Russell, Sir William (c.1553–1613), 1st Baron Russell , lord deputy of Ireland, was fourth son of Francis Russell, 2nd earl of Bedford, and his wife Margaret, daughter of Sir John St John of Bletsoe, Bedfordshire, England. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was influenced by his Calvinist tutor, Dr Laurence Humphrey. He did not graduate, although he was granted an MA by Oxford in 1595. A committed puritan like his father, he served his monarch Queen Elizabeth I in a number of capacities. MP for Fowey (1572), he was a gentleman pensioner (1572–96), and travelled across Europe (1575–9).
During the latter part of 1579 he went to Ireland as part of the forces raised to defeat the Desmond rebellion in Munster. In October 1580 he was put in command of a troop of horse raised to quell the uprising in Leinster of James Eustace (qv), Viscount Baltinglass, and Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne (qv), the Wicklow-based Gaelic Irish lord. On 4 April 1581 he, along with Sir William Stanley (qv), achieved a notable success when they burned O'Byrne's fort at Ballinacor. On 4 September 1581, as reward for his good service, he was granted a twenty-one-year lease of lands in the counties of Carlow, Kildare, and Dublin, including the abbey of Baltinglass, that had previously belonged to Viscount Baltinglass. Six days later he was knighted by the lord deputy, Arthur Grey (qv), Lord Grey de Wilton. He then returned to England.
He married (13 February) 1585 at Watford, Northamptonshire, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Long of Shingay, Cambridgeshire, and his wife Dorothy. She was a wealthy heiress and this marriage brought land in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire to add to holdings he had already inherited from his father and his older brother Francis. During this period he wrote a treatise on Ireland in which he argued that Ireland could only be secured by harsh methods and that the government should make the reduction of Wicklow a priority, due to its proximity to Dublin. In 1585 he went to the Spanish Netherlands, serving as lieutenant-general of the horse in the earl of Leicester's force. As such he acted as mentor to the youthful colonel-general of the horse, Robert Devereux (qv), 2nd earl of Essex. On 22 September 1586 he famously led a series of cavalry charges on a much larger body of Spanish infantrymen at Zutphen. In 1587 he replaced the late Sir Philip Sidney as governor of Flushing, a post he held until 1589, when he returned to England once more.
Lord deputy; Tyrone's ‘submission’ After living quietly in England for five years, he was appointed (16 May 1594) lord deputy of Ireland, where a confederacy of Ulster lords was in rebellion against the crown. He owed this promotion to his military record, previous experience in Ireland, and the patronage of Essex. The queen seems to have hoped that Russell's military reputation and aristocratic breeding would impress the status-conscious rebels and induce them to come to terms. As a supporter of Essex, Russell was regarded with suspicion by the lord treasurer of England, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who believed that Essex and his cohorts were set on procuring an ill-advised escalation of the already over-stretched English crown's wars with Spain and in Ireland. Realising that Burghley was more influential than Essex and that the lord treasurer's clients largely dominated the Irish administration, Russell tried hard to win his favour. His failure to do so ultimately crippled his administration.
He had barely assumed his position as lord deputy (11 August 1594) when the most powerful lord in Ulster, Hugh O'Neill (qv), 2nd earl of Tyrone, arrived in Dublin on 15 August to offer his submission. Although ostensibly loyal, Tyrone was widely and rightly regarded as the driving force behind the rebel confederacy. Taken aback, Russell deferred to the more experienced members of the Irish privy council, on whose advice he accepted Tyrone's submission on 17 August and permitted him to return home. The queen berated him for this and, although she accepted that he had been badly counselled, this error undermined his credibility in her eyes. Almost immediately after Tyrone's departure, Russell set out for Ulster, where he relieved the beleaguered garrison at Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, before returning to Dublin on 9 September.
This first expedition by Russell set the tone for his term as deputy: he was determined not to be duped by false rebel assurances again, and in December came out in favour of an aggressive military response to the confederates’ provocations. However, this policy was opposed by many of the Irish privy council and alarmed the queen, who was unwilling to countenance the financial cost required for a more thorough prosecution of the war in Ireland. For the moment, an offensive in Ulster was not practical: discounting garrisons needed in Connacht and Munster, he had only about 1,100 soldiers with which to confront the Ulster rebels’ 5,000-strong army. As a result, he turned his attention to his old adversary Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne, who was aligned with the Ulster rebels and had been causing trouble in Leinster. The formidable O'Byrne had been a thorn in the government's side for nearly two decades and Russell could not commit wholly to Ulster while O'Byrne threatened his south flank. In mid January 1595 he surprised O'Byrne by attacking him in the depths of winter, and seized his principal fortress at Ballinacor. Between January and May 1595 he led three expeditions into Wicklow, also taking the opportunity to indulge his passion for hunting. Over 500 royal soldiers were maintained in the region, and their efforts led to the capture and killing of a number of O'Byrne's supporters.
Ulster; the appointment of Norris Alarmed at the possible loss of one of his key allies, Tyrone moved into open rebellion and his confederates stepped up their attacks in Ulster and Connacht in May. This development, combined with the queen's ill-informed criticisms of Russell for neglecting the main theatre of war in Ulster, compelled him to relent in Wicklow just as he was poised to finish off O'Byrne. Fearing that Russell's bellicosity would further alienate the rebels, the queen appointed a client of Burghley, Sir John Norris (qv), as general of the Irish army and gave him special responsibility for Ulster. Russell was dismayed by this appointment because he had previously fallen out with Norris when they had served together in the Netherlands, and because Norris's patent seemed to imply that his authority was equal to that of the lord deputy.
The tension between the two men was apparent on Norris's arrival in Dublin in June, but they attempted to set aside their differences in order to cope with the worsening military crisis. In May Enniskillen fell to the rebels; in June royal forces were badly mauled by the rebels at the battle of Clontibret in Monaghan. Soon after, Russell and Norris marched north and formally proclaimed Tyrone a traitor (23 June). In a campaign that confirmed that the military initiative lay with the rebels, they achieved little apart from establishing a base at Armagh. Revealingly, Russell announced that as Ulster affairs had been entrusted to Norris, he expected that he would not be held responsible for any further setbacks in that province. In late July Tyrone requested a pardon, which Russell rejected out of hand, ignoring Norris's advice to consult with London first.
Nonetheless, after a period of inconclusive campaigning a truce was agreed in October. By then the rebels were seeking an alliance with Spain, which alarmed the queen and led her to favour a speedy negotiated resolution to the conflict. Russell grudgingly accepted this but remained convinced of Tyrone's bad faith and was at pains to disassociate himself from the ensuing talks. In contrast, Norris believed that the government had no option but to seek terms from the rebels. By late 1595 their relationship had deteriorated to such an extent that Norris withdrew to Munster for a time in protest at what he perceived as Russell's attempts to sabotage the negotiations. Events would vindicate Russell's scepticism: the rebels were playing for time in the expectation of Spanish aid in 1596. However, had he supported the negotiations more wholeheartedly, the rebels’ duplicity would have become apparent to the queen much earlier. As it was, they were able to use the dissension between Russell and Norris as an excuse to avoid coming to terms. Russell's unhelpfulness enabled Norris to depict him as an inveterate warmonger in his reports to London. Worse still, by the close of 1595 he had lost the support of his court patron Essex, who wished to lead naval attacks on Spanish territories and did not want these campaigns to be compromised by the need to fight a war in Ireland.
Connacht; Leinster Despite the truce, low-level warfare prevailed in Ulster and Connacht between the royal forces and the rebels. The situation in Connacht was so serious that Russell visited the province in November–December 1595, where he sought to placate the local Irish by investigating their complaints against the president of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham (qv). Bingham believed Russell was biased against him, and had complained of the lord deputy's lack of military support. In fact Russell sympathised with Bingham (who shared his inclination to take the fight to the rebels), and hoped to retain him as governor of Connacht, but felt obliged to treat the provincials’ complaints with sympathy, in the hope that it would appease them. It did not, and the crown's position in Connacht deteriorated precipitously in the first half of 1596. Indeed, in March of that year rebels operating in the province crossed the Shannon and pillaged parts of King's Co. (Offaly). Russell responded with alacrity by leading his forces into the midlands to expel the rebels and to capture Cloghan castle. Norris had long been a critic of Bingham, and in April he went to Connacht, having secured special powers as a commissioner to superintend the province's affairs. Somewhat reluctantly, Russell agreed at Norris's behest to detain Bingham in Dublin while the charges against him were considered. This appeared to pacify the province, but after Norris's departure in December, most of the leading families in Connacht joined the rebellion.
Meanwhile, in May the queen pardoned Tyrone but a settlement proved elusive. During 1595 Russell gradually built up the royal army in Ireland until it numbered 7,000 men. However, he lacked the means to pay and supply them, and was restrained from deploying them against the rebels. As the talks dragged on, these forces became increasingly mutinous and burdensome to the loyalist Irish on whom they were quartered. Their indiscipline led to a breakdown of law and order in much of Leinster and Munster. His attempts to punish soldiers for stealing from civilians met with opposition from Norris and failed to make much of a difference. In part, his eagerness to renew the war stemmed from his desperation to move the army out of government-controlled territories where it was proving more of a liability than an asset.
His opportunity to do so came in autumn 1596. Having rebuilt his power base in Wicklow, O'Byrne assembled a Leinster rebel confederacy encompassing the O'Byrnes, the Kavanaghs of Wexford, the O'Mores of Leix, and disaffected members of the Butlers of Carlow. In September 1596 O'Byrne resumed his rebellion by capturing and destroying the royal fort at Ballinacor. Fierce fighting ensued that autumn in Wicklow as Russell poured his forces into the region. The Leinster rebels had banked on the landing in either Ireland or England of a Spanish invasion force, but lost heart after the fleet was wrecked in a storm: by the year's end Russell had largely pacified the province. O'Byrne remained at large, however, and Russell relentlessly maintained the pressure on the rebel captain into spring 1597. Norris complained that his obsession with O'Byrne, who was by then a broken reed, left the Pale undefended and enabled Tyrone to blockade the royal fort at Armagh.
By then it was apparent that Russell and Norris could not work together, leading the queen to announce (January 1597) that they would both be removed from office. Despite being primarily a military man, Russell had diligently attended to his administrative duties, but on hearing of his impending recall he virtually abdicated his responsibilities for the civil government to lead personally the pursuit of O'Byrne in Wicklow for most of February and April. Just when it appeared as if his prey would elude him once more, O'Byrne was betrayed, cornered in a cave in his fastness of Glenmalure, and killed on 8 May. Russell milked this rare success for all it was worth, but the queen was distinctly unimpressed, regarding O'Byrne as a minor figure. Shortly before stepping down as lord deputy on 22 May, Russell embarrassed Norris by convicting him in the court of castle chamber for slandering the queen. On his return to London it was said that he had corruptly enriched himself during his lord deputyship, and the queen refused to admit him to her presence.
Assessment; final years The consensus at the time was that Russell's term of office in Ireland had been a disaster, and historians have generally echoed this view. However, he had inherited a deceptively weak military and political position from his predecessor and was hamstrung by the queen's unwillingness to accept the gravity of the situation in Ireland, and by the political machinations of Burghley and Norris. Far from being a wasteful sideshow, his campaigns in Wicklow were strategically justified, particularly as the elimination of Fiach MacHugh was his only attainable military objective. That said, once he realised the full extent of the difficulties he faced in Ireland, he seemed more concerned with heaping the blame on Norris – and to a lesser extent Bingham – than on curbing the rebels.
After his return to England he lived at Northall, Buckinghamshire, and failed in bids to become governor of Berwick and then of Jersey. In 1599 he was given command of forces raised in the western counties of England to resist a feared Spanish invasion that never materialised. Four years later the English privy council sought his advice on Irish affairs. On 21 July 1603 he was created Baron Russell of Thornhaugh. He died 9 August 1613 at Northall and was succeeded by his only surviving son, Francis.