Dowdall, George (1487–1558), archbishop of Armagh, was appointed primate of all Ireland by Henry VIII on 29 April 1543, but was removed from office following his flight to continental Europe in July 1551. He was provided to Armagh by the papacy on 1 March 1553, and was re-instituted by Mary Tudor in October 1553. He was also a member of Mary's council of Ireland (1553–8).
Dowdall was born in Drogheda in 1487. His father was Edward Dowdall but nothing more is known of his family or upbringing, though the fact that he was a cousin of Sir Thomas Cusack (qv), later lord chancellor of Ireland, suggests that he came from a well-to-do family of either landowners or merchants. On 8 July 1518 Dowdall, described as a ‘cleric’, was not yet a fully professed member of the community of Crutched Friars at Ardee, County Louth. He was employed as a proctor in a number of suits in Armagh's consistory court, suggesting a training in canon law. By 1522 he was being titled ‘magister’, a title normally reserved for university graduates, although no record of his graduation has been preserved. By June 1524 Dowdall had become the prior of the hospital of the crutched friars at Ardee.
It is not known whether Prior Dowdall joined Primate George Cromer (qv) in the Kildare revolt of 1534–5, though Sir Thomas Cusack described him as ‘such a papistical fellow, being able to corrupt a whole country’. His hospital was dissolved in 1539 but Cromer appointed him as Armagh's official principal. Despite his commitment to catholic doctrines Dowdall acquiesced in Henry's royal supremacy. By 1540 Primate Cromer was terminally ill and Dowdall was increasingly responsible for the administration of the archdiocese. He visited the English royal court in 1542 in the company of Lord Deputy Anthony St Leger (qv), and played some part in promoting the ‘surrender and regrant’ process in Ulster, and was promised that he would be the next archbishop of Armagh.
His career as archbishop of Armagh may be traced by means of ‘Dowdall's register’, the last in the series of volumes of medieval records which survive for Armagh. His administration may be characterised as conservatively reformist rather than ‘pro-reformation’. None of his actions had a distinctly ‘protestant’ character. Indeed, Primate Dowdall resisted the extension of protestantism into his diocese during Edward VI's reign. By the summer of 1551, however, faced with imminent imprisonment, he left Ireland precipitously, declaring that he would ‘never be bishop where the holy Mass was abolished’ (Gwynn, Medieval province, 274). He spent some time with the abbot of Centre, in the Netherlands. He is supposed to have translated a ‘History of Ireland’ from a manuscript belonging to Con Bacach O'Neill (qv) at Armagh in 1551 (Lambeth MS 623). He was reconciled with the Roman catholic church and received a papal provision on 1 March 1553. Mary Tudor restored him as the crown-acknowledged archbishop of Armagh in October 1553. The title of ‘primate of all-Ireland’, granted by Edward VI to Archbishop George Browne (qv) of Dublin in 1551, was restored to Dowdall on 12 March 1554.
Following his return Dowdall convened a major synod to restore and revitalise the catholic religion throughout the ecclesiastical province of Armagh. Several of its decrees re-imposed long-standing obligations. Other decrees on the exaction of burial fees from widows and orphans, and on fees for the administration of sacraments, show that Archbishop Dowdall tried to defuse sources of tension between the laity and their priests. The synod also authorised the appointment of inquisitors to identify and prosecute persons expressing heretical opinions. Heretical books were ordered to be burned.
Within the archdiocese of Armagh the work of restoration was quickly carried out. The decrees issued in the annual diocesan synods in Mary's reign were wholly traditional. Protestantism, clerical negligence or immorality in Armagh inter Anglicos presented no problem in the primate's eyes. His provincial synod of 1556 did no more than to confirm a number of feast days as holy days of obligation, though agricultural labourers were not forbidden to work on those days.
He was a member of a royal commission established in April 1554 to remove all married clergymen in Ireland from office, the counterpart of similar commissions established in England and Wales. Several Henrician and Edwardian bishops were deprived of office as a result, together with some lesser clergymen though it seems that there were very few married priests in Ireland. He was appointed to another royal commission in December 1557 to enquire as to the location of all chalices and ornaments, bells, houses and lands belonging to parish churches and chapels in Co. Louth, with the aim of restoring to the use of the church any such items which had been confiscated. There seems, however, to have been no need in Ireland for the ‘herculean efforts’ required in England to reconstruct the ritual and sacramental framework of traditional religion following Edward's reign.
With the married bishops deprived the way was clear for Cardinal Pole, papal legate to Mary Tudor, to promote two local men, Dr William Walsh (qv) O. Cist., one of his chaplains, and Thomas Leverous, whom he met in Rome, to Meath and Kildare respectively, two important dioceses which encompassed significant portions of the Pale. Pole relied on Walsh and Leverous, as well as Dowdall, to spearhead the Marian restoration in Ireland. Following the revocation of the Henrician and Edwardian ecclesiastical legislation by the English parliament in January 1555 the Marian restoration gathered pace. St. Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, was restored on 25 March 1555, a powerful centre of catholic piety and preaching at the heart of the English lordship in Ireland. Dowdall was appointed as a prebendary of the cathedral, giving him a residence in the capital whenever he had to attend the council of Ireland.
Mary's Irish parliament of 1557 repealed all statutes and proclamations made against the papacy in Ireland since 1534. Statutes for the suppression of heresy were revived but no persecution of protestants ensued. The crown renounced its claim to the first fruits and twentieths, tithes, glebes and advowsons which, as in England, Cardinal Pole hoped to use for a concerted assault on clerical poverty. Pole also hoped to establish diocesan seminaries to enhance the training of priests. Primate Dowdall, doubtless, approved of Pole's strategy. Yet it seems significant that he intended to found a chantry near his archiepiscopal residence at Termonfeckin, rather than a school or seminary, shortly before he died on 15 August 1558. In the event his intention, like Pole's plans, came to nought on Mary's death (17 November 1558).