Perfidious Albion

The Steps to Empire


‘Moderately conducted wars
should be used against
civil and expert men,
but savages ... are only by
force and by fear to be

Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester,
and a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I 


In the north of Ireland, English soldiers scanned the alien landscape surrounding their forts. Out into that hostile territory, officers regularly dispatched patrols, to seek out their invisible enemy. The soldiers were often hard-pressed, usually fed up and longed for the day they could go home. Back in London, the better off grumbled about pollution, street crime, the homeless poor and the cost of the war in Ireland. These were some of the concerns that troubled Elizabethan England, 400 years ago.

Since the 12th century armed men have travelled from Britain across the narrow strip of water called the Irish sea to seek conquests and wage war in Ireland. By then a strong Gaelic society had developed in Ireland, with its own distinctive laws, religion, culture and language.

Ireland’s isolated position ensured that any invader had to develop a state structure able to raise and maintain large military forces and the maritime capability required to transport and supply them, before a sustained invasion could be made.

Even when successful, the invaders often became assimilated, adopting the life and culture of the native population. The Irish, who fought hard to keep their independence, were not easy to subdue and Irish history became one of conquest and resistance.



The Normans

In the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings from Norway and Denmark had raided and colonised parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and there was continuing conflict for domination between Viking factions and various indigenous leaders. The Danes had also established themselves in north-west France and in 1066 William, the Duke of Normandy, pursued his claim to the English throne by landing at Hastings with a large army.

After defeating the English King Harold the ‘Northmen’ (Normans) then set about establishing their control over all of England and dominating much of Scotland and Wales. The Normans brought with them a superior type of feudalism that became the most efficient form of administration, jurisdiction and land tenure since the Romans.

This system of overlords and vassals meant crushing slavery for the peasants, while the barons and the monarchy consolidated their land holdings and ruthlessly enforced their dominance. The Normans extinguished any opposition and absorbed or moulded the old order, which was already hierarchic, to this new class structure in England.

The Anglo-Normans first invaded Ireland in 1169 and Richard FitzGilbert de Clare (Strongbow) followed the next year with 200 knights and 1,200 men-at-arms. William had received papal approval for his conquest of England and the invasion of Ireland also had the blessing of the English-born Pope Adrian IV, who wanted Irish religious practices to be brought into line with Rome.

The Anglo-Normans, who proved adept at exploiting divisions among those they wished to conquer, used the request of the ousted Irish ruler of Leinster, Dermot Mac Murrough, for military help to regain his territory, to justify establishing Strongbow’s forces. In 1171 King Henry II, who wanted to ensure the invasion took place under his control, brought across a further 500 knights and 4,000 men-at-arms.

Over the next two centuries successive invasions were carried out and the Anglo-Normans became established in many areas, building forts and then castles to dominate conquered territory. Their armoured knights were experts in mobile warfare from horseback and, backed by the firepower of their archers, their aggressive tactics often defeated larger armies.

Among the barons, various ruling factions competed for the monarchy. They also often fought each other over land or honour and for or against the King’s rules or interests. In 1215, at Runnymede in Surrey, a group of rebel barons forced King John to sign the Articles of the Barons. This Magna Carta, which committed the king to observe the barons’ privileges and consult with them about taxes, was one of the first cracks in the ‘divine rights’ of kings.

There were also frequent indigenous revolts against the feudal ‘Norman Yoke, especially against serfdom, excessive taxes, a corrupt judicial system and the dispossession of the poor from public land by an aristocracy who were intent on securing large estates for private profit. In England, the ancestral memory of this resistance has become embodied in folk legend heroes like Robin Hood.

In 1381 workers and peasants from Kent and Essex revolted against a new poll tax and marched on London. John Ball, a radical priest, questioned why there should be lords and vassals by asking:

'When Adam delved and Eve span,
who was then the gentleman?'

Ball then told the rebels: 'Good friends, matters cannot go well in England until all things be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.' Some tax collectors and nobles were assassinated, but the revolt was suppressed after its leader, Wat Tyler, was killed. John Ball was captured and hung, drawn and quartered, but the poll tax was removed.



The Statutes of Kilkenny

In Ireland, besides the ever present military resistance, the greatest problem that the Anglo-Normans faced was that when new invaders arrived they invariably found that many of their previous forces had gone native. Gaelic life and Irish ways were proving seductive to many newcomers, especially those isolated in the wild countryside. The English administration, alarmed by this process, attempted to overturn it in 1366 with the Statutes of Kilkenny - which decreed that invader and native should be separated and kept apart. In the preamble to the statutes the following reasons were given to justify these apartheid style laws:

Many of the English of Ireland discarding the English tongue, manners, style of riding, laws and usages, lived and governed themselves according to the mode, fashion and language of the Irish enemies, and also made divers marriages between themselves and the Irish, whereby the said lands and the liege people thereof, the English language, the allegiance due to their lord the King of England, and to English laws, were put in subjection and decayed, and the Irish enemies exalted and raised up, contrary to reason.

Intermarriage became a capital offence and the English were also forbidden from having any social or business dealings with the native Irish or to speak their language. Many ‘offences’ were declared to be ‘high treason’ for which the legal penalty was to be hung, drawn and quartered. In spite of these laws assimilation still persisted, especially outside of the towns.

Integration, however, was a two way thing and while many invaders became half-Irish, spawning various dynasties of Anglo-Irish ruling families, gradually some imported practices started to supersede Gaelic ways. Some Irish rulers were willing to turn their backs on aspects of the clan system, like co-operative farming and the common ownership of land - and the Irish Church, seeking a more harmonious relationship with Rome, issued decrees stipulating that the Irish social system should be brought into line with the rest of Europe.

Originally, the Anglo-Normans had justified their wars of conquest by denigrating the Irish and this was to continue over successive centuries:

In 1183 a monk named Giraldus Cambrensis, a member of one of the main Norman families colonizing Ireland, wrote a book entitled The History and Topography of Ireland. It was a work of fiction designed to justify the Norman Conquest in Ireland. Accordingly, Cambrensis accused the Irish of various vices, including laziness, treachery, blasphemy, idolatry, ignorance of Christian beliefs, incest and cannibalism.

Remarkably, this bizarre and fictional account was the mainstay of English views of Ireland for the next 500 years. It was at the base of Elizabethan ideology when they came to plant Ireland.[1]

Denigration, coupled with instigating and supporting segregation between settlers and natives, has remained a major part of British policy towards Ireland ever since.


1: The New Internationalist, No. 255/May 1994,
in article The Riotous and the Righteous,
by Bill Rolston.



The Tudor Plantations

In 1485 the Lancastrian Henry Twdwr (Tudor) defeated the Yorkist King Richard III at Bosworth field. This ended 300 years of Plantagenet rule, during which the Normans had gradually formed an English elite but lost most of their French lands. The victorious King Henry VII quickly moved to assert his authority in England and, over the next century, the regional power of the barons was gradually sapped and central control consolidated in London under the Tudors.

Eventually establishment eyes turned towards Ireland, which then stood divided between the area of the ‘English Pale’ loyal to the London monarch, the lands held by the mostly independent Anglo-Irish lords, and the areas ruled by Gaelic nobles in the Irish way. In 1541 King Henry VIII, determined that no longer should any part of Ireland be deemed ‘foreign’, declared himself king of all Ireland and demanded that the Anglo-Irish lords and all the Gaelic kings, princes and noblemen submit to him.

The native Brehon Laws and Gaelic titles were to be abolished and the Irish who submitted made English lords. Henry hoped all the Irish rulers would then, through greed and/or fear, prove willing to adopt features of feudalism, especially primogeniture, allowing them to obtain and consolidate land ownership in their own name. Their eldest sons, and heirs, were then to be educated in the English way. After absorbing the Gaelic nobles and repressing the rest of the ‘wild Irish’, the native language, culture and other characteristics could then be stamped out.

At first it all went according to plan and a procession of surrendering Gaelic aristocrats made their way to Henry’s favourite palace in Greenwich. They were then made barons or earls and ‘given’ the clan lands back as estates, to be held under feudal law and Tudor control. However, under the existing Irish law, if a ruler did not promote the common good of his people, they could be replaced by due process and throughout Ireland many of the returning barons and earls were driven out and supplanted by other Irish leaders who had not surrendered.

The English administration, still thwarted by Irish laws and ways, then devised the policy of ‘plantation’, which was set in motion during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary Tudor (1553-8). In 1556 it was decided that two Irish counties, Offaly and Leix, were to be renamed King’s and Queen’s counties, then planted with settlers and brought under the English system of government. Soldiers were sent to clear the native Irish from the land and those who resisted were exterminated.

Mary’s successor Queen Elizabeth I, who was also a daughter of Henry VIII, carried on this policy and appointed men like Humphrey Gilbert to carry out this ethnic cleansing. Gilbert, educated at Eton and Oxford, was given control of Munster and carried out the ‘pacification’ of that province. Thomas Churchyard, in his General Rehearsal of Wars, recorded Gilbert’s methods:

His manner was that the heads of all those (of what sort so ever they were) which were killed in the day should be cut off from their bodies and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should be laid on the ground by each side of the way leading into his own tent, so that none could come into his tent for any cause but commonly he must pass through the lane of heads, which he used ad terrorem [to terrorize], the dead feeling nothing the pain thereby; and yet it did bring greater terror to the people, when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces when they came to speak with the said Colonel.[2]

The ‘pacified’ areas were then planted with settlers. On his return to England Gilbert was knighted for his deeds in Ireland, on behalf of the crown, and he became an MP. Later, with his half-brother Walter Raleigh, Gilbert attempted to set up English colonies in North America. Raleigh was given 40,000 acres of confiscated land in Ireland as a reward for his military service there. Also knighted after his return, he strongly advocated forming plantations (colonies) overseas which he claimed would reduce unemployment at home, absorb surplus population and stimulate trade.


2: Who’s Who in Tudor England,
by C. R. N. Routh,
Shepheard-Walwyn 1990.



Justification and Resistance

Another English soldier, Sir William Pelham, wrote that having marched from Dublin to Limerick he had 'passed through the rebel countries, consuming with fire all habitations and executing the people wherever we found them.' Back in England Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and one of Queen Elizabeth’s close friends, tried to justify this brutal genocide by saying: 'Moderately conducted wars should be used against civil and expert men, but savages ... are only by force and by fear to be vanquished.'

In Ireland the patchwork of plantations faced many difficulties and some settlers integrated with the native people, who gradually re-occupied much of their old land. Towards the end of the century the province of Ulster became the heartland of Irish resistance and in 1594 a grand alliance of northern Irish clans, under Hugh O’Neill (Earl of Tyrone), rose against the English. O’Neill, who had been educated in England, had previously fought on Elizabeth’s side and the angry Queen raised a large army to subdue the Irish:

Tyrone’s rebellion was the first of modern English colonial wars. The enemy enjoyed all the qualities and advantages of insurgents: mobility, knowledge of the country, ability to melt into the population. Ireland became a grave of military reputations, including the most brilliant of all, that of the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth’s young favourite.[3]

Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, took to Ireland the largest army that country had yet seen. Given viceregal powers, but lacking military dominance, Essex wrote to Elizabeth outlining the problems facing him and his 20,000 troops: 'In their [the Irish] rebellion they have no other end, but to shake off the yoake of obedience to your Majesty, and to root out all remembrance of the English Nation in this Kingdome. I say this of the people in generall, for I find not onely the greater part thus affected, but that it is a generall quarrel of the Irish, and they who doe not professe it, are either so few, or so false, that there is no accompt to be made of them.'[4]

Essex suffered a series of setbacks in his attempts to suppress the rising and lost many soldiers to disease and desertions. Disillusioned, he wrote home again to his Queen: 'Do my services past deserve no more than banishment and proscription into the most cursed of all countries?' After agreeing an unauthorised treaty with O’Neill, Essex made his way back home and confronted Elizabeth in person. She angrily placed him under house-arrest and Essex later took part in a half-hearted rebellion for which he lost his head to the executioner’s axe.


3: Britain and Her Army 1509-1970,
by Correlli Barnett,
Penguin Books 1970.

4: An Itinerary,
by Fynes Moryson,
from the early 17th century.



Scorched Earth

Essex’s replacement in Ireland was Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who engaged in a ruthless ‘scorched earth’ policy. Men, women and children were put to the sword, villages and homes were burnt and all the food, crops and cattle destroyed. Many more Irish people died from the resulting famine and the starving survivors were unable to carry on fighting. Sir Arthur Chichester sent this dispatch to Mountjoy about his pursuit of O’Neill at Lough Neagh: 'We have killed, burnt, and spoiled all along the Lough ... in which journeys we have killed above 100 people of all sorts ... We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it hath bred much terror in the people ... The last service was upon Patrick O’Quin, whose house and town was burnt, wife, son, children and people slain...'

The Irish were defeated at the battle of Kinsale in 1601 and two years later O’Neill submitted. In the 1607 ‘Flight of the Earls’ O’Neill, with many of the other leaders, fled abroad. The modern military historian, Correlli Barnett, wrote about Mountjoy’s campaign: 'In three years the rebellion, smouldering since 1593, was stamped out. The methods employed by Mountjoy have never been bettered; indeed their pattern has been repeated by European troops all over the world to this day.'[5]

Mountjoy also introduced other tactics that were to find an echo right up to the present. He trained some of his men to operate in small groups to chase and harass the Irish who were using a highly successful form of guerrilla warfare against his superior but static forces: 'He harried them [the Irish] with light flying columns which were their equal in mobility. His mobile operations pivoted on a mesh of fortified towns and new forts which the rebels could not take.'[6] Many of these fortifications were in similar places to the forts that were erected across Northern Ireland from 1969, from which British soldiers were operating, in a way parallel to Mountjoy’s troops, four centuries later.


5: Britain and Her Army 1509-1970,
by Correlli Barnett,
Penguin Books 1970.

6: Ibid - Britain and Her Army 1509-1970,
by Correlli Barnett,
Penguin Books 1970.



Taxes and Conscripts

To the people back in England, revolts by the Irish seemed endemic and the authorities continued to use anti-Irish propaganda to justify the ongoing wars. The Irish were called ‘beasts, void of law and all good order’ and described as being ‘brutish in their customs’. As more and more money was required to pay for the war, higher taxes were set by Elizabeth’s administration:

The cost of English operations in Ireland reached staggering dimensions. Before 1585 Elizabethan finance could claim impressive achievements. Throughout the last decade and a half of Elizabeth’s reign, the situation deteriorated with the principal problem being the nearly £2 million spent on Ireland. Even with the level of expenditure, Ireland was only conquered not pacified.[7]

In times of peace Elizabeth’s regime had governed with a manageable budget, but the wars with Spain and in Ireland drastically increased military expenditure - draining the economy and leading to higher and higher taxes. The English poor had little to gain and much to lose by these wars and conquests, as the burden of taxation fell most heavily on them:

Government commitments were continually extending - in the maintenance of law and order, the subjugation of Ireland, the maintenance of the navy. Costs were also going up in traditional spheres of expenditure - muskets and cannon were replacing bows and arrows, ships were getting bigger, the civil service was expanding.

... Till 1588 Elizabeth’s normal revenue was of the order of £250,000 a year ... In the four years 1599 - 1603 the Irish war alone cost £1,131,000 ... Under Elizabeth, as earlier, taxes were voted almost without question in time of war.

... 'The poor are grieved by being overcharged in taxation', Fulke Greville said in 1593. 'If the feet [i.e. the poor] knew their strength as well as we know their oppression, they would not bear as they do.'[8]

As increasing numbers of men were required for the various conflicts, rising taxation was not the only demand that the wars made on the poor. Invariably, the mass of soldiers also came from the ordinary people and men and youths were often forced to serve:

105,810 men were impressed for service in the Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Ireland during the last eighteen years of the reign [Elizabeth 1] ... It was conscription for Ireland after 1595 that aroused the greatest resentment. In 1600 there was a near mutiny of Kentish cavalry at Chester during the summer as they travelled to Ulster. The drain of manpower was relentless; between 1591 and 1602 about 6,000 Kentish men were impressed at a time when the county’s total population was no more than 130,000.[9]

Armies were gathered up from all over England and the recruits were usually harshly treated, poorly supplied and fed, and paid very little - if paid at all. Even before they reached Ireland, many of the soldiers expressed their resentment by proving troublesome. In Bristol, towards the end of 1596, 800 soldiers were waiting to be shipped to Ireland: 'The troops, waiting in Bristol for a favourable wind, "were so unruly that the citizens could not pass the streets in quiet, especially in the night, so that many frays took place, though the soldiers had still the worst ".'[10]

Once in Ireland the soldiers often took their frustrations out on the native Irish, whom they hunted down and slaughtered like wild animals. Many soldiers died from illness and fever in the wetland bogs and dense forests as well as from the ambushes and raids of the Irish. Most did not want to serve in Ireland and often tried to evade the wars: ‘Ireland was not popular with the English soldiers: those who could, deserted before they embarked, while their officers found numerous excuses for returning to England on important private business.’[11]

The ballad, A Lanthorne for Landlords, dates back to the 16th century. It tells the story of a soldier who did serve in Ireland and what happened to him and his family:

Not long agoe in Lincolne dwelt,
As I did understand,
A labouring man, from thence set forth
to serve in Ireland:
And there in Princes’ warres was slaine,
As doth that Country know,
But left his Widdow great with child
as ever she could goe.

This woman having gone her time,
Her husband being dead,
Of two fine pretty Boyes at once
was sweetly brought to bed;
Whereat her wicked Landlord straight
Did ponder in his minde
How that their wants hee must relieve,
and succour for them finde:

For, being borne upon his ground,
This was his vile conceit, -
That he the mother should maintaine,
and give the other meat;
Which to prevent, he hyed fast
Unto this widdow poore,
And, on the day she went to Church,
he turn’d her out of doore.

Her household goods he 'straynd upon,
To satisfie the rent,
And left her scarce a ragge to weare, -
so wilfull was he bent.
Her pretty Babes, that sweetly slept
Upon her tender brest,
Were forced, by the Miser’s rage,
by nights in streets to rest.

Quoth she, “My husband, in your cause,
In warres did lose his life;
And will you use thus cruelly
His harmlesse wedded wife?
O God! revenge a widdowes wrong!
That all the world may know
How you have forst a Souldier’s wife
a begging for to goe”.


7: The Problem of Ireland in Tudor Foreign Policy 1485-1603,
by William Palmer,
The Boydell Press. 

8: Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967.

9: Tudor England,
by John Guy,
Oxford University Press 1990. 

10: The Landscape of William Shakespeare,
by Michael Justin Davis,
Webb and Bower 1987. 

11: Britain and Her Army 1509-1970,
by Correlli Barnett,
Penguin Books 1970.



The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation swept through Europe as feudalism was on the wane and bourgeois capitalism was emerging. In many countries the Catholic Church had become a principal feudal force, forming a rich and corrupt part of the state apparatus. In the old order the ‘will of God’, which governed many aspects of peoples lives, was passed down through popes, monarchs and an apparatus of church placemen. The idea, implicit in the new religion, that an individual could have a direct relationship with God and interpret the divine will for themselves, was a revolutionary one - which threatened for a time to ‘turn the world upside down.’

In England Protestantism gradually became established after King Henry VIII, who had his own reasons for rejecting the Papacy, turned his back on Rome and made himself head of the Church. But Henry, fearful of the radicalism the new religion had exhibited elsewhere, ensured that the new Reformed Church became an integral arm of the Tudor state. Mary Tudor threatened to reinstate the Catholic Church during her brief reign, but Protestantism was consolidated under Elizabeth I.

As the new religion became dominant in England many ‘martyrs’ were created in bitter struggles for and against it. Patriotism was whipped up to combat ‘Popish plots’ and supporting Protestantism became synonymous with national security. Sir Francis Walsingham, an ardent Protestant, became the state spy master, running many agents both at home and abroad, including the playwright Christopher Marlowe. A number of penal laws against Catholics were implemented, some of which remain, in modified form, on the statute books to this day.

In Ireland, however, the Catholic Church retained the people’s allegiance and religion took on a special importance there – due to the conflict between the native Irish and the British invaders:

Basically, religious affiliation was - and is - socially, economically, and politically significant, for it distinguishes, with very few exceptions, the natives and their children from the seventeenth-century settlers and their children. The British Crown, in the post-Reformation period, naturally favoured the settlement of loyal Protestants, and the dispossession of natives, whose support of the Counter-Reformation was necessarily a form of rebellion: politics and religion were inseparable from the start.
The Protestant settlers - Scottish and English - were the gainers, the Catholic natives the losers: antagonistic collective interests and loyalties were established immediately. The natives were dispossessed, but not exterminated nor assimilated nor converted to Protestantism. Their Catholicism became the badge of their identity and their defiance.[12]


12; New York Review of Books,
Holy War by Conor Cruise O’Brien,
6th Nov. 1969.



The Ulster Plantations

Many in the Elizabethan establishment had seen control of Ireland as the first step in the expansion of English dominance and power - and thought that only through plantation could Ireland be brought to heel. The exploitation of religious differences would, from now on, be one of the steps taken to try and curb integration - as Mountjoy stated: ‘Because the Irish and the English-Irish were obstinate in Popish superstition, great care was thought fit to be taken that these new colonies should consist of such men as were most unlike to fall to the barbarous customs of the Irish, or the Popish superstitions of the Irish and English-Irish...’

In 1609 King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth, set in motion a new plantation of settlers in the Ulster area subdued by Mountjoy’s army:

The province was divided into counties, and government surveyors mapped the areas to be settled. Certain locations were designated for towns. In the countryside, English and Scottish gentlemen were to be given estates of 2,000 acres at very low rent, provided that they promised to bring over tenants from Britain to work the land.

… Over 40,000 settlers were attracted to the province between 1610 and 1630. Most of these came from the Scottish lowlands, where poor economic conditions provided a powerful stimulus for migration.[13]

Derry was renamed Londonderry and ‘granted’, with the county, to the City of London. Many of the settlers, especially those who moved to southern Antrim and County Down, were strongly anti-Catholic Scottish Presbyterians, who were fleeing from religious discrimination as well as poverty.

Some Scottish settlers were Gaelic speakers and initially a measure of intermarriage and assimilation took place. But, as more and more Irish Catholics were forced to make way for British Protestants, prevalent national and religious animosities ensured that the comprehensive integrations, which had taken place in the past between settlers and natives, would in this case be curbed. While this divide and rule strategy helped to consolidate the Ulster plantation, an apartheid situation developed that was to tragically endure - leading to continued tensions and troubles right up to the present day. While religious hatreds gradually died out in other places, in the north of Ireland they continued, marking out the coloniser from the colonised.


13: An illustrated history of the IRISH PEOPLE,
by Kenneth Neill,
Gill and Macmillan Ltd 1979.



Cromwell and the Levellers

The absolutist state that grew under the reign of the Tudors helped English expansionism to develop. The bankers and financiers who stood behind the growing trade and commerce gradually increased in power and influence. It was largely this new merchant class that forced Queen Elizabeth to use her navy to help check Spain’s competing overseas enterprises. While Elizabeth had been successful in balancing the various ruling interests during her reign, tensions now intensified as the coming bourgeoisie gradually contested the dominance of the old feudal aristocracy, church and crown.

In 1640 a civil war started in England when the growing capitalist forces in Parliament, allied with some landowners, challenged the absolute power of Charles I and his nobles. Oliver Cromwell, a landed gentleman, rose to prominence in the fight against the king. His victorious New Model Army, composed mainly of disciplined and determined Puritans, contained within its ranks many soldiers who had more radical objectives in the struggle against the aristocracy:

Round about 1646, towards the end of the first Civil War, the Levellers emerged as an independent group. There had been peasant revolts in the past. The first claim of the Levellers to originality lay in this, that they organised as a modern party, run on democratic lines, a third force, drawn from the lower middle class, the skilled craftsmen and the small farmers. Their followers ranged from some well-to-do merchants to the weavers of Spitalfields and the lead-miners of Derbyshire.

... The Levellers were the first political party which dared to make complete religious toleration a chief plank in their platform. By 1647 they had behind them most of the rank and file of the New Model Army and many of its junior officers.[14]

Many Levellers were religious, as well as political, radicals, who believed in the free interpretation of the scriptures and who opposed establishment control of the church.

In 1649, after the defeat of the Royalists and the execution of Charles I, Cromwell ordered the New Model Army to prepare for a campaign in Ireland. Some regiments refused and Leveller soldiers produced a broadsheet warning that service in Ireland would suit the designs of the Grandees (senior officers), which was to reduce the soldiers to ‘a mere mercenary and servile temper.’ Eight years before, one of the periodic revolts against English rule had occurred in Ireland. Thousands of settlers were killed and many more driven from land taken during the plantations. The ‘Protestant massacres’ were much exaggerated in England and Cromwell made great play of these events to work up anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feelings.

So strong was this propaganda that most of the Levellers believed it, especially after they heard that King Charles had made a pact with the ‘rebel’ leaders. Yet many still stood against Cromwell’s re-conquest of Ireland and a popular Leveller leaflet asked a series of questions:

  • Have we the right to deprive a people of the land God and nature has given them and impose laws without their consent?
  • How can the conquered be accounted rebels, if at any time they seek to free themselves and recover their own?
  • Whether Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, William Duke of Normandy or any other great conqueror of the world were any other than great lawless thieves, and whether it be not as unjust to take laws and liberties from our neighbours as to take goods from another of the same nation?
  • Whether those who pretend for freedom (as the English now) shall not make themselves altogether inexcusable in entrenching upon others’ freedoms, and whether it be not the character of a true patriot to endeavour the just freedom of all men as well as his own?
  • Whether the English would not do as the Irish have, if the Irish should dispossess and tyrannise over them?[15]

The leaflet was denounced as ‘treasonous’ for inciting the army to disobedience. Cromwellians published a counter broadsheet which said that the Irish were ‘more brutish than the Indians’ and it was the duty of the English to ‘tame such wild beasts’. Bribery was also tried, with Cromwell offering Irish land to soldiers who would fight for him in Ireland.


14: The Levellers and the English Revolution,
by H. N. Brailsford,
Spokesman Books 1976.

15: Ibid - The Levellers and the English Revolution,
by H. N. Brailsford,
Spokesman Books 1976.



Executions and War

While Cromwell had played a dominant role in the struggle against the Royalists, he was strongly against trying to level ‘the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years.’ In April 1649 a leading Leveller, John Lilburne, heard Cromwell tell the Council of State that if the Levellers were not broken in pieces: ‘They will break you; and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your heads and shoulders, and frustrate and make void all that work that with so many years’ industry, toil and pains you have done.’

The evidence that Cromwell got his way still lies in three unmarked graves in Burford churchyard in Oxfordshire, which hold the bones of men who had been part of a Leveller regiment who had refused to fight in Ireland. They had been trapped by loyal Cromwell troops at Burford and imprisoned in the church. Refusing to recant, the three were taken out and shot as an example, and a warning, to the others who watched from the roof of the church. The men proudly wore the sea-green emblem of the Levellers on their chests and died upholding their rights as citizen-soldiers and for the liberties of their country.

The events at Burford were one of the first steps, as Cromwell, allied to other conservative forces, gradually suppressed the Leveller movement. While much of the initial Leveller opposition to Cromwell’s Irish war was motivated by economic grievances, like soldiers’ pay and conditions, this was combined with political demands to push on with the revolution in England and against being made the instrument by which the establishment imposed their will on another country by force.

Another Leveller leader, William Walwyn, was imprisoned in the Tower where he made many direct appeals to the conscience of soldiers in the army. One of these was The English Soldier’s Standard, to repair to for Wisdom and Understanding, in these doleful, back-sliding Times: to be read by every honest officer to his soldiers and by the soldiers to one another:

‘It will be’, he declared, ‘no satisfaction to God’s justice to plead that you murdered men in obedience to your general.’ They would not be able to answer, as they might have done hitherto, that they had taken life ‘for those just ends, the rights and liberties of the people’. ‘Is there such haste?’ he asks, ‘If you are wise stay a little ... Certainly before you go, it will be good for you to see those rights and liberties of the people, for which you took up arms in judgment and conscience, cleared and secured by Agreement of the People, and not to leave them at the mere arbitrary mercy of a Council of State or a packed Parliament’.

... ‘For consider, as things now stand, to what end you should hazard your lives against the Irish. Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder in order to make them [your officers] as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England? ... It has come to a pretty pass with most of your great officers. They would have you to obey their commands, through to the killing and slaying of men, without asking a reason.’[16]

Cromwell pushed ahead with his war and in Ireland he crushed the opposition to English rule in a brutal and bloody campaign. In garrisons like Drogheda, which refused to surrender, the inhabitants were massacred. The Irish population of nearly one and a half million was reduced to almost half. Over 600,000 perished by ‘sword and brand’ or the subsequent pestilence and famine. Over 100,000 ‘captives’ were either forced to join foreign armies or were sold off as slaves to the West Indies and other colonies. Cromwell rewarded his troops with ‘tickets’ for land confiscated from the Irish (many soldiers complained that they were swindled out of ‘their land’ by the Grandees and the carpet-baggers who had followed Cromwell's conquest).


16: The Levellers and the English Revolution,
by H. N. Brailsford,
Spokesman Books 1976.



The Penal Laws

Cromwell’s Army also campaigned to consolidate the whole of the British Isles for the new social order which the Army now represented. After Ireland, English troops went to the West Indies and America where their brutal methods of dealing with the Irish proved effective in winning empire.

After Cromwell’s death, the Parliamentary forces made an agreement with the aristocracy and the monarchy was restored with Charles II becoming king. He was succeeded in 1685 by his brother James II, but Parliament intervened once again because James was a Catholic and they favoured his Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange, a fervent Protestant. The deposed James went to Ireland and raised an army there. William, who ironically had the blessing of - and financial help from - Pope Innocent XI, followed and defeated James at the battle of the Boyne.

The onslaught against the Irish way of life was now also directed against the native religion, and from 1695 a series of anti-Catholic Acts were implemented in Ireland. These ‘Penal Laws’ were designed to keep the native Irish in a state of permanent subjection. Under these Acts:

  • Catholics were not allowed to be armed and they could not own a horse worth more than £5.
  • A reward of £5 was offered for the head of a priest (the same as offered for the head of a wolf).
  • Catholics were not allowed to vote and consequently were totally unrepresented in the Irish Parliament.
  • Catholics were barred from public office.
  • Catholics were not allowed to maintain schools and their children were not allowed to go abroad to be educated.
  • Catholics were not allowed to buy land and restrictions were put on them leasing it.

In 1603 Catholics owned 90% of the land in Ireland, by 1778 they owned less than 10%. At the same time Protestant land ownership rose from 10% to over 90%, forming the ‘Ascendancy’ landlord class.

Irish agriculture and industry were strictly controlled to service British interests and subsequently famine was endemic in rural areas. The Penal Laws were designed not to rid Ireland of Catholics, but to reduce them to poverty and ensure they no longer posed a political threat. The Irish peasantry, cowed and often starving, could then be exploited in feudal-style servitude. In 1776, the English agricultural reformer, Arthur Young, visited Ireland and observed that: ‘A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottier dares to refuse to execute. Disrespect or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security...’

Young went on to describe how some landlords were sexually abusing Irish women over whom they had power: ‘Landlords of consequence have assured me that many of their cottiers would think themselves honoured by having their wives or daughters sent for to the bed of their masters, a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people live.’[17] This was reminiscent of the times in ancient Britain when nobles had enacted laws like jus primae noctis (right of the first night), which gave them the right to have sexual intercourse with a woman serf on her wedding night - and the medieval custom of droit du seigneur which allowed the feudal barons to do the same. Young showed how similar practises - and worse - were going on in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century.

Irish resistance continued covertly. In the countryside, travelling teachers stealthy kept the native language and culture alive in ‘hedge schools’ . The Catholic religion also continued with illicit worship in the woods and hills. Secret societies like the Whiteboys sprang up among the rural poor and carried out clandestine attacks on the landlords and their agents.


17: A Tour of Ireland,
by Arthur Young, ed. A. W. Hutton,
London 1892.



The Redcoats

There had been no standing army in England before Cromwell’s New Model Army and William’s forces against James. In the past the monarchy had raised armies to fight specific wars, after which these forces were disbanded (an exception to this was Ireland, where a constant force of armed men was required to counter the ever present threat of rebellion). A permanent standing army gradually emerged from the period of the Civil War and William’s 'Glorious Revolution'. The unit that became the Green Howards was first raised in 1688 to support King William and fought with him in Ireland. Three hundred years later the regiment was still sending its soldiers to serve tours of duty in Northern Ireland.

In Ireland, the Plantations, the Penal Laws, the huge change in land ownership and the crushing slavery of the people could not have taken place without the massive repressive force of the army, aided by locally recruited ‘loyal’ yeomanry and militias. British soldiers, wearing red coats to signify royal livery, appeared everywhere. The ‘Redcoats’ ruthlessly enforced the Penal Laws and put down dissent. In On Dreams, Jonathan Swift commented:

The Soldier smiling hears the Widow’s Cries,
And stabs the son before the Mother’s eyes,
With like Remorse his Brother of the Trade,
The Butcher, feels the lamb beneath his blade.

Most British soldiers came from the poor and dispossessed and later, ironically, many who filled the ranks were former Irish and Scottish clansmen. During both the Highland clearances in Scotland and the famine in Ireland recruitment drives were undertaken. Scottish Highland soldiers, whose forbears had been hunted down for wearing their native tartan, now wore a new British military tartan to serve the Empire. Many clan chiefs were incorporated into the establishment, with their sons being educated at English public schools. Dr Johnson noted that many of the chiefs then ‘degenerated from patriarchical rulers to rapacious landlords’ .

In his book Mutiny, John Prebble outlined the background to the many revolts of Scottish Highland soldiers:

Highland soldiers were Britain’s earliest colonial levies, first raised to police their own hills, then expended in imperial wars. The Gaelic people of the 18th century, three percent only of the population, nonetheless supplied the Crown with sixty-five regiments, as well as independent companies, militia and volunteers. ... He was often recruited by threat, or sold by the chief he trusted. Promises made to him were cynically broken, his pride was outraged by the lash, by contempt for his fierce attachment to his language and dress. The family he hoped to protect by enlistment was frequently evicted in his absence and replaced by sheep.[18]

As Prebble wrote, ‘Contrary to romantic belief, the Highlander was rarely a willing soldier, his songs lament the day he put on a red coat’:

If I were as I used to be,
amongst the hills,
I would not mount guard
as long as I lived,
nor would I stand on parade,
nor for the rest of my life
would I ever put on a red coat.[19]

At one time half of the soldiers in the army were Irish, recruited from a population often hostile to British occupation. After the famine the Fenians began a clandestine armed struggle against British rule and the movement began the task of secretly recruiting serving British soldiers. John Devoy, who led this work, claimed great success: ‘There were in Ireland in 1865 about 26,000 British regular troops. Of these ... 8,000 were sworn Fenians.’ In his Recollections of an Irish Rebel, Devoy went on to state: ‘Not less than sixty per cent of the rank and file of the entire British forces were Irish, including those of immediate Irish ancestry born in England and Scotland. ... In the British military establishment stationed outside of Ireland, we had 7,000 IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] men.’[20]


18: Mutiny,
by John Prebble,
Secker and Warburg London 1975.

19: Ibid - Mutiny,
by John Prebble,
Secker and Warburg London 1975.

20: Recollections of an Irish Rebel,
by John Devoy,
Shannon 1969.



The Soldier’s Catechism

Over the centuries there were many revolts, both large and small, by soldiers and other service personnel. Often about wages and conditions, also sometimes about Imperial assignments, these mutinies often involved ethnic troops, such as Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Indian or other soldiers recruited from colonies. Sometimes, soldiers’ revolts took the form of friendly interaction with their officers’ enemies:

In 1867, many Scots supported the Irish Fenian movement on the grounds of a common Gaelic identity. The 73rd Foot stationed near Cahirciveen in Co. Kerry were a mainly Scottish Gaelic-speaking regiment. It is on record that when they moved into action against Colonel O’ Connor’s Fenian troops in Kerry, they formed picket lines, having surrounded the Irish, and began conversations with the Irish through the medium of Gaelic. Discovering they had more in common with the Irish than with their English officers, they let the Irish slip through their lines and escape. This was not an isolated incident.[21]

Invariably, open mutinies were savagely suppressed, by execution, imprisonment and flogging, as the officers reasserted their control and authority. Under iron discipline and frightened of harsh punishments, most soldiers obeyed orders and tried to retain some dignity and honour in the battles they were thrust into. But, while most serving soldiers carried out their ‘duty’, there was always an undercurrent of resentment and opposition. This was apparent in the satire on army life called the Soldier’s Catechism:

Question. What is your name?
Answer. Soldier.

Q. Who gave you that name?
A. The recruiting-sergeant, when I received the enlisting shilling, whereby I was made a recruit of bayonets, bullets, and death.

Q. What did the recruiting-sergeant promise then for you?
A. He did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce all idea of liberty, and all such nonsense. Secondly, that I should be well harassed with drill. And, thirdly, that I should stand up to be shot at whenever called upon so to do...

Q. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.
A. I believe in the Colonel most mighty, maker of Sergeants and Corporals; and in his deputy the Major, who is an officer by commission, ... and sitteth on the right hand of the Colonel, from whence he will come to superintend the good from the bad. I believe in the Adjutant; the punishment of the guardroom; the stopping of grog; the flogging with cats; and the certainty of these things lasting. Amen.

Q. What is your duty towards your Colonel?
A. My duty towards my Colonel is to believe in him, to fear him, to obey all his orders, and all that are put in authority under him, with all my heart; to appear before him as a soldier all the days of my life; to salute him, to submit to him in all respects whatever; to put my whole trust in him, to give him thanks when he promotes me, to honour him and his commission, and to serve him as a soldier. Amen...[22]

The original Soldier’s Catechism was produced in 1644 for the New Model Army that fought against the king. It was ‘Written for the Encouragement and Instruction of all that have taken up Arms in this Cause of God and his People; especially the common Soldiers’. Like most texts of the period it was couched mainly in theological terms. However, unlike the sarcastic later version, the 1644 Soldier’s Catechism was written to inspire a citizen army - albeit one motivated by a strident Protestant religious zeal.


21: The Celtic Dawn,
by Peter Berresford Ellis,
Constable 1993.

22: The Rambling Soldier,
by Roy Palmer,
Penguin Books Ltd 1977.



The Agitators

Today’s ‘professional’ British Army can be traced back to the English Civil War and Cromwell’s forces. In the New Model Army the Levellers had elected representatives, called Agitators, who put forward the common soldiers’ point of view: ‘We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties. And so we took up arms in judgment and conscience to those ends.’[23]

The Agitators were part of a Leveller movement which stood for the separation of church from state and for toleration and liberty of conscience among the people - including soldiers in the army. Women spoke out for their rights and the Levellers included in their aims greater equality between men and women, that was to be enacted in law. Free schools and hospitals for all were also advocated and a more equal society.

The Levellers, who got their name from levelling fences and hedges which enclosed former common land, opposed primogeniture and great estates. They demanded that ‘all grounds which anciently lay in common for the poor, [and are now enclosed], be laid open again to the free and common use and benefit of the poor.’ The ultra-radical Diggers, who got their name from their attempts to dig-up and plant crops on enclosed land, considered Charles I to be the ‘Norman Successor’ and with his execution that the ‘Norman Yoke’ had at last been cast off.

For a brief period the Agitators sat and debated with the senior officers on the General Council of the Army (the modern connotation of agitator comes from the establishment’s fear and distaste for this early example of rank and file power). At ‘The Putney Debates’, in the autumn of 1647, the Agitators stood for the rights of ordinary men and women and argued for ‘An Agreement of the People’ that included many of the Levellers’ demands, while Cromwell and the Grandees made their stand for property rights. The suppression of the Agitators and Levellers started soon after, with the army becoming totally undemocratic and the voice, views and interests of the ordinary soldier being stilled to this day.


23: From Representation,
a Leveller document addressed to Parliament.



The Levellers’ Legacy

Every year in May crowds gather at Burford Church, in Oxfordshire, where there is a memorial dedicated to the three Levellers - Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church - who were executed for opposing Cromwell and refusing to fight in Ireland. The annual commemorations are organised by the Workers’ Educational Association and in May 1976 Tony Benn addressed the crowd:

The Levellers grew out of the conditions of their own time. They represented the aspirations of working people who suffered under the persecution of Kings, landowners and the priestly class and they spoke for those who experienced the hardships of poverty and deprivation.

The Levellers developed and campaigned, first with Cromwell and then against him, for a political and constitutional settlement of the Civil War which would embody principles of political freedom that anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.

The ideas of the Levellers were thought to be so dangerous because of their popularity then, that, as now, the establishment wanted to silence them ... But the elimination of the Levellers as an organised political movement could not obliterate the ideas which they had propagated. From that day to this the same principles of religious and political freedom and equality have reappeared again and again in the history of the Labour movement and throughout the world.[24]

The history books tell us that Cromwell was the victor in the English Civil War, but he was also responsible for making sure that the religious and political revolutions were stopped halfway - ensuring that the new establishment kept control of both. Cromwell turned his back on many of those who had fought with him to defeat the king, helping conservative forces, allied to the City of London, to take control. The New Model Army was financed by, and became subordinate to, this new state power and its democratic tradition was overturned for the iron rule of the officer class. It did, then and over the following centuries as the British Army, undertake colonial expeditions and wars in the interests of its new masters.

Leveller soldiers, by taking a stand against fighting in Ireland, had shown publicly for the first time that there are distinct divisions between establishment interests and those of the ordinary people in England on this issue. This was stated clearly in 1649 by William Walwyn: ‘The cause of the Irish natives in seeking their just freedoms ... was the very same with our cause here.’[25] In his book, The Levellers and the English Revolution, H. N. Brailsford concluded his introduction with these words:

The record of the Levellers is one of failure and defeat. But if history still takes account of moral values, it may rate higher than Cromwell’s victories at Drogheda and Wexford the daring of men who risked their lives to prevent the re-conquest of Ireland. The day when a group of Englishmen first publicly asked the question: By what right are we preparing to appropriate the lands and suppress the religion of the Irish? - that day, in the late summer of 1649, deserves to be remembered in our annals.

Gerrard Winstanley - a leader of the Diggers, a radical offshoot of the Levellers - left these words for those who would come after:

When these clay bodies are in grave
and children stand in place,
This shows we stood for truth
and peace and freedom in our days.
And true-born sons we shall appear
of England that’ s our mother,
No priests’ nor lawyers’ wiles to embrace
their slavery we’ll discover.

Winstanley also declared that: ‘In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury ... but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.’

The Levellers were broken by coercion and intrigue, which started with the executions at Burford and continued during the New Model Army’s bloody campaign in Ireland. It was the suppression of the Levellers that made the exploitation of the people - in Ireland, other colonies and at home - possible. But their ideas could not be killed off and have lived on to our own time. The greatest tribute we can pay them is to continue their struggle for truth, peace and freedom.


24: The International Significance of THE LEVELLERS
and the English Democratic Tradition
a Spokesman Pamphlet - No.92,
May 2000. 

25: Reformation to Industrial Revolution,
by Christopher Hill,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967.



..........© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM.......….


Now read chapter two of Oliver’s Army
'The Enemy Within'

Countering Revolution