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The History of Ulster
The Errors of Essex


Essex's Lamentable Lethargy - The "War-lords" declare against War! - The Queen's Anger at the Delays - Essex musters a New Army and gets Reinforcements from England - He leaves Dublin for Farney - A Conference between Essex and Tyrone - Egregious Behaviour of the Viceroy - Tyrone wins the Day - Sir John Harrington's pretty Picture of Tyrone among his own People.

Essex, "light-hearted as a plunging star", no sooner heard the baleful news of the defeat and death of so many of his brave followers, than he determined, naturally enough, "to revenge or follow worthy Conyers Clifford", but, alas! "infirm of purpose" he allowed himself to be persuaded into believing that nothing could be done. "The Lords, Colonels, and Knights of the Army" were in favour of a policy of masterly inactivity. They declared that men and arms they had none That there were less than 4000 available for a campaign; that many of the men deserted to the enemy, ran home to England, feigned sickness, or hid themselves. The ill-success which had of late attended the Queen's army had disheartened the troops, and there was no enthusiasm displayed in connection with a proposed Ulster expedition. The rebels were undoubtedly much stronger numerically, and were, as we have seen, better fed and clothed than the royal army. The Connaught forces having lately suffered defeat, there was little chance of establishing a base at Lough Foyle, or of supplying men to garrison Armagh or Blackwater, to either of which latter provisions could not be brought by sea. The officers, who were well acquainted with the state of the army, firmly declared against war. "In which resolution," said they, "if any man suspected it proceeded from weakness or baseness, we will not only in all likely and profitable service disprove him, but will every one of us deal with his life, that we dissuaded this undertaking with more duty than any man could persuade unto it."

Essex had been writing to Elizabeth reports of his movements in Ireland which astonished and vexed her. The Queen, herself so capable in the conduct of affairs, however intricate, so cool in judgment, so clear-sighted, so firm and so courageous, and possessed of marvellous tenacity of purpose, was amazed at the incapacity and fatuity which her favourite displayed as her representative in Ireland. The enemies of Essex who were numerous in the Council, and who, from the first, had encouraged his appointment to the Viceroyalty, in the hope that it would lead, first, to his removal from the Court, where his personal influence with Elizabeth was all-powerful, and ultimately to his destruction now rejoiced in secret over every fresh evidence of his folly. His well-equipped army had dwindled away till it was now only one-fourth of what it had originally been, and he wrote to England for 2000 more men, without whom, he said, he could take no step against the Ulster chiefs. The reinforcement he demanded was supplied, and he then wrote to say he could do no more that year (1599) than march to the frontier of Ulster with 1300 foot and 300 horse.

Elizabeth was wroth with Essex for calling in "so many of those that are of so slender judgment, and none of our Council", to keep men from censuring his proceedings, and there can be little doubt that his having done so was a weak device to shift the responsibility. The officers having declared against hostilities, Essex, a week later, sick of inactivity and the introspection it involved, resolved to go as far and do as much "as duty would warrant, and God enable him". He meant to taunt Tyrone into action. "If he have", said Essex, "as much courage as he pretendeth, we will, on one side or the other, end the war." But Tyrone wisely deemed discretion the better part of valour, and declined to be drawn into the open by gibes or jeers.

On the 28th August the Lord-Lieutenant left Dublin for Farney's "lakes and fells", which he had inherited under letters patent to his father from the Queen, and by placing a garrison at Donaghmoyne he no doubt hoped to secure his own as well as to annoy Tyrone. Travelling through Navan and Kells, Essex arriving at Castle Keran, mustered an army of 3700 foot and 300 horse, and none too soon, for Tyrone himself was in Farney, with an army nearly 11,000 strong. When Essex arrived at the River Lagan, where it bounds Louth and Monaghan, Tyrone appeared with his forces on the opposite hills. Sir William Warren, who was used to treating with the Ulster chief, went to him to secure the freedom of a prisoner, and next day Henry O'Hagan was sent by Tyrone to request a conference, which the Lord-Lieutenant at first refused but next day agreed to grant. "If thy master", Essex is reported to have said, "have any confidence either in the justness of his cause, or in the goodness and number of his men, or in his own virtue, of all which he vainly glorieth, he will meet me in the field, so far advanced before the head of his kerne as myself shall be separated from the front of my troops, where we will parley in that fashion which best becomes soldiers." O'Hagan, whose hereditary privilege it was to inaugurate the O'Neill, departed in disgust.

On the day following, Essex offered battle, the offer being ignored, and Tyrone renewed his request for a parley. A garrison was placed at Newrath, and next day the army moved towards Drumcondra. They had marched but a short distance when O'Hagan again appeared, and, "speaking so loud as all might hear that were present", announced that Tyrone "desired her Majesty's mercy, and that the Lord-Lieutenant would hear him; which, if his lordship agreed to, he would gallop about and meet him at the ford of Bellaclinthe, which was on the right hand by the way which his lordship took to Drumcondra". Essex cautiously sent two officers in advance to explore the place, and then, posting some cavalry on a rising ground at hand, rode alone to the bank of the river. Tyrone approached unattended on the opposite side, and urging his steed into the stream to a spot "where he, standing up to his horse's belly, might be near enough to be heard by the Lord-Lieutenant, though he kept to the hard ground. . . . Seeing Tyrone there alone, his lordship went down alone. At whose coming Tyrone saluted his lordship with much reverence, and they talked above half an hour together, and after went either of them to their companies on the hills."

This strange conduct on the part of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's representative in Ireland has been severely condemned by all historians. Mr. Richard Bagwell rightly says: "Of all the foolish things Essex ever did, this was the most foolish. By conversing with the arch-rebel without witnesses he left it open to his enemies to put the worst construction on all he did, and he put it out of his own power to offer any valid defence. Two days before he had declared war to the knife, and now he was ready to talk familiarly with his enemy, and practically to concede all without striking a blow." Foolish, undoubtedly Essex was, but was he really sane? Gifted beyond his peers with great personal beauty, he was the Absalom of English history, his vanity was his downfall. A poet, possessed of rare literary ability, and of the nervous poetic temperament, facts were to him ugly things. "A fancy from a flower-bell, someone's death, a chorus ending from Euripides", were dearer to his soul than marching and counter-marching, though he was not lacking in courage, and the life of a soldier appealed to his imagination with all its "drums and trampellings". The favourite of a great Queen not indeed a "laughing queen", "whose face was worth the world to kiss", but the imperious and domineering "maiden-tongued, male-faced Elizabeth", who demanded abject, nay servile, humility on the part of all her servants; the conduct of Essex towards his Royal Mistress, in itself, points not so much to lunacy as to what is now known as "swelled head". When the Queen proposed to send Knollys to Ireland, Essex objected and favoured the appointment of Carew. The Queen insisting, Essex turned his back on her with a gesture of contempt, and, Raleigh tells us, he exclaimed that "her conditions were as crooked as her carcase"; whereupon Elizabeth in anger gave the insolent young man (young enough to be her grandson) a box on the ear. Essex, surprised, laid his hand on his sword, and, swearing he would not have endured such an indignity from Henry VIII himself, left the Court in haste and went to sulk at Wantage, from whence he wrote to the Queen letters in which the dominant note is that of a petulant, spoilt child, and in which he complains of Elizabeth's having broken "all laws of affection". Ireland required "a still strong man", and in sending Essex to govern her, the Queen erred sadly, for Essex was not only "green in judgment" but "sick of self-love", and " himself unto himself he sold ".

But to return to Tyrone, whom we have left in mid-stream up to the saddle-girths. The interview lasted, without witnesses, nearly an hour, and no doubt Tyrone, who possessed a profound knowledge of human nature, improved the shining hour, and made on the mind of the vain and ambitious Viceroy an impression by no means favourable to English interests. The meeting was then, after a pause, resumed, with the addition of six leading men, as witnesses, on each side. Those on Tyrone's were his brother Cormac, Magennis, Maguire, Ever MacCowley, Henry Ovington, and Richard Owen, "that came from Spain, but is an Irishman by birth". Southampton, St. Leger, and four other officers of rank accompanied the Lord-Lieutenant. As a token of humility, the Irishmen rode into the river, "almost to their horses' bellies", whilst the Viceregal party stayed on the bank. Tyrone, says Camden, saluted the Viceroy "with a great deal of respect", removing his plumed head-gear the while, and it was arranged that a further parley was to take place on the morrow, and Essex continued his march to Drumcondra.

Sir Henry Wotton, private secretary to Essex, was chosen to carry on negotiations, and a better could scarcely have been selected. The choice fell on Wotton, we are told, because he appeared to be the fittest person "to counterpoise the sharpness of Henry Ovington's wit". The result was a truce until the 1st of the ensuing May, with a clause that either party might at any time renew the war after a fortnight's notice. It is evident that Tyrone's tone at the meeting was higher and more decisive than is generally supposed, for he demanded that the Catholic religion should be tolerated; that the principal officers of State and the judges should be natives of Ireland; that he himself, O'Donnell, and the Earl of Desmond (his own creation) should enjoy the lands of their ancestors; and that half the army in Ireland should consist of Irishmen.

A lively and most interesting sketch of Tyrone, "in his habit as he lived", has been preserved in a letter from Sir John Harrington to Justice Carey, and has been rescued from the waste-paper basket of oblivion by the industry and research of Mr. Bagwell, to whom all students of Irish history owe a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. Sir John Harrington, it will be remembered, was the author of Nugce Antiques, a translation of Ariosto; and was himself a writer of considerable charm and vivacity. Harrington deftly depicts the scene at Dundalk, when Tyrone, who had met him at Ormonde's house in London, apologized for not remembering him personally, and added that troubles had almost made him forget his friends. While the Earl was in private conversation with Sir William Warren (at whose house, it will be recalled, his romantic marriage with Mabel Bagenal took place), Harrington amused himself by "posing his two sons in their learning, and their tutors, which were one Friar Nangle, a Franciscan, and a younger scholar, whose name I know not; and finding the two children of good towardly spirit, their age between thirteen and fifteen, in English clothes like a nobleman's sons; with velvet jerkins and gold lace; of a good cheerful aspect, freckled-faced, not tall of stature, but strong and well-set; both of them speaking the English tongue; I gave them (not without the advice of Sir William Warren) my English translation of Ariosto, which I got at Dublin; which their teachers took very thankfully, and soon after showed it to the Earl, who called to see it openly, and would needs hear some part of it read. I turned (as it had been by chance) to the beginning of the forty-fifth canto, and some other passages of the book, which he seemed to like so well that he solemnly swore his boys should read all the book over to him."

Tyrone deplored his own hard life, "comparing himself to wolves, that fill their bellies sometimes, and fast as long for it"; "but he was merry at dinner, and seemed rather pleased when Harrington worsted one of his priests in an argument". "There were fern tables and fern forms spread under the stately canopy of heaven. His guard for the most part were beardless boys without shirts, who, in the frost, wade as familiarly through rivers as water-spaniels. With what charms such a master makes them love him I know not; but if he bid come, they come; if go, they do go; if he say do this, they do it. ... One pretty thing I noted, that the paper being drawn for him to sign, and his signing it with O'Neill, Sir William (though with great difficulty) made him to new write it and subscribe Hugh Tyrone."


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