Power: 1500-1707



The Act of Union (aka, “Laws in Wales” Acts 1535-42) was passed by the English parliament, which did not then have a single representative from Wales. It abolished the distinction between the Marches and the Principality of Wales, split Wales into thirteen shires, and imposed English common law. An English administrative framework was constructed for Wales, with offices for constables, sheriffs, justices of the peace and coroners – but all office holders were required to speak English.

With the imposition of English law came the replacement of Welsh partible inheritance with English laws of primogeniture (first son inherits all). Although the original goal had been the anglicize Wales by foisting English norms throughout the territory in a uniform manner, exceptions and differences remained.

Before the Reformation was implemented in Wales, the church claimed ownership of perhaps a quarter of all the land – a huge proportion of the country. The dissolution of the monasteries brought these lands, hundreds of thousands of hectares, officially into the king’s possession, but in practice, most of these eventually ended up in the hands of the Welsh gentry. This retrenched their wealth and dominance in Welsh society. Some of the families were eager to advance the religious reforming agendas of the English king, but others were more conservative.

The imposition of a unified English authority provided the stable conditions which fostered overall economic growth and the growth of the population. By the end of the sixteenth century, Wales had recovered the population that it had lost during the Black Death. Welsh lands were seized from native hands, however, and reorganized for maximum exploitation to feed the multiplying population. Woodlands were clearcut to create new farming fields, agricultural areas were enclosed, old pastoral summer grazing lands became permanently occupied to attempt to maximize livestock production, with overgrazing leading inevitably to ecological depletion. Conflicts over possession and exploitation of lands, especially common lands, proliferated.

The rich mineral resources of Wales began to be exploited commercially by the mid-16th century. German workers were soon taking copper, silver, gold, and zinc from Welsh mines. By the mid-17th century, coal was being mined for use as fuel; by the late 17th-century, coal accounted for 90% of all Welsh exports.

Class Discussion

How do the Laws in Wales Acts (1535-42) portray the intentions of the English king? How do they represent the Welsh laws, language and customs (in relation to the English equivalents)? How do the laws effectively downgrade Welsh culture and promote English culture?


Politics and Economy

Most of the Gaelic population practiced a subsistence-level economy: local farmers produced only enough food to sustain their own populations, without accumulating or exporting surpluses. The native Irish lived largely upon the products of cattle (dairy products and blood), oats, and a small amount of grain. Although English colonists were on more fertile land and exploited more sophisticated agricultural techniques than available in Gaelic areas, this sedentary lifestyle also made them more vulnerable to attacks on their land and associated resource base. These unsettled conditions undermined the fragile economy and the standard of living of most inhabitants.

Gaelic and Gaelicized lords maintained stability in their territories in the 16th century by employing traditional forms of power and authority: the patronage of hereditary poets, scholars, and lawyers. Professional dynasties of lawmen continued to develop and exercise Irish law within their jurisdictions, much to the irritation of English authorities. Gaelic lords sustained their military supremacy by raising large standing armies and billeting them on their tenantry, a practice which impoverished and annoyed them.

Religion and Law

King James VI/I and his son Charles I did not want international relations strained by overly harsh treatment of Catholics staining their reputations, so they held in check the full potential impact of the penal laws during their reigns (1603-49). This laxity allowed Catholicism to continue to be practiced by communities in Ireland, and for the developments of the Counter-Reformation to continue to be absorbed by them.

Before long it was clear that there were two parallel and independent social structures in Ireland, one Catholic, living outside of the official norms and bounds of the government. This fact greatly perturbed the Protestant officials resident in Ireland, who felt that this toleration thwarted their efforts to advance the state religion in the country.

Regardless, the extension of English common law and the extirpation of Irish “brehon” after 1603 haunted the native literati as a humiliating sign of cultural conquest:

The Gaelic poets were very conscious of the role played by law in the process of conquest and colonisation, and English (and Latin) legal terms appear more prominently in the poetry from the mid-seventeenth century (earlier occasional references in Bardic poetry, while reflecting the expansion of the Tudor State apparatus, lacked the same sense of persecution). Some of the most visible and interesting ways in which the state power impacted on the literature in Irish were the satires on parliament. (Dunne, “Voices”)

Class Discussion

How are anti-Gaelic and pro-English prejudices expressed in the 1537 Act for the English Order, Habit and Language? What is the cultural and political strategy expressed by this Act?

What prejudices and cultural and political strategies are expressed in the following sections of the Irish Penal Laws?

  • English Statute 3 Will & Mary c.2 (1691), 7 Will III c.4 (1695): An Act to Restrain foreign Education
  • 7 Will III c.5 (1695): An Act for the better securing the government, by disarming papists
  • 9 Will III c.3 (1697): An Act to prevent Protestants intermarrying with Papists


Reformation within Gaeldom

Archibald Campbell, the fifth Earl of Argyll, was the chief promotor of the Reformation in Scottish Gaeldom. Amongst other efforts, he provided the patronage necessary for John Carswell to translate the Book of Common Order into Classical Gaelic. Carswell pitched his work to the high standards of the professional poets, knowing that this landmark in Gaelic literature would draw their attention. The production of texts in Classical Gaelic presumes a literate readership and indeed many of the native literati were finding employment in the reformed church.

Carswell’s text was intended to be inclusive of both Gaelic Scotland and Ireland: “Protestantism was to embrace both areas, since it could be readily allied to the Gaelic culture which both countries shared as part of their common inheritance throughout the Middle Ages” (Meek, “The Reformation”). He strove not just to translate this cornerstone text but to make it compatible with the sensibilities of Gaelic culture.

Carswell’s ability to create and employ new theological terminology invested Gaelic with the ability to express the concepts of the reformed church nearly simultaneously with the Lowlands and enriched its high-register prose for generations to come. As we’ve already seen, however, the growing association in Ireland between Catholicism and Gaelic culture prevented Campbell’s initiatives from finding fertile ground across the Irish Sea.

Although the reformed church managed to serve some parts of Argyll well, most of the Highlands were left with few spiritual leaders: the immediate result of the Reformation in Scotland was the creation of a virtual religious vacuum which left most Highlanders even more poorly served than before.

Class Discussion

How does the dedicatory ode in the Classical Gaelic adaptation of the Book of Common Order echo the practices of the bardic order? How does it represent the relationships between Scottish Gaels, Irish Gaels, and Scottish Lowlanders?


As in Ireland, the central government recognized that the language and culture of Scottish Gaels was closely knit into their way of life and identity, made them distinctive from the anglophone community, and resistant to its dominance over them. Therefore, assimilation of the Gaels was a priority and educational institutions were seen as powerful tools to assimilate them. Several branches of the Scottish government were involved in crafting legislation and creating pressure on Gaels to conforming to the norms of Lowland society, and the church was often a collaborator in such efforts.

Class Discussion

How are anti-Gaelic and pro-English prejudices expressed in the “Statutes of Iona” and the Scottish Privy Council’s Education Act? What is the cultural and political strategy expressed by this Act?


Although King James VI planned and attempted some schemes for colonization of the Scottish Highlands, and the London-Edinburgh government implemented means to punish and assimilate Scottish Gaeldom during the 17th century, the Highlands were largely spared the kind of military conquest and occupation suffered by Ireland in this time period. The Gaelic élite were increasingly drawn into and influenced by the anglocentric and anglophone world of England and the Lowlands, and the patronage of poets and other Gaelic professionals were only continued by a dwindling cast of the native aristocracy. Nonetheless, many Gaelic cultural practices were relatively undisturbed into the 18th century, especially amongst the lower tiers of Gaelic society.

Class Discussion

What kind of economic system does Contract of Fosterage for Tormod MacLeòid describe? What does this contract say about the relative status of women?


Canny, “Early Modern Ireland.”

Davies, A History.

Dawson, “Calvinism.”

Dunne, “Voices.”

Jenkins, A Concise History.

McCaughey, “Protestantism.”

MacGregor, “Church and culture.”

McLeod, Divided Gaels.

Meek, “The Reformation.”