A graveyard for reputation: Sir John Norreys and the Battle of Mullaghbrack, 5 September 1595

Another battle? OK, yes for all of you who read in the last blog that I was going to leave you alone for a while, well this one sort of crept up on me, and unlike other battles such as the Ford of the Biscuits, Clontibret and the Yellow Ford, this one is somewhat less well-known. Moreover, it gives me the chance to show how the war drew in and consumed the reputations and lives of Elizabeth I’s preeminent military officers. One of these was Sir John Norreys, who is lauded ‘for his chivalry, courage, and capability, as great as possessed by any Englishman of his era’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Righto, we'll see about that.

Sir John Norreys, a hero in England, in Ireland not so much

Sir John Norreys was a veteran officer and had a long and remarkable career in service for the crown in France, the Low Countries, however his record in Ireland was less than distinguished. Norreys commanded the troops who slaughtered Sir Brian MacPhelim O’Neill’s people in October 1574. O’Neill had invited Essex to a feast at Belfast where they 'made merry' for three days, but on the third day Essex arrested O’Neill and ordered Norreys to massacre over 200 of O’Neill’s defenseless followers.

Norreys continued the same grisly pattern the next year. In company with Sir Francis Drake, Norreys was part of an English force which landed on Rathlin Island during July 1575. Sorley Boy MacDonnell was using the islands as a refuge and had placed many of his follower’s women and children there for their safety. The Scot’s castle fell after a short siege and the constable and his family were given safe passage, the rest of the castles occupants were put to the sword. Moreover, the English troops spent the following day scouring the island killing anyone they found (possibly 600) regardless of sex or age.

Gaining fame, rank and reputation in the wars on continental Europe in the years following, the queen sent Norreys back to Ireland in 1595 to help the new lord deputy, Sir William Russell put an end to Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and his nascent confederation of Irish lords.

Lord Deputy Russell had fortified the cathedral church at Armagh during July 1595, and it became Norreys’ mission to resupply and reinforce the position. Having an English fort in Armagh was not as much of a problem as one would think, indeed Tyrone may have been content to focus English military forces in south Ulster while Red Hugh O’Donnell ranged across northern Connacht, Longford and Cavan with impunity. Moreover, Russell found the priory and houses burning, but not the cathedral church which was well stocked with lime, timber and vessels of wood ‘for the supplement of a garrison’. It was almost as if Tyrone wanted them to set up a fort. After all, it was isolated forts at Enniskillen and Monaghan which had already brought crown armies to grief at the Battles of the Ford of the Biscuits (1594) and Clontibret (1595); why not Armagh?

Nevertheless, Tyrone was not content to give the English general a free pass to build as they would. Norreys’ resupply mission reached Armagh at the end of August. Pioneers sent to gather wood for construction and fuel around Armagh required constant guard and there were several skirmishes.

On 5 September, Norreys’ army gathered for the march back to Newry. Almost as soon as the army set out they came under sporadic gunfire, as Norreys noted the Irish ‘entertained us afar with light skirmishes upon the places of advantage for seven miles’. The English saw the Tyrone’s infantry make to cut them off at a pass and ford, but with haste Norreys got vanguard occupy the crossing, allowing the baggage to pass unhindered. The site was recorded as Mullaghbrack (near modern-day Markethill) in O’Sullivan Beare’s History of Catholic Ireland (first published in 1621) and was placed at a crossing of the Cusher River by C. F. McGleenon in his 1989 Seanchas Ard Mahacha article (see note at the end).

Tyrone’s horse closed in on the rear of the English column, but Norreys understood ‘it better for us to give than to take the charge’ forced the Irish horsemen to retreat to a ford which was held by the majority of the Tyrone’s shot. Here the English cavalry were forced to stand, but they refused to withdraw rather ‘than to give the rebels the honour to make us retire’. This grand if foolish sentiment came at a price as Norreys was shot twice; in the arm an abdomen (though he later called these a lady’s wound). His brother Thomas was shot in the thigh, Captain Winfield shot in the elbow and Lieutenant West killed.

Not a bad days work for cow keepers. Despite their utility at Mullaghbrack (and Clontibret for that matter) Norreys had a dim view of the Irish cavalry, thinking them only fit to catch cows.

Norreys had picked a poor place to engage the Irish as Tyrone as he was only two miles from the earl’s main base and magazine in Armagh at Loughs Marlacoo and Moyrourkan. Tyrone spent much of 1595 at the crannog [an artificial island] in Marlacoo lough, where he kept large stores of munitions and food. When the site were finally overrun by the English in 1601, it was described as having a great store house on the shore with more on the crannog and surrounding the lough. If ever Tyrone could maintain a fight, it was from this place. Also, Tyrone could ill-afford to lose it to the crown so early in the war. So close to a clearly vital position, a large English force only was almost certain to elicit a strong response from Tyrone.

We return to Norreys, the Irish horse pushed back but the forces at his disposal were not strong enough to advance against Tyrone’s shot. An English officer later reported the Irish shot were pushed back as they skirmished with the English for two hours, but Norreys, the commander on the spot was unambiguous when he wrote ‘being overlaid as well by their numbers as the advantage of the place, were not able to break them’. Running short of powder the English skirmishers began to fall back allowing the Irish to advance, but a charge by Norreys’ horse put them back across the river.

Now the baggage was safe, Norreys ordered the pike of the rear-guard and vanguard into the attack, supported by his cavalry. However, the Irish horse could easily avoid the English advance as Henry Bagenal (Killed three years later at the Battle of the Yellow Ford) noted ‘few of their horse were slain by reason of their swiftness’. The Irish shot would not risk coming to blows with the heavily armoured English pike. Captain Francis Stafford described how the Irish ‘never shirked, but stood very firm, until such time as they saw the resolution, both of the [English] horse and pike … they [the Irish ] with some speed retired, but not far, but they turned their faces and stood’. Each time Norreys tried to engage in melee the Irish pulled back, all the while maintaining their order and cohesion.

Clearly Norreys was not going to get the hand-to-hand brawl his heavy armoured infantry were better suited for. Moreover, many horse had been killed or sorely wounded by Irish gunfire. Norreys himself had to get a fresh mount, as his own horse was shot four times and ‘ready to sink under him’. Consequently, Norreys reorganised the army and continued the march to Newry, where he arrived the next day. The trip north had cost Norreys over 300 men (25% of his force), lost to sickness, desertion and combat.

If you read through the English accounts of the battle, it appeared like the English were never in real peril. Furthermore, the Irish account in the Annals of the Four Masters and O’Sullivan Beare are sketchy at best and the Four Masters get it completely wrong, by reporting Norreys was attacked and routed on his way to Armagh. Yet three months later the crown mustermaster, Sir Ralph Lane reported that the new English companies in Norreys’ army left vulnerable gaps ‘open to the enemy, to the utter ruin of the whole if the Lord had not held his hand over the lord general [Norreys]’.

Norrey’s had a poor relationship with the Lord Deputy Russell and in a letter to Sir Robert Cecil he used the events of the events of the battle to make his point ‘If the lord deputy of the charge [of the war] let him as well take the pain … and when I shall see him receive half a dozen shot in himself and his horses as I did this last day I will think he shall deserve thanks’. Not so much a lady’s wound now is it Sir John?

The deception of Norreys, Jan. 1597: 1: O'Neill cuts off the Armagh garrison from supply. 2: Sir John Norreys drawn out of Connacht and forces concentrated to force supply convoy through to Armagh. 3: O'Neill allows convoy to pass unhindered. 4: O’Donnell invades Connacht while crown forces are concentrated in the east.

Regardless of Norreys’ history of brutality, he never really came to grips with Tyrone’s dissembling (equivocating, play-acting, feigning-or just plain lying) strategy for fighting the war. He consistently believed that a negotiated settlement was possible with Tyrone and his allies. This left him open to Tyrone’s masterful use of peace talks, ceasefires and deception. This culminated in Tyrone’s blockade of Armagh in the winter of 1596-7. The plight of the Armagh garrison forced Norreys to pull troops out of Connacht. Tyrone even destroyed a supply convoy to Armagh, forcing the crown army to concentrate for a push north. At the last minute Tyrone allowed the supplies through. With the crown field army on the Louth-Armagh border Red Hugh O’Donnell tore through Connacht to the gates of Galway unopposed.

Norreys career started to go into terminal decline as he was side-lined with his new posting as president of Munster. He asked to be allowed to leave for England, citing his many services to the crown but to no avail. He died in his brother’s castle in Mallow (Co. Cork) from illness due to old wounds and, some say, melancholia brought on by his reduced station and lack of due appreciation. An Irish source proposed another, more demonic reason for his demise - his deal with the devil. O’Sullivan Beare suggested Norreys success was due to a pact with Satan and on 3 July 1597 Old Nick came to collect. O’Sullivan claimed a shady dark figure joined Norreys and both retired to his bed chamber. A boy listened at the door.

‘It is time,’ said the black one, ‘for us to put the finishing touch to our plans.’ ‘I don't wish to do it,’ said Norris, ‘until we have wound up the Irish war.’ ‘On no account,’ said the other, ‘will I wait longer than the appointed day which is now come.’

There was a sudden uproar and the servants rushed in to find the man in black gone and Norreys ‘on his knees with his neck and shoulders so twisted that the top of his chest and his face were over his back’. Unsurprisingly he died soon after.

Now this author cannot wholeheartedly stand by the veracity of the Irish version of events, but it certainly added a literary flourish to a formerly stellar career of one of Tudor England’s most renowned military officers, whose reputation, health and finally life was swallowed attempting to stop Tyrone’s Irish confederation. 


Note: For a lengthier examination of the battle see C. F. McGleenon, 'The Battle of Mullabrack 5 September 1595' in Seanchas Ard Mhacha, vol. 13 no. 2 (1989), pp 90-101.

In am indebted to the Irish Research Council who fund my continuing research on aspects of the Nine Years War.