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Siege of Kinsale
Part of the Nine Years' War
Kinsale's port today.
Date 2 October 1601 – 3 January 1602
Location Kinsale, County Cork
Result Decisive English victory
England English Army O'Neill Clan.png Irish alliance
Flag of New Spain.svg Spain
Lord Mountjoy Hugh Ó Neill
Hugh Roe Ó Donnell
Juan del Águila
6,800 infantry
600 cavalry
6,000 Irish
4,000 Spanish
Casualties and losses
200-400 ~1,200 Irish dead or wounded
~90 Spanish dead or wounded[citation needed]

The Siege or Battle of Kinsale (Irish: Léigear/Cath Chionn tSáile) was the ultimate battle in England's conquest of Gaelic Ireland. It took place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, at the climax of the Nine Years War - a campaign by Hugh Ó Neill, Hugh Roe Ó Donnell and other Irish clan leaders against English rule. Owing to Spanish involvement, and the strategic advantages to be gained, the battle also formed part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585 -1604), the wider conflict of Protestant England against Catholic Spain.


Background - The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland

Ireland had been a lordship under the authority of the English Crown since the twelfth century; but by the 1500s, the area under government control had shrunk to the Pale, the area around Dublin. The rest of the country was controlled by the mini-lordships of clan and feudal leaders. King Henry VIII tried to reintegrate the territory of the country by recognising the titles of the Irish nobility and giving them legal charter to their lands in return for submission to the Crown. He also created the Kingdom of Ireland in 1541, with himself as monarch. But whenever English officials tried to control the actions of Irish lords, they were invariably met with resistance. The English spent the next 50 years trying to exert their control over the Irish population, often by exceptionally brutal means. The first major conflict this caused was the Desmond Rebellions between 1569 and 1583. In the 1590s they experienced the most significant resistance, from forces in Ulster under Hugh O'Neill and Hugh Roe O'Donnell. This war is known as the Nine Years War. After some initial successes, the rebels were pinned down defending their own territory in Ulster. Since 1591, the Irish rebels had been seeking help from Spain, and in 1601, in spite of bad weather a Spanish landing finally materialised.

Spanish landing

Following the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the dispersal by storms of two more during the last years of Philip II, Phillip III decided to provide direct support (material support had been sent for years) to the Irish rebels fighting England. Spanish aid was offered to the Irish rebels in the expectation that tying the English down in that country might draw even more of their resources away from their allies in the Netherlands, the Dutch Estates - which were engaged in a long rebellion against Spanish rule - and provide another base for privateers, such as the Dunkirkers, to disrupt English and Dutch shipping.

Phillip sent Don Juan del Águila and Don Diego Brochero to Ireland with 6,000 men, and a significant amount of arms and ammunition. Bad weather separated the ships and nine of them, carrying the majority of veteran soldiers and gunpowder, had to turn back. The remaining 4000 men disembarked at Kinsale, just south of Cork on October 2, 1601. Another force commanded by Alonso de Ocampo managed to land at Baltimore. The Spaniards rushed to fortify the precarious fortifications to withstand the approaching English armies.

On hearing of the Spanish landing, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, the assigned Lord Deputy of Ireland, weakened the garrisons around the Pale and rushed to Kinsale with as many men as he could take, where he laid siege to the town. Reinforcements were brought in through Oysterhaven, the army's complement up to 12,000, but many of these fell ill, and only about 7,500 were capable of fighting.

At the same time, Hugh O'Neill and his ally O'Donnell considered their positions, before setting out - separately from each other - with a total of 5,000 infantry and 700 cavalry, on a 300 mile winter march. The combined armies of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Tyrrell came to 6,180. This included 500 of O’Sullivan Beare’s men, and 200 of Ocampo’s Spaniards.

The Siege

Lord Mountjoy's forces were incapable of surrounding the town of Kinsale and its surrounding area's (Now called Belgooley)but they did seize some higher ground and subjected the Spanish forces to constant artillery fire. The English cavalry rode through the surrounding countryside destroying livestock and crops, while both sides called for allegiance from the population. O'Neill and O'Donnell were hesitant about leaving Ulster open to attack by marching south, especially given the lack of supplies for their troops. When they did set out they successfully cut English supply lines across the island and, by December, the shortage of supplies and the severe weather had begun to take a toll on the besieging army, with many dying of dysentery and the ague.

Reinforcements arrived from Spain, and on December 24, 1601 British date: (January 3, 1602 for the Catholic Irish and Spanish armies) moved in to position. In three columns - led by Richard Tyrell, Hugh O'Neill, and O'Donnell - they marched toward a night attack, but owing to a lack of coordination and possible arguments between the commanders, they had failed to reach their destination by dawn. The English scouts were aware of the troop movements and, after leaving a number of regiments behind to guard the camp and cover Kinsale, Mountjoy led his forces to meet the enemy at a ridge northwest of the town.

O'Neill controlled the ridge, and intended to fight for it, with support from Aguila, O'Donnell, and Tyrell on multiple sides. De Aguilla, the Spanish commander, was an experienced soldier and put up a fierce defense. His instructions were, however, to hold the town until the Irish army came down from Ulster to combine with them. When neither of his allies showed signs of movement, O'Neill ordered a retreat into the marshes, hoping to mire the English cavalry in the soft land. In the end, the Irish were overpowered by the English cavalry, who charged through O'Neill's men, and prevented a flanking maneuver by O'Donnell.

The tactics showed that the Irish Foot were poorly trained for open field fighting and the formation of the hollow square. It also showed up the English cavalry techniques using the lance, as compared with the Irish method of no stirrup and overhead spear throwing.

The Irish army left the field in some disorder while the supporting Spanish army led by Ocampo tried to hold the charge and the ensuing massacre. Most fled back to Ulster, though a few remained to continue the war with O’Sullivan Beare. The Spanish, who lost many men in the siege, gave up the town to Mountjoy, "on Terms" and were allowed to sail back to Spain, not knowing that only a few days ahead another Spanish force was sent. Outnumbered, deprived from any enforcements and provisions and under constant English bombardment the Spaniards had bravely and successfully defended the town of Kinsale against all comers for more than 3 months.


The English resumed their encirclement of the town of Kinsale, and Del Águila after a number of days, sued for peace terms which Mountjoy accepted. Del Águila realistically saw that his position was hopeless without the Irish lords effective action. This loss put an end to Spanish help in Ireland and to much of the Irish resistance. The Ulster forces returned to their home province, and after two more years of attrition the last of them surrendered in 1603, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth. In the following year, Spain and England agreed a temporary peace with the signing of the Treaty of London.

O’Donnell went to Castlehaven and took a ship to Spain. He was well received there but died a few months later, said to be by poisoning by Carew’s spy, Blake.

O’Neill returned to his native Ulster, and then decided to go to Spain, and was accompanied by many supporters and lesser chieftains. This was known as the "Flight of the Earls". Their intention was always to raise an army and oust English authority in their home province, but the territories they had left behind were soon divided up in the Plantation of Ulster, and they were never able to return. The English administration saw the ideal opportunity to seize most of the land of Ulster, and to bring in Presbyterian Lowland Scots to farm it. The English had achieved their objectives of destroying the old Gaelic order, ridding themselves of the Clan system and the more troublesome chieftains. In the longer term it created the environment for centuries of sectarian strife, including the recent conflict in Northern Ireland and the establishment of the Irish republic.

See also


  • J.J. Silke The Siege of Kinsale
  • Colm Lennon Sixteenth Century Ireland — The Incomplete Conquest (Dublin, 1995) ISBN 0-312-12462-7.
  • Nicholas Canny The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established, 1565–76 (London, 1976) ISBN 0-85527-034-9.
  • Nicholas Canny Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 (Oxford University Press, 2001) ISBN 0-19-820091-9.
  • Richard Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors 3 vols. (London, 1885–1890)
  • John O'Donovan (ed.) Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters (1851).
  • Calendar of State Papers: Carew MSS. 6 vols (London, 1867-1873).
  • Calendar of State Papers: Ireland (London)
  • Steven G. Ellis Tudor Ireland (London, 1985) ISBN 0-582-49341-2.
  • Hiram Morgan (ed) The Battle of Kinsale (Cork, 2006).
  • -----. Tyrone's Rebellion (1995).
  • Standish O'Grady (ed.) "Pacata Hibernia" 2 vols. (London, 1896).
  • Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
  • Gerard Anthony Hayes McCoy Irish Battles (Belfast, 1989) ISBN 0-86281-212-7.
  • Davis, Paul K. (2001). "Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo." Oxford: Oxford University Press.



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