State terror in Elizabethan Ireland

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Returning from court to military service in Ireland in early 1581, Walter Ralegh wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham boasting of his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s reputation in the province. ‘I never heard nor read of any man more feared than he is among the Irish nation,’ he said.

This might seem like characteristic hyperbole, arising more from familial loyalty than anything more substantive. Gilbert’s own command in Ireland dated to the autumn of 1569, when he was charged with suppressing a widespread revolt with a mere 500 men behind him. Thus it was more than a decade earlier; and the record of the Elizabethans in Ireland had hardly been unblemished in the intervening years. In July 1575, for instance, the Earl of Essex had led his men in a hunt for the women and children of the M’Donnell clan. Running them to ground at the clan’s stronghold on Rathlin Island, off the northern coast of Antrim, his men butchered some four hundred of them. A few escaped to the caves on the shore, but Essex’s men tracked them down and smoked them out, cutting them down there on the rocks and stones as they fled their sanctuary.

What, then, could possibly account for Ralegh’s claim? The answer can be found in the report of Gilbert’s campaign written by Thomas Churchyard, an old soldier-poet loyal to both Gilbert and – later – to Ralegh. Published in 1579 as part of a wider treatise named A Generall Rehearsall of Warres, Churchyard considered what he wrote to be entirely favourable to Gilbert and his reputation.

Whensoever [Gilbert] came to do her majesty’s service, before he attempted anything, he proffered her highness’s mercy to the rebels… sending to them messengers with offers of pardon both for body, goods and lands, if they would presently yield, which if they once refused, although it were with never so mild an answer, or that they did but so much as throw a stone at the messenger, were he but a houseboy, he would never after by any means receive them to grace, but would subdue them by the sword ere he departed, how dearly so ever he bought it: which done, he caused every creature of them, of all sorts and ages, to pass by the sword without remission. Accounting the prince’s mercy so sacred a thing, as that it ought to be taken when it is offered, and not to be had when it is asked

He further took this order uninfringeable, that when soever he made any […] inroad into the enemies country, he killed man, woman and child and spoiled, wasted and burned, by the ground all that he might: leaving nothing of the enemies in safety, which he could possibly waste or consume…

He would never parley with any rebel, nor thereto permit under his charge, saying always that he thought his dog’s ears too good to hear the speech of the greatest noble amongst them, so long as he was a rebel…

He would never receive any into protection… [without] first (of what estate, condition or degree they were) at his first coming into his presence, he must fall down on his knees before the said colonel, and there kneeling confess himself a traitor, and to have deserved to be hanged, and to desire her majesty’s pardon…

His manner was that the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies, and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should there be laid on the ground, by each side of the way leading to his own tent, so that none could come unto his tent for any cause, but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads, which he used ad terrorem, the dead feeling nothing the more pains thereby, and yet did it bring great terror to the people, when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they came to speak with the said colonel.

With terror as his principle weapon, Gilbert and his 500 men subdued the province in a mere six weeks, bringing it, in Churchyard’s phrase ‘universal peace’. It is no wonder he was still remembered a decade later, remembered and feared.

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