A note on dates: The English actually kept a slightly different calendar to the Spanish and Catholic Irish, for largely religious reasons. As such, I beg a little leeway if some dates seem a bit off kilter. The Battle of Kinsale is judged to have been held on both the 24th of December 1601 (English time) and the 2nd of January 1602 (Catholic time) depending on who you favour.
We left the scene last week with the Irish forces encamped not far from Kinsale. Before we get to the business of the battle, we need to skip back in time to discuss how the Spanish and English came to be arraigned against each other in the manner that they had.
The Spanish had finally committed to sending an army to Ireland that summer, and Philip III had authorised the outfitting of a substantial force of men. No less than 6’000 well armed, well-trained soldiers were to embark to join the rebels in Ireland, along with plenty of cannon and other supplies. The aim of this expedition was to affect a landing, join up with the northern rebels, and together smash the English power in Ireland. With assurances from O’Neill and O’Donnell, the Spanish were confident that they would get local support wherever they landed, and that the rebels would prove to be worthy allies.
Where to land was another problem entirely. The northern rebels, in their correspondence, suggested any number of locations along the coasts of Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, as well as other daring locations like up the Shannon near Limerick. Spain had already sent supply ships to help the rebels, but these had been no great fleets (though they suffered from storms like everybody else). The Spanish naval commanders would have been well aware of the dangers of the Irish coast, the Armada having floundered there only 14 years previously, and the risks of disembarking whatever troops they had in an isolated area, like what happened with the defenders of Smerwick. The English naval presence was not to be underestimated either. In the end, it seems clear that somewhere on the Munster coastline was picked, for the ease of potential reinforcement if nothing else.
The leader of the Spanish force was Don Juan de Aguila, a very experienced Spanish soldier with a long history of combat in Italy, Flanders and even England, where he had led a brief invasion of Cornwall in 1595. In truth, his reputation as a soldier was somewhat mixed. Generally, sources have no questions about his courage, but certainly do about his competence as a commander.
From the moment the fleet left Spain in early September, things started to go wrong. Strong winds blew up into a storm and parts of the fleet were scattered and, never able to make it to the Irish coast, choose to turn back instead. These ships carried a full the third of the men and equipment, a crippling blow before any engagement had been made. Many have wondered since how things may have turned if the Spanish force had been 33% as strong as it turned out to be.
After a month at sea Aguila’s remaining force arrived off the coast of Ireland, but struggling with the poor weather choose to put in wherever they could. That place turned out to be Kinsale, a small port town around 25 kilometres south of Cork. Kinsale had some advantages, in that its harbour was enclosed by a ring of land making it easily defensible from the sea, but it was not the best position to disembark in. High ground outside the town walls made for an excellent vantage point in the event of a siege, a major English garrison was not far away in Cork, but most crucially, they Spanish were as far away from their “allies” as they possibly could have been. Some sources claim that O’Neill and O’Donnell had, as soon as they heard a Spanish army was being outfitted, sent desperate letters to Spain in order to advise on a suitable landing site, but these communications arrived too late. A much smaller force was blown off course and landed at Baltimore, further to the west.
Aguila quickly consolidated his position, securing the undefended town and seizing a few of the small forts and castles around its borders. From there he was unsure of what to do. Messages were rapidly sent to the northern rebels, but they were weeks away at best. Against expectation, a mass rising of the local Irish population did not take place, with only a few hundred poorly armed locals coming to join the Spaniards. Munster had learned its lessons far too well over the previous decades, and few in the province were eager to risk the wrath of the English yet again.
With no major support coming, Aguila contended himself with securing the town and the immediate area around it, deciding to wait it out. He was helped in this decision by the actions of the English. Mountjoy happened to be in Ormond when news of the landing reached him, and rapidly moved as much as he could to counter it. Anywhere he could get troops, Munster, Leinster, the Pale, local Earls like those in Thomond and Clanrickarde, all were called upon. Probably the only places not to be pilfered for troops were the guards at the passes into Ulster.
Why such a response? Because the Spanish were deemed to be a far greater threat than the Irish. O’Neill and O’Donnell were dangerous, but largely contained. Mountjoy was probably satisfied that, as things stood, he was on the road to victory over them. The Spanish were a game changer. Mountjoy must have worried about well armed, battle hardened Spaniards marching across the land to give a fight to his stretched and somewhat demoralised troops. If the Spanish were numerous enough, they could win. Having a Spanish front in Ireland was an unacceptable risk to England, brining the war far too close to home. Any joining of the Spanish with the rebels would make the war a far dicier prospect.
Mountjoy probably hoped that, with sufficient force, he could march south and smash the Spanish before they could do anything to help the rebels to the north. In pulling troops from wherever he could, he was making a firm declaration of what he considered the most important objective of his military command. The Spanish were simply too big of a problem to be ignored or to be dismissed behind operation northwards.
We’ll never really have a clear picture of how many troops Mountjoy was able to muster, but the initial numbers would have been huge. Some sources claim that as many as 12’000 troops, a mix of English and loyalist Irish, would eventually march to Kinsale to combat the Spanish foe. Such numbers are not unbelievable, especially if Mountjoy did strip garrisons all over Ireland.
While Hugh Roe and Hugh were gathering their armies and preparing their winter march, the English were engaged in their own military operations. Aguila had no interest in an open confrontation with the massive English army that appeared in his view, or with the small fleet that now blockaded the entrance to Kinsale harbour. He retreated behind the walls of Kinsale and its defences. He had supplies, he had military material and he had a roof over his head. The weather was starting to bite with cold, he presumably had word that Irish help was on its way and taking to the field offered no advantages. A siege began, but the English were not in the best of positions.
Mountjoy recognised that, with winter coming on fast, a speedy outcome would be best and took a pro-active approach to the siege work. The English had a decisive edge in terms of artillery, and cannon fire rained down ceaselessly on the Spanish position. Aggressive assaults were made on the castles surrounding the town, and two of these were taken in offensives during the month of November, though with only little loss to the Spanish.
The weather got worse. Mountjoy ordered his artillery to focus on the walls and by the start of December a breach had been made. A 2’000 strong vanguard attempted to storm it, only to be thrown back with heavy loss. Clearly, this was no rabble of Irish kerns holding a fort, but a force experienced with such tactics. The Spanish began to take a more active approach themselves, launching several sorties out of the town walls to harass the enemy, some of which dealt surprisingly large losses to the enemy. Aguila was not in a state of stable supply, and was probably prepared to attempt a breakout if it came to it. According to Irish sources, he had also come to exhibit a hostile attitude towards the Irish in general, disappointed with the lack of support, and with the fact that much of Mountjoy’s army consisted of native Catholic troops. Some sources attribute great morale boosting abilities to the Thomond contingent under Donogh O’Brien, 4’000 strong according to the Four Masters, which pitched a separate camp and made up a core of Mountjoy’s force.
He needed it, because things were getting desperate. The cold made the troops suffer and typical camp disease, like dysentery, began to ravage the encamped troops. The marching of the rebels from the north had the knock-on effect of cutting English supply lines, so the besiegers found themselves in much the same situation as the besieged. Desertion became a rampant problem as local Irish – Catholic to boot – began to slip away. Over a month into the operation, Mountjoy saw nearly 5’000 men become incapacitated due to various factors. Some sources even alleged that he set up a soup kitchen and makeshift hospital to care for the worse off of his army.
Things could have gotten even worse for Mountjoy, if not for the winds again causing Spanish naval actions to be disrupted. Reinforcements had been sent from Spain following word of the disorderly landing, but these were blown off course before reaching Kinsale, eventually disembarking their 800 troops and supplies 25 miles west at Castlehaven. Mountjoy ordered his ships to pursue and attack. They managed to sink a Spanish vessel at the cost of 300 of their own men, but were further unable to do anything about the landed troops, who were well defended from behind fortifications and cannon.
Mountjoy probably gave serious thought to raising the siege and heading somewhere more manageable, like Cork. Maybe he would have if given more time, but the arrival of the Irish rebels in the area by the 21st of December took the decision out of his hands. Any attempt to move now would come with the likely chance of an Irish attack on an exhausted, undernourished army and would let the rebels and the Spanish join forces. Thus joined, the combined Irish/Spanish army would easily outnumber his own fighting men. Mountjoy choose to stay and seek whatever end, though the desperateness of his situation was clear to see. Maybe Mountjoy did not want to be another Essex, and feared the reaction of Elizabeth to such a retreat.
Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell were not exactly sure of how to proceed either. They had been bolstered by some of the Spanish troops that land landed further west at Baltimore and Castlehaven, but were cut off from the majority of the Spanish army in Kinsale. Mountjoy was not about to move, or so it seemed, so a decision had to be made.
What occurred next has proven to be the most controversial aspect of the entire campaign. Few sources offer a clear, concise account of the feelings and opinions of the various commanders, or why the decision to attack was taken. Aguila and the Spanish undoubtedly wanted an aggressive approach, being besieged and unhappy at the less than average response of the locals to their presence. It may be safe to assume that Hugh Roe, always the most active and aggressive of the rebels leaders, and with a track record of impatience with sieges, would have agreed with such a course of action to.
It is Hugh O’Neill, by now easily considered the chief of the rebellion, an uncrowned Prince of Ireland, who probably had the decisive vote on what to do next. Most sources mention his hesitance to embark on any offensive and I would judge, based on his past record, for this to be correct. O’Neill had never really fought on the offensive before, not in numbers as great as this. His victories had been of the defensive kind, of well placed ambush and well-prepared defences. His soldiers were experienced and fairly well trained for the time and location, but had never fought a set-piece battle of the like being proposed.
Moreover, from their position to the north of Mountjoy, they had effectively besieged the besiegers. Diseases, desertion and cold were ravaging Mountjoy’s army, and O’Neill could well have been right in any assertion made that the English were doomed as it stood. Better perhaps to dig in themselves and wait for nature to do their job, or perhaps force Mountjoy to fight a breakout operation that would either fail or cost the English immense casualties.
These were no small considerations. O’Neill must have painfully aware of how much he was risking, considering the troops that he had brought. But Aguila was insistent that something be done, and they were concerns over his commitment to the mission, worries that he would choose to surrender rather than stay and fight on his own for much longer. The Spanish court back at home could do with news of a victory to help with their resolve too. Hugh Roe was adamant that something be done, not just to suit his own methods, but to help the Spanish allies that had come to Ireland to aid them and were now in great distress.
Aguila dangled the carrot of a combined offensive by the Irish with the Spanish, with the Kinsale commander to launch a mass sortie out of his gates just as the Irish attacked Mountjoy from the other side. The English, trapped in the middle of two large forces, would be cut to pieces. It sounded like a great idea, but only a fool would have bought into the plan without reservation. Such a combined assault would take a good level of co-ordination and perfect timing, and communications between the Irish camp and Kinsale were sketchy at best. Worse still, it was proposed for the Irish to form up at night, march out, and attack the surprised English at dawn. Night movements were never to be guaranteed at the best of times, as any native of Tyrconnell and Tyrone should have known.
It is almost comforting, for those who want to play up the reputation and intelligence of O’Neill, to paint him as a man who fought against the plan to attack Mountjoy head on, but in the end the Tyrone Chief agreed to the plan. His forces, along with those of Hugh Roe and their allies, would move out from their camp at Belgooly, north of Kinsale, and engage Mountjoy’s army.
I suppose I should note that some sources mention a traitor at this point in the record, an Irish noble named Brian Mac Hugh Og MacMahon, who tipped off the English about the intended attack. MacMahon was presumably one of the Monaghan MacMahon’s and one of O’Neill’s chief officers. The story of betrayal is not taken up by other sources and is the sort of familiar apologising that some Irish chroniclers are known for including, in order to cover up the mistakes and poor decisions of the major players. For example, the rebellion of Silken Thomas is said to have been betrayed by someone who opened the castle gates of Maynooth to the English as well. The letters of George Carew do mention this story, but I personally remain somewhat sceptical. It is used as an explanation for why Mountjoy had regiments of his army on guard that night, but then again, it is also perfectly logical to assume that he had his men on guard because the Irish were encamped nearby and liable to attack, not because he had forewarning of a specific assault.
The more specific points of the plan were hashed out after the decision to attack. The Irish were to arrange themselves in three “battles”, a vanguard in front, a rearguard in back and a main formation in the centre. Hugh Roe would command the rear, with 2’000 men from Tyrconnell and Connacht. Richard Tyrell, a commander of rebel forces in Leinster and one of O’Neill’s most trusted lieutenants, commanded the van with 1300 men from throughout Munster and Leinster, along with the Spanish contingent that had arrived from further west. O’Neill himself took command of the centre, made up almost entirely of his own Tyrone army, 2’000 or so men, and the largest amount of cavalry between the three battles.
Hugh and Hugh Roe were to march south through the night and attack Mountjoy in his own camp directly. While they were on their way to do that, Tyrell was to take a more circuitous route by the left bank of the Bandon River, head to Kinsale to join up with Aguila and his men, and from there assault the encampment of Thomond, the other main part of the English force. The plan was, as stated, solid enough and would have caused Mountjoy huge problems if successfully implemented. But it all hinged on perfect movement in the dark.
This was difficult enough, but was only made more so by the chosen formations. Probably on the advice of the Spanish and at Hugh O’Neill’s direction, the three battles formed, or attempted to at least, into “tercio” formation. The tercio was a largely Spanish designed unit formation of the time that they had employed to great success in their conflicts in the Early Modern period. Usually involving groups of 3’000 men, the tercio saw a large core of pikemen and other infantry form into a square, with the corners made up of smaller units of “shot” troops. The gunners would harass and skirmish with the enemy, while the core of infantry would be the key battle point.
The tercio was a good formation, though it would only be a few decades before it began to vanish from the battlefield, especially after clashes like Breitenfeld in the Thirty Years War. But it required extensive training and experience to work properly, especially in conjunction with other tercio’s. The Irish lacked that experience, or any significant experience in using such a compact formation in a set-piece battle. Hugh O’Neill persisted though, and as the Irish set out that night, they did so in what we can only assume was the rough shape of a tercio.
Things started to go wrong almost at once. The three battles became hopelessly lost in the darkness and blundered off in completely the wrong direction. Communication between the battles was poor, with the distance between them too great to maintain cohesion. At least one source mentions lightening throwing off the Irish directions, though this might be an additional detail to supplement post-battle feelings of “God did it”. Before Hugh O’Neill knew what was happening, the Irish army found itself a few miles to the west of Kinsale, nowhere near where they were supposed to be. By the time the sun was starting to come out, the Irish were on the western side of a small stream called the Millwater, in boggy ground.
O’Neill was still ready to pursue an attack though, even after things had gone awry. It would not have been too late even then to withdraw and start over another night, but perhaps the chieftain had simply decided to commit and maintain the assault. That being said, the Irish army did hold up for a crucial amount of time at this point, neither attacking or retreating. The Irish musketeers were ordered to light their fuses in preparation for battle. This action was seen by forward English units. Mountjoy had several formations in readiness as previously mentioned, whether by default or by an intelligence tip-off, and he soon knew the location of the Irish army.
Mountjoy sensed an opportunity and decided to strike. He must have realised that the Irish would attempt to attack him from two sides and resolved to not allow himself to be caught in such a manner. His men were cold, hungry and sick, but a quick blow could win the day early. He still had eyes on Kinsale though and for the coming fight quickly split his army in two, leaving Carew and the Earl of Thomond with a sizable amount of his remaining force, several thousand men, to guard against what may have been seen as an inevitable sortie from the besieged Spanish. The rest, several regiments of infantry and a large dose of heavy cavalry, rapidly proceeded westwards.
The Irish, after several cold hours marching in the dark, were tired and sluggish, allowing Mountjoy’s men to advance close to the Millwater without opposition. What happened next is disputed somewhat. Some English cavalry forded the stream and attacked O’Neill’s battle, in two small waves, and this attack was beaten off. Some sources indicate that it was troops of Hugh Roe’s rearguard that moved up and did this, skirmishing successfully and firing at Mountjoy’s men across the stream. They allege that Huge Roe’s men were then distracted and caught up in the disasters that followed. Other, more numerous, sources indicate that Hugh Roe’s battle lagged behind the others and did not arrive to the fight until much later, when it was far too late. Judging by the nature of the night time march and the general shoddiness of the Irish movement, I can well believe this, despite Hugh Roe’s typically brash nature.
Tyrell’s vanguard was out of position to help O’Neill, who now came under more sustained attack. Mountjoy sent most of his heavy cavalry, well armoured and battle hardened, over the stream to hit his opponent. Initial frontal assaults failed, before the English cavalry were able to regroup and hit at O’Neill’s flanks. The Tyrone chieftain had plenty of horses himself, but they were of the lighter kind, and completely unused to a set-piece fight. They had never faced a charge from heavy cavalry before and the results were a calamity. Despite trying to place the boggy ground between himself and the enemy, O’Neill’s horse was scattered and slaughtered and very quickly his infantry core was under serious threat. Under sustained attack, they began to break up. Mountjoy pressed the advantage as much as he could.
Tyrell swung his battle backwards as O’Neill tried to organise matters before a rout began. Tyrell aimed to place himself between O’Neill and the advancing Mountjoy, but all he did in the end was add to the unfolding catastrophe. Mountjoy piled forward with his regiments of infantry and musketeers, smaller and more mobile than the Irish tercio’s. Tyrell’s battle was hit hard on the flanks too and bloody fighting commenced. The battle was now a charnel house and any opportunity for a more manoeuvrable type of fight was gone.
This was the crucial moment really and it was here that the lack of experience in conventional battle probably told in the worst way. The Spanish in Tyrell’s formation fought hard and suffered badly before being overrun, with the rest of the Irish breaking far before that. The English assault was just to deadly, with too much momentum. Tyrell’s tercio broke apart with the men starting to flee northward. Their panic only exacerbated the continuing break-up of O’Neill’s battle, and soon a general flight was occurring. The immediate area of the fight became filled with carnage, as the English infantry and cavalry broke into a short range pursuit, cutting down those who were running and finishing off the isolated few who remained.
O’Donnell probably came close to the battlefield at this point, but only in time to see the rest of the army running away. He allegedly tried to rally them with screamed words, shocked to see the disintegration, but there was nothing he could do. The retreating Irish paid him no heed, and before too long his own battle was joining them, unwilling to face the English alone.
It had only taken a few hours but the battle was over. All of the hopes and dreams of the Irish were smashed on the boggy fields west of Kinsale.
The casualties are disputed, as you would expect, but they were enormous. At least 800 Irish were killed, probably closer to, or above, a thousand. Another 400 or so were wounded, making the battle the equal of the Yellow Ford for the Irish. The Spanish contingent was wiped out. It was a near-total victory for Mountjoy, a justification for his decision to stay and fight it out, the decisive triumph over the Irish that the English had been seeking since the war started.
The English were tired from the attack and their own situation, so did not have the energy to pursue. They did have the energy for an impromptu victory celebration as they returned to their camp, firing off guns and waving captured colours about. Unfortunately for the Spanish in Kinsale, this was misinterpreted as the arrival of their allied Irish, and Aguila was soon sending out a sortie in force to help out, attacking into the entrenched troops of Carew and Thomond. It took a time and some casualties for the Spanish to realise their mistake and to understand that no one was coming to help them. It took another ten days for Aguila to surrender the town and his men. He received generous terms from Mountjoy, who allowed the Spanish to head home with their lives and their flags. Mountjoy would return back to the Pale a hero.
Aguila’s role in the defeat has long been criticised. The Irish judged him a coward and dishonourable, for refusing to send his forces out earlier than he did, and for generally acting like the Irish were an inferior lot he despised. I would place no great blame for the defeat on his shoulders though. He did not have the manpower to face down Mountjoy himself, and could not have been expected to send his troops out on the assumption that the Irish would be along shortly. The Spanish did sally out when they thought help was coming after all. As for his relationship with the Irish, it can be hardly be said that O’Neill or O’Donnell did much to alter his opinion. Aguila died shortly after returning to Spain, so was spared any further inquiry into his performance.
The reasons for the Irish defeat are obvious and manifest. The offensive movement was unwise and unnecessary, commenced with more out of brash desire to do anything rather than nothing. The Irish formations were unwieldy and poorly organised. The night time march was badly done and left the Irish army incredibly vulnerable when the sun came up. Mountjoy took his chance when it appeared, pressing the attack and forcing the rout to occur. O’Neill failed to take advantage of the terrain and his cavalry were utterly unsuited to the task they were expected to accomplish. O’Donnell probably lagged behind the others and his absence would have been keenly felt. In the end, the Irish were too tired, too inexperienced, too stretched and too lacking in resolve to face down even Mountjoy’s damaged army. The Lord Deputy’s decision to stay and besiege Kinsale had been a risky one, but he had taken his chance when it came and successfully managed what forces he had available to him in order to combat the Irish and contain the Spanish at the same time.
For those Irish, the following days were the lowest ebb. Most realised how bad the defeat was, not least Hugh O’Neill, who may very well have opposed the entire operation. The losses he had incurred were staggering and worse was to come in the slow retreat back to the north, through the harsh cold of January, with few supplies and many walking wounded to care for. Many more Irish would have fallen to cold, disease and wounds on the way back to Tyrconnell and Tyrone. When they got home, they would have been met with the realisation that the English and Niall Garbh were still encamped and threatening, that their own numbers had been whittled down significantly, that they no longer had any great prospect of gaining further Irish allies or for further Spanish involvement. Hugh O’Neill, already well advanced in years at 52, must have realised that his cause was probably lost, and that he lacked the time or resources to recover them sufficiently. The great gamble had failed.
Further heartbreak was to follow, though it would take a time for the news to come back to Ireland. It was decided very shortly after the defeat that only a direct plea to Philip III would do in order to revive Spanish sentiment after the defeat ands that a leader of the rebellion must be the one to do so. Leaving his brother Rory with the chieftaincy of Tyrconnell, Hugh Roe resolved to go.
Hugh Roe did make it to Spain and did meet Philip. The meeting apparently went well and the Spanish King seems to have expressed some positivity for another expedition. Hugh Roe remained in Spain to perhaps try and organise this force. But shortly afterwards in September 1602, Hugh Roe, not yet 30, took ill and died. Rumours quickly spread that an English agent had poisoned him, but these can never be confirmed. It was immaterial in the end. Hugh Roe, the firebrand of the rebellion, the master of the raid and one of the most brilliantly aggressive leaders of Gaelic Ireland, never set foot back in his homeland after Kinsale. He had proven himself a very capable young leader in terms of raid and ambush and his speedy attacks and string of victories had done as much as anything to insure the dominance of the rebels in the early years of the war. But his final martial engagement was a poor one, and his inexperience in dealing with sieges and with leading large volumes of troops dragged him down. His death was, for such a character, somewhat ignoble, though his memory as the “Fighting Prince of Donegal”, a Catholic champion, would last down through the ages.
For those who remained behind under Hugh O’Neill, the war now changed. The goal of an Ireland free from English rule vanished. The losses at Kinsale and everything that came with it were too much to bear. From the end of Kinsale to the end of the war, the fight was one for more favourable terms. It would become a deadlier conflict than ever before, one in which the population of the rebel countries would bear the brunt of English retribution and their war machine.
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