Beheading the Papal Army in Ireland

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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…

Question for students (and subscribers): How can anyone justify killing each other over religious differences?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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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!


About Author

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 in Ohio.