Ireland’s Wars: Mellifont

The Nine Years War had reached its ninth year. The winter of 1602/03 had been a bitter one for the population of Ulster, and Ireland in general, 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 a handful of others remained as 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. But, it is also fair to say that, if allowed, his could maintain this struggle for a lengthy enough period, and keep English forces tied to Ulster for years to come.

It was time 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. She still wanted those terms to be punitive, but Mountjoy was of a mind to be more generous. Anything to bring the fighting to a close. From a financial perspective alone, the war could no longer continue as it had.

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. There was still the slim chance that the Spanish could come again, something that certainly influenced Mountjoy’s approach to the negotiations, and O’Neill was willing and eager to exploit that fear as much as possible.

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 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 being 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 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. There may be a degree of English propaganda in this of course, but was not propaganda was what he agreed to. 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 they 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. This was a significant enough concession from the English, with Elizabeth wanting O’Neill’s reduced to the barony of Dungannon before she had passed.

O’Neill would also end forever any pretensions of loyalty to another crown, re-swearing allegiance to the English monarchy. 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 supposed crimes. It was, in effect, the old policy of “surrender and regrant” by any other name. Considering the extent of the war, and the damage that O’Neill had caused the English position in Ireland, the final treaty could be deemed exceedingly positive for him.

With Mountjoy and O’Neill 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 downplaying 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.

The war was over, but the repercussions would last a long time. Within a few years, some of the main players would be involved in another crises, one that would prove a watershed moment in Irish history.

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

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