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The History of Ulster
Tyrone in the Ascendant

Negotiations between Elizabeth and Tyrone continue - Tyrone pardoned - He refuses to accept the proffered Pardon - Francis Bacon advises Robert, Earl of Essex, to interest himself in Ireland - Tyrone besieges Williams in Blackwater Fort - Sufferings of the Garrison - The Knight Marshal, Sir Henry Bagenal, marches to relieve the Fort - He is slain at the Battle of the Yellow Ford - Total Defeat of the English - Tyrone hailed as the Saviour of his Country.

Until August, 1598, it is impossible to describe the state of Ireland as either peace or war. At one time Tyrone submitted to the Queen's terms, and a pardon was sent over, but when the pardon arrived he would not accept it; the northern garrisons seem to have been in a continual state of blockade; interminable letter-writing went on between the parties without bringing them to any definite agreement; the negotiations were interspersed with some occasional fighting, and a raid into Ulster, with the usual result. This feebleness of the English executive necessarily inspired the Celtic population with the hope of a universal and successful rising, and the belief that Tyrone had at last appeared as the champion of the native tribes. "There is no part of Ulster freed from the poison of this great rebellion; and no country, or chieftain of a country, whom the capital traitor Tyrone hath not corrupted, and drawn into combination with him."

The modifications which Elizabeth required in the terms of peace proposed by Tyrone and O'Donnell and accepted, subject to the Queen's approval, by Ormonde, were received earlier than was expected, and on the I5th March, 1598, another conference was held with Tyrone in order to communicate them to him. The Earl discussed the several points with a freedom which showed that he knew well the weakness of the Government and his own increased strength. He refused to desert his confederates until they had had time allowed them to come in and submit; he consented to renounce the title of The O'Neill, but reserved the substantial rights of the chieftaincy; he would not give up the sons of Shane O'Neill, as he had not received them into his charge from the State; he agreed to admit a sheriff into Tyrone, provided he was a gentleman of the country, and not appointed immediately; he would surrender political refugees, but not such as fled to his province on account of religious persecution: in addition, he refused to give up his eldest son as hostage.

The independent tone adopted by Tyrone was very galling to the English, but the Earls of Thomond and Clanrickard, with other distinguished Irishmen, were nevertheless delighted to submit his propositions anew to Elizabeth, and the Queen not only consented to abate some of her claims, but Tyrone's pardon was actually drawn up, bearing date nth April, 1598, and passed under the Great Seal of Ireland; but the result was merely a truce, and within two months open hostilities were resumed. Tyrone was of opinion that the opportunity had arrived to effect the liberation of the country from under English rule. He awaited the long-promised succour from Spain. The national cause was progressing favourably in Ulster, and he feared lest further delay should cool the enthusiasm of the Irish chieftains. He therefore broke off the negotiations, and rejected the proffered pardon by avoiding the messenger who was sent to convey it to him.

In the meantime all the wit and wisdom of Francis Bacon was employed in persuading Robert, Earl of Essex, to interest himself in Irish affairs. It was pointed out to the Earl, with true Baconian gravity and weight of argument, that, from every point of view, he was the man selected by Fate for the position, and "if your lordship doubt to put your sickle into another's harvest; first, time brings it to you in Mr. Secretary's absence; next, being mixed with matter of war, it is fittest for you; and lastly, I know your lordship will carry it with that modesty and respect towards aged dignity, and that good correspondence towards my dear kinsman and your good friend now abroad, as no inconvenience may grow that way". In Cecil's absence Essex played the part of Secretary, while Raleigh, Russell, Sir Richard Bingham, Sir Robert Sidney, and Sir Christopher Blount were all mentioned as possible Viceroys; but none of them was willing to go. Bacon's further advice was asked, and his idea was to temporize with Tyrone, strengthening the garrisons and placing confidence in Ormonde, while taking steps to remedy the real abuses from which Ireland suffered. "And", he says, "but that your lordship is too easy to pass in such cases from dissimulation to verity, I think if your lordship lent your reputation in this case that is to pretend that if peace go not on, and the Queen mean not to make a defensive war as in times past, but a full reconquest of those parts of the country, you would accept the charge I think it would help to settle Tyrone in his seeking accord, and win you a great deal of honour gratis"

On the 7th of June the last truce expired, and two days later Tyrone appeared with a division of his army before the Blackwater fort, "swearing", in the words of Fenton, "by his barbarous hand that he would not depart until he had carried it", while he sent another division into Breffny to attack the castle of Cavan. The fort at Blackwater was but a ditch intended to shelter 100 men. Lord Burgh had left three times that number there, with the natural result of sickness following overcrowding.

There could be no more valiant man than Captain Thomas Williams, who commanded in the unhappy fort, and who resolved to defend his charge to the last man; and Tyrone, profiting by the lesson which the former vigorous defence had taught him, resolved to make no more assaults, but set about enclosing the fort with vast trenches, to prevent the sorties of foraging parties. These trenches, which were connected with great tracts of bog, were more than a mile in length, and several feet deep, "with a thorny hedge at the top". The approaches to the fort were "plashed", the roads rendered impassable to artillery by trenches, and the Irish army so posted that no force could advance to relieve the garrison without fighting a battle. The fort was scarcely victualled to the end of June, and would have been soon forced by hunger to surrender had not the besieged had the good fortune to seize "divers horses and mares", on the flesh of which they subsisted, not disdaining as an article of food the very grass that grew upon the ramparts.

Long and anxious was the debate at the Council board in Dublin as to the course now to be pursued. The English power in Ireland was in a most critical position. Only a few garrisons remained in all Ulster. Connaught was in arms. A well-organized Irish army, under Captain Tyrrell and other brave and experienced leaders, threatened the seat of the Government in Leinster. The prestige of Tyrone and O'Donnell was becoming every day greater. The latter, remembering his having been treacherously kidnapped, and his long imprisonment in Dublin, entertained a hatred of England which nothing could mitigate; while the former was the more formidable on account of his knowledge of modern warfare, his consummate prudence, and his subtlety as a statesman.

Reinforcements from England arrived at Dungarvan, but in attempting to reach Dublin the troops were attacked by the Irish and lost over 400 men. The English Government of Ireland was never in more pusillanimous hands than those of the Lords Justices of the time, Adam Loftus and Sir Robert Gardiner; and the iron-hearted Ormonde himself "a man of great energy and boldness", as described by Camden was dismayed at the struggle before him. Captain Williams told one of Fenton's spies that he could hold out for at least a month. Ormonde was disgusted at the prospect. "I protest to God", he wrote to Cecil, "the state of the scurvy fort of Blackwater, which cannot be long held, doth more touch my heart than all the spoils that ever were made by traitors on mine own lands. The fort was always falling, and never victualled but once (by myself) without an army, to Her Majesty's exceeding charges."

The Council at Dublin wrote to England for advice and help. The civil members urged that Captain Williams should be directed to surrender the Blackwater fort to Tyrone on the best conditions that he could obtain. Ormonde, however, was supreme in military matters, and Sir Henry Bagenal was as bitter as ever against his brother-in-law Tyrone, and "eager for the fray". The Council, finding Ormonde determined to fight, begged him to take the command in person, but the Lieutenant-General was within four years of seventy, and hesitated, not so much from inertia as from a sense of the overwhelming importance of duly protecting Leinster, as he was in honour bound to do. He took, however, the fatal resolution to divide his forces, and to march himself at the head of one division against the Leinster insurgents, while Bagenal led the other to relieve the fort of the Blackwater. At the last moment Loftus and Gardiner sent a message to the commander to surrender the fort; but Bagenal, characteristically, intercepted the letter, and took it back to the Council.

On the morning of Monday, the i4th of August, the English forces, which had reached Armagh from Newry with some slight losses the preceding day, started from Armagh to relieve Blackwatertown (then called Portmore). The army consisted of about 4000 foot and 350 horse, the infantry comprising six regiments, and the whole was disposed in three divisions; the van being led by Colonel Percy, supported by the Knight Marshal's own regiment, while the regiments of Colonel Cosby and Sir Thomas Wingfield came next, and those of Captains Cooney and Billings brought up the rear.

The English cavalry was commanded by Sir Calisthenes Brooke and Captains Montague and Fleming. The majority of the men were veterans who had fought abroad. They were armed with muskets, swords, and daggers, many had breast-plates, and they had some brass cannon. The main body of the Irish, whose infantry was numerically as strong as that of their opponents, the cavalry being somewhat more so, were armed with lances, swords, and battle-axes; some had javelins and bows and arrows, and a great many had muskets; but they were entirely without artillery. They occupied an entrenched position near the small River Callan, about two miles from Armagh, at a place called Beal-an-atha-buy, or the mouth of the Yellow Ford. Bogs and woods extended on either side, a part of the way was broken by small hills, and deep trenches and pitfalls were dug in the road and neighbouring fields.

The leaders on both sides harangued their respective forces, and the Irish were, moreover, encouraged by O'Donnell's bard, Fearfeasa O'Clery, who professed to have discovered an ancient prophecy attributed to St. Bearchan, foretelling that at a place called the Yellow Ford the foreigner would be defeated by a Hugh O'Neill.

The morning, says O'Sullivan Beare, was calm and beautiful, and the English army advanced from Armagh, before sunrise, with colours flying, drums beating, and trumpets sounding, in all the pomp and pride of war; but their front had not proceeded more than half a mile when the Irish skirmishers began to gall them severely from the brushwood on either flank.

The vanguard of the royal army advanced gallantly, and after a desperate struggle gained possession of the first Irish entrenchment, about two miles from Armagh. They then pushed forward and reached an eminence, where they were vigorously charged by the Irish, and driven back beyond the trench. Bagenal's tactics were at fault: his divisions were too far separated to support each other, and his leading regiment was cut to pieces before the one following had come to the charge. (Ormonde, on being informed of this later, testily remarked: " Suer the devill bewiched them, that none of them did prevent this grosse error!")

The Marshal himself came up at the head of his own regiment, and acted with extraordinary bravery, gaining the trench a second time; but the Irish were now engaged with the royal troops at every point, and the fighting was so hot in the rear, where O'Donnell, Maguire, and James MacSorley MacDonnell charged the English, that it was impossible for the reserve regiments to support their front. Bagenal raised the visor of his helmet to gaze more freely about him, when a musket- ball pierced his forehead and he fell dead, shot through the brain. Tyrone, knowing that the Marshal was in the front rank, had gone forward to encounter him and settle their long quarrel ; but the musket-ball had settled the dispute, and they were not fated to meet.

The confusion which generally follows the death of a general on the field was increased by the explosion of two barrels of gunpowder from one of which a private soldier was rashly replenishing his flask the explosion scattering death and destruction around a large area. The largest piece of artillery got into a pit or bog-hole, and defied all efforts to move it, while the O'Donnells easily picked off the draught oxen. "I protest", said one of the Irish officers, Lieutenant Taaffe, "our loss was only for the great distance that was betwixt us in our march, for when the vanguard was charged they were within sight of our battle, and yet not rescued until they were overthrown. The explosion and the delay about the gun did the rest."

Tyrone, who had the Irish centre under his own special command, took advantage of the prevailing disorder, and riding up with forty horsemen, followed by a body of spearmen, he plunged with a shout into the thick of the fray, making the enemy fly in disorder, and "confusion worse confounded". All this time the battle raged so fiercely in the rear that the English had not been able to advance a quarter of a mile in an hour and a half, and the death of Bagenal was not known at that point when the flight had begun.

Maelmuire O'Reilly, a son of Sir John O'Reilly, called "the handsome", and, being a Royalist, styled "the Queen's O'Reilly", made a desperate effort to rally the royal troops, but he was himself soon numbered with the slain. About one o'clock the rout became general, and the pits and trenches along the way caused more mischief to the flying English than even in the morning march. The new levies cast away their arms, and if they had not been near Armagh not a man would have escaped. As it was, the flight was not a long one; the ammunition of the Irish was nearly exhausted, and the shattered remains of the English army shut themselves up in the fortified cathedral, leaving their general, 23 officers, and about 1700 of their rank and file on the field; together with their artillery, including the gun which caused delay by sticking in the mud. Many colours were taken, and the English lost a great portion of their arms, drums, and other paraphernalia.

No victory could have been more complete. The loss on the side of the Confederates was estimated, at the lowest, as from 500 to 600. Fynes Moryson said of it: "The English from their first arrival in the kingdom never had received so great an overthrow as this. Tyrone was among the Irish celebrated as the deliverer of his countrymen from thraldom; and the general voice of Tyrone among the English, after the defeat of the Blackwater, was as that of Hannibal among the Romans, after the battle of Cannae." Cox declared that "By this victory the Irish got arms, ammunition, and victuals, and, which was more, so much reputation that the English could act only on the defensive part; and not that itself without continual fear and danger". Finally Camden said: "It was a glorious victory for the rebels and of special advantage: for hereby they got both arms and provisions, and Tyrone's name was cried up all over Ireland as the author of their liberty".

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