Military Wiki
Siege of Smerwick
Part of the Second Desmond Rebellion
Monument commemorating the Smerwick Harbour massacre - - 459585.jpg
A memorial to the victims of the massacre at Dún an Óir
Date7–10 November 1580
LocationDún an Óir near Ard na Caithne, Ireland

English victory

  • Defenders surrender & then massacred by the English Army
 Kingdom of England  Papal States consisting of Spanish & Italian troops
Commanders and leaders
Arthur Grey Sebastiano di San Giuseppe
~4,000 400–500

The Siege of Smerwick took place at Ard na Caithne (formerly known as Smerwick) in 1580, during the Second Desmond Rebellion in Ireland. A 400–500 strong force of Papal soldiers (Spanish and Italian troops) captured the town but were forced to retreat to nearby Dún an Óir, where they were besieged by the English Army. The defenders eventually surrendered and most of them were then massacred on the orders of the English commander, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Arthur Grey.[1][2]


James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald landed a small Papal invasion force in July 1579, initiating the second Desmond rebellion, but was killed only a month afterward. This unleashed a war that lasted three years.

On 10 September 1580, 600 Italian and Spanish Papal troops commanded by Sebastiano di San Giuseppe landed in Smerwick, near the same point where Fitzgerald had landed the previous year. They had been paid for and sent by Pope Gregory XIII to aid the rebellion. Desmond, Baltinglass and John of Desmond made an effort to link up with the expeditionary force but English forces under Ormonde and Earl Grey blocked them and prompt naval action by Richard Bingham blockaded the Papal force’s ships in the bay at Smerwick. San Giuseppe had no choice but to retreat to the fort at Dún an Óir.

A force led by the Earl of Ormonde made its way to Smerwick. From information obtained from prisoners taken from a party which had left the fort, Ormonde ascertained the size of the defending forces to be around 700, but with military equipment that would serve a force of 5,000 and that the defences of the fort were being strengthened. Although Ormonde thought that the existing fortifications were weak, he decided not to mount an attack without artillery, leaving a small party to keep Dún an Óir under surveillance. Ormonde and his forces retreated to the east, although a portion of his forces joined Grey's advancing army. Grey made an encampment at Dingle and awaited naval reinforcements.[3]

Siege and massacre

On 5 November, a naval force led by Admiral William Winter arrived at Smerwick Harbour, replenishing Grey's supplies and landing 8 artillery pieces.[3] Two days later, on 7 November, Grey arrived at Smerwick and laid siege to the garrison. The invading forces were geographically isolated on the tip of the narrow Dingle Peninsula, cut off by Mount Brandon, one of the highest mountains in Ireland, on one side, and the much larger English force on the other. The English forces began the artillery barrage on Dun an Oir on the morning of the 8 November, which rapidly broke down the improvised defences of the fort.[3]

After a three-day siege, commander di San Giuseppe surrendered on 10 November 1580. Grey ordered the massacre of the invading forces, sparing only the commanders.

According to Grey's account, contained in a despatch to Queen Elizabeth dated 11 November 1580, he rejected an approach made by the besieged Spanish and Italian forces to agree terms of a conditional surrender in which they would cede the fort and leave. Grey insisted that they surrender without preconditions and put themselves at his mercy, subsequently rejecting a request for a ceasefire; an agreement (according to Grey) was finally made that there would be an unconditional surrender the next morning, with hostages being taken by English forces to ensure compliance.[4] The following morning, an English force entered the fort to secure and guard armaments and supplies, Grey then sent in bands that began the execution of prisoners. Grey's account in his despatch says "Then put I in certain bands, who straight fell to execution. There were six hundred slain." Grey's forces did spare those of higher rank: "Those that I gave life unto, I have bestowed upon the captains and gentlemen that hath well deserved..."[4] However, the 19th century Irish historian Margaret Cusack notes there is a degree of controversy about Grey's own version of events to Elizabeth, and identifies three different contemporary accounts by O'Daly, O'Sullivan Beare and Russell that contradict it. According to these versions Grey promised the garrison their lives in return for their surrender, a promise which he broke and resulted in the Irish proverb 'Grey's faith'. The few that were spared suffered a worse fate. They were offered life if they would renounce their Catholic faith, and on refusal had their arms and legs broken in three places by an ironsmith. They were left in agony for a day and night and then hanged.[5]

According to the writer John Hooker in his Supply to the Irish Chronicle (an addition to Holinshed's Chronicles) written in 1587, the bands ordered to carry out the executions were led by Captains Raleigh (later Sir Walter Raleigh) and Mackworth.[6][7]

Richard Bingham, future commander of Connacht, was present and described events in a letter to the Earl of Leicester, although he claimed the massacre was perpetrated by sailors.[8] The poet Edmund Spenser, then secretary to the Lord Deputy, is also thought to have been present.[4]

According to the folklore of the area, the execution of the captives took two days, with many of the captives being beheaded in a field known locally in Irish as Gort a Ghearradh (the Field of the Cutting); their bodies later being thrown into the sea. The field where the heads were buried is known as Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads).[9]

In Raleigh's trial

Three decades later, when Raleigh had fallen from favour, his involvement with this massacre was brought against him as a criminal charge in one of his trials. Raleigh argued that he was "obliged to obey the commands of his superior officer" but he was unable to exonerate himself.[1] He was executed on 29 October 1618, chiefly for his involvement in the Main Plot.


A monument to commemorate the victims of the massacre is now to be seen at the spot (see illustration).

See also

  • List of massacres in Ireland


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland. Chapter IV. (1841)
  2. Tony Pollard, Iain Banks. Scorched Earth: Studies in the Archaeology of Conflict. BRILL, 2007. p.222
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Falls, Cyril (1997) [1950]. "Chapter X The Desmond Rebellion: Last Phase". Elizabeth's Irish Wars. Syracuse University Press. pp. 142–144. ISBN 0-8156-0435-1. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Church, R. W. (2010) [1879]. Spenser. pp. 41–44. ISBN 978-1-4068-5574-6. 
  5. Cusack, M.F., The History of the Kingdom of Kerry, 1871 p.187-9 |isbn=094-613-012-4 |
  6. Saint-John, James Augustus. "Perpetrates the Massacre of Del Oro". Life of Sir Walter Raleigh: 1552 – 1618 : in two volumes, Volume 1. pp. 52–77. 
  7. Nicholls, Mark; Williams, Penry. "The Devon Man". Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-4411-1209-5. 
  8. Wright, Thomas, ed. Queen Elizabeth and her times. pp. 120–122. 
  9. David Lister (13 April 2004). "Massacre victims from Raleigh's time return to haunt Irish shore". The Times. UK. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 

52°11′25″N 10°24′56″W / 52.190386°N 10.415546°W / 52.190386; -10.415546Coordinates: 52°11′25″N 10°24′56″W / 52.190386°N 10.415546°W / 52.190386; -10.415546

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