Ireland represented a major challenge to Henry VII’s belief in strong monarchical rule. During the War of the Roses, Ireland had been primarily for the Yorkists and as a Lancastrian Henry would have had little support. Henry VII ultimately adopted a different approach to governing what was potentially the most difficult of his regions. Ireland was effectively governed by its chieftains and the government only really controlled a small section of the island – the so-called English Pale. So while Henry VII was lord of Ireland, he could not use a council appointed by him to govern the Irish.
In 1485 Henry used what was for a king a tried and tested method for governing Ireland. He appointed a Lord Lieutenant (in 1485 it was the highly trusted Jasper Tudor) whose authority was exercised by a Lord Deputy in Ireland. However, the real power in the majority of Ireland lay with the chieftains and the two most powerful clans were the Geraldine and Butler families. In 1485, the Geraldine family held many important government positions including Lord Deputy and Chancellor of Ireland. For Henry it was both convenient and practical to continue with this method. It was only in 1492, after the Earl of Kildare, the leader of the Geraldine family, recognised Perkin Warbeck as the true king of England, that the Geraldine’s were stripped of all their posts.
It was only after this that Henry tried to impose on the Irish an English version of government in the island. He appointed his young son, Prince Henry, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This mirrored what he had done for Prince Arthur who was nominal head of Wales. The position of Lord Deputy was given to Sir Edward Poynings, one of Henry’s most trusted advisors. It fell to Poynings to bring the Irish chieftains under control – a task some would have felt was impossible. However, Poynings was a very loyal follower of Henry and tried to assert monarchical authority in Ireland. He failed in Ulster but was more successful in controlling the Irish Parliament when it met in 1494 in Drogheda. Here he got the Irish chieftains to agree that the Irish Parliament could only be called with the king’s prior agreement and that any attempt to discuss future legislation or to pass laws also had to have the king’s prior agreement. In addition, any law passed in England automatically applied to Ireland. The logic behind what was called ‘Poyning’s Law’ was to remove any independent authority that the Irish Parliament believed it had and reinforce the authority and therefore the power of the king. So why did those in the Irish Parliament agree to ‘Poyning’s Law’?
They would have known that the law was all but unenforceable in Ireland. So it was a law on paper but that was as far as it really went. The cost of maintaining English law in Ireland was simply too great and Henry, always keen on prudent spending, decided to revert to an old, tried and tested formula – he decided to rule through the chieftains. It is said that Henry commented that as England could not govern Kildare, Kildare had better rule Ireland. The Earl of Kildare was reinstated as Lord Deputy of Ireland. It may not have been the solution for Ireland that Henry wanted but it was a practical solution that served a purpose as Ireland posed few problems for him up to his death in 1509.