Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty of 1603

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE succeeding year (1603) opened upon a state of gloom and incertitude on all hands in Ireland. Like a strong man overpowered, wounded, and cast down, after a protracted and exhausting struggle, yet still unsubmitting and not totally reft of strength, the hapless Irish nation lay prostrate—fallen but unsubdued—unwilling to yield, but too weak to rise.

The English power, on the other hand, was not without its sense of exhaustion also. It had passed through an awful crisis; and had come out of the ordeal victorious, it is true, but greatly by happy chance, and at best only by purchasing victory most dearly.

O'Neill was still unconquered; and though the vast majority of the lesser chiefs confederated with him in the recent struggle had been compelled to submit and sue for pardon, O'Donnell, O'Rorke, Maguire, and O'Sullivan remained to him;[1] and, on the whole, he was still master of elements capable of being organized into a formidable power, perhaps to renew the conflict at some future favorable opportunity.

Elizabeth and her ministers were too wise and prudent to allow exultation over their success to blind them to the fact that so much of it had been due to fortuitous circumstances, and that 'twere decidedly better, if possible, to avoid having the combat tried over again.

Mountjoy was instructed to “sound” the defeated, but unsubdued and still dangerous Tyrone as to terms of peace and submission, lest, being hopeless of “pardon” (as they put it), he might continue to stand out.

Negotiations were accordingly opened with O'Neill.

“Sir William Godolphin and Sir Garrett Moore were sent as commissioners to arrange with him the terms of peace,” the latter (ancestor of the present Marquis of Drogheda) being a warm personal friend of O'Neill's.

“They found him,” we are told, “in his retreat near Lough Neagh, early in March, and obtained his promise to give the deputy an early meeting at Mellifont.”

“The negotiations,” according to another writer, “were hurried on the deputy's part by private information which he had received of the queen's death; and fearing that O'Neill's views might be altered by that circumstance, he immediately desired the commissioners to close the agreement, and invite O'Neill under safe conduct to Drogheda to have it ratified without delay.”

On March 30, 1603, Hugh met Mountjoy by appointment at Mellifont Abbey, where the terms of peace were duly ratified on each side, O'Neill having on his part gone through the necessary forms and declarations of submission.

The singularly favorable conditions conceded to O'Neill show conclusively the estimate held by the English council of their victory over him, and of his still formidable influence.

He was to have complete amnesty for the past; he was to be restored in blood, notwithstanding his attainder and outlawry; he was to be reinstated in his dignity of Earl of Tyrone; he and his people were to enjoy full and free exercise of their religion; new “letters-patent” were to issue, regranting to him and other northern chiefs very nearly the whole of the lands occupied by their respective clans.

On the other hand, Hugh was to renounce once and forever the title of “The O'Neill,” should accept the English title of “earl,” and should allow English law to run through his territories.[2]

Truly liberal terms—generous, indeed, they might under all circumstances be called—if meant to be faithfully kept!

It is hard to think O'Neill believed in the good faith of men whose subtle policy he knew so well.

It may be that he doubted it thoroughly, but was powerless to accomplish more than to obtain such terms, whatever their worth for the present, trusting to the future for the rest.

Yet it seemed as if, for the first time, a real and lasting peace was at hand.

James the Sixth of Scotland, son of the beautiful and ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne; and even before his express declaration of a conciliatory policy was put forth, there ran through Ireland, as if intuitively, a belief in his friendly dispositions.

And, in truth, never before did such a happy opportunity offer for adjusting, at last and forever, peacefully and amicably, the questions at issue between Ireland and England.

In James the Irish—always so peculiarly swayed by considerations of race or kinship—beheld a Gaelic prince, a king of the sister kingdom, Scotland, to whom had reverted the kingdom and crown of England.

Kings of England of the now extinct line had done them grievous wrong; but no king of friendly Scotland had broken the traditional kindly relations between Hibernia and Caledonia.

Taking King James the Gael for a sovereign was not like bowing the neck to the yoke of the invading Normans or Tudors.

As the son of his persecuted mother, he was peculiarly recommended to the friendly feelings of the Irish people.

Mary of Scotland had much to entitle her to Irish sympathy. She was a princess of the royal line of Malcolm, tracing direct descent from the Milesian princes of Dalariada. She was the representative of many a Scottish sovereign who had aided Ireland against the Normans.

Moreover, she had just fallen a victim to the tigress Elizabeth of England, the same who had so deeply reddened with blood the soil of Ireland.

She had suffered for the Catholic faith too; and if aught else were required to touch the Gaels of Ireland with compassion and sympathy, it was to be found in her youth and beauty, qualities which, when allied with innocence and misfortune, never fail to win the Irish heart.

It was to the son of such a woman—the martyred Mary Queen of Scots—that the English crown and kingdom had lapsed, and with these, such claim as England might be held to have upon the Irish kingdom.

What wonder if among the Irish the idea prevailed that now at last they could heartily offer loyalty to the sovereign on the English throne, and feel that he was neither a stranger nor a subjugator?

It was indeed a great opportunity, apparently—the first that had ever offered—for uniting the three kingdoms under one crown, without enforcing between any of them the humiliating relations of conqueror and conquered.

There can be no doubt whatever, that, had James and his government appreciated the peculiar opportunity, and availed of it in a humane, wise, and generous spirit,

“———an end was made, and nobly,

Of the old centennial feud.”

The Irish nation, there is every ground for concluding, would cheerfully and happily have come in to the arrangement; and the simplest measure of justice from the government, a reasonable consideration for the national feelings, rights, and interests, might have realized that dream of a union between the kingdoms which the compulsion of conquest could never—can never—accomplish.

But that accursed greed of plunder—that unholy passion for Irish spoil—which from the first characterized the English adventurers in Ireland, and which, unhappily, ever proved potential to mar any comparatively humane designs of the king, whenever, if ever, such designs were entertained, was now at hand to demand that Ireland should be given up to “settlers,” by fair means or by foul, as a stranded ship might be abandoned to wreckers, or as a captured town might be given up to sack and pillage by the assaulting soldiery.

There is, however, slight reason, if any, for thinking that the most unworthy and unnatural son of Mary Queen of Scots—the pedantic and pompous James—entertained any statesmanlike generosity or justice of design in reference to Ireland.

The Irish expectations about him were doomed to be woefully disappointed. He became the mere creature of English policy; and the Anglo-Irish adventurers and “settlers” yelling for plunder, were able to force that policy in their own direction.

They grumbled outright at the favorable terms of Mountjoy's treaty with O'Neill. It yielded not one acre of plunder; whereas, the teeth of thousands of those worthies had been set on edge by the anticipation of the rich spoils of the “confiscated” north, which they made sure would follow upon O'Neill's subjection.

“It now seemed as if the entire object of that tremendous war had been, on the part of England, to force a coronet upon the unwilling brows of an Irish chieftain, and oblige him in his own despite to accept ‘letters patent’ and broad lands ‘in fee.’

Surely, if this were to be the ‘conquest of Ulster,’ if the rich valleys of the north, with all their woods and waters, mills and fishings, were to be given up to these O'Neills and O'Donnells, on whose heads a price had so lately been set for traitors; if, worse than all, their very religion was to be tolerated, and Ulster, with its verdant abbey-lands, and livings, and termon-lands, were still to set ‘Reformation’ at defiance; surely, in this case, the crowd of esurient undertakers, lay and clerical, had ground of complaint.

It was not for this they left their homes, and felled forests, and camped on the mountains, and plucked down the Red Hand from many a castle wall. Not for this they ‘preached before the State in Christ Church,’ and censured the backsliding of the times, and pointed out the mortal sin of a compromise with Jezebel!”

Notwithstanding that for a year or two subsequent to James' accession, the terms of the treaty of Mellifont were in most part observed by the government, O'Neill noted well the gathering storm of discontent, to which he saw but too clearly the government would succumb at an early opportunity.

By degrees the skies began to lour, and unerring indications foretold that a. pretext was being sought for his immolation.


[1] “All that are out doe seeke for mercy excepting O'Rorke and O'Sullivan, who is now with O'Rorke.”—Lord Deputy Mountjoy to the Privy Council, Feb. 26, 1603.

[2] Mitchel.