Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

From a View to a Discovery: Edmund Spenser, Sir John Davies, and the Defects of Law in the Realm of Ireland

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

From a View to a Discovery: Edmund Spenser, Sir John Davies, and the Defects of Law in the Realm of Ireland

Article excerpt


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. …

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