Essex in Ireland and the Ulster Campaign

Eleanor Hull
Essex in Ireland and the Ulster Campaign

It was at this moment of depression that the Queen, after long hesitation, decided to send over to Ireland the most brilliant and unstable of her courtiers, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, son to the planter of Eastern Ulster. Though Essex was the darling of the English people and had long been the most distinguished man at Court and the Queen’s favourite, he had not proved himself an officer worthy of confidence. His expeditions to Calais and Cadiz had ended in failure, and he had retired from Court in partial disgrace.

When the proposal that he should go to Ireland was made he does not seem to have welcomed it with any warmth. He knew the army was disorganized, and he had probably no wish to risk another failure; it is quite likely that the talk of the courtiers was true and that Essex “went not forth to serve the Queen, but to humour his own revenge.”

Essex had enemies as well as friends; the Court was full of intrigues for place and favour, and he along with the rest intrigued for his own hand. He did his best to prevent the appointment of his rivals in the Queen’s favour, and when he received definite news of his preferment he dashed off a letter to John Harington, who was to accompany him:

“I have beaten Knollys and Mountjoy in the Council, and by G–d, I will beat Tyrone in the field; for nothing worthy of her Majesty’s honour hath yet been achieved.”[1]

A scoffing courtier said that the Earl and Mr Secretary (Cecil) have so good leisure “that they ply the tables in the Presence Chamber, and play as much game as if Ireland were to be recovered at Irish bowls.”

The preparations for Essex’s departure were made on a scale of great magnificence. He was given powers never before entrusted to a Viceroy, with an establishment of 16,000 foot and 1300 horse. Troops were sent over before him, landed direct from the Low Countries. It was altogether the greatest army ever sent into Ireland; and he brought with him the flower of the English gentry in various positions of command. His instructions were explicit. He was to march direct to the North and bend all his strength against Tyrone, who was only to be admitted to mercy on making a simple submission without conditions.

The planting of garrisons at Lough Foyle and Ballyshannon was to be his immediate object. He departed from London amid the plaudits of the populace, but men thought it ominous that before he got past Islington the sky became suddenly overcast, and a thunder storm broke.

After a tempestuous voyage he landed in Dublin on April 15, 1599. On his arrival he was besieged with tidings of risings all over the country. Phelim MacFeagh with his sept of the O’Byrnes was up in Wicklow; in Kildare, James FitzPierce; in Carlow, the Kavanaghs. The O’Mores had resumed power in Meath and Kilkenny; Sir William Nugent and Viscount Baltinglas were assisting the insurgents. In the North only the garrison towns on the borders and Carrickfergus held for the English; the Irish and Scots alike were in arms, nearly 9000 men; Munster was in the throes of a fresh rebellion, and Connacht, after Bingham’s period of chastisement, was seething with discontent. Altogether it was estimated that the total number of the ‘rebel’ forces in the country amounted to 20,600 men, of whom about 2400 were cavalry. Essex reports “that he durst boldly say that the plaister would do no more than cover the wound.”

Induced by advisers on the spot he proceeded to disobey all his instructions. Undoubtedly the orders that he had received on accepting the post were dictated by a right view of the situation. O’Neill was the centre of the whole organization; to him Munster and Leinster looked for direction and leadership. The only sure strategy was to proceed against Ulster without delay while the army was fresh; for a defeat of the Northern forces would have disorganized the whole confederacy. Instead of this, the new Viceroy made a disastrous and ineffective raid into Munster and Leinster. His main object was the reduction of the castles, especially the strong castle of Cahir in Tipperary, held for Desmond by Thomas Butler. He also wished to effect a junction with Sir Thomas Norris, brother of the late general, Sir John Norris, who was President of Munster and was vainly endeavouring to stem the rising tide of rebellion which had been stirred up by the efforts of Owny O’More, who had been preaching with great success a war upon the English, and especially upon the newly established settlers in the south of Ireland.

Sharp fighting was going on all over the country, and Norris himself had been severely wounded in the head. Essex set out from Dublin at the head of 7000 foot and 900 horse. He was obliged to pass through Owny O’More’s country, and he found that able and rebellious chief posted with 500 men on the sides of a narrow pass near Maryborough to prevent his passage. Allowing part of the army of Essex to pass in safety, Owny’s men fell like an avalanche upon his rear, and cut them to pieces. The scattered plumes from the helmets of Essex’s gallant followers so strewed the ground after they had pushed their way through that the place became known as “the Pass of the Plumes.”

Owny retired with the spoils to his fastness, and Essex, fuming with rage, wrote to the Council that on his return he intended to take revenge on the rogues who had the killing “of our base, cowardly, and ill-guided clowns.” But as he progressed into Munster Essex began to find that fighting a country in arms was not a royal progress; though he does not doubt that the kingdom will be reduced, he has to admit that it will ask, besides cost, a great deal of care, industry, and time.[2]

The methods of Irish warfare embarrassed the new recruits; the Irish hung round the troops and never gave them an hour’s rest. Essex’s trust lay in sudden charges of his cavalry, which the Irish were unable to resist, but it tried him to send his picked men and young gallants into this kind of warfare. The only result of this expedition was the capture of Cahir Castle after a siege of ten days, and the strengthening of the garrison at Askeaton.

By the end of July Essex had returned to Dublin, “his soldiers being weary, sick and incredibly diminished in number.” In a letter to Southampton he complains that “without an enemy the disease of the country consumes our armies,” and he is obliged, before entering on the main object of his coming to Ireland, the war against Tyrone, to appeal for a fresh body of troops to be sent over.

The Queen’s wrath at Essex’s ill-success, which was sedulously used by the Earl’s enemies in London to prejudice his position at Court, was not likely to have been mollified by the news of two other disasters in Ireland which reached her almost at the same time. One was Sir Henry Harington’s defeat by the clans of Wicklow on May 29. He had with him 500 foot and 60 horse, but was routed and cut to pieces through the cowardice of his troops, general panic having overtaken the whole body.

Essex, on his return, decided to make an example of the survivors so that others might know “that the justice of a Marshal’s court is no less terrible than the fury of all the rebels.” The whole regiment was condemned to die, and one in ten was actually executed.

The second disaster was the destruction of Sir Conyers Clifford’s fine army on the Curlew Mountains in Connacht. O’Conor Sligo, who stood by the Government, and seems also to have been a personal friend to Essex, had for a considerable time been besieged by O’Donnell in the strong castle of Colooney, an apparently impregnable stronghold surrounded by a river and a wood, near Ballysadare in Sligo. It was the only fort in that country now holding for the English interest. Essex, hearing that O’Conor Sligo was closely hemmed in, and unable to get supplies, sent for Sir Conyers Clifford, who had replaced Bingham as Governor of Connacht, and consulted with him what could be done to relieve the fort.

It was decided to send round Theobald Burke “of the ships” by sea from Galway to Sligo provided with supplies of food, and implements to erect a strong border fortress on the Ulster side, while Clifford himself was instructed to proceed from Athlone across the Curlew Mountains with all the troops he could collect, supported by some fresh men sent back with him by Essex.

There was no difficulty in raising a large force. Part of the family of the Clanricardes, Theobald Dillon, the O’Conor Don, some of the O’Flahertys, and MacSweeney “of the Territories,” with their bands, Irish and English, flocked to the Governor’s standard. They mustered twenty-eight standards, and marched away from Roscommon to Boyle, where they encamped in good order, certain that they were more than a match for any forces that O’Donnell could bring against them. The troop of horse named after the Earl of Southampton,[3] Shakespeare’s friend and patron, accompanied them.

O’Donnell, on hearing of the advance, left part of his troops under MacSweeney Fanad to invest Sligo, and ordered O’Boyle to continue the siege of Colooney Castle with two hundred men. He himself with O’Rorke and O’Doherty went forward and posted the troops at the head of the two passes across the mountains, one of which Clifford was bound to take. He barricaded the path with wood, and, as it was the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption, his soldiers confessed, and heard Mass early in the morning. They were about to sit down to breakfast when word was brought in that the standards of Clifford’s army were visible toward the south, and that they were manœuvring to find a way across the pass. This was unexpected, for the night had been so wet and foul that it was not thought that Clifford would venture to cross the boggy mountain; nevertheless, he had succeeded in reaching the open top of the pass and, dragging up his guns, had brought them into action, when, on a sudden, about eleven o’clock, the sun came out in splendour.

A sharp encounter followed. The Irish were on the point of breaking when the whole situation was changed by the appearance of O’Rorke, who, with his men, had been lying in his camp among the woods and bogs on the east of the mountain waiting for O’Donnell’s signal to take part in the battle.

Clifford’s men, wearied by their long march and toil in dragging up the guns, turned and broke. Clifford fell, mortally wounded, and his captain, Henry Ratcliffe, perished with him. The Irish pursued the flying soldiers as far as Boyle, slaying all they met; and only the men of the countryside, who knew the paths, made their way back to their homes.[4]

Sir Conyers was as much bewailed by the Irish of Connacht as by his own compatriots; after their treatment by Bingham it was a new experience to be under a governor “who never told them a lie and was a bestower of treasures and wealth among them.”< O’Conor Sligo was incredulous when tidings reached him of his death, and there was nothing left for him but to make a full submission to O’Donnell. The latter restored him to all his lands, and thus prudently made him his friend for life.

It was a depressed Council that met round the table of Dublin Castle when the news of the defeat of the Curlews was reported. The army was reduced by the loss of a large part of its old companies and several of its most experienced captains, while the remaining regiments were secretly running away into England, revolting to the rebels, or feigning themselves sick. They would do anything rather than face the dreaded Tyrone in his own fastnesses. Essex himself speaks of the difficulty of a war “where the rebel hath been ever victorious,” and his most competent generals advised that it was a course full of danger to begin a campaign in the North near the close of the summer season.

Moreover, Essex was well aware that during his absence his position in the Queen’s favour was being steadily undermined; and his fears were not allayed by a letter received from the Queen on the eve of his departure for the North. Elizabeth was a past master in the art of wounding with the pen, and she did not spare her Lieutenant. “How often,” she wrote, “had Essex not told her that those who preceded him in Ireland had no judgment to end the war?” Yet he had failed as no other had failed, either to keep his promises or to obey her distinct commands.

“You had your asking, you had choice of times, you had power and authority more ample than ever any had, or ever shall have; it may well be judged with how little contentment we seek this and other errors, but how should that be hid which is so palpable?”

In face of this letter, there was plainly only one course to take; and on August 28 the Lord-Lieutenant left Dublin for the North, his army being replenished by the two thousand fresh troops just arrived from England. He heard that Tyrone was already on the move “and hath sent for all that he can make in the world, bragging that he will do wonders.”

About September 4 they came within sight of Tyrone’s army on the distant hills; and on the next day Tyrone’s trusted counsellor, O’Hagan, came into the camp to demand a parley. Essex refused, saying that if Tyrone would speak with him he would find him at the head of his troops.

The next day Essex marshalled his army on the top of a hill opposite Tyrone’s forces, and some slight skirmishing occurred, but Tyrone again sent a message saying that he would not fight, but desired an interview with the Viceroy. Next morning the army dislodged and marched towards Drumconragh, but before they had gone a mile O’Hagan again met them, and in the presence of the Earl of Southampton, Sir Wareham St Leger, and others declared that Tyrone sought her Majesty’s mercy, and he proposed a meeting at the ford of Ballaclinth, on the river Lurgan, which lay right in the way that his lordship was taking.

Essex sent on two gentlemen to see the ford,[5] but they found the water so far out that they told Tyrone, who was there before them, that it was no fit place for the interview. He exclaimed, “Then I shall despair ever to speak with him”; but, knowing the fords, he found a spot higher up, where, plunging into the water, he stood with the stream up to his horse’s belly, that he might be heard by the Lord-Lieutenant, who stopped his horse on the farther bank, where he stood alone, his troop having withdrawn to the hill behind the ford. For half an hour they talked, Tyrone “saluting his lordship with a great deal of reverence” and holding his hat in his hand.

Later a second and more formal meeting was held, also at the ford, between six of Tyrone’s chief supporters and six from the English side, and an informal truce of six weeks was arranged, to be continued for successive periods of six weeks till May Day, and only to be broken by fourteen days’ warning on either side. Among those present at this parley was Sir Henry Wotton, the poet, who was afterward ambassador to the republic of Venice and Provost of Eton. He was acting as Essex’s secretary, and must have been an interested spectator of the picturesque scene.

Essex having given his word and Tyrone his oath, the Irish chief retired into his own country, while Essex “went to take physic at Drogheda,” before he had to meet his sovereign’s wrath at what she looked upon as a humiliating end to the greatest expedition ever sent into Ireland.

When Essex a few months later stood his trial for his life his accusers made it one strong point for his condemnation that he had conversed for some space of time alone with the arch-enemy, the “traitor Tyrone.”