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Reconsidering the campaign of the Second Earl of Essex in Ireland leads to some interesting - and controversial - conclusions

 The appointment of the Earl of Essex as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was just one of several moves made by Elizabeth I to defeat the power of Ireland’s defiant chieftains, and in particular that of Hugh O’Neill. Though castigated for his actions while holding this position both at the time and by more recent historians, the logic of Essex’s actions deserves reappraisal and his reputation rejuvenation.

 Following the failure of the Spanish Armada, English expansion from the Pale was accelerated in an attempt to secure Ireland as a bulwark against further attack from the Atlantic. Queen Elizabeth I recognized the strategic importance that Ireland represented to a foreign enemy of England, such as Spain.

 The resistance which England’s forces faced came chiefly from the northern chieftains, who had forestalled Elizabeth’s designs on Ireland. The principal northern chieftains of this rebellion were Red Hugh O’Donnell, Brian Oge O’Rourke, Donal O’Cahan, Sorely Boy McDonnell, and Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. It was on O’Neill above all “traitors”, however, that Elizabeth’s anger was focussed, and against his power and authority that her military campaigns of the late 1590s were directed.

 In 1597, under Lord Deputy Thomas Lord Burgh, the English army was ordered into a frontal attack upon the northern chieftains. Burgh believed that the northern rebels would be “no match for Her Majesty’s ensigns” and that if O’Neill “be well pressed, all is got.” Burgh died of an illness before the fateful confrontation would take place, but the replacement campaign in 1598 under Sir Henry Bagenal was decimated by O’Neill and his forces at Yellow Ford.

 At the end of 1598, Queen Elizabeth selected the Earl of Essex as her Lord Lieutenant in Ireland. Essex had been a rival of Lord Mountjoy for this appointment, and this rivalry was, I believe, significant in what followed. “Robert, Earl of Essex, who at this time was credited with greater achievements than any Englishman of the period, was made Viceroy of Ireland, second to no one and Commander-in-Chief of the royalist army.” High among the Queen’s reasons for selecting Essex was that he was an experienced and highly celebrated soldier and she believed that, if given abundant resources of money and English soldiers, he would quickly and successfully end the war against Hugh O’Neill. O’Clery implies that Essex’s rivals in Elizabeth’s court wasted few opportunities to undermine his position during his absence in Ireland.

 “The Queen proposed to commit the government to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. The Earl of Essex, the royal favourite of the moment, warmly opposed such a choice. He argued that a man of varied experience was required for the conduct of the war, that the retired and studious life which Mountjoy had hitherto led was hardly a fit preparation for such a service; a brave and skillful General would be needed, a man who would possess the confidence of the Crown, and be superior to the petty factions that had hitherto ruled supreme in Ireland. She asked him to accept the office.” The new Lord Lieutenant was given wide discretion for conducting the war, and was assigned 16,000 foot and 1,300 horse for this purpose. “On one point only had precise instructions been given to him: he was to ‘pass by all other rebels whatever, and to head all his force against the chief traitor Tyrone, and the Ulster rebels, his confederates.’”

 Many historians take the position that Essex squandered his opportunity for success in his defining mission. “In 1599, after a delay that greatly injured the English interest, the Queen filled a post which had been left vacant since Burgh’s death by sending a viceroy to Ireland. She sent her favourite, the Earl of Essex . Essex further increased O’Neill’s prestige by using – and using up – against Munster rather than Ulster the great military force with which he came provided.”

 Such a dismissal of Essex may be too simplistic, for it belittles the considerable abilities of O’Neill and O’Donnell, who set into place an effective plan of resistance. In fact, indications are that the northern Chieftains expected to be the targets of the English campaign. Their situation would have allowed them to have endured a direct campaign more favorably than would their attackers. As part of their preparation, O’Neill and O’Donnell had solicited the prominent Chieftains of Munster, Leinster, and Connaught. Such allies were recruited to harass the English with quick hitting forays, lay siege on the Pale, and disrupt English supply lines.

 O’Neill’s confederates had learned to win their battles “by a brilliant process of luring their unimaginative enemy into positions where they could fight with the odds in their favor.”

 An experienced soldier, like Essex, who had a distinguished military record against the Spanish in Cadiz, would have recognized such a threat and taken precautions. In fact, estimates of Irish troop strengths in the period were as high as 30,000, with about 9,000 in Ulster being the largest single force. Shortly after arriving in Dublin in April 1599, Essex’s “intelligence service warned him that Tyrone was about to move into Munster. O’Donnell had already moved into north Connaught. Tyrone had in fact written to one of the revolting Geraldine Chieftains in Munster, the White Knight, that he hoped to be with him in May.”

 Intending to prevent O’Neill from establishing a base of operations in Munster, Essex set out to capture such castles as could be used to good advantage by his adversaries. As he did, he met significant opposition.

 O’Sullivan reports that “Owyn O’More with 500 foot, met him in Leinster as he was leading his army through a narrow pass and routed his rear guard and killed some soldiers and officers and carried off some spoils&” “Earl Desmond, Baron Raymond and his brother William came to the castle’s assistance at the head of 1000 foot and a few horse&” “On the second day of the siege, William Burke with 500 foot and 200 horse marched to relieve the castle&” Ten days later, O’Sullivan reports that “By this time, Donal MacCarthy and Earl Desmond had got together 2,500 men with whom they blocked the passes on the road.” “At the village of Finniterstown, the Catholics sallying out from a wood attacked at once the first, rear, and middle divisions.” Then, “Desmond followed him for six days as far as Decries, attacking night and day and thinning out his army. “ We also learn that Essex made an expedition into Offaly against the O’Connors and O’Moores – having little success.

 The presence of so many Gaelic forces, who were able to respond so quickly to the arrival of Essex is indicative that a strategy had been in place prior to the Lord Lieutenant’s arrival. In fact, a Gaelic Confederation extended throughout Ireland, and – with some justification – expected to be reinforced, if need be, by large numbers of Spanish soldiers. Numerous letters had been sent back and forth between King Phillip II of Spain and O’Neill, O’Rourke, and O’Donnell. In all of these, the King expressed support and his promise to send money and troops. Indeed, a second Armada was launched in 1597, and had only been prevented from landing by severe weather.

 By the time of Essex’s arrival in 1599 confederate chieftains allied to O’Neill included the Wicklow clans of O’Byrne and O’Toole, as well as the McCarthys, the O’Reillys, the Maguires, the O’Moores, the Lacys, the Tyrells, the MacDevitts, the O’Sullivan Beares and others. Expectations on both sides included the possibility of a Spanish landing in Ireland.

 Despite the real difficulties confronting him, and Elizabeth’s condescending letters, Essex nevertheless obeyed his orders and directed his campaign against Ulster. During that campaign, “he burned down one of Sorely Boy’s castles on Rathlin Island and massacred his wife and youngest sons together with some 600 people.” O’Neill and his allies engaged a “scorched earth” policy, in which no food or shelter was left intact for the invaders. Each advance captured only ruins which were increasingly more difficult to victual and hold. As of the 21st of August, no less than 18 of Essex’s “Captains and Lords and Colonels of the Army” had signed a document, after a Council of War, declaring that a further expedition into the north would be “unwise and against their judgment.” But on August 28th, Essex ordered them onward. He finally made contact with O’Neill in early September and pursued him through thick woods for a time, before O’Neill sent a messenger asking for a parley. “It was a curious meeting, for Tyrone was on horseback, in a river (the Larne), with the water to his horse’s belly, and Essex stood on the bank. What they said to one another will never be known. A further meeting was arranged. They agreed to a truce. Tyrone withdrew into the heart of his country, and Essex dispersed his army.”

 Upon his return to Dublin, Essex received two stingingly sarcastic letters from Elizabeth questioning his commitment to ending the war, and challenging even his courage. But the Queen specifically ordered him to remain in Ireland and bring the war to a conclusion. Essex, possibly fearing that his position was being fatally undermined in London by those who wished him ill, decided to go at once to London and explain himself to the Queen. Essex brought with him one Sir Christopher St. Lawrence, who was forceful in warning Essex about his rivals’ ability to prejudice the Queen’s mind against him. In fact, St. Lawrence “proposed to murder Lord Grey de Wilton” to reduce one such influence against Essex.

 The fortunes of Essex, however, were already ruined. He was sent to the Tower of London, where he was later involved in a plot against the Queen, and eventually sent to be beheaded. His successor in Ireland was his old rival, Lord Mountjoy, who is credited with the eventual victory over the Gaelic Confederation at the Battle of Kinsale. Yet, the outcome of even that ill-fated battle might have been reversed if Hugh O’Neill’s more cautious counsel had been followed.

 Those students of history who dismiss Essex’s campaign in Ireland seem to underestimate the strategic advantages that had been constructed by O’Neill and O’Donnell. The confederate chieftains allied to O’Neill had decisively made their presence felt during Essex’s southern campaign, and would have represented a terrible risk to his forces, had Essex chosen to ignore them.

 Had Essex launched an immediate campaign into Ulster, he would have placed his army in grave danger of being surrounded and cut off from his supply lines. This would have played precisely into the tactics employed by O’Neill throughout his career, and it would not have been complicated – as was Kinsale – with any sense of urgency to rescue a Spanish ally under siege.


Lughaidh O’Clery, “Beatha na Aedh Rua O’Domnaill” with notes by Rev. Dennis Murphy, S.J., Fallon & Co., Dublin, 1895

C.P. Meehan, “Fate & Fortunes of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell”, Edmund Burke & Co., Dublin, 1886

G.A. Hayes-McCoy, “Irish Battles – A Military History of Ireland”, Barnes & Noble, N.Y., 1969

Sean O’Faolain, “The Great O’Neill”, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1942

Cyril Falls, “Elizabeth’s Irish Wars”, Syracuse University Press, 1997

Phillip O’Sullivan, “History of Catholic Ireland” published as “Ireland under Elizabeth”, Translated by Matthew J. Byrne Sealy, Bryers, and Walker, Dublin, 1903

Niall Fallon, “The Armada in Ireland”, Wesleyan University Press, 1978


  © Ted Meehan MMII


About the Author

Ted Meehan is an independent scholar with a special interest in late Gaelic Ireland. He is a former teacher of American and European History at Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor, Pennsylvania, and has had articles published on a variety of topics in Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the National Catholic Register, and the Periodical for the Association of Energy Engineers, among others


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