Sir Charles Coote and the 1641 Rebellion in Ireland

SLAIN A. D. 1642.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

SIR CHARLES COOTE was descended from a French family of the same name; his ancestor, Sir John Coote, settled in Devonshire. The brave leader whom we have here to notice, came into Ireland at an early age. He served under Mountjoy, in the war against Hugh, earl of Tyrone, and was present at the siege of Kinsale, when he is said by Lodge to have commanded a company: the latter fact we doubt, as his name does not occur among the lists of captains, which Moryson gives; yet it seems to derive some confirmation from the fact of his having been appointed provost marshal of Connaught, by king James, in consideration of his services to queen Elizabeth. The appointment we should observe was but reversionary, and to take effect on the death of captain Waynman, who held the office at the time.

We must pass lightly over the incidents of a long period of Coote's life, which have no sufficient interest for detail. In 1613 he was made receiver of the king's composition-money in Connaught; 1616 he received the honour of knighthood, and the next year had a grant of a Saturday market and two fairs, on the festivals of St James and St Martin, at Fuerty near the town of Roscommon. In 1620 he was vice-president of Connaught; and was sworn of the privy council. In 1621 he was created a baronet of Ireland.[1] In addition it maybe generally stated, that he had received large grants in different counties, and was much employed in various magisterial offices, of which the enumeration and the dates are to be found in all the peerage lists.

He was a colonel of foot in 1640. At the breaking out of the rebellion in 1641, he was one of the earliest and most considerable sufferers. His linen works in Montrath were pillaged, and the entire of his property in that town was destroyed in December 1641. In the Queen's County, in Cavan, in Leitrim, and Sligo, his property every where met the same treatment, to the amount of many thousand pounds; and his estates were so injured as to remain nearly unprofitable till the end of the rebellion.

In 1641 he obtained a commission to raise a thousand men, which he speedily effected. It was during the investment of Drogheda, by a rebel army under Sir Phelim O'Neile, (as related in his life) that the lords-justices, alarmed by the near approach of rebellion in the border county of Wicklow, were compelled to cast aside their inefficiency for a moment; they detached Coote with a small party to the relief of the castle of Wicklow. Coote was no unwilling instrument: he was a man of that rough, stern, and inflammable temper which is easily wrought to fierce and extreme courses by the impatience of resentment. Had he met with no personal injuries, his fiery temper would have been sufficiently excited by his intolerance of disloyalty; but as always must happen, his own wrongs lent animosity to the natural indignation of the stern partisan, and his vindictive feelings were disguised under the pretext of a general cause, and the name of just retribution; for by this time the fiendlike atrocities of Sir Phelim O'Neile had excited general terror and pity. With his own implacable resentment burning in his heart, Sir Charles marched to avenge the victims of O'Neile's cruelty, and to strike terror into the rising spirit of insurrection.

The rebels had some days before surprised Cary's fort, Arklow and Chichester forts—had besieged the houses of all the English gentry in the surrounding country, and had committed great slaughter upon the inhabitants—and were actually on their march to Dublin. At the approach of Coote, they retired and scattered among the Wicklow mountains. He pursued his march to Wicklow, the rebels possessed the town and had invested the castle, which was in a condition of extreme distress. They did not wait to be attacked, but retired on the appearance of the English soldiers. Coote entered the town and caused numerous persons to be seized and executed as rebels; his party also had caught the angry spirit of their leader, and numerous acts of violence occurred.

Historians of every party have agreed in their representations of this transaction, and it has left a stain on the memory of Coote. This we cannot pretend to efface; we are not inclined to make any concession to the exaggerations of the party historians on either side, but we equally revolt from the affectation of candour which compromises the truth, for the sake of preserving the appearance of fairness. Coote has been the scape-goat of impartiality. Leland, who is in general truth itself, in his historic details, and more free from bias than any historian of Ireland, mentions his conduct in terms of denunciation—which we should not advert to did they not involve some injustice. The following is Leland's statement: "this man was employed by the chief governors to drive some of the insurgents of Leinster from the castle of Wicklow which they had invested; he executed his commission, repelled the Irish to their mountains, and in revenge of their depredations committed such unprovoked, such ruthless, and indiscriminate carnage in the town, as rivalled the utmost extravagance of the northerns. This wanton cruelty, instead of terrifying, served to exasperate the rebels, and to provoke them to severe retaliation."

We perfectly agree with those who consider that no personal resentments, or no crimes committed by other rebels elsewhere, can be called a justification of the cruelties inflicted upon the people of Wicklow, if it be assumed that they were not involved in the offence. And even if they were, we must admit that the conduct of Coote was violent, sanguinary, and beyond the limits of justice and discretion; it was unquestionably vindictive, perhaps also (for we have not seen any minute detail) brutal and savage. But we are bound to repel the affirmation that it was unprovoked, and the assumption that the sufferers were unoffending persons executed to gratify private revenge. We cannot suffer even Sir Charles Coote to be painted in gratuitous blackness, to balance Sir Phelim O'Neile in the scale of candour. Wicklow town was at the time a nest of rebellion, and the retreat of every discontented spirit in Leinster. The oppression and rapine of the iniquitous castle-party, the agents and dependents of the lords-justices, had filled the strong tribes of the Byrnes, the Kavanaghs, the Tooles, and all who lived in their circle with well-grounded hostility; and few at the time in the town of Wicklow were free from liability to suspicion. To what extent Coote received informations, true or false, on which he acted in the heat of the moment, cannot be ascertained; that such must have been numerous and grounded on the facts is not to be doubted. It was Coote's notion that the exigency of the crisis (for such it then appeared) demanded the display of severe and exemplary justice; we differ from this opinion, but see no reason to call it worse than error. He therefore resolved on a stern duty, which would, under the circumstances, have been revolting to a humane spirit; but which harmonized well with the "saeva indignatio" of Coote. That he "committed such unprovoked, such ruthless, and indiscriminate carnage in the town as rivalled the utmost extravagance of the Northerns" is a statement that yet requires to be proved: we deny the charge.

The defeat of the English at Julianstown bridge carried consternation to the government and inhabitants of Dublin. Coote was recalled from Wicklow to defend the metropolis; he obeyed the order. He had approached with his party within a few miles of Dublin, when his march was intercepted by Luke Toole, with a force generally supposed to amount to a thousand men. Coote's men amounted at most to four hundred, but the rebels were routed so quickly and with such slaughter that it is said, this incident made Coote an object of terror during the remainder of his life. He then resumed his march and was made governor of Dublin. He endeavoured to secure the city, a task attended with no small embarrassment, as the fortifications were in a state of utter dilapidation; the city wall had fallen into ruin, and having been built four hundred years before, was ill adapted to the altered state of military resources.

While thus engaged, Coote was frequently called out into the surrounding districts, to repel incursions or repress manifestations of insurrection. On these occasions he was uniformly effective, but acted, there is reason to believe, with the fierce and thorough-working decision of his character. On the 15th of December he was called out by the report that three hundred armed men had plundered a vessel from England at Clontarf, and deposited their plunder in the house of Mr King, where they took up their quarters. For some time before, there had been a considerable disposition to insurrectionary movement along the whole coast, from Clontarf to the county of Meath. Plunder and piracy had become frequent under the relaxation of local jurisdiction, consequent upon the general terror; and the fears of the government at last awakened them to a sense of the necessity of guarding against so near a danger. Several of the gentry also of these districts had committed themselves by acts of no doubtful character; and it was with their known sanction that strong parties of armed men were collected in Clontarf, Santry, Swords, Rathcoole, &c.: these parties committed numerous acts of violence and overawed the peaceful, while they gave encouragement to the turbulent. The party here particularized was evidently under the sanction of Mr King, a gentleman of the popular party, in whose house they stored their plunder; they were in strict combination with the people of Clontarf, who had actually formed a part of their strength and joined them with their fishing-boats. We mention these facts because the summary statement that Sir Charles Coote expelled them from Clontarf, by burning both Mr King's house and the village, must otherwise place the act in a fallacious point of view. Coote acted in this as on every occasion with the sweeping severity of his harsh character; but the unpopularity of his character, and of the lords-justices to whom he was as an arm of defence, seems to have diverted the eye of history from the obvious fact, that in this, as upon many other occasions, he did no more than the emergency of the occasion called for.

It was but a few days after that he was compelled to march to the relief of Swords, which was occupied by 1400 men. They barricaded all the entrances. Coote forced these passages, and routed them with a slaughter of 200 men.

The known violence of Coote, while it made him the instrument of the government in many questionable acts and many acts of decided injustice, also exposed him to much calumny, the certain reward of unpopularity. Among other things, a report was spread, that he had at the council board expressed his opinion for a general massacre of the Roman catholics; this report was alleged as an excuse by the lords of that communion for refusing to trust themselves into the hands of the Irish government.[2] These noblemen had unquestionably real grounds for their distrust of the lords-justices, and thought it necessary to find some pretext for the prudent refusal. But they could not seriously have entertained a motion so revolting. The pretext, though perhaps too frivolous for the persons who used it, was, nevertheless, highly adapted for the further purpose of working upon the fear and anger of the multitude; who can be ignorant, that however self-interest and vicious passions may warp the hearts and understandings of the upper ranks, there is too much knowledge of right and wrong among them to permit of so open an outrage to humanity, among persons pretending to the dignity of the lords-justices and council. It is very likely that Coote, who was a rude soldier and an irritable man, used language which, used by a person of more sedateness of temper, would have borne a harsh construction; but we see no reason to admit that he either contemplated the crime described, or that any one present could have reasonably so reported his language. The lords-justices in reply to the letter of the lords of the pale, assured them that they never "did hear Sir Charles or any other, utter at the council board or elsewhere, any speeches tending to a purpose or resolution, to execute on those of their profession, or any other, a general massacre; nor was it ever in their thoughts to dishonour his Majesty or the state by so odious, impious, and detestable a thing. Giving them assurance of their safety if they would repair thither, the 17th of that month."[3]

With such a reputation for violence and cruelty, it was unfortunate for Sir Charles Coote and for the country, that as military governor of the city, it devolved to him to try the prisoners then under the charge of rebellion in Dublin. He was an unfit instrument, and had neither the prudence nor temper for so delicate an occasion. To make the matter worse, it remains at best doubtful, whether the occasion demanded the substitution of martial law for the ordinary jurisdiction of the criminal courts. The ground assigned was the great accumulation of prisoners, and the impossibility of obtaining juries from the counties where the crimes were alleged to have been committed. Carte remarks on this, that they had juries from Meath, Wicklow, and Kildare, as well as from Dublin; and according to his statement of their conduct, we think it may be doubted whether the parties tried before them gained much by the preservation of form; for Meath, Wicklow, and Dublin, "within two days afterwards, bills of high treason were found against all the lords and prime gentlemen, as also against three hundred persons of quality and estate in the county of Kildare: among which were the old countess of Kildare, Sir Nicholas White, his son, captain White, who had never joined the rebels—so much expedition was used in this affair."[4] To preserve the escheats of property, which had always a due share of consideration with the government, the persons of property were exempted from martial law, and it was easy to find juries to the extent required. The poor were ordered to be tried by the more expeditious and summary method. But we must here remark, that the injustice is not the real ground of objection to this course. The main part of the prisoners had been taken in arms, and at any time would have been amenable to martial law: but the act was cruel and imprudent, for the wholesale and summary conviction of a multitude of deluded peasants could answer no end. If it was not vindictive, which we cannot believe, it is chiefly to be censured as a shallow mistake: when the cruelty of punishment is more revolting than its justice is apparent, the indignation and sympathy of the multitude takes the place of submission and fear. The instrumentality of one so feared and so unpopular as Coote, cast an added shade of darkness upon this measure.

Among the persons thus tried were several Roman catholic priests; and from this the exasperation of the populace was the more to be apprehended. These gentlemen were very generally accused of exciting the people to rebellion: how far such an accusation could be rigidly maintained, we cannot decide, but it is easy to feel the unhappy embarrassment under which such cases would be likely to present themselves to the feelings of a just and humane jury; for in very many such instances, where the priest has been the leader, his entire conduct has been directed to soften the horrors of rebellion, and to save its victims. The history of "ninety-eight" supplies examples enough. But father O'Higgins, the victim of 1641, was a "quiet, inoffensive and pious man, much respected by those who knew him, who officiated at Naas, and in the neighbourhood. He had distinguished himself in saving the English in those parts from slaughter and plunder, and had relieved several that had been stripped and robbed. The earl of Ormonde found him at Naas, took him under his protection, (he never having been concerned in any act of rebellion, nor guilty of any crime, nor liable to any objection, but the matter of his religion,) and brought him along with him to Dublin."[5]

Some time after, while lord Ormonde was absent from town, the proceedings here described commenced, and the unfortunate O'Higgins was seized, condemned, and executed. This shameful act was near drawing on Coote the punishment which his inconsiderate violence deserved. The earl of Ormonde, who was lieutenant-general of the kingdom, was indignant when he heard of the fate of his protege, and immediately insisted on the trial of Coote, as an offender against the laws of the land. The lords-justices were unwilling to give up the man on whose military talent and bravery they chiefly rested their trust, and who, they were conscious, was but their instrument in a station of the duties of which he was wholly ignorant. The earl of Ormonde expostulated with them in vain, and even threatened to throw up his office: they apologized, and temporized, and invented lame excuses, until it was plain that they were not to be persuaded by threats or entreaties: and Coote escaped. But the act which was thus made additionally notorious, produced a pernicious effect among the Roman catholic aristocracy and gentry, whose fears it appeared strongly to confirm.[6]

The next affair of any importance in which Coote is found engaged, occurred on the 3d February, when he accompanied the earl of Ormonde to Kilsalaghan, within seven miles of Dublin, against a strong army of rebels whom they drove from their entrenchments and routed completely: the particulars belong to our memoir of the earl of Ormonde.

In the beginning of March the earl of Ormonde left Dublin, to march against the rebels in the county of Kildare. During his march, detachments were sent out on various services, under the chief officers of his army. On the 10th April, Coote was sent with six troops of horse to the relief of Birr. On the way they came to a causeway which the rebels had broken up and fortified with a trench, which they occupied. The post was formidable, and the passage appeared quite impracticable to persons of ordinary nerve: Coote here nobly maintained his known character for decision and unflinching intrepidity, alighting from his horse, he selected forty of his troopers, with whom he proceeded on foot against the rebels. The smallness of his party threw them in some degree off their guard: they scorned to take the full advantages of their wooded and entrenched position against forty dismounted troops: but these troopers were soldiers, led by an officer of first rate proof and the coolest hardihood, whose presence doubled every man's strength. Without the loss of a single man, Coote and his brave party slew the captain of the rebels, with forty of his men: went on and relieved Birr, Borris, and Knocknamease, and after forty-eight hours' incessant riding and fighting, returned to the camp. "This," writes Cox, "was the prodigious passage through Montrath woods, which is indeed wonderful in many respects." From this adventure, the title of earl of Montrath was conferred afterwards on his son.

He was also soon after distinguished at the battle of Kilrush, between the forces under the earl of Ormonde, and the rebels commanded by the lord Mountgarret. There Coote led the foot, and had no small share in the signal victory of that day. We shall hereafter relate it at length.

Some time after, he joined lord Lisle, to relieve the castle of Geashill, where the lady Letitia Offaley had for some time been besieged by the rebels. This noble lady, a Geraldine, and grand-daughter of the earl of Kildare, though in her 64th year, shut her gates against the rebels, and, with the bravery of her race, prepared to defend her castle. She was summoned to surrender, with a threat from the rebels that, upon her refusal, they would burn the town, and massacre man, woman, and child. To this dastardly menace, the heroic lady replied, that she had always lived among them as a good neighbour and a loyal subject: that she would die innocently as she had lived, and if necessary, would endeavour to defend her town. Being however influenced by the humanity natural to her sex and rank, she remained on the defensive, and the rebels who were still collecting, might in the end have added another illustrious victim to the murders of this fatal year, when happily the party of lord Lisle and Coote came up, and relieved her from her peril.

The next place to be relieved was Philipstown. On this occasion a characteristic story is told of Coote. Having to march for that purpose through a difficult and dangerous country, the general called a council. The difficulties being strongly pressed, Coote, who was not of a temper to admit of difficulties, observed, that "if they made haste, they might easily pass the defiles and causeways before the enemy could get together to oppose them." This was admitted, but the question next proposed was, "how they should get back?" "I protest,'' answered Coote, "I never thought of that in my life; I always have considered how to do my business, and when that was done, I got home again as well as I could, and hitherto I have not missed of forcing my way."

The advice was taken, and the result thoroughly successful; but the time had come when Coote was himself to be deserted by his usual good fortune. They took Philipstown, and pursued their way to Trim, where a large party of rebels had drawn together. On their approach the rebels retired, and they took possession of the town. Lord Lisle immediately took his departure to Dublin to procure sufficient men to leave a garrison in the town. Night drew on, and all seemed still until midnight, when the rebels, to the number of three thousand, returned to attack the wearied party of troopers, who little expected such an interruption to their well-earned rest. Coote was too watchful to be caught asleep. On receiving the alarm from his sentinel, he collected seventeen troopers, and rushed out to take possession of the gate. Thus he was enabled to secure a retreat for his party, who quickly came up. They then issued from the gate, and charging the disorderly crowd, at once put them to flight in every direction. But a shot either from the flying crowd, or from the town, or as some historians appear to conjecture, from his own party, killed Sir Charles Coote. This event occurred 7th May, 1642. The next day his body was sent to Dublin, under a strong guard.

In continuing the account of the phases of this first stage of the great rebellion, we pass to introduce, in a notice of a descendant of one of the most famous hero families of the conquest, its aspects in the distant province of Connaught. (see Miles Bourke, Viscount Mayo)

[1] Lodge.

[2] Letter signed Fingal, Gormanstown, Slane, Dunsany, Netherville, Oliver, Louth, Trimleston.

[3] Borlase.

[4] Carte, I. 278, note

[5] Carte.

[6] It is here but just to state, that there were other causes likely to produce the same effect. The excesses of the rebels had by this time amounted to a frightful sum. The list of murders through the country was not less than 154,000 between the 23d October, 1642, and March, 1643. — Dr Maxwell's Examination.