Turtle Bunbury

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Robert of Essex and the Siege of Caher (1999)

The Irish chieftains had been up in arms against the Elizabethan army since 1592. In August 1598, Hugh O'Neill, the renegade Earl of Tyrone, had achieved his greatest victory to date when he massacred the army of Marshall Bagenal at the battle of Yellowforde. Bagenal, the leading English officer in Ireland at this time and the father of O'Neill's wife, Mabel, was among those slaughtered.

The Irish people were now in a great state of excitement at the prospect of evicting the English soldiers who had been coming down upon them in an especially heavy manner ever since Queen Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, had initiated the Protestant Reformation some 60 years earlier. If they could only convince King Philip II of Spain to send another Armada to invade England, perhaps they could be rid of the interfering Tudors for once and for all. In London, the mood was extremely tense. It was over a decade since the Elizabethan television channels had made heroes of Raleigh, Drake, Frobisher and the other rum-swilling maniacs who defeated the first Spanish Armadas. Since then, the only truly great propaganda success was the capture of Cadiz in 1596. And that is where Earl of Essex comes into the plot.

I was never proud till you sought to make me too base. And now, since my destiny is no better, my despair shall be like my love was, without repentance.
[Letter to Elizabeth I 1598]

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was the last great champion of Elizabethan England. A tall, handsome and arrogant young man, he had endeared himself to the English people when, at the age of 29, he commanded a fleet in the raid of Cadiz, an event known as "the singeing of the King of Spain's beard" on account of the sheer cheek of this encounter.

If Essex had one mission in life, it was to improve on his father, Walter Devereaux, the 1st Earl of Essex, who had comitted suicide following the complete failure of his investments in the great plantations Ulster in the north of Ireland. Like the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, the 1st Earl had formed an active and lucrative alliance with Hugh O'Neill during the 1570s.

If Essex had two missions in life, the second was to bed Queen Elizabeth to whose court at Hampton he had first been admitted by his stepfather, the Queen’s former favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Essex served as a cavalry officer in Leicester's army during the wars against the Dutch of 1585 - 1586. He rapidly became a great favourite of the Queen, bringing him into rivalry with her other favourite, the potato-chewing Sir Walter Raleigh. During the early 1590s, Essex lead an ambitious but unsuccessful invasion of Normandy to help the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) regain the French throne. He also went head to head against crafty Sir Robert Cecil (later Earl of Salisbury) in a bid to become the chief statesman of Elizabethan England - and lost. The Queen was well aware that such a hot-headed soldier was not what she required in an age when diplomacy was emerging as the ultimate in battle skills. The capture of Cadiz was nonetheless a remarkable victory and not even Essex's failure to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet off the Azores the following year could undermine his popularity with the English people.

Philip II died in September 1598 and so put an end to any real chance of a Spanish invasion. Elizabeth's advisors were confident they could secure a peaceful treaty with Philip's successor, Philip III. Suddenly the tables had turned once again. It was time to dispatch an army to the kingdom of Ireland and mop up the rebels.


Lord Lieutenant / Commander-in-Chief to lead Invasion of Ireland. Experience essential. Brashness preferable. Must be male. Excellent opportunity to bed Queen. Seat on Privy Council guaranteed. Catholics need not apply.

Perks: Heading up the biggest army ever to invade Ireland, 16,000 foot soldiers, 2000 Dutch war veterans, 1300 cavalry officers, canons, culverins, and much, much more.

For application forms send SAE with full name and address to: Miss. E. Tudor, Hampton Court, London

The application forms began piling into the Royal Bedchamber. There could be no greater ambition for an Elizabethan than to win the acclaim of the English people and their Queen during this Golden Age of English expansionism. Among those who applied were Sir William Knollys (Essex's own uncle), Lord Charles Mountjoy (Essex's friend) and Hereford's finest calf, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

In short, Essex got the job. Cynical rivals reckoned he'd achieved this by simply seducing the 64-year-old Virgin Queen. In which case, fair enough. At any rate, the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland duly set off at the head of a great army from London in March 1599. Essex had at his disposal 1300 cavalry, 16,000 foot soldiers and 2000 veterans of the Dutch wars. It was impressive. It was, in fact, the largest army ever sent to Ireland, larger even than that which accompanied King Richard II in his bid to rout Art MacMurrough two centuries earlier. Among his retinue was Thomas Barton, founder of the House of Barton of Straffan and Glendalough House. A huge crowd gathered to cheer the army on its way. Then a terrible thunder storm broke out and the crowd dispersed and everyone thought uh-oh, I hope that’s not a sign of bad things to come. Which, of course, it was.

Essex in Ireland

The first problem Essex encountered when he arrived at the English capital of Dublin was that the hinterland of English-occupied Ireland (ie: the Pale) was tremendously vulnerable. From the Wicklow Mountains to the badlands of Munster, from the boggy Midlands to the hills of Donegal, the English army was being periodically battered to shreds by Irish clansmen on the rampage. Hence, his first decision was to dispatch a large section of his brand new army to garrison and defend all existing castles and frontier posts. The boundaries of the Pale alone swallowed up more than 5000 of his 18,000 strong army.

Meanwhile Essex was besieged with rumours that Hugh O'Neill and the Earl of Desmond were on their way to meet Edmund Fitzgibbon, "The White Knight", one of the most formidable Anglo-Norman magnates in Ireland. As it happened, there was nothing to this rumour save the paranoia of certain Irish landowning members in Essex's own Irish Council - but it was enough to get an impatient man like Essex started. And start he did, heading south from Dublin on a foul wet afternoon with an army of 3500 foot soldiers and 300 cavalry. As was the fashion in those days, any lands they passed through belonging to suspected rebel sympathisers were scorched to prevent crops being fed to the Desmond and O'Neill mercenaries. This sort of thing never really made invading armies popular.

Essex pressed south via the castles of Athy, Carlow and Ballyraggert, and out across the borders of the Pale into the badlands where his army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the O'Moore chieftains at the Pass of the Plumes near the Rock of Dunamaise in County Laois. The Pass was so named on account of the hundreds of fancily plumed metal helmets left behind by the English as they fled. Essex had to leave even more men behind to secure the lands through which he was now travelling.

Essex now did what any good English gentleman would do and issued an invitation to the Irish rebels to meet him at such and such a field for a battle whenever they were ready. But the Irish were having none of it and so Essex's army sat it out, wondering what to do next. At length, they required fresh food and supplies. These were to be posted up the River Suir from the ancient Viking port of Waterford to Clonmel in County Tipperary, a town loyal to the Butler family who were themselves loyal to the English Crown. The Butler family head, Black Tom, Earl of Ormonde, was a childhood sweetheart of the Queen and, like Essex, a close cousin through the Boleyns.

However, when Essex arrived at Clonmel, they were informed that their munitions, pack horses and other supplies had not managed to get through the nearby settlement of Caher as one of Black Tom's cousins who owned Caher Castle - another Tom Butler - had joined the rebels. Essex decided to go and get the castle back with a culverin and a canon - both dragged by hapless foot-soldiers as the Lord Lieutenant still didn't have any pack-horses. His war cabinet included Black Tom, the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's patron) and Sir George Bingham. Bingham, an ancestor of the gambling Lord Lucan, had recently secured for himself the stronghold of Enniskillen from the Maguire chieftains. The siege took 10 days to complete and about 80 rebels died in the process, many mown down by musket shot while fleeing across the River Suir. Two iron cannonballs - one in the wall of the keep, another in the wall of the north east tower - are left as evidence that the Siege of Caher did actually happen once upon a time.

It ain't ever easy staying a conqueror.

However, Essex barely had time to pop a champagne cork before alarming news arrived in Caher. O'Neill was not coming to meet Fitzgibon at all. Indeed, he was perfectly happy beating the English up in Ulster. And the Earl of Desmond was likewise having a great time of it beating the English up in Munster. And now it seemed as though the chieftains of Leinster had risen up once again and were beating up the English garrisons in the Wicklow Mountains and the Pale.

Essex duly about-turned and marched his exhausted army all the way back to Dublin and then off again to Ulster and round and round in circles, achieving nothing but short-lived victories and the occasional glum defeat.

Meanwhile, Essex's enemies in London - principally Raleigh and Cecil - were hard at work trying to convince the Queen that Essex was a no-good, two-timing scoundrel who was single-handedly destroying any chance of an English conquest in Ireland. In a further shock development, Her Majesty now heard that Essex had signed a two-week truce with O'Neill and O'Donnell without the slightest whisper to herself or the Royal Council. The former favourite had become a loose canon. The Queen must have been disconsolate at the news. In fact she must have been feeling rather disconsolate in general. She was ageing fast, her days were numbered and she could see no option but to designate her dour Scottish cousin James Stuart, King of Scotland, as heir and successor to the English throne. Never mind the fact she'd not long ago lopped the head off James Stuart's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots).

Essex in Disgrace

When Essex heard his reputation was under attack, he broke back from Ireland and galloped all the way to Westminster. This was a mistake. A Lord Lieutenant must never abandon his post without the express permission of his monarch. To do so was High Treason. Essex was duly arrested on arrival in London and placed under house arrest for 18 months. Fearing the worst, he took his last big gamble and launched a rebellion on February 8th 1601, full of hope that the Londoners who so loved him after the siege of Cadiz would rally to his defence and help oust his enemies from the Queen's council. The day before the coup broke out, Essex's supporters (including Southampton) convinced Shakespeare to stage the debut performance of his controversial new play, Richard II, at The Globe in order to rally further support for a new age in English politics. That play concerns the doomed life of a monarch who lost his throne because his kept listening to evil advisers.

"You sought to be Robert the First," shouted Edward Coke at the trial, "but you shall be Robert the Last."

It didn't happen. Loyalty fluctuates. In all, about 300 trusty folk rallied but it was never much to write home about. At the trial, Essex's own protégé and advisor, Francis Bacon, turned Judas and spilled more beans than anyone could possibly cope with. (For more, see: http://renaissance.dm.net/trial/index.html). The Queen dipped her quill in the inkwell. Essex was shackled and taken to the Tower of London. On 25th February 1601, an executioner stepped forwards and brought his axe down three times to sever the 34 years old Earl's curly black haired skull from his body. The Queen, however, insisted the execution be a private affair. Indeed it was the only such execution ever to be conducted within the Tower. She insisted this was because she didn't wish to upset those in London who still admired the Earl. But one wonders whether the daughter of one beheaded Queen about to bequeath a rapidly expanding Empire to the son of another was simply distraught that her government were about to behead one of the few men she ever loved. Mind you, there is also a theory doing the rounds that Robert Deverux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was in fact the illegitimate love-child of Queen Elizabeth and her former lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. But I ain't going down that road here. Kinky bunch, those Elizabethans.


Essex's son and heir, born in 1591, grew up deeply suspicious of the monarchy that executed his father, not least when King James I forced him to divorce his beloved and very desirable wife so she could be married to the new royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. Hence when the English Civil War broke out, the 3rd Earl of Essex Junior was appointed Lord General of the Parliamentarian army. However, following a series of inconclusive battles with the Royalists, Essex resigned in 1645 and he died without heir the following year.

As for the other players in the plot, Sir Walter Raleigh and Cecil swiftly fell out with one another. Which was bad business for Raleigh because Cecil had already secured himself the post of effective Prime Minister to the new king. When word leaked of a plot to oust James and install his cousin Arabella Stuart upon the throne in 1602, Raleigh was framed for high treason and sent to the Tower. The former wild cad of the oceans and terror of the Spanish navy also had his miscellaneous monopolies and lands confiscated, including substantial grants he'd been given in the Irish province of Munster. He spent the next decade writing his incomplete but incomparable History of the World. In 1616, Raleigh was released and sent on one last mission to the Orinocco Delta in Latin America with express orders not to harass the Spanish fleet on any account. One of his junior officers ignored this order and so, upon his return to England in 1618, the wily old septuagenarian was taken to the Tower and executed.

Sir Francis Bacon enjoyed great successes in the political court of King James until he was rumbled for corruption in 1621, fined £40,000 and sent to the Tower. He devoted the rest of his life to writing the books and essays which would go on to make him one of the pre-eminent philosophers and essayist of the 17th century. Lots of people think he was really William Shakespeare.

Either way, Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was tried alongside Essex for his part in the uprising but pardoned by the Queen's mercy. He spent some years in the Tower and died of a fever in 1624. Among the 300 participants in the Essex Rebellion were seven Catholics, including Robert Catesby, who, four years later, emerged as one of the masterminds in Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot.