Beheading the Papal Army in Ireland


A Brief History

On October 10, 1580, after a three-day siege, an English army beheaded over 600 Papal soldiers and civilians in Ireland.

Digging Deeper

In the decades following the religious turmoil brought about by the Protestant Reformation, the various Christian groups of Europe battled each other in wars to either assert their religious independence or to forcibly convert their enemies.

One of the most infamous examples of religious violence occurred in the British isles where King Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church primarily to divorce one wife so as to marry another.  Henry’s reign is remembered for his having executed two wives and being succeeded by monarchs, two of his Protestant children and one Catholic, who faced a series of serious religious tensions.  After all, his first daughter, the Catholic one, is even known to history as “Bloody” Mary.


Mary’s Protestant sister, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen after whom the U.S. state of Virginia is named, reigned over England during much of these tensions (she reigned from 1558 to 1603, one of the longest reigns of an English monarch).  She may have gone down in history as Gloriana and the queen of England’s Golden Age of Shakespeare, but her reign was really no less bloody than Mary’s!

As a Protestant monarch, Elizabeth’s kingdom supported Dutch Protestant rebels against Catholic Spanish and Italian forces, sent pirates known as “sea dogs” to harass Spanish ships, and perhaps even most infamously had the former Catholic queen of Scotland (Mary) beheaded.

It should come as little surprise then that Catholic Europe would want to diminish her influence.  Most famous was King Philip II of Spain’s failed attempt to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588.  Nevertheless, the Spanish attempt at an invasion of the British Isles was actually NOT the first during Elizabeth’s reign.

In fact, a much smaller expedition consisting of some 600-700 Spanish and Italian Papal troops landed in Ireland in Autumn 1580 to aid Irish resistance to English rule.  The army, financed by Pope Gregory XIII (yes, the same one from this article…What can we say?  He was an important pope!), eventually found itself besieged by a rival English army at Smerwick starting on October 7, 1580.  After three days, the Italian commander of the Papal forces surrendered to the English commander Arthur Grey.

What Grey did next with his captives almost defies comprehension and the victims included not just the Papal invaders, but even some Irish civilians.  Some of those who refused to acknowledge the religious supremacy of Elizabeth as head of the Anglican Church were sent to a blacksmith to have the bones of their hands and feet broken with mallets.  One priest also had his thumbs and forefingers cut off.  At least three men were hanged before being ripped apart by Grey’s soldiers who used the hanged men’s corpses for target practice!  Others, possibly even pregnant women, were more mercifully beheaded by the sword before having their corpses tossed into the ocean.  Perhaps only 13 men from the invasion survived the massacre.

Sadly, this incident was neither the first nor the last in the centuries long conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland…

Historical Evidence

Two decent articles on the web that explore this atrocity in greater detail can be found here and here.  We encourage those interested in Irish history to read both of these articles.  Surely they present a different version of Elizabeth’s reign than typically seen in such films as Elizabeth: The Golden Age!

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history at multiple universities.

  • NFB

    Thanks you for the link.

  • Danielle

    Overall, in sight of the massacres against the Papal Legion under Elizabeth I, the reigns of both
    Elizabeth I and Mary I can be seen as extremely bloody. Neither monarch feared the repercussions of taking lives. Mary ordered the massacre Protestants and anyone who opposed her Catholic rule, and throughout her reign she was always seen as a little crazy. Elizabeth, too, was not shy about shedding blood, as can be seen in this massacre. She also ordered the execution of her sister in order to secure her place on the throne. But overall, England was a much more stable country under Elizabeth I than under Mary I, which I believe made her a better monarch.

  • S M K

    Wow, this was brutal! Crazy what differences in religious ideology can get people to do!

  • Matt Pentello

    Wow. My hands are my life. Having them broken or fingers cut off would devastate me. At that point I’d probably ask them to kill me haha

  • Judy Lin

    If Elizabeth I lasted this long as a monarch, then she must have been that powerful. Especially if she was known to rule alone and not by a mans side like all the other female rulers of that time.

  • Bricker

    Until this day, religion still is an issue of contention. The Irish Catholics still do not agree with the Protestants. Other countries have religious wars going on . We will never agree when it comes to religion. That is why people should never discuss religion and politics.

  • SGower

    The whole killing and maiming someone because they do not agree with your religion, I just do not understand….

  • Regal

    Its amazing to me how many bystanders just like to watch as all this happens, sure there were some that stayed home but still so many that watched the torture

  • Josh Y.

    These events would make a great basis for a Mr. Peadbody and Sherman sequel…

  • kferencik

    Where was the mind set or all these people. The past articles have been nothing of brutal killing.

  • SGower

    I’ll never understand how killing anyone who didn’t believe as you did should merit death. Threatening death for not converting to ones religion doesn’t make for true believers of that religion… so what is the point?

  • Alycia Krosnick

    Amazes me how many people attended these murders, killing and torturing people was like entertainment to them.

  • Jake

    Catholics and Protestants have the same core beliefs and are very similar in many ways so I don’t get why they would be torturing and killing each other.

  • Nicole

    I think it’s ridiculous that the rulers of these countries prosecuted those with different religious beliefs. The incredibly high death count as well as conflicts with different countries could have been avoided if Mary and/or Elizabeth had just declared religious tolerance for the other.

  • RJ

    Elizabeth’s reign is most impressive because it stretch over 6 decades. She must have had a cutthroat character to rule for so many years.

  • Patrick Roder

    oh nothing like some broken hands and feet to start your day off.

  • M.S.

    King Henry VIII was not so lucky in love…

  • Mark Kovalsky

    In most instances, Catholics and Prtestants are very simalar, So at what point does it become a conflict of power than a conflict of religious differences.

  • Mike Rinicella

    The way they executed people was very brutal! When they didn’t have much technology they had no choice

  • Ben Nevers

    It is interesting that this smaller battle but a huge massacre is not explained as heavily as the invasion by the spanish armada. Also it is interesting to see how Catholics too participated in “holy wars” as now we mainly see these wars occurring in the middle east.

  • NS

    This article was interesting because a lot of times the darker events in a time period are forgotten to preserve a certain image of a ruler or individual, which seems to be apparent with the handling of Elizabeth’s story. The story is brutal but it is history, and the truth usually offers more information into what the individuals were really like.

  • Corey McComas

    I found it disturbing and interesting the methods of execution and torture that were used. More often than not, you don’t hear about people getting their feet crushed or hanging them from a tree to use their body for target practice. Another fact that really surprised me was that they spared no mercy when it came to killing people, seeing that they even beheaded pregnant women.

  • Tom Kubrak

    I just cannot imagine these beheadings that were sometimes just in the streets for all to see such as children. Wouldn’t that completely scar them? Now this type of violence only shows up during video games for kids to see.

  • David Purcel

    It is disturbing how acceptable beheadings were at this time. People would gather around to watch these, and I will never understand how people could enjoy such a thing.

  • Anthony Jasany

    It is amazing that the beheading took place in public where anyone, even children, could. I think it would be pretty traumatic to see this.

  • Jake Woolf

    “Have you ever been so desperate to leave your wife that you found a religious sect to do so? I have.” – Henry VIII

  • Madison Ertle

    It is disturbing to see how it was acceptable for people to harm others publicly and it be normal! I believe that would be pretty traumatic to watch!

  • nate haller

    its hard to imagine that this was ok at the time to be head 600 people just like that and not care in public like its just another day. i know i think it be something very traumatic to see this happen and have not any one care or react to it.

  • N Beauchemin

    Amazing how much of the Catholic v.v Protestant conflict played out in Ireland even into the 1970s.

  • SW

    So not only were those active in the battle killed but also women and I assume children? It seems like the way they were killed was rather excessive too!

  • JEL

    As I said in a previous article, these types of atrocities were not uncommon in warfare.

  • DC

    Some times when you think about it the human race can be so violent and sickening. The things people are okay with doing to harm one another during a war turns my stomach. So many were brutally murdered, and they didn’t stop there, their bodies were then abused after death.

  • kk

    That’s very brutal. I do not think it was necessary to do that to the people. Especially breaking the body parts with the mallets and cutting off people fingers.

  • ryan C

    I think its completly wrong to do that to another human. Being torched is worse than just straight being killed in my option. You can actually feel the pain when getting torchered, but when your shot or whatever you dont.

  • AS

    Having your bones broken by a blacksmith does not sound pleasant at all

  • Brianna V

    Killing people is bad enough but to do it in such an awful way so that they feel all sorts of pain is just awful. I don’t see how these people could sleep at night.

  • Meg Arrendale

    It sounds horrible to have your bones broken! I do not like pain! This is incredibly brutal.

  • MMA

    why is it so common to torture people? Killing them is bad enough now we are breaking bones too? I broke a bone once on my own I would never want someone to break my bones as punishment!

  • Loren deck

    I find it very ironic that people who have nearly the same religion would butcher eachother so easily

  • DW

    Certainly does defy comprehension. I Wonder how bad the battle was going. I can’t imagine refusing to surrender and continuing to fight could have held a worse fate. If it did, that is a scary thought.

  • Sarah Shaheen

    I noticed a lot of irony in this..

  • Kamarin R

    The torture that people were subjected to during this time was brutal to say the least.

  • Erin R

    I will never understand why torture why so normal during this time period.

  • Alex Hewitt

    Torture is such a cowardly act. I think torture is worse than regular death.

  • Andy frick

    In this day and age it is hard to imagine the conflict between Protestants and Catholics could have been so brutal.

  • A Duncan

    More deaths over religion. I really just wish everyone could have just accepted all of the religions and focused on more important stuff. People were so violent.

  • CJ

    The brutality is ridiculous and it was over religion again. Religion is a big part of life, but not a big enough part to kill people over.

  • APG

    To use corpses as target practice is just poking fun at death and making light of serious situations where killings could have been avoided had people not been so ignorant with their beliefs.

  • Christian Creamer

    People cared more for what religion you were, and went to war over it, when it really did not matter. They honestly should have had some religious freedom.

  • Matt Smail

    deaths on religion is always a headline. which is sad and unfortunate to see. seems that is all we fight about now a days. freedom of speech and freedom of religion are two of the most influential aspects about most societies. why cant we all just be equal and not kill each other over a race or religion? not saying America does this, but overall in my case.

  • Dakota A rinier

    Religion was never meant for war but people will fight for what they believe in

  • ac

    So many deaths over religion, it is terrible and evil.

  • Tevin Knerr

    People who did not accept Elizabeth as head of the Angelican Church were tortured. That isn’t what God wanted. They used religion to do horrible things.