Statutes of Kilkenny

Statutes of Kilkenny
Statutes of Kilkenny

In 1366 c.e. the Anglo-Irish parliament met in Kilkenny and produced a body of royal decrees that became known as the Statutes of Kilkenny. The statutes aimed to prevent English colonists living in Ireland from adopting Irish culture and mandated that the Irish conform to English customs before they could obtain certain social, legal, and religious rights.

In particular, the statutes prohibited marriage between English and Irish; ordered the English to reject Irish names, customs, and law; prohibited the Irish from holding positions in English churches; and limited the mobility of peasant laborers. The statutes also sought to prevent the colonists from waging war without the consent of the English Crown.

Penalties for noncompliance were severe and included death, loss of property, and excommunication. Although they were not ultimately successful, the Statutes of Kilkenny foreshadowed the continuously troubled relationship between England and Ireland in the following centuries.

England’s involvement with Ireland followed from the Norman (French) defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After occupying England the Normans’ proximity to Ireland naturally led to involvement with their neighboring country. Ironically an Irishman helped pave the way for English occupation.

In 1166 the defeated Irish leader Dermot MacMurrough fled to England to seek allies. To gain support, Dermot offered his Irish inheritance to an Anglo-Norman lord, Richard de Clare, earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow. Strongbow consequently invaded and defeated the Irish high king, Rory O’Connor.

King Henry II of England arrived in 1171 and gained the allegiance of Strongbow and many of the Irish rulers. However before returning to England he was unable to ensure a peaceful coexistence between the Irish and the colonists from England. By 1360 Dublin and the surrounding areas (later called the English Pale) were under the control of the descendants of En glish colonists, the Anglo-Irish; land beyond the Pale was generally free from direct English control.

Lionel of Clarence, son of King Edward III and lieutenant of Ireland, summoned the 1366 parliament in an effort to reclaim English lands in Ireland. The Statutes of Kilkenny dealt with three distinct groups: the Anglo-Irish colonists known as the “English by blood” or “middle nation”; the “English by birth,” often either imported English administrators or absentee lords who ruled their Irish estates from England; and the native Irish. In addition to revealing aspects of the relationship between the ruling English and subordinated Irish, the Statutes of Kilkenny show internal divisions between the English groups.

In the two decades prior to 1366 rebellious Anglo-Irish colonists had become an increasing problem for England. English taxation, absentee English lordship alongside demands for protection of English interests, and close contact with Irish culture lessened Anglo-Irish allegiance to the Crown. The Black Death of the mid-14th century and the Hundred Years’ War with France may also have greatly reduced the influx of English immigrants, making the colonists more susceptible to Irish influences.

The statutes’ attempts to uproot Irish elements in the Anglo-Irish sought to create not only distance from the native Irish, but also a greater sense of connection between the Anglo-Irish and those born in England. The statute prohibiting England-born colonists from discriminating against Anglo-Irish colonists shows that such divisions must have often occurred.

The statutes also placed restrictions on native Irish living in English-controlled areas: Irish men and women were not allowed to participate in English churches, Irish minstrels were forbidden among the English, and common laborers were forbidden to travel without permission.

Yet in order to promote peace in lands under direct English control, the statutes also granted limited protections to loyal Irish. English authorities mandated a warning period before enforcement of selected statutes, forbade the English to war against the Irish without consent of the Crown, and warned against unlawful imprisonment of the Irish for another man’s debt. In this way, English forces could focus their military presence on the greater threat of the outlying Irish.

Statutes concerning the native Irish followed a long line of prior legislation. In 1297 one of the earliest Irish statutes ordered English colonists to shun Irish dress and hairstyles; in 1310 religious houses were told to deny entrance to Irishmen; a 1351 ordinance prohibited Brehon law and Irish-English alliances; and in 1360 limitations were placed on Irish holders of municipal and religious offices. Yet the Statutes of Kilkenny did not prevent Anglo-Irish colonists from being affected by Irish culture and custom.

They instead showed the inability of the English colonists to subordinate Ireland successfully. Although the statutes remained in effect for centuries, historical records indicate that Irish and English alike overrode them in the decade following the 1366 parliament. The Statutes of Kilkenny now form part of both the historical record of colonization and the English-Irish conflict that continues into the 21st century.

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