Ireland’s Wars: Surrey And The Inevitable Solution

Gerald, the Earl of Kildare, never really stopped campaigning after Knockdoe, involving himself frequently in the wars of the native Irish against others. With allies he marched to victories over the McCarthy’s of Kerry, was defeated by the O’Brien’s of Thomond (in a surprise attack, though most of his force survived), and busied himself with various sieges, all in an attempt to exert greater control on Ireland and to maintain his web of alliances and friends. It was during a siege in Offaly in 1512 that he breathed his last, apparently due to a festering wound he had received some time before.

His son and namesake took over the Earldom, at the age of 16, and rapidly took over all of his father’s old positions and responsibilities. England had a new King at this stage – Henry VIII – who was still in his twenties in the time being discussed. His military activities were directed at Scotland and France and, like his father, he seemed content at first to keep to the status quo in Ireland, allowing the head Fitzgerald of Kildare to hold the crown’s power in the country and to keep everything in hands regards the Anglo-Irish and the native Irish.

The young Earl of Kildare was, much like his father, active in the pursuit of enemies, engaging upon many raids and campaigns throughout Ireland as soon as he came into his inheritance. In one of the most notable, he took it upon himself to intervene in a dynastic dispute within the O’Neill family, who were also engaged in a brutal war with the O’Donnell’s of Tyrconnell. The O’Neill’s were, as a result of the older Gerald, in-laws of the Fitzgerald’s, and long time allies, but the younger Gerald appears to have been none too careful about whose toes he treaded on, during an extensive  campaign where his army wrecked the countryside of Tyrone, capturing and burning many castle and fortresses and generally approaching such a delicate problem as a family clash with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. This was in 1516.

While the Earl was absent from the Pale, his enemies – namely, the Butlers of Ormond – conspired to blacken his reputation with the King, sparking rumours of disloyalty and rebellious plots. Gerald’s victories in Ulster and elsewhere were always bound to focus spotlight on him, and this invariably also came with those who did not like to see such success. The Butlers, sandwiched between two hostile branches of the Fitzgerald’s, were never likely to turn down an opportunity to gain advancement.

The Butlers machinations gained a very valuable supporter in Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, one of the chief councillors to Henry VIII and soon to be one of the great figures of the English Reformation. Infamously opposed to anyone who could steal the King’s favour from him, Wolsey convinced Henry to give Gerald a summons to answer the charges that were being laid before him, not unlike how the fathers of the respective men had done so years earlier. The Fitzgerald’s and the Tudors would always be clashing in such a manner, this Gerald himself spending time in London as a child in the role of a hostage to ensure his father’s good behaviour. Summons to London happened twice for the new Earl, first in 1515, then again in 1519 (and would again, much more disastrously, later). Such was the level of accusation and suspicion brought down upon him. It was during this second, and lengthier, stay in England when the Earl was defending his innocence and proclaiming his loyalty that Henry decided to send over to Ireland another representative to do his work.

Thomas Howard was the Earl of Surrey. An accomplished and competent soldier, Howard had served ably in past campaigns against the Scottish, and was a key members of Henry VIII’s council. Like Wolsey, Howard was going to wind up being a very important player in the years to come, but in 1520 his time and focus was occupied purely on his Lieutenancy of Ireland, where his task was to assess the state of the land, bring those rebellious against the crown’s authority into line, and to just generally expand Henry’s power base in the country.

The task would not be an easy one. Numerous small Irish septs and clans near the borders of the Pales were a constant threat. Further afield, the likes of the O’Neill’s were none too friendly towards the Earl of Surrey and any aggressive moves he was liable to make towards the north. The Earldom of Desmond was undergoing a fractious inheritance dispute that was drawing in neighbours, threatening to turn into a full blown civil war in Munster. And the Earldom of Kildare was naturally opposed to an outsider who threatened the monopoly of power it was previously able to claim.

Gerald was able to get out of trouble in England, making use of political and marriage connections to gain favour in Henry’s court, and was soon back in Ireland. But he was not fully returned to his previous powers in the country, which must have galled him. The accusation that he would have stirred up unrest in the event of a new Lord Deputy of Ireland being appointed – attested to by correspondence with local Irish clans, like the O’Carroll’s of Ely (Offaly) – was not supported by too much hard evidence, but is still believable. There are also indications that the O’Neill’s and the O’Donnell’s may have been encouraged by Kildare to rise up against any “new” Lord Deputy.

Such an uprising, if it can really be called so, never had a chance to take place. Surrey had arrived in Ireland with a force of just over a thousand men, probably veterans of the Scottish campaigns. Combined with forces raised from the Pale and friendly Earldoms – i.e. the Butlers – Surrey very quickly went on the warpath, being armed with the best that the time could offer in terms of firearms and cannon.

Surrey’s movements were rapid, moving to and fro across the country. The O’More clan of Munster was the first to feel his bite, decisively beaten and pillaged, their settlements and crops burnt. Next were the O’Carroll’s of Offaly, who escaped much of the destruction visited upon the O’More’s by submitting early. From there Surrey quickly headed north to head off any aggressive moves being made by Conn O’Neill, King of Tyrone and Chief of the O’Neill’s, who was readying an assault into Meath, arguably on the suggestion of the Earl of Kildare. Surrey’s time in Ireland is marked by such rapid engagements, tracking down potential hotspots and snuffing out the sparks of potential trouble before they ever really had a chance to get going.

But Surrey and his army suffered too, from the same problems that had plagued any substantial foreign force fighting in Ireland throughout history. The land, being different parts, rocky, hilly, boggy or forested, was difficult to march and to fight set-piece battles in. The Irish, as was their preferred style when it came to large armies, resorted to guerrilla tactics and harassment of Surrey’s rear and supply lines.

Surrey was able to gain a few small crucial victories and stave off a larger, concerted effort from coming to life, but the realities of warfare meant that he was unable to make any lasting impression. His siege train was slow and useless in the terrain, his enemies tended to avoid pitched battles, and he was unable to keep his army in the field for too long. The O’More’s and the O’Neill’s were prevented from really threatening the Pale, but Surrey was unable to really neutralise them.

It was in reports back to Henry VIII that Surrey laid out the problem and the only solution that he could contemplate to deal with it: the committed conquering of the island by a large military force from England, backed up by significant amounts of funds. This was not an echo of the limited attempts Richard II had made in 1394, but an indication that the arrival of a large force from England for only a short time would be insufficient. If Henry wanted Ireland under control, he would have to play for keeps, providing enough soldiers, and enough cash, to see the job through to the end. Surrey acknowledged the problems of such a course very openly, between the standard tactics of the Irish and the fact that they could easily unite to face such a threat.

With such advice made, Henry balked at the prospect of a large scale long term military commitment to Ireland, and instead fell back on a policy of conciliation that previous monarchs had used. The O’Neill chief was knighted by Henry as an act of friendship, and Surrey was given the power to do the same to any other native leader he found deserving.

Surrey also carried out an especially crucial act in the Earldom of Desmond, helping to bring the fractious infighting there to an end. The clash between James, son of the previous Earl, and his uncle John Fitzgerald over the inheritance of the Earldom had quickly seen the intervention and support of the Kerry McCarthy’s, the O’Brien’s of Thomond and the Earldom of Ormond on different sides –a battle at Mourne-Abbey, Cork, allegedly saw 2’000 of James’ faction killed. It is possible, even likely, that such numbers are exaggerated, but they are a measure of how vicious the dispute had become in Munster. Desmond was no small political entity, and its leader would hold a great degree of power in the province.

James was the rightful Earl of Desmond, and his defeats appear to have brought some grim satisfaction to Surrey, who was not the greatest fan of the young man. With James brought low he had little recourse but to look to the Lord Lieutenant for help. Surrey marched into Munster and brokered a peace between the factions that left James his title, though how exactly he accomplished this is not recorded – perhaps he was generous with titles and money. Having a divided Earldom surrounded by hostile Irish would not have been in the English interest. Surrey left no illusions as to his real opinions, recording more respect for the leaders of the Kerry McCarthy’s than James Fitzgerald.

Surrey, recognizing the limitations of what he could do, also played the diplomatic game of keeping foes busy. In recommending a conquest of Ireland to his superior he had noted the possibility of Ireland uniting: now he gave aid and paid for extra Scottish gallowglass to be part of the Tyrconnell forces fighting the O’Neill’s, not to help them win the war outright, but for the simple purpose of keeping that conflict going, as he openly acknowledged in letters to the King.

After 18 months in Ireland Surrey was growing tired of the situation he had to deal with. Forced to take to the field to fight the O’Carroll’s of Offaly in the middle of 1521 (Irish natives were never slow to cast off the shackles of submission) he laid siege to the castle of Monasterois, near modern Edenderry. He was successful in this attack, but the ranks of the O’Carroll’s spent the time pillaging Westmeath and routing smaller parts of Surrey’s army wherever they could.

Frustrated by this impasse, which he was unable to rectify due to lack of men and financial support from home, Surrey did what so many other English noblemen given a position of power in Ireland did: he requested to be brought back to England on the grounds of “ill-health”. Henry duly granted the request. The Lord Deputyship of Ireland did not pass back to Gerald Fitzgerald, as he may have expected, but instead went to Piers Butler, the Earl of Ormond. This was a sure sign of the changing favour being granted to the Irish nobility, and Henry VIII’s conflict’s with Gerald Fitzgerald and the Earldom of Kildare would soon manifest itself in something far more serious and damaging to relations between the English crown and the Anglo-Irish. As for the Butlers, their stake in the Earldom of Ormond would soon find itself seriously challenged by one of the most famous and powerful families of the time: the Boleyn’s.

Surrey’s time in Ireland was largely ineffectual, but he, like a few before him, was laying down a marker for what was to come. His suggestions and advice to the King would probably be ringing in Henry VIII’s ears later in his life when he contemplated the use of greater force to pacify the island. It was his poisonous relationship with Gerald and the favour he showed to the Butler’s (and later, the Boleyn’s) that would bring matters to a head.

This time period also had one other notable aspect: a complete political survey of the land, carried out in 1515 to determine just how much of the island was under English control and how many separate political units existed outside of that. This survey found that the Pale consisted of around half of Louth, Meath, Kildare, Wexford and Dublin, but even there a large portion of the population were natives. It went on to document over 60 separate “regions” under the control of “Irish enemies” and dozens of “degenerate English” – the Anglo Irish, which the survey included the Connaught Burke’s in. While many of these “regions” would have been tiny clans, controlling just a small amount of land and subservient to whatever major power was closest to their own borders, it does illustrate the complexity of political life in Ireland at the time. There were a lot of families and a lot of states to consider before you did anything. The list can be found in the footnotes of this source at page 349-350.

Two of those families, and the interminable war that took place between them for decades at the start of the 16th century, will be the focus of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Surrey And The Inevitable Solution

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  7. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Munster Rises For Hugh O’Neill | Never Felt Better

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