Ireland’s Wars: From Mellifont To A Flight

The Nine Years War had reached its ninth year. The winter of 1602/03 had been a bitter one for the population of Ulster, who struggled to survive amidst the scourge of a famine, the weather and a brutal English occupation. Tyrconnell and Connacht had made their peace with Mountjoy. Now, only Hugh O’Neill and Brian O’Rourke remained as active rebels.

O’Neill’s war was now of a very low-scale nature, little more than an irritant to the plans and operations of the English. He had barely more than 600 men left, enough to launch a few raids and ambushes on English patrols and garrisons, but nowhere near enough to actually cause any lasting damage. Hiding in the forests of Fermanagh or the more watery country near Lough Neagh, O’Neill was now easily contained, and more likely to meet the same fate as previous rebel leaders, or his predecessor Shane O’Neill, than cause serious trouble for the English.

The time had come for peace to be made, and Mountjoy was keen to see the job through. By February Elizabeth, rapidly approaching her own end, had authorised him to bring O’Neill to terms, rather than hunt him down like had been done to other Irish rebels in the past.

Mountjoy directed two intermediaries, Sir William Godolphin and Sir Garret Moore, to get in contact with O’Neill. The Tyrone Chieftain, now living rough for several months, eagerly agreed to peace talks. There was no more use in further fighting, and all that remained was to see who would come out better in the peace to follow. The news of Hugh Roe’s death would have hit O’Neill as hard as anyone, the last blow to an already faltered war effort. The collapse since Kinsale was remarkable to see, but is evidence of the assertion that the expedition to the south was a winner-take-all affair.

The talks took place at Mellifont Abbey, County Louth, in late March, with safe conduct guaranteed for O’Neill. In truth, much of the negotiations were probably done by intermediaries beforehand, or else Hugh would have been unlikely to present himself before the English.

On the 27th of March, several days before Hugh arrived at Mellifont, Mountjoy secretly learned that Elizabeth, having been ill for some time, had died three days beforehand. It is likely that, given the nature of how communications were carried back and forth between Ireland and England, that Mountjoy was the first person in the island (of importance) to learn that the last of the Tudor dynasty was dead.

Much has been written about what happened afterwards, and I will attempt to cut through to the crux of the matter. The main issue was that no one was completely sure what would happen in England next. Elizabeth had no direct heirs, having famously stayed unmarried and childless her whole reign. The strongest claim, and the one that many in the court had been secretly working towards recognising and promoting, came from James VI of Scotland. His Great Grandmother had been Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth, making him a somewhat distant cousin. Given the nature of the English monarchy at the time – the Wars of the Roses were only a few generations past – plenty were worried that there could be a scrap if more than one claimant emerged.

As it happened, James VI was proclaimed King the day after Elizabeth died, and his succession – now as James I of England – went relatively smoothly. But the interregnum period still had a bearing on what was happening in Ireland.

It has been argued that Mountjoy’s authority in Ireland died with Elizabeth, she being the royal monarch that had appointed him and given him powers to fight and treat with the rebels as he saw fit. The new King could easily have a different outlook, so Mountjoy had no basis for continuing the negotiations. This however, is not true under English law in effect then or since, and Mountjoy’s position remained in effect until the royal power removed it. James may have wanted to make changes in Ireland, but Mountjoy was legally obligated to follow his pre-existing orders until told otherwise, and maintained his authority.

The more real concern was O’Neill. He was coming to Louth to surrender and swear fealty to Elizabeth, not James. If informed of the fact that the Queen was dead, the worry was that negotiations would be abandoned by him, and he would return to the woods and mountains to maintain his pitiful struggle for a while longer. The idea was that the new King, a somewhat unknown force, could have proved more open to reconciliation and to previous Irish demands, such as freedom of conscience, if the war could be maintained long enough for him to be installed as King and open his own negotiations. There might also have been an element of prestige to the entire affair, if O’Neill could fight on long enough to say that he had never submitted to Queen Elizabeth.

Faced with these worries, Mountjoy hushed up about the Queen’s death and swore to silence the handful of others who knew. Nothing could be allowed to delay peace and Mountjoy was probably eager to end the conflict on his terms before James could possible change them and to then head home and insert himself into the court of the new King.

Hugh O’Neill arrived at Mellifont on the 30th of March. Several sources indicate he was immediately submissive, falling to his knees before Mountjoy – who he was probably meeting in person for the first time – and spending an hour repenting his sins towards her Majesty’s government and swearing his allegiance forever more. The things he swore and the things that Mountjoy offered became what we know as the Treaty of Mellifont.

The terms of the treaty were exceedingly generous given the current state of the military situation, but is also a measure of how much England wanted the war to be over. O’Neill would abandon forever his Gaelic title – “The O’Neill” – accepting only the title of Earl of Tyrone and the primogeniture that came with it. He would end forever any pretensions of loyalty to another crown. Irish (Brehon) law in his country would be abolished, replaced by an English system enforced by crown-appointed English sheriffs. Irish culture, in the form of Gaelic Bards, would no longer be supported and English would be the official language of the Tyrone state. Catholic colleges were not to be built in Tyrone, and the reformation would continue apace there. In return for all this, the attainder on him would be withdrawn, O’Neill would retain the vast majority of his current lands (minus some land for the Church) and would receive a pardon for his crimes.

Thus agreed, the Nine Years War came to an end.

The total number of casualties is difficult to determine, with both sides of the conflict exaggerating or downgrading as they saw fit. One thing we can know with relative certainty is the that the vast majority of deaths occurred as a result of famine in the case of the Irish and disease in the case of the English. A death toll of at least 100’000 overall is well within the bounds of possibility, a sizable proportion of the Irish population at the time, and also representing significant casualties and costs for the English side. Certainly, the island had not seen the like of the conflict before.

O’Neill travelled with Mountjoy to the Pale, where he received the news that the Queen he had just surrendered and sworn allegiance to had died. He allegedly burst into tears upon hearing so – whether it was because he felt he had been duped, was annoyed at the lack of prestige a continued hold out would have got him or was grieving over Elizabeth, we will never know – but the die was cast. He was compelled to make the exact same submission to the new King and nothing changed.

Hugh returned home, to a land still devastated. Depopulation was much-evident and it would take time for people to return, rebuild home and re-sow crops, but it was not as long as you might expect before Tyrone was a viable country again. For Hugh, now relegated to the role of a compliant English Earl, this was a probably a morose and lonely period, not helped by the absence of his son, Henry, who entered the service of the Philip III during the war and never returned. Brian O’Rourke had not been included in the Mellifont talks apparently, but the submission there ended his rebellion too, and he died the following year anyway.

In this postbellum period, we must look to some bizarre happenings further south, a strange half-rebellion that erupted in urban areas upon the accession of James. The towns of Ireland had been routinely loyal, especially in Leinster and South Munster. Places like Drogheda, Cashel and Waterford had maintained faith with the crown throughout the Nine Years War, and had done much for the monetary remuneration of the army. Even with the reformation, these areas remained predominantly Catholic in population and ethos, and Mountjoy’s administration was the latest in a long line that was willing to tolerate this as long as the faith was not practised openly and provocatively.

Now, with inaccurate rumours being bandied about that James was a Catholic and that, like in the time of Mary, the reformation would now be finished, the Catholic faith began to be preached openly in these areas with Protestant churches seized for the purpose. Further, thanks to unrest over money issues, several towns refused to proclaim James as was tradition and shut their doors to representatives of the crown.

This sort of hysterical reaction to the new King is hard to quantify and examine because it made such little sense. Mountjoy dubbed it “simplicity” and it does appear to have been a sort of illogically driven action. There was a small amount of violence directed at Protestants, but nothing near the levels that would be recorded later in that century.

Mountjoy was already making plans to return to England when this “revolt” broke out. Other English commanders may have gone into the towns – not protected by any military – in force and started hangings. In fact, given what had occurred in Tyrone, this is exactly what you might have expected from Mountjoy. But the devastation in the north had been for a military purpose, and Mountjoy was wise enough to know that such a course was not the solution to this last Irish problem he was presented with. He probably also knew, by know, that using the stick in Munster had provoked rebellion after rebellion.

Instead, he travelled to the areas with a smaller force and engaged with the “leaders” – mostly Catholic clergy – directly. The vast majority of the trouble simmered down due to his mere presence, and his toleration of a Catholic faith practised in a less flamboyant style did the rest. The towns of Ireland acquiesced and Mountjoy had averted a wider problem.

From there, he headed home for the first time in several years, bringing Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell with him. In London, all three men knelt before the new King for the first time, the agreement at Mellifont was accepted and the new titles for O’Neill and O’Donnell confirmed. James had no fault with the agreement that Mountjoy had reached, deeming it a merciful enough way to begin his reign when it came to Ireland. And, of course, the deal favoured England rather dramatically, as time would tell.

Mountjoy was granted the elite title of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an office he was glad to be able to carry out from England, with George Carew rewarded with the more hands-on title of Lord Deputy in Dublin. Mountjoy was well-regarded at court, but wound up being banished from there “in disgrace”, when he married his long time lover Penelope Devereux, the sister of the Earl of Essex. The two had been “involved” for years and had several children, but the marriage was unauthorised and threw Mountjoy into disfavour. He and his wife simply retired to their plentiful estates, where Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy and victor of the Nine Years War, died from a bout of pneumonia in April 1606. He had done more than any to bring victory in Ireland, and the peace he had ushered in would last long after he was gone.

The two rebel leaders returned home and settled into a life of peace. And peace it was. The English army was reduced back to pre-war levels, the Irish kerns on both sides, what were left anyway, were sent home. Forces were not trained or raised and save for what little banditry and small-scale squabbling between families remained, warfare ceased in Ireland.

But Hugh O’Neill was ever restless and never happy with his lot in the following few years. He complained about the English presence in his land and how his every move was watched by English spies. The new system of “freeholds” reduced his overall power in Tyrone in line with the English way of land ownership. The reformation continued with varying levels of oppression for the Catholic faith, which O’Neill was now bound not to interfere in. Numerous Acts passed by the crown continued this process, and it, more than anything, enraged local opinion. A war had just been fought, largely over religious matters, and the continuing destruction of the native faith was galling. Tyrone and Tyrconnell also lost access to fishery revenue and grated under the English domination over Irish language and culture. O’Neill was subjected to many irritating legal challenges over the borders of his territory and other matters. There was no call to arms, no genuine signs of plotting, but discontentment and anger were very much evident.

I am unsure as to what policy the English intended to pursue, long-term, towards Tyrconnell and Tyrone, but it was certainly not a positive one. A rebel was a rebel, and no one would have trusted O’Neill again. Such persecutions as were being meted out may all have been part of a co-ordinated effort to get him to show his true colours and thus provide a convenient means of eliminating him as a threat, but this cry of conspiracy has little to back it up. At least one source mentions a “sham plot” enacted by English spies meant to entrap O’Neill and O’Donnell and others into declarations of disloyalty to the crown, but as it happened, these were unnecessary.

Tired of the persecution, distrusting invitations to London to try and sort them out and fearing further attacks due to their Catholic faith – the recent Gunpowder Plot had made Catholics a prime target for many – Hugh O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell and many others suffering under the new English regime, had had enough.

With no way of raising a viable army in their own lands anymore, lacking the manpower or the money, their only hope was foreign support. Fearing that their own arrests would shortly come, they decided that the only way to achieve the expulsion of the English from Ireland and the return of all their old rights and privileges, would be to take sail and travel to those potential allies directly.

Thus, on the 14th of September 1607, Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, along with a host of lesser Gaelic chieftains and family members, boarded a ship provided by Maguire of Fermanagh. There are some suggestions that Hugh did this in a panic, worried he was about to be arrested, but more reliable sources deny this. From Rathmullen on Lough Swilly, they set sail for France.

“The Flight of the Earls”, as this event has become known, was a true watershed moment in Irish history. Gaelic life in the island didn’t die instantly, any less than complete domination by the English was assured. But the best hope for legitimate resistance was gone, and would not come back. This moment, this flight, can be accurately called the end of an era, and the beginning of a whole new one. Up until the Nine Years War and its immediate aftermath, Ireland had been an island characterised by the military competition between the native Irish Kingdoms and the Anglo-Irish Earldoms/Pale, as well as the near constant warfare between the Irish Kingdoms themselves. After the Flight of the Earls, with the strongest Irish chieftains having surrendered their titles and their place in Ireland, the old system can be seen to have been dying out completely. Earls, loyal to the crown and to its strict instructions regarding internecine fighting, were now the order of the day, true Earldoms, not like the faux ones that Tyrone had been in the past.

As for the Earls in flight, theirs was a sorry tale. They travelled first to Normandy, then Flanders, before finally heading for Rome, seeking support for another invasion of Ireland backed by foreign troops. But Spain, now at peace with England after a treaty worked out by James in 1604, wasn’t interested in upsetting the new status quo, at least not then. Empty handed, the Earls and their retinues settled in the Holy City, living on the charity of the Pope and Philip III, who while at peace with England, still had sympathy for the rebels. In 1608 a large amount of them died around the same time, probably from a bout of disease, including Rory O’Donnell, Maguire and Hugh O’Neill’s  eldest son and namesake.

Hugh himself lingered on, already in his 60’s, never ceasing his attempts to get backing for a military return to his homelands. Some sources say he lost his sight before the end, and on the 20th of July, 1616, he finally passed.

James had declared the actions of the Earls in leaving Ireland treasonous several years before this, and by 1614 they had been attainted once more, their titles revoked and lands confiscated, further diminishing the failing power of the old Gaelic system. Much worse than that, the Earls action allowed the English to declare the Treaty of Mellifont a null and void agreement, paving the way for much of the hardships that Ulster would soon endure.

I think this is as good a place as any to call a temporary halt. My “coverage” of the Nine Years War has stretched to way more posts than I thought it would and its conclusion marks a significant period of peace followed by warfare of a slightly different bent.

So, for the next entry I’d like to do a general wrap-up post on the Nine Years War, discuss critical points, overall strategy, commanders, successes, failures and all of that kind of thing. At some point too I’m hoping to write a piece on the counter-insurgency policy of the English in Ireland, and how that changed and adapted over time. Until then.

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: From Mellifont To A Flight

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