The Battle of Kinsale, 1601

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2001), Volume 9

Kinsale, situated in a hollow and with poor walls, was the worst choice to withstand a siege. (Reproduced by permission of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin)

Kinsale, situated in a hollow and with poor walls, was the worst choice to withstand a siege. (Reproduced by permission of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin)

On 21 September 1601 a Spanish fleet of twenty-eight sail occupied the Irish port at Kinsale with about 3,300 men, disembarking in a badly victualled and furnished condition under the maestro de campo general, Don Juan del Águila. The nightmare spectre that had haunted the Elizabethan state ever since 1585 had come to pass. Earlier in the year the English Privy Council imagined that the chances of a Spanish intervention were slight but by June intelligence confirmed that between 4,000 and 5,000 men had mustered at Lisbon (Portugal was then under Spanish control) and were intended for Ireland. In the event four other vessels commanded by Pedro de Zubiaur carrying under a thousand soldiers were driven back to Spain by storms. There had been much uncertainty as to the specific destination of the fleet from Lisbon—England, the Netherlands or Ireland? When Philip III and his council had decided on Ireland, the destined port there was also in dispute—Killybegs, Galway and Limerick were all likely destinations. Kinsale was never mentioned for, of all the Munster ports, it was the worst choice to withstand a siege, situated as it was in a hollow and with poor walls. It was only the stress of the weather that drove the Spaniards into Kinsale which had merely a token garrison and which fled leaving the Spaniards unopposed entry. However they did not get the expected support from James Fitzmaurice, the sugán [‘straw’] earl, and Florence MacCarthy; they had earlier been arrested by Sir George Carew who had his army quartered in Cork.

O’Neill’s recommendations

Hugh O’Neill’s victory over the English at the Yellow Ford on 14 August 1598 confirmed his leadership of the war. He advised that if Spanish forces were in excess of 6,000 then Munster should be the landing province as it would immediately provoke a rising; any smaller army should sail northwards and land in either Limerick or Galway where both O’Neill and O’Donnell, with their principal Irish allies, could assist them with corresponding forces. In an age of sail the question of the winds was clearly paramount to commanders. The prevailing wind of the south and west coasts of Ireland is south-westerly, which points to Galway Bay as the best landing-place. A passage there could be effected from Spain in two weeks and be well out of the range of English patrol ships. Apparently, del Águila lacked confidence in a Munster rising and wanted to go northwards, provoking a bitter disagreement among his commanders. In the event, stormy weather decided the issue at the very last minute.                     O’Neill was reluctant to leave Ulster unprotected, hence his hesitation in marching south, particularly since Munster had been subdued by the ferocious and recent campaigns of Sir George Carew. Furthermore, the hope that the Old English would rally to O’Neill’s cause as a religious crusade against heretics, thus turning the Nine Years War into a war of religion in defence of Catholicism, had not materialised; they were suspicious of O’Neill’s motives and attached to the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth. Indeed many of their clergy preached vociferously against supporting an alien invader. Nor did the papacy under Clement VIII put its weight behind the Spanish invasion; the pope would not make it a matter of conscience for the Munster lords and townspeople to give their support to O’Neill despite the insistent efforts of Peter Lombard, the papal nominee to Armagh, O’Neill’s agent in Rome, and the ever active Franciscan Mateo Oviedo, his main protagonist at the Spanish court. Nor was the papacy likely to risk alienating France by recognising a Habsburg prince as a future ruler of Ireland. The most O’Neill gained from the pope was a crusading indulgence entitling him ‘Captain General of the Catholic Army in Ireland’.

A winter siege

Lord deputy Mountjoy’s response was rapid and decisive; he arrived in Cork on 27 September with a small force leaving his main army to follow. He locked up the Spaniards in Kinsale, seized the forts around the harbour and sealed off the haven. But in doing so he weakened his forces in the north and left the Pale unprotected. O’Neill would have preferred to let Mountjoy and Carew exhaust their forces and supplies in a long winter siege in a barren hinterland. Nevertheless, O’Neill and his chief ally O’Donnell—‘the two vipers of the kingdom’ (Mountjoy)—reluctantly marched south. Given the weak position of the Spanish force in Kinsale, del Águila could not take the initiative for he was trapped in the furthermost remove in Ireland from his Irish allies. He petitioned the Spanish government for immediate reinforcements of ships, men, cavalry, victuals, munitions and money. He needed warships, as did Mountjoy, for the siege campaign was also an amphibious one—an under-estimated and neglected aspect of that winter’s hostilities at Kinsale. Recall too that the Ulster leaders were hampered by Docwra’s landings and garrisons established along the Foyle—‘a great hook in the nostrils of Tyrone’. At the same time O’Neill’s confederates and some erstwhile allies in Leinster and Munster were losing their ardour for the fight.

Hugh O'Neill-within three weeks of hearing of the Kinsale landfall he decided reluctantly to march south. (Lord Dunsany)

Hugh O’Neill-within three weeks of hearing of the Kinsale landfall he decided reluctantly to march south. (Lord Dunsany)

Clearly O’Neill would have preferred to have stayed on the defensive in the north, pressurising border lords who had submitted and attacking the northern Pale to tempt Mountjoy away from Kinsale. Despite O’Neill’s attentions, and the screams from Dublin and Pale gentry to get him to protect them, Mountjoy was not to be distracted from his main objective of ridding Ireland of the Spaniards.

The march south

By summoning his levies from Tyrconnell and Connaught to rendezvous at Ballymote, County Sligo, Hugh O’Donnell forced the issue and put his ally O’Neill in a dilemma; his newly won border allies feared to leave their own lands open to attack from English garrisons which, though weakened to supplement Mountjoy’s forces at Kinsale, were about to be augmented from England and Wales; indeed it was thought that in her extremity Elizabeth would take up the offer of an army of Scots from King James VI to descend on Ulster. These factors and the risks of a winter march through hostile territory account for O’Neill’s cautious hesitation. Surely in a walled town the Spaniards could hold out against superior numbers, especially as the severe winter weather would go harder on the beseigers than on del Águila’s men. Yet, within three weeks of first hearing of the Kinsale landfall, O’Neill decided to march south. O’Donnell began his celebrated and swift march 23 October 1601; O’Neill set out a week later. On 7 November Carew attempted to intercept O’Donnell but by a forced march of about forty English miles, O’Donnell eluded him through a conveniently frozen defile in the Slievephelim mountains in Tipperary. He refreshed and regrouped in Connelloe, County Limerick, before proceeding to Bandonbridge where he rendezvoused with O’Neill on 15 December. Fortuitously, Spanish reinforcements under Zubiaur had already arrived at Castlehaven on 1 December.

(G.A. Hayes-McCoy, Irish Battles [Dublin 1970])

(G.A. Hayes-McCoy, Irish Battles [Dublin 1970])

The Irish encampment was to the west of Inishannon along the north bank of the Bandon River in the barony of Kinalmeaky. Their muster was formidable: O’Neill with over 4,000 horse and foot and O’Donnell with 4,000 foot and 3,000 cavalry and the celebrated Captain Richard Tyrrell of Brenockton, County Westmeath, with his muster of about 600 veterans. Their presence cut Mountjoy’s land approach to Cork and forced him, temporarily, to abandon his bombardment of Kinsale. Mountjoy’s best shot was to oust and defeat del Áquila before O’Neill could give support. He had been launching assaults since late October and his original force of c. 7,000 was being wasted by cold, sickness, and desertion. Both horses and men were ill-fed in what turned out to be a ten-week siege. Although they had been strengthened by English and Welsh levies, the two camps commanded by Mountjoy and the Earl of Thomond were virtually cut off between the Spaniards and the Irish. O’Neill now abandoned his customary caution and agreed with O’Donnell to a co-ordinated attack on both English camps to allow the Spaniards to sally forth, thus committing to a formal battle. He also gambled on wholesale desertion of Irishmen fighting under Mountjoy. Mountjoy for his part calculated that in any set piece battle his cavalry would hold the field and draw the enemy on to the open ground, even though he could detach no more than 2,000 infantry from the siege to oppose the Irish.

The battle

Fighting began at dawn on Christmas Eve 1601, according to the old Julian calendar, or 3 January 1602 according to the new Gregorian one. Tyrrell’s vanguard was to position itself near the Earl of Thomond’s camp and on a pre-determined signal (a musket shot) del Áquila’s men were to sally forth to meet them in the attack.

(Thomas Stafford, Pacta Hibernia, 1633)

(Thomas Stafford, Pacta Hibernia, 1633)

Simultaneously the main Irish force and the rearguard were to fall upon Mountjoy’s men in the second English camp. Although the three ‘battle’ or tercio formation was complex, O’Neill’s men were not without training in formal warfare in musket, pike and cavalry formations. That the Irish plan of attack had been betrayed to Sir George Carew for a bottle of whiskey by Brian McHugh Oge MacMahon is now proven to have been a classical lie of drink and treachery by that most assiduous and authoritative scholar of the Spanish intervention in Ireland, J.J. Silke. Like many a good story, it is not true. What is true was the lack of unity on tactics between O’Neill and O’Donnell; the latter favoured immediate attack while O’Neill wanted to harry Mountjoy’s men and to subject them to famine and exposure.

Sir George Carew-the allegation that the Irish plan of attack was betrayed to him for a bottle of whiskey has proven to be false.

Sir George Carew-the allegation that the Irish plan of attack was betrayed to him for a bottle of whiskey has proven to be false.

Lord Deputy Mountjoy-his response to the Spanish landing was rapid and decisive. (British Museum)

Lord Deputy Mountjoy-his response to the Spanish landing was rapid and decisive. (British Museum)

In sixteenth-century military formations an army moved into battle with the cavalry in the lead, then the infantry in order: van, battle and rear. According to the Four Masters the rivalry between the leaders meant they went into battle jostling shoulder to shoulder instead of in order.
At dawn O’Neill came into full view of the English scouts but Tyrrell was not in a position for del Áquila to sally out of the town, hence he stayed put. Mountjoy, alerted to the enemy’s proximity, ordered his men to arm and stand-to and Carew’s to stay in camp to guard against an attack from del Áquila. He sent the horse forward with Wingfield supported by two regiments of foot under Sir Henry Folliott and Sir Oliver St John and to join up with those of Sir Henry Power. A total force of c. 2,000 foot and c. 500 horse were commanded onto open ground where they could take advantage of flanking fire from the Earl of Thomond’s camp. O’Neill would have to give battle on ground of Mountjoy’s choosing. Since the Spaniards in Kinsale did not sally out, O’Neill ordered his men across a ford in a tactical withdrawal over marshy ground. The English cavalry under Danvers followed him up as far as Millwater. Mountjoy also decided to pursue spotting that both the cavalry and his own forces would avoid an Irish ambush in the ‘fair champion’ ground ahead. O’Neill then embattled his army with Tyrrell in the centre, his own regiments on the right and O’Donnell’s coming up with the rear to form the left wing. Wingfield and Clanrickard commanding the horse saw the chance of creating confusion in the Irish ranks and with a signal from Mountjoy attempted a charge.
Sharp musketry engagements followed which were heard in Kinsale but del Áquila, imagining an English ruse to draw him out, refused all pleadings to lead out his men. Then the English infantry suffered a set-back and their cavalry captains—Clanrickard, Danvers, Graeme, Taffe and Fleming—found themselves directly confronting O’Neill’s own division in stout opposition to their charge, so they wheeled off to their flank to the exultation of the Irish; then Mountjoy’s and Carew’s horse joined them with two remaining regiments of infantry. In a further English charge the Irish cavalry ranks broke and fell in upon their own infantry. Wingfield’s cavalry took the Irish foot in the rear while his infantry made a frontal attack. The Irish horse fled and being led by their chiefs this greatly discouraged the footmen who after a sharp fight on the open ground also broke up in disorder and fled the field followed by the English cavalry who butchered them without mercy for a mile and a half as they raced from the battlefield.
Tyrrell’s men in the centre tried to get support to O’Neill’s but after a brief resistance had to retreat to a hill-top. The Spaniards under Alonzo de Ocampo stood up to Mountjoy’s troop of horse. Many were killed but forty-nine eventually surrendered and about sixty escaped to Castlehaven. O’Donnell’s men were too far off to give support; and, in any case the sight of the other two battalions in a rout demoralised them and they too fled ignoring Red Hugh’s commands to turn and fight. O’Donnell’s men had been lightly engaged but O’Neill’s troops had suffered  most in the actual combat. Fynes Moryson, Mountjoy’s secretary, reckoned that ‘the Irish rebels left 1,200 bodies dead in the field apart from those killed in the two mile chase’; in addition about 140 drowned crossing the Blackwater, another 200 were lost in the river Moy and at Owen Abbey and many of the wounded were dispatched. The Spanish truly described the battle of Kinsale as una derrota, a rout. It was all over within two hours—less time than it takes to read the twenty-seven contemporary accounts of the battle. Kinsale was an English victory, albeit an inglorious one, and Mountjoy was master of the field in Ireland, winning where so many had failed during the Tudor conquest.


Sixteenth-century casualty figures, like muster lists, are notoriously inaccurate and those reported at Kinsale are no exception. The single English casualty, one John Taylor mentioned in at least three dispatches, is surely a grotesque misrepresentation if we recall the series of assaults on the town over a ten-week period and the actual fighting on Christmas Eve. Carew’s report to Cecil may well be nearer the truth:

Kinsale was bought at so dear a price…I do verily believe that at that siege and after (the sickness were gotten) we lost above 6,000 men that died.

The Annals of the Four Masters state that Irish losses were not great; English accounts claim 1,200 Irish dead and about 800 wounded. O’Sullivan Beare wrote that the English had about 15,000 men at the beginning of the siege but that 8,000 perished by sword, hunger, cold and disease and in the final battle O’Sullivan claimed that O’Neill lost only 200 foot.

The Battle of Kinsale, 1601 7

Fynes Moryson, a master of understatement, seemed to be more concerned about the number of horses killed than of soldiers. He is also mischievous in his description of the English looting of the Spanish dead: ‘among the dead many were found to have spells, characters and holy medals… but most of them when stripped were seen to have scars of Venus warfare’.

English amphibious operations

The logistics of recruiting, mobilising, transporting, and victualling armies overseas presented enormous difficulties in an age of sail, even from the ports of Chester, Bristol and those of southern England—a fortiori for those from Lisbon and Coruña. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid by historians to the crucial role of the English navy in the victory at Kinsale.
When the Spaniards landed there were only two English ships, Tremontana and Moon on the Irish station to give assistance to Mountjoy and Carew until a fleet came from England. At the end of October cannon were sent by Mountjoy to bombard Ringcurran fort, a vital part of the harbour defences for del Áquila. The guns of Captain Button’s Moon hastened its surrender as well as the one at Castle Park guarding the harbour entrance. Further naval support was slow to arrive; it was not until 20 October that orders were given Admiral Richard Leveson to sail and it was to take a further week before he got under way with 2,000 troops in six warships (Warsprite, Garland, Defiance, Swiftsure, Crane and Non-Pareil), one galley (Merlin) and six requisitioned merchantmen. Delayed by adverse winds, these did not arrive until 12 November. Mountjoy was not very impressed by what he saw, protesting that only one in ten of the troops could shoot a gun.
Meanwhile Zubiaur, the Spanish vice-admiral, had returned from Spain with six small ships, landing at Castlehaven on 2 December. Leveson then left his vice-admiral Preston with Garland to guard Kinsale harbour and took the rest of the fleet heavily armed to Castlehaven. But Zubiaur was ready for them with an eight-gun battery at the mouth of the harbour. However at dawn on 6 December Captain Fleming commanding Merlin rowed through Spanish fire to make a channel for the 518-ton Warspite to follow. A heavy pounding from the Spanish shore batteries ensued which Leveson said ‘much annoyed’ him, killing twelve of his gunners and wounding forty, yet he managed to sink a Spanish flagship and three other vessels neutralising Zubiaur’s naval potential and, though the English ships were badly mauled, they managed to get back to their station at Kinsale. After Mountjoy’s victory of Christmas Eve, Leveson was ordered back to England to refit whilst Preston stayed at Kinsale with Swiftsure, Tremontana, Moon and Merlin. Zubiaur took ship for Spain on 27 December accompanied by Red Hugh O’Donnell to appeal in person to King Philip III to secure the assistance Ireland needed but del Áquila surrendered Kinsale to Mountjoy on 2 January 1603. While the land forces were largely responsible for the defeat of the Irish and Spaniards the navy rendered essential services to the English victory. Some strategists argue that without Leveson’s ships Kinsale would almost certainly have been an Irish-Spanish victory which would have altered the whole course of European history—Ireland, and even England itself, might have become provinces of the Spanish empire.

Unanswered questions

The judgements of history and of historians on Kinsale continue to excite controversy. Did it effectively mark the end of the Gaelic order in Ireland? Was the Spanish effort half-hearted in that it was too little and too late? Did the pressure of the Spanish commander and indeed that of his own advisers force O’Neill into an unequal and inevitably fatal struggle? Was not Don Juan del Áquila a cowardly and incompetent commander? In his defence in the subsequent inquiry in Spain he put forward three causes for the Spanish failure in Ireland. It was possible, he contended, to take any port in Ireland but not possible to defend it with an under-manned expeditionary force such as he had at Kinsale. Secondly, Zubiaur would not obey orders to join O’Neill—in the event he only sent part of his force under Ocampo. Finally, when Admiral Brochero returned with the transport ships from Kinsale he had time to go directly to Coruña and come back with reinforcements to del Áquila. It is the opinion of J.J. Silke that he could have added a fourth cause—Spain’s failure to take Zubiaur’s advice to keep Brochero’s ships at Kinsale throughout the winter.

The siege of Dunboy-Kinsale did not mark the end of resistance in Munster; the O'Sullivan's heroic defence of Dunboy lasted until June 1602. (Thomas Stafford, Pacta Hibernia, 1633)

The siege of Dunboy-Kinsale did not mark the end of resistance in Munster; the O’Sullivan’s heroic defence of Dunboy lasted until June 1602. (Thomas Stafford, Pacta Hibernia, 1633)

If blame is to be apportioned other historians point to the divisions and quarrels among the Spaniards—between Áquila as land commander, Brochero as commander at sea and Moura, viceroy of Portugal, who felt that all the preparations at Lisbon were his charge and became embittered when his responsibility had been usurped. The scaling down and gradual withdrawal of Spanish involvement to Ireland is in itself a long story and intimately connected with the overall European politics of Spain, which on Elizabeth’s death entered on a peace-making phase with her successor James I/VI. On the Irish side historians point to the rivalry between O’Neill and O’Donnell: their lack of correspondency on the field, the impetuosity of O’Donnell against the cautious approach of the older O’Neill and his delay in getting down to Kinsale. And why was there not more support for the O’Sullivan in the heroic defence and siege of Dunboy which went on into June 1602 long after the rest of Munster had capitulated? That resistance, and indeed O’Neill’s own continued resistance in the north for the next fifteen months, post-Kinsale, are also worthy of commemoration in this quartercentenary year.

John McGurk is a retired history lecturer from Liverpool Hope University and the Institute of Irish Studies, Liverpool.

Further reading:

J.J. Silke, Kinsale (Liverpool 1970, Dublin 2000).

P. Allen, Philip III and the Pax Hispanica, 1598-1621 (Yale 2000).

J. McGurk, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland (Manchester 1997).

W.T. MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I: War and Politics 1588-1603 (Princeton 1992).


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