Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Downfall

This was originally the second half of a larger entry, that I have decided to split as part of a revision/expansion. The first part can be found here.

The first campaign that the Earl of Essex had led in Ireland had been a disappointment, after such hopes that it would prove to be the undoing of the whole rebellion. The government hold in parts of Leinster and eastern Munster had been improved, and the taking of Cahir Castle was, despite what the Queen and others may have thought, no mean accomplishment. But the cost had been extremely high, and the rebellion in Munster had not been in any way quelled, with the forces of the Sugan Earl still dominant throughout the largest part of the province. Essex’s army was not kept adequately supplied and there does not seem to have been any kind of alternate plan prepared if a decision was unable to be found with the initial march. The Munster rebels, well versed in the local geography and the ways to fight in it, were able to keep the army of Essex under immense pressure while avoiding any really dangerous encounters. Even worse, around the time of Essex’s campaign, 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 back 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 rebel-friendly villages and fight a brief encounter with the O’Byrne’s, where they forced the local Irish opponents 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 of the whole affair.

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. Hugh O’Neill had never moved to Munster as expected and remained a key threat, while Hugh Roe O’Donnell was still looming over Connacht, despite the reinforcements that had been sent in that direction. It is not surprising then that Elizabeth was greatly displeased, not just due to the results of the campaign and the associated costs, but because of 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 the Lord Lieutenant 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, Leix and Westmeath with the help of Conyers Clifford’s Connacht army, but was unable, again, to get a lasting success. English fortresses at Maryborough and Philipstown were re-supplied and some bands of rebel troops successfully engaged, but nothing of lasting effect was won. Clifford lost a number of very valuable men in the process, and those losses would be sorely felt within the year.

The later part of 1599 was a desperately unhappy time for Essex and the English in Ireland. He and his strategy were being continually censured by both 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’s 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 an effort struck down with a debilitating malaise.

All the while, Hugh O’Neill tightened the noose. The English setbacks produced a rake of defections, including members of the Burke clan in Sligo, who up to then had remained loyal. O’Neill’s network of allies, growing as a result of self-preservation, careful diplomacy, outright threats and even assassination, had become a confederation that seemed in many ways to be on the verge of forcing the English out of Ireland, through simple strangulation instead of open battle. The government, beyond the Pale, extended mostly as far as their various fortress walls. O’Neill, still situated for the most part in the heart of Ulster, was able to direct a war effort, and a war economy, with apparent ease, maintaining his own harvests and incoming supplies, building up his own capacity to manufacture needed war material and commanding distant rebel groups to harry and raid as he saw fit.

An English 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. The long hoped for amphibious landing on the north coast was no longer feasible in the short term, and the idea of marching into O’Neill’s heartland seemed one of limited possibilities: at best, the English would be able to place another fort they would then struggle to maintain. But the realism of the commanders in theatre mattered not: Elizabeth was furious with the defeatism being shown, and on her direct order Essex and his army moved north. The initial aim was the capture of Cavan Town or Kells, but Essex ran into almost immediate trouble when he found the passes into Ulster fortified and held against him.

On the 6th 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, who must have spent a great deal of time thinking about the defeat at the Yellow Ford. So threadbare was the state of the English military in Ireland at the time, that Essex was obligated to forbade any operations in the midlands while he marched north, just in case the scant number of troops there were needed to defend a vulnerable Pale region.

The two armies formed up on either side of the river in battle array, but in the end no fight occurred. On suggestions from envoys, and after an initially bombastic offer from the English commander for a ceremonial duel between the two, Essex and O’Neill agreed to meet with each other the following day, at a ford of the nearby River Glyde. On the 7th, that famous meeting took place with O’Neill wading up to his horses belly in the Glyde in order to confer privately with Essex on the left bank, a gesture of humility and respect in some eyes, though maybe it was just practicality: already in the course of the war a parley had turned into a bloodbath.

What the two talked about that day, out of earshot of any witnesses for around a half hour, 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 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 O’Neill due to earlier broken cessations, 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 O’Donnell on the perceived generosity of the terms, broke the truce after a while and declared his aims of Catholic freedom publicly, 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 campaigns were poor ones. 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 suggested 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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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Downfall

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Curlew Pass | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Curlew Pass | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Essex’s Munster Campaign | Never Felt Better

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

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