Essex in Ireland

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Essex in Ireland refers to the military campaign pursued in Ireland in 1599 by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex during the Nine Years War.

Earlier in the year Queen Elizabeth I of England had been troubled over the choice of a military commander for Ireland, at a time when her court was dominated by two factions - one led by Essex, the other by her principal secretary, Sir Robert Cecil. At the end of a hard faction-fight Essex found himself with no choice but to accept the command, and his ensuing campaign failed in its objective. Essex returned to England in disgrace and made a treasonable challenge to crown authority, for which he was put to death in 1601.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Appointment of Essex[edit]

During the 1590s Essex was very popular in England, especially in Puritan London where he was considered a pillar of Protestantism. He championed maritime attacks on Spain and strong measures in Ireland to counter the rebel Hugh O'Neill, 3rd Earl of Tyrone, making himself leader of the war party at the height of the Anglo-Spanish war (1585–1604). But the Queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley (father of Cecil), was strongly opposed to Essex, favouring peace with Spain and a steady hand in Ireland.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley

In April 1598, Burghley confronted Essex in the council chamber for the last time. Essex denounced peace with Spain as dishonourable, but was interrupted by Burghley who said, "he breathed forth nothing but war, slaughter and blood", and pointed to the twenty third verse of Psalm 55 in his prayerbook: "Bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days."[1]

In an infamous incident during a debate at the council board over the appointment of the new military commander for Ireland the queen lost her temper and gave Essex a box on the ear. In response he laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. Soon after, Burghley died, and ten days later the Crown forces in Ireland were heavily defeated at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. To complicate matters King Philip II of Spain died some days after.

Essex and the younger Cecil each tried to diminish the other's influence at court by proposing the appointment (and therefore removal from court) of members of the opposing faction. The list of candidates was exhausted upon the death at Dublin of Sir Richard Bingham, and when his name was put forward by the Cecil party Essex felt bound to offer his services. With some hesitation the queen accepted the offer and formally opted for Essex as her lord lieutenant of Ireland, whereupon he triumphantly announced his determination to beat O'Neill in the field.[2]

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury


The queen had misgivings over the details of the campaign, but preparations were settled by the first week of March 1599. Letters patent were passed releasing Essex from the debts incurred by his father in the Irish service, and he received his appointment on 12 March 1599, with power to pardon the rebel leader of his life upon submission and to confer knighthoods (but only where deserved by service and sufficient living).

The army was fixed at 16,000 troops, with 1,300 horse. The rebels in arms were estimated at 20-30,000, with up to half of these operating in the northern province of Ulster, where the crown's authority was confined to a few inland forts supplied by defended towns in the east. Among Essex's troops were 2,000 veterans from the Lowlands, led by Henry Dowcra, which it was proposed to distribute in garrisons. The plan provided for reinforcements of 2,000 troops from England every three months to make up for expected losses, and a regular postal service was established between Dublin and London via Holyhead.[3]

In addition, Essex had at his command a squadron of five warships with an assortment of fly-boats, which was notionally intended for a landing at Lough Foyle in the north. An emergency rendez-vous for the fleet was appointed at Berehaven (or Baltimore) in the southern province of Munster, in the event of Spanish aggression. Ultimately the ships were confined to southern waters and played no part in the northern campaign.[4]

Essex had charge of the largest army ever to set foot in Ireland, and was fully equipped with munitions, clothing, artillery, victuals and ships. Overall the expected cost of the campaign was put at £290,000 per annum, twice that of Elizabeth's Netherlands army. Although the preparation for a broad campaign in Ireland had been thorough, in the event it proved inadequate to the task.


Essex danced with the queen at a party for the Danish ambassador on Twelfth Night and departed London the next day, 27 March 1599. Prayers were offered in the churches for his success, and he was cheered on in the sunshine for four miles through a double line of citizens, until it began to rain and hail. With him were Sir Christopher Blount and Sir Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, both of whom had had their original commissions cancelled by the queen and were now attending on Essex in a private capacity.[5]

The Earl of Southampton c. 1600

On April 5 Essex waited at Helbry, an island at the mouth of the river Dee, for favourable winds in foggy conditions. A week later he sailed from Beaumaris after impatiently riding over Penmaen Mawr - "the worst way and in the extremest wet that I have endured" - while bidding the fleet to meet him. After a violent passage he reached Dublin on April 15 and was sworn into office the same day, when the Archbishop of Dublin preached a notable sermon.[6]

Within a week of his arrival Essex had mounted a lavish pageant of English chivalry during the Garter feast at Dublin on St George's Day, 23 April. It was intended as a pointed display of the values he felt were ignored at Elizabeth's court. At home the queen had chosen a muted version of the same ceremony, owing to the hardships of the war, and on hearing the reports from Dublin she decided to grant the masterships of wards - a significant source of wealth - to Cecil rather than Essex.

Essex was followed from England by the Earl of Kildare, with 18 of the chiefs of Meath and Fingal, but their vessel foundered in mid-channel and all on board were lost. Another English general, Arthur Chichester, landed at Dublin and marched his men to Drogheda, where Essex followed to inspect the famous 1,200 strong Flanders regiment on parade: Essex charged them with his mounted staff, but the soldiers chose not to see the joke and stood firm, forcing Essex to pull his horse back as his backside was pricked with a pike.

Campaign preparations[edit]

The grand strategy favoured at Dublin, of attacking by land and sea simultaneously, was probably impossible with English resources, given the rumours of a fresh Armada from Spain and the consequent need to keep the warships in southern waters. The amphibious expedition to establish a base at lough Foyle in O'Neill's rear in Ulster was abandoned, and the Dublin council then advised against an immediate attack on O'Neill and his confederate, Hugh Roe O'Donnell: experience suggested that the want of forage, with lean cattle and weak draught-horses, would crucially hinder a northern campaign. This advice was declined by the privy council at London, which settled on a straight attack against the northern rebels.

O'Neill bore out the fears of the Dublin council when he displayed his strategic strength by stripping all food and horses from the lands bordering the Pale (an area within the eastern province of Leinster, traditionally loyal to crown government). He also encouraged a rebellion by the White Knight and others in the southern province of Munster. O'Donnell moved into the western province of Connacht, and it was believed O'Neill would follow him and push southward to join with the White Knight in Munster.

The Dublin council advised Essex to attack O'Neill's confederates in parts of Leinster adjacent to the Pale, where the rebels were reckoned at 3,000 plus 800 mercenaries sent from Ulster. Essex seems to have taken that advice and garrisoned the borders of the Pale with 5,000 troops. He also reinforced garrisons around Cork on the south coast, and more troops were absorbed in Munster by Sir Thomas Norris (acting president of that province) and at Kilkenny in the south-east by the Earl of Ormond. In Connacht Sir Conyers Clifford's army was increased to 3,000.[7] War was being prepared at every point of the compass, and Essex decided to subdue the south of the country in a roundabout tour that took him through the Pale and into Munster, leading back through southern Leinster.[8]

Southern Campaign[edit]

Operating on intelligence that O'Neill was set to move into Munster, while O'Donnell was already in north Connacht, Essex set out from Dublin on May 9 to muster his army in the champion fields of Kildare, the curraghs. He marched south, taking the castle of Athy, and was harried by the O'Mores as he launched an offensive into Offaly and relieved the fort of Maryborough.

The first significant engagement of the campaign came in the second week of May at the pass of Cashel, Queens County (Laois), where Essex determined to march against rebel defences rather than make a detour. The pass was wooded and boggy, with a plashed rebel trench at either end. At the head of the advance were 40 shot and 20 swordsmen. In the face of rebel resistance the calivermen moved to point blank range and the swordsmen jumped into the trenches on the flanks; the vanguard moved through the calivermen in a frontal assault and pressed through to open country, where they halted until the whole column had joined them. Essex was said to have flown like lightning between the vanguard, battle and rearguard. The English admitted to the loss of three officers and several men; the rebels captured many feathered helmets, hence the battle was named The Pass of the Plumes.[9]

On May 18 Essex marched to Kilkenny town with two-thirds of his force. The streets were strewn with green herbs and rushes to welcome him, and he endured some lively orations from the local dignitaries. Having met Thomas Norris he departed the city on May 22 with 2,500 foot and 300 horse and was received with jubilation at the town of Clonmel. On the river Suir, two miles below the town, the castle of Derrylare was surrendered, and Essex then fixed his sights on Cahir Castle, the strongest fortress in Ireland.[10]

Cahir Castle

Essex had accused Lord Cahir, whose brother had custody of the castle, of collusion with the White Knight. Upon the failure of a parley for the surrender of the castle the English took forceful action: after a cannonade that lasted for two days the curtain wall was breached and the garrison fled. Essex entered the castle on May 29 (see Siege of Cahir Castle).[11]

Essex marched west to Limerick city, where he was well received on June 4. During this part of the march his army was joined by a large train of baggage porters, which outnumbered the fighting men two-to-one and remained a drain on resources throughout the campaign. At Askeaton (the centre of resistance to the crown in the Desmond rebellion 15 years previously) the army was revictualled after an encounter with the Sugán Earl, a pretender to the Earldom of Desmond who had shown himself at Adare with 2-3,000 men.

Essex realised the Munster rebels would not allow themselves to be trapped between his army and the western seaboard and decided to march south in an effort to draw them into battle. At Kilmallock he consulted the president, Thomas Norris, but conditions had begun to deteriorate, and it was reported that the soldiers "went so coldly on" that Essex had to reproach their baseness. There was no money, no magazine, no remnant of victual from the crown stores, and scarce enough cows to supply the army for two days, ammunition only for three. The army marched further south while Essex went to Mallow on a mission to procure supplies. He rejoined his men with a MacCarthy ally, but by the time he entered the heart of Desmond rebel country the Sugán Earl had gone into the field and was beyond reach.[12]

Essex forded the river Blackwater at Affane, where he held a council of war in his tent, allowing Norris 1,100 foot and a company of horse to pursue the war in Munster. He marched unhindered eastward through Lord Power's country to Waterford city, where he was received with two Latin orations and a joyful concourse of people on June 21. The army was ferried out of Munster and back into Leinster, an operation that took a frustrating length of time. Essex himself left Waterford on June 22.[13]

Return to Dublin[edit]

The route from Waterford lay northward through Wicklow, where the English commander Henry Harrington had been heavily defeated on May 29 by the rebel Phelim MacFeagh O'Byrne. A month after this defeat Essex marched over the Slaney with 1,200 fighting men and a host of churls and horseboys, deciding to approach Dublin by the coast rather than risk passage through the foothills. Along the road his men torched villages and houses, until confronted by O'Byrne with 1,000 rebels four miles south of Arklow on the Clonnough river. The Earl of Southampton crossed in deep water with the horse, and the Earl of Ormond led the army over a ford near the sea. There was skirmishing on the left flank but the rebels would not close until they saw from their vantage point that the baggage train was vulnerable: they swept down and plunged into a hard fight and had almost carried off a victory, when Southampton's cavalry forced them back. Essex marched the army to Dublin, arriving on July 2.[14]

At the end of 8 weeks of marching Essex could barely muster 300 horsemen. Not a single rebel commander had submitted to the crown, and no district was left subdued. A significant number of troops had been left in garrisons throughout Leinster and Munster, and the fighting capability of the army was much reduced because of disease and desertion. At the same time Essex was being discredited at court in London for having effected badly needed defensive measures at Waterford and elsewhere, at a time when the Armada scare of that summer was at its height in England

A second offensive into Offaly went ahead, despite the queen's disapproval. Maryborough and Philipstown (where 60 men had just been lost in an ambuscade) were resupplied - by Blount and Essex respectively - around July 25. Essex fell into sharp fighting on the border of Westmeath with the rebel Captain Tyrrell. Also involved was Harrington, and Clifford came from Connacht with reinforcements, only to lose many men in the fighting. The one advantage gained was when the O'Connors were surprised in the heart of their country: their children were exposed to the full might of the crown army, their corn was burned, and 500 cows were seized in thick woods. But Essex had again failed to draw a significant rebel force into battle and he withdrew his army to Dublin.[15]

Clifford returned to Connacht, where he was killed and his forces routed at the Battle of Curlew Pass. This defeat - along with that of Harrington in Wicklow - was rated by Cecil as the heaviest blow ever suffered by the English in Ireland, and at court the blame was fully laid on Essex. At this point O'Donnell and O'Neill were free from any threat from the west, and a land attack by Essex into Ulster through Armagh was highly improbable.[16]

Northern Campaign[edit]

During the campaign Essex had dubbed 59 knights - a wilful abuse of his powers - and the queen announced that, "it is doubted that if he continues this course he will shortly bring in tag and rag, cut and long-tail, and so bring the order into contempt." But she was unable to curtail her commander and raged impotently at the dispatches from Ireland: "She walks much in her privy chamber and stamps with her feet at ill news, and thrusts her rusty sword at times into the arras in great rage." She could take no more and on July 30 ordered an immediate assault on O'Neill.

Essex had put it about that he was in favour of immediate punitive action against the northern rebels, but he was suffering from a recurrent ailment, possibly a kidney stone. Others also had misgivings about the queen's plan of campaign, because the rebels were secure on their western front and a frontal attack to the north was considered deeply hazardous without the proposed base at Lough Foyle. A council of war accordingly declared against this course of action, and a month later the queen delivered a furious censure to Essex, complaining bitterly that only 5,000 fighting men were available, and not twice that number.[17]

During the Summer concerns over a rumoured Spanish landing on the Isle of Wight in the south of England rendered reinforcement of the Irish army impracticable. At the same time Archduke Albert, the Spanish governor of Flanders, seemed to be considering peace talks with England, news which may have caused Essex to suspect treason amongst the queen's councillors.[18] Nevertheless, seven days after the controversial council of war, Essex set out for the north with the dubious notion that, "if he [O'Neill] has as much courage as he pretendeth we will on one side or the other end the war."

Essex left Dublin on August 28, and the army was mustered three days later outside of Kells, making up 3,700 foot and 300 horse. O'Neill's readiness to outflank him and attack the Pale and Dublin restrained Essex from advancing further, and in a letter to the queen (in which he remarked he was "weary with life") he explained that Kells should be the frontier garrison for the coming winter. On September 2 he marched to Ardee, where O'Neill was sighted with his army on the far side of the Lagan, "a mile and a half from our quarter, but a river and a wood between him and us". The English claimed variously that the rebel leader had 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse, or 5,000 and 700. Heeding counsel not to engage because of the inferiority of his forces, Essex embattled the army and encamped on the left bank of the Lagan. O'Neill marched on the flank, keeping to the woods, while his horse-scouts stayed within sight.

There were communications between the sides, and on September 6 Essex advanced with 2,000 foot and 300 horse. On sighting O'Neill he readied his army in the formation of a St Andrew's cross, with cavalry on either flank and to the rear. The war council hoped for an Irish attack, but determined not to take the initiative. The next day a meeting between O'Neill and Essex was proposed by the former's envoy, to take place at the ford of Bellaclinthe on the river Glyde. Essex was informed that O'Neill sought the queen's mercy.

Upon inspection on September 7 the proposed meeting place was rejected by Essex, but the impatient O'Neill found a spot to ride into the river up to his horse's belly. It was a gesture of humility, and Essex rode with a troop of horse to an overlooking hill before going down alone to the ford, where he conversed with the rebel for half an hour. Both men withdrew to their companies on the hills. A formal meeting followed later, with six witnesses on either side: Essex rode down with his men and remained on the bank, while the Irish rode into the river - again, up to their horses' bellies. O'Neill spoke bare-headed for a good while, saluting the viceregal party with great respect. After half-an-hour a further conference was arranged at Lagan ford for the following morning.[19]

Essex continued his march to Drumcondra, while O'Neill returned to camp. At the planned conference on September 8 O'Neill was present, but not Essex. A cessation of arms was agreed for six weeks to six weeks, until May Day, either side being at liberty to break it on giving fourteen days warning; the English had liberty to attack O'Neill's confederates if they refused to be bound. Also provided for was restitution for all spoils within 20 days after the warning. The rebels were to hold all they then possessed, with no garrisons to be placed in new stations, free passages to be assured, all English garrisons to be apprised of the cessation, and commissioners for the borders between the English and Irish zones to be appointed. O'Neill was to ratify this on oath, Essex on his word. The terms were committed to writing and signed by O'Neill. The next day Essex dispersed his army and went to take physic at Drogheda, while O'Neill retired with all his forces into the heart of his country.[20]

Flight of Essex[edit]

In mid-September 1599 the queen wrote to Essex with further criticisms and forbade him from leaving Ireland without special warrant. A week later he committed responsibility for his government to two lords justice, placing Ormond in command of the army under his old commission, and gave instruction that the cessation was to be maintained, with garrisons fully victualled for six months. On the same day - September 24 - Essex boldly sailed for England, relying on his general warrant to return granted under the Great Seal.[21] He reached London on the 28th.[22]

Elizabeth described the cessation as the, "quick end made of a slow proceeding", and it was generally concluded that Essex's presence in Ireland had been superfluous. Essex revealed only to the queen what had passed between him and O'Neill, having promised to deliver the rebel request verbally. At first treason was not suspected on the part of Essex, but the queen was outspoken about O'Neill: "to trust this traitor upon oath is to trust a devil upon his religion." She ordered no ratification, nor pardon, without her authority, but in time she did admit the usefulness of the cessation.

O'Neill was in two minds about the cessation and came under pressure from his confederate, O'Donnell, who argued that too much had been ceded to the English. O'Neill issued a list of demands on religious freedom and withdrawal of English influence and confirmation of lands in rebel possession - probably the bones of his private conference with Essex.[23] There was a further parley on the Lagan in late November, when a one month extension was agreed. In December O'Neill complained of breaches of the cessation, and in the following spring of 1600 he turned south on a campaign through Munster.[24]

The Succession[edit]

The detail of the earl's private parley with O'Neill became the subject of speculation in England. Sir Henry Wotton, the earl's personal secretary, complained bitterly of the duplicity of interpreters, saying that they were Essex's worst enemies. Rumours of the earl's disloyalty abounded, and with the waning of his favour at court Essex chose to challenge the queen's authority by breaking house arrest and riding in force through London to gain an audience with her. He was compelled to turn back by a well organised defence, and at Cecil's insistence was declared a traitor. After a swift trial on charges of treason Essex was convicted and suffered the death penalty in February 1601.

Intelligence received in Spain some years later from James Blake (the supposed assassin of O'Donnell) had it "that the Earl of Essex, the same who raided Cadiz, had dealings with the Prince Onel of Ireland about causing a rising against the Queen of England, for which reason he was beheaded in England, and the said Earl employed the deponent [Blake] as intermediary between himself and the said Prince." It was also put about that O'Neill had almost persuaded Essex to leave the service of Queen Elizabeth and to join that of King Philip III to whom, "they would deliver the whole kingdom". O'Neill was said to have promised Essex great favour on behalf of the Spanish king, and when Essex expressed doubt because of, "certain disservices he had done to the Crown of Spain", the rebel leader went so far as to offer Essex his son as a hostage in proof of his good faith.

As with so many late Elizabethan conspiracy theories Spanish calculations may have been of less importance than those of the queen's councillors. At the outset in 1599 Essex had realised he was taking a risk in departing the court and leaving the field open to Cecil, a risk that would pay off only if he defeated O'Neill. The Irish experience proved far more difficult than anticipated - Essex was the last English commander of the age to underestimate rebel capability - and the situation at court deteriorated rapidly, with Cecil gaining an overwhelming influence over the queen. The private parley with O'Neill was especially significant at a time when Cecil was preparing the succession of the Scots king, James VI, to Elizabeth's throne. Essex's flight from Ireland was a desperate attempt to interfere with those preparations, and once this had failed his subsequent treason was down to his refusal to accept that it was Cecil, and not he, who would determine the succession.


  1. ^ King James version
  2. ^ Paul E.J. Hammer Elizabeth's Wars: War, Government and Society in Tudor England, 1544-1604 (2003) p.212.
  3. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) pp.232-233.
  4. ^ Paul E.J. Hammer Elizabeth's Wars: War, Government and Society in Tudor England, 1544-1604 (2003) p.213.
  5. ^ James Shapiro 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London, 2005) p.?.
  6. ^ J.S.Brewer and W.Bullen eds. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) (London, 1867-1873) pp.314-316.
  7. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) p.232.
  8. ^ General description of Ireland. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) p.298 #302, April. 
  9. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) p.234.
  10. ^ J.S.Brewer and W.Bullen eds. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) (London, 1867-1873)pp.314-316.
  11. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) p.235.
  12. ^ J.S.Brewer and W.Bullen eds. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) (London, 1867-1873) pp.320-325.
  13. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) p.238.
  14. ^ J.S.Brewer and W.Bullen eds. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) (London, 1867-1873) pp.320-325.
  15. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) pp.238-241.
  16. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) pp.242-244.
  17. ^ Paul E.J. Hammer Elizabeth's Wars: War, Government and Society in Tudor England, 1544-1604 (2003) p.214.
  18. ^ Paul E.J. Hammer Elizabeth's Wars: War, Government and Society in Tudor England, 1544-1604 (2003) p.215.
  19. ^ J.S.Brewer and W.Bullen eds. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) (London, 1867-1873) pp.320-325; Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) p.245.
  20. ^ J.S.Brewer and W.Bullen eds. Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) (London, 1867-1873) pp.320-325.
  21. ^ Calendar of Carew MSS. 1515-1624 vol.5 (1599) p.295 #297, 27 March. 
  22. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) pp.247.
  23. ^ "Hugh O'Neill's War aims", online version published by CELT (UCC)
  24. ^ Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) pp.252.