Longford musketeers

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Volume 11

Plan of St Ghislain in 1655 by Sébastien de Pontault, sieur de Baulieu, an engineer of King Louis XIV and camp marshal of the French armies. (Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels)

Plan of St Ghislain in 1655 by Sébastien de Pontault, sieur de Baulieu, an engineer of King Louis XIV and camp marshal of the French armies. (Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels)

Almost 350 years ago the Farrells of Longford played a small but decisive role in European politics, in an incident that tipped the balance of power on the Continent. The year was 1657 and the leaders of the Farrell sept were in exile with a body of soldiers from Longford who had fought together through the Cromwellian wars in Ireland. The Farrells were forced into exile after Cromwell’s victory and they fought in the civil war of the Fronde in France. Eventually they ended up as the French garrison of a town in Spanish Flanders (now Belgium) that controlled the access route to Brussels. In the summer of 1657, however, they changed sides at the behest of the exiled Charles II of England and opened the gates of the town to the Spanish. The effect was to frustrate, for a time at least, Cardinal Mazarin’s ambition to make France the unquestioned master of Europe.
The action of the Farrells was noted right across the Continent as it helped to shore up Spanish power in Flanders against the threat posed by the French. It earned them the gratitude of King Philip IV of Spain, expressed in hard cash as well as honours, and of the exiled Charles II of England, who knighted the leaders of the sept. How the Farrells ended up in Spanish Flanders to play their small part in European history is a story which throws an illuminating light on the political, economic and military options facing the leaders of Catholic Ireland in the seventeenth century.
Gradually deprived of land
The Farrells were rulers of Annaly, broadly corresponding to present-day County Longford, from the eleventh century until the Cromwellian plantation in the 1650s. In the centuries after the Norman invasion of 1169 they came to occupy a pivotal position between the Anglicised east and the Gaelic north and west. The Farrells managed to survive the Tudor conquest and the shiring of their territory with their power intact, but in the first half of the seventeenth century they came under increasing pressure from the administration in Dublin. They lost about a quarter of their territory in the plantation of Longford in 1618 but were still in control of the county at the outbreak of the 1641 rebellion. In November 1641 the Farrells joined the rebellion, setting out their grievances in a letter to Lord Dillon, who presented it to the Dublin government on their behalf:

‘The Papists in the neighbouring counties are severely punished and their miseries might serve as beacons unto us to look unto our own, when our neighbours houses are on fire.’

They expressed their support for the king and enclosed an oath of loyalty to him. However, they also voiced their disappointment that as Catholics their loyalty had not been rewarded:

‘There is an incapacity in the Papists of honour and the immunities of true subjects, the royal marks of distributive justice and a disfavour in the commutative . . . when the old families of the English and the major part of us the meer Irish did swim in blood to serve the crown of England; and when offices should call men of worth, men without worth and merit obtain them . . . The restraint of purchase in the meer Irish of lands in the escheated counties and the taint and blemish of them and their posterities doth more discontent them than that plantation rule; for they are brought to that exigent of povertie in these late times that they must be sellers and not buyers of land.’

The Farrells fought in the wars of the 1640s, forming an important regiment in the army of Owen Roe O’Neill. They were led by one of the major figures of the conflict, Richard Farrell, who had fought abroad in Spanish service and followed Owen Roe back to Ireland. His brother, Lisagh, who became his second-in-command, kept links open with the Old English of Leinster, while some of the Farrells joined the royalist army of Ormonde.
Richard Farrell and his regiment fought at Benburb and at other major battles of the 1640s. They were sent by O’Neill to the relief of Ormonde after the royalist forces were defeated at Rathmines in 1649 by the Cromwellian army under Michael Jones. Richard also brought his kinsmen with him when he was put in charge of the defence of Waterford. By clever tactics he managed to repulse Cromwell, who gave up on his siege of the town at the end of 1649.

Owen Roe O'Neill-Richard Farrell fought under him in Spanish service and followed him back to Ireland in the 1640s.

Owen Roe O’Neill-Richard Farrell fought under him in Spanish service and followed him back to Ireland in the 1640s.

Following the defence of Waterford, Richard went back to Ulster, where he served under Bishop Heber McMahon at the battle of Scarriffholis. After this last major defeat for the Irish forces Richard took command and ultimately signed terms to end the war in 1653 on behalf of all the surviving remnants of the Ulster army. The 5,000 troops at his command were permitted to leave Ireland to fight in Continental armies not at war with England. However, Richard was forced to stay behind to stand trial for the murder of a man called Capt. John Pigot, who had been killed in a massacre by troops under his command in 1646. He was acquitted and then followed his men to Spain, which at that stage was in alliance with Cromwellian England.

The fortress of St Ghislain

The Farrells did not stay long in Spain but were sent into Aquitaine to participate in the civil wars of the Fronde, which broke out in 1651 with a revolt against the authority of Mazarin, the effective ruler of France during the minority of Louis XIV. The complex war saw shifting alliances involving the dukes of Condé and Turenne, by turn siding with and then against Mazarin and the young king. Richard Farrell didn’t stay with the regiment, initially remaining in Spain and later moving to Vienna. His brother Lisagh, who took over command, led his men to Flanders, where the civil war merged with the intermittent warfare between the French and Spanish. The Farrells ended up taking part in the siege of St Ghislain, about 50 miles south of Brussels.
There the regiment was joined by other members of the sept who had already fled to France at an earlier stage. One of them was Captain Charles Farrell, on whose petitions to the king in the following decade much of this account is based. He left Ireland on 28 April 1641, before the outbreak of war, to join the king’s army in England as a junior officer, and he fought in some of the great battles of the civil war in England. In one petition to King Charles II more than twenty years later he outlined his career:

‘Petitioner served King Charles I in several capacities in the wars of England since the first breaking out thereof, ’till he was wounded and taken prisoner in relieving Colchester and banished by the malignant party. After a long peregrination in foreign parts (on first notice of your majesty’s arrival in France) petitioner came there, raised a company of his own relations and served your majesty at St Ghislain and elsewhere, as the earl of Bristol can testify, until the Restoration.’
Another soldier who made his way to St Ghislain was Charles de Baz de Castlemore, otherwise known as D’Artagnan, the daring Gascon who was the model for Dumas’s swashbuckling character in The Three Musketeers. D’Artagnan took part in the capture of St Ghislain in August 1655. After the siege Mazarin and the seventeen-year-old Louis XIV came to the town to examine the prize. The garrison at St Ghislain immediately became a thorn in the side of the Spanish and proved an effective buffer against Spanish attempts to mount a counter-attack to recapture southern Flanders. According to Carte in his life of Ormonde, the garrison ‘infested all the country thereabouts and caused such clamors against the court that the Spaniards could not open the campaign but by the reduction of that place’.
In the following year, however, there was a major change in the balance of forces in Europe. Mazarin was now back in total control and he decided to normalise relations with Cromwellian England as part of his grand design to outflank the Spanish and the Austrians and make France the dominant Continental power. As part of the deal Charles II and his retinue were expelled from France, so the exiled king turned to the Spanish for assistance. In August 1656 the Spanish signed a treaty of alliance with Charles, but it hinged on his being able to deliver something in return. One of the main provisions of the secret treaty between Charles II and Philip IV of Spain, signed at the camp of Condé, was that Charles agreed to give ‘information to the Irish who are serving in France before he leaves and ordering that as soon as the king of England shall instruct them those who are conveniently placed shall come into these states and those elsewhere shall cross over to the armies of his Catholic majesty in Italy and Catalonia. At the same time the king of England shall with prudence order the Irish officers who are in St Guillian [St Ghislain] to surrender and hand over the fortress to his Catholic Majesty.’

At probably the lowest ebb of his entire exile Charles had nobody to fall back on except the Irish, and they had nobody in whom to place their future hopes except him. One authority summed up the position by saying that Spain ‘cared very little about the English king, save in so far as he was useful to herself in harassing Cromwell at home and drawing Irish regiments from France’.

The duke of Schomberg-the French commander of the St Ghislain garrison was to lose his life over thirty years later at the Battle of the Boyne, fighting for William of Orange against forces allied with his old master, Louis XIV. (Tenth Duke of Leeds's Will Trust)

The duke of Schomberg-the French commander of the St Ghislain garrison was to lose his life over thirty years later at the Battle of the Boyne, fighting for William of Orange against forces allied with his old master, Louis XIV. (Tenth Duke of Leeds’s Will Trust)

A key element of that plan was to get the Irish at St Ghislain to change sides. Mazarin became aware of the threat but was complacent about it. The commander of the garrison was the duke of Schomberg, one of the great commanders of the seventeenth century, who was to play a role in Irish affairs thirty years later. He took the precaution of arresting some of the Irish leaders but he left it too late. When a Spanish force led by the governor of Flanders, Don Juan of Austria, arrived outside the walls, the common soldiers at St Ghislain took action on their own and opened the gates to the Spaniards. Schomberg held out for a while in the fortress but was forced to surrender the town to Don Juan. More than 30 years later, after a glittering career during which he amassed enormous wealth, Schomberg had another unfortunate brush with the Irish when he was killed at the Battle of the Boyne. He is buried under the altar in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where Dean Swift later erected a plaque to his memory.
One of the chroniclers of the events at St Ghislain was another Farrell, a Capuchin priest called Barnabas O’Ferrall, who took the religious name Fr Richard. He was the main author of Commentarius Rinuccinianus, a detailed account of the 1640s and 1650s which he began writing in Florence in 1661. The capture of St Ghislain was an important event for the Spanish and it demonstrated that Charles still had some power. The Spanish were grateful, both to the Irish and to the English king. A few years later, in 1661, Philip IV wrote to his governor in Brussels to say that representations had been made to him by Louis and Conel (Lisagh and Connell) O’Farrell,

‘Irishmen that although they have been given several warrants on the states of Hainault in satisfaction of the three years deficit of the awards I made to them, namely to the first named a grant of 3,000 florins and to the second a yearly grant of 2,000 florins, in reward for special services rendered at the recovery of St Julien [Saint Ghislain], nevertheless they received nothing . . . I command you to see that the favour is carried out in the manner I have ordered, on account of the bad precedent which would be established in the case of others who would be discouraged from rendering similar service.’

Philip’s order indicates that Lisagh and his cousin Connell Farrell, the commander and second-in-command of the Irish soldiers, mainly Farrells from Longford, at St Ghislain, played the decisive role in handing over the fortress to the Spanish. Connell was also knighted by Charles as a token of gratitude. In the immediate aftermath of the handover the town was put under the command of the earl of Bristol, secretary to Charles II and close friend of the king and queen. The Farrells formed a regiment under the command of Bristol, who remained in charge for just over a year before the command passed to Lisagh Farrell.
At this stage Charles banded the various soldiers who owed him allegiance into a formal army. The modern British army traces its origins back to this band of exiles, mainly Irish Catholics, who supported Charles in Spanish Flanders. This small army contained six regiments, three of them composed of Irish soldiers. Each regiment was made up of 1000 men, consisting of sixteen companies. Half the men were armed with pikes and the other half with arquebuses and pikes in equal numbers. Charles’s little army saw action in one major battle when, in a joint operation with the Spanish, it fought a combined French and English army near Dunkirk. The ‘battle of the dunes’ was effectively the last battle of the English civil war and it was another disaster for the king. The Franco-English troops were better armed, better led and more disciplined, and the battle turned into a rout of the Spanish-Irish forces.
Not long after the battle the fortunes of Charles II changed dramatically. Cromwell died in 1658 and when there was no agreement on his successor Charles was invited to return to England and take the throne. His Irish followers naturally believed that they would also be restored to their inheritance, and Charles did his best to look after them. The leaders of the Farrell clan, who had fought for him in Spanish Flanders, were granted ‘decrees of innocency’ by the king. Lisagh and Connell Farrell headed the list. In a letter to the lord justices of Ireland the king said of Sir Connell: ‘He served the royal cause well in foreign parts and we are resolved to take care of him’. He sent similar letters to Ireland about other leaders of the Farrell clan. However, Charles was constrained by the political situation and was afraid to alter the Cromwellian land settlement in Ireland to any great extent for fear of provoking a Protestant uprising.

The battle for Tangier

The attempt of the Farrells to recover their lands was complicated when they were ordered off to Africa just as the process was beginning. Charles II had married Catherine of Braganza, a daughter of the king of Portugal, and as her dowry she brought him the port of Tangier on the North African coast which had been a Portuguese possession for 150 years. Charles urgently needed to garrison the town because it was surrounded by hostile Moors who saw the change in ownership as an opportunity to take it over.
An expedition was dispatched to Tangier by the king and he ordered the Farrell regiment to take part in it. Most of the ordinary soldiers of the regiment were billeted at Dunkirk, where they were living in very poor conditions. They were transported back to England and were joined there by the officers who returned from Ireland, where they had been trying to re-establish title to their lands.

When, in 1661, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (above), daughter of the king of Portugal, she brought as her dowry the North African port of Tangier, which had been a Portuguese possession for the previous 150 years. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

When, in 1661, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (above), daughter of the king of Portugal, she brought as her dowry the North African port of Tangier, which had been a Portuguese possession for the previous 150 years. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The expedition departed from the Downs on 15 January 1662 in 27 ships. Half the soldiers sent to Tangier were Irish, and the Farrell regiment, even though its numbers had fallen drastically to just 381 men, formed a significant portion of the Irish contingent. The expedition had unusually fine weather and made excellent progress, landing at Tangier on 29 January. The Farrell regiment was commanded by Lisagh, and most of the senior officers who served with him in Spanish Flanders appear to have gone to Tangier.
On arrival they found the town under attack from the local Moorish forces under the leadership of Abd Allah Ghailan, or ‘Gayland’ to Irish and British soldiers. The Portuguese garrison withdrew as soon as the expedition arrived, leaving very little behind. As the garrison settled down and began to build new defences they were frequently attacked by Moorish forces. There was fierce fighting from time to time, interspersed with truces for specified periods. The garrison was not a very big one, with 1,444 foot soldiers providing the bulk of the defending force. While the Moors were not disciplined fighters, they were very brave and made life in the town very difficult. Gayland’s forces occupied the heights above the town, so they always knew what was going on in the garrison. At times they were so close that they could make it difficult for the garrison to carry out such simple and necessary tasks as the cultivation of the land inside the wall to grow fresh vegetables.


The usual Moorish tactic was for the cavalry to charge, with the infantry following up to exploit any openings created. Lances and pikes were their main weapons, although they also had some muskets. The garrison, although much smaller than the Moorish army, was much better organised and disciplined. The Farrells formed an experienced infantry regiment, but the performance of the garrison was poor. The Portuguese had always been able to beat the Moors, but the garrison made heavy weather of it. They suffered from acute homesickness, which was probably worst among the Irish troops because most of them had been away from home for so long at this stage. The officers were also preoccupied about being away from Ireland at a time when their best opportunity for recovering their property was at hand.
In the early summer of 1663 the Moors pressed heavily against the town. In May they exploited the rugged surrounding terrain, containing innumerable hollows and hillocks covered with a thick scrubby vegetation and an abundance of ferns and bracken. In the first serious engagement on 3 May, 500 men of the garrison were sent out to drive off a party of Moors from just outside the town. The Moors retreated but sucked their opponents into an ambush. Only a third of the force managed to regain the safety of the town. Over the following two months the garrison tried to build fortifications to include some of the surrounding hills in the town’s defences. There was a series of engagements in June and July and ultimately the Moors were beaten off, but only after heavy losses. The Farrells were involved in a lot of this fighting. According to a petition sent to the king on their return to Ireland, ‘they did war and were engaged in the fight against the Moors on 24th of June following, in which service the petitioners Charles and Roger [Farrell] were sore wounded’.
Charles and Roger recovered from their wounds over the next two months and then, with their other brother Francis, they left Tangier at the end of August and finally made their way back to Ireland. It appears as if the Longford regiment was relieved at this stage because the commander, Lisagh Farrell, came home at around the same time, as did his second-in-command, Sir Connell Farrell.

The ruins of the tower-house at Castlerea, abandoned by the south Longford branch of the Farrells in the 1640s. (Loretto Cooney)

The ruins of the tower-house at Castlerea, abandoned by the south Longford branch of the Farrells in the 1640s. (Loretto Cooney)

The regiment had only been paid up to the end of May, and when they returned home the priority of the leaders was to get their land back. The leading Farrells had some success on that front after a long struggle, but most of their followers were not so lucky, ending up as tenant farmers rather than owners.
Yet a surprisingly large number of them did return home after their long peregrination abroad. Their petitions to the king collected in the Calendar of State Papers for Ireland, which provided the basis for this account, also testify to their intense desire to return to Longford after their long exile. In his survey of Longford in 1682 Dowdall wrote of the Farrells:

‘Yet they have never dispersed as other septs in Ireland did but continue still in this country and I suppose are the most entire and numerous of all the Irish septs this day.’

Stephen Collins is political editor of the Sunday Tribune.

Further reading:
Calendar of State Papers, Ireland, 1640 to 1669 (London, 1908).
J. Childs, The army of Charles II (London, 1977).
R. Gillespie and G. Moran (eds), Longford: essays in county history (Dublin, 1991).
B. Jennings, Irish Wild Geese in Spanish Flanders (Dublin, 1964).


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