Tyrone Rebellion

As part of the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603), the earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, led an Irish rebellion against England which came to be viewed by the Irish as a war of liberation. Defeat of O’Neill’s Irish forces and Spanish allies at the Battle of Kinsale cemented Irish submission to English sovereignty.

Summary of Event

Sixteenth century Irish society was composed of vast feudal lordships and smaller dissident clans who warred with their rivals and with the English. The English Council in Dublin backed one or another of the powerful Anglo-Norman earls during these struggles. These Irish leaders with English backing were given the title Lord Deputy, to distinguish them from the English viceroys who governed Ireland under the title Lord Lieutenant. The lord deputies received inconsistent support from the English government and were usually recalled in disgrace. This was true of both of the English governors who preceded the Tyrone Rebellion. Sir John Perrot was actually charged with treason on trumped-up charges and died in the Tower of London. Sir William Fitzwilliam, one of his successors, was also charged with graft and corruption. Tyrone Rebellion (1597-1601)
O’Neill, Hugh
Blount, Charles
Devereux, Robert
Elizabeth I
James I
Fitzwilliam, Sir William
Perrot, Sir John
Perrot, Sir John
Fitzwilliam, Sir William
Tyrone, earl of
Fitzgerald, Gerald
O’Donnell, Hugh Roe
Maguire, Hugh
Bagenal, Sir Henry
Bagenal, Mabel
Essex, second earl of
Blount, Charles
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
James I (king of England)

In the late sixteenth century, Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, became the leader of a rebellion that attracted the support of Spain and had some successes, but even Tyrone was not able to defeat the English. English policy toward Ireland oscillated between schemes for pacification and halfhearted military campaigns.

The 1579 rebellion of Gerald Fitzgerald, earl of Desmond (c. 1538-1583) had facilitated the plantation of Munster. As a traitor to the queen, Desmond had his property confiscated, and these attainted lands were parceled out to loyal Englishmen and Irish lords, who were expected to plant colonies. The English planters were supposed to entice English tenants to resettle in Ireland and then serve as models of English civility to their Gaelic neighbors. Some of the planters rented the land back to Irish tenants and remained safely in England; others resettled in Ireland and clamored for England to protect them from their hostile neighbors. Although each of the lord deputies had troops at his disposal, England resisted expending the resources necessary to subjugate warring and rebellious factions and maintain peace.

Irish historians refer to the uprisings and retaliations at the close of the sixteenth century as the Nine Years’ War Nine Years’ War (1594-1603)[Nine Years War (1594-1603)] . These historians date the rebellion from June, 1594, when Hugh Roe O’Donnell and Hugh Maguire attacked the fortress at Enniskillen. In its early stages, the war consisted of guerrilla skirmishes, offensives, and counteroffensives. During this time, the earl of Tyrone—a consummate politician as well as an experienced military leader—used the English to fight against his traditional enemies and so consolidate his own power. Once his power was consolidated around 1597, Tyrone took charge of the rebellion, and it is this portion of the Nine Years’ War that is properly referred to as the Tyrone Rebellion. Tyrone promoted himself as the leader of Catholic Ireland Ireland and used this position to negotiate foreign assistance and military intervention from Catholic Spain. Under Tyrone’s command, the Irish dealt the English a decisive defeat at the Battle of Yellow Ford Yellow Ford, Battle of (1598) on August 14, 1598.

Tyrone’s victory at the Battle of Yellow Ford shocked England. It was a pitched battle, not a guerrilla attack. The English forces numbered 4,200 and were led by the English marshal, Sir Henry Bagenal. About 830 men were killed, including Bagenal himself; 400 were wounded and another 300 deserted to the Irish side. Tyrone was in fact the brother-in-law of Sir Henry, who was named English marshal in succession to his father. His father had rejected Tyrone’s suit for his daughter’s hand. Mabel Bagenal then eloped with the earl, a man twice her age but reputed to be charming as well as shrewd.

Tyrone had borne a grudge against the elder Bagenal, due to the marshal’s refusal to grant him Mabel’s substantial dowry and her share of the family inheritance. English and Irish landowners, aware that the Battle of Yellow Ford was partly a settlement of that grudge, sympathized with Tyrone. Alarmed by Tyrone’s victory, the English council in Dublin seems to have feared an attack on the pale (the Anglo-Irish settlement around Dublin). Tyrone’s decisive victory inspired more people to join the rebellion. He did send forces south to Munster and Limerick and successfully laid waste to the English plantations there, symbols of the defeat of the earlier Desmond Rebellion. The resident English planters fled to the urban coastal centers of Cork, Youghal, and Waterford, where they petitioned the queen for support.

The spreading rebellion and Tyrone’s triumphs prompted a determined English retaliation. A new army was sent to Ireland under the leadership of Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, who was credited with triumphing over the Spanish at Cádiz in 1596. Essex, an English military hero and talented general, was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland: the queen’s lieutenant and governor in her name. In March, 1599, a huge army of 17,300 troops began to arrive in Ireland. Essex had boasted that he would defeat Tyrone in the field. After touring Munster and establishing his troops in various garrisons, he turned north, where he met Tyrone at the head of a much larger force on the Monaghan Pale border. The two men rode their horses into the middle of a river and held a private conference.

No one knows what transpired at the conference between Essex and Tyrone, but it was later rumored that Tyrone had offered Ireland to Essex. The result was another truce, one which seemed to benefit the insurgents. Shortly after this meeting with Tyrone, Essex returned to England without permission and set in motion the events that led to his own rebellion and execution in 1601. However, even with this respite, Tyrone was unable to unify Ireland against the crown because key Irish landowners, such as the earl of Ormond, remained loyal to the queen. Many Irish believed in deference to royalty, and indeed, Ireland would later support the king, not the Parliament, in the English Civil War of the next century.

Though Tyrone could not unify his country behind him, his bid for support from Spain was successful. On September 21, 1601, a Spanish force of 3,400 landed at Kinsale. Kinsale, Battle of (1601) Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, the newly appointed lord deputy of Ireland, hurried south from Dublin hoping to engage the Spanish force before Tyrone arrived. Mountjoy besieged the Spanish troops, holding them at Kinsale for two months. When Tyrone finally arrived at Kinsale, Mountjoy found himself sandwiched between the Spanish in the town and the approaching Irish army, but his experienced troops won the day, scattering the Irish troops and surrounding the Spanish.


Tyrone retreated to Ulster, where he held out for the next year, but he finally surrendered on March 30, 1603. Queen Elizabeth I had died six days earlier, but Tyrone was unaware of her death at the time of his surrender. Kneeling before the English lord deputy, he renounced all dependence upon foreign rulers, the title of the O’Neill, and his overlordship rights over the chiefs in Ulster. The English could have broken up his lordship and divided it among those who had remained loyal to the crown, repeating their actions toward Desmond. However, Tyrone, always the astute politician, negotiated a royal pardon from James I and a patent for nearly all the lands he had held before the rebellion, with the exception of those needed to support two new garrisons.

Thus, in the wake of his rebellion, Tyrone’s authority in Ireland was ironically confirmed rather than rescinded by the English crown. James’s concessions, in fact, conferred local authority upon the earl under the auspices of the English sovereign. James perhaps hoped in this manner to avoid another costly war in the future. The English crown had spent more than two million pounds on the Tyrone Rebellion, and Tyrone himself was rumored to have spent five hundred pounds a day at the height of the war. Subjugating the Irish was very costly to the English, and it remained so into the next century, when minor rebellions followed in 1603 and 1609 and a major revolt again occurred in 1641. The latter revolt would lead to the Cromwellian conquest.

Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, identified himself as the sponsor of Roman Catholicism in Ireland and used religious allegiances to bring together Gaelic lords, Anglo-Norman nobles, and members of the clans. His rebellion established a pattern that would be repeated in British history. O’Neill became a romantic figure in Irish history and a model for future Irish heroes.

Further Reading

  • Boyce, D. George, and Alan O’Day, eds. The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy. London: Routledge, 1996. Important discussion of approaches to revisionist national history. Discusses and reevaluates the traditional assumption that Ireland was intentionally victimized under British rule.
  • Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British, 1580-1650. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Skillful analysis by a leading Irish historian.
  • Cunningham, Bernadette. The World of Geoffrey Keating: History, Myth, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. Examines the aftermath of the Nine Years’ War.
  • Lennon, Colm. Sixteenth-Century Ireland: The Incomplete Conquest. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Overview of the revolt in Ulster and rise of Hugh O’Neill as part of the colonial enterprise.
  • Morgan, Hiram. Tyrone’s Rebellion: The Outbreak of the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell & Brewer, 1993. Important recent study on the rebellion by a prominent Irish historian.
  • Morgan, Hiram. Political Ideology in Ireland, 1541-1641. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999. Collection of essays commenting on the past and present politics of writing Irish history. Supplies a useful bibliography as well as evaluation of current scholarship.

1489: Yorkshire Rebellion

Dec. 1, 1494: Poynings’ Law

1497: Cornish Rebellion

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

1536 and 1543: Acts of Union Between England and Wales

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

1549: Kett’s Rebellion

Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 1554: Wyatt’s Rebellion

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Nov. 9, 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I