Statute of Kilkenny

The Statute of Kilkenny was one of several unsuccessful efforts by medieval English kings to control Irish nobles. The statute outlawed virtually all significant interaction between English and Irish persons, forbade the practice of Irish customs by the English, defined the king’s legal authority, and prohibited Irish military activities.

Summary of Event

Throughout the medieval period, English monarchs endeavored to extend royal authority throughout their kingdom, a task made virtually impossible by the extent of their claims. Based in Normandy, the Anglo-Norman (or Angevin) Angevin Empire Empire stretched from Scotland to the south of France. [kw]Statute of Kilkenny (1366)
[kw]Kilkenny, Statute of (1366)
Kilkenny, Statute of (1366)
Ireland;1366: Statute of Kilkenny[2880]
Government and politics;1366: Statute of Kilkenny[2880]
Laws, acts, and legal history;1366: Statute of Kilkenny[2880]
Social reform;1366: Statute of Kilkenny[2880]
Edward III
Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence

Although unable to maintain their continental empire into the modern era, a basis for effective political influence by the monarchy over the British Isles was acquired. This was achieved over a period of five hundred years through successful wars and diplomacy against Scottish, Welsh, and Irish kings and nobles. By 1500, an Anglo-Norman/English aristocracy was in place throughout the British Isles. This resulted ultimately in an English ascendancy throughout Britain, but success was never continuous or even assured. Strong English kings advanced monarchical power, but weak kings witnessed the reverse. Ireland provides a clear example of this process.

In 1169, Richard de Clare Clare, Richard de , an Anglo-Norman noble known as Strongbow, pressured Irish warlords into paying homage to Henry II Henry II (king of England) (r. 1154-1189), then king of England. Henry was most interested in protecting his continental possessions and in limiting papal authority in England, but he readily accepted the offer of allegiance. He then created Anglo-Norman aristocrats to rule Ireland in his name. Despite the claim of suzerainty (overlordship), however, Anglo-Normans were not a significant presence because the Irish greatly outnumbered their nominal overlords.

King Edward III.

(Library of Congress)

Over the next two centuries, with few settlers arriving from England, the descendants of those Anglo-Norman lords, while not absorbed by the Irish, fused with the locals to the point where they were hardly distinguishable from the natives. Marriages between Anglo-Norman aristocrats and daughters of Irish chieftains meant reduced loyalty to London. Irish language and customs replaced Anglo-Norman; Irish names replaced Norman (for example, De Burgh became Burke); Irish law was used in place of English law; and most significantly, Irish military prowess improved to the point that the Irish were a match for English forces. Direct English rule was thus sporadic and intermittent at best; efforts to give substance to a real alien presence met only resistance.

Edward I Edward I (r. 1272-1307) was a strong English king determined to assert himself in his kingdom. In Ireland, he effected stronger bonds with a few, powerful Anglo-Irish nobles and encouraged them to be more proactive for him. In return for his blessing and aid, they were to renounce native ways. Several Irish parliaments at Kilkenny issued edicts and proclamations or enacted laws ordering Englishmen in Ireland Ireland;England and to abandon their Irish ways. That such proclamations and laws were issued repeatedly is an indication that they were ignored and that they were not enforceable. Edward’s initiative was lost by his timorous son, Edward II (r. 1307-1327), but Edward III Edward III attempted to regain the initiative. Yet the king’s plan for Ireland, as had so often been the case, was undermined by more important problems elsewhere. War with Scotland (1333) and the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) once again focused the English monarchy’s attention on the Continent.

Despite this, there were those in Ireland who viewed a rigid defining of the Anglo-Norman as an aid to their own power. Edward was quite willing to assist them as long as a military expedition was not required. A request in 1347 for the prohibition of marriages between Irish and English was validated by proclamation. A Kilkenny assembly of 1351 prohibited nineteen specific relations between the Irish and the English. A political marriage between Lionel of Antwerp Lionel of Antwerp , Edward’s third son, to Elizabeth de Burgh provided the title of earl of Ulster and a real claim of power. Marriage as a political tool;England The king appointed Lionel lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1361, and it was he who summoned the Parliament of Kilkenny in 1366. The assembly was in no way representative of Ireland, for its members were primarily Anglo-Norman nobles and their church allies. The Statute of Kilkenny was their statement of acceptable behavior for both the English and the Irish. Laws and law codes;England
Laws and law codes;Ireland

Written in Norman-French, which connoted linguistic superiority, a preamble to the statute described the lawlessness that existed in Ireland. The church was declared free (albeit under the protection of the king), and things Irish were condemned. Sexual interactions of any kind—legal or otherwise—between the English and Irish were deemed acts of treason, as were any acts of war against the king. Englishmen were to speak English, and Irish customs (such as hurling and riding Irish style) were not to be practiced by the English. English law was the only acceptable legal code, and enforcement of the law was to be by English judicial representatives only. Additionally, Irishmen were prohibited from taking orders in religious houses (they could not become church leaders or clerics), and excommunication was prescribed for those who refused to accept the rules set forth. The overall purpose was twofold: Those who would rule had to be English, and those who retained Irish ways were considered inferior before the king’s law.

Had the Statute of Kilkenny been enforced, or even if it were enforceable, English monarchs would have acquired a decisive ally in their desire to control Irish nobles. Anglo-Irish/English nobles could rely only on the king for their continued position and power, which meant that loyalty to the king was essential. Irish nobles, on the other hand, would have had their political power severely curtailed and their ability to wage war eliminated.

The short-term impact of the Statute of Kilkenny on Ireland was like most edicts, decrees, and laws put forward by English rulers of earlier or later times, that is, it had little effect. Throughout the medieval era actual royal authority was usually a reflection of the ability and longevity of the monarch on the throne. Many English monarchs were either incapable of asserting authority in Ireland or were challenged in venues far more critical to their power. Hence English stipulations regarding proper Irish noble behavior were neither acceptable to Irish nobles nor enforceable by their English sovereign. By 1500, English monarchs controlled only the Pale, a thin strip of land centered on Dublin along the eastern coast of Ireland. By 1600, however, when the security of England vis-à-vis continental powers made control of Ireland (and other parts of the British Isles) imperative, Irish nobles were truly brought to heel. Moreover, the religious struggles of the seventeenth century relegated Roman Catholics to subservient status (most of the Irish were Catholic). In sum, by 1700, many of the concepts propounded within the Statute of Kilkenny were enforced strictly and effectively, although for different reasons and by different groups.


The long-term relevance of the Statute of Kilkenny is perhaps more important than its short-term impact. If the document is interpreted from the perspective of 1366, it is clearly a feudal statement of lord/vassal expectations. It dealt with specific issues that pertained to a particular time. However, if that context is ignored or overlooked, inchoate ideas of imperialism and nationalism are most certainly discernible. The statute has been described as a document put forward to protect the “racial purity of [the] English” or to denigrate the Irish nation. Such concepts are more closely associated with later ages, and to interpret the document as an imperial or racist statement is a clear misrepresentation of both the facts and the definition of the terms.

Further Reading

  • Cosgrove, Art, ed. A New History of Ireland. Vol. 2 in Medieval Ireland, 1169-1534. New York: Clarendon Press, 1987. Irish history by Irish historians. Extensive bibliography.
  • Duffy, Seán. Ireland in the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Irish historian’s effort to present Irish, not English colonial, history of the period.
  • Frame, Robin. Colonial Ireland: 1169-1369. Dublin: Helicon, 1981. Told from the Irish perspective, focus is on English efforts to destroy the existing Irish power structure and to implement English institutions.
  • Frame, Robin. English Lordship in Ireland, 1318-1361. New York: Clarendon Press, 1982. Significant study of the decades leading to the statute, especially the earlier attempts by English kings to control their Irish lords.
  • Lydon, James F. The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages. Rev. ed. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003. Important study of the medieval fusion of cultures, albeit one that ultimately rendered the Irish as secondary.
  • Lydon, James F, ed. The English in Medieval Ireland: Proceedings of the First Joint Meeting of the Royal Irish Academy and the British Academy. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1984. Contains a collection of articles on English-Irish relations.
  • Otway-Ruthven, A. J. A History of Medieval Ireland. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Overview of Irish history, culture, and political changes in a British context.
  • “A Statute of the Fortieth Year of King Edward III, Enacted in a Parliament Held in Kilkenny, a.d. 1367, Before Lionel Duke of Clarence, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.” In Statutes and Ordinances, and Acts of the Parliament of Ireland: King John to Henry V, edited by Henry F. Berry. Vol. 1 in Statute Rolls of the Parliament of Ireland. Dublin: H. M. Stationery Office, 1907. Translated text of the statute, also in Norman-French.