The Siege of Kinsale
The Siege of Kinsale

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the ‘Flight of the Earls’. We examine the background to that major event in Irish history with a series of historical articles.

The Siege of Kinsale was the ultimate battle in England’s successful effort to conquer Gaelic Ireland. It took place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, at the climax of the Nine Years War - a rebellion of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, Hugh Roe O’Donnell and other Irish clan leaders against English rule. Owing to Spanish involvement, and the strategic advantages to be gained, the battle also formed part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585 -1604), the wider conflict of Protestant England against Catholic Spain.

Background - The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland

Ireland had been a lordship under the authority of the English Crown since the twelfth century; but by the 1500s, the area under government control had shrunk to the Pale, the area around Dublin. The rest of the country was controlled by the mini lordships of clan and feudal leaders. King Henry VIII tried to reintegrate the territory of the country by recognising the titles of the Irish nobility and giving them legal charter to their lands in return for submission to the Crown. He also created the Kingdom of Ireland in 1541, with himself as monarch. But whenever English officials tried to control the actions of Irish lords, they were invariably met with resistance. The English spent the next 50 years trying to exert their control over the Irish population, often by exceptionally brutal means. The first major conflict this caused was the Desmond Rebellions between 1569 and 1583. In the 1590s they experienced the most significant resistance, from forces in Ulster under Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell. This war is known as the Nine Years War. After some initial successes, such as the Battle of Moyry Pass, the rebels were pinned down defending their own territory in Ulster. Since 1591, the Irish rebels had been seeking help from Spain, and in 1601, a Spanish landing finally materialised.

Spanish landing

Following the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the failure of subsequent naval expeditions to northern Europe, Phillip III remained hopeful of defeating English influence. Spanish aid was offered to the Irish rebels in the expectation that tying the English down in that country might draw their resources away from their allies in the Netherlands, the Dutch Estates - which were engaged in a long rebellion against Spanish rule - and from piracy along the Atlantic sea routes.

Phillip sent Don Juan de Aguila and Don Diego Brochero to Ireland with 6,000 men, and a significant amount of arms and ammunition. Accompanying them was the Jesuit, James Archer. One of the ships, carrying the majority of veteran soldiers and gunpowder, failed to make it to Ireland. The remaining 3,400 men disembarked at Kinsale, just south of Cork on October 2, 1601, at the opposite end of the island from the rebel stronghold of Ulster. This geographical factor was to prove critical to the outcome of the siege.

On hearing of the Spanish landing, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, the assigned Lord Deputy of Ireland, weakened the garrisons around the Pale and rushed to Kinsale with as many men as he could take, where he laid siege to the town; at the same time, Hugh O’Neill and his ally O’Donnell considered their positions, before setting out - separately from each other - with a total of 5,000 infantry and 700 cavalry, on a 300 mile winter march.

The Siege

Lord Mountjoy’s forces were incapable of surrounding the town of Kinsale, but they did seize some higher ground and subjected the Spanish forces to regular artillery fire. The English cavalry rode through the surrounding countryside destroying livestock and crops, while both sides called for allegiance from the population. O’Neill and O’Donnell were hesitant about leaving Ulster open to attack by marching south, especially given the lack of supplies for their troops. When they did set out they successfully cut English supply lines across the island and, by December, the shortage of supplies and the severe weather had begun to take a toll on the besieging army, with many dying of dysentery and the ague.

Meanwhile, a small group of reinforcements arrived from Spain to aid the Irish. Overall, the degree of coordination between Spanish and Irish forces remains a matter of debate. That said, the Irish and Spanish together organized the main engagement, on December 24, 1601 (British date: January 3, 1602 for the Catholic army). They formed into three columns, led by Richard Tyrell, Hugh O’Neill, and O’Donnell. They marched toward a night attack, but owing to a lack of coordination and possible arguments between the commanders, they failed to reach their destination by dawn. Mountjoy’s scouts were made aware of the march and, after leaving a number of regiments behind to guard the camp and cover Kinsale, Mountjoy led his forces to meet the enemy at a ridge northwest of the city.

O’Neill controlled the ridge, and intended to fight for it, with support from Aguila, O’Donnell, and Tyrell on multiple sides. When neither of his allies showed signs of movement, he ordered a retreat into the marshes, hoping to mire the English cavalry in the soft land. In the end, the Irish were overpowered by the English cavalry, who charged through O’Neill’s men, and prevented a flanking maneuver by O’Donnell. Aguila mistook the sounds of battle for an English ruse to draw him out, and only took action when he mistook the approaching English forces for returning Irish. He ordered his men out of the city, intending to return it to the victorious Irish; when he saw the English banners and realized his mistake, it was too late, and so he simply retreated to the ships.


The English resumed their encirclement of the town of Kinsale, and Aquila after a number of days, sued for peace terms which Mountjoy accepted. Aquila realistically saw that his position was hopeless without the Irish lords . This loss put an end to Spanish ambitions in Ireland and to much of the Irish resistance. The Ulster forces returned to their home province, and after two more years of attrition the last of them surrendered in 1603, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth. James Archer criticised del Aguila before the Spanish king for his failure to accept advice and to sally out to join his Irish allies at the crucial moment, and sought to have him branded a coward. But the commander was exonerated, and in the following year, Spain and England agreed a temporary peace with the signing of the Treaty of London.

The Ulster lords were granted terms of surrender that many considered generous, but in the years that followed such were the encroachments by central government into their territories that many of them felt compelled to appeal to Catholic powers in Europe. This resulted in the Flight of the Earls, when the principal Gaelic leaders of Ulster, including O’Neill himself, boarded ship and set themselves up in exile in France, Spain and Italy. Their intention was always to raise an army and oust English authority in their home province, but the territories they had left behind were soon divided up in the Plantation of Ulster, and they were never able to return.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News