New Historian

New Research Examines Cromwellian State-Building in Ireland

Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper (died 1672)

<![CDATA[The emergence of the British state has received a large amount of scholarly attention. It is often seen as one of the most important institutions in Britain's emergence into the modern world. Historians from different disciplines have emphasised different facets of the state, but it is indelibly linked with the law. Much attention has been given to the development of the English justice system. Seen as underpinning the social and economic stability which allowed Britain to become a world power, the law is a very important aspect of the British state. Little attention has been paid, however, to the development of law systems outside of England. By examining how English law was used in Scotland and Ireland, we can gain greater insight into British history. "Examining how the English used law to incorporate the Scots and Irish into a composite state yields valuable results not just for national and archipelagic histories, but also for British imperial history," explained Jennifer Wells, from Brown University, in her study of the imposition of English law in seventeenth-century Ireland, published in the most recent edition of Past and Present. During the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell - famed leader of the Roundhead faction in the English Civil War - waged a military campaign to reclaim Ireland after the country had rebelled in 1641. The impact of this war had severe implications for the Irish population, but much debate surrounds precisely how many lost their lives. War is one way of imposing rule on another group, but Wells has sought to focus on a different aspect. She has explored how English law provided a legitimising language for Cromwell and the English, allowing them to underpin their invasion with water-tight rhetoric. Ireland in particular is an interesting case study for viewing wider trends in British imperial history. "Ireland’s unique position as both ‘kingdom’ and ‘colony’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries makes it a particularly rich forum for investigating domestic and imperial intersections," Wells noted. Following the execution of Charles I, a power vacuum was left, into which Cromwell tried to forge a 'new' state without the traditional legitimacy of the Divine Right of Kings. Cromwell and his followers were, Wells argues, seeking alternative means to legitimise their government; these means can be seen very clearly in seventeenth century Ireland. "My primary concern here is to demonstrate how the Cromwellian regime, born in violence, used law and legal process as legitimating languages in its quest to turn force into power both at home and abroad," Wells explains. Between 1652 and 1654, the high court of justice in Ireland presided over nearly 129 recorded trials. Interestingly, 41 per cent of individuals tried were pardoned. It seems that the court was not a retributive measure, but instead proved essential to ensuring the success of Cromwell's regime in Ireland. Cromwell seems to have embraced both long-standing domestic traditions and emerging international legal principles to create a judicial system which was not dissimilar to modern criminal tribunals, Wells notes. Moving away from a black-or-white portrayal of Cromwell as saviour or slaughterer, Wells' argument is cleverly nuanced. She suggests that the distinctive circumstances in Ireland in the 1650s meant that English parliamentarians used law as a means to move away from violence. In doing so, the new regime became legitimised, enhancing English power in Ireland. It is this clever combination of at once being rooted in the English past and being flexible enough to use multiple legal traditions which was exported throughout the later British Empire. Wells has clearly shown that Ireland served as the testing grounds for a style of governance which would be imposed around the world. For more information: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Soerfm]]>

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