Poynings' Law: Wikis


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Poynings' Law[1] (10 Hen.7 c.22) is an Act of the Parliament of Ireland. It was initiated by Sir Edward Poynings in the Irish Parliament at Drogheda in 1494. In his position as Viceroy to Ireland and Lord-Deputy, as appointed by King Henry VII of England, Poynings called together an assembly of the parliament. Coming in the aftermath of the divisive Wars of the Roses, Poynings' intention was to make Ireland once again obedient to the English monarchy.

Assembling the Parliament on 1 December 1494, he declared that the Parliament of Ireland was thereafter to be placed under the authority of the Parliament of England.

This marked the beginning of direct Tudor rule in Ireland, although Henry VII was still forced to rely on Old Irish nobles such as the Earl of Kildare (despite his support for Lambert Simnel) as his deputies in Ireland through the intervening years.

Poynings' Law was a major rallying point for groups seeking self government for Ireland, particularly the Confederate Catholics in the 1640s. It was also a major grievance for Henry Grattan's Patriot Party in the late 18th century, who consistently sought a repeal of Poynings' Law. The Act remained in place until the Constitution of 1782 gave the Irish parliament legislative independence.

Function and operation

The working of Poynings’ Law took place in several steps. The first step was for the lieutenant governor and the Irish council (or Irish executive) to decide that a parliament was needed, usually for the purpose of raising funds. At this point the council and lieutenant would write drafts of legislation to be proposed to the king and his council. After this had been completed, the lieutenant and council, according to the act, were required to certify the request for parliament “under the great seal of that land [Ireland],” ("Poynings' Law" 1494, 83) and then forward it to England for approval. Once the request arrived in England, it was reviewed by the King and his council, and a formal licence, approving the request for parliament and the draft bills were returned to Ireland (Quinn 1941, 245). Once the licence was received in Ireland, the governor would summon parliament, and the bills passed. It is important to note that “government was not in the modern sense representative, and there was no sustained opposition. Parliament’s consent was necessary for some purposes, and it frequently offered advice, but the decisions were made by the English and Irish councils” (Ellis 1985, 78). This is an important fact to consider when examining exactly who the law was aimed to suppress. As the point above demonstrates, parliament was virtually a rubber stamp, and it was the Irish executive who made the actual decisions in proposing policy.

The two important aspects of the procedure presented by Poynings’ Law are transmission and certification. Both of these requirements placed limits on various parties within the law making process in Ireland. The combination of these processes created a situation where bills could be sent, along with the request for parliament, and the king could amend and remove such bills as he wished, however he could not add new bills himself. This is a result of the certification process which requires the submission to be made by the Irish council “under the great seal of that land [Ireland]” ("Poynings' Law" 1494, 83). The original intention of the certification process was to remove the capacity of initiating legislation from the parliament, and place it with the Irish council and governor (Bradshaw 1979, 150). But as a result of the way it was framed in the act, it also removed that capacity from the English parliament and administration as well because legislation could only be submitted for approval by the Irish executive.

Furthermore, the two processes made it impossible for the Irish to add more bills or amendments to a request, after the initial licence request had been granted (Quinn 1941, 246). This meant that any additional bills or amendments that they wished to pass in parliament would have to be re-sent along with an entirely new request for parliament. Clearly this created severe inefficiencies in the legislative process, and thus gave the executive in Ireland as well as the crown an interest in relaxing procedure. As early as 1496 “the rigid procedure laid down by Poynings’ Law was not being adhered to” (Quinn 1941, 250) and additional bills were commonly sent to England after the original request, and were returned to Ireland before the meeting of a new parliament. The example from 1496 was the separate request for parliamentary licence and sending of bills in the reappointment of the earl of Kildare. At this time, because the rigid procedure of Poynings’ Law was not in the interest of any of the parties involved, especially the crown and Irish executive, Quinn argues that “no hesitation was felt about transmitting additional bills” after the licence had been granted (Quinn 1941, 247).

In the 1692 parliament an important development in the Poynings' Law procedure took place as some members of the Irish House of Commons sought to establish for themselves a more central role in the process of drafting legislature. On 27 October 1692, the House of Commons passed two notable resolutions. The first, 'that it was, and is, the undoubted right of the commons… to prepare and resolve the ways and means of raising money’ and the second, ‘that it was, and is, the sole and undoubted right of the commons to prepare heads of bills for raising money' (McGrath 2000, 85). Opposition to the executive was then expressed as the Commons used its veto power under Poynings’ Law to reject ‘virtually two thirds of the meticulously prepared government bills’(Bartlett & Hayton 1979, 21). Political deadlock ensued and parliament was prorogued. Although judicial opinion in both Ireland and England served to vindicate the position of the Lord Lieutenant and the English Government in the matter, it became clear that a compromise solution must be reached before parliament could be called again. From mid-1694 negotiations to this end began to bear fruit. The Irish parliament would pass one government money bill relating to excise at the beginning of the session in recognition of the royal prerogative. The parliament would now appoint a committee to decide upon the ‘ways and means’(McGrath 2000, 96) of raising supply and draw up the ‘heads of bills’ of any related legislation. Government support of penal legislation against Catholics also helped placate the claims of the ‘sole right’ advocates. The compromise solution was put into effect in the 1695 parliament and all fourteen government bills presented in the first session were passed by both houses. Now the Irish House of Commons had major input into the substance, or ‘heads’, of supply bills that would then be transmitted to the English Privy Council for approval, amendment or rejection under the Poynings’ Law procedure. This set the precedent for the parliaments of the eighteenth century.


  • Bradshaw, Brendan. The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • Bartlett, Thomas, and Hayton, David (Editors). Penal Era and Golden Age. Antrim, 1979.
  • Ellis, Steven G. Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures 1470–1603. New York: Longman Group Limited, 1985.
  • “Poynings’ Law” in Irish Historical Documents, 1172–1922. Ed. E. Curtis and R.B. McDowell. London: Methuen & Company Limited, 1968. 83.
  • McGrath, Charles Ivar. The Making of the Eighteenth Century Irish Constitution. Dublin, 2000.
  • Quinn, D.B. “The early interpretation of Poynings’ Law, 1494–1534”, Irish Historical Studies 2:7 (1941): 241-254.
  • Mark Pack. Charles James Fox, the Repeal of Poynings Law, and the Act of Union: 1782-1801, Journal of Liberal History 33 (Winter 2001-02) http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/uploads/33-Winter%25202001-02.pdf
  1. ^ This short title was conferred by the Short Titles Act (Northern Ireland) 1951 (c.1)

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