Poynings’ Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Poynings’ law was intended to place the Irish parliament under the close scrutiny and supervision of the English king and his privy council. Henry VII’s attempt to minimize the rights of his Irish subjects enjoyed only limited success, and this failure typified Ireland’s resiliency both politically and culturally.

Summary of Event

In 1447, Richard, third duke of York, came to Ireland as lord lieutenant, and by the time he returned to England later that same year, he had amassed unprecedented popularity among both the Anglo-Norman and the Gaelic Irish. The duke later formed the Yorkist party and laid claim to the throne of England, going to war against the supporters of the House of Lancaster, Lancastrians who supported the claims of the duke’s cousin, King Henry VI. This civil conflict for the royal succession became known as the Wars of the Roses, Roses, Wars of the (1455-1485) and Ireland Ireland became a hotbed of sympathy and military assistance to the Yorkist Yorkists cause. Pro-Yorkist feeling became so intense that in 1460 the Irish parliament passed a defiant resolution that only bills passed in Ireland, rather than in England, should have the force of law in Ireland. Poynings’ Law[Poynings Law] Law;England Henry VII Fitzgerald, Gerald Poynings, Sir Edward Richard Richard III Simnel, Lambert Warbeck, Perkin Richard (third duke of York) Henry VI (king of England) Fitzgerald, Gerald Richard III (king of England) Henry VII (king of England) Simnel, Lambert Edward VI (pretender king of England) Warbeck, Perkin Fitzgerald, Maurice Poynings, Sir Edward

The most powerful of the Anglo-Irish nobles who stood by the House of York was Gerald Fitzgerald, eighth earl of Kildare. Fitzgerald—also known as Garret Mór (the Great Gerald) and as the Great Earl—inherited the title of lord deputy of Ireland from his father in 1477. By 1478, he had become the most powerful of the Irish magnates.

In 1485, the last king of the House of York, Richard III, was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field Bosworth Field, Battle of (1485) by Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, who ascended the English throne as King Henry VII. This at first seemed to end the Wars of the Roses, but, when Yorkist pretenders appeared, Ireland proved to be a source of continuing trouble for the English crown. In 1487, the pretender Lambert Simnel won the endorsements of Gerald Fitzgerald, the archbishop of Dublin, and most of the Irish aristocracy and was actually crowned as King Edward VI in Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral on May 24, 1487. It was alleged that he was in fact Edward, earl of Warwick, grandson of Richard, duke of York.

Simnel sailed with an army to England, where his forces were defeated at the Battle of Stoke-on-Trent Stoke-on-Trent, Battle of (1487)[Stoke on Trent, Battle of (1487)] on June 30. The pretender was imprisoned, and his bid for the throne came to an end. Henry VII reacted mildly, pardoning Fitzgerald and most of the Irish Yorkists and even sparing Simnel’s life. He employed the pretender as a kitchen skivvy.

Royal clemency notwithstanding, Fitzgerald and many Irish nobles still harbored Yorkist sympathies, and this was evidenced by their support for a second pretender, Perkin Warbeck, who landed at Cork in November of 1491, claiming to be the lost prince Richard, son of the late King Edward IV. Though Fitzgerald did not openly endorse Warbeck’s pretensions, he did not vigorously oppose them either. Warbeck proved to be a far more tenacious adversary than Simnel had been, gaining the support of Maurice Fitzgerald, earl of Desmond. In 1494, he remained at large and posed a substantial threat to the Tudors.

Henry VII was determined to eliminate Ireland as a potential power base for Warbeck and other future Yorkist adventurers and to organize more efficiently Irish financial administrative procedures. He therefore dispatched a military commander, Sir Edward Poynings, to Dublin to take over the post of lord deputy from the Great Earl. The appointment became legally effective on September 12, 1494. Poynings was impeccably loyal to King Henry, having at one time shared exile with him during the reign of Richard III. Suspicious of Fitzgerald’s loyalties and motives, Poynings had the earl arrested and sent to England to await King Henry’s pleasure in the Tower of London. He then summoned the Irish parliament to the city of Drogheda, where, on December 1, 1494, he had them enact Poynings’ law, which in actuality comprised a series of statutes aimed at strengthening the English government’s control over Ireland.

England controversial provision of the new laws was the act that specified that all bills considered for debate by the Irish parliament had to originate in England’s royal privy council and be approved by the English parliament. In fact, the Irish parliament would not even be permitted to convene in the first place without the king’s authorization. Another provision attempted to reemphasize the 1366 statutes of Kilkenny, which had sought to criminalize and thus weaken Gaelic Irish laws and customs (though in a significant concession to pragmatic logistical considerations, the restrictions on the usage of the Irish language were lifted). Other measures were enacted in order more effectively to fortify and distinguish the area around Dublin known as the Pale, which had often marked the only consistently reliable area of British control.

Uprisings flared up throughout Ireland, mainly from resentment over the imprisonment of the earl of Kildare, with the earl’s brother James taking a leading role. Then, in July of 1495, Warbeck and Desmond attacked the port city of Waterford. Poynings had trouble repelling the attack. His mission was also beginning to cost a great deal more in revenues than had been expected, and a far greater danger loomed for England in the person of King James IV of Scotland, who was making aggressive statements against Henry’s government.

Convinced that Gerald Fitzgerald might be trusted, and was indeed the only individual who could restore Ireland to a semblance of order, the king recalled Poynings early in 1496 and pardoned the earl of Kildare, restoring him as lord deputy (August, 1496). Lord Deputy Fitzgerald proved loyal to the Tudors and served as “all but king of Ireland” until his death in 1513. Warbeck was ultimately apprehended and executed as a traitor in 1499.

Significance

In the final analysis, two of Poynings’ provisions had little effect. The renewed statement of support for the statutes of Kilkenny proved to be a dead letter, as Irish ways and culture proved to be too resilient to be suppressed—this became obvious as early as the 1530’. In addition, the fortifications around the Pale were inadequate without a substantial garrison within the city to support them. In 1720, it was even considered necessary to supplement Poynings’ law with a special Declaratory Act. However, the statute on parliamentary legislation was of more lasting impact and became the subject of recurrent, sometimes bitter, controversy.

On July 27, 1782, Yelverton’s Act repealed the Declaratory Act and virtually overturned Poynings’ law by allowing the Irish parliament independently to enact its own statutes and to pass them on to the British government, which, however, retained the right of veto. This parliamentary situation lasted until the time of the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronin, Mike. A History of Ireland. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Ascribes great historical significance to the application of Poynings’ law in pacifying Ireland and credits the earl of Kildare with making it a truly effective instrument of policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Edmund. A History of Ireland from Earliest Time to 1922. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Does a creditable job of laying out the background for Poynings’ law and considers it to be a brilliant political maneuver.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, Sean. An Illustrated History of Ireland. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Surprisingly detailed text for an illustrated book, offering a presentation that truly blends together the scholarly and the popular.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Steven C. Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, 1447-1603. New York: Longman, 1998. Contains an extensive, highly scholarly treatment of the subject. The author believes that Poynings’ law has been misinterpreted, that its provisions were too vague, and that its effect has thus been overrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hollis, Daniel Webster, III. The History of Ireland. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Succinct and to the point, this work is a good starting reference for placing Poynings’ law into its general historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moody, T. W., and F. X. Martin, eds. The Course of Irish History. Cork, County Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1984. Has stood the test of time as the most substantial of the general histories of Ireland. The section detailing the political background to Poynings’ law (by Art Cosgrove) is particularly informative.

1455-1485: Wars of the Roses

1483-1485: Richard III Rules England

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

1497: Cornish Rebellion

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

1536 and 1543: Acts of Union Between England and Wales

Feb. 27, 1545: Battle of Ancrum Moor

July 29, 1567: James VI Becomes King of Scotland

1597-Sept., 1601: Tyrone Rebellion

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