Essex’s ‘Enterprise’

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Volume 27

Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, and the failure of plantation in Elizabethan Ulster, c. 1573–6.

By David Heffernan

Above: Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, 1572. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, was a paradoxical figure. When he died in Dublin on 22 September 1576 at the age of just 37 he was surrounded by some of the leading political figures of Elizabethan Ireland, each of whom, in recording his death, praised his piety, honour and virtue. In the days, weeks and, indeed, months ahead he was eulogised and commemorated throughout Ireland, England and Wales as a paragon of true nobility. Nevertheless, while Essex’s earlier career had been marked by noted service in quelling the Northern Revolt in England (1569–70), appointment to the Order of the Garter in 1572 and his elevation to the peerage just weeks later, his last years in Ireland were tainted by failure, ignominy and charges of cowardice. In the summer of 1573 he undertook to colonise much of the north-east of Ulster, but his ‘Enterprise’, as Essex called it, was to become an unmitigated disaster. Over the next two years it decimated the Devereux estate, cost the crown tens of thousands of pounds, failed to result in the establishment of any settlement in the north-east, and eventually began to devolve into devastation of the countryside throughout Ulster and acts of indiscriminate massacre. When Queen Elizabeth I eventually terminated the ‘Enterprise’ in the summer of 1575 the earl’s primary concern was to save his honour from ignominy and rescue himself from financial destruction, having mortgaged a great proportion of his vast estates throughout England and Wales to fund his Irish misadventures. What are we to make of these events? Why had such a folly been entered into and why had it failed so spectacularly?

Ulster and semi-private colonisation, c. 1567–76

In the late 1560s the government of Elizabeth I, headed by then secretary of state Sir William Cecil, undertook to colonise the north-east of Ulster. The primary goal of this endeavour was to prevent the influx of Scottish settlers, especially the MacDonnells, into Antrim from the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland. In time, it was believed, the establishment of coastal colonies at locations such as Belfast, Carrickfergus, Olderfleet and the River Bann would act as conduits through which the subjugation of Ulster as a whole could be undertaken, particularly the great lordships of the O’Neills of Tír Éoghain and the O’Donnells of Tyrconnell.To save money, the administration elected to achieve this by granting lands there to English adventurers who would undertake to colonise those regions with their own resources and some limited aid from the crown. This ‘semi-private’ colonisation began in earnest in the late 1560s but it was not until the 1570s that a major initiative was undertaken, when the English secretary of state, Sir Thomas Smith, a Tudor intellectual and colonial theorist, was granted the Ards Peninsula, Co. Down.Dispatching his son and namesake to conquer the region in 1571, Smith’s efforts seriously disrupted the political state of east Ulster. The local Irish power, Brian MacPhelim O’Neill of the Clandeboye O’Neills, a former crown loyalist, was in open rebellion shortly after Smith’s arrival. In 1573 he threatened the crown’s northernmost outpost, Carrickfergus, on the Antrim coast. Far from dampening the government’s appetite to colonise north-east Ulster, however, these setbacks led to an increasing resolve in London to proceed with the initiative. None was more enthusiastic than Cecil, now serving as lord treasurer of England and having been elevated to the peerage as first Lord Burghley. It seems to have been Cecil who in the summer of 1573 convinced Essex to undertake his ‘Enterprise’. Things went from bad to worse. Shortly after Essex’s arrival in the north-east in the autumn of 1573, Smith junior was murdered with some of his followers. Plague at Carrickfergus then decimated the earl’s forces during the winter of 1573/4. He fled south to the Pale with what remained of his army early in 1574. Subsequently the earl based himself in Drogheda and Dublin for the remainder of his time in Ireland, only making journeys into Ulster to devastate the country by burning crops and attempting to engage the Irish and Scots in the field. No colonies were established and the ‘Enterprise’ floundered, despite huge expenditure by Essex himself and the injection of even more colossal levels of funding by the crown. Finally, in the early summer of 1575 the queen signalled an end to the ‘Enterprise’. It was Essex’s intention to continue his efforts from Monaghan in 1576, but his death in Dublin in the autumn of that year effectively brought all efforts to colonise north-east Ulster to an end. No material success had been achieved in return for the spending of enormous sums of money, the squandering of vast resources and the imposition of much misery on Ulster and its people.

Above: Detail of the north-east of Ireland in John Gough’s map of ‘Hibernia’, 1567. (National Archives, UK)
Above: Cover-page of promotional material for the colonisation of the Ards Peninsula drawn up by the English secretary of state, Sir Thomas Smith, 1572.

Reassessing the ‘Enterprise’

Historians have long been aware of Essex’s ‘Enterprise’ and the role it played in the development of colonisation and plantation in early modern Ireland. Nevertheless, a detailed examination of the actual course of the ‘Enterprise’ has previously been lacking, and the reasons for its catastrophic failure have not been fully understood. Was the military collapse of the expedition in late 1573 and 1574 the result of bad luck, typified by the outbreak of plague at Carrickfergus during the winter, or was Essex quite simply the wrong person for the task with which he had been entrusted? Clearly the onset of illness amongst his troops was beyond the earl’s control, but his other actions in inciting the Irish of north-east Ulster to rebellion and his failure to heed the local crown agent, William Piers, on how to proceed limited his ability to be successful. Having fled to the Pale, his behaviour became even more imprudent. Nestled in Drogheda and Dublin, Essex began spending flagrantly on feasting and on supplying his noble household with everything from silk and fustian clothing from the Continent to spices from Asia, vast quantities of wine and beer, and even the occasional swan for a banquet. All of this was being financed out of the earl’s pocket at a time when he was trying desperately to have the queen return to him the lands he had mortgaged in England and Wales to fund the ‘Enterprise’. Few ultimately benefited from Essex’s time in Ireland, but the mercantile community of Dublin and the Pale who supplied his household were the major exception.     

When campaigns into Ulster were organised, Essex invariably abandoned them quickly without making any meaningful progress. Indeed, they took on a sinister edge, as rampant devastation of the countryside and acts of atrocity—most notoriously the massacre at Belfast in November 1574—became substitutes for failing to campaign against the Scots in the north-eastern extremities of Antrim. Eventually, in October 1574, nearly a year after departing from Ulster, Essex sent an elaborate scheme to the government in England, outlining a plan to begin a building programme throughout the northern province. This called for the construction of three colonial towns in Ulster, at the Blackwater, at Lough Foyle and at the mouth of the River Bann near Coleraine. Other settlements would be created in addition, at sites such as Belfast, Lough Neagh and Rathlin Island. Well over a thousand troops would be needed to execute this plan and Essex projected an initial cost of some £65,000 over two years. The ‘Plat’, as it became known, was to be deliberated upon for over half a year until the early summer of 1575. Throughout this time Essex remained broadly sedentary in the Pale, and rumours were beginning to spread at court of inactivity on his part and borderline accusations of cowardice. It was these and concerns over the spiralling cost of the ‘Enterprise’, combined with considerations of fluctuating developments in the religious turmoil enveloping France and the Low Countries in mid-1575, which led Elizabeth to call off the whole initiative in May 1575. In an effort to change her mind, Essex proceeded into Ulster, once again devastating the region before withdrawing south. His last act was to dispatch Captain John Norris north to Rathlin Island, where his troops massacred some 600 largely non-combatant Scots at the end of July, providing a ghastly conclusion to the whole sordid affair. 

Beyond this human cost, by the time of Essex’s death in Ireland in September 1576 some £100,000 had been expended by the crown and the earl on the ‘Enterprise’. It had achieved nothing. Indeed, such was the lack of any material progress in the north-east that while in England in late 1575 and the first half of 1576 Essex negotiated to relinquish his huge grant of lands in Antrim in return for a much smaller grant consisting of the barony of Farney in Monaghan, from which he would allegedly continue his efforts in Ulster, albeit now with the Pale directly at his back.

A myriad cast of individuals were responsible for this total failure of the initiative. At court the queen had constantly prevaricated over her support for Essex’s expedition, leading to difficulties in its management. Burghley also had his fair share of blame, in large part owing to intermittent quarrels with Essex when the latter frequently sent letters to England impetuously complaining about his lack of support from the government. This tendency towards rash and imprudent behaviour in Essex is somewhat remarkable, as it foreshadowed the later conduct of his son and heir, the far more infamous Robert Devereux.Ultimately, it was this flaw in Walter, along with a good many others, which made him wholly unsuitable to have undertaken the colonial project. It is, then, perhaps little surprise that the ‘Enterprise’ ended in such utter failure.

David Heffernan is author of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, and the colonization of north-east Ulster, c. 1573–6 (Four Courts Press, 2018).


Essex’s ‘Enterprise’ and plantation in early modern Ireland

Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, 1565–1601


N. Canny, The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland: a pattern established, 1565–76 (Hassocks, 1976).

P. Hammer, The polarisation of Elizabethan politics: the political career of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, 1585–1597 (Cambridge, 1999).

H. Morgan, ‘The colonial venture of Sir Thomas Smith in Ulster, 1571–1575’, Historical Journal 28 (2) (1985), 261–78.


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