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Sir John Bolle's Campaign in Ulster

Back to Sir John Bolle at Dunnalong Fortress
In September 1600, after the establishment of the fortifications at Dunnalong, Sir John obtained permission from Governor Mountjoy to return to his home in Lincolnshire.  While there he wrote to Cecil asking to be allowed to remain in England.

Docwra had also written to Cecil asking for additional forces and implying that Bolle was insufficient to the task he was assigned.  On Sept. 10 Cecil wrote to Sir John at Louth that her Majesty was very displeased with these reports from them, denied any additional troops for Docwra and ordered Sir John to return to Ireland.  On Oct. 13 Sir John wrote again to Cecil from his home at Thorphall near Louth, Lincolnshire, mentioning that although he had heard that the Spanish had landed in Munster “in a place where I once commanded” (note: as the Spanish had landed at Kinsale, co. Cork on Oct. 2, this is the only reference that I can find that validates references online that Sir John had once served as Governor of Kinsale) and that supplies are to be sent there and to Lough Foyle immediately, he begged leave of that service or at least if he must go that “I be employed somewhere where Sir Henry Docwra may not command me”.  He also mentions that he did not go to see Cecil in person as his wife “who is too impatient of my absence, is at this time sick.”

Queen Elizabeth intervened to put an end to the argument and ordered Bolles and the Lord Deputy “to compose their differences and think of her service rather than their own careers”.  Sir John was back in Derry under Docwra’s command by the end of October.

On his return Sir John turned his attention to the Queen's order, to bring an end to the Ulster Chiefs resistance to English rule by whatever means were required The English force had a tremendous advantage.  They were secure in a strong point which the Irish clans had not the artillery to force; they were well supplied with boats and ships, and they could choose their point of attack while being sure of an easy and safe retreat. Within days he led an expeditionary force against O'Donnell's stronghold of Lifford Castle which provided little resistance.  That same day Strabane was burned by O'Donnell's men to prevent it falling into English hands.

"The 8[th], Neale Garve, understanding that O'Donnell was come out of Connaught into the country, dealt with the Governor to send some forces with him that night to possess Lifford. Whereupon Sir John Bolles was sent away with 500 foot and 30 horse of ours. That night they marched, and came to Lifford at 8 of [the] clock. The 9th, in the morning, as they came near the town, O'Donnell's ward of some thirty men being there ran out of the place, and they were slain all by our men; Neale Garve with his own hands killed six of them. So the Lifford is possessed by us, and our men very well lodged in it. There were gotten three small barks and four boats of the enemy's. That night Strabane was burnt by the enemy." (Captain Humphrey Willis to Sir Robert Cecil, Derry, 29 Oct 1600 CSPI, Ireland Mar-Oct 1600, 534-5) 

The plan was to garrison these forts which the Irish could not attack as they had no artillery and which could be supplied by sea from England while maintaining a scorched earth policy in the agriculture based economy of Ulster.  As Bolles wrote to Lord Cecil on March 7, 1601, regarding the ways that Ireland could be subjugated:

“the first is by the Priests, who, as divers of them have deeply sworn to me, are more desirous of peace than the people, if they might be assured to have their consciences free, and to enjoy the livings they have, which they yet account as lost, whensoever Her Majesty shall possess the land in peace.  Hereof if they were satisfied, they would soon draw in the layman, for such is their power over the consciences even of the wickedest of them, that they dare do nothing to disobey them.  The second way I take to be, denying to receive any of them in, but such as come armed, and by some bloody service testify their purpose to be loyal.  Hereby shall all the peasants, women and children be forced to live of the last year’s store, and, being kept by dispersed garrisons from ploughing, must the next year of necessity starve.  But, if a  middle course betwixt these two be held, the protraction of the war will be greater than Her Majesty will like, an if in the meantime any disaster should happen, all that had gone before were utterly lost.”

According to Bolles the perfect cure was to keep the people from ploughing by dispersed garrisons, and to force them to live on their stocks so that they would starve in the following year. 

"Whereby in my poor opinion there are two ways open to the pacifying of this land; the one speedy but of doubtful continuance; the other assured to make a perfect cure but will ask more time; ..... The second way I take to be, denying to receive any of them in, but such as come armed, and by some bloody service testify their purpose to be loyal.  Hereby shall all the peasants, women and children be forced to live on last year's store, and being kept by dispersed garrisons from ploughing, must the next year of necessity starve.  How infallible a course this is, the late wars of Connaught, finished by this means only, can testify." (Sir John Bolle to Cecil, 7 March 1601, CSPI 1 Nov. 1600-31 July 1601, 206-07)

This was no doubt attractive from the military point of view but as he commented ‘less consideration seems to have been given to the long-term effects of such a ruthless policy upon those whom it was hoped to govern peaceably.’ 

In the same letter Bolles relates the story of one of the first major raids that would occupy this second year. On this raid he says: “We got about 80 lean cows and burned many more in the houses, besides sheep, goats and corn and slew betwixt 80 and 100 persons. This was in O’Cahan’s country, and his people being gathered in small numbers together fought with us the marching of 5 miles, but so coldly that in all that time they killed but one of our men and hurt 5.”

They continued to make forays into the land along the Foyle spoiling crops, killing cattle and any Irish they came across and generally causing as much havoc as possible.  On one foray in March 1601 Bolles’ party chanced upon the Bishop of Derry and his party fleeing inland away from the English invasion.  The Irish defended themselves and the entire entourage was killed before they knew who they had.  Bolles wrote in his report on the foray to Lord Cecil “The Bishop of Derry who is said to be the first and chief contriver of this general defection and combination with the Spaniards and has himself been thrice at Rome and oft in Spain to negotiate, God gave him into my hand upon Ash Wednesday at night, but before I could come to him, the soldiers had slain him.  We got there about 80 lean cows and burned many more in the houses, besides sheep, goats and corn and slew betwixt 80 and 100 persons.”

With major battles going on in Cork, the troops in Lough Foyle were ordered to consolidate their current positions rather than gaining any new ground.  Sitting patiently under a commander he did not like and just holding down a garrison fortress was very unsatisfying for the experienced soldier.  On Mar. 1, 1601 Sir John wrote to Sir Robert Cecil in London that he  “recontinued his suit for freedom from this place , wherein I am so curbed, or at least that, wanting means to do anything, I might be excused for doing nothing” and on March 16 he wrote “I beg leave to return for a time into England if the necessity of my poor estate urge me thereunto, for my steward, in whose hands I had left it wholly, is dead ... yet I would not return till I had your honourable allowance thereof.”

Very soon after that the fortress saw its only significant action when it was attacked by the Earl of Tyrone with about 500 men.  The counterattack from the men garrisoned in the fortress supported by Irish soldiers who had been enlisted to the English side practically wiped out the Earl’s force and quickly put them to flight. 

In May 1601 Sir John was granted another leave to return to England for a term and was again asked to make a report in London. Likely mindful of the debate created by his report the year before, he prepared himself by writing to Docwra, who was then pursuing a campaign throughout the north while Sir John remained at Dunalong.  He presented Docwra with a list of questions which he would likely be asked in London and requesting Docwra’s response to each as “these things cannot well be answered by me according to your mind, unless you further my memory with your writing, neither would I indeed speak of any of these things which are to be done, without your hand to warrant it to be according to your purpose.” 

These questions included:

 “What course you intend to take for the finishing of this war... within what time... what impediments you find and how you desire to have them removed?” and “what particulars will you need for your plan to plant a garrison at Ballyshannon, how many men to go by land and how many boats, how they shall be provided with houses, be victualled, paid and supplied after, how many men will stay and how many will return and how will you prevent interference from the men of Tyrone while on the way there or on the return and when shall this be undertaken?” 

He wasn’t taking any chance that he would be accused of misrepresenting Docwra this time.

By June Bolles was back on his estate in Louth, Lincolnshire and again he preferred not to return to Ireland.  From Louth he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil

“Though many private respects do justly draw me to desire to leave the longer following of the Irish wars, ... (not wishing to appear to be derogatory to Sir Henry Docwra or to  appear to be attempting to supplant him) ... I humbly and unfeignedly beseech your Honour, that you would vouchsafe to be a means for my stay in England, and the bestowing of my company of foot upon Mr Farmer, my Lieutenant, according to your honourable purpose the last year.  He is a young gentleman of good sufficiency, and in that he is my brother-in-law, and hath served long, I must see that he want not; which maketh me become so bold a suitor on his behalf, and I do it the rather also because I might not seem to have left the wars in disgrace.” full text

The taking of Ballyshannon, which Bolles referred to in his list of questions for Docwra mentioned above, in order to establish a fortress in the west of Ulster was key to dividing the remaining Irish forces in Connaught and Ulster from combining or coming to each other’s aid.  An earlier attempt to take Ballyshannon by Sir Conyers Clifford had failed and resulted in the loss of two field cannons to the Irish.  From Fall 1600 there are regular references that a major expedition was planned for July 1601 and that once that was achieved it would bring the war to an end. 

Sir Johns attempts to separate himself from Docwra fit in well with the plans to advance on to Ballyshannon.  Sir John had the experience and by the timing of his requests had made himself available.  Rather than being allowed to leave the wars, he was then asked to be the one to take a force from Lough Foyle to take Ballyshannon and establish the fort there.  Bolles prior experience at establishing bases at Lough Foyle, Derry and Dunalong led him to produce a list of requirements that had to be met if he was to accept the assignment.  He asked leave to refuse the assignment if he was not furnished with what he needed to perform the task. Ref  He seems to have also asked that his family accompany him as he states that he wishes “to live myself as undivorced  from my wife, undeprived of my children, from whom I can neither in affection nor in conscience live perpetually severed.”

Upon receiving orders at Derry in August 1601 to march on Ballyshannon Docwra had discovered that he had insufficient supplies of match for his artillery and reported back that he had to defer his journey.  Lord Deputy Mountjoy then changed his strategy from expansion to the consolidation of their present holdings, strengthening their existing forts and continuing their scorched earth policy in order to break the northern Earl’s through starvation.  Sir John is on the bi-monthly Army Pay Lists for the forces at Lough Foyle (Derry) under Sir Henry Docwra on August 10, 1601; October, 1601; and on December 4, 1601. (Note: he would have remained on the pay lists even during the time he returned to England between major engagements.  Likely he had the additional task of lobbying the Queen and her Council for more supplies or for the planning of their next offensive.)

Hearing that Red Hugh O’Donnell had left Ballyshannon to seek help from the Spanish, Docwra decided this was an opportune time to finally launch his offensive on Ballyshannon.  In December he marched overland from Derry to Donegal Castle with 6 companies of foot and relieved the English garrison there which had been weakened by a major explosion and fire in their storehouses in September which had blown a hole right through the castle’s outer walls.   He left two new companies there and then had a look at Ballyshannon’s defenses.  Realizing that more artillery would be needed to take the castle, he left two of his companies a short way up the Erne River from Ballyshannon at Ashrowe Abbey under Captain Digges command and then returned to Derry to send the cannons.  They arrived at Ballyshannon on March 20 and by March 25, 1602 Captain Digges had taken the castle.
Some online references state that the English took Ballyshannon in the spring of 1601.  That is actually also correct.  At that time they still used the ‘old calendar’ under which the new year started on March 25.  So the battle took place from March 20 to 24, 1601 and the castle yielded on March 25, the first day of 1602. 

We know that Sir John’s company was one the two left at Donegal as he is listed in the Army List at O’Boyle’s Castle near Donegal  with Captain Gore and 300 men on January 6, 1601/02.  (ref)

With the fall of their last stronghold in the north, the Earls of Tirconnell and Tyrone, O’Donnell and O’Neill, accepted a negotiated peace but facing increased antagonism from the English, the Earls, with many of their supporters, left Ireland in 1607 in the famous ‘Flight of the Earls’ after which England’s control of Ireland was complete.

I cannot find any further reference to Sir John Bolles in Ireland after this point.  For the first time since the occupation started, he is not included in the list of the officers under Sir Henry Docwra taken on Aug. 20, 1602 or in the ‘List of the Army in Ireland as it Stands on 30 September 1602’. (the army lists are found in the Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland, Vol. 11; ref below)

However, there was one more interesting Bolles family history development at this point.  As mentioned above, Sir John Bolles had written to Lord Cecil in June 1600 asking to be relieved from his command and for his brother-in-law Lieutenant Farmer to be put in charge of his company of foot but this request was denied.  From December 1601 to March 1602, Sir John was in garrison at Donegal undoubtedly with his Lieutenant Farmer at his side.  Sir John does not appear in any further army lists after April 1602 but starting in the September 30, 1602 list, they do include a Captain Farmer in charge of a company of foot encamped at Belleek, Fermanagh just 5 miles from Ballyshannon. (ref below)  It would appear that Sir John’s request to be relieved had at last occurred and that his company was now under the command of his Lieutenant, now Captain, Farmer.

Captain Farmer is still at Belleek in the November 20 army list but that same month, with the last of Tyrone's northern bastions taken, the army in the north was being wound down.  The list of ‘Discharges from the Irish Army in November 1602’ includes a Captain Farmer who was ‘cashed’ at Ballyshannon with 150 men.  Neither Sir John’s Lieutenant Farmer nor the Captain Farmer at Belleek and Ballyshannon have been listed so far with a given name.  That has left open the possibility that he might have been the Robert Farmer mentioned as being Jasper Farmer of Cork’s ancestor who according to family tradition ‘came to Ireland with Queen Elizabeth’s army around 1600’.  However, there is one more list.  Many of the discharged officers were kept on pay (‘entertainment’) by order of the Lords of the Council.  The Apr. 30, 1603 very long ‘List of Lately Discharged Officers Whose Entertainments Are Still Continued to Them’ includes a Captain Thomas Farmar.  (ref below) Sir John Bolles’ brother-in-law and former Lieutenant has finally been given a name and it’s Thomas.  See Sir John Bolles’ Young Lieutenant for more on this question.

With the confiscation of the Earl’s land the English could proceed with their long term plan.  The fortresses at Lough Foyle, Derry, Dunalong, Lifford and Ballyshannon were all ideal for occupying the country as they could be supplied by ships bringing goods from England.  However, their locations also had an ideal role in peace in that they overlooked and protected some of the best planting soil in Ireland.  What they had long wanted to do after the completion of their scorched earth policy was to replace the native Irish Catholic in these rich areas with new Protestant citizens.  In 1609 the English proceeded with a program to ‘plant’ settlers from England and Scotland on land throughout Ulster seized from the Earls.  This became known as The Plantation of Ulster.

Considering that this entire campaign was basically the Anglo Protestant conquest of the native Irish Catholic population it's interesting that Sir John's wife seems to have been Catholic herself.  Shortly after Sir John's death in England his wife was accused of recusancy. 
Grant to Sir Tho. Monson of benefit of the recusancy of Dame Eliz. Bolle, of Thorp-hall, Lincoln. Calendar Volume Title: Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the reign of James I, 1603-1610, preserved in the State Paper Department of her Majesty's Public Record Office. Vol. 1: 1603-1610. Reign: James I   Entry Number: VOL. XXVIII., [101f]   Page Number: 386   Date: Dec. 10 1607; VOL. XXVIII., [101f].  Dec. 10 1607.  Grant to Sir Tho. Monson of benefit of the recusancy of Dame Eliz. Bolle, of Thorp-hall, Lincoln



Further Reading

Anyone wanting to learn any more about Sir John Bolle can read many more of his letters to the Queen's Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, in:
Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland, Vol. 9: March-Oct. 1600

Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland, Vol. 10: November 1, 1600-July 31, 1601


 and in:

And in Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland, Vol. 11: 1601-03



This site was last updated 02/06/21