James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)


Chapter 2


A Great Blow in Ireland


Long before returning to Whitehall in late December, Shakespeare

knew not to expect much holiday cheer at court. The domestic

and international challenges England now faced

reverberated through the play he was trying to finish, Henry the Fifth, as

they would through all the plays he worked on in 1599. Since summer,

the news both at home and abroad had been unrelentingly grim. The

mood had turned dark in August, with word of the death of the most

powerful man in England, Lord Treasurer Burghley, followed by reports

of a catastrophic military defeat in Ireland. As Burghley lay dying, Elizabeth

visited him and in an extraordinary gesture, hoping to spur his recovery,

spoon-fed the minister who had served her faithfully for forty




years. On August 29, 1598, Londoners lined the streets between Burghley's

residence in the Strand and Westminster Abbey to witness the extraordinary

state funeral "performed ... with all the rites that belong to so

great a personage." Watching the five hundred official mourners accompanying

the hearse, many of whom were already vying for the spoils of

Burghley's lucrative offices, Londoners who remembered the other famous

courtiers who had grown old with Elizabeth-Leicester, Walsingham,

Warwick, and Hatton-may well have sensed that they were

witnessing the end of an era.


The aging queen knew it and feared it. She had recently confided to a

foreign ambassador that she had now "lost twenty or two and twenty of

her councillors," and put little faith in the current crop of aspirants, who

"were young and had no experience in affairs of state." Burghley's tireless

service, his skill at managing conflict, and his occasional ruthlessness had

proven indispensable to the queen. He had helped avert the corrosive effects

of the factionalism she herself had encouraged as part of a time tested

strategy of playing her powerful and ambitious courtiers against

one another. The most conspicuous mourner that day was Robert Devereux,

Earl of Essex, who had been Burghley's ward and who had looked

up to him as a father figure. Tall and handsome, with his distinctive

square-cut beard and charismatic air, he stood in striking contrast to the

man who should have been the center of attention, Burghley's son, Secretary

of State Sir Robert Cecil, a canny, hunchback bureaucrat whom

Elizabeth affectionately called her "pygmy." With Burghley's death, the

court irrevocably fractured into factions aligned with these two men-the

"Militia" and the "Togati," court observer Sir Robert Naunton called

them, the swordsmen and the bureaucrats.


In the spring of 1598, English policy makers heatedly debated

whether to make peace with Spain. Burghley was the chief advocate of

peace, and his death was a blow to the hopes of those seeking to reorient

English foreign policy. The English had learned in April that their war weary

French allies were ready to make a separate peace. Elizabeth dispatched

Robert Cecil to the French court to discover Henri IV's

intentions and if possible break off the proposed treaty with Spain. But

the French king had already made up his mind. Henri IV's decision left




England virtually alone in confronting the Spanish-on the Continent, in

Ireland, on the seas, and potentially on its own shores as well. As lord

treasurer, Burghley knew that the cost of fighting on all these fronts had

become nearly intolerable. Even as Burghley lay dying he oversaw a revised

agreement with the Low Countries that ensured their covering the

expense of auxiliary English troops. If war was unavoidable, Burghley

wanted others to pay for it. Only after his death did his fellow countrymen

discover how expensive it was to maintain a war footing, one reporting

that the lord treasurer "had left the Queen's coffers so bare that there

is but 20,000 to be found."


The arguments favoring peace were compelling. The end of hostilities

would go far toward repairing England's international reputation.

The English, noted the contemporary historian William Camden, were

increasingly seen as "disturbers of the whole world, as if they were happy

in other men's miseries." A lasting peace with Spain would also, it was

hoped, end Spanish support for Irish rebels and enrich the nation by providing

English merchants with access to ports now closed to them. And

peace, Camden adds, would let England "take breath and gather wealth

against future events."


The acknowledged need for England to catch its breath gives some

sense of how spent the nation had become in its unending skirmishes

with Spain. England's dispatch of troops to the Low Countries and a fleet

to the West Indies in 1585 had helped provoke the Great Armada of 1588.

This, in turn, led to English naval expeditions against Spain and Portugal

and the conscription of thousands of English soldiers to fight against the

Spanish and their surrogates. Spain, for its part, retaliated with successive

(and again unlucky) armadas in 1596 and 1597, plots against Elizabeth's

life, and support for Irish resistance to English rule. There was

little that England could do to forestall future armadas other than sending

out fleets to loot Spanish shipping, ports, and colonial outposts. Like

exhausted heavyweights slugging it out, England and Spain exchanged

blows but neither had the luck or strength to land a knockout punch.

Despite the strong arguments in favor of peace, decades of anti-Catholic

propaganda and deep distrust of Spanish motives proved powerful

counterweights. From the perspective of those in the war camp, the




notion that Spain would change its ways and embrace peace on terms acceptable

to England was naive. Even if this were imaginable, the risks to

England were too great to take such a chance. Without the threat of English

ships harassing their American treasure fleets and raiding their

ports, the Spanish, they argued, would soon "heap up such a mass of treasure

that if he brake forth into war again, he will be far stronger than all

his neighbors." And if English troops pulled out of the Low Countries, it

opened the way for Spain to outflank and invade England.


Court observers were at a loss to tell which faction would prevail. "It

is still in deliberation," John Chamberlain wrote to his friend Dudley

Carleton in early May, "Whether we shall join with France in a peace and

leave the Low Countries ... and the balance sways not yet on either side."

The jockeying for influence at court tends to obscure how differently the

two camps saw England's national, religious, and economic interests best

served. With so much hanging in the balance, the debate became heated.

At one exchange in the council chamber, after Essex yet again insisted

that "no peace could be made with the Spaniards but such as would be

dishonorable and treacherous," the imperturbable Burghley famously

reached for his Psalter and opened it up to Psalm 55 before conspicuously

passing the book to Essex with his finger on verse 23: "Men of blood shall

not live out half their days."


Burghley's rebuke hit close to home. Essex's father had died in the

queen's service in Ireland in 1576, of chronic dysentery. His funeral sermon

was published a year later along with a letter to his eleven-year-old

son and heir, reminding the boy that Essex men didn't live long (neither

Essex's father nor grandfather lived past his mid-thirties). The letter

went on to urge the young Essex to be daring in pursuit of fame: "rather

throw the helve [or handle] after the hatchet, and leave your ruins to be

repaired by your prince than anything to degenerate from honorable liberality."

Essex took that advice to heart.


Once principled disagreements over national policy turned personal,

it was inevitable that opponents began accusing one another of acting in

self-interest. Essex, stung by such charges, wrote an Apology defending

himself from allegations of war-mongering. While ostensibly written as a

letter to a friend, Essex's supporters made sure that the Apology circu-




lated widely, first in manuscript and then in print. There's a good chance

that a copy passed through Shakespeare's hands, and not simply because

he was a voracious reader who knew how to get his hands on this sort of

thing. Through his former patron, the Earl of Southampton, a close friend

of Essex, he was well placed to see it. Or he might have had access to it

through one of the many writers who congregated around Essex House.

Shakespeare would have found Essex's Apology fascinating both as a

character study and as a daring political tract. Essex saw the current cri-

sis in grand terms, "as holy a war" as those fought against God's enemies

in the Old Testament. But, knowing his queen, he understood that such

enterprises were also judged by their price tags: for 100,000, the war

with Spain could be successfully maintained. And, for a serious investment

of 250,000, Essex guaranteed that "the enemy shall bring no fleet

into the seas for England, Ireland, and the Low Countries, but it shall be

beaten." In his effort to inspire Englishmen to rally to this call for war,

Essex indirectly invoked the example of Henry V, the most celebrated of

heroic English conqueror-kings: "Could our nation in those former gallant

ages, when our country was far poorer than it is now, levy arms,

make war, achieve great conquests in France, and make our powerful

arms known as far as the Holy Land? And is this such a degenerate age,

as we shall not be able to defend England? No, no, there is some seed yet

left of the ancient virtue."


Essex had done his best to embody this chivalric code. He had taken

his place in the charge at Zutphen in the Netherlands campaign of1586,

where Sir Philip Sidney fell. And, having taken up Sidney's sword (and

his widow), he had led the English attack three years later at Lisbon,

where he had "thrust in his pike" in the city gates, challenging any

"Spaniard mewed therein ... to break a lance." In 1591, this time in the

fields of France, Essex challenged the governor of Rouen. In his subsequent

campaign in the Azores, to gain the glory of being the first to land

on an island, Essex, though under fire, had leaped unprotected into a

boat, disdaining "to take any advantage of the watermen that rowed

him." His daring earned Essex the praise of poets like George Chapman,

who describes him in the dedication to his translation of The Iliad as

"most true Achilles, whom by sacred prophecy Homer did but prefig-




ure." But Essex's martial aggressiveness was also dangerously destabilizing:

he had personally challenged Sir Walter Ralegh, fought a duel with

Charles Blount, and most recently had even challenged the lord admiral.

Essex's nostalgia in his Apology for the great age of English chivalry

echoes Thomas Nashe's similar praise of those times as reenacted in English

history plays, "wherein our forefathers valiant acts ... are revived

and they themselves raised from the grave of oblivion and brought to

plead their aged honors in open presence." For Nashe, too, Henry V is the

exemplar of English greatness: "what a glorious thing it is to have

Henry V represented on stage, leading the French King prisoner, and

forcing both him and the Dolphin to swear fealty." Having promised to

write a new version of Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare knew exactly how

much political baggage the story carried, all the more so after Essex's

Apology began to circulate.


For an alternative to this martial, masculine stage image, the English

only had to look at how their own queen was depicted on Continental

stages. In June 1598, an English merchant described a "dumb show" or

silent play staged lately in Brussels on the hotly debated question of peace

between France and Spain. In the midst of Henri IV's onstage negotiations,

a fawning, flattering woman enters and attempts to eavesdrop on

his conversations before finally "plucking the French King by the

sleeve." The woman is none other than Queen Elizabeth of England and,

the English merchant angrily reports, the audience members in

Brussels "whisper and laugh at the conceit." It wasn't just the English

who used the stage to satirize contemporary politics; theater was counted

on for its political and topical edge on both sides of the Channel.

News reaching England in September 1598 that King Philip II of

Spain had died a slow and agonizing death failed to resolve the debate

over the proposed peace treaty. Advocates of war were even more distrustful

of his successor, Philip III. As far as Essex was concerned, the

young prince's "blood is hotter." And even as the dying Philip II had extended

tentative feelers toward peace, he was also sending assassins to

kill Elizabeth.


During this anxious time, when England badly needed his leadership,

Essex withdrew from the court in a sulk. While he briefly returned




to town for Burghley's funeral, observers wondered whether his heavy

countenance that day was best explained by genuine grief or self-pity. In

either case, Essex retired once more to his estate at Wanstead, where,

rumor had it, "he means to settle, seeing he cannot be received in court."

Essex had relied on this strategy of Achilles-like withdrawal before. It

had worked well enough following his disappointing reception after the

amateurish Islands Voyage in October 1597. At that time Essex felt that

the queen had unjustly rewarded his rivals with important offices while

he was fighting abroad. Essex was reconciled only after being appointed

earl marshal. But even outsiders could see that this was a dangerous

game to play.


The intimate relationship between Elizabeth and her most popular

courtier was fast unraveling. Essex refused to conform to the mold of

Elizabeth's previous favorites, Hatton and Leicester. Leicester, who

nearly became Elizabeth's husband, had also been her age-mate, and

there was an understanding and respect between them. Hatton, also of

her generation, had ultimately deferred to Elizabeth. Not Essex. He was

thirty years younger than Elizabeth, and her relationship to him veered

wildly between the maternal and the erotic. For his part, Essex offered

protestations of devotion to Elizabeth while waxing indignant when she

refused to pursue the policies he advocated. While Essex chafed when he

couldn't get his way, Elizabeth grew frustrated at his petulance and his

refusal to be subject to her fading mystique. By 1598, the queen let it be

known that Essex "hath played long enough upon her, and that she

means to play awhile upon him."


By June of that year, their quarrel turned violent. The escalation occurred,

William Camden reports, in the context of "this business of the

peace" with Spain, and was triggered by a disagreement over a seemingly

minor and long-delayed appointment in Ireland. Since Lord Burgh had

died the previous autumn, Elizabeth's administration in Dublin had been

clamoring for a replacement. But the English court failed to take the Irish

problem very seriously. Potential candidates saw the Irish posting as a

disastrous career move; the word around court was that Sir Walter

Ralegh, Robert Sidney, and Christopher Blount had all refused the assignment.




When Elizabeth finally proposed sending Essex's uncle, Sir William

Knollys, Essex, wary of losing a trusted ally at court, urged instead that

she pack off his enemy Sir George Carew to the Irish bogs. When the

queen balked at the suggestion, Essex then stepped over the line of what

was allowable in her presence. Only a handful of courtiers-including Sir

Robert Cecil (who probably leaked the story to William Camden)- witnessed

what happened next. Essex, "forgetting himself and neglecting his

duty, uncivilly turneth his back, as it were in contempt, with a scornful

look." Elizabeth had put up with a lot from her headstrong earl, but this

insolence was intolerable. Astounded that Essex would sneeringly turn

his back on her, Elizabeth boxed him on the ear "and bade him be gone

with a vengeance."


Smarting from the royal blow and insult, Essex reached for his sword.

He was fortunate that the lord admiral restrained him before he treasonously

drew on the queen. As far as Essex was concerned, it was the queen

who in publicly striking him had transgressed, and he swore "a great

oath that he neither could nor would swallow so great an indignity." Before

stalking out of the royal presence, he added one more choice insult,

letting Elizabeth know that he wouldn't have submitted to such mortifying

treatment at the hands of her father, King Henry VIII. Henry would

have beheaded him for such impudence.


Both in the wrong, neither Elizabeth nor Essex would budge. She

needed Essex but wasn't about to humble herself to a subject. Essex badly

needed to return to court, not only to steer the queen and council toward

a more confrontational stance toward Spain, but also to ensure that he

and his followers reaped the benefits of royal patronage. So Essex boldly

wrote to Elizabeth, offering his version of who was at fault, castigating

"the intolerable wrong you have done both me and yourself, not only broken

all laws of affection, but done so against the honor of your sex." Such

arrogance led nowhere. Friends tried to intercede, desperate to heal the

rift. Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the seal, urged Essex to back

down, reassuring him that "you are not so far gone, but you may well return."

And then, in words that must have stung: "You forsake your country

when it hath most need of your help and counsel ... Policy, duty, and

religion enforce you to sue, yield, and submit to your sovereign."




The accusation that he was unpatriotic could not go unanswered.

Essex wrote back in words that bordered on sedition: "Say you, I must

yield and submit. ... Doth religion enforce me to sue? Or doth God require

it? Is it impiety not to do it? What, cannot princes err? Cannot subjects

receive wrong? Is an earthly power or authority infinite?" More was

going on here than raging egotism. When the principles of honor collided

with those of an unconditional submission to a political authority, which

prevailed? Essex's challenge to a monarch's absolute power derived from

radical Continental political philosophers like the anonymous author of

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos-A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants- whose

attacks on the unlimited authority of God's annointed were so politically

volatile that they could not be printed in England until the revolutionary

1640s. At the same time, Essex invokes an ancient prerogative, a knight's

code of honor. From a monarch's perspective, it's hard to imagine a more

dangerous combination.


News of a military disaster in Ireland finally forced both Elizabeth

and Essex to retreat from their hardened positions- without, however,

fully reconciling. The report of the annihilation of English troops at

Blackwater in Ulster spread quickly. On August 30, John Chamberlain

wrote somberly to Dudley Cartleton: "We have lately received a great

blow in Ireland .... This is the greatest loss and dishonor the Queen hath

had in her time." Chamberlain was amazed that the enormity of the defeat

hadn't sunk in: "it seems we are not moved with it, which whether it

proceed more of courage than of wit I know not, but I fear it is rather a

careless and insensible dullness." Out of overconfidence or perhaps disrespect

for the military skill of the Irish rebels, the English had not as yet

woken up to what was in store for them. The crushing loss dashed hopes

of peace with Spain, put a severe strain on England's financial resources,

and made the office of lord deputy of Ireland a far more vital post than it

had been just a month earlier.


The root causes of the disaster can be traced back as far as the twelfth century

Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, after which the kings of England

declared themselves lords of Ireland. The English presence in

Ireland over the following centuries had never really displaced the power

Of local Gaelic lords. Irish politics remained decentralized: clans and their




feuding chieftains-who ruled over people, not territory-remained the

dominant political force. The influence of the Old English, as the Anglo-Norman

settlers were called, didn't extend much farther than the major

ports, towns, and the area around Dublin, known as the Pale, where the

English administration was concentrated. The English made few inroads

in the north and west. Successive English kings were content to let surrogate

feudal lords, to whom lesser lords paid tribute in exchange for protection,

manage things in their absence. This often anarchic state of

affairs took a turn for the worse under the Tudors, when Henry VIII decided

to declare himself King of Ireland, and also, for good measure,

supreme head of its Church. Hereafter the Irish would speak English and

abandon their Catholic faith. The Tudor fantasy of imposing English religion,

law, language, primogeniture, dress, and civility failed to have the

desired effect. To the bewilderment of English observers, the rude Irish

clung to their strange and barbarous customs. And to their consternation,

many of the Old English settlers had, over the course of several centuries,

gone native, adopting Irish customs and marrying into local

families, vastly complicating loyalties and alliances between Gaelic, Old

English, and New English inhabitants-and unnerving those committed

to preserving a pure and unsullied Englishness.


Elizabeth's Irish policies were characterized by incoherence and neglect.

The queen was too miserly to pay the huge price to subdue Ireland

and too distracted by other concerns to acknowledge the weaknesses of

her colonial policies. The impression left on the visiting French diplomat

Andre Hurault, Sieur de Maisse, was that the "English and the Queen

herself would wish Ireland drowned in the sea, for she cannot get any

profit from it; and meanwhile the expense and trouble is very great, and

she cannot put any trust in that people." The Elizabethan policy of expropriating

huge swaths of Irish land and inviting Englishmen over to

settle on these "plantations" provoked local resentment. Irish rebels

looked to Spain for support and rallied followers around their threatened

Catholic identity. Meanwhile, each short-lived English viceroy-suspected

back at the English court, lacking support for ambitious reforms,

bewildered by Ireland's complex political landscape, and often corrupt

and brutal- failed in turn to establish either peace or stability. Elizabeth's




muddled and halfhearted strategies were penny-wise and pound-foolish:

in the last two decades of her reign she would spend two million pounds

and the lives of many English conscripts in ongoing efforts to pacify



By the mid-1590s, chieftains opposed to English rule managed to put

their differences aside long enough to unite under the leadership of a

small group of Irish lords, most prominent among them the Ulsterman

Hugh O'Neill, known to the English as the Earl of Tyrone. Tyrone, now

around fifty, had spent some of his formative years among the English of

the Pale, was fully versed in English military strategy, and was a brilliant

if overcautious commander. William Camden's thumbnail sketch conveys

the grudging admiration the English had for this adversary: Tyrone

"had a strong body, able to endure labor, watching, and hunger. His industry

was great, his soul large and fit for the weightiest business. Much

knowledge he had in military affairs, and a profound dissembling heart."

Tyrone's fellow Irishman, Peter Lombard, rounds out this portrait, describing

him as a leader who knew how to keep his "feelings under control,"

yet one who also knew how to exercise his charisma: "He quite

captivates the feelings of men by the nobility of his looks and countenance,

and wins the affection of his soldiers or strikes terror into them."

By 1598, Tyrone and his allies O'Donnell and Maguire were ready to

strike hard at the English when the opportunity-at Blackwater-presented



The immediate cause of the defeat at Blackwater-also known as the

Battle of Yellow Ford-can be traced back a year to the summer of 1597,

when Lord Burgh led three thousand foot soldiers and five hundred cavalry

from Dublin to the Blackwater River, a strategic junction near Armagh

leading to Ulster. The English military in Ireland were convinced

that the only way to cut off the head of the Irish rebellion was to go after

Tyrone in his home base of Ulster. And the sure way to do that was to

land forces by sea in Lough Foyle in the far north-tying up Tyrone's defenses

and laying waste to his native grounds-while at the same time

controlling the entry into Ulster from the south by establishing key garrisons

along the way from Dublin through Dundalk, Newry, and Armagh.

To this end, on July 14,1597, Burgh's forces dislodged a contingent of




Tyrone's men guarding the Blackwater ford and established a small garrison

there. But until it formed part of a longer chain of garrisons leading

into Ulster, the Blackwater fort remained vulnerable, its three hundred

troops too isolated to resupply. Shortly after, Burgh, like so many of the

English commanders in Ireland before and after, took sick and was dead

by October. The establishment of another garrison at Lough Foyle and

the pincer movement against Tyrone's forces in the north would have to



Tyrone then let one of his periodic truces with the English lapse, and

he and his allies went on the offensive, catching the English off guard at

Cavan, Leinster, and Blackwater. Tyrone decided it was easier to starve

the English troops than assault them directly, and the Blackwater garrison

was soon reduced to eating horses and then scrounging for roots and

grass. The best military minds the English had in Ireland urged that the

fort at Blackwater be abandoned. Their advice was ignored. Sir Henry

Bagenal, an old campaigner, volunteered to lead an English army out of

Dublin to resupply Blackwater. Bagenal was a bitter enemy of Tyrone,

who had eloped with his sister Mabel seven years earlier. The departure

of Bagenal's well-equipped army of close to 4,000 foot soldiers and 320

cavalry in early August must have been a comforting sight to English

settlers in Ireland, an indication of Elizabeth's commitment to their



Bagenal's army passed through Armagh, and on August 14 marched

the final stage toward Blackwater fort, with Bagenal dividing his large

army into six regiments. Two regiments marched in front, two in the

rear, and two in the main body. The idea was that, if attacked, the three

groups would link up. The tactic proved disastrous. After marching a

mile through sniper fire, the English vanguard pressed on to a point

across the Callan Brook known as the Yellow Ford, where it had to pass

through a long trench with bogs on either side. The fort was now in

sight, and the starving English garrison at Blackwater could see the lead

column coming to their relief But at this point the English advance fell

into disarray. A heavy artillery piece got "stuck fast in a ford," and the

gap between the lead regiment and the main body began to widen. The

vanguard received orders to close the gap, but as it turned back it was set




upon by the Irish and "put to the sword without resistance." The English

troops, especially the many fresh conscripts, panicked. Bagenal, leading

the second regiment, rushed forward only to be "shot through his forehead."

His regiment soon suffered the same fate as those in the vanguard.

Retreat was now urgent, and commands were given to that effect. But

following a huge explosion (probably set off by a spark from the lighted

match of an English soldier replenishing his supply of gunpowder) chaos

ensued, and black smoke enveloped the English troops. Raw recruits ran

for their lives and "were for the most part put to the sword." Hundreds of

hired Irish in Bagenal's army dashed over to their countrymen's side.

The detached rear guard went forward in relief but were themselves

charged by two thousand Irish foot soldiers and four hundred cavalry.

The surviving English captains were barely able to secure a retreat. Only

fifteen hundred English troops, many of them badly injured, made it

safely to nearby Armagh, where they took shelter in the local church. Intending

to relieve a starving and surrounded force, the English were now

themselves surrounded and had enough food to last just eight or nine

days. The Irish forces stripped the dead and beheaded those Englishmen

too badly wounded to flee.


With Bagenal dead, several thousand troops killed or wounded, and

the survivors about to starve or be killed, nothing now stood between Tyrone

and Dublin, the heart of English rule in Ireland. Were the Spanish

to capitalize on the defeat and send Tyrone long-promised reinforcements,

the situation would be even more dire. Seeing no alternative, the

lords justices in Dublin sent Tyrone a groveling letter begging him not to

inflict "any further hurt" and warning him of Elizabeth's wrath if he

should act in "cold blood." Elizabeth, upon receiving a copy of this letter,

was incensed at their cowardice.


Unbeknownst to the lords justices, Tyrone, against the advice of his

supporters, decided to extend generous terms not only to the surrounded

force in Armagh but also to the famished troops at Blackwater, who were

likewise allowed to leave, unharmed. Tyrone passed on his chance to

drive unimpeded into Dublin because his spies had told him that the English

were planning to land forces to his rear, in Lough Foyle. Under

such circumstances it was no time for a siege of the force in Armagh.




What Tyrone hadn't figured on was that as soon as the news of Blackwater

had reached England, the Lough Foyle plans were scuttled, and the

two thousand English troops who planned to land there hastily diverted

to reinforce Dublin. News of Tyrone's "merciless bounty" in sparing the

lives of the survivors in Armagh was greeted back in London with a mixture

of relief and cynicism.


While Dublin and its environs were spared, Irish forces elsewhere in

the country set to work the rest of the summer and fall of 1598, determined

to uproot the plantations of the New English who had appropriated

their land. It was a brutal campaign. Throughout the autumn, fresh

reports of English losses reached London. Tobie Matthew wrote to Dudley

Carleton in September that since "the great overthrow" at Blackwater,

there are "four hundred more throats cut in Ireland." By

mid-November, Chamberlain reported that "messengers come daily" out

"of Ireland ... like Job's servants, laden with ill tidings of new troubles

and revolts." The desire for revenge and the satisfaction that will be derived

from Irish bloodletting is conveyed in some lines of verse by the

usually level-headed poet, John Donne:


Sick Ireland is with a strange war possessed

Like to an ague, now raging, now at rest,

Which time will cure, yet it must do her good

If she were purged, and her head-vein let blood.

(Elegy 20)


Essex, having returned to the court, weighed in on who should lead a

retaliatory force. But when his friend Lord Mountjoy's name was put forward,

Essex opposed the idea, arguing that Mountjoy lacked military experience

and was, frankly, too bookish. As each candidate was proposed,

Essex found grounds for objecting: only "some prime man of the nobility"

would do, he insisted, someone "strong in power, honor, and wealth, in

favor with the military men and which had been before general of an

army." It soon became obvious, as Camden notes, that "he seemed to

point with the finger to himself" His enemies enthusiastically endorsed

sending Essex. At the least, he'd be overseas and unable to interfere with




their designs at court. Essex knew well enough that once out of the

queen's orbit his enemies would try to poison her against him. But he was

trapped: he could not stand watching a lesser man lead so great an army.

To his closest friends, Essex admitted that "I am tied by my own reputation."

Perhaps the Irish campaign could win him back into the queen's

good graces, "to be valued by her above them that are of no value." If not,

he might as well "forget the world and be forgotten by it."


By December 1598, confirmation that Essex had agreed to go to Ireland

was followed by rumors that he had changed his mind. Essex knew

that if he were to have any chance of success he would need a very large

army, well outfitted and equipped, with promise of replacements. He

knew, too, that despite Elizabeth's reservations, this was the moment to

hold out for such an expensive expedition, with soldiers of fortune and

second sons of noblemen throughout England clamoring to fight by his

side, each one, Chamberlain reports, hoping "to be colonel at least." As

1598 came to a close, Essex remained uncommitted. Chamberlain writes

that "the matters of Ireland stand at a stay or rather go backward, for the

Earl of Essex' s journey thither that was in suspense, is now they say quite

dashed." The reversals were maddening, and the nation waited for a sign

that its most charismatic military figure would agree to lead the greatest

English army into battle since the days of Henry VIII.