Worst English Defeat in Ireland
County Armagh The 14th of August 1598 AD
We hear far less about the Nine Years War, the conflict in Ireland at the end of Elizabeth’s and start of James’ reigns, than about the Armada or the other clashes with the Spanish around the same time. Perhaps this is because, though eventually the English won through, victory came at a cost. The worst such reckoning was the Battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598.
Hugh O’Neill, the Irish leader (early in the war actually an English supporter, until it became clear Elizabeth had no trust for him nor intention to reward him with high office) was determined to rid his territory of the English fort near Blackwatertown on the Armagh-Tyrone border, and laid siege to it in July 1598. It seemed inevitable that the garrison would be starved out.
Sir Henry Bagenal, whose sister O’Neill had eloped with, and who had been chosen over O’Neill, took charge of a relief force that set out from Armagh on August 14. The rebels were well organised and armed, the Spanish contributing to the effort and O’Neill having obtained excellent arms and ammunition from England and Scotland, plus Scottish Highland mercenaries. Bagenal’s force consisted of some trained men, but more new recruits and Irishmen pressed into service.
Once Armagh had been left behind ambushes began, musketeers picking off Bagenal’s men from a safe distance, and javelin-throwers rushing at the flanks. This harassment and poor coordination by the various regimental leaders led to the English army stretching out too thinly. Cavalry attacks worsened the situation, and the death of Bagenal himself, shot through the head, made matters desperate. Another blow was the accidental explosion of much of the English powder.
Of the original English force of perhaps 4000 only half made it back to Armagh. Perhaps 1000 died, though many of the Irish in the loyalist army defected, others simply fled. Those who stood and fought were largely cut down, with the wounded put to the sword after the fight. O’Neill is thought to have lost just 300 men from his army of nearly 5000.
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