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The Return of the ArmadasThe Last Years of the Elizabethan War against Spain 1595-1603$

R. B. Wernham

Print publication date: 1994

Print ISBN-13: 9780198204435

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198204435.001.0001

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Essex in Ireland

Essex in Ireland

(p.299) XIX Essex in Ireland
The Return of the Armadas

R. B. Wernham

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Earl of Essex left London on March 27 and reached Dublin on April 14. Reports from Ireland reached Essex about the weak state of the army and the corruption in its supply services. The first couple of weeks in Dublin were a sobering experience for Essex. Almost no rebels of any note sent in their submissions. The vast majority of them took the occasion to bind themselves afresh by oaths to continue their resistance. Face to face with the realities of the Irish situation, Essex was easily persuaded by the Irish council to give up his idea of striking, as he had promised in England, at once at the root of the rebellion by an immediate massive attack on Hugh Tyrone in Ulster. The plan of striking at the root in Ulster was, however, only postponed, not abandoned. This chapter discusses how Essex defied the orders of Queen Elizabeth I and his last days as commander of the Irish army.

Keywords:   Earl of Essex, Ireland, England, Ulster, rebellion, resistance, army, Elizabeth I

ESSEX left London on 27 March, escorted for some distance by a throng of nobles and gentlemen and cheered on for four miles or more by citizens of London. At Islington they were drenched by a sudden thunderstorm, which some took for a bad omen. He was back at Bromley on 1 April, but three days later he was at Chester and by 6 April aboard the pinnace Popinjay off Helby in the Dee estuary. By now the wind had gone dead contrary, so after waiting another day or two he landed at Mostyn, arranged for the Popinjay and her companion the Charell to tide it round to Beaumaris, and himself rode off through Conway and on a wet and miserable night over Penman Mawr to meet them there. He reached Dublin on 14 April after ‘a rough and dangerous passage’ ending with the Popinjay and Charell narrowly missing a head-on collision—with that £51,000 still aboard—as they crossed the bar under full sail.1

Even before Essex left Bromley he had begun hedging his bets. Reports reaching him from Ireland about the weak state of the army and the corruption in its supply services led him to beg the Privy Council that: they ‘might rather pity me than expect extraordinary services from me’. He complained of his ‘rheumatic body’ and felt that he was ‘sent out maimed beforehand’ because the Queen refused to allow the marshal of the army, his step-father Sir Christopher Blount, to be also a member of the Irish council.2 In retaliation one of Essex's first actions on landing in Ireland was to appoint the young Earl of Southampton as general of the horse, an appointment that the Queen had expressly forbidden.3 Nevertheless, the first couple of weeks in Dublin were a sobering experience for Essex. Almost no rebels of any note sent in their submissions. The vast majority of them—and the Irish council with nice exactitude (p.300) reckoned their forces at 19,997 (8,922 of them in Ulster)—took the occasion to bind themselves afresh by oaths to continue their resistance. Even the comparatively few Irish and Anglo-Irish who remained loyal, were only loyal within strict limits and for the most part had no desire to see the English government too strong. Face to face with the realities of the Irish situation, Essex was easily persuaded by the Irish council to give up his idea of striking, as he had promised in England, at once at the root of the rebellion by an immediate massive attack on Tyrone in Ulster. The council told him that there would be no grass or forage for his horses until mid-June or the beginning of July. Beeves, even if any were available in and around the Pale, were ‘at this season of the year so lean and poor as they are neither able to be driven nor meet to be eaten’. Contrary winds still kept 300 or 400 carriage horses in England, while very few were to be found in Ireland and the native ‘garrans’ were too small to serve as packhorses for the army's ‘dry victuals’. So the council advised and Essex agreed ‘to forbear for a while the invasion of Ulster and in the meantime to prosecute the rebels of Leinster to see if those inner parts of the kingdom might be freed, thereby to have a clearer passage into Ulster’. He would place garrisons on the northern borders to impeach Tyrone's incursions and then himself with a small troop of horse and foot march through Leinster and, if possible, as far as Waterford where he would confer with Sir Thomas Norris, the president of Munster.4

The plan of striking at the root in Ulster was, however, only postponed, not abandoned. Essex clearly still expected to undertake it by mid or late June, when the Ulster grass had grown. For in his letter of 28 April he asked that another 200 carriage horses, and ‘competent shipping to transport 4,000 foot and 100 horse with their victuals, munitions, and all other necessaries to Lough Foyle, should be sent’ to him by 1 June. He further asked that the first 2,000 men promised him every three months to replace wastage, should also ‘speed away’ and be with him by 1 June instead of as was envisaged at the end of July. Without them, he claimed, he would not be able to find the forces for Lough Foyle. Indeed, he asked the Privy Council to ‘be a mean to Her Majesty to have those supplies (p.301) increased, if it may be, the occasions here (as your lordships see) rising greater than was considered there at the time of the laying down of the proportion’.5

The Privy Council acquiesced in the postponement of the attack on Ulster and accepted Essex's reasons for beginning with Leinster. But his demands clearly took them aback. They felt that he had already been given troops, supplies, and money on an unprecedented scale and with unusual promptitude. Yet after a bare fortnight in Dublin he was already asking for more. They could only think that he asked, not to put the Queen to further charge, but because he suspected delays might occur as they had done in the past. Even his friendly uncle Sir William Knollys, while urging that the promises already made should be kept, felt that there was ‘no reason to harken to any new demand’. Essex by his own statement now had the full 16,000 foot and it was from them that the Lough Foyle force was to be found. If more were really needed, what about the voluntaries serving with him or the English settlers driven from their homes by the rebels? As for shipping for the Lough Foyle force, they could not believe that Ireland was so unprovided of barks that it must all be fetched from England. Anyway, to send the 2,000 men and the shipping sooner than they could be used would be so much charge cast away. So they must wait until they had heard of his success in Leinster and readiness for Ulster. Her Majesty would not as yet be at any new charge for carriage horses, but if they proved so necessary, the Council would move her to provide them out of the checks.6 The truth was not only that the Queen and her Council felt that they had provided handsomely against the rebels in Ireland, but that they were beginning to have other no less serious matters to worry about. It was on 1 May, just a day or two before the reply to Essex was sent off, that Cecil wrote to Sir Henry Neville that the preparations in Spanish ports were too ‘great and suspicious’ to be intended merely for defence against van der Does's Dutch forces.7 Nevertheless, reasonable though the Council's caution was, both they and the Queen were to prove a good deal better than their word.

(p.302) Essex left Dublin for his Leinster operations on 9 May. Next day he gathered nearly 3,000 foot and 300 horse at Naas. A couple of days later he was joined by Ormonde with another 700 foot and 200 Irish horse. They marched on through Athey and Strathbally to Maryborough, putting victuals and munitions and sometimes a few troops into castles and forts on the way and sending small detachments to Carlow and into Offally. Then on 18 May, leaving Blount to bring the army on towards Clonmell, Essex and Ormonde rode off to meet Sir Thomas Norris at Kilkenny. There had been a slight brush with less than 100 rebels near Tallacoury on 11 May and a two hours' engagement with a more considerable force on the way through the Cashel pass on 17 May. There a voluntary gentleman and Captain Docwra's lieutenant had been slain after chasing some of the rebels and getting stuck, weighed down by their armour, in a bog. But in general the rebels had made no great resistance. When they did fight, they had fought ‘in woods and bogs, where horse are utterly unserviceable’, and had trusted to their lightness and swiftness to run off when they found the English too well ordered to encounter. On the other hand, only two or three rebels of any note—Mountgarrett, Cahir, James Fitzpiers—had made submission.8 So far, in fact Essex had done almost nothing to reduce Leinster to obedience, the avowed purpose of his journey. Indeed, on 29 May the rebel O'Byrnes in an action a few miles south of Wicklow scattered in panic-stricken rout the 450 foot and 50 horse under Sir Henry Harrington that he had left there to guard the southern borders of the Pale.9

Yet upon hearing Sir Thomas Norris's report at Kilkenny, Essex decided to quit Leinster and march off into Munster. After resting his troops for a couple of days at Clonmell, he moved off westwards on 25 May. His advance was blocked by Cahir castle, a rocky stronghold on an island in the river Suir and commanding the crossing. The castle belonged to Lord Cahir, who had recently submitted to Ormonde, but it was held by his younger brother and a rebel garrison who stoutly refused to surrender it. Essex brought up a cannon and a culverin from Waterford, manhandled up to him for want of draught horses. Although the cannon's carriage broke at the second shot and the culverin was for a time ‘clogged up with a bullet’, both eventually got into action on 30 May. They made (p.303) several serious breaches, and as some English troops had managed to get a foothold on the island, in the castle orchard, that night the garrison, losing hope of holding the place, attempted to fight their way out. Most of them were caught and either slain or drowned.10

Next day Essex marched off along the Suir as far as Athassal abbey. The recent rains had made the river impassable, so he spent the next day repairing the long-broken bridge at Golden. He then took his troop across by it and passing west of Tipperary reached Limerick on 4 June. There, as at Kilkenny and Clonmell, he was welcomed by the more or less loyal citizens with fulsome orations. After conferring with Norris again and with Sir Conyers Clifford, the governor of Connaught, he went off even farther west on 8 June to cover the revictualling of the fort at Askeaton by boats he sent down the river from Limerick. There were several skirmishes with 2,000 or 3,000 rebels gathered by James Fitzthomas, the ‘Sugane Earl’. But the two sides never really came to grips, casualties were light, and the English had no great trouble in getting through to Askeaton and seeing it revictualled. On the way back there was more skirmishing near Adare, in which Sir Henry Norris lost a leg and Captain Jennings was shot through the body, but the troops got safely through to Croom. From there Essex himself went on to Kilmallock to confer with Sir Thomas Norris about the next move and about his best way back to Dublin. For it was high time to be back. He had proposed before he left Dublin to be back and to set out for Ulster by the middle of June. It was now already 11 June and here he still was in western Munster with a wide belt of rebel-dominated country between him and the Pale. Moreover, he was running short of munitions and victuals. Norris promised to find him beeves enough in Lord Barry's country just inland from Cork—by now apparently the cattle, in these parts at least, were no longer too poor and lean to be either driven or eaten—and it was to Cork and Youghal that he had to look for other victuals and munitions. This meant that he had to go the longer way home, more or less along the south coast by Dungarvan and Waterford. On the way, after collecting his supplies at Fermoy, he went to attack James Fitzthomas's chief stronghold at Corma, but found that the Sugane Earl, having (p.304) seen what had happened to Cahir, had abandoned and burned it. So, with little or no opposition Essex and his troops reached Waterford on 21 June, to be welcomed with yet more orations, this time in somewhat shaky Latin.11

Getting across the water into Wexford county took several days. For although Essex had left 1,000 of his foot and 100 horse to reinforce Norris in Munster and now had with him little more than 1,250 effectives, these were encumbered by many carriers, servants, and horseboys, the ‘carriages’ of the army being ‘far greater than had ever heretofor in that country followed so few fighting men’. Once across, they marched past Enniscorthy and Ferns, keeping as far as possible to open ‘champion’ country towards the coast, since the bulk of Leinster's rebel forces were gathered in the wooded, hilly, and often boggy areas inland that were ideally suited to their style of warfare. All went well until on 30 June they were approaching Arklow down a scrub covered escarpment with a bog on one side it. Here the vanguard, under Ormonde, in their eagerness to reach the safety of the town, pushed on so fast that a dangerous gap opened between them and the supply train with its meagre guard of fifty soldiers. The rebels saw their opportunity and moved into the attack. For a short while it looked as if there might be a Yellow Ford in the making. Essex and Southampton, however, with a handful of horse, held them off until the rearguard came up. Thereupon the rebels scattered into the shelter of bog and scrubland and the English made their way safely into Arklow. Next day they moved on to Wicklow and a few days later Essex was back in Dublin.12

His two months' journeyings had sobered him very markedly. Already from Waterford on 25 June he had written to the Queen his view of ‘the state of this kingdom, not as before by hearsay, but as I beheld it with mine own eyes’. All the Irish wanted ‘to shake off the yoke of obedience to Your Majesty and to root out all remembrance of the English nation in this kingdom’. Even the towns, being of the same religion as the rest, were ‘so carried away by love of gain that for it they will furnish the rebels with all things that may arm them’. The rebel forces were more in number than the Queen's army, had ‘better bodies and perfecter use of their arms’. They were so many (p.305) and so framed to be soldiers that to subdue them by force would entail a great, costly, and long war. On the other hand, the rebels were ‘neither able to force any walled town, castle or house of strength nor to keep any that they got’; they were very poor horsemen; and their foot, though ready enough ‘to skirmish and fight loose’, would not risk a pitched battle. So, if the Queen's army were victualled out of England and if its garrisons burned and spoiled all the crops and livestock in the country and her ships cut off all supplies of munitions from Spain or Scotland, this action would in the end be successful, though costly. These realistic and reasonable proposals were largely adopted by Mountjoy in 1600–2, but they represented a very different strategy and a very notable climb down from Essex's previous boastings. But he obviously found it very difficult to admit personal blame for the climb down and he ended his letter in what can hardly be described otherwise than a persecution mania. ‘Why do I talk of victory or success…Is it not spoken in the army that Your Majesty's favour is diverted from me?…Is it not lamented of Your Majesty's faithfullest subjects both there and here that a Cobham or a Ralegh—I will forbear others for their places' sake—should have such credit and favours with Your Majesty when they wish the ill success of Your Majesty's most important action?’13 On reaching Wicklow he wrote in similar plaintive vein to the Privy Council. If he had done less than Her Majesty expected, it could only be either ‘because she hath made choice of an insufficient minister or else because it hath pleased Her Majesty to match him with a weak and insufficient Council…As I ever said and ever must say, I provided for this service a breastplate and not a cuirass, that is I am armed on the breast but not on the back.’14

On arriving back at Dublin early in July, Essex, seriously unwell and for three days in the hands of the physicians, found cause for even deeper gloom. Awaiting him was a letter of 10 June from the Privy Council passing on the Queen's command that he dismiss Southampton from the post of general of the horse, an appointment that he well knew she had firmly and precisely forbidden. Essex protested that his commission fully enabled him ‘to make free choice of all officers’ and that in a private talk with the Queen, although (p.306) she had shown a dislike of Southampton having any office, she had allowed that Essex should execute his commission and ‘work with mine own instruments’. To displace Southampton now would dismay the army and encourage the rebels. The ‘voluntaries’ were already asking daily for passports home. As for himself, everyone was asking ‘how long shall he prosper to whom they that had Her Majesty's ear as much as any, wish worse than to Tyrone or O'Donnell?’ He added, not perhaps very tactfully, ‘was it treason in my lord of Southampton to marry my poor kinswoman’?15

Before they received this further complaint from Essex that he was being stabbed in the back, the Privy Council had written to him on 10 July, rejoicing to hear from him that he had so well ‘surmounted all the practices and dangers which were prepared for you by such force as the rebels have’ and congratulating him on his safe return to Dublin. Some clauses in his letters showed, however, that he was ‘not so well satisfied in the correspondency which you have or shall receive from us’. They assured him that, on the contrary, they had given him ‘continual satisfaction from time to time for all that was agreed and resolved on’ before he left England. They had provided large supplies of victuals; the whole quantity of apparel had been sent to Ireland; Essex already had the money for five months full pay for the army and that for a sixth month was at present ‘in telling’ to the treasurer-at-war's deputy. In addition, ‘beyond the compass of the project’ they had sent the 3,000 swords he had asked for, as well as the 200 carriage horses; and the extra 2,000 troops were already at Chester, only awaiting favourable weather to cross over.16 The 2,000 had not been sent by 1 June because his return to Dublin was likely—and indeed was—a good deal later than he had expected and he had not then said when and where they should arrive. Yet their levy had been ordered on 4 June and they were to be at Chester by 26 June. Sir Francis Darcy had been appointed on 21 June to take them over and on 9 July he had been authorized to make good any defect in their numbers from volunteers at Chester. The 300 targets Essex had asked for, had not been sent because, apart from costing £12,000, it would take at least three weeks to make even a hundred.17

Realizing that he had gone too far, Essex in acknowledging the (p.307) Privy Council's letter of 10 July begged them ‘to believe that I charge not your lordships with want of care or breach of promise in directing supplies of all things for this war…In professing myself unarmed on my back, I meant that I lay open to the malice and practice of mine enemies in England’. They gave him wound upon wound, yet cunningly denied it and excused themselves. But England and Ireland, subjects and rebels, familiarly spoke of the power they had to supplant him in his sovereign's favour, scoff at his services, and make collections of every disgrace and discomfort he had received. ‘We can only say this’, the Council replied, ‘that those imputations of any indisposition towards you are so improper as we will neither do your lordship that wrong to take them so intended nor ourselves that injury to go about to excuse them, knowing you too wise to apply those descriptions to any of us, so we desire to give you no occasion by our writing to revive it nor any other of like nature’.18

Meanwhile in Dublin Essex on 9 June had court martialled Sir Henry Harrington's troops over their cowardice in the action near Wicklow on 29 May. A lieutenant was hanged, the rank and file decimated, and the captains cashiered.19 Then on 15 July he and the Irish council met to consider the present situation and their future course. They found that of the army establishment of 16,000 foot and 1,300 horse, 3,300 foot and 200 horse were in Munster, 2,850 foot and 200 horse in Connaught, 3,000 foot and 300 horse in Leinster and on the northern frontier, while another 1,000 foot and 100 horse at least were needed to garrison Knockfergus, Newry, and Dundalk and the castles belonging to them. Even without making any allowance for men sick or unserviceable, this left under 6,000 loot and 500 horse for both the proposed Lough Foyle landing and the thrust into Ulster through Armagh and over the Blackwater, an operation in which after twenty days not half the original number would be fit for service. The Lough Foyle force could not safely be less than 3,000 foot and the remaining 3,000 would be quite inadequate for an attack through Armagh, for Tyrone had been reckoned (p.308) to have over 7,200 foot and 1,700 horse even before a couple of ships from Spain brought him munitions and calivers for another 1,000 and pikes for 1,000 more. So the Lough Foyle landing must be abandoned and until either the other provinces were more subdued or the Queen's army increased, the most that could be done against Ulster would be to plant garrisons at Armagh and on the west at Ballyshannon. These would need 3,000 men and finding three month's victuals for them might be a problem. Finally, Essex asked for leave, and the money, to hire 2,000 Irish foot, over and above the 16,000.20

These letters, and indeed the whole history of the past three months, surely prove that the Privy Council, far from carping and quibbling and stabbing Essex in the back, had in fact persuaded the Queen to grant almost every additional request he had made and to grant them in full and by or before the time he was ready. They also show that his intention of abandoning for this year both the Lough Foyle landing and any major onslaught on Ulster from the south had nothing to do with either carriage horses or sea transport, as some of his modern defenders have claimed.21 He made those decisions because a consideration of his own and the rebels' forces convinced him that he could not spare 3,000 foot for Lough Foyle and that, even with the full available 6,000, he would be too heavily outnumbered to launch a major invasion of Ulster through Armagh. The fact that ten months later Mountjoy was able to find 3,000 foot for Lough Foyle from an army establishment of 14,000 as compared with Essex's 16,000, may suggest that Essex had scattered his numbers too thinly and into too many garrisons. But the real significance of the 15 July decisions was that three months' first-hand acquaintance with Irish reality had convinced Essex that to conquer the rebels needed a completely different strategy. It would be a much slower, more costly, and less spectacular enterprise than he had believed and boasted back in England. He would need much more than the year he had originally asked for and either considerably increased forces or greater expenditure to bring ‘rebellion broached upon his sword’. It was to take Mountjoy over three years.

Even before the letters of 15 July arrived, the Queen had become very impatient at the delay in attacking Tyrone. To make matters worse, Essex's first letters after his return to Dublin, brought over by (p.309) Sir Henry Carey, gave ‘small light either when or in what order you intend to proceed to the northern action’. There was, however, a bruit that he meant to go first into Offally. His two months' journey had been like via navis in mari. It had ‘brought in never a capital rebel against whom it had been worthy to have adventured one thousand men’. The president of Munster, with a small reinforcement, could have done as much. Essex had now learnt, at the Queen's expense, by knowledge of the country—an echo of his letter from Waterford?—what she had heretofore told him, ‘how far different things would prove there from your expedition.’ It was no use moaning that he was disgraced and defeated from England, ‘still exclaiming against the effects of your own causes’, for he had been provided with all and more than all that was agreed on before he went over. He was now, she commanded, ‘with all speed to pass thither [Ulster] in such order as the axe may be put to the root of that tree, which hath been the treasonable stock from whence so many poisoned plants and grafts have been derived’. Finally, the Queen found it strange that Essex should make so much fuss over displacing Southampton, he ‘being such a one whose counsel can be of little, and experience of less, use; yea, such a one [as], were he not lately fastened to yourself by an accident wherein for our usage of yours we deserve thanks, you would have used many of your old lively arguments against him for any such ability or commandment’. It was notorious that she had expressly forbidden the appointment. Essex's reply was to displace Southampton and abolish the post of general of the horse.22

Just about the time, 19 July, when the Queen was writing her letter, Lord Grey arrived home, burning with anger against Southampton and Essex for disciplining him (mildly enough) after in defiance of Southampton's orders he had galloped dangerously far ahead in pursuit of some retreating rebels. He gave Lord Cobham what looks like a very twisted account of being required to say publicly whether he loved Essex or Cecil best—a question significant of Essex's tortured suspicions. London gossips scented in Grey's return an additional cause of the Queen's annoyance.23 But a much more likely one is that on 14 July, just five days before she wrote, Simon (p.310) Killigrew had landed at Plymouth with Mme de Sourdéac's report that two agents of the Adelantado had asked her to allow the Ferrol armada to shelter in Brest on its way to England, or possibly to Ireland.24 With the Spanish armada at sea, it was highly undesirable that Tyrone should be in the field virtually unopposed and boasting of victories.

Not only undesirable but also, the Queen felt, unnecessary. On receiving his letter of 15 July she dismissed, justly enough, Essex's complaints of many lacks. There were ‘those things only wanting, of that which was resolved, by those accidental causes which accompany sea transportation’. She had undertaken this excessive charge ‘upon no other foundation than [that] to which yourself did ever advise us as much as any, which was to assail the northern traitor and to plant garrisons in his country’. She could not believe he was now unable to do this without a further increase of forces, unless his unseasonable journey into Munster had broken the heart of his best troops and much weakened their strength. She did, and to further the planting of a garrison at Lough Foyle, reluctantly agree to his request to be allowed to hire an extra 2,000 foot in Ireland. But she expected him also to pass into the north without delay ‘for accomplishment of those counsels which were resolved on at your departure’. Until that was done, she forbade him to take advantage of the licence to return to England that she had given him. He was not to leave Ireland without first obtaining her permission.25

Further letters, of 3 August, from Essex and the Irish council brought another list of the Queen's forces, showing only 4,750 foot and 378 horse available for Ulster. This provoked the Queen into a fierce onslaught upon the Irish council for their past weakness and errors; for ‘suffering, nay, favouring, Popery’; for lack of discipline, order, and direction; for persuading Essex into so long a journey into Munster; and for consistently opposing the northern journey. Turning then to Essex, she challenged his figures for the numbers of troops available. In attacking Ulster he could also reckon on the greatest part of the forces of Connaught, which had always been designed for that service. To these he could add the extra 2,000 she had just granted him. He could also count upon ‘such extractions as upon better consideration you may draw from divers places that serve (p.311) rather for protection of private men's countries and fortunes than for the good of the public cause, besides what you may carry out of the frontier northern garrisons when you are so near his country’. All these, added to the 4,750, should give him certainly not less than 10,000 or 11,000 men. So ‘we command you no impossibilities’.26

On 5 August, however, four days before the Queen's letter was written, another disaster in Ireland had already weakened her calculations. Essex had just returned from his expedition against the O'Moores and O'Connors in Offally and Leix. While Sir Christopher Blount revictualled Maryborough yet again, Essex had supplied Philipstown and then gone on to meet Sir Conyers Clifford near Tullamore. As a preliminary move by the Connaught forces to an attack on Ballyshannon as part of the northern journey, Essex gave Clifford another four companies of foot and directed him, without taking risks, to relieve the loyalist O'Connor Sligo, who was besieged in his castle of Collooney by O'Donnell. On 5 August Clifford with just on 1,500 foot and 200 horse, mostly seasoned troops, was ambushed by a force of O'Rorkes, not one-third of his numbers, as he began to cross the Curlieu hills. His troops were already weary from a long march and clamouring for their dinner. The vanguard fell into the ambush, began to run short of powder, turned back, collided with the oncoming ‘battle’ and threw everything into confusion. Panic spread through the foot troops and only a series of charges by the horse enabled the greater part of them to escape, first to Boyle and eventually back to Athlone. Clifford himself, his second in command Sir Alexander Radcliffe, and 239 other officers and men were slain and 208 wounded.27

This disaster made it even more desirable and at the same time even more difficult to do something effective against Tyrone and Ulster. For Essex, coming in the onset of so many disappointments, it was a devastating blow. Desperately seeking to shift the blame for his change of mind about attacking Tyrone, he blamed the information and estimates originally provided for the Privy Council. In England, he wrote the rebels had been esteemed to be 16,000 or 17,000, but Ormonde had reckoned them at 20,000 and all the Irish council thought that on the low side. It was also thought that man for man the English would be at least a match for the rebels; yet they (p.312) ‘do run away from equal, and sometimes inferior, numbers to themselves’. The Irish nobility, gentlemen, and the Pale had been thought

an especial increase of our force; we find by proof that they furnish not a man but for his wages and the hire out of Her Majesty's purse. So that now, instead of thinking this a summer's work or an easy task, Her Majesty and your lordships may believe that this is such a war as, if Her Majesty will prosper in it, she must keep a strong army with liberal maintenance and have ministers which must appear in more brightness than their own by the beams of her favour.

It was a pretty feeble effort to blame others for an over-optimism of which he had himself been the chief exponent.

Essex was now very reluctant to face Tyrone head-on with the 300 horse and barely 3,500 foot that was all he now expected to get into the field—his estimates were dropping at a truly alarming rate.28 On 21 August he called together ‘the lords and colonels of the army’ and they unanimously agreed that they could not ‘advise or assent to the undertaking of any journey far north’. Rather than go to Ulster, many soldiers were slipping away to England or to the rebels or feigning sick. ‘There could be no planting this year at Lough Foyle’ or attacking from Connaught and in a ‘one way’ attack Essex's 3,500 or 4,000 men would be far outnumbered, to say nothing of the want of shipping and the decayed state of their victuals.29 Next day Essex himself wrote two letters to the Privy Council, in each begging them to bear with him for two or three days before he informed them of the preparation and purpose of his intended journey.30 He sounds like a man desperately trying to stave off the moment of decision. Indeed, he had by now become desperate, hounded by his delusion that all his troubles were due to the machinations of his enemies in England and their poisoning of the Queen's mind against him. So desperate was he about this time that he proposed to Southampton and Sir Christopher Blount going over to Wales with 2,000 or 3,000 troops and making good his landing there until he could gather sufficient forces to proceed farther, not doubting that his army would soon so increase that he would be able to march on London (p.313) and make his conditions as he desired. Both Southampton and Blount, according to their confessions later, were horrified at his proposal and succeeded in dissuading him from it and in fact he did abandon it, at least in that militant form.31

From wild dreams of military coup d'état he plunged into suicidal gloom. His letters around this time abound in such protestations as ‘I care not what happen to myself, for if a kerne kill me not, sickness will.’ On 28 August he wrote to the Privy Council that ‘I am even now putting my foot into the stirrup to go to the rendezvous at Navan and from thence I will draw the army as far and to do as much as duty will warrant me and God will enable me’. That hardly sounds like a plan of campaign. A couple of days later, hearing that Tyrone was coming into the Brenny, he wrote that ‘if he hath as much courage as he pretendeth, we will on one side or the other end the war’. To the Queen he wrote on the same day, ‘the rebels' pride and successes must give me means to ransom myself, my soul I mean, out of this hateful prison of my body. And if it happens so, Your Majesty…shall not have cause to mislike the fashion of my death though the course of my life could not please you’. In this mood, almost anything might happen.32

While his troops were gathering between Navan and Kells and their victuals were coming up from Drogheda, Essex did suggest to his council advancing into the Brenny and planting a garrison there. It was pointed out, however, that in that wasted country a garrison would have to be repeatedly revictualled overland, which would entail a major military operation. Also, while Essex and his forces were marching northwestwards towards Cavan to establish the garrison, Tyrone who was by now lodged in Ferny might well slip past his eastward flank and invade the Pale in force. So Essex decided to be content with Kells as the most forward frontier garrison for that part of the Pale. Thereupon he turned northwards and on 3 September came within sight of Tyrone's forces near Ardee in county Louth. Only a wood and the river Dee separated the two armies and it was at once clear that the English, with little more than 2,500 fit and able foot and 300 horse, were outnumbered at least two to one—some English guesses put the Irish numbers as high as 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse.

(p.314) There could be no question of attacking across the river and into the woods. But the council suggested to Essex that something might be achieved by drawing up his forces in battle order on open ground of his own choosing and inviting the Irish to attack. Tyrone, however, was too wily an old fox to be caught in that trap. He had moreover no intention of fighting at all at this moment if he could avoid it. He knew by now that the Ferrol armada had gone off southwards in pursuit of van der Does and there was little or no hope of substantial Spanish assistance this year. So why not husband his strength for better times and play the old game of professing submission and loyalty to win yet another period of truce? He was no doubt encouraged in this course by knowing a good deal about the circumstances in which Essex found himself.

So, when Sir Christopher Blount, on Essex's order, sent Captain Thomas Lee into the Irish camp (or maybe just granted him leave to go there) upon some errand or other, Tyrone sent Lee back with a message that if Essex ‘would be guided by him, he would make him the greatest man in England’. Then on 5 September Essex gave Sir William Warner leave also to go to Tyrone, ostensibly to obtain the release of an English captain taken prisoner by the Irish during the operation in Offaly. Would it be perhaps a shade over-charitable to assume that both Lee and Warner were in fact sent simply to spy on the enemy's strength and dispositions? At all events that same day Tyrone sent a trusted follower, Henry Hagan, to ask Essex for a parley. Essex, however, was about to try his device of seeking to tempt Tyrone to attack him in battle order in open country. So he refused a parley and challenged Tyrone ‘to meet me in the field so far advanced beyond the head of his kerne as myself shall be separated from the front of my troops, where we will parley in that fashion which best becometh soldiers’. The 54-year-old Irishman ignored this rather outdated challenge to single combat and equally refused to become involved in anything more serious than a few minor skirmishes between light horse when on the morrow Essex drew up his troops in battle order and challenged the Irish to attack him.

So next day, 7 September, in despair of achieving anything at all against Tyrone and Ulster, Essex turned head and began to retire back towards Drumcondra and Kells. He had gone barely a mile when Hagan again appeared, protesting that Tyrone wished to submit himself to the Queen's mercy and begged Essex to turn back (p.315) and meet at the ford of Bellaclynthe over the river Lagan. This time Essex agreed. Taking a troop of horse and some of his chief officers with him, he rode back. He found Tyrone sitting quite alone in midstream, with the water up to his horse's belly, as the river was too wide at this point to talk across. Seeing Tyrone all alone, Essex instructed Southampton to make sure that no one of his party came within earshot and then rode down, also alone, to the water's edge. There for half an hour or more he and Tyrone conversed in complete secrecy.33

On Essex's part it was an act of almost unbelievable folly not just to meet Tyrone but to converse with him in such secrecy. Just what passed between them no one knew or knows. But Essex's critics and enemies were bound to suspect and suggest the worst. The immediate, public, outcome, however, was a six weeks' truce, renewable from six weeks to six weeks until 1 May 1601 but terminable earlier upon fourteen days' notice by either side. So long as it lasted, Tyrone and his confederates were to keep all they held; no garrisons were to be put in places now held by them; commissioners for the borders were to be appointed by both sides; any Irish confederate who rejected these terms might be prosecuted by the Lord Lieutenant; and finally, while Essex merely signed these articles, Tyrone took an oath to observe them (8 September).34 Thereupon Tyrone retired into Ulster and Essex, after disbanding his little army, went off to take physic at Drogheda.

Even before the detailed discussion of the truce had begun, Essex had rushed off Captain Lawson with a journal of his northward journey and a letter to inform the Queen of his meeting with Tyrone. Lawson reached the court on 16 September.35 Two days earlier the Queen had written another stinging letter in answer to Essex's of 21 August. ‘Before your departure’, it began, ‘no man's counsel was held sound which persuaded not presently the main prosecution in Ulster.’ Yet he had wasted nine weeks in Leinster and Munster and more time in Offaly; he had then demanded, and been granted, another 2,000 men; and now he wrote

(p.316) ‘that all you can do is go to the frontiers and that you have provided only twenty days victuals…How often have you told us that others, that preceded you, had no judgement to end the war; who often resolved us [that] until Lough Foyle and Ballyshannon were planted, there could be no hope of doing service upon the capital rebels? We must therefore let you know, as it cannot be ignorance, so it cannot be want of means for you had your asking, you had choice of times, you had power and authority more ample than ever any had or ever shall have’.

That he now could find no more than 3,500 men for a journey to Ulster, was incomprehensible ‘except that you left too great numbers in unnecessary garrisons which do increase our charge and diminish our army’. Also, as by his letters there was no hope of any service this year against Tyrone and O'Donnell, he and his council should inform her how the remains of the year should be spent.36

Three days later, on 17 September, the Queen hurried Lawson back to Ireland with her reply to what he had brought from Essex the day before. She noted ‘that you and the traitor spake together half an hour alone and without anybody hearing; wherein we that trust you with our kingdom are far from mistrusting with a traitor, yet both for comeliness, example, and for your own discharge we marvel you would carry it no better’. So far the rebuke was surprisingly mild. But the Queen continued: he had dealt so sparingly with her ‘by advertising us only at first of the half hour's conference alone but not what passed on either side, by letting us know you sent commissioners without showing what they had in charge, as we cannot tell but by divination what to think may be the issue of this proceeding. Only this we are sure of, for we see it in effect, that you have prospered so ill for us by your warfare as we cannot but be very jealous lest you should be as well overtaken by the treaty’. He had formerly condemned his predecessors for such treaties and pacifications, yet he had been given ‘an army exceeding any that ever was paid there by any prince so long time out of this realm’. Tyrone was obviously up to his old tricks of pretending submission and repentance. To trust him upon his oath was ‘to trust a devil upon his religion…Unless he yield to have garrisons planted in his own country to master him; to deliver O'Neill's sons…and to come over to us personally here, we shall doubt you do but patch up a (p.317) hollow peace.’ So she absolutely commanded him, as he had promised, to conclude nothing without first informing her and receiving her approval.37

These two letters provoked Essex to an act of even more remarkable folly. On 24 September, in open defiance of the Queen's recent prohibition, he took ship for England, leaving the chancellor Loftus and Sir George Carey to govern in his absence and Ormonde to command the troops.38 With him he took a small group of friends and followers, among them Southampton, Dunkellin, the wounded Sir Henry Davers, Sir Christopher St Lawrence, and Sir Henry Docwra. When they reached London late on 27 September, most of these went their own way. So next morning only half-a-dozen followers went with him when he was rowed across the Thames to Lambeth, where he commandeered horses tethered by the waterside and rode off to the court at Nonsuch. On the way he either almost caught up with or was overtaken by (accounts differ) his bitter enemy Lord Grey, who refused to let him go on ahead and himself galloped off to warn Cecil. St Lawrence did offer to kill both Grey and the Secretary, but Essex retained enough sense at least to forbid that.

Reaching Nonsuch unannounced—Grey, presumably, went off first to find Cecil—about ten o'clock, Essex strode through the Presence Chamber and the privy chamber straight into the Queen's bedchamber, ‘so full of dirt and mire that his very face was full of it’. The Queen was only just up and still with her hair about her face. Yet despite being taken so completely and alarmingly by surprise, she showed a remarkable coolness and presence of mind. During the past couple of weeks stories had been going round the court that Essex ‘in his discontentments uses speeches that may be dangerous and hurtful to his safety’39 and for all Elizabeth knew he and his swordsmen might even now be in armed control of Nonsuch. So she received him pleasantly enough. Even when he came back, after a wash and brush up, an hour later, ‘her usage [was] very gracious towards him’ and they talked together for an hour and a half. By the time, however, that he had gone off to his dinner and come back to her, she had had time to get some idea of the true situation. So he ‘found her much changed in that small time, for she began to call (p.318) him to question for his return and was not satisfied in the moment of his coming away and leaving all things at so great hazard’. She appointed those Privy Councillors who were at court—Hunsdon, North, Cecil, and Sir William Knollys—to hear what he had to say in his defence. Late that night, on their report, she commanded him to keep his chamber.

Next day, 29 September, the full Council met in the forenoon and in the afternoon had Essex before them to answer for his conduct. The Queen took a couple of nights to consider their report and to assure herself that she was well in control. Then on 1 October she committed him to virtual house arrest in the custody of the Lord Keeper at York House.40 It was to be another year and a half before further folly brought him to the scaffold. But it was already the end of his career as instigator and executor of English policy. In 1596–7 against Spain and now again in 1598–9 against Tyrone he had shown a clear and penetrating understanding of the essentials of the problems and a bold, if impatient and somewhat over-ambitious vision of how those problems might be solved. But in both 1597 and 1599, when given his chance to realize those visions, he had shown a lamentable feebleness, indecision, and incompetence as a commander at sea and in the field. Of him, too, it might truly be said omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset (but for the fact that he had held high command, everyone would have thought him well qualified for it).


(1) Devereux, ii. 16–24; Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 9–10, 12–13; H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, ix. 134; Perrott, Chronicle, 160.

(2) Cal. S. P. Ireland, villi. 4–5, 6, 9; Devereux, ii. 17, 19–23.

(3) H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, ix. 133; Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 61–2.

(4) Ibid., 16–18, 20, 21–3; cp. also Barnaby Rich at ibid., 45–51. Captain Dawtrey however believed that ‘horses will live well with old couches and oats and one month's war made in the first of the spring is worth five months' war made after midsummer’—ibid., x. 168; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 298–300; Perrott, Chronicle, 162–3.

(5) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 18–19.

(6) Ibid., viii. 27–9; H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, ix. 188–9. The Privy Council's letter must have been written before 8 May (the date on its endorsement) if Essex and the Irish council's reply (Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 29–32) was really written, as seems probable, on 9 May. For Knollys's attitude, see J. Hurstfield in Elizabethan Government and Society (1961), 375–6.

(7) Winwood Memorials, i. 19.

(8) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 36–41, 42–3; H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, ix. 161–2; Devereux, ii. 27–9; Nugae Antiquae, i. 268–75, 292; Dymmok, 31–3, 41–2.

(9) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 58–60, 68–9, 81–91; Perrott, Chronicle, 170–1.

(10) Birch, Memoirs, ii. 398–402; Cal. Carew MSS, 301–3; Nugae Antiquae, i. 276–8; Dymmok, 34. According to Perrott's Chronicle, 164–5, Cahir Castle was held by the Lady of Cahir ‘who was kept by another man’ and she kept the castle ‘against her husband as well as against the Queen’.

(11) Birch, Memoirs, ii. 403–8; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 304–8; Nugae Antiquae, i. 278–86; Dymmok, 35–8; Perrot, Chronicle, 165–8.

(12) Birch, Memoirs, 408–14; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 308–12; Nugae Antiquae, i. 286–92; Dymmok, 38–40.

(13) Fynes Moryson, ii. 238–43. L. W. Henry (Bull. Inst. Hist. Research, 32 (1959), 14 n. 5) suspected it was perhaps intercepted by the Irish and never reached the Queen But her letter of 19 July (Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 98–101) seems to be answering it.

(14) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 77.

(15) Ibid., 61–2; Birch, Memoirs, ii. 421–2; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 312–14; H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, xvi. 107.

(16) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 80–1.

(17) Ibid., 60–1, 64, 65, 79.

(18) Ibid., 95–6, 112. Cecil's letters to Neville, the ambassador in France might be cited as further proof of goodwill towards Essex in the Council, but Cecil was of course anxious to counter the rebels' boasts of successes that, according to the Queen, Tyrone ‘hath blazed in foreign parts’—Winwood Memorials, i. 40; Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 99.

(19) Birch, Memoirs, ii. 420–1; Nugae Antiquae, i. 292; Dymmok, 42.

(20) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 91–5.

(21) L. W. Henry, in Bull. Inst. Hist. Research, 32 (1959); Black, Reign of Elizabeth I, (2nd edn.), 430–1.

(22) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 98–101; Birch, Memoirs, ii. 423; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 315–16.

(23) H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, ix. 269 (the date is 1599, not 1598); Perrott, Chronicle, 168–9; Cal. S. P. Domestic 1598–1601, 225–7 (no. 33).

(24) Above, p. 264.

(25) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 105–7, 111–12.

(26) Ibid., 111, 114–17; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 316–17.

(27) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 113–14; 119–21; Fynes Moryson, ii. 244–6; Nugae Antiquae, i. 255–7, 264–8; Dymmok, 42–7.

(28) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 121–5, 125–6.

(29) Ibid., 126–7; Devereux, ii. 54–5.

(30) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 128. Cecil, somewhat generously, noted on the letter ‘a purpose expressed to invade the arch-traitor or his principal followers’.

(31) H. M. C., Salisbury MSS, xi. 48, 72.

(32) Devereux, ii. 59, 68; Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 136, 137 (Cecil noted again ‘here was no sign of a parley toward’).

(33) Birch, Memoirs, ii. 427–9, 493; Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 138, 142, 144–7; Nugae Antiquae, i. 293–301; Dymmok, 48–50; Fynes Moryson, ii. 246–7; Sidney Papers, ii. 125; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 321–5; Perrott, Chronicle, 171–3.

(34) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 154–5.

(35) Sidney Papers, ii. 125.

(36) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 150–3. Also in Birch, Memoirs, ii. 429–32; Devereux, ii. 61–5; Fynes Moryson, ii. 248–53; and with omissions in Harrison, Essex, 243–6.

(37) Nugae Antiquae, i. 302–8; Devereux, ii. 73–5; Cal. Carew MSS, iii. 325–7.

(38) Cal. S. P. Ireland, viii. 156; Sidney Papers, ii. 128.

(39) Ibid., 12.2.

(40) Ibid., 127–31; H. M. C., De L'Isle and Dudley, ii. 395–9; Camden, Annals, 616–17.