Elizabethan Tyranny



Beyond Ireland’s shores the old Europe of feudal certainties was being rent asunder. The Reformation had induced panic in the Catholic monarchies of Europe, as well as bouts of savage retaliation: when, for example, tens of thousands of Protestant Huguenots across France were killed by Catholic mobs in 1572 in the aftermath of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a Te Deum to be celebrated. In England itself, the Reformation remained far from complete: Mary had caused hundreds of Protestants to be burned at the stake for refusing to return to the old faith; and when her half-sister succeeded to the throne in 1558, it was by no means certain which direction policy would take. The cautious and parsimonious Elizabeth was at heart a pragmatist. She was certainly not a fervently committed Protestant in the way that Mary had been a zealous Catholic, and it seems clear that she fulfilled her Protestant destiny for sound practical reasons – as the best means of preserving her throne in a dangerous political world. As the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – the wife who replaced the devouity Catholic Catherine of Aragon after Henry divorced her – and as head of the reformed Church in England, however, Elizabeth became increasingly the focus of the hostility of Catholic Europe in general and of Spain in particular. The stakes were immeasurably higher than they had ever been for her father.

In 1569, as a Catholic rebellion was brewing in northern England, an Old English revolt erupted in Ireland – partly as a result of the central government’s political mismanagement of the situation. It had been the wish of Elizabeth’s ministers to install English-born (and therefore politically loyal) colonists, traders and middlemen at strategic points throughout the province of Munster – in the more important coastal ports, for example, where they could be given trading privileges. Their aim was to enable centralized English power to flow unimpeded throughout the region. Although many minor members of the province’s gentry looked forward to this new economic order, Munster society as a whole remained obdurate. For one thing, its circle of Old English families continued to control economic and political life; and a network of local alliances between these families and Gaelic power in the region further consolidated its inaccessibility to outside influence. Breaking these local power bases, then, was a principal government objective, and it was towards this end that the Earl of Desmond had been summoned to court in 1567. His absence – so the thinking went – would deprive Munster politics of a key leadership figure: the actual effect, however, was to produce a vacuum filled, two years later, by rebellion.

The first Munster uprising, of 1569–73, was also, of course, sparked in part by the arrival of these loyal Elizabethan adventurers, drawn to Ireland by the promise of wealth and success. Sir Humphrey Gilbert was one such: fourteen years later he would claim Newfoundland for the Crown, the first English colony outside Ireland. In the meantime, however, the mining, trading and forestry opportunities afforded in Munster kept him and his fellows more than occupied. It is significant that the rising in the province used religion as a rallying cry: Elizabeth’s forces were attempting to compel the residents of Ireland ‘to forsake the Catholic faith by God unto his church given and by the see of Rome hitherto prescribed to all Christian men’.

But there was comparatively little force available to counter English military might, which, combined with the systematic destruction of property, crops and livestock in the province, soon proved deadly. Terror became a weapon of policy, directed specifically against the civilian population. Gilbert noted of his actions in Munster that he was ‘constantly of the opinion that no conquered nation will ever yield willingly their obedience for love but rather for fear’. The opportunity to surrender was offered only once: he ‘would not afterwards hearken to no parley…and put man, woman and child to the sword’. Gilbert specialized in the subjugation of rebel castles and villages and the killing of their inhabitants, and was in the habit of ordering the decapitation of large numbers of men at a stroke. On occasion he would have the path to his tent decorated with severed heads so that relatives of his victims would be made to walk past their late relations’ remains. He would boast later that the sight of ‘the heddes of their dedd fathers, brothers, CHILDREN, kinsfolk and friends’ wrought ‘great terror’. It was an easy matter to rationalize such actions: the Irish could readily enough be condemned as mere beasts and vermin who deserved nothing less.

In 1570 Elizabeth was formally excommunicated and Catholics forbidden to attend reformed Church services. Such measures had the effect of removing the last obligation of loyalty to the Crown on the part of the Catholic population of Ireland; and it also hardened yet further the government’s attitude to Catholicism, which began to be regarded as treasonous. At the same time the core of local resistance in Munster had not yet been dissolved, and the return to Ireland in 1573 of Desmond provided this resistance with a useful rallying point. Elizabeth’s tendency towards prevarication also now intervened in affairs: she ordered that Desmond be restrained by diplomacy, if possible. As it turned out, however, matters had now progressed too far and too many vested interests had been threatened for diplomacy to work. At this moment, a European intervention would prove decisive.

In July 1579, a small papal-sponsored invasion force landed and dug in at Smerwick, near Dingle on the County Kerry coast. Spain and France had declined to support the expedition officially, but its very existence emphasizes the extent to which European governments were alive to the strategic possibilities of Ireland; there were, in any case, Spanish soldiers among the Irish and Italian troops at Smerwick. More Spanish, Irish and Italian troops came ashore in September the following year, by which time revolt had once more spread across Munster and many other parts of southern Ireland. Yet this augmented force at Smerwick lasted barely another month before it was destroyed by the English, who – contrary to the rules of war at the time – beheaded the captives and threw their bodies into the sea. The poet Edmund Spenser, who with Walter Raleigh was present at Smerwick, would later defend the killings on legal grounds: Spain and England were not in fact officially at war at the time, so the normal rules of warfare did not apply.

Spenser, indeed, was among the first to advance cogent arguments for the systematic colonization of the country: he and Raleigh were the de facto representatives of a school of thought that reasoned that the inhabitants of Ireland were simply on the wrong side of history. If the Irish would not remove themselves peaceably (‘to bring themselves from their delight of licentious barbarism into the love of goodness and civility’), they must be removed by force and if necessary exterminated. And, indeed, in this second Munster uprising, that of 1579–83, widespread civilian deaths were the norm. Atrocities were committed on both sides – when the Irish captured the southern port of Youghal, for example, many of the English citizens who lived there were executed – but Elizabeth’s forces had the advantage, once again deploying a scorched earth policy across the province to devastating effect. Cattle were seized and the harvests burned, causing starvation throughout the countryside; it is thought that some thirty thousand Irish – a third of the population of Munster – were killed or died of famine in the four years from 1579.

Elizabeth’s private views on this matter are anyone’s guess. The recall in 1582 of Lord Grey, who had led the Munster campaign, may hint at royal disapproval of his brutal methods; so too does an irked passage in Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland that notes the monarch’s complaints at the violence taking place in her name even as the Irish tide flowed in her favour:

So I remember that in the late government of that good Lord Grey, when after long travail and many perilous assays, he had brought things almost to this pass we speak of, that it was even made ready for reformation, and might have been brought to what her Majesty would, like complaint was made against him, that he was a bloody man, and regarded not the life of her subjects no more than dogs, but had wasted and consumed, so as now she had almost nothing left but to reign in their ashes.

Royal disapproval or no, however, the campaign in Munster was carried through to its bitter end without intervention from London; and similar tactics would be employed yet again in Ireland before the Tudor age came to an end.



By 1583, Elizabethan forces had subdued the rising across southern Ireland: its leaders were dead or in hiding, the population largely destitute. This time, it was decided to resolve the issue of Munster once and for all, by means of a large-scale plantation of the province. Accordingly, the territory was now intensively surveyed and charted and its assets calculated; land was confiscated from a formerly rebellious population and handed over to Elizabeth’s soldiers; settlers were brought in to populate the countryside and in the process to secure the coastal ports against any possible Spanish invasion; and forts and military strongholds were constructed in key locations. The survey of Munster was a model of rationality, with laws laid down with crystal clarity and Irish tenants prohibited from cultivating the newly created manors.

Yet the new models could never be fully applied on the ground. For one thing, the new arrivals discovered a Munster that was in a state of disarray but certainly not as empty as the survey had implied. The existing inhabitants were promptly pressed into service on the newly planted estates, introducing both a welcome measure of economic productiveness and, in the longer term, a growing sense of rancour. Attempts were made as part of this plantation to re-create the pastoral landscapes of England in the Munster countryside: in the splendid setting of the Blackwater valley, for example, both Spenser and Raleigh were given estates – in the case of the latter, 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of land in and around Youghal. This would be a land upon which Elizabethan order and the Protestant faith could be imposed and where the enterprising settler could make a fortune. The colonists were perhaps spread too thinly across the landscape – yet it seemed that control of Munster had at last been sealed, and that a new order had now been established definitively across the whole south of Ireland.

There remained one great obstacle to English dominance of Ireland – in the fourth province, the one that would in time become synonymous with the conflict between the Irish and English. It is no exaggeration to say that the combination of distance, topography and a tradition of independence meant that for much of the time the administration in Dublin had little idea of what was going on in Ulster. The English still held the old fortress at Carrickfergus and the southeastern coastal fringe of the province; but an abortive attempt in 1566 to plant a garrison at Derry was a sign that much of the rest of Ulster lay far beyond their control. The province remained a source of deep anxiety for Elizabeth and her advisers. For one thing, it was the scene of a good deal of potentially destabilizing Scottish settlement. Government forces had attempted to deal with the Scots by strength of arms – one particularly bloody episode, in 1575, saw the massacre of perhaps seven hundred women, children and retainers of the MacDonnell clan who had been billeted for safety on Rathlin Island – but Elizabeth was eventually forced to accept a permanent Scottish presence in northeastern Ulster. The connections with Scotland also brought the province much too close for comfort to the Catholic supporters of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and a rival to her throne. Mary’s execution in 1587 took care of that particular problem. Almost at once, however, another presented itself, in the form of a powerful Irish chieftain who had become an English-sponsored nobleman – but who was ready now to challenge the position of the Crown in Ireland.

In one telling of the Irish story, Hugh O’Neill (1540–1616) is immortalized as a great freedom fighter. In reality, he embodies the ambiguities and dilemmas of his time. He was Irish and Catholic, but was also a scion of a family that, having accepted the surrender and regrant policy of Henry VIII, had received the earldom of Tyrone; he was prepared to be loyal to the Crown, but this loyalty did not extend to relinquishing his political independence; he had shown himself to be both a subtle politician who could charm Elizabeth herself, and a ruthless killer who, in his own interests, had taken the English side in the terror unleashed in Munster – as a result of which he had become the second Earl of Tyrone, with substantial lands across central Ulster. O’Neill, then, comes down to us as in many ways an incalculable figure: the product of an English assimilationist agenda and yet the gravedigger of that same policy.

However much O’Neill has been mythologized by later generations, it is evident that he did not start out as a champion of Catholic Ireland. At first, indeed, he was quite prepared to employ English political leverage to carve out his own power base in Ulster. Nobody could walk the tightrope between Gaelic interests and those of the English State as well as O’Neill, and it was for this reason that he received the support of Elizabeth for as long as he did; in the eyes of her government, he was the man best placed to keep Ulster peaceful – the key mediator between the two cultures. Yet, to an Elizabethan state intent on establishing for good its control over Ireland, a man such as O’Neill could ultimately never be sufficiently loyal. An Ulster ruled by one or more indigenous barons – even if they did protest their loyalty and hold their lands by the gift of the monarch herself – would ultimately be viewed as an unsatisfactory state of affairs: these lords were Gaelic, and essentially beyond the pale.

O’Neill’s transformation into an oppositional figure therefore, was prompted partly by the gradual English destruction of his power base in Ulster. In 1591, English officials began the confiscation of Gaelic land in County Monaghan: the territory was subdivided among English settlers, a garrison was established at Monaghan town and English law was invoked across the new county. The actions of the Crown further disrupted the tenor of Gaelic life in Ulster, and introduced a note of fear and instability. It also, significantly, disrupted the flow of tenant revenues to the likes of O’Neill. He was obliged to act, not least for reasons of political prestige, for if he did not respond, a host of rivals certainly would.

The 1580s had been years of political and military disquiet for Elizabeth, and in particular as Spanish power consolidated itself in Europe while the Tudor monarchy remained cash-strapped and English power as fragile as ever. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, though a signal triumph for England, was not the overwhelming victory of popular myth: the war that continued fitfully between the two countries was marked by as many important naval victories for Spain as for England, and by increased Spanish investment in Ireland as a means of weakening Elizabeth’s regime. It was into this bitter ideological struggle that O’Neill now inserted himself, seeing an opportunity in its religious dimension; he made contact with Philip II of Spain, citing their shared Catholicism as a reason why the Spanish should intervene in Ireland. It was a bold attempt – the first, though certainly not the last – to fuse Catholicism with Irishness, and to harness the potential power of a heady new identity. The Spanish government and the papacy were notably unconvinced by O’Neill’s sudden Catholic zealotry, yet as he had once been Elizabeth’s man, he was now theirs. In Rome, Pope Clement VIII named O’Neill ‘Captain General of the Catholic Army in Ireland’.

When the moment came O’Neill struck first, defeating the English forces in several battles in southern Ulster. These encounters culminated in August 1598 at the battle of the Yellow Ford in County Armagh: the English were routed and some nine hundred soldiers perished alongside their commander (and O’Neill’s brother in law), Henry Bagenal, who had been hell-bent on destroying O’Neill’s political position. In England, the heavy defeat caused consternation at court and Elizabeth was finally obliged to commit financially to the struggle, pouring into the Irish campaign vast amounts of money that her treasury could ill afford. She rounded furiously on the Earl of Essex, her commander-in-chief in Ireland: O’Neill, that ‘base bush kern’ [foot soldier], was humiliating English armies and boasting about it abroad. Essex, ruined by his experiences in Ireland, would be executed the following year.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the effect of the battle was dramatic: in Munster, yet another uprising spread like wildfire, undoing the plantation of the province in a matter of days. The colonists were swept off the land and forced to flee for their lives: ‘the misery of the Englishry was great. The wealthier sort, leaving their castles and dwelling-houses, and their victuals and furniture, made haste into walled towns, where there was no enemy within ten miles. The meaner sort (the rebellion having overtaken them) were slain, man, woman and child; and such as escaped came all naked to the towns.’ O’Neill, meanwhile, called on his co-religionists to rise up and follow him: ‘I will imploye myselfe to the utmost of my power in their defence and for the extirpation of heresie, the plantinge of the Catholic religion, the deliverie of our country of infinite murders, wicked and detestable policies by which this kingdom was hitherto governed, nourished in obscuritie and ignorance, maintained in barbarity and incivility and consequently of infinite evils.’ Yet in the end, he was unable to bring the people of the Pale with him. Now, victory over the English would more than ever depend upon Spain.

Philip II had died in September 1598 and his successor, Philip III, though interested less in the Irish dimension and more in Anglo-Spanish peace negotiations that were dragging on tediously, nevertheless continued to encourage O’Neill, sending arms and ammunition to assist his cause. Elizabeth, meanwhile, had ordered Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, to take the place of Essex in Ireland – and in Mountjoy O’Neill had an opponent who understood what was needed to finish the struggle once and for all and had the will to execute his plans in their entirety.

In 1600 a substantial English naval force of four thousand men, led by Sir Henry Docwra, sailed into Lough Foyle, bound once more for Derry: this time the landing was successful, and a garrison was established in this strategic location at the heart of O’Neill’s own territory. At the same time Mountjoy set out to burn the countryside, adopting the scorched earth policy that had earlier paid such dividends in Munster. His tactics worked: large areas of Ulster were reduced to destitution; O’Neill’s lands were now being threatened from the north and east by the garrisons at Derry and Carrickfergus and from the south by English soldiers dug in along the line of the river Blackwater. He knew that if the Spanish did not come soon, there would be little point in them coming at all.

On the morning of 2 October 1601 a fleet of thirty-three Spanish ships carrying four and a half thousand troops appeared off the Cork coast, bearing down towards the town of Kinsale. But from the beginning the expedition was dogged by bad luck. Some ships got lost in bad weather and did not reach Kinsale, and the army with which the Spanish soldiers were supposed to join forces was waiting far away in Ulster. Mountjoy quickly moved to flood the neighbourhood of Kinsale with his own soldiers, seven thousand of them boxing the Spanish into the town and laying siege to it. For O’Neill, fearful though he was of leaving his Ulster strongholds denuded of strength, it was all or nothing: as winter closed in, his forces began a long march the length of Ireland. By early November they had reached Kinsale and taken up positions behind an English army now increasingly ravaged by disease.

Although ‘turning points’ seem to swirl promiscuously through the telling of Irish history, it is evident that what happened at Kinsale would change the political balance in Ireland for ever. On one side were ranged the forces of expansionist England; on the other what remained of an Irish order that had struggled to live with the Crown but was now fighting for its existence. On Christmas Eve 1601 the Irish attacked: O’Neill’s army was divided into three unwieldy formations; the Spanish troops at Kinsale never arrived on the field; and before long, the battle had become a rout. In such an inglorious manner the destiny of Gaelic Ireland was settled. Marching in the aftermath of Kinsale through O’Neill’s unguarded lands in Tyrone, the English induced both famine, by slaughtering cattle; and panic, by slaughtering men, women and children. In a moment of symbolic destruction, the ancient crowning stone of the O’Neill clan at Dungannon was smashed to pieces.

Even now, however, all was not over for O’Neill. Negotiations concluded at Mellifont in the spring of 1603, six days after the death of Elizabeth, permitted him to retain his lordship in Tyrone, to the disbelief of many both in Ireland and Britain. He was pelted with earth and stones as he travelled through the English countryside on his way to London. Once in the city, however, he was welcomed graciously by the new monarch, the Stuart James I, who was himself lately arrived from Edinburgh. O’Neill appeared to have weathered the storm. It soon became apparent, however, exactly what Kinsale had brought about: the fracturing of what had been the tremendous continuity of the Gaelic order. The old ascendancy had survived in Ulster in ever narrower circumstances, but now it began to collapse, taking with it its social codes and structures of law and inheritance. This decline did not take place overnight: well into the seventeenth century Gaelic traditions and practice could still be seen in daily life across Ulster. Now, however, they were hollowed out, struggling to adapt to the demands of new financial and legal systems that exposed the weaknesses of what had come before. The Irish language, though it would also survive, was now in steep decline, spoken by ever-decreasing numbers of people in smaller and smaller districts of the country.

A good deal of this would become apparent only in the course of time – but even as events were rushing forward, Hugh O’Neill and his supporters quickly realized that they had been swept aside by history and politics. A new fleet from Spain would not arrive: Spanish naval power had been disabled at the battle of Gibraltar in 1604; the Anglo-Spanish peace negotiations had at last borne fruit and the prime objective of the Spanish State was to maintain friendly relations with the new Stuart monarchy; and in the meantime, O’Neill’s lands were being subjected to steady encroachment by the English. On 14 September 1607, he and a host of Irish nobles and their families took ship at Rathmullan in County Donegal. This was the Flight of the Earls, one of the great landmark events in Irish history: O’Neill and his followers, beaten and dispossessed, sailed out of Lough Swilly bound for Europe. ‘We are a flock without a shepherd,’ an Ulster poet wrote. O’Neill would die in Rome nine years later, still dreaming of leading an invasion of his homeland.


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