John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, had, with the help of the Duke of Württemberg, brought Cork City to heel. But, with the campaign season rapidly approaching its end, he still had one more target he needed to hit. With nearly 10’000 men at his command, he had the forces necessary to take it, but it remained to be seen whether they would be able to stay ahead of the oncoming weather, work past the dissension of their commanders and overcome the more difficult target of Kinsale.
Kinsale, in 1690, was already a town whose name resonated in Irish history. The Battle of Kinsale, fought to the west of the then town, had been the decisive encounter of the Nine Years War, a fight where an opposite result could have drastically altered the resulting course of Irish history. That day, the combined forces of Tyrone and Tyrconnell had been undone by their own over exuberance in seeking a fight, while their Spanish allies stood apart inside the town, besieged by English forces who kept them at bay.
Now, nine decades later, the situation was similar, but different. A siege would again take place, but it would be Irish forces doing the defending, and there would be no set-piece battle fought outside the walls. Kinsale itself had changed too: it remained one of the most pivotal ports on Ireland’s south coast, but the town itself was not considered particularly defendable in a more advanced age of artillery. Instead, two forts, on either side of the River Bandon, served to protect the town from threats that might come from land and sea. On the west, Old Fort, also called James Fort, was, as you might expect, the older of the two, thrown up some time after the Battle of Kinsale and kept in decent condition. On the east bank, the far more impressive New Fort, or Charles Fort, had been more recently constructed, and was one of the most modern fortifications in Ireland, arranged in a star pattern with thick walls, expressly designed to turn away cannon fire and offer the best means of defence. The forts guarded the mouth of the Bandon, and could hold sizable garrisons for the defence of Kinsale and the larger area around. Under an elderly but committed commander named Edward Scott, this garrison was not overly large but not small either; moreover, unlike Cork, they were better prepared for a fight, and had the provisions to hold out longer.
Scott himself showed quickly that he was to be unlike the more weak commanders of Cork. When he received news that the Williamites were approaching from the east, he made the decision to abandon the town of Kinsale itself, leaving it burning behind him, while he and his forces retired to the forts. It wasn’t that Kinsale, the town that is, was worthless, it was just that it wasn’t worth defending at that moment, with its weaker walls and civilian population. Instead, Scott choose to maximise the strength of his defence by reverting entirely to the military fortifications nearby. Marlborough could have Kinsale and whatever could be salvaged there. But the true threat, through this portion of the Jacobite military, would remain unless the forts could be taken. Churchill was hard pressed between the expectations of his contemporaries – those Dutch officers, and King William, who wouldn’t have wept to see him fail – and the oncoming likelihood of weather too poor to campaign in. Churchill’s forces would need winter quarters soon. That reality must have offered some comfort to the defenders: it being October, they would not have to hold out indefinitely (certainly, there would be no relief force coming to save them).
After a small vanguard made their way into the area first, Marlborough was able to arrive with his larger army without any duress. He called upon Scott to surrender: the summons was curtly refused, Scott declaring there would be “time enough to talk about that a month hence”.
Marlborough didn’t have a month. After taking what remained of the town he focused initially on the older and weaker of the two forts, where Scott had placed himself. Churchill ordered a speedy assault on this position, sending troops over the Bandon on boats to attack the fort from the eastern side rather than march around. The attack was incredibly risky, foolhardy even, and most accounts describe it being beaten back without too much trouble. Marlborough may have simply felt the potential rewards – adding the possibility of catching the Jacobites off guard – worth the risk.
Astonishingly though, it worked out. Just as the English troops had nearly expended their energy in the attack, the powder magazine inside the fort exploded due to an accident. Over 200 men were killed or wounded instantly, and the fort took heavy damage. In the confusing that followed, Scott decided to abandon James Fort with what men he had left, heading over the river his own way to Charles Fort.
Marlborough had half a victory, through he achieved it largely through luck rather than martial skill. The far more considerable problem of Charles Fort remained in front of him. Making use of high ground nearby – the fort’s only real weakness – Marlborough was able to gain advantageous position for his artillery, and commenced a bombardment of the fort and its walls, even as siege trenches began to be dug.
The resulting fight – if it can really be called that – lasted for just over two weeks, as the cannon continued firing, the weather turned worse and the defenders continued to hold out. But eventually Scott had to see the reality: he had no ability, following the disaster in James Fort, to strike back properly, and lacked artillery. Charles Fort, while impressive, couldn’t withstand the attacks forever, and a breach had been formed in its outer walls under the sustained bombardment. The Irish could, potentially, have made the British forces pay for any taking of Charles Fort, but it would come at the cost of their own lives, which were still savable.
Marlborough would, based on his recent decisions, surely have been prepared to attack that breach, trying his luck one more time, but he never had to. Scott signalled his desire to negotiate terms. They were the same ones the Cork garrison had initially presented: that the garrison be allowed to march away with arms and colours. This time, Churchill agreed, and the fort passed over to him without any additional bloodshed. It was just in time really: he could not have stayed in the field for too much longer, and the pressure from the “Dutch party” would have been getting more and more intense. He had previously refused such terms when offered by Cork, but now he grasped at them eagerly. With the capture of Charles Fort, Marlborough accomplished the stated objectives of his entire campaign, and arranged winter quarters for his troops there and in the surrounding area. Scott and the thousand or so men left under him, headed north, satisfied that they would get to fight another day.
The Siege of the Kinsale Forts was no great epic moment in Irish military history, though it could easily have gone another way. If James Fort had avoided its gunpowder misfortune, it could have held out longer and inflicted more damage on the attackers. Even an extra week might have been enough to force Marlborough and his army to withdraw eventually, their task uncompleted and Churchill left humiliated. Scott did as well as he could, but the vagaries of fate and chance were against him. With more men and more support, Charles Fort could have been held for a longer period of time, but in the end Scott did all that was realistically capable.
Marlborough had an incredibly bright martial future ahead of him, but at Kinsale he was hardly at his best. His reckless assault on the first fort could have been a disaster, and his efforts at taking the second dragged on. But he had taken them, and won some key victories for the Williamite side. Now much of Munster stood ready to be taken properly by Williamite forces, at least as far as the still resistant Limerick. The importing of supplies and men from France would now be more difficult for the Jacobites, not to mention simple communications with the French King (and, I suppose, James II). The victory at Limerick had seen the Jacobites survive, but the final campaigns of 1690 showed clearly how much more they had to do if they were to turn defeat into success. But that would be for 1691.
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