1596-1603: Tyrone O’Neill’s rebellion


It is known in Ireland as the Nine Years’ War


Ulster, in the north of Ireland – the Kildare’s stronghold


3rd Earl of Tyrone (but just calling him “Tyrone” is OK)

Main causes

  • Local resistance to centre. Tyrone saw the only hope for Ireland being a complete break with the Tudors – with himself as the new Irish leader
  • Rebellion broke out when the English refused to give him the right to govern the whole of Ulster – 12 counties – himself

Subsidiary causes

  • Like Silken Thomas, Tyrone wrapped himself in religion, appealing for help from Spain and the Pope
  • Opportunism – English forces were especially weak at this time, and Tyrone scented opportunity


  • Tyrone gives up claims to overlordship in Ulster in exchange for effective independence that proves so worthless he flees Ireland for good in 1607
  • Final defeat of Irish chieftains. Most officials are now English-born. English common law applied to all Irish counties. But Ireland remains stubbornly Catholic

Degree of threat

High. Tyrone’s was the first Irish rebellion which had as its aim a truly island-wide campaign against the English. If successful, there would have been regime change in Ireland


England in the 1590s was a state under great economic strain. The cost of fighting the Spaniards (Armada 1588) had forced them to cut back on their forces in Ireland. Garrisons were under strength and there was no large English army in Ireland.

This presented opportunity. Tyrone was in contact with Spain as early as 1587, but the first sign of trouble came in the summer of 1594, when an Irish force raided an English supply column at the Battle of the Ford of Biscuits.

Rebellion proper broke out in February 1595. Elizabeth’s government responded by proclaiming Tyrone a traitor (June 1595) but other Irish clans took advantage of the disorder to make attacks of their own – including “RedHugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnel.

Tyrone was able to evade capture for three more years, and even win a military victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford (1598) – this was the only major military defeat inflicted by a rebel on a government army in this period. 800 English troops were killed and 300 of their Irish levies deserted to Tyrone.

The defeat at the Yellow Ford forced Elizabeth to raise a large and costly army of 17,000 men, which was sent to Ireland under the Earl of Essex (1599). Essex was a very poor general and could not catch Tyrone – he was forced to agree a peace when his funds ran low. The Pale had paid so much towards the army that there was massive inflation – 80% – followed by near-famine in Dublin.

Essex was replaced by a more competent commander, Mountjoy, who ground down Tyrone and secured a victory over a 3,500 strong Spanish force that landed at Kinsale in 1601. The Spanish defeat robbed Tyrone of the hope of substantial help and in 1603 he surrendered, giving up all claims to overlordship in Ulster – the source of his power. In exchange, Tyrone was allowed to continue to rule in Ulster without paying any tax to the English crown – nominal submission but effective independence.

Tyrone’s rebellion left Ireland in a sense where it had begun: although the new Lord Lieutenant was English, Ireland beyond the Pale was still ruled for England by Irishmen in 1603, as it had been in 1485.

However, overall the Tudors had added hugely to their strength and influence in Ireland during the century. There was now…

  • A chain of English castles throughout Ireland
  • Far more English officials than Irish in the administration
  • English law, not Gaelic, throughout Ireland

That the Irish nobles had failed became clear in 1607 Tyrone and the Earl of Tyrconnell both left Ireland for France – the flight of the earls – and the 17th century would see plantation of Protestants from Scotland in Ulster (beginning from 1609) and more direct rule from London.

Reasons for success and failure

You can argue that Tyrone was successful in several ways

  • His rebellion was the longest-lasting of the period – longer than Warbeck’s and a lot more intensive
  • When Essex was sent with a royal army and unprecedented powers as Viceroy, Tyrone outmanoeuvred him and Essex was forced to make an unconditional peace when funds ran low – Tyrone was able to exhaust English resources
  • The war provoked the English into major atrocities – Fletcher calls it ‘genocidal’ – which is an indicator of how seriously the English took it

Tyrone was ultimately unsuccessful because…

  • He failed to obtain significant support from overseas (this is true of every rebel in this period except Lambert Simnel, and even he only had 6,500 foreign troops)
  • He had tacit support from other Irish families, but most hesitated to back him militarily
    • A Tyrone victory would replace distant English rule with direct Irish rule for the other great clans
    • Joining Tyrone risked reprisals from the English
  • The English had superior financial resources. Overall Elizabeth spent £2 million on quashing this rebellion

Key stats, quotes and views

Tyrone was able to fight a successful guerrilla war because…

  • There were no good maps at all of the interior of Ireland
  • 25% of the entire country was bog
  • The highland areas were thickly covered in forest throughout
  • There were no important towns or ports in Ulster – it was then the most remote part of the country, and hard for the English to penetrate

Tyrone’s Ulster was where “English rule was most fictitious and Gaelic culture strongest” (Anthony Fletcher)

The Tyrone lands were valuable – his income was £80,000 a year, enough to fund a large army

Unlike earlier Irish rebels, Tyrone’s army was professional and well trained. By 1601 he commanded 6,000 men, trained by Spanish veterans and equipped with the latest weapons – muskets and pikes instead of the traditional axes and javelins.

The English army at this time was only 4,000 strong, and had to provide garrisons to a number of castles and guard supply lines – giving Tyrone an advantage in any open battle

One third of Tyrone’s men were equipped with guns, up from an eighth in Shane O’Neill’s rebellion a generation earlier


2 thoughts on “1596-1603: Tyrone O’Neill’s rebellion

  1. Pingback: Elizabethan Government – No Fear History

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