London-Derry Connections: The early years, 1613-1640

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How did the City of London come to be involved in the Irish plantation? How well did the City discharge its obligations as colonial entrepreneurs on behalf of the English crown? Why did Charles I seek to confiscate the City's holdings in the 1630s?

In this lecture Dr Ian Archer, a historian of early modern London, explores the early years of the Londonderry plantation, showing the reluctance with which the Londoners took it on, but suggesting that they made the best of a difficult job. It brings out the challenges of colonial development and shows how the project soured relations between the City and the Stuart crown, the confiscation proving to be a major element in the breakdown of the regime in the 1640s.


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26 June 2013

London-Derry Connections: The Early Years
1613 - 1640

Dr Ian Archer

On Saturday 28 February 1635 the government of Charles I delivered a crushing blow to the magistrates of the city of London who were found guilty in the court of star chamber of a variety of offences relating to their management of the Londonderry plantation with which they had been entrusted by the crown twenty-five years previously. The City was accused of having used subterfuge in securing the original charter of incorporation of the Irish Society, ‘many things being inserted which were not in the warrant’; it had allegedly failed to observe the conditions of the articles of plantation, principally ‘by not building houses in number or quality according to their covenants’, and not providing enough suitably qualified ‘British’ (that is English and Scottish) tenants; it had laid waste to woods of an inestimable value; and it had failed to provide adequate support for the churches on the plantation. The penalties were drastic; the lords declared that the lands of the Londonderry plantation were forfeit and that the city should pay a swingeing fine of £70,000. The case was a cause celebre. As the Reverend George Garrard wrote to Thomas Wentworth, the king’s lord deputy in Ireland, ‘this business is of great consequence; the eyes of all men have been fixed upon it, never in our time hath a case been fourteen days handled in the star chamber before’. As Bishop Bramhall of Derry told the city’s long standing adversary, Sir Thomas Phillips, former governor of Coleraine and proprietor of Limavady in the heart of the plantation, ‘To surprise that great and rich city after so long a siege was a work worthy of yourself’. But behind the strong arming of the capital can be detected the personal interest of the King himself, all too ready as he was to identify with hard line solutions: Charles had presided over a meeting of the privy council two days before the verdict at which the case was fully discussed. It came in the midst of a period of unprecedented pressure on the City government who were facing the first of the controversial ship money writes of the 1630s and a proposed revision of the tithes which supported the city ministers. This must have looked like a determined effort by the government to show who was boss.

But there was no doubt that the City had been harshly treated. Even Charles’ strong man of Ireland, Lord Deputy Wentworth, who was keen to get his hands on the customs revenue of Derry and Coleraine currently enjoyed by the Irish Society, ‘a feather ... not fit to be worn in the round cap of a citizen of London’ nevertheless warned the king that the Londoners had laid out ‘great sums upon the plantation, and that it were .... very strict in their case ... if the uttermost advantage were taken’. There is no doubt in my mind that the King’s treatment of his capital city in the Londonderry business was a key element in the destabilisation of Charles I’s rule, a milestone on the high road to civil war. Although, as was customary in star chamber cases, the Londoners had their fine mitigated (it was reduced to £12,000), they had to endure the loss of their Irish estates which, but for the mounting attacks on their position from the mid 1620s onwards, might have been yielding a healthy profit after years of haemmoraghing capital expenditure. Payback time for the city came when the King turned to the Londoners for financial support as he faced revolt in Scotland in 1639-40, because now they used the Irish business as an excuse not to lend the crown money. In August 1640 when Charles turned in desperation to the livery companies for financial support, most of them claimed that they were unable because the plantation had ‘consumed their stocks’. In November Samuel Vassall, one of their MPs said that ‘this business of Londonderry had much exhausted the City, and that this sticks upon them to £160,000’. Their hostility was magnified by the growing prominence in the king’s counsels of Wentworth whom they blamed, probably wrongly as it happens, for their treatment. And it was the refusal by the City to lend him money which meant that the king was forced to summon the Parliament he so opposed. When the Long Parliament assembled in November 1640 the citizens launched their own campaign against the star chamber verdict which they declared ‘illegal and irregular’, a position which was upheld by the House of Commons in August 1641. By now even Charles had got the message that he needed to make concessions. The Londonderry plantation was at the heart of his attempted rapprochement with the City on 25 November 1641 when in the midst of the superbly choreographed royal entry, the king declared that ‘one thing I have thought of as a particular affection to you which is to give back to you freely that part of Londonderry which heretofore was evicted from you’. It was a gesture in the right direction, but as he admitted it was a promise on which he was currently in no position to deliver, for Ulster was now convulsed by a major rebellion in which colonists had been massacred: as he put it, somewhat ruefully, ‘this, as that kingdom is now, is no great gift, but I hope to recover it first, and then to give it you whole and entirely’. Moreover Charles’ gesture came too late, as according to Clarendon, the Londoners imputed the concessions to the ‘power of Parliament and remembered how it had been taken from them rather than by whom it was restored’. The Londonderry business had clearly played a decisive role in the King’s loss of support among the citizens, and the collapse of his Personal Rule.

But if things were bad in his capital, in Ulster the fall-out was nothing short of disastrous. The king’s commissioners who moved in after the confiscation had driven up rents and called in the leases of some of the greater landowners, among them Sir John Clotworthy, tenant to the Drapers’ Company lands, and brother-in-law to John Pym, a key figure in the parliamentary opposition. When the Irish House of Commons drew up its remonstrance against Wentworth (now earl of Strafford) in November 1640, the ‘extreme and cruel usage’ of the commissions for the settlement of lands was at the heart of the critique of the lord deputy’s government. Clotworthy ‘not otherwise to be named but as a firebrand brought from Ireland to inflame this kingdom’, was to become one of Strafford’s leading opponents in the Long Parliament, orchestrating the impeachment case, which led to his execution. As the historian Jane Ohlmeyer sums up, ‘by sequestering the City’s plantation in the first place, and then by trying to extract whatever profit he could from it Charles dragged issues, previously confined to the periphery, into the central arena, and in so doing inadvertently helped to destabilise royal government in Dublin, Edinburgh, and London at a critical point in his reign’.

I started at this point, the end of my story, because I wanted to make the point that the plantation mattered in the wider politics of the British archipelago. It’s worthy of our attention because of what it can tell us about the connections between events in Ireland and London. But what I want to do in the rest of the talk is to go back to the beginning, as it were. How had the City come to be involved in the plantation in the first place, and why did things go so disastrously wrong?

But first some scene setting. Ulster at the end of the sixteenth century represented the last bastion of Gaeldom. Gaelic Ireland was a lineage society, its lordships dominated by elites defined by their descent from a common ancestor, extended family groups which the English called septs. Land was vested collectively in the lineage group who decided on inheritance, usually choosing an elder son or brother of the outgoing lord, a practice known as tanistry. Competition between lords for control over the lesser septs meant that warfare was endemic, and effective violence provided the main source of political legitimacy. Its political structures were rudimentary, and although there was a hereditary legal class, the brehons, the law they administered was geared to restorative rather than punitive measures. Lords maintained themselves by an apparently arbitrary range of exactions in kind, labour services, and the provision of food and lodging for their military retainers or mercenaries (the immigrants Scots galloglasses).Transhumance was practised, and although settlements might cluster around the fortified dwellings of lords, there were few villages of any size, let alone an urban life. To the English this was a barbaric society needing to be civilized by the extension of common law, the acceptance of primogeniture, and the transformation of the autonomous lordships to magnates exercising their power under the crown. The native Irish were ‘more beasts than men’, averred Lord Deputy Chichester; Edmund Spenser, a settler in Munster, despairing of due legal process, looked in his Faerie Queene to the reform of the Irish by the ironman Talus, sweeping his flail to remove corruption.

When Henry VIII had assumed the title of King of Ireland in 1541 he had signalled his intention to exercise a more than nominal lordship over the territories beyond the Pale, the area in the vicinity of Dublin where royal authority was effective. But it proved much more difficult to translate theoretical claims into effective rule. Elizabethan policy wavered between social and cultural assimilation and integration on the one hand and conquest and colonization on the other, with the balance tilting towards the more hard line solutions in the later years. The ‘stop-go’ policies that characterised her rule reflected first the weakness of her governors whose position could be undercut by factional enemies in London and second, the chronic lack of resources. There had been an early attempt at plantation in Ulster in 1571 when the Queen’s principal secretary Sir Thomas Smith undertook the plantation of the Ards peninsula east of Belfast in an attempt to cut Gaelic Ulster off from Gaelic Scotland. Influenced by Roman models of colonization (as one would expect from this intellectual in office), but using a joint stock model for its finance, the hopes behind it were absurdly optimistic, and the scheme ran into ferocious opposition from the local Gaelic lords, but it was also undermined by opposition from the Queen’s governor in Ireland, Sir William Fitzwilliam who resented the intrusion on his own authority. Smith’s son was murdered by Irish members of his own household in October 1573; his body was boiled and fed to dogs. A more successful, though still highly problematic model for plantation, was provided by Munster, settled from 1586 in the wake of the confiscations of the Fitzgerald revolt.

Elizabeth was finally forced with great reluctance to invest massive sums in the subjugation of Ulster when the earl of Tyrone revolted in what has been dubbed the Nine Years War, 1594-1603. There was a serious risk of the loss of the whole of Ireland, particularly in the wake of the disastrous defeat at the Yellow Ford outside Armagah in 1598 and the prospect of Spanish intervention. This was ‘Elizabeth’s Vietnam’, the expenditure on the Irish theatre reaching a staggering total of nearly £2M (the bulk of it in the last five years of her reign) out of a total wartime expenditure of £4M between 1585-1603. Tyrone and a Spanish invading force were defeated at Kinsale in 1601 but it took another fifteen months of scorched earth tactics in Ulster to bring the ‘base bush kern’, as Elizabeth called him, to heel. Tyrone submitted within six days of Elizabeth’s death. But what is interesting is that although there was strong pressure, particularly from the soldiers and administrators on the ground, for the thorough re-ordering of Ulster society, this was resisted, and Tyrone offered quite generous terms. There was thus no automatic route from Tyrone’s defeat to the policy of plantation. James who as King of Scotland who had his own Gaelic frontier to deal with, had seen plantation go disastrously wrong on the Isle of Lewis, and he was more content to use the traditional solution of working through magnates kept loyal by various sweeteners. And there was the prospect of winning over Tyrone who did not easily fit the English stereotypes of gaeldom, and in fact straddled the Gaelic and English cultural traditions: there is the wonderful story of Sir John Harrington’s encounter with him in 1599 in his forest hideout, ‘the fern forms spread under the canopy of heaven’, but the Irish earl apparently enjoying Harrington’s reading of the English translation of Ariosto.

What went wrong with the settlement of 1603? The answer is the men on the ground. There were too many local interests, many frustrated by their lack of a share in the spoils of victory as they saw it, determined to undermine the position of the Ulster lords. Royal officials exploited the divisions between the Gaelic earls and the sub-lords resulting from the confusion over tenures. The new solicitor general, Sir John Davies pushed the line that land once forfeited to the crown remained the crown’s, a dictum that threatened Tyrone as the heir of the posthumously attainted Shane O’Neill. As their position was gradually eroded, flight came to seem preferable to ongoing humiliation, and the possibility of treason charges arising from Tyrone’s insurance policies with Spain. The flight of the earls in September 1607 and the subsequent revolt by Cahir O’Doherty in 1608 opened up new possibilities. The Irish government cynically reversed its position on tenures: whereas previously it had upheld the position of sub-lords against the earls, claiming that the lords did not own the land from which they drew exactions, it now held that they were sole proprietors of the territory over which they claimed authority, so that in 1608 the six whole counties of Ulster escheated to the crown. This made for a far more radical re-ordering than had been possible in Munster in the 1580s where the rights of collaterals and subordinates had been respected. In the scheme that emerged undertakers with portions of 1,000-3,000 acres were to build houses and bawns, and settle at least ten Scottish or English families for every 1,000 acres they held, and displace all natives. The servitors, that is soldiers and officials who claimed a share for their services, received holdings of similar size, with obligations to build, but they were allowed to keep native tenants. Some natives were allocated land but they were required to give their tenants fixed rents and follow English agricultural practices. Notable differences from the Munster scheme were the smaller size of holdings and the latitude given to Scottish colonisation. Overall the Scottish and English undertakers received just over a third of the land, the servitors about 14%, the native Irish 20%, the Church 18%. But in addition to these groups was the allocation to the city of London which received 10%, being the territory bounded by the River Foyle, the sea, and the River Bann in northern Ulster.

Plantation schemes for Ulster had been floated in the early years of the reign, discussed between Sir Arthur Chichester, Sir John Davies, and Sir Francis Bacon, but there was no mention of London’s involvement in any of them until 1609. How had this come about? I think the answer lies in the financial imperatives of the Stuart monarchy, the commercial vision which underlay the new plantation, and the ideology of civility.

When shown around his state paper office on his accession James wryly remarked that ‘there was much ado with Ireland than all the world besides’, and one imagines that the scale of the challenges encouraged him in his initial ‘back burner’ approach. But the flight of the earls and the subsequent 1608 revolt galvanised him into action, and the plantation became one of his pet projects over the next few years. That was probably bad news for the city because his cash-strapped government realised that it should underwrite the scheme. It needs to be remembered that Ireland continued to be a drain on government resources, requiring the annual transfer of £47,000 from the London Exchequer. The London merchants should therefore contribute to the capital needs of the new colony, and they were better placed to do so, of course, than the smaller investors who became undertakers, usually with incomes of just £150-250 per annum. As R.H. Tawney remarked all James’ policies were ‘smeared with the trail of finance’.

The financial imperatives of central government provide part of the explanation for bringing the Londoners in, but it is not the whole story. From the start the vision behind the Ulster plantation was more commercial than the predominantly aristocratic vision underlying the Munster scheme of the 1580s. There was a strong emphasis on the infrastructure of trade, particularly the development of market towns. The ‘Motives and Reasons to induce the City of London to undertake the plantation in the north of Ireland’, dated 25 March 1609 and soon to be circulated to all the livery companies, suggested that Derry and Coleraine (placed at the mouths of the rivers that drained the planted area) would be suitable places for the establishment of corporate towns whose fortifications would be crucial to the security of the plantation but which would also sit at the centre of a flourishing commercial system. Following the conventional hyperbole of colonial promotional literature, the text waxed lyrical about Ulster’s agricultural and marine commodities: ‘it yieldeth store of all things necessary for man’s sustenance in such measure as may not only maintain thyself but also furnish the City of London yearly ... the sea fishings of that coast are very plentiful of all manner of usual fishings’. The towns would lie at the centre of a commercial network linking Ireland with England, Scotland, Spain, and Newfoundland. The propagandists and panegyrists warmed to the theme. According to Thomas Blenerhasset, the Londoners, ‘successors of high renowned Lud’ would ‘there re-edify a new Troy... They have O’Cahan’s country and whatsoever Ireland’s Eden can afford, and therefore even in respect of their own reputation, they of themselves will perform this, the most honourable action that ever they attempted. Therefore let Coleraine rejoice for the heart of England (London herself) will no doubt make her more beautiful than many, and furnish Lough Foyle with a goodly fleet’.

Another element in the City’s involvement was what one might call a distinctive civic ideology in the notions of civility by which the barbaric Irish were to be tamed. The propaganda accompanying the plantation stressed not only that it would be to the City’s profit, but that it would also redound to its honour. It was an action that would prove both ‘honestum et utile’, ‘a matter tending to their present honour and future commodity’. The City’s honour was to be advanced through nothing less than a civilising mission. Londoners were urged to consider ‘the place being in former times the nest of rebellion and now the parties become fugitive it [is] easy by plantation to civilise the same’. Towns were regarded as essential agents of civility; the corollary was that civility was a core element in urban identity. As the author of ‘The Apology of London’, appended to John Stow’s Survey (1598) put it, ‘men are congregated into cities and commonwealths for honesty and utility’s sake... First, men by this nearness of conversation are withdrawn from barbarous ferity and force to a certain mildness of manners and to humanity and justice... Also the doctrine of God is more fitly delivered and the discipline thereof more aptly to be executed, in peopled towns than abroad, by reason of the facility of common and often assembling... And whereas commonwealths and kingdoms cannot have, next after God, any surer foundation than the love and good will of one man towards another, that also is closely bred and maintained in cities, where men by mutual society and companying together, do grow to alliances, commonalities, and corporations’. And in the specific Irish context, Edmund Spenser made the connection between urbanism, civility, security, and prosperity. ‘Nothing doth sooner cause civility in any country than many market towns by reason that the people repairing often thither for their needs will daily see and learn civil manners... besides there is nothing doth more stay and strengthen the country ... than many towns’. The theme continues through the plantation literature. William Parsons in 1622 described markets and fairs as ‘commonwealth meetings’. The spread of markets was about more than profit, it was at the core of forming a new type of society, British in outlook and legal in its articulation’ (Gillespie).

So, the plantation was promoted as a route to easy profits and as part of the imperial capital’s civilising mission. Its citizens were rather more sceptical. There may have been some enthusiasm for the project among aldermen with Irish business interests like the draper, John Jolles and the skinner, William Cockayne both of whom had profited from army victualling contracts during the recent war. It was to them that the government turned in the ensuing months; Cockayne was to be governor of the Irish Society for four years. But the perspective of the Londoner on the streets is captured in Barnabe Rich’s New Description of Ireland (1610), dedicated to Lord Treasurer Salisbury and Cockayne. Rich claimed that within six days of his arrival in London from Dublin ‘I was asked sixteen several times what I thought of this plantation in the north of Ireland, and whether it were possible that those labourers and workmen that are now sent over for the building could save their throats from cutting, or their heads from being taken from their shoulders before the work were finished’.

The City claimed repeatedly that it had never desired the plantation, but that it had undertaken it out of deference to the crown’s wishes, ‘an endeavour of obedience not of contract’. When the embryo project was unveiled to the livery companies in July 1609, and individuals invited to adventure, there was a marked lack of enthusiasm. The Mercers were perhaps the frankest. While thanking the king for his offer, they pointed out that ‘they are for the most part men that live by merchandise and therefore are very inexperienced in managing business of that nature and withal want means and ability for the accomplishment thereof. [So] this company are not willing to have a hand or intermeddle in the same’. The Ironmongers more tactfully expressed their ‘desire with our best means to help the state and commonwealth, but what we would we cannot in respect of weakness’. When it came to attempts to generate subscriptions, members were curiously absent, or unavailable because dwelling out of the city. Of the 46 men on the Ironmongers’ original subscription list, nine were absent, ten out of the city, and two allegedly ‘not of ability’. The story was much the same elsewhere.

It was quite clear that voluntary subscriptions were not going to work, and once the scale of the capital requirements became clear the aldermen and common council fell back on the expedient of compulsory levies on the 55 livery companies through which much of London’s economic life was regulated. The city had conventionally called upon the reserves of the livery companies as an alternative to civic taxation, particularly in financing military levies before 1585, but such expedients were never popular and what was unusual about the plantation project was the scale and frequency of the calls for money. In late 1609 London’s common council agreed to stump up £15,000 through the companies, but the privy council made it clear that this would be insufficient, and the City raised its offer to £20,000. But this proved inadequate and by 1616 the companies had coughed up £60,000. This was a large sum in relation to compulsory levies. The national yield of a parliamentary subsidy (the main direct tax) in the first decade of the seventeenth century was £67,000, while London’s total direct tax burden (on a fairly inclusive definition) in the 1590s has been estimated at less than £13,000 per annum. So, it is not surprising that the levies were collected with some difficulty. There were regular cases of defaulters being imprisoned until they paid up. In desperation the Grocers threatened all defaulters with the loss of the benefit of their freedom, a drastic sanction which would have debarred them from taking apprentices, making freemen, or engaging in retail trade.

But worse was to come, for in early 1611 the companies were asked to accept proportionate shares of the escheated estates in the plantation in lieu of their subscriptions; by doing so they became liable to the conditions imposed on the undertakers of developing the estates and peopling them with British tenants. The idea was that the city corporately would undertake the development of the so-called general plantation in the towns of Derry and Coleraine through what soon became the Irish Society, essentially a committee of common council, while the companies took on responsibility for the rural estates in County Londonderry. It was a decidedly unattractive prospect to the cautious guildsmen. At least five of the Great Twelve Companies initially refused, the Clothworkers doubtless speaking for the rest when they declared that ‘with such difficulty have payments in past been gathered and payment has been so unsavoury to everyone, and with so hard hand drawn from them that the master and wardens do not see any hope of collecting any more money’. But in the end they all capitulated, for this was now very much the king’s will. The result was that in addition to their subscriptions of £60,000 to the general plantation, they faced further outlays of at least £22,000 on the development of their estates in the years ahead.

We can see what this meant in practice by considering the efforts made by one company, the Ironmongers, with particularly good records, to implement its plantation. Management of the plantation from a distance posed formidable problems, and much depended on the quality of the agents employed. The Ironmongers were probably fortunate in lighting upon George Canning, a gentleman from Barton in Warwickshire with an income of £100 per annum, and the brother of one of the company assistants, William Canning, and it’s on his letters that much of what follows draws. He probably did his company good service, but even he used the position to leverage a lucrative tenancy for himself. Others were much less successful in balancing their own interests against those of the company. The Drapers employed John Rowley, one of their own freemen, but he was the discredited general agent whose frauds had been exposed by a City delegation in 1613. Rowley was assisted by Robert Russell, a man full of bright ideas like that of making a canal from Lough Neagh to the Drapers’ proportion, but never able to bring them to fruition. His brewhouse project depended on paying his workers’ wages in barrels of beer and maintaining three taphouses which seemed to reduce the villagers to a state of permanent inebriation.

One of the knottiest problems the companies faced was that the areas they were allocated were much larger than the government actually thought. The mapmakers who were so prolific in the early plantation were good at spatial relationships, but they were not good at measurement, and they wildly underestimated the size of the territories being transferred. The commissioners made grants totalling 459,000 acres, but the area of the escheated counties was actually seven times larger. The vast size of the proportions meant that they could not be developed without using native tenants, and that of course was against the intentions of the scheme. The Ironmongers’ proportion comprised 19,540 acres in the barony of Coleraine, rather than the just over 3,000 envisaged. Further issues related to disputed boundaries. The Ironmongers’ estate was fragmented, being split up by church lands, a ‘great maim’ as their agent put it. The church lands, he had warned, ‘will be as suckers at the root of a tree and will waste much of the sap if they be not pruned off in time’. The resolution of boundaries was important but held up by the death of the bishop of Derry, and by the truculence of the ubiquitous John Rowley, tenant of the bishop’s land.

The Ironmongers had identified a suitable site at Athgeave for the main settlement with the castle and bawn complex required by the articles, Canning reporting enthusiastically on ‘the goodness of the soil, the levelness of the land about it, and the portableness of the rivers which will help much for transportation of materials in time of building and yield great relief to the castle in time of trouble or rebellion’. But his letters soon become filled with the difficulties, the chief of which were a shortage of suitable building materials, the high costs of transport, and the unreliability of local suppliers. Timber was plentiful but ‘no way suitable for carriage’. There was no locally available source of stone or lime, and these had to be brought from Coleraine. The poor quality of local lime had been the undoing of the Mercers whose first castle collapsed almost immediately on completion. In November 1614 Canning contracted with a Coleraine merchant for timber, slate, limestone, and lath, but the contract was not fulfilled because of the ‘extremity of the weather... the waters so extreme with the abundance of snow that it was impossible to pass anything upon the bar’ (at Coleraine). And when the stone did arrive it was of poor quality. Better stone was available on the Fishmongers’ proportion, but the cost of carriage was too high. As for bricks, ‘I find they prove not so good in this country as about London and in all men’s judgement will not be half so strong as that which is made of stone’. It was eventually agreed that the lower levels of the castle should be of stone, and the upper of brick. Good workmen were also in short supply. Canning looked forward to employing Peter Benson, the bricklayer who had worked on the original walls of Derry, and expressed satisfaction with his choice of carpenter, Simon Mortimer, who would work for 9s. per week ‘whereas other workmen will not work under 12s. per week and not so good neither’. But he recognised the crucial importance of promptly paying wages to secure loyal service: ‘It is a hateful thing to set poor men to work and not to pay them their hire in due time, but let them cry and complain their wages when they have earned it. It hath been too much practised in these parts since the beginning of the plantation’.

Money was an ever present anxiety as Canning sought to balance the obligation to provide good quality buildings against the demands of economy. In seeking more money he was keen to emphasise his pursuit of low cost solutions. ‘Let me have supply as shall be fitting for the plantation of so worthy a society for it is not expected that the Londoners’ buildings shall be performed like unto private undertakers, yet I will presume and pawn my credit to you forever that your plantation shall be performed with as little expense of money (the remoteness of the materials considered) as any of the twelve proportions and as well to the content of those that shall have view of the plantation’. The company wanted to pursue economy but it also wanted buildings that would stand it in good credit. For there was a certain degree of rivalrous emulation among the Great Twelve, which encouraged compliance with the articles of plantation. As their agent had put it, ‘it behoves our Company to be forward that they be not behind other in their plantation both for building and inhabiting their lands’. In 1614 the Merchant Taylors explained to their agent George Costerdyne, customer of Coleraine, that they believed that ‘no other company shall go before us either in good husbandry as well managing these affairs’.

In spite of all the obstacles Canning was reasonably satisfied with the progress of the building works. By the end of 1616 the castle was complete at least in its outward works; it measured 50’ by 30’; its walls were 31’ high and 4’ thick. It was, he claimed, ‘held to be the best house that is or will be built upon the city’s plantation, yet I know some far costlier’. There were six small houses of timber, three covered with slates, one with straw for want of slates, and two which ‘must of necessity remain uncovered until next spring’. Meanwhile thirteen houses had been built elsewhere on the proportion by the tenants.

The finding of tenants was Canning’s other major task. The government had envisaged the almost immediate removal of the native Irish to the church lands or to the proportions allocated to the natives to create a segregated native society, but to have implemented this straightaway would have led to economic collapse and probably dearth, so extensions were granted, and leases offered to the natives on six month terms. On the Ironmongers’ proportion Canning seems to have made no effort to recruit direct from England, but he took very seriously his obligation to find English and Scottish tenants. His solution was to recruit artisans from Derry and Coleraine, most of them employed upon the plantation, and to offer them leases of thirty-one years on condition that they take only English and Scottish undertenants, expel the native Irish, erect specific buildings, including houses of brick, stone or timber after the English manner, and enclose a garden and orchard; they were also required to have subdivided and enclosed with quickset hedges their entire allocation within three years. The English, he complained, were unwilling to pay the present rents; and while the Scots were willing to pay, he thought they would not perform ‘so good building’. Getting suitable tenants was a real challenge. ‘Here is such catching after tenants that I think it not fit to put any away that will condescend to indifferent conditions’. Recruitment was also hampered by the unsettled state of the plantation. Canning’s letters are filled with lurid accounts of the violence of the kerns still at large in the woods. ‘I pray God in his mercy spare us from these bloody minded villains and put into their minds which are in authority to take some speedy course to cut them off, else I fear it will be the overthrow of the whole plantation’. Although by December 1615 Canning had been able to recruit tenants committed to building 20 houses, he remained anxious as to whether they would perform the terms of their agreements. In March 1616 he reported that ‘I can hardly hold your tenants to keep their bargains’. In May he reported that a few had begun building, but ‘others have done little yet and one or two I fear will give me the slip’, and once they did begin building they became reluctant to pay their rents, and arrears soon mounted.

In addition to the leaseholders, the companies were supposed to establish at least six freeholders on their proportions, and the Irish Society in London issued a stream of orders to get them to comply. Freeholders were an essential element in the attempt to clone English conditions and ensure that the expensive burdens of jury service were met. The Ironmongers were very reluctant to offer good terms to the freeholders instructing Canning to place them in the remoter parts of the proportion and not to offer them more than one townland. Canning urged more generous terms: ‘most men here do think that the freeholders that shall be on the companies’ lands are worthy to pay little or no rent for it, in regards of the continual charge and trouble which they shall be subject to for attendance at assizes and sessions’. But his labours paid off and by December 1616 six freeholders had been identified.

What was the overall balance sheet? Canning looks like a pretty conscientious agent. Captain Nicholas Pynner’s survey of 1618 found that there were 56 British males on the Ironmongers’ plantation, more than any other, and it would seem that superficially the articles had been complied with. The problem however was that the ‘fundamental ground’ of the plantation was the removal of natives. Pynner noted that ‘here is an infinite number of Irish upon the land which give such rents that the English cannot get any land’. The fact of the matter was that everywhere on the plantation the British tenants sublet their land to native Irish, so that there was little change in the actual occupancy of the land.

And not all other companies were as successful as the Ironmongers. The articles of plantation required that every 1,000 of the notional acreage should be populated with at least 24 British males. Each company had a proportion of 3,210 notional acres, making a total of 38,520 acres, so there should have been 912 British males. Pynner’s survey suggests that there were actually only around 500. But, and this is an important point, the situation was improving. Another survey four years later the figure showed 617; the 1628 survey recorded 947, and the 1630 muster 894.

It was widely suspected that the Londoners’ non-compliance was due to the ‘covetousness’ of the merchants, but in fact there is no evidence that the Londoners were any less compliant than other undertakers. It’s instructive to look at the overall balance sheet. The companies spent £22,000 on building works. Their rental income can be estimated at £37,500 in the 21 year period November 1613 to November 1634 (about £1,785 per annum), so there was a modest profit of £15,500. But against that has to be set their failure to gain any return on their investment in the general plantation, for which they had raised a total of £62,000 between 1610 and 1635, but only received any dividend between 1620 and 1626. The total dividend was only £5,940, so their losses on the general plantation would have been £56,000 and their overall losses about £40,500. Quite why the Irish Society paid such low dividends, and none at all after 1626, is less clear. We can attempt to reconstruct its finances. The rentals from Derry and Coleraine were £650 and £410 per annum respectively (total £1,060 per annum); the fisheries originally leased for £600 per annum in 1613 were yielding about £1,000 per annum in the 1620s, and the Derry and Coleraine customs about £700 per annum. So the annual income of the Irish Society would have been about £2,760; from this had to be deducted the king’s rent of £205 per annum, wages and running costs. It is possible that the dividend of £1,000 per annum in the 1620s shows what the surplus actually was. But the dividends were temporary as the Society’s finances collapsed in the latter part of the decade. Rental arrears were very high, but the nail in the coffin was the successive sequestrations of September 1625 to July 1627 and from May 1628. There were also the expenses connected with the building of the new cathedral and the mounting costs of litigation, together estimated at £7,000. [I appreciate that these figures are somewhat bewildering to behold: the point of giving them to you is to show that this was not a lucrative investment, quite the reverse. But you are doubtless also wondering how they translate to modern values, and thereby hangs a tale. The problem is that there are so many different ways of expressing the costs, and the RPI is not the best measure. The economic cost of the project to London, that is a measure of the opportunity cost in terms of total economic output, would suggest that the Londoners’ investment of £84,000 was the equivalent of £3 billion. But a more helpful point of comparison might be that the total revenue of the English state ran at £570,000 per annum in the early seventeenth century.]

The evidence is that the Londoners tried reasonably conscientiously to fulfil the terms of the articles of plantation, and that delays in implementing the programme were due to forces largely beyond their control, though they were vulnerable, as were all the planters, on the question of the removal of natives. They were the victims of James’ intermittent interest in the plantation which had the effect of giving their shortcomings a high profile, and then of the financial embarrassments of Charles I’s government which made them too tempting a target. That they received such hostile attention also owes something to the prejudices of the crown and key elements of the Irish establishment about their involvement in the first place. The Londoners’ involvement ran counter to the principles of aristocratic society, for it rested on an extraordinary degree of collective decision making. The monies for it were voted by the common council, a body of 212 men, the largest representative body in the kingdom after the house of commons. The general plantation was administered by the Irish Society whose ruling body comprised a governor, deputy governor, five aldermen assistants, and 21 common councillor assistants. Each of the Great Twelve established committees to run their proportions, and handle the correspondence with their agents; these committees drew in representatives from the lesser companies associated with each of the Great Twelve. It is also clear that livery company involvement resulted in a high degree of political discussion, as the making of assessments required considerable negotiation. These are classic examples of the ‘structured conversations’ that were so central to civic sociability and the politics of the commonwealth, taking us back to that vision of urbanism I quoted from Stow’s Survey. The privy council was rather more sceptical about their value, seeing the city’s failures as being due to the fact that ‘as usually falleth out when a business concerneth a generality, [it] did put the managing of it over to such as knew not otherwise how to employ themselves here, and the handling of their private interests could not promise any great hope of advancing a public service’. The servitor class, the men on the ground, in Ulster resented the presence of the Londoners. Sir Arthur Chichester sneered at their involvement at the very beginning of the project hoping that ‘they prove not like the London women who sometimes long today and loathe tomorrow’. The Ironmongers recognised that the surveys of the plantation were prejudicial to the city, ‘all urged in the worst sense by the servitors who envy that which the city do’. Canning warned them that the judges at Derry might be biased: ‘I verily suppose that the servitors who are the chiefest in that court at the Derry would gladly yield advantage to any gentleman against any of the city’s agents’.

The City was particularly unfortunate in acquiring an enemy as tenacious as Sir Thomas Phillips, the displaced governor of Coleraine, now removed to Limavady, a servitor enclave in the heart of their plantation. Phillips had been an initial supporter of the Londoners’ involvement, but he had fallen out with them as early as 1611 when the deputy governor and assistants of the Irish Society complained of his intention to ‘domineer over their jurisdiction’; he seems to have blamed the City for the delay in establishing his title to his land. Thereafter he dogged them every inch of the way, a monomaniac if ever there was one. In 1617 he denounced the City for failing to remove natives and colonise with British settlers; in 1622 with Richard Hadsor, he undertook the survey of the plantation for a royal commission of inquiry. It was to this inquiry that we owe the collection of maps by Thomas Raven, the purpose of which was to point out ‘the many defects and omissions in the Londoners’ plantation, a place principally designed by Your Majesty for the future and continual settlement of the whole province of Ulster, which I have not manifested out of malice to the Londoners as they unjustly charge me, but out of my zeal to Your Majesty’s service and the safety of the commonwealth’. Phillips assisted another set of investigating commissioners in 1627; his subsequent collection of materials against the city was assembled in part because he thought that the visiting commissioners had taken too soft a line with the Londoners who had allegedly shown their contempt for the whole process by entertaining the commissioners with a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Phillips’ magnificent collection, a mixture of official documentation with his own delusional calculations on the Londoners’ profit and loss, provided ammunition for Secretary of State Coke who was a prime mover in the development of the star chamber case.

Phillips’ malice undoubtedly weakened the City’s position, but it has to be said that the Londoners made some key errors in the 1620s. The least plausible element in their defence in 1635 was the notion that they were not bound by the articles of the plantation, and that these had been superseded by the terms of the agreement between the City and the Crown which did not make specific reference to them. This was disingenuous to say the least, as the companies acted through the 1610s as though they considered themselves bound, and it was only from 1623 that they began to argue otherwise. Whereas elsewhere in Ulster undertakers paid fines to continue native settlement, the Londoners stubbornly stood their ground, thus leaving themselves very dangerously exposed. The City was desperate not to admit its guilt, offering Charles a cash payment for his grace but without acknowledging its fault. The crown’s ministers, however, were determined to press home their advantage. During the trial the City was able to address many elements of the prosecution case: the claim that they had secured their charter by subterfuge was specious; the woods may have been spoiled but this was the fault of the farmers not of themselves; they had put up more buildings at Derry and Coleraine than required; the fortifications at Coleraine only looked inadequate because they had so exceeded their brief at Derry; and so on. But on the central question, the removal of the natives, the City’s record indeed looked poor, and it was this that gave their critics the crucial lever to secure their humiliation.

But concentration on the star chamber case and on the degree to which the city did or did not comply with the articles of plantation obscures the fact that a very different kind of society was being created in County Londonderry and elsewhere on the Ulster plantation in the early seventeenth century. It is easy to mock the pretensions to urbanism of the new plantation. Only sixteen of the twenty five envisaged corporate towns were actually established. The threshold for ‘urbanism’ could be extraordinarily low. George Canning, agent for the Ironmongers’ plantation claimed that the six houses he had constructed at Athgeave were sufficient ‘in this place to be called a town’. But although the numbers of houses built at Coleraine and Derry were the subject of dispute between the Londoners and their critics, and although by comparison with the mother metropolis Derry and Coleraine were only anaemically urban, in the Ulster context they did encapsulate the aspirations to social engineering of the plantation’s promoters. With 500 males at Derry and another 300 in Coleraine they were the largest settlements in the plantation; the next largest Ulster town was Strabane at 208. Although they did not become the thriving metropoloi envisaged by the propaganda of 1609-10, they did enjoy a significant mercantile presence. Merchants from Scotland, Chester and London were soon frequenting the two ports, while as early as 1614-15 a merchant fleet of seven ships accounted for 18.5% of Derry’s exports. Derry boasted urban amenities not available elsewhere. Its streets were paved; it had a town hall and a school and its cathedral church of St Columba built at a cost of at least £3,800 opened in 1633 with a capacity of 1,000 people.

Although the migration may have fallen short of its targets, in early modern terms it was impressive. By 1622 the British population of the escheated counties was about 12,000, and when to this is added the migration to Antrim and Down, and a continuing flow of English into Munster, we have an influx comparable to that from Spain to the New World in the sixteenth century. 60% of the settlers in the escheated counties were Scots. One of the curious features of this British project, only possible because of the union of crowns, was the fact that English and Scots settlers seemed to have lived together amicably in Ulster. Agricultural practices were being transformed. Although the persistence of the native Irish meant that stock rearing continued in many places, by the 1620s Ulster was contributing to 18% of Ireland’s grain exports. The infrastructure of markets and fairs signalled the growing commercialisation of society. The complaints about deforestation brought against the Londoners testify to the enormous environmental changes of the colonising process. Sir John Davies doubtless exaggerated when he claimed that ‘the clock of the civil government is now well set, and all the wheels thereof do move in order. The strings of this Irish harp which the civil magistrate doth finger, are all in tune’. But the extension of the assizes system and the consolidation of the structures of county government meant that there had indeed been a step change in the momentum of order.

The native Irish were in no doubt of the transformation that had been wrought, and they should be given the last word. I quote from one of the bards. ‘We have in their place a proud and impure swarm of strangers of English and Scottish extraction. Saxons are there and Scotsmen. The land of noble Niall’s posterity they divide out among themselves, and there is not a jot of Flann’s milk yielding plain that is not divided up into acres. We have lived to see the tribal convention places emptied, the wealth perished away in a stream, dark thickets of chase turned into streets. A boorish congregation in the house of God, while God’s service is performed under the shelter of simple boughs, the clerical robes are litter for cattle, the mountain is all fenced in fields, fairs are held in place of the chase, hunting there is upon the plain highways; the green is crossed by girdles of twisting fences’. In that profound sense of alienation, there is no doubt that early seventeenth century Ulster was a society transformed.

Further reading
T.W. Moody, The Londonderry Plantation 1609-1641. The City of London and the Plantation in Ulster (Belfast, 1939)
Éamonn Ó Ciardha and Micheál Ó Siochrú, The Plantation of Ulster. Ideology and Practice (Manchester, 2012)
D. Hirst, Dominion. England and its Island Neighbours, 1500-1707 (Oxford, 2012)
N. Canny, Making Ireland British 1580-1650 (Oxford, 2001)
S. Connolly, Contested Island. Ireland 1460-1630 (Oxford, 2007)
J. Ohlmeyer, ‘Strafford, the “Londonderry Business”, and the “New British History”’, in J.F. Merritt (ed.), The Political World of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, 1621-1641 (Cambridge, 1996)
A. Hadfield, Edmund Spenser. A Life (Oxford, 2012)
J.S. Curl, The Londonderry Plantation 1609-1641. The History, Architecture, and Planning of the Estates of the City of London and its Livery Companies in Ulster (Chichester, 1986)
J.S. Curl, The Honourable the Irish Society and the Plantation of Ulster, 1609-2000 (Chichester, 2000)
G. Hill, An Historical Account of the Plantation of Ulster at the Commencement of the Seventeenth Century (Belfast 1877; reprinted Shannon, 1970)
P. Robinson, The Plantation of Ulster. British Settlement in an Irish Landscape, 1600-1700 (second edition, Belfast, 1994)
For values of money, see Measuring Worth website,


© Dr Ian Archer 2013

This event was on Wed, 26 Jun 2013


Dr Ian Archer

Lecturer in Modern History and Fellow of Keble College, University of Oxford.

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