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The History of Ulster
Essex in Ulster


The Earl of Essex and others land at Carrickfergus - Their Colonization Scheme a Failure - Essex appointed Governor of Ulster - The Severity of his Treatment of the Irish - Entraps Sir Brian MacPhelim and executes him - Massacres the Refugees on Rathlin Island - Sir Henry Sidney returns - Death of Essex.

Essex, on landing at Carrickfergus in August, had to await the arrival of the transports, which had been delayed by the storm, and thus much precious time was lost. He had at least one ally in Ulster, for Turlogh Lynnagh had entered into a treaty with him as far back as June, 1572, by which Turlogh promised the Queen to assist him against any person who should oppose her in Ulster; abandoned all claims over the followers of Clanaboy beyond the Bann; all superiority over the Baron of Dungannon's sons; and any persons dwelling between the great river [the Blackwater] and Dundalk; promised to serve the Queen against all persons upon whom she might make war; to endeavour to expel the Scots; to conduct himself peacefully against O'Donnell and all other faithful subjects of the Queen; and to deliver up as pledges his sons Arthur and another. In consideration of his submission, he was to receive of the Queen a grant of all lands from Lough Foyle to the Blackwater, and from the Bann to the Maguire country, with all the monastic lands in the province.

Essex commenced operations by issuing a proclamation that he had come to take possession of the forfeited lands of Clanaboy, the Glyns, and the Route, but that he merely intended to expel the Scots and not to act with hostility to the Irish. Soon, however, the nature of the expedition becoming known, the Scots fled to their fastnesses at Red Bray. Turlogh Lynnagh, instead of giving Essex a welcome, sulked in his castle at Lough Neagh, and the only Irish chief that obeyed his summons was Sir Brian, son of Felim Baccagh O'Neill, who came in person and made submission on his knees, promising to be henceforth a loyal subject, and placing as a pledge of his fidelity 10,000 head of cattle at the President of Ulster's disposal. The cattle did not stay long in the new Governor's possession, for three days later they disappeared, and with them others that Essex had relied on for supplies. The troops were reduced to salt beef, and a little later were mutinous for want of food. Troubles multiplied. The season broke. It was now November cold, wet, and stormy. The Irish took advantage of the distress of the English and attacked them, "never offering fight but upon great advantage", and flying to their secret fastnesses when pursued. The native race of Clanaboy, supported by Hugh O'Neill of Dungannon, and by Turlogh Lynnagh himself, rose in arms. Several conflicts ensued, and Essex soon found himself in an embarrassing position. Many of his men were not fit for the hard service on which they had entered, and some of his leaders, remembering "the delicacies of their own firesides", and " wanting resolute minds to endure travail ", deserted. The soldiers deemed that, not being in the Queen's service, they "were free to leave if they pleased". Essex, on learning this, begged Elizabeth to "allow the army to appear hers", that he "might with better warrant at least punish mutiny and the base ignobility of the soldiers' minds".

Essex was now much changed from the man he had been when a few weeks earlier he had set out to search for Eldorado in Ireland. Misfortunes thickened. His meat supply failed. He could get no bread. Horses in the damp November nights, without proper care and shelter, died. Famine, sickness, desertion, thinned his ranks, and three months after his landing, out of the 1200 men with whom he set out, he had but 200 left who could take the field. He applied to FitzWilliam for assistance or advice, but got neither Even his "men of Devon", he stated, "are the worst I ever saw. Mutinous in camp and cowardly in the field, when they see likelihood of work they begin to steal away. Some", he says, "I caught and hanged. The rest would rather starve than come to service. The gentlemen have sent me", he complained, "only such as they are glad to rid their country of. I am ashamed that England should breed such weak-hearted men as come hither."

The Earl now determined to abandon his quest, and, addressing the Council in December, told them he had come to the conclusion that "the war could only be carried on by the Governor of the realm, whom I would myself obey and serve as a private man ". Essex, however, though he was ruined in fortune, bore his loss with equanimity and fortitude. Sir Thomas Wilford wrote of him and the Irish to Burleigh: "The Irish nation is more enraged", he said, "with the fury of desperation than ever I have known them heretofore. They suppose these wars are taken in hand by her Majesty's subjects and not by herself. They say they are no rebels, and do but defend their lands and goods. Our own people, through long peace in England, have lost the minds of soldiers, and are become weak in body to endure travail and miserable in mind to sustain the force of the enemy. And this, no question, doth grow of the fat delicate soil and long peace had in England, and therefore nothing more necessary for a prince that mindeth to keep his countries and dominions than sane exercise of war. This people begin to know their own force and strength, and have learnt the use and sorts of weapons, their places of strength and advantage, and therefore high time to expulse them for fear of utter ruin to the whole. My Lord, it is not a subject's purse and countenance must do this. It must be her Majesty's only. It were the greatest pity in the world that so noble and worthy a man as this Earl should consume himself in this enterprise. I know and perceive he shooteth not at the gain and revenue of the matter, but rather the honour and credit of the cause. If her Majesty did know his noble and honourable intent, having a body of mind invincible to endure all miseries and extremities, so well as we do know him, she would not suffer him to quail for half the kingdom of Ireland."

When the failure of the expedition of Essex was admitted, the Queen, much annoyed, instructed him to settle his differences with the Irish chieftains, withdraw what forces he had left, and return to England. Recognizing that to obey such a command meant disgrace and ruin, Essex again begged for an appointment in Ireland under the Lord Deputy. His friends, indeed, urged that he should supersede Fitz William, but to this the Queen would not consent, and matters were compromised by Essex being made Governor of Ulster, with a direct commission from the Crown, while FitzWilliam was retained.

Essex, delighted that he was given another opportunity to serve Her Majesty, flung himself into his work with enthusiasm, and, getting some able men who had been trained for war in the Low Countries, he marched from Belfast into Clanaboy, and, attacking Sir Brian MacPhelim, made him write to the Queen a letter in which he implored mercy and acknowledged "that he had wickedly gone astray, and wandered in the wilderness like a blind beast". When this had been done, one would naturally think hostilities would cease. But it was not so in this case. Essex, spoilt by the run of bad luck he had had, and his own heavy losses in men and money, was now guilty of a deed which disgraces his name. Hearing that Sir Brian had had a secret meeting with Turlogh Lynnagh and the Scots of Antrim, he returned to Clanaboy in a friendly manner and was hospitably received by the chief and his lady. A banquet was given in his honour, and later Sir Brian and Lady O'Neill accompanied their guest to Belfast Castle. Here a feast was held, and the festivities continued until late in the night. The O'Neills then retired to their quarters outside the walls, and a little later awoke to find the house in which they were lodged surrounded by soldiery, who were making efforts to break open the door. The retainers of Sir Brian, on hearing his calls for help, ran to defend him, but were outnumbered, and 200 "men, women, youths, and maidens" were cut to pieces. Froude, who gives this horrible tale in its mildest form, states that the sequel was the seizure of "3000 of Sir Brian's cattle, with a drove of stud mares, of which the choicest was sent as a present to FitzWilliam". The Four Masters state that "Brian was afterwards sent to Dublin, together with his wife and brother, where they were cut in quarters". This horrible act of perfidy filled the Irish, as the Annalists add, with hatred and disgust for their foes.

But if it disgusted the Irish, it had a contrary effect on the Queen, who now told Essex that "he was a great ornament of her nobility; she wished she had many as ready as he to spend their lives and fortunes for the benefit of their country". Inflamed with a desire to win more such praise, Essex now turned into Antrim to deal with Sorley Boy MacDonald and the Scots. He attacked the Scots, who, after some skirmishing, got across the Bann, on which occasion the English had "the killing of them, swimming in the river over to Tyrone's side, both horsemen and footmen". After this, from the Earl's letter of the 22nd of July, 1575, it appears that Sorley Boy daily sued for peace, and to be suffered to enjoy the land, which he said had once been granted unto him in the time of Sussex's government; but having no commission to deal with him, the Earl forbore to have anything to do in the matter.

Essex had, however, no compunction in dealing with other matters, and he was now to prove himself a "greater ornament" than ever, of Elizabeth's nobility. The island of Rathlin, to the north of Antrim, and difficult of access, had long been a stronghold of the Scots, and was fortified sufficiently to offer serious resistance. To this island, when Essex entered Antrim, Sorley Boy MacDonald and the other Scots had sent their wives and children, their aged, and their sick for safety. On his return journey it was ascertained that they were still on the island, and Essex now directed John Norris, the officer in command of the English garrison, to attack it. The order was quickly carried out, and the Scots on the island, surprised, surrendered on condition that their lives should be spared and that they should be allowed to return to Scotland. The conditions were refused, the English soldiers "being moved and much stirred with the loss of their fellows that were slain, and desirous of revenge, made request, or rather pressed to have the killing of them; which they did". Such was Essex's own account of the disgraceful deed, and he adds: "There were slain, which came out of the castle of all sorts, 200; and presently news is brought to me, out of Tyrone, that they be occupied still in killing, and have slain, that they have
found hidden in caves and in cliffs of the sea, to the number of 300 or 400 more".

These 300 or 400 more consisted chiefly of mothers and infants, but Essex was unmoved, and nonchalantly wrote that Sorley Boy and the other chiefs had sent their wives and children into the island, "which be all taken and executed to the number of 600". Sorley Boy himself, he wrote, "stood upon the mainland of the Glynnes and saw the taking of the island, and was likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself, and saying that he there lost all that ever he had", It is difficult to believe the fact that Elizabeth, on hearing this horrible story, bade Essex tell John Norris, "the executioner of his well-designed enterprise, that she would not be unmindful of his services ".

Sir Henry Sidney was now persuaded to return to Ireland. Turlogh heard the news with much satisfaction, for "wretched Ireland needed not the sword". Sidney landed on the 12th of September, 1575, accompanied by his son, Philip, at Skerries, Dublin being avoided on account of the plague. He marched with 600 horse and foot against Sorley Boy and the Scots, who were just then besieging Carrickfergus; and having compelled them to submit, he received about the same time the submission of Turlogh and other Ulster chieftains. Con O'Donnell and Con, son of Niall Oge O'Neill, had, a little before, made their escape from Dublin, and the Lord Deputy sent a pardon to the former, showing his disapproval of the unjust treatment he had received from Essex. To Sorley Boy he restored, at his earnest entreaty, the island of Rathlin; possibly, as Froude suggests, to enable him to collect and bury his dead.

In September, 1576, the Earl of Essex, having set his affairs in order, died in Dublin, some say of poison, others of dysentery. Be that as it may, Lady Essex married, with indecent haste after her husband's death, the notorious Earl of Leicester. Two years later, Sidney, weary of an arduous and expensive task, left Ireland for ever.


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