Upon her ascendancy to the throne of England in 1558 - having survived two months' imprisonment in the Tower of London at the hand of her half sister Mary Tudor four years earlier - Elizabeth found herself hostage to the volatile political, cultural and social unrest in Ireland. Indeed, Ireland's existing government in Dublin was wholly ineffective, and Irish society was divided into warring and otherwise competing lordships, very much unlike the situation elsewhere in Western Europe, where traditional lordships had, for the most part, knuckled under to the power of the emerging monarchies. The ongoing Irish chaos posed a threat both to English interests in Ireland, and to the safety and security of the England itself.
Meanwhile, at the time of her ascension to the throne, Elizabeth's policy towards Ireland was much the same as the approach taken by her father: institute reforms rather than impose military might; utilize crafty persuasiveness rather than unleash swords; and don't spend too much of the Crown's money in the process. And though Elizabeth's tactic towards Ireland at the outset of her power was more containment than control, she listened closely when, in 1560, her lord-lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Sussex, wrote this:
I am forced by duty to give advice...not so much for the care I have of Ireland, which I have often wished to be sunk in the sea, as for that if the French should set foot therein, they should not only have such an entry into Scotland as her majesty could not resist, but also by the commodity of the havens here...they should take utterly from England all kind of peaceable traffic by sea, whereby would ensue such a ruin to England as I am feared to think on" (Canny, 1976). And so, while she certainly wouldn't give up on Ireland - allowing continuing social anarchy, bloodshed, and a potential French foothold next door - when presented with options for a solution, Elizabeth vacillated as long as she could. And when the dust had settled, and the Nine Years War (1595-1603) ended, ironically yet appropriately, the same year her live came to a conclusion.
Notwithstanding the popular 25-year-old Elizabeth's desire to hold down the costs associated with controlling Ireland - "Elizabeth was notoriously frugal in approving outlays from the royal purse" (Steward, 2003) - she would eventually have no choice but to seek a military solution. The need to protect her homeland profoundly influenced her decisions to commit the Crown to the completion of the colonization of Ireland; there was no alternative but to consign troops and launch the nine years war, which resulted in extraordinary high costs in blood and money. History bears out the fact that if Ireland had been a quasi-colony of England in a distant place, Elizabeth could have easily decided against massive spending - but Ireland was on her doorstep. Further, while Elizabeth's predecessor exercised homeland power by burning enemies at the stake, Elizabeth I was less the tyrant and more the informed leader who saw the big picture and developed strategies for political and national survival. Without a person as bright and scholarly as Elizabeth - she spoke six languages, easily facilitating the pivotal communications necessary to interact with foreign governments - England might well have faltered at this point in its history, or have been driven into the sea by the marauding Spaniards. Her brains and resolve were hitherto unmatched in the Crown's history - and her leadership was unequivocally genuine.
The financial burden of Ireland on the crown
One estimate of the amount of money England spent on the defense of Ireland - between the years 1534 and 1572 - was 1,300,000 pounds (Canny, 1976). "And while this figure may be somewhat excessive," Canny writes, "all in England were worried at the enormous and increasing expense..." And hence, England experimented with various policies. Some of the more practical ideas for Ireland's possible detente with England came from the Pale - the portion of Ireland (roughly Dublin and a 20-mile radius around Dublin) in which the landowners and townspeople were "old English" settlers, who had put down roots in the 12th Century, and for the most part remained pro-crown.
And one Pale-initiated idea, advanced in 1541-43, had particular appeal to the crown, because it would facilitate the removal of the standing English army in Dublin, substantially cutting back expenses. In order to give King Henry VIII the impetus to accept this policy, he was declared "King of Ireland," and ruling, warring chieftains would, Canny writes (1976) "...surrender the lands of their lordships to the king and receive them back as a fief from the crown." The policy was vigorously pursued; however, the notoriously lethal Gaelic lord, Shane O'Neill, controlling the Ulster region, refused to accept the policy, insisting on being a Gaelic chieftain rather than an English earl, and he brutally attacked the Pale. O'Neill's attacks "necessitated a further build up of troops to protect the Pale" and hence, "the policy failed in its objective of reducing the cost of Ireland to the crown."
The Earl of Sussex, continuing to defend the Pale region - yet losing the confidence of the Old English there and of the crown in London - was keenly aware that tax revenue collected in Ireland during the 1560s averaged just 3,926 pounds annually, while England was pouring some 18,975 pounds into the protection of Ireland that same period. And, indeed, Sussex' scheme for control of the Pale - the building of large forts, the confiscation of lands near the forts which would become populated with soldiers, all to be self-sufficient - was accepted by the crown. And yet, financial issues continued to loom in 1563, Canny reports, as "large sums of money had already been spent on the construction of the forts, and there was as yet no indication that the scheme would ever become self-financing. It was, in fact, generally accepted in England that the scheme had been a failure and had added to rather than subtracted from the queen's expenses."
This substantial financial burden was a growing concern for Queen Elizabeth - plus, Sussex continued his urgent demands for more troops. The Queen had "expressed her willingness to maintain a standing army in Ireland of 1,500 men" (Dunlap, 1913), at a monthly cost of 1,500 pounds; but that force was "inadequate," Dunlap explains, "for any other purpose than merely to police the country in time of peace." The entire 1,500-man garrison was used to protect the Pale frontiers, and to protect Sussex. In the event of an uprising by Gaelic chieftains, sixty "well-equipped archers" from the Pale and from English-friendly Irish would come to the aid of the English and Pale. The archers, Dunlap recounts (1913), were paid fighters; "every nobleman or gentleman who could dispend [pay out annually] 20 pounds was obligated [by Act of Parliament] to provide one archer on horseback for the defense of the country. Similarly, every corporate town was bound to contribute its regular quota to every hosting undertaken by the Lord Deputy [Sussex]." Thus, by tapping into the pockets of the Irish, in particular the less hostile among the Irish, the crown preserved its own resources.
Financial details of Ireland and Elizabeth's government
Other sources of revenue from Ireland came from "crown rents and customs duties," according to Dunlap. "...Rents derived from the grants of ecclesiastical lands made by Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth were by far the most important." Doing the math, when total revenue from all sources in Ireland netted the crown a little less than 11,000 pounds, 6,608 pounds of that were from ecclesiastical rents. This is significant because Dunlap asserts that in the 250 years prior to Elizabeth's reign, taxes (or, "customs") from Ireland had "never in one year amounted to more than 1,000 pounds." And the only profitable levy of Irish-produced goods that England was able to tap into was, Dunlap states, wine. At the outset of Elizabeth's reign, the crown profited on wine levies to the tune of 800 pounds annually. This was of course not nearly enough revenue to offset what the crown's army of 1,512 soldiers cost in 1560 - precisely 18,442.13.4 pounds (Dunlap, 1913). [Note: no data is available to convert those pounds into today's values, but it is safe to assume it would be in the millions of pounds, and was, at that time, a huge financial burden for England.] By 1575, the cost of having the crown's troops in Ireland had grown to 26,000 pounds; and the average annual cost for Elizabeth to maintain the army in Ireland between 1558 and 1574, was 23,173. By 1584, that rose to 40,000 pounds a year, and by 1596 it escalated to 130,000 pounds. And in 1599, to maintain 16,000-foot soldiers and 1,300 horsemen in the nine years war, England was picking up a tab of 277,782.15.0 pounds. Dunlap, a British historian writing in a book published in 1913, estimates…