Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Kinsale

A note on dates: The English 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.

Also please note that this is the first half of what was originally one article, now divided as part of an editing process. The second part can be found here.

We left the scene last week with the Irish forces encamped not far from Kinsale. Before we get to the business of the battle that bears the name of that town, 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. Establishing a foothold in Ireland carried with it many possibilities, not least the potential for a staging ground for an attack on England.

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 west 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 patrolling the seas around Ireland was not to be underestimated either. In the end, it seems clear that the Spanish decided to aim for somewhere on the Munster coastline, for the ease of potential reinforcement from Spain if nothing else.

The leader of the Spanish force was Don Juan del Aguila, a very experienced Spanish soldier with a long history of combat in Italy, Flanders, France and even England, where he had led a brief raid on Cornwall in 1595. Accusations of tax fraud had left him imprisoned in Spain recently, but upon his innocence being proven he was awarded the command of the Irish expedition, as a sort of reparation. Del Aguila was a man whose courage was not doubted, though his record of practical accomplishments in warfare was somewhat mixed.

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 third of the men and equipment, a hard blow before any engagement had been made. It is something to ponder on, how things may have turned out if the Spanish force had been a third stronger than it turned out to be.

After a month at sea del Aguila’s remaining army 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 City, that del Aguila took without much resistance on the 21st September. 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 (del Aguila compared it to a “pit”), a major English garrison was not far away in Cork, and most crucially, the Spanish were as far away from their Irish 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 additional desperate letters to Spain in order to advise on a suitable landing site further north, but these communications arrived too late. A much smaller force was blown off course and landed at Baltimore, further to the west.

Del Aguila quickly consolidated his position, securing the poorly defended town (the tiny garrison retreated rapidly) 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 immediately, del 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 wholesale were the guards at the passes into Ulster, and even they had their garrisons reduced.

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 within a year, or two at most. 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, some of whom were exhausted after years of combat in Ireland with no end in sight. If the Spanish were numerous enough, they could win. Having a Spanish front in Ireland was an unacceptable risk to England, bringing the larger war far too close to home. Any joining of the Spanish with the rebels would make the continued fighting a far dicier prospect.

Mountjoy 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 operations northwards. Once Mountjoy had defeated them he could resume his operations against the rebel Irish, dealing with his various foes in detail.

We’ll never really have a clear picture of how many troops Mountjoy was able to muster, but the eventual numbers would have been huge. Some sources claim that as many as 12’000 troops, a mix of English and loyalist Irish, would march to Kinsale to combat the Spanish foe. Such numbers are not unbelievable, especially as Mountjoy stripped garrisons all over Ireland, much to the chagrin of the council in Dublin, who worried about rebel Irish coming over the hill while the Pale was undefended.

While O’Donnell and O’Neill were gathering their armies and preparing their winter march, the English were engaged in their own military operations. Del 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. After some light skirmishing with the advance portions of his enemy, he retreated behind the walls of Kinsale. He had supplies for a time and he had a roof over his head: with the weather starting to bite with cold, he knew that those outside the walls would be worse off, and he presumably had word that Irish help was on its way. Taking to the field offered no advantages. By mid-October a siege had begun, and it was the English in the worse of the 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. His advantage in cavalry told as the English devastated the surrounding countryside to deny its bounty to the enemy. They also had a decisive edge in terms of artillery, and cannon fire rained down ceaselessly on the Spanish position once the heavier guns were in place. 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 edged his siege lines closer to Kinsale, despite the fact that they were routinely filled with water and ordered his artillery to focus on Kinsale’s outward defences. By the start of December a workable breach had been made in the aging medieval walls. A 2’000 strong detachment 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 offensives. Del Aguila’s bread and butter during his previous military campaigns was sieges, albeit usually he was prosecuting them, so he was not unready to deal with such things.

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 English. Del Aguila was probably prepared to attempt a breakout if it came to it, but held back from this course for the time being. 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 the Spanish were supposed to be helping. 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 very important part of Mountjoy’s force.

He needed it, because things were getting desperate. The cold increased the suffering and diseases like dysentery began to ravage the encamped army. 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 some of the Irish began to slip away. Over a month into the siege, Mountjoy had seen nearly 5’000 men of his army either desert or become incapacitated due to various factors. A soup kitchen and makeshift hospital were rapidly constructed 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 unable to do anything about the landed troops, who were well defended 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. If that happened, the combined army would easily outnumber his own men capable of fighting. Mountjoy choose to stay and seek whatever end he could, 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.

Either way, the stage was now set. The English sat between the rebel Irish and the Spanish. A battle seemed inevitable, and it would be a fight that would determine the remaining course of the war.

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

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