Ireland’s Wars: The Campaigns Of Essex

I mentioned last week that the internal court politics of Elizabeth had enough intrigue and conflict related to Ireland to fill up their own entry, but only a brief summation is required to set up what occurred in Ireland throughout 1599.

It is important to remember that Ireland was just one place where England was engaged militarily. What has become known as the Anglo-Spanish War, a decades long conflict that was fought throughout the seas of Europe, the Atlantic, in the Low Countries and in the New World was raging on in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, a war of money and conquest as much as it was a war of religion. The ageing monarch’s court was mostly preoccupied with running of this war, of which the Irish trouble was seen by many, suspecting Spanish involvement, as just another front.

Courts of royalty in those days are complicated things, back in the days when, owing to the deficiencies of communication, just being within earshot of the royal seat could be enough to get you what you wanted and doom your enemies who were abroad. These courts preoccupied themselves with matters, apart from war, like royal finances, the handing out of titles, with the main objective of each individual being the procurement of more power and position for themselves. As the 16th century drew to a close, the matter of the succession to the crown, with Elizabeth nearing her end unmarried and childless, was also weighing on many minds – or, rather, who would be the main player in deciding the succession when Elizabeth was in her grave.

There were two main parties in the English court in 1599, which can be identified simply by their stances on the wars England was fighting. The “War” party favoured escalation of the conflicts in order to secure English interests and its Protestant faith. This included crushing the rebels of Ireland, especially Hugh O’Neill. The “Peace” party favoured diplomatic and negotiated settlements of these conflicts, the pardoning of rebels, and the end of the protracted and expensive campaign in Ireland.

The War party was headed by Robert Devereux , the Earl of Essex, with the Peace party headed by his fierce rival, William Cecil, and then his son Robert, the Earl of Salisbury. Their disputes in the council chambers were often vicious and bad tempered, as both tried to outmanoeuvre the other, to forward their own position and secure their power in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, the monarch becoming increasingly exasperated by their fighting (according to some sources, the Queen had once actually struck Essex in a council meeting).

The victory of the rebels at the Yellow Ford and the outbreak of violence in Munster put paid to the idea of peace in Ireland for a while, and in the summer of 1598, both court parties were busy trying to get members of the other appointed to military commands abroad. Only after the death of Richard Bingham shortly after his appointment to head things in Ireland did the responsibility fall to the Earl of Essex. He, though boastful of his aim to beat O’Neill in the field and crush the rebels, probably accepted the position reluctantly, fully aware of his own fractious relationship with Elizabeth and the fact that, being absent, his enemies could further demolish the position that he had in England.

The force that was assembled in the early months of 1599 was gigantic. Fully 16’000 infantry, 1’300 cavalry, artillery trains, a fleet of warships and enough supplies and material to keep them going for a long time were put under Essex’s direct command. His objective was to end the northern rebellion, with the remit of offering pardons in the event of total submission and to award knighthoods to those who were deemed worthy through service and proper living. Essex had some military experience, in naval and land combat during the “English Armada” of 1589 and in other campaigns, including the capture of Cadiz in 1596. That being said, this career was without other major military successes, and he had a reputation for disobeying instructions from the monarch on such matters.

We have seen in previous entries how ineffective large English armies were when sent to Ireland, when the typical Irish tactics were to avoid large battles and rely on guerrilla tactics. In fairness to Essex and the English, this is something that they must have realised, and his actions upon his arrival in Ireland back that up. But, it was still to be noted that the Irish had fought several conventional battles in the war thus far, so it may have been thought that Essex could bring the matter to a decision in the field. In the event of such a battle,, Essex would have had an advantage with his large number of musketeers, his veterans of Dutch campaigns and the naval element at his command.

The whole expedition was a bit of a gamble. The cost of it was enormous for the day, nearly 300’000 pounds every year, which was over twice what Elizabeth was paying to maintain military operations in the Low Countries. That drain on the exchequer is not to be dismissed, and was as much a motivation for the English to settle manners in Ireland as any other.

Essex and his army arrived in Dublin in mid-April, cheered on by crowds and welcomed by the Archbishop. Hopes must have been high that the Earl and his gigantic army could end the chaos happening outside the Pale’s borders, though Essex was less than hopeful himself in private letters, stating: “I thought it fit to advertise your Lordships, that you might pity me than expect extraordinary success”.

While all this was going on, the war in Munster had been escalating and Hugh Roe O’Donnell was continually attacking into Connacht. Hugh O’Neill, seeing the size of the foe coming against him, directed insurgents in Leinster to prepare offensive operations against any march and [proceeded to strip the land bordering the north of the Pale of cattle and crops, seeking to deny any advantage to an enemy army and dissuade Essex from immediately marching north. O’Neill would have known that he would have been at a disadvantage in a straight up fight, and must have hoped that the obvious difficulties in attacking Ulster – the limited travelling options, the ignorance of the terrain, the lack of supplies, the previous defeats the English had suffered there – would be enough to make Essex think twice.

The Pale administration favoured a combined land and sea assault on Ulster, with Essex to march directly into the province from the south while a naval force hit Tyrone from the rear, establishing a base near Lough Foyle. Such a plan was incredibly ambitious in its scope and difficulty, but would have caused O’Neill some trouble if a landing was made successfully. A similar plan had worked rather well against Shane O’Neill in the 1560’s after all and had been suggested frequently throughout the war, with one mooted landing being cancelled after the Yellow Ford.

But the concern that Spanish support for the rebellion could manifest itself in the form of a naval invasion of the south of Ireland, as foreign troops had done during the Great Desmond Rebellion, meant that Essex preferred to send his warships down the coast to patrol the seas off Munster. There was also some confusion over whether it was even Essex’s responsibility to outfit and launch such an attack, with the thinking being that such an operation could only be organised by Elizabeth and the council.

Essex further accepted advice from the council in Ireland and decided not to launch a purely land based attack on Ulster. Instead, he started dividing his force in order to shore up various positions around Ireland. Varying amounts of troops were sent to garrisons and fortified positions in Connacht, Munster and the borders of the Pale in order to improve defences and try to bring a halt to the rebel dominance in various parts of the country. Carrickfergus, Newry, Cork, Wicklow and Dundalk were among the places to receive troops. This was not a bad idea at all, and the thousands of troops sent to aid Conyers Clifford across the Shannon were desperately needed in order to try and blunt the continuing assaults of Hugh Roe, who had been able to penetrate as far as Thomond.

In May, Essex gathered the rest of his army, still a considerable force of many thousands of men, and marched out of Dublin, moving south-west. His aim was to relieve some under-pressure areas of Offaly and Leix before proceeding into Munster to combat rebels there, with some intelligence indicating that O’Neill himself would soon be leading a push in the region.

The first part of this campaign was relatively successful. The fort at Marlborough was relieved and the castle at Athy was taken quickly. The O’More’s launched hit and run attacks on the English, but it was nothing that Essex couldn’t handle. A more substantial engagement occurred at a pass near Cashel, Leix, in mid-May when Essex’s army smashed through a rebel blockade with some loss – hardly any according to the English, several hundred according to the Irish. The area was christened “The Pass of the Plumes” afterwards, apparently in reference to the feathers that were used to decorate and identify the soldiers of Essex’s army.

From there Essex moved on to Kilkenny, much to the delight of the Earl of Ormond I’m sure, where he also met with Thomas Norris, the President of Munster. Combining their forces, they moved west, capturing the castle at Derrylane with hardly any fighting before targeting Cahir Castle, a much more difficult prospect.

Cahir, not far from Clonmel in modern-day Tipperary was a castle of some strength, but the family that held it, an offshoot of the Butlers, was divided between those who supported the rebels and those who remained loyal to the crown. The rebels, a 100 or so, held the castle, and Essex was obliged to spend several days building siege works and blasting a breach in its walls. Attempts were made by Munster rebels to relieve the castle, they came to nought and Essex was able to storm the resulting breach and take the fortress, though much of the garrison was able to escape. For Essex this was a substantial victory, in taking such a fortified position so quickly, but others, including Elizabeth, demeaned the achievement by pointing out the low number, and quality, of the defenders.

Still, with Cahir captured and the Suir valley region no longer a danger to his supply lines, Essex was able to continue his march into Munster. He first went to Limerick City, there to combine his forces with new troops from Ormond, Thomond and Connacht. By now his army had spent several weeks marching in the field, and both it and the baggage train were running low on supplies and ammunition.

Attempts to bring James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the Earl of Desmond, (known as the “Sugan Earl” or “Straw Earl” – a term of contempt) to open battle proved largely fruitless. Though James had several thousand men at his call, he refused to fight a pitched battle against Essex’s force, falling back on the tried and true methods of guerrilla, hit and run and scorched earth attacks. After reliving the hard-pressed garrison of the town of Askeaton, and suffering unmanageable losses from the irregular attacks, Essex was in a bind.

Running low on supplies and morale, Essex moved south, but no engagement came. Eventually he had his army, suffering from hunger, desertion and disease, find itself resupplied in Waterford. The campaign in Munster ended on a damp squib, as Essex decided to move most of the armed forces under his command back into Leinster, leaving a thousand or so to further aid the crown forces in Munster.

The first serious move that Essex had made had been an underwhelming affair. The English position in Leinster and Tipperary had been improved, and the capture of Cahir Castle was, despite what Elizabeth may have thought, no small feat. But the cost was inordinately high, and the rebellion in Munster continued apace. Essex had done a poor job at ensuring his army was kept supplied and does not seem to have had any kind of plan B prepared if a decisive battle was unable to be fought. The Desmond rebels, well versed in the countryside and the ways to fight in it, were able to keep the English army under pressure while avoiding any truly dangerous situations. Even worse, Thomas Norris, while successfully fighting a brief skirmish action with the rebels in County Limerick, was wounded by a pike, eventually dying in great pain a month and a half later.

Around this same time, Wicklow was again in arms. The O’Byrne’s, now under Feilim,  the son of Fiach McHugh, were inflicting some damage on the local occupying forces of the English, to enough of an extent that Essex, rather than simply sail all of his force from Waterford to Dublin, choose to march along the eastern coastline. This section of the expedition was, again, largely fruitless and damaging to the English. Essex’s men were able to burn a number of villages and fight a brief encounter with the O’Byrne’s, where they forced the local Irish to scatter in the face of a cavalry attack, but the result was hardly the kind of dominating victory Essex wanted. It was Feilim, who had led many ambushes and caused the English under the local commander, Henry Harrrington, to run away at one point, who came out looking better.

Essex and his greatly reduced army marched back into Dublin eight weeks after they had first left it, having completely failed to carry out their stated objectives. Numerous positions had been captured and others had been re-supplied and given improved garrisons, this is true, but the rebellion had not been greatly weakened by such actions. Hugh O’Neill had never moved to Munster as expected and remained a key threat, while Hugh Roe was still looming over Connacht. Some damage had been to the Leinster insurgents, but they remained active and deadly in the Offaly/Leix area. Munster had been far from pacified and Wicklow was kicking up again.

Elizabeth was greatly displeased, not just due to the results of the campaign and the associated costs, but to the perceived wastefulness of Essex, who by most accounts spared nothing in providing “entertainments” in Dublin. She insisted that Essex do something about O’Neill, severely criticising him in a series of letters for weakening his army in his excursions south without doing anything to try and bring the Tyrone leader to heel. Essex attempted, against Elizabeth’s orders, another campaign to defeat the Leinster rebels in July of 1599 fighting a limited war in Offaly and Leix with the help of Clifford’s Connacht army, but was unable, again, to get a lasting success.

The later part of the year was a desperately unhappy time for Essex and the English in Ireland. He and his strategy were being heavily censured by Elizabeth and her council, who were further unhappy with the number of knighthoods that he was giving out. He and a large part of his army was laid up with sickness for a time, in his own case perhaps a bout of kidney stones. Setbacks in Connacht (which are important enough to merit their own entry in this series, which will come next week) were preying on his mind and making him look even worse. Morale was low as were funds and supplies. Essex’ pleas for more men to be sent from England were answered, but subsequent inaction only inflamed the feeling against him. He seems to have frozen in the face of numerous setbacks, and was heading a effort struck down with a debilitating malaise.

A council of war in late August decided against any offensive operations in Ulster for the time being, owing to the poor state of the army, now reduced to barely 4’000 men under Essex’s direct command. Elizabeth was furious with the defeatism being shown and on her direct order the army moved north.

In early September, Essex, incredibly wary of his task and suspicious of political manoeuvring back home, faced off with O’Neill’s army on either side of the Lagan river, near Ardee, Louth.  While estimates vary, it can be accepted that O’Neill’s army was larger, further adding to the apprehension of Essex.

On the 6th of September, the two armies formed up on either sides of the river in battle array. But on suggestions from envoys, Essex and O’Neill agreed to meet with each other the following day. On the 7th, that famous meeting too place with O’Neill wading up to his horses belly in the Lagan in order to confer privately with Essex on the left bank – a gesture of humility and respect in some eyes.

What the two talked about that day, out of earshot of any witnesses, has long preoccupied historical detectives of the period. From what Essex stated later it would seem O’Neill spoke cordially to him (the Tyrone chieftain apparently knew and served under Essex’s father earlier in his life) and laid out a list of terms for peace: freedom of conscience, the restoration of Irish lands to their rightful owners and one treaty to be signed with all the rebels. Essex mocked O’Neill’s the first demand – “…thou carest for religion as much as my horse” according to one source – but agreed to present the terms that O’Neill laid out to the crown, with a six week truce to take effect in the meantime. O’Neill apparently insisted on the speedy sending of the message, fearing that news of his attempted peace would reach Spanish ears.

The more conspiracy minded may outline a very different conversation, whereby the two men attempted to orchestrate the carving up of the Kingdom between the two of them, with Essex taking the royal chair in London and O’Neill a crown in Ireland, perhaps with Spanish support. While subsequent events might suggest that Essex had grander aims in mind for his personal power, there is simply nothing to back up this theory other than contemporary propaganda and the words of Essex’s enemies.

Essex, against orders, went back to England to present O’Neill’s terms to Elizabeth. The Queen, by now having no trust in the word of Hugh, rejected them, though she later commented positively on the truce at least. Essex, for dereliction of duty if nothing else, was placed under house arrest. O’Neill, apparently not too in love with the idea of peace and being pressured by Hugh Roe on the perceived generosity of the terms, broke the truce after a while and declared his aims of Catholic freedom publically, a popular declaration that elevated the struggle to that of a “holy war” for many. I believe Essex was dead right when it came to Hugh’s true feelings on religion, but it is undeniable that it was an effective way of rallying support.

Essex and his plans were undone. Going to Ireland to command a major military expedition was a dangerous gamble in regards his personal position. If he had somehow defeated the rebels he would probably have gained a great degree of power and influence in the waning years of Elizabeth’s reign, enough to oversee the coming succession. But this was always unlikely. Essex lacked the knowledge of Irish military affairs, but also a certain amount of will, to see such a task through.

His mental well being given such stresses can be questioned and his final end gives weight to the idea that he was not truly himself in his last few years. Though freed from arrest after a time, he grew resentful and bitter towards Elizabeth and her court, eventually leading a slapdash coup attempt in 1601, which was easily defeated. He was tried for treason, found guilty and beheaded.

Essex’s campaign was a poor one. While many local garrisons had been strengthened and some damage had been inflicted on the rebels, nowhere had things been irrevocably changed or stabilised. His army had been considerable but had been used in a foolish way. Efforts should have been fixated on the north and more credence given to the suggest Lough Foyle operation. The army was whittled away and wasted on needless marches to Munster and back and Essex allowed its morale and operational capacity to be destroyed in just a few weeks. His negotiations with O’Neill may have come from a positive place – ending the war by whatever means – but in so doing he allowed himself to be easily targeted by enemies in London.

The two Hugh’s and their allies were still in place. The English would have to pick someone new to head their operations in Ireland. But before we move on, next week I’ll skip back in time just a little bit to discuss an important battle in Connacht that aided the eventual fall of Essex.

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

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11 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Campaigns Of Essex

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