), sig. A3v. A copy of this pamphlet is in the British Library's Thomason Tracts (hereafter TT) E. 179(9). Throughout this article, original spelling has been retained in all quotations, but punctuation and capitalization have been modernized freely.

8 Lake, Peter, “Deeds against Nature: Cheap Print, Protestantism and Murder in Early Seventeenth-Century England,” in Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, ed. Sharpe, Kevin and Lake, Peter (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 283.

9 The pamphlets discussed in this article are nearly all of the very cheapest sort, a single sheet of paper folded to produce between four and eight small pages of text. A few pamphlets discussed are slightly longer, but none are longer than twenty-five small printed pages, so at least in principle all would be available to a very wide market.

10 A Declaration of the House of Commons Touching the Breach of Their Priviledges, and for the Vindication Thereof(London: Coules, Fr. and Bankes, T., 1642). TT E. 132(6). The Petition of the Knights, Gentlemen and Free-Holders of the County of North-Hampton (London: Couls, F. and Banks, T., 1642). TT E. 135(36). Englands Absolute Monarchy, or Government of Great Britaine (London: Bankes, Thomas, 1642). TT E. 107(3). Taylor, John, A Plea for Prerogative; or. Give Caesar His Due (London: Bankes, T., 1642). TT E.154(22).

11 Worse and Worse News from Ireland (London: Butter, Nath., 1641). TT E.180(15). Episcopacie Asserted: As It Now Stands Established in Our Church and Common-Wealth (London: Butter, Nath., 1641). TT E. 171(6).

12 A Perfect Relation of the Beginning and Continuation of the Irish-Rebellion from May Last to this Present 12th of January, 1641 (London: J.R., 1642), p. 13. TT E.131(35).

13 Cited in Read, James Morgan, “Atrocity Propaganda and the Irish Rebellion,” Public Opinion Quarterly 2, no. 2 (April 1938): 229–44, at 237.

14 Worse and Worse Newes from Ireland, p. 2.

15 Dolefull Newes from Edinborough in Scotland (London: Field, William, 1641), sig. A4r. TT E.179(17).

16 My analysis of Foxe is drawn especially from Jane Facey, “John Foxe and the Defence of the English Church,” and Davies, Catharine, “ [Poor Persecuted Little Flock] or [Commonwealth of Christians]: Edwardian Protestant Concepts of the Church,” in Protestantism and the National Church in 16th Century England, ed. Lake, Peter and Dowling, Maria (London: Helm, Croom, 1987). For other work on Foxe, see, e.g., Haller, William, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (London: Cape, J., 1963); Olsen, V. N., John Foxe and the Elizabethan Church (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

17 Facey, p. 185.

18 Cressy, David, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London: Weidenfeld, and Nicolson, , 1989), pp. 122–23. See also Maltby, William, The Black Legend in England: The Development of Anti-Spanish Sentiment, 1558–1660 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1971).

19 Cressy, p. 142.

20 Cogswell, , “England and the Spanish Match” (n. 6 above), pp. 118, 122. See also Cogswell, Thomas, The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621–1624 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Lake, Peter, “Constitutional Consensus and Puritan Opposition in the 1620s: Thomas Scott and the Spanish Match,” Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (December 1982): 805–25; and Walsham (n. 6 above). A thoughtful critique of the Cogswell/Lake view which does not, I believe, change the overall implications of the Spanish Match crisis can be found in Peltonen, Markku, Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought, 1570–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), chap. 5.

21 Foxe, John, Actes and Monuments (London: Company of Stationers, 1610), pp. 1764–65.

22 A Bloody Battell: or the Rebels Overthrow, and Protestants Victorie (John Greensmith, 1641), sig. A3v. TT E.180(7).

23 Ibid., sig. A2v.

24 Cited in Read (n. 13 above), p. 237.

25 Foxe, included among pictures before p. 1.

26 A Perfect Relation of the Beginning and Continuation of the Irish-Rebellion from May Last to this Present 12th of January, 1641 (n. 12 above), pp. 8–9.

27 Foxe, p. 1947. The atrocity stories from the Irish Rebellion, of course, were not all borrowed directly from Foxe. The Christian religion has a tradition of martyrdoms that goes back to its foundation, while the “black legend” of Spain and the atrocity stories of the Thirty Years' War were crucial sources of anti-Catholic imagery for English people in the 1640s. My purpose in referring to certain pamphlets as “Foxean” is thus not to deny other possible antecedents but to underline the point that in the English context all anti-Catholic rhetoric became entangled to some degree with Foxe and his book. Since the Acts and Monuments could be read in a variety of ways, some entirely conventional and some quite subversive, focusing on the specifically Foxean elements of English anti-Catholic rhetoric can help us to analyze the particular connotations and expectations of that rhetoric in specific cases.

28 A Perfect Relation of the Beginning and Continuation of the Irish-Rebellion from May Last to this Present 12th of January, 1641, p. 12.

29 The Copy of a Letter Sent by the Rebells in Ireland to the Lord Dillon (London: Thomas, Io., 1641), p. 6. TT E. 181(4).

30 Ibid., p. 6.

31 Bloudy Newes from Ireland, or the Barbarous Crueltie by the Papists Used in that Kingdome (n. 7 above), sig. A4r.

32 G. S., A Briefe Declaration of the Barbarous and Inhumane Dealings of the Northerne Irish Rebels (London: Roper, Abel, 1641), p. 11. TT E.181(11).

33 The Lord Osmonds Overthrow, Which Was the Chief Commander to the Rebells (London: Greensmith, Iohn, 1642), pp. 45. TT E.132(19).

34 An Order from the Commitee, that Eleven Thousand Three Hundred Horse Should Be Conducted by Sir Simon Harecolt into Ireland (London: W. R., 1642), sigs. A2v–A3r. TTE.132(11).

35 Two exceptions serve to prove this rule. First, the pamphlet The Lord Osmonds Overthrow cited above contains some monarchical imagery, but conspicuously ignores Charles I, instead praising that “great commander of the Protestants” Gustavus Adolphus (pp. 5–6). Second, another pamphlet, Irelands Amazement, or the Heavens Armado (London: Thomas, Iohn, 1641), TT E. 181(41), self-consciously laments the fact that there is no king to lead the Protestants against the papists: “Oh that we might have a David sent from the Lord to slay the vaunting Goliah of those daring rebels, then should Israel see manifold blessings” (sig. A3r).

36 This point is made particularly strongly in Lake, Peter, “Anti-popery: The Structure of a Prejudice,” in Cust, and Hughes, , eds. (n. 5 above), pp. 8687.

37 It should be noted that the ideological division in Spanish match propaganda, described especially in Cogswell, , The Blessed Revolution (n. 20 above), pp. 2732, is remarkably similar to the ideological division within Irish Rebellion propaganda described here. This similarity is strong evidence for the longevity of the sorts of divisions which led to the political crises of 1641–42.

38 No Pamphlet, But a Detestation against All Such Pamphlets as Are Printed, Concerning the Irish Rebellion, Plainely Demonstrating the Falshood of Them (London, 1642), sig. A2r. TT E.134(3).

39 Ibid., sigs. A3r–A3v.

40 The lust Reward of Rebels, the Life and Death of lack Straw and Wat Tyler (London: Couls, F., Wright, I., Banks, T., and Bates, T., 1642), quotes at sigs. Alv, A2v, A4vBlr, and B3r. TT E.136(1).

41 Ibid., sig. B4v.

42 A Proclamation of the Lords Iustices for the Apprehension of the Chiefe Rebels: and the Reward for Taking Any of Them (London: Shepheard, Henry, 1642), quotes at pp. 3, 1, 2, and 3. TT E.134(26).

43 The Last and Best Newes from Ireland (London: Coules, F. and Bates, T.. 1641), sig. A2r. TT E.177(10).

44 By the King (London: Barker, Robert, 1642). TT 669.f3(30). Here we certainly have an example of the “British problem,” if one imagines that term in its most basic form: politics was extremely different in England than in Ireland, and it was difficult for Charles to act decisively in one kingdom without disadvantaging himself in the other. This does not mean, however, that there was a “British problem” in the more elaborate sense of a structural weakness which provides a nonideological explanation for the English Civil War. The king's decision to downplay the confessional nature of the Irish Rebellion was not merely contingent or strategic; such a decision was available to him only because he and other conformist thinkers, unlike many of his English subjects, had long since rejected the idea of a connection between Rome and Antichrist.

45 An Abstract of Certain Depositions, By Vertue of His Majesties Commission, Taken upon Oath, Concerning the Traiterous Intention of the Rebels in Ireland (London: Robert Barker. 1642), pp. 12. TT E.149(3).

46 See His Maiesties Speech to the Gentlemen of Yorkshire (London: Banks, Tho. and Ley, Will., 1642). TT E. 109(26). Other royalists tracts published by Banks include Englands Absolute Monarchy, or Government of Great Britaine (London: Bankes, Thomas, 1642). TT E. 107(3). Taylor, John, A Plea for Prerogative; or, Give Caesar His Due (London: Bankes, T., 1642). TT E.154(22).

47 See A Declaration of the Lords and Commons Assembled in Parlement whereby the Good Subjects of This Kingdom May Better Discerne Their Owne Danger, and Be Stirred Up with More Earnestnesse to Assist the Parliament (London: Wright, Iohn, 1642). TT E.1 13(9). A Declaration and Protestation of the Lords and Commons in Parliament, to This Kingdom, and to the Whole World (London: Wright, Iohn, 1642). TT E.124(6).

48 See [Taylor, John], A Seasonable Lecture; or, A Most Learned Oration: Disburthenedfrom Henry Walker (London: Cowles, F., Bates, T., Banks, T., 1642). TT E.143(13). Divers Orders Set Forth by Both the Honorable House of Parliament for the Setting This His Maiesties Kingdome in a Posture of Defence (London: Coles, F. and T. B., 1642). TT E.138(3).

49 For analyses of Tudor-Stuart conformist thought, see especially Lake, Peter, Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterianism and English Conformist Thought from Whitgift to Hooker (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988); and Milton, Anthony, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. chaps. 2, 3, and conclusion.

50 On popish plots, see Hibbard, Caroline, Charles I and the Popish Plot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983); Clifton, Robin, “The Popular Fear of Catholics during the English Revolution,” Past and Present 52 (August 1971): 2355; Lindley, Keith, “The Impact of the 1641 Rebellion upon England and Wales, 1641–5,” Irish Historical Studies 18, no. 70 (September 1972): 143–76; Manning, Brian, The English People and the English Revolution, 1640–1649 (London: Heinemann, 1976); Fletcher, Anthony, The Outbreak of the English Civil War (New York: New York University Press, 1981). For anti-Catholic sentiment in England more generally, see esp. Lake,“Anti-popery: The Structure of a Prejudice” (n. 36 above).

51 A Bloody Plot, Practised by Some Papists in Darbyshire. And Lately Discovered by One Jacob Francklin, Sexton of the Parish Church of Bingley (London: Thomas, Iohn, 1642), sig. A2r. TT E.134(8).

52 Ibid., sig. A2v.

53 Ibid., sigs. A2v–A4r.

54 The lesuites Plot Discovered Intended against the Parliament and City of London Very Lately (1642), quotes at pp. 1, 3, and 4. TT E.132(2).

55 A Happy Deliverance, or a Wonderfull Preservation of Foure Worthy and Honourable Peeres of this Kingdome (London: Thomas, John, 1642), sigs. A2r and A3r. TT E.132(16 & 17).

56 Ibid., sigs. A4r–A4v.

57 A Bloody Masacre Plotted by the Papists Intended First against the City of London, and Consequently against the Whole Land (London: M. R., 1641), pp. 35. TT E.181(9).

58 Matters of Note Made Known to All True Protestants (London: Coles, Fr., 1642). quotes at pp. 8 and 4. TT E.131(16).

59 On the king's alleged connection to the Irish rebels, see Perceval-Maxwell, M., The Outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), esp. chap. 10; Canny, Nicholas, “What Really Happened in Ireland in 1641?” in Ireland from Independence to Occupation, 1641–1660, ed. Ohlmeyer, Jane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Lindley; Gillespie, Raymond, “Destabilizing Ulster, 1641–2,” in Ulster 1641: Aspects of the Rising, ed. Cuarta, Brian Mac (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1993); Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies (n. 1 above).

60 The Generall Remonstrance or Declaration of the Catholikes of Ireland, Received of George Wentworth, 28. Decemb. 1641 Who Received It from the Rebels When He Was Prisoner with Them (London: Hunscott, Joseph, 1641). TT 669.f4(34).

61 The True Demands of the Rebells in Ireland (London: Hammond, Iohn, 1642), sig. A2r. E.135(4).

62 The Copy of a Letter Sent by the Rebells in Ireland to the Lord Dillon (n. 29 above), p. 3.

63 Ibid., p. 6.

64 The Last Newes from Ireland; Or, a True Relation of the Sad Estate and Feares of Dublin (London: W. L., 1641), p. 2. TT E.181(5).

65 Strange and Bloody Newes from Miniard: Or a Bloodie Massacre Upon Five Protestants by a Company of Papists (London: Greensmith, Iohn, 1642), quotes at sigs. A2r, A2v, A2v, and A3r. TT E.132(5).

66 A Letter Directed to Master Bridgeman, the Fourth of January, and a Letter Enclosed in It, to One Master Anderton (London: Hunscott, Joseph, 1642). TT 669.f4(39).

67 Ibid.

68 His Majesties Declaration, to All His Loving Subjects (London: Barker, Robert, 1641), pp. 2324. TTE. 131(1).

69 Ibid., quotes at pp. 7–8 and 9–10.

70 His Majesties Message to the House of Commons, February 7. 1641 (London: Barker, Robert, 1641). TT 669.f3(42).

71 The Humble Answer of the Honourable House of Commons to the Kings Majesties Last Message, 7th of Feb. 1641 (London: Franke, John, 1642). TT 669.f3(41).

72 His Majesties Speech to the Committee, the 9th of March, 1641 (London: Barker, Robert, 1642). TT 669.f3(53).

73 See esp. Morrill, The Nature of the English Revolution (n. 2 above); Fletcher (n. 50 above). Morrill actually does propose a “British” view of the origins of the Civil War, but it is a version of the “British problem” quite different from the one proposed by Russell; see esp. his “The Causes of Britain's Civil Wars,” in Morrill, The Nature of the English Revolution, chap. 13.

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Constructing Discord: Ideology, Propaganda, and English Responses to the Irish Rebellion of 1641

  • Ethan Howard Shagan


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