26 July 1575
Rathlin Island forms a rugged rocky L-shape six miles long, lying just off the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland. By the mid 1570s, Walter Devereux, the first Earl of Essex and a rising star in the Elizbethan court, was increasingly frustrated by Scottish sailors and soldiers using Rathlin as a base from which to resist his ‘enterprise’ for colonising the north east of Ulster with English settlers. The Scots also used it as a sanctuary where they hoped their women, children and the elderly might be safe from rampaging English soldiers.
Esssex masterminded a surprise operation to seize the island. Francis Drake, the legendary Elizabethan sea dog, led a small fleet of ships that ferried 360 soldiers and cannon under the command of Colonel John Norris. They succeeded in landing on the rocky shoreline on 22 July and Drake’s ships provided an effective blockade to prevent any attempt at rescuing the island’s garrison and inhabitants. On 25 July, after three days of siege preparations, Norris’ troops assaulted Rathlin’s castle. The next day the constable of the castle, realising he was heavily outgunned and short of supplies, agreed to surrender and open the gates providing he and his family were guaranteed safe passage.1
Immediately, English soldiers rushed in, slaughtering the garrison of fifty as well as the many refugees from the mainland sheltering inside. Norris then ordered a thorough search of the coastline and caves and the merciless murder of every man, woman and child discovered. Essex himself cheerfully confessed that ‘there were slain that came out of the castle of all sorts 200 and… that they be occupied still in killing and have slain that they have found in caves and in the cliffs of the sea to the number of 300 or 400 more.’ He added, gloatingly, that ‘ Sorley Boy MacDonnell (the Scottish clan leader who had watched the massacre helplessly from the mainland) was likely to have run mad with sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself… and saying that he then lost all he ever had.’2 On hearing the news of the bloodshed, a delighted Queen Elizabeth I informed the Earl.
‘In our name to geve the young gentleman John Norryce who was the execucioner of your well devised enterpryce to understande that uppon your good report made of his well guyding of the same and his other service donne in that ower Realme under you wee will not be unmyndefull thereof.’3
- S.J. Connolly, Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007, p. 147.
- Cited in ‘The Rathlin Island Massacre,’ Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford online resource at url http://rycote.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/rathlin-island-massacre
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