In the last entry I discussed the role Ireland played as a supply base and a place of refuge for the English nobles fighting in the “Wars of the Roses”. This time, I’ll discuss the (apparent) lone full scale battle fought in Ireland as part of that conflict.
There were three main Earldoms in Ireland that were nominally loyal to the English crown. Kildare, centred around the modern county of the same name with parts of Wicklow included, Ormond, around modern-day Tipperary, Kilkenny, and parts of Offaly and Waterford, and Desmond, centred around modern day Limerick, Cork, Waterford and parts of Kerry.
Both Kildare and Desmond were ruled by different branches of the same family: the Fitzgerald’s, known collectively as the “Geraldines”. While they wouldn’t have seen eye to eye on every matter, they would have found a common enemy in what lay between them.
Ormond was in the control of the Butler family and constantly found itself embroiled in conflict with both its Irish, English, and Anglo-Irish neighbours. The Earldoms could put such fighting aside whenever the need arose – such as during the visits of English Kings – but too frequently could be found raiding one another, snatching castles and forts on borders, or competing viciously for influence and favour in the Pale.
This rivalry continued into the Wars of the Roses, when the Earldoms choose different sides. The Geraldines were York men, while the Butlers favoured Lancaster. This led to many of the Earls, high ranking nobles of the family and their own vassals to depart holdings in Ireland to fight in the armies of the Red and White Rose in England. Why they did this was a matter of desperate politics and self-survival: backing the right horse was a requirement if they wanted the best positions in Ireland and the opportunity to take land of their rival Earldoms. Getting on the right side of a newly crowned King of England was a valuable thing. The fluctuating fortunes of both sides in the War of the Roses was mirrored by their supporters in Ireland.
The departure of such a high volume of English nobles (though, the Desmond’s at least were becoming “Anglo-Irish” more and more) was yet another blow to the position of the crown’s administration in Ireland, which found more and more native Irish taking chunks of their territory, reducing the Pale to, perhaps, its smallest ever size – one source claims that half of Dublin, Meath and a third of Kildare could be considered disputed territory during this time.
The Earl of Ormond – James Butler in the early 1460’s – was in the ascendency, being a respected member of the Lancastrian faction, awarded for his devotion to Henry VI’s cause with the title of Earl of Wiltshire and being appointed Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant. He was present at several battles for the Yorkist side including the first clash at St Albans and Mortimer’s Cross.
However his luck, along with that of the Lancaster’s, came unstuck at the Battle of Towton. Though Richard, Duke of York had been killed just a few months earlier at the battle of Wakefield, his oldest son, Edward, had taken up the Yorkist cause with vigour. On 29 March 1461 a devastating defeat was inflicted on the Lancaster’s at Towton, which saw Henry VI forced to flee the country with most of his supporters killed or captured. That included James Butler, who was beheaded in the aftermath by the victorious Edward – now Edward IV – with his brothers and heirs attainted by the new regime. Stripped of his right to inherit, that left the new Butler patriarch, John Butler, with little options left.
With the victory of York, the Geraldines were in the ascendency in Ireland. James Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond was the major figure of this faction at the time, being so connected to the York family as to be the godfather to George, Duke of Clarence, then younger brother of Edward. This same brother was now the King’s power in Ireland, though it may have been a purely ceremonial office. Desmond had been taking slices off Ormond’s lands for years with his primary route being down the Suir river valley, towards the town of Waterford which fell into the possession of his younger son, Gerald, at some point.
John Butler had been absent the country but now returned in force, determined to take up the Earldom and defend his lands. In this, he was aided by his nephew, Edmund MacRichard Butler, so named due to his native Irish mother (a perfect example of the flagrant disregard for the Statutes of Kilkenny). They landed near Waterford in 1462 with a force of English soldiers and quickly retook Waterford, capturing Gerald in the process. So far, so good, but Waterford was just a small coastal town, albeit one with a history of English invaders capturing it after a landing. Butler would not secure his land and title by staying put.
Desmond, sufficiently perturbed by the loss of Waterford and the capture of his son, sent his own forces southwards, led by his eldest son and heir, Thomas.
The two sides apparently agreed to have a battle to decide the matter, at least according to some sources. Others claim that the ensuring fight took place against the wishes of John Butler, with Edmund recklessly riding out against the forces of Desmond. Considering the state of warfare in Ireland at the time, where pitched battle was rare due to the high stakes, it seems more likely that the latter version is true. After all, Butler had just seen how devastating a single defeat could be at Towton, and could well have been pursuing a more small scale strategy. He would have had supporters within the Ormond territory after all, with plenty of strongholds in the area – such as Kilkenny – still being loyal to him.
Whether it was agreed state of affairs or a battle of encounter, the two sides did come to blows, Desmond sweeping down from the south and Edmund heading north to meet him. The clash took place near the small village of Piltown, in southern Kilkenny, not far from Waterford town.
The fight lasted most of the day, starting near the location of “Sham Castle”, a small tower dating from the Napoleonic period, and continuing towards the local waterway. Considering what we know about the Battle of Piltown, it’s likely it was evenly matched considering its length, at least until one side gained a decisive advantage, typical of the era’s fighting. The details of the battle are not recorded.
What we do know is its result, which was a decisive victory for Thomas Fitzgerald with most of Butler’s force being killed or captured, with some sources claiming that 410 of them were buried that day – fairly large numbers for the time and place. Edmund himself fell into Thomas’ hands, his ransom back to his family taking the form of many valuable old Irish books from his library.
John Butler was caught in the aftermath, his military force having been largely neutralised. The sources say only that he and what remained of his followers could be found in an unnamed “fortified town, which could not be taken” indicating that a siege may have been attempted. Perhaps this was Waterford, though that town had proven itself vulnerable to attack very recently from John Butler himself, so it’s possible that he had fled to a different location within Ormond lands.
Regardless it was open season on other parts of his territory, with the Desmond’s attacking at will, capturing and plundering many of the “great towns” of Ormond, including Kilkenny, in the aftermath of Piltown. The Butler’s were far from finished though – at some point shortly after John’s younger brother Thomas scored a notable naval victory when he captured four Desmond vessels “with all they contained” which apparently did much to restore their fortunes (and may illustrate the slenderness of an advantage in 15th century Ireland).
Thomas Fitzgerald would succeed his father the following year becoming Lord Chancellor of Ireland for Edward IV. Both John and Thomas Butler would each be Earl of Ormond, having their attainment removed by Edward IV in time, as part of a reconciliation process, a state of affairs that later extended to the reign of Henry VII, who was a personal friend of Thomas’. Such did the swings and roundabouts of those years go.
The battle would, like most battles in Ireland at the time, probably have been fought primarily by infantry with some missile troops as a force multiplier, cavalry being a largely absent factor due to the terrain. When they were used, it was usually during a rout, either to pursue or to escape from the enemy. Both sets of troops would likely have had prior experience fighting both Irish natives and in England and France, this era being one of the professional soldier. Sword, mace and axe were the weapons of the day, with better armour leading to the evolution of better weapons to break it. In fact, it was during this period that medieval armour reached its zenith, leading to the discarding of shields on the battlefield, more of a burden to a heavily armoured man then an advantage. Lesser soldiers would often find themselves (surprisingly well) protected by a thick leather jacket. Those with slightly more to spend could perhaps upgrade to a “brigandine”, which included small sheets of metal on the inside of the leather. For all that, it is unknown how much of this improvement in military material would made it to Ireland. Certainly, it is unlikely that artillery was a factor in Ireland at this point, though it was becoming more and more important elsewhere.
Armies would be based around soldiery assembled by various nobles, who fought under a single figure, but often acting like an independent group when it suited. Armies still fought battles in three groups – the left, right and centre “battles” – with archers usually opening proceedings before an infantry clash, which would continue until one side broke. In the ensuing rout, it was nobles and other lords how were the favoured targets, for those seeking a hostage for ransom – “lesser” men frequently escaped to fight another day.
You may notice that I haven’t really talked much about the Earl of Kildare during this time. This is largely because I’ve been saving discussing that branch of the Geraldines for the next entry, discussing one of the last acts of the War of the Roses – a bizarre plot to place a ten year old peasant on the throne of England, spearheaded by one of Ireland’s great nobles.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.