The Nine Years War took place between 1594 and 1603 and was essentially a clash between the English forces of Queen Elizabeth and the established Gaelic Lords of Ireland. The Gaelic Lords saw the English as a threat to their own power particularly since the English had been expanding their control over the Island and were attempting to achieve dominance in Ireland. The main protagonists in the war were Hugh O’Neill the 2nd Earl of Tyrone and Hugh Roe O’Donnell who was the Earl of Tyrconnell, they led an alliance of other Gaelic Lords who were opposed to English rule.
The Gaelic Lords faced a large English Army in Ireland which numbered 17,000 by the end of the war and was led by the Earl of Essex and subsequently Lord Mountjoy. There was an added religious dimension to the conflict with many supporting O’Neill on the basis of opposition to the Protestantism which the English were trying to bring to Ireland. Indeed the Gaelic Lords lobbied the Catholic monarchs of Europe for support in their war against the Protestant English. Some backing was given from the Spanish who sent soldiers to support O’Neill’s forces.
Despite this Spanish backing the war eventually ended in defeat for Gaelic Ireland but during the war it had inflicted some heavy defeats on the English forces. The war was also very costly for the English both in terms of lives and in capital, indeed financing the war almost bankrupted the English Treasury. Before looking at why the Gaelic Lords were defeated in the Nine Year’s War it is necessary to look at the examine the course of the war in greater detail and also to give some background to the reasons why war broke out.
In the years prior to the outbreak of war O’Neill had been seen as a reliable and loyal Proxy ruler by the English and there were hopes that he could be the man to consolidate their rule in Ulster. These hopes were somewhat understandable as O’Neill had been given an English style upbringing and Education and the English had high hopes for him. He became the Baron of Dungannon at a young age as a result of his older brother Brian had been murdered by Shane O’Neill in 1562.
He returned to Ulster upon the death of Shane in 1567 however he would have to usurp his cousin Turlough Luineach O’Neill if he wanted to become the Chief of the O’Neill’s. Eventually the ageing Turlough Luineach abdicated in 1593 and Hugh became the new Earl of Tyrone. Hugh O’Neill appears to have been hoping that Elizabeth the first would grant him authority to rule Ulster on his behalf as a reward for his loyalty and help in putting down risings. However the Presidency of Ulster was granted to an English servitor named Henry Bagenal, who had had a poor relationship with Hugh O’Neill.
This appointment left O’Neill believing that an English attempt to remove him was inevitable and he dropped his allegiance to the Crown and joined his fellow Ulster Lords in Tyrconnell and Fermanagh who had already rebelled against the English after they had attempted to introduce a Sheriff to the Maguire territory of Fermanagh. The Nine Years War had begun in 1594 when Hugh Roe O’Donnell of Tyrconnell and Hugh Maguire of Fermanagh attacked an English fort in Enniskillen. O’Neill did not enter the war until 1595 when he engaged an English army led by Henry Bagenal which was marching from Newry to Monaghan.
The Battle took place at Clontibret on the Armagh-Monaghan border and was a Victory for O’Neill and his men. After this there was a lull in the fighting until 1598 when O’Neill and his fellow Ulster Lords O’Donnell and Maguire engaged an English Army led by Henry Bagenal in the Battle of The Yellow Ford. The Battle took place near the Blackwater River in South Armagh. Bagenal’s force of circa 4,300 men was marching out to relieve an English fort near the River which O’Neill’s forces had been besieging.
Once again O’Neill was victorious and managed to inflict heavy losses on the English Army after mounting an ambush on them, the battle also claimed the life of Henry Bagenal after he was shot in the head. The nature of the victory thrust Hugh O’Neill into the spotlight and he became the focal point of opposition to the English in Ireland. The victory in the Battle of The Yellow Ford also sparked violence outside of Ulster such as in Munster in October 1598 when there was a major uprising which saw the plantations there attacked and many of the planters driven off the Plantations.
Elizabeth was naturally concerned about these incidents and she despatched a large army of 16,000 men to Ireland under the command of the Earl of Essex in 1599. This was a huge army by the standards of the day and as such a lot was expected of him. But he spread his forces too thinly by placing them in garrisons all over the country. When he eventually did face O’Neill in the field he was heavily outnumbered and fear he and his men would be annihilated he cut his losses and made a truce which was favourable to the rebel leader. Essex left Ireland soon after this in disgrace and was eventually executed for treason.
O’Neill was spurred on by this setback for the English and he began to move the war into the other provinces of Ireland. Lord Mountjoy was the man who replaced Essex in 1600 and he proved a more able commander than his predecessor even though his army of 13,200 men was smaller than Essex’s army. Mountjoy and his cohorts soon achieved success when they managed to suppress the rising in Munster and re-establish English primacy there. Another early success was the landing of 4000 troops at Derry under the command of Henry Docwra who established a garrison there thus exposing O’Neill to attack from his rear flank.
Things came to a head in September 1601 when the Spanish landed at Kinsale in Cork with an army of 3500 men who were sent to help the rebels. Mountjoy immediately sent an army down to besiege the Spanish Army at Kinsale. Meanwhile the Ulster Lords set off from Ulster for the long trip to meet their Spanish allies where the crunch battle of the war would be fought. When eventually arrived they surrounded Mountjoy’s army which was now sandwiched between the rebels and the Spanish. However despite this advantageous position the rebels were defeated in the ensuing battle due to their formation not being well enough organised.
It was a disastrous result for the Rebel forces which retreated back to Ulster, while Red Hugh O’Donnell went to Spain to petition for more support. After the defeat at Kinsale the English seized the initiative and went on the offensive against the Rebels who were now hemmed into Ulster. The English soon started launching attacks on Tyrone’s heartland and as the noose tightened O’Neill fled to a forest with a small band of followers. He considered fleeing for the continent but instead decided to sit it out and wait for Elizabeth I to die as he felt he would get better terms from her successor.
O’Neill eventually surrendered to Mountjoy on 30th March 1603 at Mellifont. This was just days after Elizabeth died and as such O’Neill was granted favourable terms by the new Monarch King James VI of Scotland, who granted him a royal pardon and let him keep most of his lands and the existing social order remained pretty much in tact. So it is clear form the events of the Nine Years War that O’Neill and his fellow Ulster Lords waged an efficient campaign against the English were given a fright by the rebels and their eventual victory was a hard fought one.
O’Neill with his anglicised upbringing and the help of Spanish advisers was able to fight a more effective battle against the English and the new tactics he used seem to have taken the Crown forces and their commanders by surprise at first. O’Neill had also managed to amass a much larger army than any other Gaelic Lord with 8000 men which was well trained and he had shrewdly managed to obtain modern weaponry for his men. Despite this high level of preparedness why did O’Neill and his allies lose the war?
One reason why the Gaelic Lords were defeated was the fact that the English were extremely committed to consolidating their power in Ireland and this fact was evidence by the huge amounts of troops that they deployed to the Island. Also it has been argued that O’Neill was not aggressive enough in his conduct of the war as he failed to follow through on his victories over the English and on some occasion’s crown soldiers lived to fight another day. This may have been down to ambivalence on the part of the Gaelic Lords in particular O’Neill who seemed to have an ambivalent attitude to the Crown which affected his judgement somewhat.
This was reflected by his aims in the beginning which were to wage a limited war and cause enough damage to English forces in Ireland so that he could sue for favourable peace terms and secure his position in Ulster. However as the war escalated he found himself being dragged into a confrontation which he had not planned for. Another significant factor behind the failure of the rebels was the fact that they did not manage to win over the Old English in the towns, this was despite attempts to do so based on the shared Catholicism of the rebels and the Old English.
However the Old English remained loyal due to the fact that they were not treated as harshly as the Gaelic Irish and they also were given secure tenure to their land by the English. Another crucial factor which contributed to the rebels loosing the war was the lack of support that came from the Spanish. Indeed one of the main reasons for O’Neill continuing the war after its early stages was the vast support and encouragement which the Spanish offered him.
However what support that was forthcoming from the Spanish was too little in terms of size to make any real impact on the war. Also the timing of the Spanish landing was poor and the fact that the landing took place so far form the rebels Ulster base did not help matters either. The location of the landing had been arranged to be Kinsale as O’Neill hoped that the rebellions in Munster however these had mostly been suppressed by the time the Spanish had arrived, O’Neill had tried to change the landing site when he realised what was happening in Munster but he was too late.
Added to this was the poor performance of the Gaelic forces on the Battlefield at Kinsale where they failed to maintain their battle formation. Also at Kinsale the Spanish forces failed to back up the Irish troops and attack the English simultaneously and the commander of the Spanish Army was labelled a coward by some contemporary Irish observers. It has also been suggested that the Rebels should have just waited for the English to retreat instead of attacking them as their supplies were running critically low and they had lost many men due to the cold and poor conditions of their encampment.
In the aftermath of the defeat Hugh O’Donnell headed off to Spain to petition for more support however he never returned to Ireland as he died in Spain his loss was a blow to the Gaelic cause and bred disunity amongst the rebel alliance. In the words of McCavitt ‘Red Hugh’s loss to the confederate cause was immense. His lustre, along with that of the Earl of Tyrone had been critical in cementing the rebel alliance’. Other factors outside of Ireland also contributed to the Gaelic Lords defeat such as the decision by Elizabeth I to withdraw troops from the Spanish Netherlands which freed up more men for the Irish campaigns.
Another reason for the poor performance at Kinsale and therefore was the fact that O’Neill and his men were fighting in territory that was unknown to them and far away from their home as such they may not have had the same sense of urgency that they had in the battles which took place in their Ulster homeland. Also The Ulster Lords were forced to split their forces and leave a substantial amount of men behind them in Ulster to protect it from a surprise attack by the English.
In the end the two Ulster outposts that had been established by the English in Ulster at Derry and Carrickfergus proved to be vital in ending any chance of a revival by O’Neill after his defeat at Kinsale. From these outposts the English commanders were able to launch strikes on O’Neill’s heartland and they also conducted a brutal scorched earth policy in Ulster whereby Cattle and crops were destroyed which caused famine and suffering on a massive scale thus bringing Ulster to its knees and pacifying it in the process.
In conclusion then it is obvious that the Gaelic Lords of Ulster were defeated in the Nine Years War for a combination of reasons the main ones being insufficient support from the Spanish despite assurances that were given by them. Also Luck was not on the side of the Gaelic Lords with the weather hampering their operations at Kinsale and the commander of the English forces Mountjoy had a number of lucky escapes during the war in which he narrowly escaped death. Also the rather crude tactics used by the English in terms destroying crops and livestock were another key factor that caused the Gaelic Lords to sue for peace by 1603.