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Honour and Violence in Elizabethan Military Accounts

Michael E. Broughton | University of Sheffield

‘He killed man, woman, and child, and spoiled, wasted, and burned, by the ground all that he might … his manner was that the heads of all those which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies … should there be laid on the ground, by each side of the way leading into his own tent: so that none could come into his tent for any cause, but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads, which he used ad terrorem’.
Thomas Churchyard, A general rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes Choise (London, 1579).

This infamous account of the atrocities committed by Humphrey Gilbert during his service against the Irish Geraldine rebels in 1569 has been cited as an example of Elizabethan violence, terror, and inhumanity against those they sought to subjugate. Contemporaries justified these acts of violence within the context of early English colonisation efforts, emphasising the perceived natural inferiority of the Irish and exploiting the lack of traditionally defined ethics surrounding their treatment. Gilbert, the half-brother of Walter Raleigh, was notable as much for his military pursuits as his New World colonial exploits and has been characterised as a cruel and ‘disturbed’ man whose propensity for brutality achieved a degree of historical notoriety. Why was this extreme episode of violence in Munster published openly in Elizabethan print, particularly given its exposure of the English military’s moral depravity?

A map of the Province of Munster from 1589.
Figure 1: Francis Jobson, The Province of Munster (1589) - Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD MS 1209/36.

Although the English serving in Ireland undoubtedly dehumanised the local populace, particularly the ‘wild’ Irish soldiers, or ‘kerns’, that lived amongst ‘uncivil’ bogs and woods, Churchyard’s account also paradoxically fits into a pattern of English martial rhetoric that emphasised honour. Military reports of this period utilised violence in a variety of ways, as authors could describe allied casualties, signifying sacrifice, and worthy military service. Others depicted acts of cruelty to delegitimise a dishonourable enemy or as a form of revenge disguised as a pragmatic tool of war; the pillaging and looting of hostile territory served to deny enemy logistics whilst simultaneously acting as a clear reprisal for English military losses. This intersection of honour and violence thus hints at the varied and complex expressions of English martial culture, one that both justified and celebrated the acts of violence that filled the pages of contemporary treatises, pamphlets, and broadsheets.

Portrait of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Compton Castle (circa 1584).
Figure 2: Portrait of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Compton Castle (circa 1584).

Thomas Churchyard’s account of Gilbert’s terror tactics in Ireland appears as a brutally honest depiction of the English campaigns that all too often involved indiscriminate killings and cruelty. Churchyard himself seems to acknowledge how these truths could be unpalatable to the public, stating that the tactics ‘may be thought to cruel’, yet he provides multiple ‘excuses’ for this ‘severe’ government. He reports that the rebels were slaughtered if they refused the ‘sacred’ Queen’s mercy that was offered to them, thus voiding the honour implicit in English conceptions of the law of war.

Such episodes of violence can also be seen on the continent, as besieging armies were liable to ‘put all to the sword’ if they faced resistance and mercy was refused. Civilians were not under any formal legal protection during war, yet Churchyard’s barefaced public recognition of the indiscriminate violence against civilians throughout Munster is uncommon. Those branded as ‘rebels’ were subject to harsh measures under ‘martial law’, with Churchyard arguing that violence ‘reforms them sooner to obedience, then any courteous dealing’. The protection traditionally granted to those serving in regular armies was negated by the act of rebellion, and Churchyard appears to have justified the violence on the grounds of its necessity in restoring order. However, these seemingly pragmatic motivations were rationalised by an undercurrent of contemporary martial values and ethics that permeated the literary works of the period.

An image of triumphant English soldiers, carrying severed Irish heads and leading a captive by a halter.
Figure 3: John Derrick, An Image of Ireland (1581) – ‘The English soldiers return in triumph, carrying severed Irish heads and leading a captive by a halter’.

The massacre of irregular combatants in Ireland was not limited to kernes, as demonstrated in Anthony Munday’s 1581 pamphlet describing the slaughter of over five hundred men from a multinational Papal army at the Siege of Smerwick (1580); their status as ‘runnagates’ and their support of the Irish rebellion helped justify the killings, and the account is notable for the author’s gleeful prose. Munday mirthfully describes the English looting clothes and valuables from enemy corpses and dressing ‘al modo Italiano’.

A disdain for rebellion within the writings of loyal subjects during this period is also palpable, as illustrated in John Derrick’s The Image of Ireland (1581): ‘there is no society, or fellowship between God, and the Devil, little amity between the wolf and the lamb: like goodwill, between a rebel, and a faithful subject’. Rebellion thus delegitimised the enemy, and overt violence could not only be justified but also celebrated. Churchyard refers to the Irish rebels’ lack of honour in his 1579 account of the death of James Fitzmaurice, a Geraldine rebel commander who was slain in battle following an invasion of Ireland, alluding to his unmarked grave: ‘a rebel lives without love, wanders without wit, fights in fear dies without honour, and lies without a grave’.

Pamphlet Page entitled 'The True Report of the Prosperous Successe'.
Figure 4: Front of Anthony Munday, The True Reporte of the Prosperous Successe (1581).

The Irish kerne were derided throughout contemporary literature owing to their mobile ambush tactics and use of rough terrain, a style of warfare that confounded regular English infantry. The English sought to engage the Irish in the open, using drilled formations, heavy cavalry, and superior logistics to overwhelm the enemy. Irish forces, on the other hand, aimed to draw English troops into bogs and wooded areas that were difficult to supply and traverse with field guns or cavalry, picking them off in ambushes and, if drawn into a conventional fight, ‘flying’ or ‘fleeing’ into familiar terrain.

Contemporary literature frequently described the Irish as ‘flying’ and disparaged this form of combat as cowardly, womanly, or dishonourable. When viewed in the wider context of the wars in Ireland, Churchyard’s account of Gilbert’s atrocities appears as part of a wider system of English martial values that revolved around perceived notions of honour and loyalty to the crown. Gilbert’s actions were recognised as ‘severe’ and potentially distasteful, yet they could be justified by his contemporaries due to the ‘dishonourable’ combat employed by the Irish. Churchyard refers directly to the ‘flying’ Irish as he explains that Gilbert’s actions served to deny enemy logistics, killing civilians and livestock, and thus prevented the Irish from waging unconventional warfare:

‘the men of war could not be maintained, without their churles, and calliackes, or women, who milked their creates, and provided their victuals … the killing of them by the sword, was the way to kill the men of war by famine, who by flight oftentimes saved themselves from the dint of the sword’.

An image of an armed company of the kerne.
Figure 5: John Derrick, An Image of Ireland (1581) – ‘An armed company of the kerne, carrying halberds and pikes and led by a piper, attack and burn a farmhouse and drive off the horses and cattle’.

Churchyard further alludes to the retributive nature of this violence when justifying the mutilation and display of the Irish dead, stating that Gilbert ‘did but then begin that order with them, which they had in effect ever tofore used toward the English’. He claims that by killing men, women, and children, Gilbert ultimately prevented future bloodshed as his reputation and the threat of violence led to the surrender of more fortifications than could be won by his small force alone: ‘it made short wars’. The use of violence thus takes on a perceived pragmatism, whilst the prevalent themes of honour and loyalty within English military culture provide a rationale for public depictions of extreme cruelty in popular print.

John Derrick, An Image of Ireland (1580) – ‘The Irish chieftain receives the priest's blessing before departing to fight the English, who are shown in full armour’.
Fig. 6: John Derrick, An Image of Ireland (1580) – ‘The Irish chieftain receives the priest's blessing before departing to fight the English, who are shown in full armour’.

Violence could, however, also take on more positive associations within the same corpus of printed works. Churchyard’s status as a veteran of campaigns in Scotland, Ireland, France, and the Low Countries shines through in all his writings. He often declared that he sought to credit worthy English warriors with reports of their exploits and hopefully inspire emulation whilst endeavouring to gain the favour of various wealthy patrons within England’s military milieu. Honour was central to Churchyard’s conceptions of ideal military and masculine behaviour, defined by noble actions in combat and courage. Taking casualties or even a ‘manful death’ were signifiers of stoicism, endurance, and the hazard of battle, all emblems of honourable martial conduct. We see this in multiple English printed texts, with long lists of allied casualties becoming commonplace epilogues in the military news genre. Accounts would emphasise when a commander had their horse shot out from underneath them, demonstrating the hazards present when valiantly charging on horseback.

Churchyard’s portrayal of his own services during the 1558 defence of Guines uses dramatic descriptions of violence to illustrate the endurance and valour of Englishmen: ‘a cannon shot took away the form, and brake sir Harry Palmers leg … a great shot took off master Wakes head … my Capitaines head was smitten of with a Cannons shot, and Capitaine Diffkie was wounded to the death’. Violence served an illustrative purpose in these accounts and contributed to the popular portrayal of English martial heroism. Violence was intended to inspire and advance the renown of the English soldiery - the status of ‘veteran’ was admired not simply for the noble exploits of these men but also for the scars and wounds they carried.

Contemporary print demonstrates that violence was a necessary and even celebrated feature of English military culture; how it was depicted varied greatly depending on the subject matter and theatre of war. The common theme that unites these morally disparate descriptions of violence is the contemporary obsession with honour woven into constructions of English military identity. The chivalric influence that informed English literary representations of bloodshed was strained as increasingly accurate reports of warfare exposed the horrific realities of combat. The connection that English writers forged between violence and honour in this period both contributed to the glorification of war and the notion of the idealised English soldier, thus justifying and even enabling the atrocities committed by the English military throughout the Irish campaigns and beyond.


Primary Sources:

  • Anon, The Politique taking of Zutphen Skonce (London, 1591)

  • Anthony Munday, The true reporte of the prosperous successe which God gaue vnto our English souldiours against the forraine bands of our Romaine enemies lately ariued (London, 1581)

  • John Derrick, An Image of Ireland (London, 1580)

  • Thomas Churchyard, A general rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes Choise (London, 1579)

  • Thomas Churchyard, The moste true reporte of James Fitz Morrice death (London, 1579)

Further Reading:

  • Jeremy Black, European Warfare, 1494-1660 (London, 2002)

  • Paul J. Voss, Elizabethan News Pamphlets: Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe & the Birth of Journalism (Pittsburgh, 2001)

  • James O’Neill, ‘Like sheep to the shambles? Slaughter and surrender during Tyrone’s rebellion, 1593-1603’, The Irish Sword: The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland (2018), pp.366-380.

  • Nicholas P. Canny, ‘The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America’, The William and Mary Quarterly, (1973), pp. 575- 598.

  • Willy Maley, Brendan Bradshaw, Andrew Hadfield (eds), Representing Ireland: Literature and the Origins of Conflict, 1534-1660 (Cambridge, 1993).

Michael Broughton is a PhD research student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include Elizabethan martial discourse, print culture, and warfare in the Low Countries, France, and Ireland. He is currently studying accounts of conflict throughout Europe and has lectured on the development of unconventional warfare in the late sixteenth century.


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