Notwithstanding success on the Dutch and French fronts, the war with Spain dragged on and expanded. The most important such expansion occurred in 1594 when the northern Irish province of Ulster rebelled against Tudor overlordship and drew much of the island into a vicious war (known in Irish history as the Nine Years’ War). As will be recalled, the Tudors ruled very little of Ireland directly, but both the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the Gaelic (or “wild”) Irish heads of septs were supposed to acknowledge the English monarch’s overlordship. That hegemony was in theory strengthened in the 1530s and 1540s when Henry VIII proclaimed himself king of Ireland and Supreme Head of its Church, and initiated the policy of “surrender and regrant”. But the Reformation gained little traction among the Irish people and the decision to destroy the earls of Kildare destabilized the island. Gaelic unrest in 1546–7 convinced Henry VIII and Somerset to abandon surrender and regrant for an entirely military solution by expanding the garrison. But Anglo-Irish taxpayers resented the expense and the troop surge was never large enough to subdue the island. In troublespots beyond the Pale, the English government began to sponsor “plantations”: that is, confiscating the lands of Gaelic chieftains and redistributing them to Protestant English (and later Scottish) landlords (soon to be known as the “New English”). The Gaelic landlords and, to a degree, the Gaelic peasantry itself were thrown off the land. The English created such plantations in Leix-Offaly in 1556, Down in 1570, Antrim in 1572–3, and Munster in 1584. For the rest of Ireland, they introduced English shires (but no JPs), English law, English courts, and, with less success, English religion. In 1560, the Dublin Parliament passed an Act of Uniformity for Ireland modeled on the English one, but while most Irish bishops conformed, most Gaelic and Anglo-Irish laymen and women did not. The lengthening history of Anglo-Irish bitterness, combined with the failure to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Gaelic, help to explain why, beyond the Pale, the new statute was a dead letter.
These interlocking policies extended English rule to every part of the island except Ulster by 1590, but that rule was only nominal. The truth was that most Gaelic Irish septmen who surrendered and were regranted their lands felt little loyalty to the Crown while the plantations caused tremendous hardship and lasting bitterness among those whose land was taken away. Moreover, most plantations failed in economic terms. Even the Anglo-Irish (henceforward known as the “Old English”) came to resent the “New English” interlopers, corrupt English officials, and the high taxes necessary to pay them and the English garrison troops. Sometimes that resentment exploded into rioting against payment of the cess, the tax earmarked to pay for the troops. So these policies created numerous Gaelic and Old English victims who were – or thought themselves to be – innocent. Both groups disliked the frequent declarations of martial law and suspensions of the Irish Parliament. Both remained staunchly Catholic, first because there was no Gaelic New Testament until 1603, but also because few Protestant preachers were willing to proselytize in a land which the English considered a wild frontier. Official attempts to impose Protestantism only added to Irish resentment of the English presence. Finally, the rivalries among powerful Old English and Gaelic families such as the Geraldines (earls of Desmond and Kildare), the Butlers (earls of Ormond), and the O’Neills (earls of Tyrone) continued. When the government in London showed favor to one side, it increased disaffection in the other.
Under Elizabeth, English policy and Irish resentments spawned localized rebellions – of the Butlers in the 1560s; of the O’Briens, Fitzgeralds, and some Butlers (and thus much of the south and west) in 1568–73; of the earls of Desmond and Lord Baltinglass in Munster and the Pale in 1579–83; of Connaught in 1589; and of Ulster in 1594. These uprisings usually began either as local feuds between rival nobles or septs, or as protests against some particular government policy or official. They were not nationalistic wars for Irish liberation or for the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church. Ethnicity and parochialism divided Ireland too much for such concepts to have had much appeal. The Old English and the Gaelic Irish may have been Catholic, but they did not see each other as countrymen; septs of one region had little to do with those of another. And so, while the last of these rebellions certainly made England’s war against Spain more difficult, they were not, at first, part of that war.
Perhaps because these rebellions involved longstanding local hatreds and elements of blood-feud, the Crown and its Irish allies suppressed them with increasing brutality, massacring defeated men, women, and children, burning crops, and sanctioning other atrocities. Astoundingly, Protestant Englishmen saw themselves as liberating the Irish people from tyrannous local lords and their own savagery; they would give the island civilization. Edmund Spenser’s description of Irish natives emerging from the woods and glens exposes the hypocrisy of these policies:
[they came] creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them. They looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves, they did eat of the dead carrions. … In short space there were none almost left and a most populous and beautiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.
Not surprisingly, with each suppression, both the Old English and Gaelic Irish grew even more embittered toward the government in London, the lord deputy in Dublin, the New English, and the Protestant religion which they brought. Ireland, always incendiary, was fast becoming a powder keg.
By the time war with Spain began in 1585, Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone (ca. 1550–1616), known as the Great O’Neill, the most powerful sept leader in Ulster, felt himself and his position particularly isolated and threatened by the Dublin government. Fearful of an English attack, Tyrone struck first, seizing Enniskillen in the west and Blackwater Fort in the east in the winter of 1594–5. Knowing full well that he was in a fight for his life against a relatively wealthy and well-organized State, Tyrone sought the assistance of Old English Catholics, the pope, and the Spanish king by appealing to anti-English and anti-Protestant sentiment. At one point the rebels offered the crown of Ireland to Philip II. But many Old English remained aloof, suspecting that O’Neill intended to establish Gaelic domination. The Spanish eventually mounted an expedition in 1596, but another “Protestant wind” destroyed it. They tried again in 1597 and 1599; but each time bad weather thwarted their plans.
Still, England’s forces were already overextended in the Netherlands and France, so Elizabeth and her Privy Council first tried negotiation. Tyrone demanded much: full pardons for the rebels, de facto religious toleration, and recognition of an autonomous Ulster under O’Neill control. Rebel victories in 1598, as well as the slaughter of English settlers in Munster, made the English situation critical. The queen responded by dispatching an army of 16,000 men and 1,300 horse under the command of her favorite, the earl of Essex. As Leicester’s stepson, Essex had inherited not only the former’s standing with the queen, but also his vast clientage network. Like Leicester, he was brave and chivalrous. But he was also impulsive, prideful, and, worse – again like his stepfather – a poor general. Essex landed in the spring of 1599. Rather than take the war to Tyrone’s stronghold in the north, he wasted about £300,000 in five months marching aimlessly around the south of Ireland. In September he agreed to peace talks with Tyrone that were technically treasonous and in which the latter outmaneuvered him. Finally, when it became clear that Essex had botched the campaign, he left his army in Ireland and returned to London, without orders, in order to defend his reputation against the whispering at court. Tyrone took this opportunity to march south and burn the lands of English loyalists. The queen took the same opportunity to replace Essex in February 1600 with a much more effective soldier, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy (1563–1606). Mountjoy eventually succeeded in suppressing the rebellion, but not before one last Spanish invasion attempt. In 1601 Philip III (1578–1621; reigned 1598–1621) sent about 3,400 crack troops to seize the southern port of Kinsale. In fact, this force was too small to help Tyrone; instead, it increased his obligations. By laying siege to Kinsale, Mountjoy drew Tyrone out from his northern stronghold and routed the Irish relief forces on Christmas Eve, 1601. The Spanish surrendered a week later. Mountjoy accepted the earl’s submission on March 30, 1603, ending this Nine Years’ War just days after Elizabeth’s death.
Much treasure and many lives had been lost in bitter guerilla warfare in the bogs of Ireland. The campaign had cost £2 million and left Ulster devastated, Munster and Cork depopulated, trade ruined, and famine stalking the land. As many as 60,000 Irish died, perhaps 30,000 English. One of Mountjoy’s lieutenants, Sir Arthur Chichester (1563–1625), summed up the devastation as follows: “we have killed, burnt and spoiled all along the lough [Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ulster]. … We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it have bred much terror in the people.” Mountjoy’s ruthless “pacification,” initiated on Elizabeth’s orders, was successful in its own terms, but its legacy of sorrow and bitterness further divided Irish from English and Irish from Irish.
In 1607 the cream of the Irish nobility, led by Tyrone and Rury O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell (1574/5–1608), absconded to Europe. They hoped to secure support from a Catholic patron, perhaps the pope, and return to reclaim their patrimony. But that never happened. And they never returned. “The flight of the earls” left their poor tenants to face the consequences. The following year, the English government began to confiscate both Gaelic and Old English land in Ulster, turning out landlords and tenants and replacing them with new, Protestant owners. These new plantations were, initially, a bust, economically. But they served their political, social, and religious purpose. They transformed Ulster from a stronghold of Gaelic and Catholic resistance to a divided society dominated by English Protestants and Scottish Presbyterians. These groups make up the majority of the population of Northern Ireland to the present day. By 1640, some 40,000 Scots and between 10,000 and 20,000 English had arrived in Ireland, displacing many Catholic Irish men and women. Admittedly, in 1640 Catholics still owned 60 percent of Irish land; it was not until the later plantations and displacements under Oliver Cromwell and William III that they would become a tiny minority of landowners. Still, the changes which followed the Elizabethan wars in Ireland intensified the bitterness of the Gaelic and Old English populations. That bitterness would erupt into violence during the 1640s and beyond.