Siege of Smerwick
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The Siege of Smerwick took place at Ard na Caithne (formerly known in English as Smerwick) in 1580, during the Second Desmond Rebellion in Ireland. A 400–500 strong force of Papal soldiers (Spanish and Italian troops) captured the village but were forced to retreat to nearby Dún an Óir ('the Fort of Gold', possibly a persistent mistranscription for Dún an Áir, 'the Fort of Slaughter'), where they were besieged by the English Army. The defenders eventually surrendered and most of them were then massacred on the orders of the English commander, The 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, the Lord Deputy of Ireland.
James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald landed a small Papal invasion force in July 1579, initiating the Second Desmond rebellion, but was killed only a month afterward. This unleashed a war that lasted three years.
On 10 September 1580, 600 Italian and Spanish Papal troops commanded by Sebastiano di San Giuseppe landed in Smerwick, near the point where Fitzgerald had landed the previous year, paid for and sent by Pope Gregory XIII. Lord Desmond, Lord Baltinglass and John of Desmond tried to link up with the expeditionary force, but English forces under The 10th Earl of Ormond and The 14th Baron Grey de Wilton blocked them, and Richard Bingham's ships blockaded their ships in the bay at Smerwick. San Giuseppe had no choice but to retreat to the fort at Dún an Óir.
From information obtained from prisoners, Lord Ormond ascertained the size of the defending forces to be around 700, but with military equipment that would serve a force of 5,000; the prisoners said the defences of the fort were being strengthened. Ormond retreated, leaving a small party to keep Dún an Óir under surveillance.
Siege and massacre
On 5 November, a naval force led by Admiral Sir William Winter arrived at Smerwick Harbour, replenishing the supplies of Lord Grey de Wilton, who was camped at Dingle, and landing eight artillery pieces. On 7 November, Lord Grey de Wilton laid siege to the Smerwick garrison. The invading forces were geographically isolated on the tip of the narrow Dingle Peninsula, cut off by Mount Brandon, one of the highest mountains in Ireland, on one side, and the much larger English force on the other. The English forces began the artillery barrage on Dún an Óir on the morning of the 8 November, which rapidly broke down the improvised defences of the fort.
After a three-day siege, the commander di San Giuseppe surrendered on 10 November 1580. Accounts vary on whether they had been granted quarter. Grey de Wilton ordered the massacre of the invading forces, sparing only the commanders.
According to Grey de Wilton's account, contained in a despatch to Elizabeth I of England dated 11 November 1580, he rejected an approach made by the besieged Spanish and Italian forces to agree terms of a conditional surrender in which they would cede the fort and leave. Lord Grey de Wilton claimed that he insisted that they surrender without preconditions and put themselves at his mercy, and that he subsequently rejected a request for a ceasefire. An agreement (according to Grey de Wilton) was finally made for an unconditional surrender the next morning, with hostages being taken by English forces to ensure compliance. The following morning, an English force entered the fort to secure and guard armaments and supplies. Grey de Wilton's account in his despatch says "Then put I in certain bands, who straight fell to execution. There were six hundred slain." Grey de Wilton's forces spared those of higher rank: "Those that I gave life unto, I have bestowed upon the captains and gentlemen that hath well deserved..."
Nineteenth-century historian Margaret Cusack notes that there is a degree of controversy about Lord Grey de Wilton's version of events to Elizabeth, and identifies three other contemporary accounts, by O'Daly, O'Sullivan Beare and Russell, which contradict it. According to these versions, Grey de Wilton promised the garrison their lives in return for their surrender, a promise which he broke, remembered in the term "Grey's faith".
The few that were spared suffered a worse fate. They were offered life if they would renounce their Catholic faith; on refusal, their arms and legs were broken in three places by an ironsmith. They were left in agony for a day and night and then hanged.
According to the English writer John Hooker in his Supply to the Irish Chronicle (an addition to Holinshed's Chronicles) written in 1587, the bands ordered to carry out the executions were led by Captain Raleigh (later Sir Walter Raleigh) and Captain Mackworth.
Richard Bingham, future commander of Connacht, was present and described events in a letter to the Earl of Leicester, although he claimed the massacre was perpetrated by sailors. The poet Edmund Spenser, then secretary to the Lord Deputy, is also thought to have been present.
According to the folklore of the area, the execution of the captives took two days, with many of the captives being beheaded in a field known locally in Irish as Gort a Ghearradh (the Field of the Cutting); their bodies later being thrown into the sea. The veracity of these accounts was long disputed, until a local field known as Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads) was investigated by 21st-century archaeologists and found to be full of 16th-century skulls.
In Raleigh's trial
Three decades later, when Raleigh had fallen from favour, his involvement with this massacre was brought against him as a criminal charge in one of his trials. Raleigh argued that he was "obliged to obey the commands of his superior officer" but he was unable to exonerate himself. He was executed on 29 October 1618, chiefly for his involvement in the Main Plot.
A monument to commemorate the victims of the massacre has now been erected at Smerwick (see illustration).
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- Tony Pollard, Iain Banks. Scorched Earth: Studies in the Archaeology of Conflict. BRILL, 2007. p.222
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