During Edmund Spenser’s life there was much political upheaval in Ireland while the English forces under Queen Elizabeth I fought for dominance throughout this future Commonwealth country (Ireland). Spenser was a participant in town wars; he fought in The Second Desmond Uprising in 1580 and was forced to flee Ireland during The Nine Year’s War. Spenser petitioned the queen, in his work A View of the Present State of Ireland for the destruction of the Irish language and customs in order to pacify the country. This is referred to as “the scorched earth policy” (McGurk 5). In an ironic twist the application of this policy would be used by the Irish forces to burn Spenser’s home at Kilcolman Castle. Queen Elizabeth I was central to handling the warfare and politics in Ireland as she supported a policy of appeasement in the territory. Queen Elizabeth I was also prominent in the rapid rise of Protestantism in England, which later helped form the basis for the Church of England. Each of these historical characters and events are significant to the time of Edmund Spenser who lived as a Poet Laureate, soldier, husband, and landowner from 1552-1599.
The Second Desmond Rebellion started in 1579 and caused the death of 30,000 Irish peasants, soldiers, and landowners. A scorched earth policy of burning homes and crops, recommended by Spenser and started by Irish feudal lords James and Gerald Fitzgerald, left the Irish countryside devoid of life. The guerilla tactics the Earls often used against their own people forced peasants to choose to support the Fitzgeralds against the English, or face starvation. The Second Desmond Rebellion was initially begun by the Fitzgeralds to quell the increasing English influence in the presidencies of Munster and Connaught. James also attempted to counter the reduction of Irish owned lands and properties, which were taken under Queen Elizabeth’s direction according to a system of colonization and plantation. Seen as both a “heroic and tragic character,” James led his forces to defeat against the superior English military tactician Lord Deputy Sir Perrot in an “unco-ordinated warfare of spoilation and incendiarism” (McGurk 1-3). The Second Desmond Rebellion led to a quick defeat for the Irish feudal lords with Elizabeth allowing James and Gerald to hold their lands temporarily until James was later forced to leave Ireland due to poverty. The Second Desmond Rebellion would in the end lead to the events of The Nine Year’s War. Edmund Spenser would describe Ireland and his experience in the rebellion as “a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast” (Clarkson 136).
In the time of both The Second Desmond Rebellion and The Nine Year’s War, Queen Elizabeth sat on a contested English throne. Born to Anne Boleyn in 1553, Queen Elizabeth would rule England from the age of twenty-five until her death in 1603. A moderate monarch, who helped form the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth spent a year in the Tower of London for treason before she became queen. She dealt with several insurrections to her power in Scotland and Ireland. In order to maintain power as the monarch of England, Elizabeth remained unmarried, while adhering to a defensive foreign policy that would lead to the poor choice of sending military bungler Robert Devereux to deal with Irish rebels (Nine Year’s War). Devereux’s poor military leadership would prolong The Nine Year’s War. A pragmatic and astute politician, Queen Elizabeth ruled England for forty-three conflicted years while fighting forces both internally and abroad.
At war for most of the latter 16th century, Ireland saw one of its bloodiest insurrections in The Nine Year’s War, which started in 1594. Reorganized Irish forces under the unified command of Ulster leader Hugh O’Neill drove the English out of Northern Ireland. The Nine Year’s War caused the death of 100,000 Irish peasants and soldiers, due to famine and disease. Spenser’s scorched earth policy was followed this time by both the English and Irish forces leaving thousands without food or shelter. This policy came back to haunt Spenser in 1598 when his Irish castle was razed by fire, which also led to the death of one of his children.
Spenser’s lifetime was a time of great political upheaval and military conquest which left the Irish destitute and in the midst of famine. Spenser himself proposed the further destruction of Irish customs and language in his writing. Also, during Spenser’s time, Queen Elizabeth I dealt with constant insurrections in the surrounding countryside including Scotland and Ireland. Her policy of appeasement when against Spenser’s advice and led to further wars as The Second Desmond Rebellion caused a temporary defeat for the Irish, who started The Nine Year’s War nine years later. Spenser took an active role in the events of the time when he participated in The Second Desmond Rebellion as a soldier and faced the consequences of an embittered Irish populace, as his castle and land holdings were reduced to ash by the followers of Irish clan chief O’Neill. A series of unsuccessful wars throughout the Irish territory left the few remaining Irish Chieftains without title, land, or power. Spenser described Ireland at the end of both these wars as being “brought to wretchedness” (Desmond Rebellions).
Clarkson, Leslie A., and E. M. Crawford. “Feast and Famine.” Google Books. Google, 2005. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.
“Desmond Rebellions.” N.p., 15 Oct. 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
McGurk, J.J. “The Fall of the Noble House of Desmond.” Ebscohost, Sept. 1979. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.
“Nine Year’s War (Ireland)).” N.p., 12 Sept. 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.