The Graces (Ireland)
From 1570 to 1625 most people in the Kingdom of Ireland had remained Roman Catholic despite legislation that was increasingly excluding them from the political and official worlds. On the accession of King Charles I in 1625, whose queen was the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria, the wealthier Catholics who sat in the Irish House of Lords and the Irish House of Commons moved to have anti-Catholic legislation reformed.
In 1628 the proposed reforms were listed and were collectively described as the "Graces", on the theory that Charles would exercise grace to allow loyal Catholics to take a full part in political life and to secure their titles to land. Charles agreed in principle to reform the laws as required, subject to legislation. At the same time he was trying to rule without the need for financial assistance from his parliaments in Ireland, England and Scotland. This was a difficulty as the Stuarts were not a wealthy dynasty and the crown had sold most of its estates to pay its bills in 1590-1625.
In Ireland the Tudor conquest culminated in the Nine Years War (1594–1603), which, with the Flight of the Earls in 1607, had led to reforms in 1613 that created a slight Protestant majority (108-102) of "New English" settlers and officials in the Irish House of Commons, enabled by the creation of some new Parliamentary boroughs in Ulster. The Irish House of Lords still had a Catholic majority, consisting mostly of Gaelic-origin and "Old English" landlords of Norman origin. Though the latter two groups had frequently been at war for centuries, they now shared a common interest in reforming their legal disabilities.
The word "Grace" itself also had a further theological significance for Catholics.
The Irish parliament next sat in late 1634 and the order of business was led by Thomas Wentworth who had been Lord Deputy of Ireland since 1632. Wentworth's priority was to make Ireland profitable for Charles, and the first items on the agenda were supply bills that were passed without dissent. The Catholic members had all agreed to the new taxes on the understanding that their Graces - by now a list of 51 reforms - would be passed in the second session from 4 November to 14 December. The Catholic MPs in the Commons briefly had a majority caused by the absence of some Protestant MPs, and this increased their hopes that all the Graces would be enacted.
On 27 November Wentworth refused to allow two of the Graces. These were to extend the English statute of limitations to Ireland (then 70 years), and to guarantee the titles of the current landowners in Connacht, a province where the great majority of landlords were Catholic. Consequently the subsequent bills introduced by Wentworth were all opposed by the Catholic members. The Graces were shelved despite further representations to Charles.
- "The Popish Party have been ill to please this Session, but after I had the 27th of last Month given our Answer to their Graces, they lost all Temper..."
Historians have disagreed to what extent Wentworth's letters on the 1634 session reflect reality, or were an unduly boastful and selective account to his colleagues in London. Given the few opportunities for parliamentary sessions at that time, debate also continues on whether or not the Catholic parliamentarians were unduly inflexible; they should perhaps have accepted 49 out of the 51 Graces in 1634, and then campaigned in London to try to secure the last two.
The hopes dashed by the matter of the Graces were compounded by Wentworth's subsequent policies in Ireland. Particularly, he then challenged the freehold titles of many Old English families in Connacht that could be rectified only by the payment of large fines. The ensuing ill-feeling contributed in part to the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the establishment of Confederate Ireland that led on, ultimately, to the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649-53. For English political reasons, Wentworth was tried by parliament and executed in May 1641.
- Fenlon DB, Wentworth and Parliament 1634; essay in JRSAI vol.94, p.161.
- Clarke A. and Fenlon DB, Two notes on the Parliament of 1634; JRSAI vol.97 pp.85-90.
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