Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Munster Campaign

I mentioned last week that the internal court politics of Elizabeth I reign 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 waters of Europe and 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 the 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 were complicated things 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 enemies who were abroad. These courts could be compared to political cabinets today, dealing with things like royal finances or 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, the issue was 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 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, the largest ever sent to Ireland. 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 strategies. In fairness to Essex and the English, this is something that they realised, and his actions upon his arrival in Ireland back that up. He told Elizabeth directly that there should be a greater emphasis on non-combat actions, like going after the rebel economy and naval blockades, as well as turning lesser rebels to the English side to do their fighting for them.

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 setback at 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 singular attack on Ulster. Instead, he started dividing his force in order to shore up numerous 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. But it did conflict with the hopes of the council in Dublin, who wanted a more direct assault on rebel forces, especially those in Ulster.

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. If you believe the Irish sources, hundreds of English were killed at the “battle”, but this seems unlikely given the clash’s lack of greater notoriety. It is more believable that Essex took a few losses from a small Irish ambush, but went through otherwise unscathed. The area was christened “he Pass of the Plumes” by locals 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, several hundred or so, held the castle, and Essex was obliged to spend a few days building siege works and blasting a breach in its walls when calls for its surrender were ignored. Attempts were made by Munster rebels to relieve the castle, but they mostly 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 the night before. 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 the 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, 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. By the time that Essex marched back in the direction of Dublin, the rebellion in the midlands and in Munster seemed no nearer to a satisfactory conclusion than it had before and, of course, the main rebel strongholds in Ulster remained unassailed.

As Essex himself had feared when he described warfare in Ireland before his arrival as a “miserable, beggarly affair”, his impressive conventional force of massed infantry, cavalry and artillery was just a ponderous target in a land where the “wood-kerne” rained supreme, and where the Irish were happy to watch an enemy army starve itself into uselessness. Essex’s general refusal to devastate or plunder the countryside of Munster, out of a hope that such a conciliatory stance may encourage the Muster Irish in arms back into a loyal position, backfired, as the Irish instead deemed Essex as a man not to be feared, or even to be engaged with, while such refusals to make perceived hard choices were ample fodder for Essex’s enemies back in London.

More hard choices were coming Essex’s way. Success or failure of his time in Ireland now rested on what he would do about the northern rebels, and when he met Hugh O’Neill face-to-face.

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

This is the first half of what was originally one larger article, subsequently split into two upon revision. The second half can be found here.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Munster Campaign

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Downfall | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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