Rhys Morgan, The Welsh and the Shaping of Early Modern Ireland 1558-1641 (de Mesa)

Rhys Morgan

The Welsh and the Shaping of Early Modern Ireland 1558-1641, Irish Historical Monographs XI

(Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014) xii+ 230pp.  $120.00

Rhys Morgan

Rhys Morgan’s The Welsh and the Shaping of Early Modern Ireland is a welcomed addition to the growing amount of literature relating to the history of Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The book focuses on the Welsh presence in Ireland from the reign of Elizabeth I to the Irish Rebellion during the reign of Charles I. Throughout that those tumultuous years, English rule over Ireland grew in size and scope. In the 1550s the real influence of English political power only reached the fringes of the Pale –which included the counties of Dublin, Meath, Louth and Kildare– along with the counties of Westmeath, Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway. The aforementioned counties were mainly settled by the commonly named Old English, who descended from the Anglo-Norman conquerors and colonizers of the twelfth century. On the wake of the 1640s, English authority over the island was complete and according to the author, although their numbers were reduced, the Welsh had been an important tool for the extension and enforcement of the English power ruling from Dublin.

In five chapters the author describes the effects of the Welsh presence in Ireland during this time frame. The introduction settled certain important definitions needed to understand the division of groups in the coming pages. For example: the ‘New English’ were soldiers, administrators, settlers and clergy who came to Ireland from the other side of the Irish Sea that shared a reformed Christian faith. Dr. Morgan then introduces the debate about the supposed coherency and unity of the ‘New English’, an important concept to understand the role of the Welsh during the period. Furthermore, he describes the historiography of the Cambro-Hibernic relations and concludes by summarizing key points of the book.

The first chapter, simply fascinating for military historians, deals with the Welsh presence in the English army from 1558 to 1641. Although in the text the author refers to the troops of Dublin Castle as the Irish army, it might be better to call that army English, as it was paid for by the English crown and the officers were English or Welsh along with most of the rank and file soldiers. However, it is true that the armies of the English government also contained contingents of soldiers of Irish origin. Morgan begins the chapter underlining the importance of Wales for the Irish Wars as result of the geographical position of the region. Since Wales was the nearest point to Ireland and had good harbours linking to Ireland, the region must become the centre of the English logistical system to supply the troops operating on the other side of the Irish Sea. Additionally, the proximity to the battlefront suggested that the area’s people be recruited into the army and used in companies of Welsh soldiers that were sent in as reinforcements for the English army. Then it is calculated the number of Welsh soldiers involved in the Irish Wars by the author to come in at around 4,800 Welshmen that fought in Ireland. In addition to this calculation by Morgan, the number of recruits could be increased by unofficial levies carried out by members of the Welsh nobility or gentry if requested by the viceroys of Ireland, which also included the 1st and 2nd earls of Essex.

Curiously enough, while following the works of David J. Trim and Neil Younger, Dr. Morgan attempts to portray the Welsh recruits as able and honourable men, most of them members of the regular labour force. The debate about the quality of recruits during the early modern world is fairly clear as records show and in the rest of European military history. The recruits were not the “scum of the earth” but, of course, they were not all good men ready to fight and die for their monarchs and countries, so a need exists to find an interpretation at the halfway point between the competing narratives. Additionally the author is uncritical with the role of the officials at the head of recruitments, sometimes very corrupt, like the captains at the head of the recruited companies. As has been said, this problem was common all over Western Europe, and Britain was not an exception. We need to bear in mind that the English government did not keep a standing and professionalised army like the Spanish Habsburgs or the Dutch Republic.

The section in the first chapter revolving around Welsh officers quickly developed my interest in Morgan’s conveyance of events. Although their exact number in Ireland is not particularly clear, there were many officers of Welsh origin at the head of companies. He details how Welsh recruits preferred to serve under men of their same origin by the reason of language and origin. This was a frequent reality in other armies of the same period. The Spanish high command chose to maintain the national or original identity of every company and regiment or Tercio. The Spanish Military Ordinances of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were very strict over the separation between ‘nations’ or contingents of different origin to maintain discipline and avoid quarrels between groups of different areas. Years after the defection of William Stanley’s regiment to the Spanish Army of Flanders, the unit was finally cashiered and reformed during the 1590s by the petitions of the Irish officers and soldiers that disliked serving under an English officer. As result of such difficulties, in 1605, when three new units for the Army of Flanders were created, the troops were kept separated in different Tercios to avoid quarrels among ethnicities. One Tercio was composed of English, one of Scottish, and a third Tercio of Irish.

An area of curiosity involving the Welsh officers rests on the fact that many of them were trained and served in Ireland; however, only small amounts had previous experience on the Continental wars of the time such as the Eighty Years War (called the War of Flanders by the Spanish) or the French Civil Wars. Also of note is the protection and patronage enjoyed by the Welsh officers thanks to several great figures of the Elizabethan court such as the Earl of Leicester, the previously mentioned 2nd Earl of Essex, Sir John Perrot, etc. Many of these patrons had important interests in Wales and their patronage was a way to reward the loyalty of their Welsh followers.

The importance of religion for officers is also covered as many of them were recusants or, at least, maintain sympathy for Catholicism. For example, Captain Hugh Mostyn betrayed the Irish town of Athenry to the Gaelic lords in 1600, during the Nine Years’ War. The author affirms that afterwards, between 1605 and 1610, Mostyn transferred his services to the Spanish Monarchy. Further independent research reveals that we can know the exact cursus honorum of Mostyn in the Spanish armies. It began in 1603, when he arrived to the Iberian Peninsula. On the 22nd of February of that same year he received a grant of 40 escudos to serve in the Spanish Atlantic Armada. However, on the 12th of May he received a patent of captain to recruit a company of Irish soldiers for the marine Tercio of Pedro Sarmiento. During 1605 the Irish company was sent to Flanders to be attached to the Irish Tercio of Henry O’Neill. After several months, Mostyn decided to ask to be transferred to Spain. There he enjoyed a grant as reformed captain for a long time (Archivo General de Simancas, Estado, legajos 2741 and 2768; Instituto de Historia y Cultura Militar, libro-registro 20).

Morgan ends this solidly entertaining chapter by explaining the importance of Welsh service as an opportunity to seek honour and status. Knighthoods, appointments, legal and illegal gains, acquisition of lands, etc. However, above all, “service in Ireland also offered these minor Welsh gentlemen knowledge of, and access to, opportunities within the Irish administration and plantations” (50).

The second and third of the chapters deal with the different perspectives and roles of the Welsh in the English administration in Ireland and the plantations carried out during the second half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the following century. Although the number of Welshmen were not very high, they were important in some areas where they settled, creating small but strong communities which were supported by the Welshmen working in the English administration. The fourth and fifth chapters are linked with the aforesaid support exercised between the Welsh immigrants, as they analyze the kinship and cooperation put into practice by these ‘New English’, but also their differences and unique identity when they are compared to the English and Scottish protestants that arrived to Ireland during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I.

Dr. Morgan ends this work with a long conclusion which doubles as a summary providing evidence which includes data and analyses presented in the preceding chapters. At the end of the book, the reader can find four appendixes which support and complete the text, three of them very interesting for military history.

Eduardo de Mesa
Fundación Carlos de Amberes

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