Siege of Kinsale

Siege of Kinsale
Part of the Nine Years' War

Siege and Battle of Kinsale, 1601 from the Pacata Hibernia, 1633
Date2 October 1601 – 3 January 1602
LocationKinsale, County Cork
Result Decisive English victory

England Kingdom of England

Irish alliance
Commanders and leaders
England Charles Blount
England George Carew
England Richard Leveson
Kingdom of Ireland Donogh O'Brien
Aodh Mór Ó Néill
Juan del Águila
Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill
Richard Tyrell
11,800 infantry
857 cavalry[1]
Irish alliance
3,500 [2][3]
Casualties and losses
unknown casualties
6,000 deserted, sick or dead to disease[4]
Irish alliance
1,200 killed, wounded & captured (later executed),[5]
100 killed or wounded,
3,400 surrendered.[6]

The Siege or Battle of Kinsale (Irish: Léigear/Cath Chionn tSáile) was the ultimate battle in England's conquest of Gaelic Ireland, commencing in October 1601, near the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and at the climax of the Nine Years War—a campaign by Aodh Mór Ó Néill, Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill and other Irish lords 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.


Ireland had been claimed as a lordship by the English Crown since 1175, but the actuality of this Lordship was only officially on paper as the reality on the ground was quite the contrary. By the 1350s, the area under government control had shrunk to the Pale, the area around Dublin. The rest of the country was controlled by the Gaelic lordships.

King Henry VIII initiated a policy of conquest and colonisation during the 1530s, pursued by his successors. In 1594, forces in Ulster under the previously loyal Earl of Tyrone, Aodh Mór Ó Néill, supported by Aodh Ruadh Ó Dónaill and Aodh Mag Uidir rebelled (see the Nine Years War (Ireland)). A number of Irish victories seemed to place English control of Ireland in the balance.

Following the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 Philip II decided to take advantage of the Irish rebels in order to create a new front in the war against England. Spanish aid was offered to the Irish rebels in the expectation that tying the English down in Ireland might draw even more English 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. The 2nd Spanish Armada aimed at supporting the rebels however was smashed by storms off Cape Finisterre in October 1596. The ill Philip sent forth another armada the following year but this failed too due to storms, bad luck and ill planning.

Spanish landing

After Philip II's death Philip III continued to provide direct support (material support had been sent for years) to the Irish rebels fighting England. In 1601 Philip 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 2 October 1601. Another force commanded by Alonso de Ocampo managed to land at Baltimore. The Spaniards rushed to fortify precarious fortifications to withstand the approaching English armies.

While the Spanish army had secured the town of Kinsale, they failed to expand their base into the surrounding region and were vulnerable to becoming besieged by English forces. 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.


On 2nd October Mountjoy laid siege to Kinsale and reinforcements were brought in through Oysterhaven, bringing the army's complement up to 12,000 including a large force under an Irish nobleman Donogh O'Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond. However many of these were Irish levies and many were not suited to siege warfare especially in winter; many fell ill, leaving about 7,500 capable of fighting.[1]

At the same time, the Gaelic Earls Hugh O'Neill and his ally O'Donnell considered their positions. Their difficulty was that the Spanish had landed on the south coast of Ireland far away from the areas under control of the Irish Chieftains. In order to bring aid to the Spanish troops they would have to lead their troops into regions where support for their cause was most doubtful. They hesitated for weeks as autumn turned into a particularly wet and stormy winter. The besieged Spanish garrison began to suffer privation and O'Neill was forced to go to their aid. He fully understood that should this first Spanish force suffer defeat he would be unlikely to receive further military help.[7] The decision of the Spanish to land at Kinsale forced Earl Hugh O'Neill to agree with his more impetuous ally, Red Hugh O'Donnell, and abandon his hitherto successful hit and run tactics and risk open confrontation. A large force would be necessary; larger than they could afford to lose. They set out on a 300-mile winter march - separately, to ease supply - with a total of 5,000 infantry and 700 cavalry. The combined armies of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Tyrrell came to 6,180. This included 500 of Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare’s men, and 200 of Ocampo’s Spaniards.

Lord Mountjoy's forces were incapable of surrounding the town of Kinsale and its surrounding area (now called Belgooly), but they did seize some higher ground and subjected the Spanish forces to constant artillery fire. The English navy under Admiral Richard Leveson arrived with a squadron of ten ships and cut off the town from the sea. 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 24 December 1601 English date: (3 January 1602 for the Catholic Irish and Spanish armies) moved into 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.

Battle of Kinsale

O'Neill controlled the ridge, and intended to fight for it, with support from Aguila, O'Donnell, and Tyrell on multiple sides. Del Águila, 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 and Dermot Maol MacCarthy Reagh.


The English resumed their encirclement of the town of Kinsale, Del Águila saw his position as hopeless without the Irish lords' effective action. 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 held the town of Kinsale for more than 3 months. The English made no attempt to storm it. The Spanish were given honourable terms and surrendered Kinsale with their colours flying, and it was agreed that they were to be conveyed back to Spain on giving up their other garrisons of Dunboy, Baltimore, and Castlehaven.[8] Another Spanish force was sent but never landed as news of Aguila's surrender was received they promptly turned back to Spain.


Kinsale's port today

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 England and Spain agreed to make 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 George Carew’s spy, Blake.

O’Neill returned to his native Ulster and then decided to go to Spain. He was accompanied by many supporters and other chieftains. This is 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 and northern English settlers 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.

The result of the Battle of Kinsale was devastating to the existing Irish culture and way of life, as the old Gaelic system was finally broken. As the Gaelic aristocracy fled to continental Europe, they left behind a power vacuum that the English eagerly filled.

See also


  1. 1 2 Falls p.299
  2. Sandler p.465
  3. Corvisier/Childs p.423
  4. Lewis p.231
  5. Sandler p.466
  6. Canny p. 282
  7. O’Faolain, Sean (1970), The Great O’Neill, biography of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550-1616, The Mercier Press Ltd, ISBN 978-0853421405
  8. Morgan pg. 229


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