Tenace on Ekin, 'The Last Armada: Queen Elizabeth, Juan del Águila, and the 100-Day Spanish Invasion of England'

Des Ekin
Edward Tenace

Des Ekin. The Last Armada: Queen Elizabeth, Juan del Águila, and the 100-Day Spanish Invasion of England. New York: Pegasus Books, 2016. 420 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60598-944-0.

Reviewed by Edward Tenace (Lyon College) Published on H-War (August, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Des Ekin, a former deputy editor of the Belfast Sunday News, has written a colorful narrative of the landing of Spanish forces in the Irish port of Kinsale in 1601. As he admits, there have been very few books written about Kinsale, despite it having an enormous impact on the course of Irish history. The standard historical account of the campaign remains John J. Silke’s classic Kinsale: The Spanish Intervention in Ireland at the End of the Elizabethan Wars (1967), but as Ekin is correct to point out, Silke spent “only around 45 pages of a 175-page book” on the actual “invasion” (p. 351). Although he readily acknowledges that he is not a professional historian, Ekin has attempted to write a comprehensive narrative of the entire campaign. The book largely centers on the two commanders: Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, for the English side, and Don Juan del Águila, for the Spanish. However, writing such a narrative is not without its pitfalls, as will be evident below.   

Ekin begins with the race to London of two couriers sent to report the news of the English victory over the Irish forces outside of Kinsale. Sir George Carew sent Richard Boyle with his version of events, while Mountjoy dispatched Sir Henry Danvers. They were on different sides in the factional struggle that had broken out in the last decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Mountjoy was intimately connected to the late Earl of Essex (his mistress was none other than the late earl’s sister, Lady Penelope Rich), while Carew was an adherent of Sir Robert Cecil. In Ekin’s account, Carew showed “blatant disloyalty ... to his commanding officer” and became a nemesis to Mountjoy (p. 312). But in setting up this opposition, Ekin greatly exaggerates their discord. Even the opening “cliff-hanger,” the race of the two couriers, becomes much ado about nothing in the end. As Ekin concedes, “Carew’s attempts to win glory through Richard Boyle’s epic trip” did not much matter because “the injured Henry Danvers achieved much greater impact when he arrived with Blount’s version of events” (p. 339). Moreover, Ekin tends to minimize Carew’s role in crushing the rebellion in Munster and in capturing the two principal confederate leaders: James FitzThomas Fitzgerald and Florence MacCarthy.[1] Instead he dwells mainly on Carew’s failures, particularly his inability to intercept the army of Hugh O’Donnell on its southward march to Kinsale, and for playing no role in the battle.

In treating Águila, the commander of Spanish forces in Kinsale, Ekin makes a few errors. For instance, Águila was certainly not the land commander of the 1597 armada (p. 48). This is not really Ekin’s fault as he cites Silke, usually a reliable source.[2] Silke, however, confused a passage in Gil González Davila’s history that mentions Águila’s involvement. But the passage is actually a reference to the 1599 armada.[3] Moreover, the land commander of the 1597 armada was not Águila but Sancho Martínez de Leiva.[4] As for Águila, he was being held as a prisoner in Brittany by the mutinous garrison at Blavet and was not freed until the end of September 1597.[5] Águila was either still in Brittany or in route to Spain when the armada set sail. Ekin also attributes the earlier Spanish raid on Cornwall wholly to Águila, when in fact, it was Philip II who gave the order to carry out the raid in retaliation for the earlier English attack on Pernambuco in Brazil.[6]  

If Mountjoy’s nemesis was Carew, Águila’s was the Spanish cleric Mateo de Oviedo, whom Ekin characterizes as a zealot, whose enthusiasm for the Irish cause “blinded him to the complex realities of a dirty war ... and his belief that God would solve all practical problems” (pp. 55-56). He then cites Oviedo’s involvement in the ill-fated Smerwick campaign of 1579-80 as an example, stating that “it was not the first time that Oviedo had undermined a commander in mid-campaign,” a reference to his conflict with Sebastiano San Giuseppe, the colonel of the papal forces in Ireland (p. 123). Ekin, however, fails to mention that Oviedo accompanied James FitzMaurice Fitzgerald to Ireland in 1579 and served as his messenger; in fact, two weeks after landing, FitzMaurice sent Oviedo back to Spain to help organize the anticipated papal expedition that was to follow. In the following year, Oviedo returned to Ireland with San Giuseppe but abandoned him after the latter rejected the advice of the Earl of Desmond, who had assumed the leadership of the rebellion after the death of FitzMaurice, to leave Smerwick, and march inland with his forces, as the fort was situated in a place that made it impossible to resupply. Frustrated with San Giuseppe’s refusal to leave, Oviedo then abandoned the colonel and joined with Desmond as did the other papal clerics. Desmond then dispatched Oviedo back to Madrid and Rome to obtain additional support for his rebellion.[7] Ekin, however, accuses Oviedo of desertion and for only staying “in Ireland a mere six weeks” before sailing back “to the safety of Spain” (p. 124). He gives only San Giuseppe’s side of the story and makes no mention of Oviedo’s role as an intermediary for FitzMaurice and Desmond. Indeed, they never figure in his narrative. Moreover, Ekin states that in the aftermath of the Smerwick massacre, Oviedo retreated “to the tranquility of a rural convent” in Spain (p. 125), when in fact he probably returned to Ireland a third time in 1581.[8]

Oviedo becomes Ekin’s scapegoat for the decision to land in the south of Ireland rather than in the north, which was Águila’s original choice. Ekin mentions that in April 1600, Oviedo had secretly traveled to Donegal Bay for a meeting with Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell “as an official envoy of Philip III,” and in the company of a Spanish captain, Don Martín de la Cerda (p. 65). What Ekin does here is to magnify the importance of Oviedo over that of Cerda, but in actuality, the latter was the more influential of the two. The Spanish Crown had dispatched Cerda to ascertain the military situation in Ireland.[9] The meeting produced three landing scenarios: if the Spanish force were greater than six thousand men, it should land in southern Ireland; if it were fewer than two thousand men, it should land in Donegal; if it were between three thousand and four thousand men, it should go to Limerick. Ekin suggests that this “numbers formula” was not “nearly that simple” to be regarded “as a clear and conclusive instruction from O’Neill.” He then adds that in the following year Oviedo became “O’Neill’s voice at the court of Felipe III” and “produced an entirely new numerical formula involving Cork, Waterford, and Limerick” (p. 66).

It is at this point that Ekin’s analysis of these meetings begins to get confusing. He mentions that “there was another Irish summit” in Ulster in which the confederate leadership at first “leaned towards Limerick” but that “Florence MacCarthy insisted on Cork City” (pp. 66, 67). After a furious debate, it was agreed that Cork should be the destination; “Oviedo seconded the motion” (p. 67). Ekin, however, fails to account for either the passage of time or Oviedo’s decision to remain in Ulster while Cerda returned to the Spanish court. Ekin’s “new numerical formula” actually came as a result of Cerda’s second trip to Ireland in late December 1600 when he rejoined Oviedo for another round of meetings with the Ulster lords. This second meeting is Ekin’s “Irish summit.” In this meeting, O’Neill emphatically stated that an expedition of six thousand or greater should land in a port in Munster; if smaller it should come to Donegal Bay or to Carlingford or Drogheda.[10] Ekin describes this meeting as “another Irish summit ... held in an atmosphere of high religious solemnity, the conference was more like a church service than a military strategy meeting” (pp. 66-67). However, Cerda was present, and his return was the principal reason for its calling. Ekin’s mention of MacCarthy’s role in that meeting is also misleading. He implies that MacCarthy was present, but actually his views were conveyed to the Ulster leaders via a letter, in which he expressed his preference for a landing at Cork, which was very close to his own lands. The choice of Cork was the view they carried back when they returned to Spain in early February 1601.[11] It also explains why Cerda and Oviedo later opposed Águila’s preference for a northern landing. After months of vacillation, the Crown ultimately left the choice up to Cerda and Oviedo as their view reflected the will of the Irish leadership. The only concession that Águila was able to win was to substitute Kinsale for a landing at Cork.

In centering too much on the Águila-Oviedo conflict, Ekin misses several larger issues. The first was that the Spanish Crown was not fully committed to an Irish expedition in 1600 but wanted to keep the Irish rebellion going as a way to weaken England and improve Spain’s standing in peace negotiations with the English. Secondly Cerda’s report to the Council of War after his first trip to Ulster was the principal factor in the Crown’s decision to send an expedition to Ireland. It convinced Philip III to override the objections of his councilors. But even after this, nearly a whole year would pass as the Crown became preoccupied with other foreign policy concerns. Cerda was sent back the second time to assure O’Neill and O’Donnell of Spanish support but also to prevent them from making peace with England. Hence it was Cerda, and not Oviedo, who was the key mediator between the Irish confederates and the Spanish court. Unfortunately Cerda’s role in the future enterprise would diminish, because on the eve of the armada’s departure for Ireland, he contracted malaria, which prevented him from accompanying the expeditionary force.[12]

Yet even after the expeditionary force set sail from Lisbon in early September 1601, the debate over where to land in Ireland continued. When the armada was about thirty leagues from the Irish coast, Admiral Diego Brochero called a meeting onboard his flagship to reassess the landing destination, as bad weather was approaching. During the meeting, Águila tried to persuade Oviedo to go north. The cleric, however, refused to budge and Kinsale became the primary target of the expedition with nearby Castlehaven as an alternative. As Ekin relates, the debate was a moot point as the weather would have prevented the armada from sailing to a northern port. In covering the debate, however, Ekin ignores the other major point of discussion, which was to convince Brochero to remain with his fleet in Ireland. For once Águila and Oviedo were in full agreement. Both wanted the fleet to stay. The Spanish admiral, however, refused, using the excuse that many of his ships were embargoed vessels and that he was under orders to release them as soon as he made landfall, and then return to Spain with the Crown ships.[13]

After his discussion of the disembarkation of Spanish forces at Kinsale, Ekin relates that Águila tried again to convince Brochero to reconsider his decision but to no avail. He then describes the haphazard way in which Brochero’s sailors unloaded the expedition’s supplies of gunpowder and victuals, much of which became wet from being left unattended on the beach. He likened Brochero’s role “almost” to that of a “saboteur” (p. 87). In so doing, however, he fails to give Brochero’s side of this story. Brochero claimed that he was forced to keep his ships anchored half a league out to sea and bring the supplies into the harbor on small boats because if he came any closer with ships, his foreign sailors would escape into the countryside. He then accused Águila of negligence for not using his troops to unload the food and munitions from the boats and put them under cover or in a proper place.[14]

Ekin contends that Águila was actually “keen to quit Quinsale as soon as his fleet was reunited and reinforcements arrived” and that it was “this sense of impermanence” that caused him “to make a series of crucial decisions which—with the benefit of hindsight—turned out to be terrible mistakes” (p. 86). What were these crucial mistakes? The first was not taking off enough artillery from Brochero’s ships before they departed. Ekin argues that Águila decided to take only four medium-sized guns, rather than the twenty guns that Brochero had offered, on the grounds that he lacked the necessary gunpowder, and that additional guns “would become a liability” as they would be difficult to transport “without drayhorses” and “would commit him to staying in Kinsale even if the town proved indefensible.” Ekin argues that “the discovery of the ooze-soaked munitions settled the matter” (p. 88). Águila’s decision encountered the immediate opposition from his confessor, Father James Archer, who in the presence of many onlookers “dropped to kneel before the army commander” and pleaded with Águila “to keep the twenty guns.” Águila caustically responded that Archer’s proper place “was to pray, teach and hear confessions” (p. 89). Once again Ekin conveys the image of another misguided cleric interfering with a military matter. Yet the issue of the guns appears to have greatly surprised Brochero, who repeatedly raised the issue of the artillery in the context of the need to fortify Castle Park, to protect the entrance to the harbor.[15] Ekin writes that Águila’s trust in “a future succor” was misplaced but says nothing about the lack of artillery at Castle Park (p. 88).

Ekin states that Águila’s second major mistake was in not reconnoitering the Oysterhaven estuary, which “begins about a kilometre east of Kinsale harbour, and penetrates diagonally inland towards the northwest.” It proved to be a major oversight “because the estuary sneaks up behind Kinsale on the landward side ... where it directly faces the town’s north gate.” As a result “the English navy didn’t need to assault the harbour entrance—they just needed to sail up the Oysterhaven” to threaten Kinsale (p. 91). Another mistake was in refusing Donal Cam O’Sullivan’s offer of two thousand Irish soldiers in the first days of the landing. Ekin argues that Águila rejected his help “after making inquiries among his expatriate supporters in Kinsale.” He states that “O’Sullivan’s credentials as a rebel were not impressive,” that “he had acquired an English lordship,” and that “he had helped the English to defeat a previous Irish rising” (p. 116). The rejection of this assistance infuriated Oviedo, who claimed that many Irishmen “would have come,... if we had trusted them and given armaments to them” (pp. 116-117). In hindsight, it was to prove a costly mistake especially in light of the support that O’Sullivan later extended to Zubiaur’s Spaniards at Castlehaven.

Despite these mistakes, Ekin believes that Águila mounted a resolute defense of Kinsale. He blames the fall of Rincorran Castle on the desertion of much of its garrison, and recounts Águila’s repeated efforts to try to send reinforcements across the harbor on small boats under Juan Hortensio de Contreras. After a spirited defense, Ensign Paez Clavijo, who commanded the garrison of 150 Spaniards and 30 Irish exiles, was in the process of negotiating terms to allow the garrison to retire to Kinsale with all its arms in exchange for its surrender. Unfortunately, a Spanish sergeant in Clavijo’s company, Don Pedro de Heredia, deserted with 53 of his countrymen and all of the Irish exiles before these negotiations were concluded (pp. 145-146). Unable to put up any further resistance, Clavijo surrendered Rincorran and the remaining defenders were taken prisoner. Heredia was later blamed for the fall of the castle, and was found guilty of desertion in a subsequent court of inquiry. But missing here is the more salient point that Clavijo was on the point of surrendering before his desertion. Ekin also thinks that the memory of the Smerwick massacre played a role in this mass desertion. As for Castle Park, it is clear that its garrison “of 33 men and a boy” was insufficient for its defense (p. 161). Ekin states that the English outnumbered “the defenders by around twelve to one” (p. 163). Águila was unable to relieve it due to the fire from the English ships. Yet despite the disparity in numbers, the defenders mounted a vigorous defense that lasted “four full days” (p. 161). It makes one wonder if Castle Park might have held longer had the garrison been larger or had the defenders possessed a few artillery pieces. One also cannot resist making a comparison of Águila’s defense of these two key points with Zubiaur’s subsequent success at Castlehaven in rebuffing the English navy.[16]

Ekin’s account of the battle of Kinsale relies heavily on Hiram Morgan’s The Battle of Kinsale (2004), as well as the eyewitness account of Alférez Bustamante, who not only was present at the battle but also was a key figure in disseminating Águila’s plan to the Irish lords. His plan called for the Irish to march to Ardmartin Hill, and then dig entrenchments. This would draw the enemy toward the hill and enable the Spanish to sally out of the town and “smash the English up against this unyielding defensive phalanx” (p. 240). O’Neill, however, failed to execute the plan. After a token occupation of Ardmartin Hill and “to the astonishment of the English and the fury of [Alonso] Ocampo’s Spaniards,” who had been sent by Zubiaur, he gave up his only advantageous position and ordered his troops to retire, back down the hill, away from the English, and away from his Spanish allies” (p. 256). Ekin believes that the Irish never had any intention of entrenching on Ardmartin Hill as they did not bring “so much as a shovel” (p. 272). He also speculates that O’Neill and O’Donnell might have quarreled the previous night, “over a question of precedence,” and that this may explain why “O’Donnell’s rearguard was nowhere to be seen” that morning (p. 251).

As for the Irish defeat, Ekin believes it was due to their inexperience in conventional warfare, particularly in their deployment into tercios, but acknowledges that O’Neill’s infantry did maintain their cohesion in the initial encounter with the English cavalry. It was the Irish cavalry that committed the greatest blunder of the day. After advancing against the English, they were suddenly thrown back by a volley of gunfire and fled in great disorder into their own infantry, causing what Ekin refers to as “a compression wave” to set in. He compares what happened next to recent crowd disasters. “When crowds are tightly compressed, as at a sports match or a rock concert, the slightest movement can rapidly gather powerful energy, amassing enough force to bend steel railings five centremeters thick.” In other words, when O’Neill’s cavalry plunged into the “tightly packed foot soldiers, those in the front few ranks had to step back” (p. 282), creating enough momentum to literally knock soldiers off their feet! Ekin also endorses Morgan’s view that the horses of the Irish were simply too small to stand up to the English cavalry, and that the saddles and harnesses that the Spanish had brought with them were for larger mounts. He also discounts the views of Archer and Oviedo that “Águila had heard the noise of the battle but ignored it as an English ruse.” In fact, he believes that Águila heard nothing “because the battle was fought on a low plain several kilometres beyond an eighty-metre high hill” and that the rainy weather “could have drowned out the muffled pops of muskets” (pp. 279). This was actually an example of a rare phenomenon known as an “acoustic shadow,” which can obscure the sounds of battle, even artillery, at short distances, as happened during the Battle of Perryville in the American Civil War. The gunfire heard by many at Kinsale was actually after the battle, when the victorious English troops returned to their trenches in celebration.

The last part of the book covers the negotiations between Águila and Mountjoy that led to the surrender of Kinsale. In return for surrendering the town, and all of the other Spanish enclaves in Ireland, Águila was permitted to depart with all of his forces, arms, and baggage. Ekin believes that Águila did everything that a commander could have reasonably done, that the surrender agreement was an honorable exit, and that even a victory of sorts as English losses far exceeded those of the Spaniards. Ekin estimates that Águila returned with “60-70 percent of his original force” while Mountjoy’s losses came to six thousand and may have been even as high as ten thousand (p. 304). Indeed, in the subsequent inquiry held over the conduct of the campaign in 1603, Águila was cleared of any charges of misconduct. But it is important to stress that this is a Spanish perspective. The whole “victory in defeat” image rings hollow when viewed from the perspective of the Gaelic Irish. For them Kinsale was a catastrophe.  

Ekin has thus written a colorful and exciting narrative of popular history in the same category as works by Winston Graham (The Spanish Armadas [1972]), Richard Berleth (The Twilight Lords: Elizabeth I and the Plunder of Ireland [1978, revised edition 2002]), and Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe [1992]). But like these, Ekin’s work suffers from some mechanical flaws that detract from its use as an academic work. For example, Ekin does not employ a coherent system of footnotes or endnotes; he does includes notes at the end of his book but they are by no means a complete record of his sources, and this makes it difficult to figure out where exactly he got his information. Another problem is the absence of an index for the purposes of cross-referencing as well as maps to follow the progress of the siege and battle. There are a few maps at the beginning of the book, excerpts taken from Pacata Hibernia (1633), but they only give a limited view of the places in question. Moreover, Ekin uses the old Julian calendar of dating, which makes it difficult to follow when discussing the Spanish side of the conflict and comparing it to Spanish records. Yet all the same, for a non-historian, Ekin has done a fine job, and historians will find his account of the campaign both useful and enlightening.


[1]. James FitzThomas Fitzgerald is a figure from the 1590s. He is known as the “Súgán Earl” of Desmond in Irish history. The Gaelic nickname literally means the “straw rope” earl, which is an allusion to his hollow title to the earldom of Desmond. FitzThomas declared himself the Earl of Desmond with the backing of the Irish confederates (Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell). The earldom had been broken up after the Second Rising ended in 1583. He was one of the claimants and joined the confederate cause.

[2]. John J. Silke, Kinsale: The Spanish Intervention in Ireland at the End of the Elizabethan Wars (1967; repr., Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), 32.

[3]. Gil González Davila, Historia de la Vida y Hechos del Inclito Monarca Amado y Santo Don Felipe Tercero (Madrid: Don Bartholomé Ulloa, 1771), 74-75.

[4]. Colección de Documentos inéditos para la Historia de España (Madrid: Imprenta de Miguel Ginesta, 1880), 74:363. Captain Alonso Vazquez specifically stated that Leiva was the Maestre de Campo General of the 1597 armada.

[5]. Gaston de Carné, Correspondance de Duc de Mercoeur et Des Ligueurs Bretons avec l’Espagne (Nantes: Société des Bibliophiles Bretons, 1899), 132.

[6]. Edward Tenace, “A Strategy of Reaction: The Armadas of 1596 and 1597 and the Spanish Struggle for European Hegemony,” English Historical Review 118, no. 478 (September 2003): 859.

[7]. Patrick Frances Moran, History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin since the Reformation (Dublin: James Duffy, 1864), 195, 199, 200.

[8]. Ibid., 204.

[9]. Silke, Kinsale, 69-70.

[10]. Ibid., 75, 86, 87-88.

[11]. M. D. O’Sullivan, “Matthew de Oviedo, Archbishop of Dublin, and the Counter-Reformation,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 17, no. 65 (March 1928): 104-105.

[12]. Silke, Kinsale, 73, 79, 86-87, 106.

[13]. Ibid., 109.

[14]. Ibid., 113-114.

[15]. Ibid., 114.

[16]. James Coombes and Niall J. Ware, “The Letter Book of General de Zubiaur: A Calendar of the ‘Irish’ Letters,” Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 83, no. 237 (1978): 53.

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Citation: Edward Tenace. Review of Ekin, Des, The Last Armada: Queen Elizabeth, Juan del Águila, and the 100-Day Spanish Invasion of England. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49014

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