Siege of Kinsale

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Siege of Kinsale
Part of the Nine Years' War
Siege and Battle of Kinsale, 1601.jpg
Siege and Battle of Kinsale, 1601 from Pacata Hibernia, 1633
Date2 October 1601 – 3 January 1602
Result Decisive English victory
Kingdom of England England
Kingdom of Ireland Ireland
O'Neill Clan.png Irish alliance
Commanders and leaders
Charles Blount
George Carew
Richard Leveson
Donogh O'Brien
O'Neill Clan.png Hugh O'Neill
Juan del Águila
O'Neill Clan.png Hugh Roe O'Donnell
O'Neill Clan.png Richard Tyrrell
11,800 infantry
857 cavalry[1]
Irish alliance
3,500 [2][3]
Casualties and losses
unknown casualties
6,000 deserted, sick or dead to disease[4]
Irish alliance
1,200 killed, wounded or captured (many later executed),[5]
100 killed or wounded,
3,400 prisoners.[6]

The Siege or Battle of Kinsale (Irish: Léigear/Cath Chionn tSáile) was the ultimate battle in England's conquest of Gaelic Ireland, commencing in October 1601, near the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and at the climax of the Nine Years' War—a campaign by Hugh O'Neill, Hugh Roe O'Donnell and other Irish lords against English rule.

Owing to Spanish involvement, and the strategic advantages to be gained, the battle also formed part of the Anglo-Spanish War, the wider conflict of Protestant England against Catholic Spain.


Ireland had been claimed as a lordship by the English Crown since 1175, but had never been fully subjected. By the 1350s England's sphere of influence had shrunk to the Pale, the area around Dublin, with the rest of the country under the rule of Gaelic lords. The Tudor monarchs, beginning with Henry VIII, attempted to reassert their authority in Ireland with a policy of conquest and colonisation. In 1594, forces in Ulster under the previously loyal Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill, rebelled. Hugh Roe O'Donnell and Hugh Maguire joined Tyrone's rebellion, and scored a number of victories that seemed to jeopardize England's hold on Ireland.

Following the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 Philip II decided to take advantage of the Irish rebels in order to create a new front in the war against England. Spanish aid was offered to the Irish rebels in the expectation that tying the English down in Ireland might draw English resources away from their allies in the Netherlands, the Dutch Estates; which were engaged in a long rebellion against Spanish rule, and provide another base for privateers, such as the Dunkirkers, to disrupt English and Dutch shipping. The 2nd Spanish Armada aimed at supporting the rebels; however, it was smashed by storms off Cape Finisterre in October 1596. The ill king Philip sent forth another armada the following year but this failed too due to storms, bad luck and ill planning.

Spanish landing[edit]

After Philip II's death Philip III continued to provide direct support (material support had been sent for years) to the Irish rebels fighting England. In 1601 Philip sent Don Juan del Águila and Don Diego Brochero to Ireland with 6,000 men and a significant amount of arms and ammunition. Bad weather separated the ships and nine of them, carrying the majority of veteran soldiers and gunpowder, had to turn back. The remaining 4000 men disembarked at Kinsale, just south of Cork on 2 October 1601. Another force commanded by Alonso de Ocampo managed to land at Baltimore. The Spaniards rushed to fortify these footholds to withstand the approaching English armies.

While the Spanish army had secured the town of Kinsale, they failed to expand their base into the surrounding region and were vulnerable to becoming besieged by English forces. On hearing of the Spanish landing, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, the assigned Lord Deputy of Ireland, weakened the garrisons around the Pale and rushed to Kinsale with as many men as he could take.


On 2 October Mountjoy laid siege to Kinsale and reinforcements were brought in through Oysterhaven, bringing the army's complement up to 12,000 including a large force under Irish nobleman Donogh O'Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond. However many of these were Irish levies and many were not suited to siege warfare, especially in winter. Many fell ill, leaving about 7,500 capable of fighting.[1]

At the same time, the Gaelic Earls Hugh O'Neill and his ally O'Donnell considered their positions. Their difficulty was that the Spanish had landed on the south coast of Ireland, far away from the areas under control of the Irish Chieftains. In order to bring aid to the Spanish troops they would have to lead their troops into regions where support for their cause was doubtful. They hesitated for weeks as autumn turned into a particularly wet and stormy winter. The besieged Spanish garrison began to suffer from the lack of supplies and privation, and O'Neill was forced to go to their aid. He fully understood that should this first Spanish force suffer defeat he would be unlikely to receive further military help.[7] The decision of the Spanish to land at Kinsale forced O'Neill to agree with his more impetuous ally, Red Hugh O'Donnell, to abandon his hitherto successful guerilla tactics and risk open confrontation. A large force would be necessary; larger than they could afford to lose. They set out on a 300-mile winter march, separately, to ease supply, with a total of 5,000 infantry and 700 cavalry. The combined armies of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Tyrrell came to 6,180. This included 500 of Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare’s men, and 200 of Ocampo’s Spaniards.

Lord Mountjoy's forces were incapable of surrounding the town of Kinsale and its surrounding area (now called Belgooly), but they did seize some higher ground and subjected the Spanish forces to constant artillery fire. The English navy under Admiral Richard Leveson arrived with a squadron of ten ships and cut off the town from the sea. The English cavalry rode through the surrounding countryside destroying livestock and crops, while both sides called for allegiance from the population. O'Neill and O'Donnell were hesitant about leaving Ulster vulnerable to attack by marching south, especially given the lack of supplies for their troops. When they did set out, they successfully cut English supply lines across the island and, by December, the shortage of supplies and the severe weather had begun to take a toll on the besieging army, with many dying of dysentery and Fever.

Reinforcements arrived from Spain, and on 24 December 1601 English date: (3 January 1602 for the Catholic Irish and Spanish armies) moved into position. In three columns, led by Richard Tyrell, Hugh O'Neill, and O'Donnell, they marched toward a night attack, but, owing to a lack of coordination and possible arguments between the commanders, they had failed to reach their destination by dawn. The English scouts were aware of the troop movements and, after leaving a number of regiments behind to guard the camp and cover Kinsale, Mountjoy led his forces to meet the enemy at a ridge northwest of the town.

Battle of Kinsale[edit]

O'Neill controlled the ridge, and intended to fight for it, with support from Aguila, O'Donnell, and Tyrell on multiple sides. Del Águila, the Spanish commander, was an experienced soldier and put up a fierce defence.[citation needed] His instructions were, however, to hold the town until the Irish army came down from Ulster to combine with them. When neither of his allies showed signs of movement, O'Neill ordered a retreat into the marshes, hoping to mire the English cavalry in the soft land. In the end, the Irish were overpowered by the English cavalry, who charged through O'Neill's men, and prevented a flanking maneuver by O'Donnell.

The tactics showed that the Irish infantry were poorly trained for pitched battle in formation against a well-drilled professional army. It also showed the strength of the English cavalry techniques using the lance, as compared with the Irish method of no stirrup and overhead spear throwing.

The Irish army left the field in some disorder while the supporting Spanish army led by Ocampo tried to obstruct the English charge and the ensuing massacre of the Irish. Most of the Irish fled back to Ulster, though a few remained to continue the war with O’Sullivan Beare and Dermot Maol MacCarthy Reagh.


The English resumed their encirclement of the town of Kinsale, Del Águila saw his position as hopeless without the Irish lords' effective action. The Spanish, who lost many men in the siege, gave up the town to Mountjoy, "on Terms" and were allowed to sail back to Spain, not knowing that another Spanish force had been sent and was within a few days of arriving. The Spanish were given honourable terms and surrendered Kinsale with their colours flying, and it was agreed that they were to be conveyed back to Spain on giving up their other garrisons of Dunboy, Baltimore, and Castlehaven.[8] The further Spanish force which had been sent never landed; on receipt of news of Águila's surrender, they promptly turned back to Spain.

Outnumbered, deprived of reinforcements and provisions, and under constant English bombardment, the Spaniards had held the town of Kinsale for more than three months. The English made no attempt to storm it.


Kinsale's port today

This loss put an end to Spanish help in Ireland and to much of the Irish resistance. The Ulster forces returned to their home province, and after two more years of attrition, the last of them surrendered in 1603, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth. In the following year England and Spain agreed to make peace with the signing of the Treaty of London.

O’Donnell went to Castlehaven and took a ship to Spain. He was well received there but died a few months later, said to be by poisoning by George Carew’s spy, Blake.

O’Neill returned to his native Ulster and continued to fight, but his aura of invincibility was broken. He submitted to the crown at Mellifont on 30 March 1603, where he received generous terms. Four years later he decided to go to Spain. O'Neill was accompanied by many supporters and other chieftains. This is known as the "Flight of the Earls". Their intention was always to raise an army and oust English authority in their home province, but the territories they had left behind were soon divided up in the Plantation of Ulster, and they were never able to return.

The English administration saw the ideal opportunity to seize most of the land of Ulster, and to bring in Presbyterian Lowland Scots and northern English settlers to farm it. The English had achieved their objectives of destroying the old Gaelic order, ridding themselves of the clan system and the more troublesome chieftains.

The result of the Battle of Kinsale was devastating to the existing Irish culture and way of life, as the old Gaelic system was finally broken. As the Gaelic aristocracy fled to continental Europe, they left behind a power vacuum that the authority of the English filled.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Falls p.299
  2. ^ Sandler p.465
  3. ^ Corvisier/Childs p.423
  4. ^ Lewis p.231
  5. ^ Sandler p.466
  6. ^ Canny p. 282
  7. ^ O’Faolain, Sean (1970), The Great O’Neill, biography of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550-1616, The Mercier Press Ltd, ISBN 978-0853421405
  8. ^ Morgan pg. 229


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External links[edit]