Bad result for the away side: The Battle of the Yellow Ford, 14 August 1598

Hold on a sec I hear you say, were we not at this battle stuff not a few days ago? Well, the simple answer is yes. Hot on the heels of the Ford of the Biscuits blog we are confronted with another but this time on the Battle on the Yellow Ford. Now in my defence I don’t decide when the anniversaries are. What with it being summer, the pleasant weather (well, relatively this is Ireland after all) combined with ample forage and fodder for the animals makes this time of the year a popular one for getting on the campaign trail. If that doesn’t assuage your battle-weary sensibilities, take it up with Hugh O’Neill.

Anyway, perfunctory apologies aside it is indeed the 418th anniversary of the Battle of the Yellow Ford, where the Irish forces under the leadership of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone with his allies, O’Donnell, Maguire, MacDonnell and others, took on and defeated the largest army yet fielded against them: around 3,500 foot and 350 horse led by Sir Henry Bagenal. Moreover, it was the greatest defeat of an English army by the native Irish, but on the morning of the 14th Bagenal had every reason to believe he could smash his way through to the beleaguered Blackwater Fort, which Tyrone had blockaded since June.

Bagenal had a good squad on paper. His infantry had many veteran soldiers and officers with many years’ experience of fighting on the continent and in Ireland. English light horse (though called light they were heavily armoured by Irish standards) were the match for anything the Irish could put in the field and Bagenal had 350. To top this off he had four cannon, the heaviest being a saker which could blast a six pound iron ball over 2,000 yards and tear bloody furrows through infantry and cavalry formations. Tyrone had blocked the road to the Blackwater with pits and barricades, but that was fine as Bagenal with his can-do attitude would follow the high ground all the way to the River Callan then on to the Blackwater. Nothing to worry about here.

The English set out from their camp near Armagh early, possibly seven or eight o clock in the morning. Bagenal deployed his infantry in a column of six regiments. The foot were divided into the van, battle and rear, each of which was sub-divided into two regiments. Each regiment had a core or armoured pikemen (15 foot spears and surly dispositions), flanked by wings of shot (soldiers with firearms). Sir Richard Percy commanded the lead regiment, followed by Bagenal, the main battle had Captain Cosby, Sir Thomas Maria Wingfield, then Captains Cuney and Billings commanding the regiments in the rear. Intervals of 100-120 yards separated each regiment as they deployed for the march in full battle array. The horse were in two squadrons to support the rear and the van, and the baggage carrying the vital supplies for the fort and the artillery accompanied Bagenal at the rear of the van.

Bagenal's order of battle

Spirits must have been high, possibly too high as they moved out as one officer later observed (thus gifting me the sporty tagline).

‘Two young captains … had the leading of the two forlorn hopes in the vanguard. They marched gaily with two pipes of tobacco in their mouths … the vanguard followed as fast as they could as if they would win the goal in a match at football play[ed] without the help of their followers’

The start whistle blew (figuratively speaking) almost as soon as they left camp as Irish shot harassed both sides of the column, but there was no serious resistance so Bagenal pressed on. Percy’s lead regiment crossed the River Callan and ascended a hill where he could see a bog ford (really just an area of dry land traversing the bog) but the plan was starting to fray, as Bagenal’s regiment was slowed down by the baggage train and the artillery, especially the saker. Weighing 2,500-3,000 pounds it kept getting stuck. Clearly Percy had never been told there was no ‘I’ in team, therefore he ploughed on. Percy later complained the rest of the army were to blame for not keeping up, but being a younger son of the earl of Northumberland he may not have been used to waiting. The lead regiment crossed the bog ford and on to a second hill (modern-day Drumcullen) where he could see the route to the Blackwater bisected by a long trench and rampart crested with thorns. This would dissuade any sane officer, who would wait for support but not Percy. He was in for the big win and as fire on his flanks intensified he ordered his men to cross the trench and march to Mullyleggan Hill. What, no Irish defending the trench you say? I’ll come back to that.

The description of the army which was defeated by the earl of Tyrone the [14] August 1598

Bagenal had made it across the Callan River but the saker got stuck good and proper at the bog ford, prompting the general to abandon it and move on. The next regiment under Cosby passes over but the next led by Sir Thomas Maria Wingfield paused to recover it. Good thing too as the rear was nowhere to be seen. Stubborn Irish resistance had developed at the River Callen, stopping the rear in its tracks. But at the head of the column Percy’s men could see the fort from the top of the hill and their appearance caused elation and much hat-tossing in the fort as they ‘threw up their caps for joy’ but the garrison were getting a bit ahead of themselves. Percy had fallen into a deadly offside trap.

Surrounding Irish shot had forced the Percy’s loose wings of shot to retreat to their pike. Bagenal sent orders for them to re-join the main body of their army on the other side of the trench but this was easier said than done. Harassed by Irish horsemen and raked by close-range gunfire, the lead regiment was in serious difficulty as Tyrone’s swordsmen started to hack their way under the defender’s pikes. Worse still they were cut off from their cavalry support. Normally the armoured English horse would steamroller over Irish skirmishers but the trench barred their way. The trench created a kill-zone where Tyrone’s men could butcher the lead regiment safe from any intervention by Bagenal’s cavalry. Panicked, Percy’s regiment collapsed and routed.

D: Percy gets cut off. E: The English central position on Drumcullen. E: Wingfield recovers the saker. F: The rear hets held at the River Callan

Bagenal could not just sit and watch his men be slaughtered, therefore he ordered his regiment to cross the trench to bring off what survivors they could. As he moved to cross the barricade a shot struck Bagenal on the forehead, killing him instantly. Bagenal’s men made it across the trench but they were roughly handled and were soon tumbling back on their original positions. As if things could not get worse an unknown English solider shored a grievous own goal as he paid less attention than he should while refilling his powder flask. He forgot he held his smouldering in match in the same hand, causing possibly 400 pounds of gunpowder to detonate, tearing through the English central position on Drumcullen Hill and shrouding the entire area in cloying white smoke. As you could guess this only served to encourage the Irish.

Wingfield assumed command and decided that this mission was over and re-ordered the army for retreat. The rear had made it through but was soon repurposed to lead the withdrawal to Armagh. Captain Cosby was to command the rear with the remains of Bagenals’ and Percy’s regiment, but for some unknown reason, perhaps going for a last-minute equaliser, assaulted the trench again. This time Tyrone jumped in with both feet and crushed Cosby’s ill-judged attack, which was only saved from annihilation by Wingfield and the English cavalry. The Irish attempted to block the English retreat at the River Callan, but fire from the light guns not at the head of the column beat them back.

A saker: for Bagenal more trouble than its worth (chicken for scale).

There were some tired legs in the English army and many soldiers had exhausted their ammunition, but Tyrone’s resources were also feeling the strain. The Irish fire slackened. Just as had happened at Clontibret, the Irish appeared to have exhausted their immediate supply of gunpowder. One officer noted that if the Irish had charged his men at that point none of them would have survived. In contrast to the rest of the day, the English made it back to Armagh relatively unmolested. The cavalry under Monatgue broke out that night to bring the bad news to Dublin, but the rest of the army had to negotiate their withdrawal. A condition was the surrender of the Blackwater Fort. The victory cost the Irish approximately 120-300 killed, but the price paid by the crown was much higher. The English lost possibly 1,500 troops which included Bagenal and 17 officers, whereas those who returned south lost all their arms and baggage.

The English field army was destroyed and superficially Dublin appeared to be an open goal. Why did Tyrone not take the shot? Some have said he didn’t want to unduly enrage the queen as if killing half her army would not warrant a response (and sending the earl of Essex with the largest army yet deployed to Ireland would the following year would certainly seem that), or that Tyrone’s army was costing him too much to keep in the field. However, the crown had planned to land 2,000 men on the Foyle under Sir Samuel Bagenal and the earl could not leave Ulster while this threat remained. Ultimately the victory at the Yellow Ford forced Elizabeth to send the Foyle expedition to Dublin to protect the capital.

Many thanks to the Irish Research Council who fund my continuing research on aspects of the Nine Years War.