The revolt of James, third Viscount Baltinglass, was prompted by extreme dissatisfaction with the government's policies. Potentially it was the most dangerous rebellion in Ireland up to 1580 because it saw the uniting of two traditional enemies against the crown.
Baltinglass's family was traditionally associated with the earls of Kildare, but prudently remained loyal to Henry VIII during the Kildare rebellion of 1534-35. For their loyalty they were granted additional lands. Later in the 1540s Thomas FitzEustace, James's grandfather, was created first Viscount Baltinglass by a grateful king. But like many other old English Pale families, the FitzEustaces later became disillusioned.
Much of their resentment was directed against policies pursued by the Elizabethan officials. To finance military campaigns against Gaelic lords and rebellious Anglo-Irish magnates, the government levied a military tax, known as the cess, upon Palesmen. Troops were also billeted upon their lands. This drew increasingly vociferous complaints from both the Pale's gentry and the towns' merchants. Before Baltinglass's rebellion their discontent was rife. This Pale community opposed government demands on their assets to maintain its military policy. Viscount Roland, James's father, was a prominent leader. With other leaders, he was imprisoned in the closing years of the 1570s by the Elizabethan administration who viewed their opposition as little short of treason. Such action on the government's part only increased its unpopularity. The predominant Pale faith was Catholic. In Catholic eyes there was a growing threat from the Protestant-dominated government, a perception supported by their marked decline in participation within the kingdom's government. English-born Protestants increasingly occupied positions of authority. These government officers found the concept of being Catholic and loyal irreconcilable. Tension was fuelled by Pius V's excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570. With growing regularity sons of Catholic Pale families withdrew from English universities and pursued their education in Catholic Europe. Within the walls of these continental colleges, Catholic Counter-Reformation dogma and doctrine dominated. Young Palesmen were profoundly affected by their exposure. Their education made them more militant on their return.
Baltinglass's circle included Pale families of Plunkett, Dillon, Aylmer, Fitzsimon, Sedgrave and Nugent. Within this circle his revolt was first conceived. Previously for airing his views Baltinglass had earned a night in jail, a sermon, a fine and the lasting enmity of Archbishop Adam Loftus of Dublin. He was educated at Grey's Inn, the most prestigious of the Inns of Court in London, and lived in Rome during the 1570s. Generally the government viewed him as misguided, but not a threat. They were even dismissive of him, which echoed ironically after his revolt broke.'
He became third Viscount Baltinglass upon his father's death in 1579. With members of these gentry families Baltinglass, was the main instigator of a very perilous revolt for Elizabethan Ireland. The indoctrination of Counter Reformation principles, cemented by their religious zeal, encouraged them to rebel against a government they perceived as unjust. Ultimately many of these young men paid the price of revolt with their lives. Following the failure of Baltinglass's rebellion, the government uncovered many conspirators. Upon the discovery of a plot by William Nugent (a brother of the baron of Delvin), Lord Deputy Grey, convinced of greater treachery, over-reacted. Twenty young Pale gentlemen associated with both plots were executed by Grey's administration in a bloody backlash. The historian Steven Ellis points out that this witch hunt settled many old scores under the pretence of law. Particularly he highlights the farcical trial and tragic execution of Nicholas Nugent, the Chief Justice. These noblemen's plot enflamed the smouldering embers of discontent in Leinster among those who felt threatened by the Dublin government.
The Elizabethan officials were correct in assuming that Baltinglass would not rebel alone. He lacked the necessary military muscle, a suitable operational base and martial experience. If Baltinglass had acted independently, his revolt would have been crushed easily. Baltinglass's partner in rebellion was Feagh - the son of Hugh Mac Shane O'Byrne who had at one time inflicted defeat on Roland FitzEustace, Baltinglass's father, in a border encounter to be celebrated in verse eulogizing Hugh's military prowess. This did not, however, prevent the alliance of their sons.
Upon first examination, Feagh's motives for lending his support to Baltinglass's rebellion were both personal and pragmatic. As Feagh's role in the rebellion's planning and execution is investigated more factors surface. He was profoundly influenced by his father's achievements and by Rory Og O’Moore. Gradually he outstripped the wily Hugh's ambitions. Feagh built upon Hugh's firm foundations and desired to unite the many O'Byrne septs under his leadership. The emerging warlord was educated and literate. His correspondence with the Spanish shows he was aware of the world beyond his lordship and Ireland. Certainly he knew of the struggles between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. What effect these had on Feagh is uncertain. Although a Catholic by birth, Feagh was not an idealist like Baltinglass. While it is difficult to gauge the extent of Feagh's own devoutness, there are, however, some indirect references which may point towards a spiritual inclination of some degree. From English documents it is known that he bound his allies to him with religious oaths. Sir Henry Harrington, in summer 1580, noted that holy vows cemented Feagh's warlike pact with Gerald Odhar O'Byrne. Feagh's power among the Kavanagh septs was considerable. Often he acted as mediator in their disputes. Feagh seems to have been successful in making them dependent on him." Sir Antony Colclough reported, in July 1581, that these septs were linked to Feagh through holy oaths." When some of Feagh's Art Boy Kavanagh allies tried to submit in July 1581 near Enniscorthy, Feagh's sudden arrival with a large force prevented their submission. Later, in 1582, Colclough complained that Feagh was again inciting Kavanagh septs to revolt.
At some stage in his reign, Feagh gave succour in his fastness to Franciscan monks. Sir Ralph Lane, the muster-master general of Ireland, reported the shooting of a seminary priest, probably a Franciscan, by English soldiers near Ballinacor during January 1595 Feagh showered patronage upon them and may have erected a church for them at Ballinabarney near Glenmalure's mouth. Whether he did this through a deep religious conviction or perhaps considered this religious patronage as one of his lordly duties, it is impossible to discern. Fergal McKeogh, one of Feagh's poets, commented with alarm on the growing priestly influence on his patron. What is known for certain is that Feagh's descendants were fervent Catholics. A grandson, Father Laurence O'Byrne, was Guardian of Ballinabarney's friars in the 1640s and 1650s. His brother, Hugh Mac Phelim served as a colonel in the Spanish Army in Flanders during the 1630s. Bran Mac Phelim, another grandson and head of the family, sheltered many Catholic clerics during the early 1650s, which were Crioch Raghnaill’s last years. It is unknown how the Catholic Counter-Reformation was received within Feagh's residence of Ballinacor. He had, however, little interest in aiding Catholic Palesmen without some personal gain. Feagh had many friends among their ranks. Their world he visited often, but it was not his. Perhaps as a result of his visits, seeds of a strong Catholicism began to flower within the arch pragmatist. Safe within his mountains, Feagh may have possessed a strong sympathy for Baltinglass's beliefs. Significantly, Feagh was a departure from the traditional mould of Gaelic lord. Yet there were many reasons why he joined Baltinglass.
Like Baltinglass's father, Feagh's own father died in 1579. Feagh was not the titular 'O'Byrne' since his family lay outside the bounds of succession to that title. By 1580, however, he was the most powerful of his name. A hardened veteran of warfare and a shrewd political judge, Feagh viewed himself as protector and avenger of the men of Leinster. Increasingly in the 1570s he took the reins from his ageing father. It is difficult to distinguish between his rule and his father's in this decade. Hugh Mac Shane gradually took a less active part and adopted an elder statesman's role. The government of Crioch Raghnaill was left to Feagh. To the Dublin government Hugh was a figurehead and Feagh was the real power. This was apparently a stratagem by father and son, which was used to great effect. It allowed Feagh to hide behind the old lord's outwardly reformed ways. When Feagh committed outrages and raids, of which Hugh undoubtedly approved, Hugh, like a bewildered father unable to control his offspring, pleaded his own loyalty and promised to bring Feagh to paternal obedience, thus deflecting the government's anger. Within a few days he would return with a suitably chastened and repentant Feagh and both would submit. Their reformed ways never lasted for long.
Feagh's belligerence resulted from actions performed against him, his deep desire for fame through expansion of his own influence, and the violent deaths of close family members. In May 1572 he was implicated, along with others, in the murder of Robert Browne of Mulrancan, Co. Wexford.Francis Agarde, seneschal of O'Byrnes' Country, was determined to curb Feagh's increasingly aggressive activities. In an attack on Feagh's supporters by Agarde in July, one of Feagh's younger brothers was slain. On his return in November 1573 from Laois, where he had been attending his sister Margaret's marriage to Rory Og O'Moore, Feagh's retinue was ambushed in Kildare by the sheriff, Sir Piers fitz James Fitzgerald. It was the sheriff who became ensnared. An irate Feagh and his horsemen carried off Sir Piers. The unfortunate sheriff languished a few winter months in the snow-bound valley of Glenmalure as a hostage. Agarde, through his friendship with Hugh Mac Shane, managed to procure his release from Feagh, at the expense of a ransom. Later in 1577, Margaret, Feagh's favourite sister, perished in a nocturnal assault upon her husband's camp by the English grandees of Laois who were attempting to release Sir Henry Harrington from Rory's clutches?' Irish accounts speak of a general massacre by the English of women and the infirm. Two of Rory's young sons perished with Rory's wife." Rory Og escaped with his marshal after inflicting a serious head wound upon Sir Henry?' In 1578 Rory himself was slain by Brian Og MeGillapatrick, son of the baron of Upper Ossory. Within days of Margaret's death, John Mac Hugh, another of Feagh's brothers, met a violent end at English hands?' In the following year Muircheartach McLysagh, with several other unarmed O’Moore notables, fell in the Mullaghmast massacre. Robert Harpoole and Sir Francis Cosby engineered this?' Sir Thomas Masterson, Wexford's seneschal, invited Feagh with treacherous intent to a parley in 1578. Feagh, learning of this, set his own snare in which many of Masterson's allies were caught?' The text of Feagh's submission of September 1578 in Christchurch cathedral leaves no illusion as to his bitterness towards Masterson. Feagh accused Masterson of multiple raids into Crioch Raghnaill’s south, while he was at peace.
Prior to his rebellion Feagh eluded another assassination bid hatched by Sir Henry Harrington, the new seneschal of the O'Byrnes' Country. Feagh sought to create a unified Gaelic confederation in Leinster opposed to the government's encroaching power. Revival of the McMurrough Kavanagh kingship of Leinster was one of the ways advanced by Feagh in his efforts to unite the Gaelic families of the province in opposition to the government plans for their lands." Feagh promoted a series of claimants. Even though Feagh was Gaelic Leinster's most powerful lord, he could not himself claim the Leinster kingship without losing Kavanagh support. By the beginning of 1580 he had been quiet for about a year. Then Earl Gerald of Desmond encouraged Feagh in a letter dated 29 November 1579, which was intercepted by Ormond, to join his rebellion.
As the evidence is sifted it becomes clear that his decision was most carefully weighed. Feagh played a crucial role in the Baltinglass rebellion's early plotting. Sir James Fitzgerald, Desmond's brother, stated in his examination that in February 1580 Feagh and Baltinglass wrote to Desmond declaring their intention to fight in the pope's cause. They demanded confirmation of their lands and titles in return for their support. Sir John of Desmond acceded to their demands. Behind their intended rebellion lay strong clerical support. Many priests encouraging rebellion were frequent visitors to the houses of Co. Kildare's Catholic gentry. Indeed their canvassing procured much support from Co. Kildare's Catholic noblemen. According to later evidence, although circumstantial, during Easter week of 1580, it seems, a three-day meeting was convened at Baltinglass's Monkstown house. All accounts speak of a strong religious presence. Masses were offered to strengthen the plotters' resolve. Among those allegedly present were Baltinglass, Delvin, Feagh and Baltinglass's adviser, Father Rochford. These withdrew from the main body of conspirators to a concealed place in the house. A guard was set. According to Oliver Eustace's testimony against Delvin in the subsequent witch-hunt for covert conspirators Delvin produced a letter and read it out. When those assembled discussed its contents, Delvin then burnt it. Feagh's captured wife, Rose O'Toole, confirmed Eustace's account while under interrogation in prison M Feagh, allegedly, related the meeting's course to her upon his return to Ballinacor. The letter's author promised support once the rebellion broke. In her confession, Rose tells of the effect this promise had on her husband. According to Rose, if the promise had not been given Feagh would not have supported Baltinglass. The approval of the rebellion by the writer of the letter was precisely the position which Feagh, Rose stated, understood him to possess. Rose, though, was anxious to protect her husband. Both Eustace and Rose named Gerald, eleventh earl of Kildare, as the letter-writer.
Unforeseen events, however, forced Feagh's hand. A cleat distinction must be made between Feagh the rebellious Catholic plotter and Feagh the Gaelic warlord. Events within Gaelic Leinster overtook Feagh and forced him into conflict much earlier than he wished. The discontent among the senior O'Byrne dynasty flowered into rebellion in early 1580. This rebellion had its seeds in the seneschal's rise and, correspondingly, the dynasty's continued decline. Their treaty of 1542 ceded Newcastle McKynegan's castle and manor to the government. Later it became the seneschal's residence. At times the O'Byrnes were trusted with responsibility. Bran Mac Taidhg Og O'Byrne of Newrath was appointed sheriff of O'Byrne's Country in 1558. O'Byrnes' Country, however, was compelled to maintain government galloglasses; for example, Turlough McDonnell's troops in 1565-66. The O'Byrnes with the O'Tooles of Imaal continually sent herds of animals to feed these forces." The senior dynasty's decline is evident in 1567 when the government granted to Tadhg Og of Newrath a pension in consideration of his claim to his lordship." He was ordered not to levy any impositions without the seneschal's permission.
It is unknown for certain when Shillelagh was detached from the old O'Byrne lordship's southern region. Sometime during the late 1540s seems probable. Sir John Travers, a Butler client, governed Shillelagh as its captain. Following Travers's death in 1562, Kildare swiftly annexed Shillelagh, holding it until 1578. A Shillelagh jury in 1570, composed of Tallon and FitzEustace freeholders with some O'Byrne freeholders, confirmed that Travers and, later, Kildare's constables garnered the traditional dues formerly levied by the O'Byrne overlord's stewards. Kildare controlled Shillelagh until 1578 when Sir Henry Harrington obtained a lease upon it. Furthermore, much of the old lordship's highlands were carved into an independent territory by Feagh's family.
In January 1580, Lord Justice Pelham reported that O'Byrnes' Country had rebelled." It seems that Dunlaing Mac Edmund of Cronroe, the titular O'Byrne who succeeded Tadlig Og of Newrath in 1578, was in insurrection. In their obituary of Dunlaing Mac Edmund, the Four Masters confirm this rebellion of O'Byrnes' Country in 1580. It seems to have developed out of a dispute between Dunlaing Mac Edmund and Sir Henry Harrington. Harrington became seneschal of O'Byrnes' Country in 1578. One reason behind the revolt was Harrington's appropriation of Dunlaing Mac Edmund's traditional rents. Dunlaing Mac Edmund seemingly was intent on their recovery. Nicholls suggests that after Tadhg Og's death in 1578, the government denied his successor recognition. It is clear Dunlaing Mac Edmund enjoyed widespread support. This is reflected in the course of the fighting throughout O'Byrnes' Country. The decline of the O'Byrne overlord's position and the seneschal's ascent may provide reasons why the senior dynasts now looked to Feagh.
In the course of events culminating with the battle of Glenmalure a firm line must be drawn between activities within Dunlaing Mac Edmund's lordship as distinct from Feagh's territory. In English documents Feagh's mountainous lordship is noted as Colranyll while Dunlaing Mac Edmund's sphere was known asByrnes' country. "' There was serious unrest within the O'Byrne's Country and a revolt in Wexford. In April 1580 southeast Leinster exploded into full-scale war. Thomas Masterson's massacre of Kavanagh clansmen from the Art Boy sept sparked it. These clansmen, under Ormond's protection, had surrendered to Masterson. Prophetically Sir Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls, wrote to Leicester of impending trouble caused by the 'foul stir in Leinster' kept by the kinsmen of the slain. Donal Spainneach, their chief, escaped to Thomas Butler, earl of Ormond. Ormond sought retribution from Masterson for the outrage. However, the council protected Masterson.
This act enraged Gaelic Leinster and initiated its propulsion into rebellion. Quickly it came to a head. Feagh swore to have Masterson's head. Other O'Byrne lords were angered by the slaughter. Masterson's lands were spoiled by Gerald Odhar O'Byrne and his brothers in April. Throughout May 1580 Feagh assembled forces to assail Masterson. He quickly formed an alliance with his traditional enemies and newly fledged rebels of the senior dynasty. The pact was sealed by the oaths of Feagh and his former enemy Gerald Odhar O'Byrne over a religious relic. This may indicate that Dunlaing Mac Edmund was already dead. Their uneasy horse-borne confederation swept into Wexford during June. Much devastation was wrought by the war-party but Masterson survived. The crisis was further heightened by Tibbot O'Toole's lynching, without trial, by Sir Henry Harrington after his apprehension in a Dublin tavern." O'Toole had been under Kildare's protection. Harrington was placed under house arrest for this. Undoubtedly the high-handed actions of Harrington and Masterson fomented much dissatisfaction within the region which contributed directly to the crisis in Gaelic Leinster in 1580.
In July Sir Henry Harrington wrote desperately from Dublin Castle to he released and allowed to march against Feagh. He warned of dire consequences if Feagh remained unchecked. Importantly he estimated Feagh's force to be about seven hundred men including sixty shot. Sir Henry was informed by Feagh that he intended no harm towards the Queen's subjects or the Pale. If given safe conduct Feagh would present himself soon before the council at Dublin. When asked to justify his actions by the council Feagh declined. Feagh knew the councillors would be unreceptive listeners. There was also the prospect of a trap if he went to Dublin. When, as he pondered his next move, Baltinglass's emissaries approached Feagh at Ballinacor, they found him ready to fight. In essence Feagh held a dual position. His motives in providing the military spine of the revolt were, in part, Machiavellian and self-motivated. This point has been argued on numerous occasions." There was, however, another side to his support. Feagh probably believed in Baltinglass's cause. Good personal relations between the men is evidenced when, during Baltinglass' flight to the continent, he dispatched a kind letter to Feagh. Baltinglass's Catholic crusade against the Protestant government shrouded a Gaelic Irish assault. They intended the destruction within their respective territories of an intrusive government's power. Feagh was intent on avenging the wrongs done to the Gaelic Irish. It was because of a mixture of Gaelic and Catholic reasons that he entered into revolt.
Baltinglass's and O'Byrne's rebellion broke prematurely. News of the planned revolt had filtered back to the government. With moves afoot, led by Archbishop Loftus, to arrest him, Baltinglass fled to Feagh and unleashed the rebellion." The government dispatched Sir Nicholas Eustace to Glenmalure with peace terms. Despite his cousin's pleading, Baltinglass was impervious and remained outside the Pale. A further peace parley, arranged for midday Saturday, 23 July, at Kilbolen bridge near Ballymore, failed. Baltinglass's rebellion was dealt a devastating early blow. The Nugents hesitated at the last moment and postponed their proposed simultaneous rising. The revolt's first mention in government correspondence occurs in a letter dated 19 July 1580 from Chancellor Gerrarde to Walsingham. It was a development that took Lord Justice Pelham, by surprise while campaigning in Kerry against Desmond. The Leinster rebellion did provide some relief for Desmond. Pelhams letter of 20 July to Ormond conveys disbelief that Baltinglass had joined Feagh's rebellion. He wished the speedy resumption of peace through Kildare's intervention. Kildare commanded the government's Pale forces. Pelham had expected trouble from Feagh's quarter. Earlier in June he wrote of Feagh's 'disposition to return to his old vomit'." Sir Nicholas White's letter to Leicester of 21 July 1580 echoes the same surprise.
Baltinglass's rebellion was expected and created a crisis of nightmarish proportions for the Dublin government. An alliance of Gaelic malcontents with disaffected elements within the Pale was a new development. This revolt was more dangerous as it had a religious aspect, a fact that was noted by Captain John Zouche in a letter to Walsingharn. Sir Nicholas Maltby, following the battle of Glenmalure, concurred with Zouche about new dangers heralded by the development of a religious factor in Irish rebellions. The revolt's close proximity to Dublin was mentioned with increasing concern in government correspondence. Pelhams underlying fear was that Baltinglass would find more allies among the country's great lords. He reasoned that the realization of a nation-wide alliance of malcontents opposed to the government could prove fatal. This fear found increasing expression in his correspondence. Pelham urged the rebellion's swift suppression. Lord Chancellor Gerrarde wrote despairingly of Baltinglass's strength:
The Viscount Baltinglass has the oaths of Turlough Lynaght, O'Donnell, O'Rourke, O'Conor Sligo, Byrnes, Tooles, Kavanaghs, O'Conors, O'Moores, and the hearts of almost all."
Judging from government correspondence, by the end of July the situation was considered desperate. Pelham wrote about Lord Deputy Grey's impending arrival as of one hailing a saviour.
Feagh and Baltinglass proved useful partners in rebellion, each bringing different qualities and assets beneficial to the rebellion's initial success. Feagh provided the military leadership and drew to his standard much of Gaelic Leinster who viewed him as their protector. Baltinglass's championing of the Catholic cause gave the revolt the extra dimension which the government so feared. Without Baltinglass's involvement and the Catholic element to the revolt, the uprising would have been looked upon purely as a Gaelic outbreak. It would not have received any significant aid from Catholic Palesmen. Pelham would not have considered it the threat he obviously did, without this religious aspect. The coming together of the pragmatic Gaelic malcontent and the idealistic Catholic magnate was a new and dangerous development in the history of rebellion against the Crown in Ireland. What this union symbolized is what frightened the government. It was a sign of things to come.
Pelham was proved correct in his assumption that the rebels would attempt to spark a countrywide rebellion of other Gaelic and Anglo-Norman magnates. Both leaders, by using their individual policies of appealing to Gaelic anger and Old English Catholic fears of the Elizabethan government, tried to entice others to revolt. Throughout July Baltinglass corresponded with leading magnates, urging them to rebel. Baltinglass's letters appeal to what he perceived to be their moral duty. A letter to Ormond, captures the flavour of his demands and pleas. Baltinglass's scathing attack on Queen Elizabeth contained sentiments held by many of the Pale gentry:
If the Queen's pleasure be, as you allege, to minister justice, it were time to begin; for in this twenty years past of her reign we have seen more damnable doctrine maintained, more oppressing of poor subjects, under pretence of justice,`
Baltinglass angrily upbraided Ormond for his stance and urged him to fight:
You counsel me to remain quiet; you will be occupied in persecuting the poor members of Christ... I would you should learn and consider by what means your predecessors came up to be Earl of Ormond... Truly you should find that if Thomas Beckett, Bishop of Canterbury, had never suffered death in defence of the Church, Thomas Butler, alias Beckett, had never been Earl of Ormond.
Despite Baltinglass's pleading Ormond did not revolt against his royal cousin. Pelham's worries were further compounded by his knowledge of Baltinglass's communication with Desmond, which is confirmed in his letter of 16 August 1580. Later in the year, there were to be acts of mutual assistance between Desmond and Baltinglass. In the north, English spies reported the presence of Baltinglass's envoys in Turlough Lynagh O'Neill's camp." This correspondence bore fruit. Pelham had good reason to lament when in July:
....O'Donnell and O'Rwarke do now invade Conoughte.
O'Neill's raiders increased their predatory activities. In September 1580 he invaded the Pale. Turlough's intervention relieved the pressure on the army of Feagh and Baltinglass by drawing off a resurgent Lord Deputy Grey in his pursuit." These actions display attempts by the Leinster rebels to instigate a countrywide revolt. Baltinglass's overtures, however, received more support from Gaelic lords than Old English magnates.
Contacts between the rebels and Kildare were of a more complex nature. Kildare was restored to his earldom in 1553 by the Crown. The fate of his half-brother Thomas, the tenth earl of Kildare, with his five uncles at Tyburn in February 1537 had educated Kildare at a tender age to the tragic consequences of failed rebellion. In 1575 Kildare, who governed the Pale's southern and western marches, had been charged with intriguing with Hugh Mac Shane, Feagh McHugh and their kinsman Rory Og O’Moore. Kildare was accused of conspiring with them for the purpose of creating further turmoil, which would compel the Queen to make him governor of the land." In the documentation amassed against him, Edmund Seix fitz Richard was charged as being the messenger between the Ballinacor O'Byrnes and Kildare. Brady's research suggests that Hugh Mac Shane and Rory Og were Kildare's supporters." Kildare's grandfather and father had built up a considerable overlordship in Wicklow during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Feagh's predecessors had been Kildare clients. In 1565 Oliver Sutton charged Kildare with billeting three or four hundred Irishmen, including O'Byrnes, within the Pale. The Queen ordered the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, to treat Sutton's disposition with caution, and to investigate. Billeting of these Gaelic troops within the Pale may be connected with the campaign against the O'Connor Falys in 1564. Kildare raised troops and took part in this successful Offaly campaign. Kildare was imprisoned in England, returning to Ireland in 1577 when nothing had been proved against him. Sir Henry Harrington's hanging of Kildare's client, Tibbot O'Toole, early in 1580 caused him considerable offence. Such was his fury that he pursued Harrington with deadly intent. The Lord Keeper intervened and abated Kildare's rage by confining Sir Henry to Grangecon and one of his men to Dublin Castle. Earlier in 1578 Harrington had obtained a lease of Shillelagh, despite Kildare's vehement protests." Supported by the English Privy Council, Kildare sought to have Shillelagh returned to him, albeit unsuccessfully.
It was probably Kildare's brooding discontent that the rebels attempted to kindle into the flame of rebellion. Kildare was in contact with the rebels. Suspicion has always surrounded his activities just prior to the revolt and during it. Following the revolt's failure, testimony was taken from a series of individuals by a government which suspected him of complicity with the insurgents. It cannot now be determined what precise role Kildare played in the Byzantine intrigues of 1580 and many commentators are divided on this point. O'Connor argues that Baltinglass was a front for Kildare, the earl being the mastermind behind the rebellion. Brady rejects this,"' while Valkenburg suggests that Kildare steered a course of self-preservation and benign neutrality." At the rebellion's height, in December 1580, Kildare and Delvin were arrested by Lord Deputy Grey on suspicion of collusion with the rebels. It seems that some days before the rebellion broke they had sought to dissuade the rebels from their course of action. Oliver Eustace swore that he observed Kildare and Baltinglass deep in conversation on 4 July, just days before Baltinglass rebelled,` the implication being that Kildare was aware of Baltinglass's intentions and had failed to warn the government. Kildare, it would appear, possessed a deep sympathy for the rebels' cause. When the rebellious Baltinglass, now residing in the Glen of Imaal, pleaded for a parley, Kildare did not oblige. Rose O'Toole swore that Feagh would not have joined Baltinglass only for Kildare's encouragement. During the rebellion Feagh and Kildare agreed his lands would be immune from rebel raids. In the subsequent inquiry nothing was found to link Kildare to the rebels. The grizzly fate of his brother Thomas and his five uncles decided the issue for Kildare, despite his wife's pleas for him to aid Baltinglass. Whether Kildare was a rebel is doubtful; if he was, he certainly lacked the courage of his convictions.
During the revolt Baltinglass tried to extract and exploit support from the predominantly Catholic towns. Mainly their inhabitants remained loyal to Elizabeth and deaf to Baltinglass's overtures. in some instances Baltinglass did procure active sympathy within the towns. Attempts were made to encourage merchants to procure large quantities of arms and wine for the rebel army. Baltinglass concentrated his efforts on Waterford because of its trading links with the continent. The rebels did receive some assistance. Marmaduke Middleton, the Protestant bishop of Waterford and Lismore, bitterly complained that:
Rome itself holdeth no more superstition than Waterford... A ruler to be appointed to govern the city at their charges... The rebels are supplied with wine and the Lord Justice with water for twenty days together.
A messenger was sent by Baltinglass to the Catholic merchant Robert Walsh. Baltinglass listed his army's needs, which included wine and powder, and desired Walsh to procure them for his cause."" We learn from the letter, dated 18 July 1580, that Walsh had helped Baltinglass before by conveying correspondence from him to his brother at Paris. On this occasion Walsh considered the risk too great. He surrendered the letter along with the messenger to Sir Patrick Doben, Waterford's mayor. Later, men from a district called Fiderte (probably Fethard) were also incarcerated for complicity in the plan. In Pelham's reply to Doben, Baltinglass's unfortunate messenger was ordered to be executed and hanged in chains as a warning to rebel sympathisers. Despite this grim example others responded to Baltinglass. He received supplies of weapons and powder from two Catholic Dublin merchants, Alderman Walter Sedgrave and William Fitzsimon, though their active support was not representative of Catholic Palesmen in general. Fitzsimon's and Sedgrave's actions do, however, indicate that there was considerable sympathy for Baltinglass's cause. Both of these men seem central in the rebellion's plotting. According to evidence given by Christopher Barnewall, Baltinglass's former servant, a fortnight before the revolt a series of meetings was held at Baltinglass's Monkstown house. During these meetings, Sedgrave, Baltinglass and Rochford finalised their plans. Fitzsifflon supplied rebels with large quantities of powder, which he had bought. On at least one occasion he smuggled powder from the city's own storehouse to the rebels with the help of a kinsman who was in charge of the store. Sedgrave's and Fitzsimon's support would not have been given if the revolt was purely a Gaelic revolt. Baltinglass strengthened its appeal.
While Baltinglass busied himself trying to create a countrywide network of supporters, Feagh went on the offensive. One of his earliest raids was to the south upon the Carew lands of Idrone. Sir George Carew barely escaped with his life when he and his companions were ambushed by Feagh and the Kavanaghs. One of Sir George's kinsmen was captured and later killed by the war-party. The Carew manor house was stormed and razed to the ground, probably by the same raiders. Kildare was criticized for his tardiness in curbing Feagh's excesses. While Kildare wasted time, Feagh struck again. This time it was to the east where his troops burnt Sir Henry Harrington's castle of Newcastle McKynegan. Over its burnt-out shell the papal banner was unfurled. Sir Henry Harrington remained incarcerated by the government throughout July for Tibbot O'Toole's murder. It was an excellent decision to destroy Newcastle. The government was thus deprived of a base to strike at Feagh from the east. Newcastle's burning indicates that much of O'Byrnes' Country were riding with Feagh, though one notable exception was Murrough Mac Edmond O'Byrne of Kiltimon.
Next the attacks switched northwards. Feagh's targets were the English villages on the outskirts of Dublin. In early August these Pale settlements were pillaged and burnt. News of the rebellion's northward thrust reached Spanish officials' ears in England. Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador to England, wrote to Philip II of Spain of the extension of the violence to the edges of Dublin. On 7 August 1580 he wrote:
.... news comes that an insurgent Viscount had brought his troops against Dublin itself, and would have taken possession of the city but for a woman who gave notice of their coming.
Although the report may be inflated, it confirms that rebel activities were dangerously close to Dublin. Suspicions concerning Kildare's loyalty were further increased when in early August two of his captains defected, bringing with them some of their respective companies. One of these captains was Gerald fitz Maurice Fitzgerald. He informed Feagh of the government's military strength and of the impending arrival of a fleet from Wales bearing Lord Grey and fresh troops. Garret Jones also fled with fifty shot to Feagh's quarters in Glenmalure. According to Maltby, these troops were armed from the Queen's store on Kildare's orders. Fitzgerald, according to government officials, was summarily hanged by Feagh before he could pass information to the government concerning Kildare's role in the rebellion in exchange for a pardon in December 1581.
Hooker, however, tells a different account of this incident. By December 1581 Fitzgerald despaired of success and was desirous of securing a pardon. He therefore dispatched a messenger to Sir George Carew offering to have Feagh murdered in return for his pardon. Feagh learned of Fitzgerald's intentions and hanged him. Piers Grace's outlaws, some O’Moores, with Sir John of Desmond and Dr Nicholas Saunders, the Papal Commissary, rode from Munster to Feagh's camp during the middle of August. Their escape was nearly foiled by Ormond and Pelham. A rain storm suddenly arose, blinding their pursuers and allowed them to flee into the succour of Feagh's country. Feagh's military activities were generally successful and did not meet with any significant reverse.
When Arthur Grey de Wilton stepped ashore from the Handmaid on 12 August 1580, he believed Ireland was a land devoid of all moral and political order. He possessed a reputation for courage and discipline. Leicester and Sir Henry Sidney were decisive in Grey's appointment as lord deputy. He was sent to Ireland to quell the rebellions, despite the fact that he had never commanded an army. There was little room for compromise with Grey. His father, William Grey, had commanded Elizabethan armies but was remembered principally for a disastrous campaign against the Scots, which culminated in the infamous siege of Leith. Arthur himself was badly wounded through the shoulder at Leith. He came to Ireland to reduce the country to order and throughout his office he pursued this objective single-mindedly. Edmund Spenser, who served on this campaign as Grey's secretary, modelled the character Artegall in Book V of The Faerie Queene on Grey. In the epic Sir Artegall is commissioned by 'That soueraine Queene, that mightie Empresse' to save Irena (Ireland) from the tyrant Grantorto. Spenser describes Artegall as:
For Artegall in iustice was vpbrought.
Euen from the cradle of his infancie,....
The poet tells us of the fear both man and beast held of Artegall's warlike rage:
Vntill the ripenesse of mans yeares he raught; That euen wilde beasts did feare his awfullsight, And men admyr'd his oueruling might; Ne any liu'd on ground, that durst withstand His dreadfull heast, much lesse him match in fight, Or bide the horror of his wreakfull hand, When so he list in wrath lift vp his steely brand."'
It can be argued that Grey did not care to understand the intricacies of the political climate. He had been deeply shocked by the massacres, with French royal assent, of Protestants by Catholics on St Bartholomew's Day in 1572. Grey believed that he was part of a new crusade against the evils of Catholicism. In 1587 he was one of the commissioners that tried and sentenced Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots, to death. For Grey her death was necessary for the safeguard of the English Protestant state. Grey saw himself as an instrument of the Crown and all rebels had to be destroyed. Undoubtedly Grey's sense of social order and duty influenced his decisions. This made him inflexible and unsuitable for his task in Ireland. Elizabeth I instructed him to dispel the opinions commonly voiced by Gaelic lords that she was intent upon their extermination.`
The army, which landed with Grey, consisted mainly of recruits. From its formation it had been dogged with bad luck. Discontent was rife. An English officer, Sir William Morgan, described the fierce August storms on the Irish sea that delayed the troops crossing to Ireland. Morgan says that they were 'driven back from Land's End by contrary winds'. He adds that three hundred men were officer-less and there had been a riot over pay. Preparations for transportation to Ireland had been in progress since June. This had not escaped Bernardino de Mendoza's watchful eye who reported to his master in a letter, dated 7 August 1580, that:
The Queen has ordered five hundred men to go from the province of Winchester to Ireland, in addition to those who left here to embark at Plymouth. It is thought she will exert greater efforts now, because the new Viceroy is pressing for fresh reinforcements.
Even on the continent the influx of English troops into Ireland was noted in diplomatic circles. Lorenzo Priuli, the Venetian ambassador to France, wrote to the Doge of Venice that Elizabeth had been compelled to send three thousand troops to Ireland to quell the rebellions during July 1580. Grey himself was held up at Beaumaris by foul winds and the late arrival of the Berwick regiment under Colonel George Moore. When the fleet eventually got underway many recruits suffered from seasickness and sunstroke. It seems also that the troops were badly equipped. Sir William Stanley bemoaned the condition of many firearms provided for the troops. Of one hundred and twenty guns given to his command scarcely twenty were serviceable. Upon its arrival the army was quartered behind Dublin Castle's walls. Grey was aware that the city was full of spies, a sentiment echoed in Stanley's comments. While he was in Dublin a letter arrived from Baltinglass and Feagh. Grey considered it arrogant and it displeased him. He promptly marched against them.
Grey's army left Dublin on 18 August," proceeding west to Naas, probably to link up with Kildare's forces and Sir Francis Cosby. It may have stayed at Naas a day or two. An army of Grey's size could not have escaped detection. The army then turned southeast and marched into the Wicklow uplands. On Grey's approach, a rebel force abandoned Baltinglass's burning town of Ballymore, and withdrew towards Glenmalure. From every hill the rebels observed Grey's advance. Grey's column probably followed the retreating rebels to the Glen of Imaal. Price concurs with this theory. Berleth suggests that Grey went southeast, but approached Glenmalure from the north. This means he entered the valley by descending Glenmalure's northern side adjoining Glendassan. Price convincingly suggests that the rebel camp was in Imaal on the slopes of Lobawn and Slieveroe at a place called Cavanagh's camp. The Four Masters tell us that the rebels continued retreating to Glenmalure's safety:
When the insurgents had heard of the approach of such overwhelming forces they retreated into their fastness in the rough and rugged recesses of Glenmalure.`
The army probably spent the night of 24 August 1580 within the abandoned rebel encampment. Grey had made his first mistake. His advance to Glenmalure contained no surprise. Feagh knew exactly the army's size and its location from the reports of his mounted watchers who shadowed it from Dublin, Grey could only guess how many rebels awaited his entry into Glenmalure. In a letter written after Glenmalure, Grey confessed that he had expected rebel strength not to exceed a hundred. Importantly, Grey allowed Feagh to choose the battleground. Since the 1270s Glenmalure had acquired renown as a graveyard for government armies. The English army would fight in Feagh's heartland, exactly what he wanted.
The rebel forces, which silently moved into their prepared ambush positions during the morning of 25 August, were a confederation of malcontents fiercely opposed to the government. They were composed of several large Gaelic warbands from southeast and western Leinster, parties of disaffected Catholic Palesmen, at least two harquebusier companies of deserters from Crown forces, Piers Grace's outlaws, and Munster refugees under Sir John of Desmond and Doctor Nicholas Saunders, the Papal Commissary. This assortment of forces lay under Feagh's command. Baltinglass was second in command. Glenmalure is a U-shaped glacial valley. It has steep sides and at the time of the battle was heavily wooded. There was plenty of natural cover consisting of scrub, trees, bushes and boulders. A small river, the Avonbeg, bisected the valley and made its floor quite marshy. It was perfect ambush country. Feagh and his allies were fighting in a familiar and protecting natural environment; they possessed a distinct advantage.
Plans were carefully laid at a council-of-war. Feagh was aware of the consequences if he were defeated or captured. Not only was the rebellion's future at stake, but so was the continuing existence of Feagh's lordship and the refuge it afforded to dissenters if Grey were victorious. It seems Feagh divided his force into four. First he scattered the allied kerne among the undergrowth along the steep slopes of the valley's northern sides. Further down the valley at Ballinafunshoge, he hid his main force amongst the trees. Feagh's main force probably consisted of galloglass troops. On the northern side's cliffs, stretching from Ballingoneen and Cullentragh Park to Lodarrig, he positioned companies of harquebusiers under Jones and Fitzgerald. A third force under Baltinglass's command was sited further down the valley dug in behind earthworks mixed with plashing. Baltinglass's force consisted of his own companies, some shot and whatever cavalry the rebels possessed. The Munster refugees and Grace's outlaws completed his contingent. Baltinglass was to cover the retreat if the ambush failed. Feagh dispatched a fourth group to the valley's head with instructions to remain within view of the advancing soldiery. On the approach of Grey's vanguard they were to retire down the valley to where Feagh's main force waited. Feagh must have reasoned that Grey might recklessly advance into the deadly amphitheatre if he perceived the rebels to be few. Only when the main English force had been committed to pursuit of the refugees would he signal his concealed forces. Feagh and his pipers were probably located high on Glenmalure's northern cliffs. This position commands a wide-ranging view of the battleground. All the rebels had to do was wait.
It is possible to gauge the size of the rebel forces awaiting Grey's descent into Glenmalure. In July Sir Henry Harrington estimated Feagh's force at seven hundred. English reports in September speak of assaults by Feagh and Baltinglass on the Pale with forces numbering over six hundred.By October these estimates had increased to eight hundred. In 1599 Sir Robert Cecil said that Feagh with six hundred men defeated an English army of two thousand. On the day of battle Feagh's force probably numbered between six and seven hundred.
Grey had decided to enter Glenmalure on the morning of 25 August, fiercely determined to crush the Queen's enemies. There was considerable apprehension among his veteran captains. They strenuously advised Grey against such a direct approach. Sir Francis Cosby, captain of the hired kerne, warned against descending into the valley. Cosby's fears were echoed by Spenser years later in A View of the State of Ireland. Grey dismissed his recommendation. Cosby may have been apprehensive about his hired Gaelic troops' loyalty. If so, time proved him correct. Jacques Wingfield, master of the ordnance, protested vehemently against Grey's decision. A clearly irritated Grey refused to listen. Wingfield, an old hand and a former seneschal of O'Byrnes' Country, returned to the officers' ranks, where his two young nephews, Sir George and Sir Peter Carew, awaited him. Both were determined to descend with the army into the valley. Wingfield pleaded with them to remain with Grey's staff and refrain from going with the army. They proved stubborn. Finally Sir George relented, but Sir Peter could not be dissuaded. Wingfield blessed his departing nephew saying:
If I lose one, yet I keep the other.'-"
Peter Carew never emerged from Glenmalure. As the army began its descent into Glenmalure's forests a heated argument erupted between Captain Audley and young Carew. This gives further testimony to the mood of fearful apprehension hanging over the ranks. Many soldiers were facing action for the first time. The sight of officers openly bickering did little for morale. Grey ignored his veteran captains' advice and sent a force, mostly recruits, against Feagh's seasoned fighters. His uncompromising and confrontational personality made this scenario possible.
A subject of much debate is where exactly Grey's army entered Glenmalure. Grey left his baggage train in Imaal and entered either from the west or the southeast. Berleth suggests that the army descended into Glenmalure down the valley's northern side, but this is not convincing. The battle's course suggests that the army entered from another direction. If Grey entered from the west, the English must have crossed over Table Mountain and descended along its slopes and its neighbour Camenbologue. In their descent they must have crossed the Avonbeg's head waters several times. Stanley's account mentions several river crossings. From there Grey's force could proceed down the valley. Another trail is from the south-west. Perhaps Grey's forces followed the Slaney's course and its tributary, the Leoh. This path would have led the English between the peaks of Benleagh and Cannow Mountain. They may have descended into Glenmalure through the Fraughan Rock Glen above the ford at Barravore. Whichever route Grey took it must have been a gruelling experience for the pikemen and shot. Stanley's narrative describes their descent into Glenmalure:
When we entered the foresaid Glen, we were forced to slide some tymes three or four fadoms er we colde staie our feete; it was in depth where we entered, at the least a myie, full of stones, rocks, bogs and wood, in the bottom thereof a ryver full of lose stones, wch we were dryven to crosse dyverse tymes.
John Vowell, known as Hooker, a former agent of Sir Peter Carew the elder, wrote an account of the battle. He described the mountain valley's rugged terrain encountered by the troops, saying:
Under foot it is boggie and soft, and full of great stones and slipperie rocks, verie hard and evill to pass through; the sides are full of great and mightie trees upon the hits and full of bushments and underwoods.
Both Hooker's and Stanley's accounts are reminiscent of Creton's chronicle of Richard II's expedition against the Leinster Irish in 1399. Richard and his army passed through the Glen of Imaal and Glenmalure in pursuit of Art Mor McMurrough and his ally Domichadh Mac Brain Ruaidh O'Byrne. Unfortunately for Richard, the hunter became the hunted. The Irish hung about Richard's flanks and rear picking off stragglers and subjected the royal troops to continual harassment. Richard's knights and foot soldiers attempted to respond but the Irish simply disappeared into the forests. The decimated and starving troops were glad to reach the coast in Arklow's vicinity where supply ships awaited. Creton described the inhospitable territory about Glenmalure:
......there were then no roads, neither could any person, however he might be furnished with bold valiant men, find a passage, the woods are so dangerous... You must know that it is so deep in many places that, unless you are very careful to observe where you go, you will plunge in up the middle, or sink altogether... This is their retreat, and therefore no one can catch them.
Obviously Glenmalure had changed little. In 1580 Hooker noted that the:
….fastnesswas by nature so strong as polhule might be: for in it is a vallie or a combelieng in the middle of a wood, of a great length, betweene two hills, no other waie is there to passe through.
The army advanced in battle formation where it was possible. It seems to have marched in two columns. Grey and the cavalry were massed on the infantry column's left flank on the valley's southern slopes which seems to have had fewer trees. Hooker confirms that Grey and Kildare 'on horseback staied upon the mountainside'. Price placed Grey's position at Stranahely in Imaal. Stranahely, however, is far from the battlefield. Grey was a hands-on leader and took part in the fighting at Glenmalure from close proximity. Price's positioning of him at Stranahely must therefore be discounted. It would have been too difficult to control an army from such a distance.
Sir Francis Cosby and Captain Green with their hired Gaelic troops from Connacht formed the advance's spearhead. They were followed by the Berwick regiment under Colonel George Moore. Officers such as Sir Peter Carew, Captain Audley, Captain Furres, Captain Bernard Fitzwilliam and Audley's lieutenant were among the vanguard. Sir Henry Bagenal and Sir William Stanley protected the rearguard with their companies of shot. Bagenal would later become marshal of the Queen's forces in Ireland and mortal enemy of Hugh O'Neill, the earl of Tyrone, with whom his sister Mabel eloped. With Captain William Russell, Feagh's eventual nemesis, Stanley would in April 1581 burn Ballinacor to the ground. ironically, Sir William later defected to the Spanish and commanded a regiment in Flanders sworn to Elizabeth's overthrow. Overall command of the infantry column fell to the Berwick's commander, George Moore. Other officers and gentlemen to serve on this campaign included figures such as Sir Nicholas Maltby, Captain Edward Denny, and Captain Humfrey Mackworth. Mackworth in 1583 was kidnapped by some of Offaly's O'Connors in reprisal for a raid; all the searchers found was his finger tied to a tree. Captain Walter Raleigh, later Elizabeth's favourite and the potato's reputed introducer to Ireland, served also on this campaign. Captains George Strafford, John Zouche, Christopher Carleill, Thomas Norris and Lieutenant John Parker were also among the army."" The poet Edmund Spenser, Grey's secretary, was to record his patron's progress.
As the vanguard proceeded deeper into the valley there was some opposition. This came from Feagh's advance party which was to entice Moore down the valley. In the conflict's initial phase the English had the better of the fighting. Stanley writes:
......so longe as our leaders kept the bottome, the oddes of the skermysh was on our side.
What follows is an interpretation based on the available documentary evidence. From Grey's battle plan it seems that he was aware of the possibility of an ambush. His plan was simple: the infantry was to flush out the rebels from their hiding places. Once the rebels were in the open ground Grey and his horsemen would swoop from the higher ground and ride them down. Grey seriously underestimated the rebel strength. He compounded his mistake by sending a force, although officered by veteran captains, composed mostly of recruits fresh from England with no experience of Irish warfare.
From his vantage point high over the valley Feagh watched Grey's vanguard approach Ballinafunshoge's wooded slopes. The rebel's strategy had worked well. He saw from the onward forest march of Moore's column that the English were not yet aware of the size or location of his main force. Grey subjected his troops to an arduous climb and a difficult descent into the valley. The men of Moore's column must have been weakened by fatigue induced by their severe exertions. In contrast, Feagh's forces were fresh, and motivated by the thought that failure meant death. The greatest advantage possessed by the rebels was surprise, something Grey lost early in the campaign.
As Moore's column edged out of the forest it came under raking fire from concealed rebels. Stanley's report indicted Moore for giving the order to scale the valley's steep northern slopes. Moore's decision may have been taken for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the northern side's terrain was easier on his tired troops. Stanley's later report is damning:
But our Coronell [Moore] being a corpolent man not hable to endure travaile, before we were hallfe through the Glen, (wch was four myles in length) ledd us up the hill that was a mile in height, it was so steepe that we were forced to use our hands as well to clymbe as our feete, and the vanwarde being gone up the hill, we must of necessitie followe ...
His words point out that Moore himself found the terrain too inhospitable. We are not privy to the relationship between them, but the report is a scathing attack on Moore. Probably the reason why Moore ordered his column up the northern slopes was to come to grips with the rebel companies of shot. They were delivering a murderous fire on the column from the cliffs above. Hooker dolefully commented upon Fitzgerald's clever positioning of shot:
He having them [the English] at a advantage upon everie side of the hill, with great furie assaileth them with his shot, and in a verie short time did kill the most parte of the foward, both captaines and souldiers.
Sir Nicholas Maltby confirms the damage inflicted by Jones and Fitzgerald with their harquebusiers on the advancing ranks:
He [Jones] and his company did most annoy us the day of the encounter.
Stanley states the troops were under constant fire before the main rebel force revealed itself, and Moore's troops had moved to silence the rebel shot:
I lost never a man till we were drawn to the bill by our leader where we could observe no order, we coulde have no sight of them, but were faine only to beat the place where we sawe the smoke of their peeces,..
Whatever Moore's reason, he was directly approaching Feagh's main force. It seems the column began their climb of the valley's northern wall from the Raheen bank on the valley floor. The northern slopes at this point are less sheer than the cliffs further up the valley. To have attempted to come to grips earlier with the Irish on the northern cliffs that were firing on the soldiers would have required the use of ropes." Unknown to him rebels were hidden on the higher slopes before the cliffs. They were among the undergrowth on his flanks and in front of him. He was trapped. Casualties, as the army climbed, must have dramatically increased as, from the safety of their position on Lodarrig, Jones's company hailed bullets into the disjointed lines of advancing soldiers. It seems the rebels attacked when a prearranged signal was given. Feagh's signal was, perhaps, the shrill notes of warpipes. Suddenly from everywhere the insurgents surfaced from the heather and scrub. Waves of them crashed against the column, tearing holes in its massed ranks. The assault's suddenness and ferocity stunned the recruits. Maltby, who saw the rebel attack from the relative safety of the high ground on the valley's other side, wrote of the reaction of the Elizabethan soldiery:
The strangeness of the fight is such to the newcome ignorant men that at first brunt they stand all amazed, or rather give their backs to the enemy.
Stanley describes the suddenness of the rebel attack:
... the enemy charged us very hottlye ....
According to Stanley's account the rebels were all around the column:
... they [the Irish] were laied all along the woode as they shoulde passe behind trees, rocks, crags, bogs, and in covert.
Cosby's hired kerne at the column's head defected to the rebels. In a letter to Walsingham, Maltby confirmed the defection of Cosby's kerne:
The Irish kerne and shot join the rebels, with arms out of her Majesty's store.`
Their desertion tilted the struggle further in the ambushers' favour. If it was his personal doubt about his troops' allegiance that spurred a troubled Cosby to counsel Grey against entering the valley, he was right. It is likely Cosby was killed by his own men. Stanley's account confirms that some Irish assailants were Cosby's troops. There must have been collusion between the hired Gaelic troops and the rebels. Hooker says in his account that Fitzgerald was aware of Grey's battle plans through subterfuge. This may be an attempt by Hooker to disguise the out rightness of Feagh's victory. Perhaps on the battle's eve the Connacht kerne leaders were won to Feagh's side by his emissaries with promises of great rewards. It cannot be ruled out.
Moore's column was under attack from all sides when he ordered a fighting retreat, In these circumstances Moore's decision to salvage his column was the right one. Ironically, it sealed the fate of his troops. The recruits had suffered heavy casualties and the remnants faced annihilation. Stanley's rearguard company of shot covered the badly-mauled Berwick regiment's retreat. They had been driven down from the valley's lower northern slopes. Now under continual attack, they retraced their path along the valley floor. Sensing victory, Feagh sent word to Baltinglass to attack. All his remaining forces were now unleashed against the retreating companies.
This joint attack by Feagh and Baltinglass turned Moore's fighting retreat into a massacre. Casualties soared as the column broke up under the double impact of Feagh's forces. Faced by carnage all around them, the terrified recruits broke ranks and ran for their lives. Many of them threw away their pikes and arquesbuses. Desperately they tried to escape the bloody melee by clawing their way to safety over the valley's southern walls. Stanley sadly admits that 'I lost diverse of my deere Inertia', and depicted himself and his company as the survivors' saviours:
I was in the rerewarde and with me twenty soldiers of myne wherof were slayne eight, and desperately hurt ten... I had with me my drome whome I caused to sounde many alarmes web was well aunsweared by them that was in the rearewarde wch staied them from pulling us down by the heeles.
Lord Chancellor Gerrarde did not quite concur with Stanley. Gerrarde states that 'the cowardish yielding of the late soldiers put in the rearwards' contributed immensely to the calamity. The rout, after Feagh's twin attack, is graphically described in Holinshed's Chronicle:
The residue which followed, what being desperate to recover was lost, and distrusting themselves, fled at all hands, and ran backe as fast as they could in so bad a waie.
Hooker describes the flight of the troops up the valley towards Grey's cavalry, the rebels hotly pursuing them:
And yet such was the nimblenesse of the traitors, and the skill of their service in some places, that they were like to have been killed; if the lord deputie and the horsemen had not rescued them.
It seems that Grey's horsemen prevented the utter annihilation of the companies covering the recruits' flight. This action allowed Stanley and his company's remnants to escape from the valley of death. Later, Maltby wrote that Hercules could not have bettered Grey's courage. Having done all he could, Grey and his riders urged their horses up the mountainside and fled for their lives.
The rebels, determined not to allow the defeated army to escape, followed in pursuit. Rebel harquebusiers, continued to pick off fleeing troops. Clad in bright coats of scarlet and blue, targets were easily visible. Edmund Spenser never forgot how the Avonbeg's mountain waters were coloured by human carnage. It was every man for himself in a mad rush to extract themselves from the slaughter.
The air was full of the screams of dying English and shrieking war-cries of their Irish killers. Panic-stricken troops left their wounded to certain death by the gallowglass axes. Probably with this picture of slaughter etched in his mind, Spenser described the assault on Artegall:
Who flocking round about them, as swarme
Of flyes vpon a birchen bough doth cluster
Did them assault with terrible alarme.
Stanley graphically describes the bewildered plight of the broken fugitives:
... were a man ever so slightlie hurte he was loste because no man was hable to healpe him up the hill.
Other soldiers, he wrote, just lay down and died:
... being so out of breath that they were hable to goe noe further being not hurte at all.`
The rebels were shoulder to shoulder with the fleeing soldiers. Hooker was witness to Sir Peter Carew's killing. Carew was foolhardy enough to enter Glenmalure wearing a full suit of armour. Hooker tells how Sir Peter, exhausted from the effort of running uphill in armour, paused momentarily to rest and catch his breath. For Carew this delay proved fatal. A rebel party came upon the exhausted Carew and disarmed him. The consensus among them was to hold him for ransom. However, according to Hooker:
One villiane most butcherlie as soone he was disarmed, with his sword slaughtered and killed him.
That was the fate of many a soldier. Three years later, on a Dublin street on Midsummer's Eve, Sir Peter's brother George stabbed to death one Owen O'Nasye. He, a follower of Brian Owre Kavanagh, had apparently boasted of being young Carew's killer. The last word on the fighting should be left to Stanley:
...it was the hottest peece off service for the tyme that Iever saw in any place.`
Estimates of English casualties at Glenmalure vary. The Annals of Loch Cc place army casualties at over nine hundred. "' Another source, The Four Masters, records that:
The Lord Justice then selected the most trustworthy and best tried captains of his army to search and explore Glenmalure; but they were responded to without delay by the parties that guarded the valley, so that very few of these returned without being cut off and dreadfully slaughtered by the Irish party.
Government sources give no estimate of its slain. Berleth estimates that five hundred soldiers were killed. No record of Grey's retreat from the Wicklow Uplands exists, or how many were killed or died from their wounds on this trek. Many officers were dead. The deaths of Moore, Cosby and Carew, all officers of the ambushed vanguard, were noted in The Four Masters. Stanley adds Captains Audley, Stafford, and Audley's lieutenant to the slain." Dowling's Annals recorded Captain Fitzwilliarn's demise. Sir Henry Bagenal, Sir Jacques Wingfleld and Lieutenant Parker, although badly wounded, escaped. Probably eight hundred soldiers perished in the actual battle. The army's bitter retreat may have pushed the fatalities over a thousand. Nothing is known of the rebels' losses, but they seem considerably lower. According to local tradition fallen soldiers were buried in pits in the vicinity of Barravore ford. The location of Sir Francis Cosby's grave is said to be high in the hills above Glenmalure at a place called the Black Knobs. Tradition suggests Feagh kept Cosby's body as a prize of war. It may have been buried secretly in this remote place on his command. Other officers were interred at a place in Glenmalure called the Giant's Grave.
There was panic in Dublin as the news of the battle filtered back. This defeat was the worst reverse ever suffered by a royal army in Ireland. The question on every Elizabethan official's lips was almost certainly whether Glenmalure's victors would march on Dublin.
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