The 16th and 17th Century Plantations


Cahir Castle Plantation (Munster), 1599


Beginning in the 1580s, the English state used “plantations” as a means of cementing its authority in conquered territory in Ireland.  This entailed the imposition of English-style county government (including sheriffs, constables, and justices of the peace), the creations of roads and market towns, and the seizure of lands belonging to the families of those who had opposed the crown.  These lands were redistributed to “undertakers” – usually English Protestant investors – who could collects rents and improve the lands.  Plantation schemes usually included economic benefits for the undertakers (such as tax relief) but also required undertakers to invest in building projects, the transplantation of English tenants, and other development projects.  In theory, this strategy would “plant” islands of English culture in the Irish landscape, which would eventually spread at the expense of the Gaelic population.

In the early 17th century, the English crown (James I) claimed authority over the northern counties of Ireland.  This followed a long period of warfare during which the English state steadily destroyed the power of Irish nobles who had previously controlled the territory.  In an effort to project English crown authority into this newly-conquered territory, James I created the Ulster Plantations.  This project redistributed conquered land to English and Scottish “undertakers”.  The rules for the undertakers printed below point to the crown’s interest in centralizing state authority by creating infrastructure that would reinforce crown power and limit disorder.



Whereas the greatest part of the six counties in the Province of Ulster, within the realm of Ireland, being escheated and come to the crown, has lately been surveyed, and the survey thereof transmitted and presented unto his majesty:  Upon view whereof, his majesty of his princely bounty, not respecting his own profit, but the public peace and welfare of that kingdom, but the civil plantation of those unreformed and waste countries, is graciously pleased to distribute the said lands to such of his subjects as well of Great Britain and Ireland, as being of merit and ability shall seek the same, with a mind not only to benefit themselves, but to do service to the crown and the commonwealth.


[To serve these purposes, land in the six counties of Ulster will be redistributed from the Irish nobility to English and Scottish “undertakers”.  The obligations of these new undertakers are as follows.]

Every undertaker of the greatest proportion of 2000 acres shall within two years after the date of his letters patents, build thereupon a castle, with a strong court or bawn [i.e. defensive ditch] about it.  And all the said undertakers shall draw their tenants to build houses for themselves and their families, near the principal castle, house or bawn, for their mutual defense and strength.  The said undertakers, their heir and assigns, shall have ready in their houses at all times, a convenient store of arms, wherewith they may furnish a competent number of able men for their defense, which may be viewed and mustered every half year according to the manner of England.

Every of the said undertakers, English or Scottish, before the sealing of his letters patent, shall take the Oath of Supremacy [i.e. the Protestant oath of allegiance acknowledging the crown as head of the Church], either in the Chancery of England or Ireland, or before the commissioners to be appointed for the establishing of the plantation, and shall also conform themselves in religion according to his majesty’s laws.

The said undertakers, their heirs and assigns, shall not alien or demise their portions or any part thereof to the mere Irish.  Every undertaker shall within two years after the date of his letters patents, plant or place a competent number of English or inland Scottish tenants upon his portion.  Every of the said undertakers shall be resident in person himself upon his portion, or place some such other person thereupon, as shall be allowed by the state of England or Ireland, who shall be likewise resident there.


There shall be commissioners appointed for the setting forth of the several proportions and for the ordering and settling of the plantation according to such instructions as shall be given unto them by his majesty in that behalf.

In every of the said counties there shall be a convenient number of market towns and corporations erected for the habitation and settling of tradesmen and artificers, and that there shall be one free school at least appointed in every county, for the education of youth in learning and religion.  There shall be a convenient number of parishes and parish churches with sufficient incumbents in every county, and that the parishioners shall pay all their tithes in kind to the incumbents of the said parish churches [i.e. Protestant churches; Roman Catholic churches had been formally abolished with the Reformation].


Source:  A Collection of Such Orders and Conditions, As Are to Be Observed by the Undertakers, Upon the Distribution and Plantation of the Escheated Lands in Ulster (London:  1608).



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