1534-35: Silken Thomas


9 months of active rebellion – though dates of the rebellion are often given as 1534-7 because Thomas was not executed until the latter date


Ireland, starting in Dublin


Silken Thomas, son of the Earl of Kildare,

Main causes

  • Resistance from regions to attempts to increase power of centre
  • Especially distribution of patronage – Kildare family felt it was losing ground to rivals

Subsidiary causes

Fear that Reformation would be exported to Ireland – provided religious component that helped cement Kildares’ leadership. Rebellion labelled a “crusade” – but timing was more political than religious


  • Execution of Silken Thomas and his 5 uncles
  • Replacement of indirect rule with an attempt at “bureaucratic” Cromwellian methods, based on closer English control, especially appointment of Englishmen to major Irish posts – Lord Deputies, Treasurers. This would spark a whole series of later Irish revolts
  • The Kildare earldom was suspended until 1569 and Kildare lands were temporarily confiscated. The weakening of the family had negative consequences as they had kept other great Irish families down
  • English determination to install Cromwellian system fundamentally destabilised relations between London and the Anglo-Irish lords – C16th would become a century of rebellion in Ireland
  • Attempt to impose further reform in Ireland was much less successful – the Reformation Parliament of 1536-7 refused to grant a subsidy and threw out all bills reforming the administration. This showed the continued lack of English strength in Ireland – rule still had to be through the Irish
  • English were thenceforth very cautious about imposing religious change – this helps to explain why Catholicism survived as the main religion in Ireland
  • Creation of Ireland as a kingdom in 1542. Henry became King of Ireland rather than Lord of Ireland – claiming greater loyalty and power than he had done before

Degree of threat

Moderate. The battle lines were especially sharply drawn, but Thomas’s strategy was pants and he offered only a limited direct threat to major centres of Tudor power.


For hundreds of years, Ireland had been ruled by the “Anglo-Irish” – descendants of English invaders of the C12th who had intermarried with Gaelic clans and become “more Irish than the Irish.” The most powerful of these families in the Tudor period were the Fitzgeralds. They were Earls of Kildare, and had their power base in Ulster.

However, Thomas Cromwell’s policies seemed to threaten their position.

Cromwell sought to impose uniformity of practice and control of royal patronage that previously the Kildares had been able to control, guaranteeing their supremacy in Ireland. In 1534 Earl of Kildare was replaced as Deputy by a rival, Lord Skeffintgon. Cromwell intended this more as a way of ensuring no one Irish lord became too powerful rather than as a direct attack on the Kildares – but that was how it was taken.

Kildare resigned from the Privy Council and denounced Tudor rule. In previous years these would have been taken as they were intended – political manoeuvres designed eventually to reach a compromise. In the more dangerous atmosphere of the 1530 – with the Reformation in full swing – the move was seen as more hostile. Kildare was sent to the Tower of London.

His son, Silken Thomas, then proclaimed a Catholic crusade. This must have been inspired by fear of the reformation, so religious motives were significant in this rebellion

  • Demanded Irish take an oath of loyalty to the Pope and himself, not Henry
  • Hence required a transfer of allegiance from the Tudors to the Kildares
  • ‘Such an ideological component had no precedent in medieval Ireland’s frequent rebellions’ – Anthony Fletcher

He refused a summons to London, raised 1,000 men, and invaded the Palke (English controlled area around Dublin). Thomas had shipped weapons and gunpowder out of Dublin castle while he still controlled it and now returned to lay siege to Dublin.

Although Thomas sought support from the Pope and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, he was seeking support rather than mounting a genuinely religious campaign. The royal response was to send an army of 2,300 – the largest despatched to Ireland in 150 years. As it moved through Ireland, most other local nobles submitted rather than fight.

Thomas, holed up in Maynooth Castle, was promised his life would be spared and decided to offer his surrender – expecting mercy. Instead he was sent to London and executed along with 5 of his uncles and 70 other ringleaders. This unexpected outcome is ironically known as the Pardon of Maynooth.

Reasons for failure

  • Major English response in terms of troops sent and money expended
  • Thomas loses support of clergy by ordering execution of Archbishop of Dublin, who had tried to mediate
  • Thomas allowed himself to be besieged at Maynooth, meaning the relatively small English army could concentrate all its forces on one spot. Later Irish rebels would use guerrilla tactics to much greater effect

Key stats, quotes and views

  • The rebellion cost London £75,000 to suppress – a huge sum
  • The number of executions was high compared to earlier Tudor rebellions, but still far less than the Pilgrimage of Grace two years later or later Irish rebellions
  • The rebellion should be seen as serious because its aims were major – it was “an act of total opposition to what was going on” (Anthony Fletcher), and had Silken Thomas emerged victorious he would have set himself up as ruler of Ireland

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