Over the course of the past two decades, Nicholas Canny has argued that Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland stands at the centre of the British colonial project in Ireland as a paradigmatic text. The program laid out in the View provided not only Spenser's contemporaries, but also subsequent generations of Anglo-Irish settlers in Ireland, "with an identity and sense of moral purpose which sustained them throughout the travails of the seventeenth century." (1) Although written around 1596 the View was not actually published until 1633; however, Spenser's dialogue circulated widely in manuscript and was available to a number of figures directly involved with Irish affairs. These included individuals such as Sir John Davies and Sir Arthur Chichester, both of whom were directly involved in planning the plantation of Ulster during the reign of James I. (2)
Canny's interpretation is not without critics. For example, Ciaran Brady has argued that far from forming an ideologically coherent paradigm, Spenser's tract "is riddled with ambiguity." (3) The View was less a systematic statement of the Anglo-Irish program than an often contradictory response to the specific crisis facing recent, "New" English colonists in Ireland during the 1590s, an attempt "to marry expediency and morality," written in a "tortured and distorted manner." (4) Brendan Bradshaw has argued that, although Spenser's arguments were certainly of interest to contemporaries, they were neither ideologically representative of the Elizabethan colonists as a community nor even of other humanist intellectuals involved in the colonization of Ireland. Bradshaw has offered an alternative interpretation, contrasting the views of Spenser with those of his New English, humanist contemporaries such as William Herbert and Richard Beacon who, while critical of English policy in Ireland, offered more positive opinions on the prospects of the common law as a civilizing force in that realm. (5)
This article challenges Canny's interpretation through a comparative analysis of Spenser's View and Sir John Davies' A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland was Never Entirely Subdued [And] Brought under Obedience of the Crown of England until his Majesty's Happy Reign, first published in 1612. Although these texts were composed over a decade apart in different contexts, both typified a particular genre of writing on Irish affairs, addressed the same basic issues of colonial governance in Ireland, and prescribed remedies for the defects of law and civil policy in that realm. (6) The method followed here will mirror that of Brendan Bradshaw; however, rather than considering an exact contemporary of Spenser, I will address my concerns to Davies' Discovery in extending this framework vertically into the period of Jacobean plantation.
Canny has suggested that Davies merely adopted and extended the Spenserian program, taking advantage of the English victory in the Nine Years' War (1594-1603) to make a more "perfect" conquest of Ireland. Rather than offering a rival program of colonial expansion and state building, Davies' Discovery completed and complemented the View's program with the sword having already cleared the way for the robe in the conquest of Ireland. In this interpretation Davies "adhered rigidly to the ideas of Spenser" and the Discovery reads almost as an appendix to the View rather than a rival vision of the Irish polity, the ills afflicting it, and the potentials of the English law as a civilizing agent in that realm. (7)
The strategy here will be to split rather than lump. (8) Following the work of Hans Pawlisch, I will argue that the Discovery offered neither refinement nor complement to the Spenserian program and Spenser's ethnological view of Irish society, but a rival normative vision of Ireland as a largely sovereign entity, unified by the rule of the English common law, under the personal allegiance of a single British monarch. (9) The contrast is readily apparent: for Spenser, the agent of civilization was military and judicial violence. A violent conquest would be followed by a prolonged period of martial law before the successful imposition of the English law became practicable. For Davies, however, the common law itself was the regenerative agent required to both civilize the native Irish and raise the old English from their degenerate state. The common law was the embodiment of practical rationality, the collective wisdom of the English nation handed down from time out of mind; its communication to the Irish was essential for raising them from their barbaric state and rendering Ireland a commonwealth after the pattern of England. These two texts, therefore, offer readers, not only competing programs or theories of colonization, but also competing narrative models for writing the history of early modern Ireland: one ethnological deriving from Spenser's View and the other sovereignty-centred deriving from Davies' Discovery.
The origins of Spenser's View have been the subject of some controversy. Even granting Brady's contention that the View was not at its inception an ideologically programmatic text, this certainly did not prevent subsequent readers from interpreting it as such. David J. Baker has suggested that the tract's avowed criticism of the English law and its efficacy in Ireland led Elizabeth's council to suppress its publication; however, other scholarship, most notably that of Jean R. Brink, has suggested that the View was not, at least initially, intended for publication nor was it subject to Elizabethan censorship. (10) The program of violent conquest and martial law advocated in the View was nevertheless controversial when contrasted with late Tudor and early Stuart common lawyers' increasingly optimistic assessment of the English law, its superiority over other bodies of law, and its potential to solve the intractable problems of the day. (11)
The emergence of a "common-law mind" or mentality among English jurists of the late Tudor and early Stuart period has been a recurring theme among historians of political thought and culture since the …