318 The Nine Years’ War

In Ulster near the end of the 16th century, it appeared that Elizabeth could reply at least on one of her favoured Irish subjects – Hugh O’Neill, Baron of Dungannon and Earl of Tyrone. But O’Neill was becoming increasingly disenchanted with English rule.

Download Podcast - 318 The Nine Years’ War (Right Click and select Save Link As)


You can find good maps at Ireland’s history in Maps


Now, podcastly speaking, I think I should be honest with you, for once. I fear this episode, I fear its skinny hand. There are some complicated things in the world – the potential for nuclear cold fusion, neuroscience, how the Warwickshire Bears can win two superb victories on the trot and then get crushed by Durham by an innings and 127 runs the very next week. These things are beyond human understanding. But there is another thing beyond human understanding, and this is the mass of lordships and relationships in Ulster in the late 16th century. I know that I will not be able to get which sept leaders were due what lands and inheritance, and then when you overlay the desires of the English government to turn Ireland into something like Wiltshire, the brain overheats. I tell you this for 3 reasons; firstly, just because a pain shared is a pain doubled; secondly because I may get details badly wrong and you are not to shout at me though you may certainly correct me; and thirdly just because I am going to have to cut corners dramatically, else this corner of history will be more confusing that all those Anglo Saxon names we had a while ago, and that’s a terrifying prospect.

We are gathered here today to consider the last great Irish revolt of the 16th century, under the hands of one Hugh O’Neill, who becomes Earl of Tyrone. The Earl is a controversial figure in many ways, or at least there are different ways to interpret his career and motivations. The most attractive one is the image that he would later proclaim to support his endeavours; the champion of Catholicism and Gaelic nationalism. Others were and are more cynical; one tradition painting him as an opportunist and deceiver, and yet another that his actions were dominated by the objective of furthering his power and that of his family – making choices somewhat like Grainne O’Maihle we heard about last week; or again, a man forced into rebellion despite his best efforts. Let us see what we think.

Hugh O’Neill was born around 1550, the younger son of one Matthew O’Neill. He was therefore born into the ancient and noble dynasty of the O’Neils. Hid dad Matthew was heir to the Earldom of Tyrone which had been created for his father Conn O’Neill by Henry VIII in 1542 under the policy of surrender and regrant. Conn had wanted to be made Earl of Ulster, with all the ancient connotations that name had, but Henry was grumpy with him so no dice. The earldom of Tyrone is physically slap bang in the middle of Ulster in the top right – I have put a link to a map on the website if you are interested. So, as a younger son, Hugh O’Neill didn’t have much of a look in anyway to a life of power and glory, although inheritance in the Irish tradition was different to English primogeniture; but you will remember of course that things got a lot worse for the Matthew side of the family with the rise to power in Ulster of Shane O’Neill the Proud, who used Gaelic succession rights to gain power, a rather familiar theme. It meant that Hugh slipped further down the list. But when in 1567 Shane was brought low, then Hugh O’Neill’s prospects rose again, and when he then became Baron Dungannon, he was again a potential heir to the lordship of O’Neil after a man called Turlough Luineach.

Hugh was no stranger to the English and to the court, he was no Gaelic outsider. Although It’s not entirely clear how he spent his youth and upbringing; there was a strong tradition of fostering, so he may have spent some time with the O’Hagans and O’Quinns, albeit that they were in the Shane O’Neill supporters club; from 1556-9 he seems to have spent some time in the household of Henry Sidney in Dublin; and then with the Hovendens an English family in the Irish Midlands who would remain loyal to Hugh right to the end. Henry Sidney would later claim that he had brought Hugh on

from a little boy, then very poor of goods and full feebly friended

And in 1567, Sidney took Hugh to London, on the eve of his elevation to his status as Baron Dungannon. Now given that Hugh’s prospects were on the rise, the experience must have been a positive one to the young Hugh; but the reasoning from Sidney’s point of view was not to be to the liking of the future Hugh. The creation of the Baronry was all part of the process of Anglicising and centralising Ireland, of creating a nobility with direct loyalty to the crown in the English tradition. So the old O’Neill lordship was to be broken up into smaller lordships of Gaelic and Old and New English, and the Scottish MacDonalds removed from the land they’d colonised in Ulster. It took a while, until 1572, for this strategy to be pursued, but it probably only had the status of a stepping stone to greater glories for Hugh; his ambition  to succeed to his father’s whole lordship had been blocked – but Hugh was not downhearted; there is, I am reliably informed, more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to become the master of the whole traditional O’Neil lordship. So, while professing, and probably believing in, loyalty to the crown, Hugh O’Neill set about extending the reach and extent of his effective power.

Partly this was by making himself indispensable to the Crown. In the 1580s he supported the English in the vicious struggle of Desmond’s rebellion. He did the same in Ulster; you may remember that the Eastern parts of Ulster were targeted for plantation settlement at the expense of the MacDonalds by Thomas Smith and the First Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, a scheme of particular viciousness and failure even by the desperately low standards of Elizabethan Ireland. Although they crashed and burned, Hugh O’Neil was seen to have provided valuable and loyal support; so much so that Elizabeth advised Essex

to use all good means to nourish the Baron of Dungannon’s…good devotion towards us

Given that Westminster had popped Hugh into the Good Egg category, English politicians watched with relative benevolence as he then extended his power within Ulster, as long as it was at the expense of the McShanes and the current Earl of Tyrone, all of whose power they wished to restrain. Hugh used traditional methods to extend the lands under his control, which were not gentle, such as establishing junior seps on the land he desired supported by his armed soldiers. And by 1587, O’Neil had indeed officially succeeded to the title of the Earl of Tyrone. As required, he offered the crown demonstrations of loyalty – such as sending his Hovenden allies to butcher 150 shipwrecked Spanish seamen from the Armada; which sounds straightforward enough, but one of his reasons for this was that he had been suspected of harbouring and protecting some. In this then lies an example that is a feature of Elizabethan Ireland; that violence bred further violence, Hugh O’Neill’s methods were no prettier than the extremely ugly English adventurers with whom he had to deal. In 1590 indeed he was recalled to London and imprisoned for a while for arbitrarily hanging a MacShane rival, reputedly stringing him up with his own hands.

So as time went by, the attitude towards O’Neil from the English began to move a little; worries began to circulate that maybe they’d bred a monster. Plus also we musn’t forget that while Tyrone, as I shall now call Hugh O’Neil, harboured ambitions to become the new leader of the complete Lordship of O’Neil with all its ancient authority, this was not the strategy of the English crown at all, not one little bit – they were, remember, intent on centralising administration in an English fashion with an English style aristocracy, no longer content to allow largely autonomous Gaelic lords to flourish. In 1591 this basic mismatch of intentions began to emerge into the light of day.

Part of the centralising of administration involved the implementation of English Common law across the Island or Ireland, and therefore assize circuits had been established; in 1591, a commission was established under an English administrator called Henry Bagenal to enforce the Assize’s conclusions. Well, this didn’t suit Tyrone at all, not one little bit, very much getting in the way of his view of the power he should wield as the traditional lord of the O’Neill. For now, he managed to get his lands excluded from the commission; but it’s interesting the very personal way in which he viewed Bagenal’s role; he already saw him as an enemy, and saw his appointment as submitting him into the hands of who he described as a ‘malicious enemy’; he did not see the attempt to implement new administrative forms as anything other than an assault on his personal and traditional rights of justice.

Part of the issue then was that lords like O’Neill occupied two worlds – a Gaelic world and an English one. Observers noted that Tyrone liked to fill Dungannon castle with English style furniture, he and his sons wore English style clothes. But Dungannon was a traditional settlement with Irish style round huts; after one visit, the Englishman James Harrington remarked with a general sense of lemon sucking disapproval how O’Neil was served by ‘beardless boys without shirts’[1]. Tyronne’s very success was based on his ability to inhabit both these worlds, the traditions, families, shifting alliances and brutal politics of Ulster with the world of English custom and equally brutal world of English politics in Ireland. In 1579, for example, he had suddenly repudiated his marriage to Siobhan O’Donnell so that he could marry a daughter of Turlough Luineach and become his heir, although that came to nothing. He was to use marriage to try and deal with his new problem, that of Henry Bagenal. Henry Bagenal had a 20 year old sister Mabel; and it seemed to Tyronne that a marriage would therefore turn enemy into ally. The trouble was, Bagenal had no interest in the proposed marriage – so Tyronne eloped with Mabel and got married anyway. The marriage seems to have been troubled possibly unsurprisingly; within a year Mabel was back at her brother’s house, complaining that Tyrone had ‘affected two other gentlewomen’, which I think is a euphemism, and was horrified that Tyrone’s foster brothers had butchered a disloyal servant in her sight. As political dance moves go it was more pogo than waltz; although Mabel seems to have returned to his side by the time of her death, her brother never delivered her marriage portion and did most definitely not apply for his Team Tyrone membership card.

Essentially, it is difficult to avoid the impression that if Tyrone might happen to die by the sword, he had certainly lived by it; he danced the dance of politics to achieve the greatness he desired. A contemporary English description of him from Fynes Moryson seems to have the ring of insight:

of mean stature, but of a strong body, able to endure labours, watching, and hard fare, being withall industrious, and active, valiant, affable, and apt to manage great affairs, and of a high, dissembling, subtle and profound wit. So as many deemed him born either for the great good or ill of his country

By 1594, it seems evident that Tyrone was playing both ends against each other, and we should tentatively introduce a new name into the story, one Hugh Roe O’Donnell, who had been held hostage in Dublin castle for some time; O’Donnell had been lord in Tyrconnel, a substantial lordship in the north west of Ulster. In 1592 he escaped, and escaped very probably with the help of Tyrone’s money, and re-appeared at home, in Tyrconnel. His father abdicated his lordship in his favour, and with Tyrone’s secret support, O’Donnel ejected the English sheriffs, and carried the fight to Turlough Luineach with the result that by 1595 Tyrone was in effective control of the whole O’Neil lordship. Still, Tyronne had not declared his hand openly, but there is a suspicion that by this time he might already have been communicating with Philip II of Spain, looking for his military support. Tyrone had essentially set the challenging objective – could he be sovereign in Ulster, while retaining the support of the English crown? It would take a while to find the answer.

But meanwhile, the English were desperate to trust him, and the delay in open warfare owes something to this – they were desperate to believe his protestations of loyalty because look, they were locked in mortal combat with Europe’s greatest empire, and just like Philip II they appeared to be in danger of fighting on multiple fronts – the Dutch republic, the high seas, France – please don’t tell me we have to fight in Ireland as well? Elizabeth has a well deserved reputation of being as mean as mouseshit and a war with Tyrone was well down the list of priorities. In 1594 Tyrone to all intents did fight a battle against a rebel, Maquire, at English urging; but it turned out to be largely theatre, since he’d allowed Maquire to move his cattle before things kicked off; and when ordered by Elizabeth to try to force O’Donnell to submit, he point bank refused, citing a lack of reward for earlier help he’d given. Now this has some justice – but the attitude it displays is one of a sovereign ruler, not the queen’s faithful servant.

In the winter of 1594-5, events forced him to make a choice. O’Donnell and his allies laid out their terms for peace in Ulster to the Crown; which was essentially a return to the status quo ante. They’d pay a tax, a composition, to the crown; in return they’d be admitted to the crown’s favour and English officials would be excluded from their lands – so, forget the strategy of centralising administration, Gaelic autonomy under vague English lordship back please. Unsurprisingly this was not something the Crown could accept. In February O’Donnel and his allies had seized a fort on the River Blackwater, and Henry Bagenal marched with 1750 me to relieve besieged English fortress.

At this point Tyrone himself took the field, and took field not on the English side, but O’Donnell, declaring before the battle that

‘it should be seen whether the queen or they should be masters of the field and owners of Ulster’[2]

So it was clear what Tyronne hoped his future would be; Bagenal received a through military mauling and fled back to Newry; by 23rd June the Irish Deputy and Council had declared Tyrone a traitor. By September Tyrone had himself installed as the O’Neill at the traditional inauguration site at Tullyhogue, and the rebellion was on. The tensions were all too much; the very strategy of the English crown conflicted with Tyrone’s view of his future and authority; but it was not just ambition. It was also survival as he saw it; just as in Connacht and Munster, English Adventurers like Smith, Devereux and Bagenal had caused violence and chaos in Ulster, and infringed on Tyrone’s authority and lands trying to carve out mini kingdoms for themselves. In a way no one wanted this conflict – but they’d got it anyway.

O’Donnell had already by this stage been in contact with Philip of Spain, and Tyrone now added his voice again. To get his help, they needed to do more than ask for help to maintain the status quo, which was essentially the autonomy of Ulster in the interests of a group of Ulster lords, and therefore might look relatively lo priority to Philip’s mind. And so a new strand emerged; the process of bigging up the rebellion started, with appeals for Catholic toleration, and on behalf of the Gaelic nobility of all Ireland. To begin with Philip was sceptical; but the success of the English raid on Cadiz increased his enthusiasm to cause Elizabeth some pain. In 1596, arms and ammunition arrived from Philip; in 1596 an expedition was sent, but was beaten back by the wind. Tyrone and O’Donnell knew that to preserve Ulster’s autonomy, force would be required; Spain’s intervention was critical, and though it would be a long time coming, it was of course the nightmare about which the English had been panicking for decades. Meanwhile, the rebels played with the English desperation to avoid a new front – in May 1596 Tyrone managed to persuade the Queen to pardon him, while appealing to the Irish of Munster and Connacht to rise in revolt – and attacks on the plantations of Munster suggested his desire was answered.

Now you might wonder what chance the Irish rebels had in this fight; since it has to be said that rebellions against the Tudor state had a very poor performance record – only Mary had managed it, and surely they would lack the resources and discipline to resist crown forces if the English were prepared to make a full commitment. Well certainly that’s what many of the English believed – Lord Burgh in 1597 believed that the Ulstermen simply needed to be confronted. Ironically though, he was himself forced to abandon a campaign into Ulster that very year – leaving behind him that vulnerable fort at Blackwater to be defended.

Well, what was the situation? First of all, it’s worth noting that the terrain favoured informal forces; it was remote, inaccessible and favoured the traditional Irish hit and run tactics. For the English, garrisons and forts which had access to the sea could be well supported and maintained, and Tyronne would struggle always to shift them; but inland strongpoints, like this new fort at Blackwater, the government forces quickly found really could not be maintained, isolated in a sea of hostility.



But also Tyronne had spent time and money on his fighting capabilities. Traditional Gaelic tactics were based on ambush and raid, hit and run stuff, as we said. Where set‐piece battles occurred they tended to be very traditional: bows and guns would be used to harass the enemy, but the decisive event was a massed charge by opposing forces of infantry who engaged one another with axe and sword. Tyronne was a major innovator, acquiring modern weapons, pike and musket, from various sources –originally Scottish, until that source was snuffed out after James’ treaty with Elizabeth from 1586, so primarily from Spain, but also from as far afield as Danzig on one occasion. Traditionally Irish armies had relied heavily on mercenaries, gallowglasses often from the Scottish highlands; and a ‘rising up’ for specific occasions of the general tenantry. Well, Shane the Proud had started the practice of arming and training the ordinary peasantry, and O’Neill extended this practice, using Irish returning from the wars in the Netherlands, and Spanish and Irish deserters from the English army; so much so that when Charles Blount arrived in Ireland he found an impressive army confronting him

so far from being naked people, as before times, that they were generally better armed than we, [and] knew better the use of their weapons than our men

Tyronne’s numbers were substantial; in 1595-6, he seems to have had 4,000 musketeers, 1,000 cavalry, and 1,000 pikemen. Cavalry tended to be the weakest part of Gaelic arms, but none the less cavalry also were starting to work in formation, and the English Privy Council reported to their horror that O’Neill’s forces were

wonderfully altered from their Irish manner of arms and weapons, and the use thereof, besides their order and discipline in governing their men[3]

You might ask how Tyrone could maintain such forces, and the answer seemed to be that the Ulster economy was pretty buoyant at this time, with such produce as cattle, hides, tallow, sheepskins, grain, and yarn bartered for weapons, managed by the ‘grey merchants’, or itinerant traders. Above all, the skills of Tyrone himself were critical in keeping together an alliance of O’Donnells and Maquires that had previously been antagonistic to the O’Neills.

All of this explains why, in addition to the pressures of war with Spain, the English were so keen to avoid conflict; the army in Ireland was probably only around 1,500 strong in 1595. Even by March 1598 when Ormonde would confront the rebels with more substantial forces, the royal army only numbered some 6,000. Interestingly, the assumption often is that the army was composed of English, which is not necessarily true; throughout the conflict, just as the Gaelic nobility negotiated their futures between a series of choices, so did ordinary people; English conscripts were often unreliable in fighting in Ireland, prone to desertion, whereas the Irish considered soldiering a good livelihood, and usually only deserted if not paid. Ormonde’s army then was composed of about 38% English, 20% Palesmen, and 38% Gaelic irish[4]. Meanwhile, even at this relatively low level the war was bleeding money – estimated to have cost £300,000 by 1597.



Ok, so the rebellion went through a period of rather reluctant conflict followed by periodic truces, until things started to escalate in August 1598. The flashpoint was the Blackwater Fort in Armagh, where an English garrison had been established; remote from the coast, the fort presented enormous problems of maintenance and supply and by 1598 was a constant concern, and as now besieged by Tyrone; the Irish PC considered withdrawing but in the end opted for war; and Henry Bagenal was equipped with a force of 4,000 foot and 300 horse. At Yellow Ford as Bagenal attempted to cross and approach the fort, Tyrone attacked, holding a line of hedges and raking Bagenal’s column with musket fire. Around 1300 men of Bagenal’s army were killed, along with Bagenal himself, and the fort was abandoned.

The war was transformed; from a dispute in Ulster it became general rebellion over much of the Island. O’Donnell carried war into Connacht, the plantations in Munster were attacked in October and planters fled or were killed, with horrified reports that

The meaner sort (the rebellion having overtaken them) were slain man, woman and child; and such as escaped came all naked to the towns[5]

For a while Thomond was overrun by a brother of the Earl who rebelled, raids managed to reach Dublin suburbs; in the midlands where conflict had been caused by the Offaly and Laix plantations conflict erupted between seps who were in revolt and seps who had reached accommodation with the Crown.

Who would save this terrible situation for the Queen then? Well of course her gaze and that of the Privy Council turned to the Earl of Essex, and to a massive escalation of the war effort; Essex was to command an army of 16,000 foot and 1300 horse, an absolutely gargantuan commitment by Elizabethan standards; and it’s worth noting that though the military results would fall into the C- category the success of supply for such a big army from England, an army twice the size of that in the Netherlands, was something of a triumph.

Now Essex was no fool, but he turned out to be a poor military commander; maybe the scale of the task and being over anxious to succeed quickly spoiled his aim. Rather than tackling the main objective in Ulster, Essex allowed himself to be distracted into relieving sieges and capturing rebel castles in the Midlands, until the Queen sent him angry letters telling him to get on with it; in the process she rescinded the agreement she’d made with him that he could come back to court and leave operations to a deputy, which will be significant. Stung by his mistress’s fury, Essex finally marched north to Ulster – although worth noting he had to override the advice of his Irish lords such as Ormonde to do so. By this stage, Essex’s army had been reduced in numbers; partly by defeats, such as an expedition by a deputy to support the O’Connor in Sligo, and partly by garrisons to protect the pale. So when he finally bit the bullet and left the Pale towards Ulster he had barely 4,000 men; and found that Tyrone had come to meet him, with almost double that amount. In September, then, Essex found himself invited to parley with Tyrone. No one knows what was said; but rumours spread Tyrone suggested that he’d help if Essex decided to rebel. The actual outcome was a truce.

When the Queen heard what was proposed, she was livid

It appeareth by your journal that you and the traitor spoke half an hour together without any body’s hearing; wherein, though we that trust you with our kingdom are far from mistrusting you with a traitor, yet both for comeliness, example, and your own discharge, we marvel you would carry it no better.

Elizabeth knew her man, saying of Tyrone ‘to trust this traitor upon oath is to trust the devil upon his religion’. But it was too late – Essex had agreed, and given the odds against him at the end, maybe he was right, but it said nothing for his competence. Realising everything was on the line now, Essex fled for London – where we’ll join him in a future episode.

By March 1600, Tyrone was at the head of a general insurrection, almost Island wide; and contemporaries noted that Tyrone was behaving just like a ruler

‘he makes viceroys, creates earls, bestows baronies, sets up and pulls down’

In effectively replacing the crown, he needed justification, and his rhetoric became more pronounced with a combination of defence of Catholicism, for

‘the extirpation of heresy, the planting of the Catholic religion’

and interestingly, a new brand of Irish Nationalism. Gone was the traditional separation of Old English and Gaelic, now there was just one people, rebelling against a foreign prince and misrule. Writing to an Anglo-Irish loyalist in Kildare he said

‘it is lawful to die in the quarrel and defence of the native soil, and that we Irishmen are exiled and made bond slaves and servitors to a strange and foreign prince’

It shouldn’t be supposed that Tyrone presided over an Ireland united in opposition to the Crown; towns remained loyal, and without siege engines, Tyrone was incapable of capturing them; his appeals made little impact on most Old English, particularly in the Pale; even the Catholic clergy were split between those who supported military rebellion and those who separated religion and politics. But much of Ireland was indeed in revolt, and Tyrone’s progress through Munster in the first weeks of 1600 looked almost like a royal progress. In addition the arrival of a new king in Spain had once more led to talk of Spanish intervention; Tyrone asked for an invasion of 6,000 men, and Philip III was interested, and started planning, though it became clear nothing could be achieved until 1601.

So, when Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy arrived in 1600 as the new viceroy, he faced a major task. But Mountjoy was a more ruthless, focussed and impressive commander than Essex, and a man with a plan; he would strengthen resistance to Tyrone in Munster and Connacht and squeeze him back into Ulster; he would ruthlessly deprive him of support through a scorched earth policy; and he’d open a new front in the north of Ulster, supported and supplied from the sea. The policy had a steady impact and success; Peter Carew re-established control in Munster; Henry Docwra established a base in the ruins of Derry, and Mountjoy himself challenged Tyrone from the south of Ulster. For the moment it seemed that Tyrone and O’Donnell were equal to the task and remained confident; Tyrone was confident enough to leave Docwra behind him a raid into the lands of the loyalist Earls of Thomond and Clanricard, burning and laying waste to their lands both as a punishment for their refusal to join the rebellion and maybe to remove enemies for a possible Spanish invasion.

While burning and destroying resources were an established tradition in Irish warfare and Tyrone was not averse to practising it himself, Mountjoy’s use of the tactic was brutal in the extreme and the consequences on the ordinary people horrendous; as they burned corn, and slaughtered cattle, Mountjoy’s secretary Moryson recorded

‘the common sort of the rebels were driven to unspeakable extremities, beyond the record of most histories that ever I did read’

Tyrone and O’Donnell’s situation had become desperate by 1601; but in communication with the Spanish they agreed to hold on, because at long last it seemed that Spanish boots would hit the ground in Ireland. A fleet of 44 ships with about 3,700 soldiers arrived in Ireland under the command of Juan del Águila in September 1601.


Ok., so this was it – the showdown for which all had been waiting, the longed-for support for which Tyrone and his allies had been pitching for so long; now at last the might of Spain would surely sweep away the English from the soil of Ireland. But for Tyrone there was a problem, and an agonising one. The Spanish had landed in the wrong place – in Kinsale, right in the south near the Cork. That had been a reasonable call last year when Munster had been Tyrone’s, but those days were gone, and now Kinsale was a long way from Tyrone’s centre of power. Also – they’d wanted more, they’d wanted 6,000 not 3,700. But it was inconceivable that they could look this gift horse in the mouth – and so Tyrone and O’Donnell resolved to meet the Spanish.

Mountjoy however moved even more quickly. While keeping the pressure up on Tyrone in Ulster, he’d not over committed himself – as soon as the news reached him he marched with 7,000 men to Kinsale and invested the town by November. O’Donnell and Tyrone came by separate routes to Kinsale – Tyronne raided the pale as he came, to try to tempt Mountjoy away to defend it and raise the siege of Kinsale, but Mountjoy was not buying it and stayed right where he was. Combined Tyrone and O’Donnell had about 5,500 men, and they trapped Mountjoy between Kinsale and their forces, the English army steadily reducing from disease and lack of supply – Mountjoy was desperate for an engagement as quickly as possible. His wish was granted on 24th December, when for once the Irish moved first, on the understanding that the Spanish would sally from the walls of Kinsale; and the English would be crushed twixt hammer and anvil. But Mountjoy was too quick, able for once to use his cavalry in a formal engagement, and Tyronne was defeated before the Spanish could have any impact. Nine days later Aguila surrendered, and was allowed to sail back to Spain with his men.

The irony is then that the arrival of the much dreamt of Spanish saviour lead directly to a defeat, fought on terms and a situation that favoured the English, throwing away all Tyrone’s inspired tactics and management.  The war as a competitive exercise was then effectively over though the fighting continued, and Mountjoy piled the pressure on Tyrone, building a ring of forts increasingly close to the centre of his domain. The cost of the war had been enormous in money and men. On the English side something like 33,000 men had been recruited, and although deaths in actual combat were relatively low, it was disease that as normal caused the most chaos – at Kinsale alone, the English are estimated to have lost 6,000 to disease; in Chester where much recruiting took place it was said that it was better to be hanged at home than to die like a dog in Ireland. The cost was extraordinary by Elizabeth’s standards – Robert Cecil estimated the bill of Tyrone’s defeat to run to £2m, compared to the £255,000 spent suppressing Desmond in 1579-1583. But the most appalling suffering of course as always fell on the ordinary people; Moryson again wrote

no spectacle was more frequent in the ditches of towns, and especially in wasted countries, than to see multitudes of these poor people dead with their mouths all coloured green by eating nettles, docks, and all things they could rend up above ground

Yet Tyrone would not submit, and despite the suffering, his core supporters would not desert him; O’Donnell went to Spain to plead for more troops and died there in 1602; Tyrone was forced from Dungannon and ritually smashed the O’Neills inauguration stone at Tullyhogue. But for the first year, negotiations led nowhere but Robert Cecil encouraged Mountjoy to keep the lines of communication open; in March 1603, Mountjoy learned that Elizabeth had agreed to offer Tyrone a pardon. Elizabeth herself was now in her final illness and would die on 24th March – news of which would soon reach Tyrone; for Mountjoy this put urgency into discussions both because the uncertainty might encourage Tyrone to continue fighting and also because Mountjoy was desperate to present himself to his new king, James I.

The long and short was that on 30th March 1603 Tyrone presented himself at Mellifont, County Louth kneeling for an hour in submission to the Viceroy. It was worth it; the terms O’Neill received were outrageously generous. Essentially, his position was returned to as his status had been as Earl of Tyrone in 1587; he even persuaded the crown to confirm O’Donnells in Tyrconnel. The details were all confirmed in 1603 at the court where Tyrone was received with all honour by James; on his way to London, the inhabitants of Wales through which he passed responded rather differently, pelting him with mud and stones. [6]

Now then, since I have en passant, mentioned the death of Elizabeth, you might expect me to finish there, but not a bit of it, I feel the need to close this chapter with both the end of Hugh O’Neill’s story and a summary of what we’ve heard about Elizabethan Ireland. As far as Hugh was concerned, it took some time to realise that despite the generosity of his treatment he had in fact lost; and for him to realise that he was not prepared to go quietly. The next few years were filled with law suits and disputes over land, and encroachments on his authority as the English insisted on continuing the process of extending royal administration as they had elsewhere; meanwhile the families of his allies Tyrconnell and Maquire were so reduced in circumstances that they began to see the life of Catholic adventurers abroad as rather more attractive than humiliation at home. Tyrone appeared to remain committed though to maintaining his position – and had persuaded King James to rule personally on his various lawsuits. In the light of which what happened in September 1607 was a little difficult to understand.

The French ship that left Lough Swilly in County Donegal contained the O’Donnell Earls of Tyrconnell and the Maquires, with as many of their families as they could gather. And it also contained Tyronne himself, and most of his family – the event became known in the 19th century as the Flight of the Earls. Opinion has remained divided on why – was it a long planned departure by Tyrone, sickened by his reduced circumstance? Or a last minute impulse on seeing the flight of his allies? Or was it forced on him, with the prospect of the inquisitions that would take place once the flight of the Tyrconnells and Maquires became known? The balance of evidence seems to suggest a rushed departure, and so maybe the news came late and forced him to make a quick decision. Either way, the result was probably a disappointment. They had expected to sail to Madrid, but actually ended up in Normandy which was you know, awkward, and given free passage to the Spanish Netherlands. From there they headed down the Spanish Road – still not to Madrid because they were all of a sudden an embarrassment to Phillip III who was England’s new best bud in the ways of diplomacy. So they ended up in Rome oddly enough, given accommodation as Philip’s pensioners; Tyrone lived out the next 9 years of his life in Rome, alternating between letters pleading for a new invasion, and a negotiated settlement for his return along with religious toleration.

The English government saw the departure as an opportunity; all those lands were now available for redistribution, and the first intention was to parcel it out in smaller packets for Gaelic and English lords. That’s until O’Doherty’s revolt suggested there should be a new run at the idea of plantation – which is where we’ll leave the story for a future episode.

So, that, ladies and Gentlemen, is Elizabethan Ireland for you – not a pretty picture I am sure you will agree. Hugh O’Neil’s departure has been described as the graveyard of English attempts to assimilate Gaelic lords to become English ones. Tyrone died in Rome in 1616. I don’t think I can really do the justice to the question of what motivated Tyrone – was he the champion of Gaelic Nationalism and Catholicism he presented himself to be at the height of his revolt? Or an ambitious man who wanted he and his family to assume the ancient sovereignty of the O’Neills and simply couldn’t accept an English style lordship? You can choose.

The result of all the Elizabethan violence and mayhem was that for the first time all Ireland came under the administration of the English monarch, under an English style administration; controlled, but not pacified. The expectation of the English was that the process of assimilating the Gaelic Irish into an English state would now proceed apace.  But the prognosis could not be good; the events of Elizabethan Ireland had given no confidence that even the rewards of loyalty could materialise, in a polity increasingly ruled by new English administrators with precious little space even for Anglo Irish, and the issue of religion set to increase division. And as to how that goes, we will return at some future unspecified date. I am left with a few traditions of historical writing; but two are worth mentioning I think.

Steve Connolly presents a story in a European context, noting the political brutality and violence of the time; quoting the massacres in the Netherlands in particular but also the rights of fire and sword dispensed in Scotland; his argument that although without doubt a brutal period, it was not exceptionally unusual in a war torn time.

David Edwards is much more unequivocal; in his view the prevalence of martial law led to what he describes as an age of atrocity; and although I think both agree that the English objective was to assimilate the Gaelic Irish into a new state, not to exterminate them, yet Edwards argues that many of the rebellions as unnecessary – noting how many Gaelic lords, including Tyrone, were prepared initially to work with the Crown, only to find the task impossible due to gross mismanagement on the part of the crown; and certainly to me it seems that by any standards the level of atrocity in Elizabethan Ireland was extreme and excessive, and contrary to basic principles of English law and tradition. However, I am not so convinced with the argument that had only the Crown been more sensitive, the attempt of England to centralise and make Ireland conform to a model of governance based on England and Wales would have been achieved without much bloodshed, and I suspect Tyrone’s story illustrates it. The aims of Elizabeth’s government was directly at odds with the traditions of Gaelic lordship – both Tyrone and Elizabeth desperately wanted to avoid conflict, and yet their aims were mutually exclusive and so they could not.

Sadly, Elizabethan mismanagement left a kingdom ruled largely by outsiders with no stake in the governance of the kingdom for most of its inhabitants, a legacy of mistrust on both sides, and with the added fairy dust of religion to add additional discord, so the prognosis was not good. But we’ll hear about that sometime in the future.

[1] Connely, S Contested Island p230

[2] Moody, Eds A New History of Ireland: Early Modern Ireland 1534-1691; p 233

[3] Connoly, S Contested Island p237

[4] Edwards, D Ireland, Security and Conquest in Doran The Elizabethan World pp 193-195

[5] Connolly Contested Island p 243

[6] Connolly, S Contested Island p271

3 thoughts on “318 The Nine Years’ War

  1. Is this – “ of course her gaze and that of the Privy Council turned to the Earl of Essex” – rather a broad summary of what I’ve read was a very contentious process? Maybe because you’re going to cover it as part of Essex’ self-destruction?
    This nit aside, great episode: very informative about a complicated (and sad) subject. Many thanks.

    1. There’ll be more about Essex certainly…the selection process for the role of commander in Ireland is not really part of it I have to say, but I certainly didn’t wan to get into it in this episode, since the focus was on Ireland not court

      1. quite right that a discussion of the English Council’s quarrels about the Irish command would have detracted from the story!

Leave a Reply