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!

Matthew Zarzeczny

Matthew graduated with a B.A. in French and history from Baldwin-Wallace College. At BW, Matthew minored in political science. He earned a Master’s in History at Kent State University and a Ph.D. in History from the Ohio State University. He teaches history at Ashland University, John Carroll University, and Kent State University at Stark.

  • 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.