Cromwell in Ireland
Posted on 25th January 2021
By the summer of 1649 the Civil War in England had been decided in Parliaments favour. The King had been executed, the Monarchy abolished, and the Commonwealth established but the conflict was still far from over.
It had been events in Ireland eight years earlier when the Irish Confederation had been formed to take advantage of the situation in England and rise in revolt against the Protestant hegemony that had driven the final wedge between the King and his Parliament. Eight years on they remained in control of most of the country except for the small Protestant enclave continuing to hold out in Ulster.
Since the defeat of the King’s cause in England, and his subsequent execution, Ireland had become a refuge for Royalists who fled there intending to continue the struggle in the name of his son and heir.
Despite the fact that Ireland was in the hands of its enemies the Parliament in England did not believe that they were powerful enough to pose any immediate threat but it was a situation that was considered intolerable especially when in January 1649 an alliance of Irish Catholics and exiled Royalists signed a treaty with the young Charles Stuart and placed their combined army under the command of James Butler the Earl of Ormonde, who had previously governed Ireland for the King.
It was however to be domestic pressure as much as foreign policy or any strategic factors that decided Parliament to act decisively in Ireland. A disgruntled army that had come close to mutiny just two years earlier had to be gainfully employed and where better to send them than against the only enemy who could be guaranteed to unite them. There was also a strong desire for vengeance among the common people for the purported massacre of Protestants that had occurred during the rebellion, and the fact that Ireland was in the hands of the Catholic Anti-Christ was unacceptable to the dominant Puritan faction in Parliament.
Even though the Confederations forces were relatively weak as long as Ireland remained in their hands it could serve as a back door to a future invasion of England, and the Confederation had indeed made overtures to the Catholic powers of Europe receiving both arms and money from the Vatican. However, the reception granted the Papal Nuncio Giovanni Batista Rinuccini in 1645 now caused a great deal of friction within the recently formed Royalist-Irish Confederation with many of the English Royalists who were fighting for the restoration of the Monarchy as vehemently opposed to the Catholic faith as their Puritan opponents in Parliament.
The most pressing need to subdue Ireland however was financial. On 19 March 1642 Parliament had passed the Adventures Act to raise the funds to suppress the rebellion in Ireland but plans to do so were interrupted by the Civil War and the campaign was never undertaken the money being instead spent by Parliament on its war against the King.
The loan was originally to have been repaid in Irish land with each investor receiving 1,000 acres for every £200 provided and Parliament had set aside 2,500,000 acres for this purpose. This plan was now revived with the addendum that sequestered Irish land could also be used to compensate the soldiers of the New Model Army many of whom had not received any pay for some years.
The man to whom the subjugation of Ireland would fall was Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell recently appointed to the Council of State, the hero of the Civil War, de-facto Commander of the New Model Army, and the single most powerful man in England.
The Confederation were aware that a formidable army was gathering in England for an invasion of Ireland and the Earl of Ormonde decided to take pre-emptive action by eliminating the Protestant stronghold around Dublin and thereby denying the invading army an effective port of entry.
Advancing on Dublin from the south the Irish army of around 12,000 men were encamped near the town of Rathines when on 2 August they were attacked by a much smaller Protestant force under Colonel Michael Jones. Caught totally unawares the battle soon became a rout as the Confederation troops fled the field leaving behind 4,000 killed and 2,200 men captured. The defeat at Rathines had not only ensured that Cromwell would have a secure base for his operations it demoralised the Confederation Army and greatly diminished their ability to confront the New Model Army in open battle.
In truth, it was a disaster from which they never recovered.
The Earl of Ormonde was forced to fall back on a defensive strategy relying upon a series of fortified towns to delay Cromwell’s advance until the winter when as he put it Colonel Hunger and Major Sickness would take their toll on his army forcing its withdrawal.
But to rely upon sickness and disease to succeed instead of force of arms when Parliaments Army could be so easily reinforced and resupplied from England was a case of hope over expectation.
Cromwell arrived in Dublin on 15 August 1649 with 12,000 men. Many more were to follow in the coming weeks under the command of his son-in-law Henry Ireton, but Cromwell did not wait for the reinforcements and leaving Colonel Jones in control of Dublin he made his plans for the reassertion of English power.
Cromwell was unequivocal in his belief that Ireland belonged to England and he would do whatever was required to ensure that it continued to do so but he also made it clear that whereas those under arms against him would be shown little mercy the common people had nothing to fear and would neither be harmed nor have their property stolen, and he appeared to be as good as his word when he hanged two of his own men for doing just that.
The people felt reassured for the time being at least and the initial reaction to his arrival was far from hostile.
Cromwell first secured the other ports on the Eastern Coast to ensure regular reinforcement and resupply before marching north with his army to Drogheda.
Drogheda situated at the mouth of the River Boyne some 25 miles north of Dublin was strategically important as it was a Confederation and Royalist strongpoint guarding the most direct route from Dublin to Ulster.
Following his victory at the Battle of Rathines, Colonel Jones had earlier advanced on Drogheda and demanded its surrender. It was at first inclined to do so but Ormonde quickly dispatched 1,000 men to reinforce the garrison with the express orders that the town was not to surrender. Jones had neither the men to storm the garrison or fully invest it and so was forced to withdraw and as a result confidence that Drogheda could withstand a siege soared.
Drogheda was a Protestant town and most of its 3,000 defenders were English Royalists not rebellious Irish Catholics. Its commander was also an Englishman, Sir Arthur Aston, an undoubtedly brave but pompous man who’d lost a leg during the Civil War and whose arrogance alienated many of his subordinates and had earlier led to him being expelled from the Royal Court in England.
He remained unperturbed by the advance of Cromwell’s Army confident that behind Drogheda’s high walls and strong fortifications he could hold out long enough to be relieved by the Earl of Ormonde who he knew to be nearby. He appeared unaware that it was not the Earl of Ormonde’s strategy to come to the assistance of besieged towns and he didn’t realise that Drogheda’s seemingly impressive walls were constructed of a thin stone that would simply crumble under sustained barrage.
By 3 September, Cromwell at the head of his army stood outside Drogheda but declined to assault the town until his eleven 48 pounder heavy siege guns had been transported up the River Boyne by ship and were in place. It wasn’t until 10 September that Aston received from Cromwell a summons to surrender the town. The summons was courteous but also threatening in tone:
Sir, having brought the army belonging to the Parliament of England before this place to reduce it to obedience, I intend to the end that the effusion of blood shall be prevented I thought it to summon you to deliver the same to my hands to my use. If this be refused you have no cause to blame me. I expect your answer and rest your obedient servant, O Cromwell.
The meaning was clear if Aston surrendered then he and his men would be spared. If not, then the rules of law permitted him to take the lives of all those under arms. Aston declined to respond to Cromwell’s summons informing his Officers that: Anyone that can capture Drogheda can capture Hell itself.
The following day the walls of Drogheda began to crumble under the intense bombardment of Cromwell’s siege guns along with Aston’s faith in the town’s defences. By late afternoon the breach had been made and Cromwell ordered the assault to begin but it was not a success and was repulsed with heavy loss of life. Angered by the setback and the death of so many of his soldiers Cromwell led the second assault in person.
Clambering over the bodies of fallen comrades Cromwell charged into the town at the head of 6,000 men. The fighting was intense but outnumbered and outgunned the defenders had little choice but to yield ground. With defeat inevitable the Royalists began to throw down their arms and give themselves up, but Sir Arthur Aston remained defiant and refused to give a general order of surrender. Instead, with around 250 men he withdrew to Millmount Fort on the southern edge of the town where despite defiant words shouted from the ramparts of the fort, Aston knew that he could not hold out for long. When Colonel Daniel Axtell (who had been the Commander of the Guard at the King’s trial and would later be executed as one of the Regicides) offered to spare the lives of the defenders Aston agreed. Once the defenders had been disarmed however Axtell ordered them all shot. Aston it was said was beaten to death with his own wooden leg.
At the north end of Drogheda some 200 Royalists had taken shelter in St Peter’s Church where Cromwell refusing to negotiate their surrender ordered the Church set alight. Around 80 of the defenders were burned alive in the flames the rest were shot down and killed as they fled.
Cromwell now ordered that all those who had been captured earlier in the fighting were to be executed and the savagery did not stop with the massacre of unarmed prisoners-of-war. As his soldiers ran amok through the town the civilian population fled in terror many drowning as they tried to escape across the River Boyne or cut down in crossfire. Singled out for particularly ferocious treatment were the many Catholic clergy who were hacked and beaten to death.
Some of Cromwell’s Officers refused to carry out his orders and tried to save the lives of those they captured particularly as many of them were their own countrymen and some 500 were taken alive. The Officers were later transported to the West Indies as indentured slaves.
The bodies of those Officers who had been killed Cromwell had decapitated and their heads placed on pikes along the road to Ulster as a warning to others who might consider resisting.
Close to 3,000 Royalist and Irish soldiers were slaughtered at Drogheda most after they had already surrendered and been disarmed along with an estimated 700 civilians. The massacre at Drogheda has stained Cromwell’s reputation ever since but he remained unapologetic. He wrote:
I forbade my men to spare any that were in arms in the town and I think that night they put to the sword around two thousand men. I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches.
Some believe that Cromwell deliberately adopted terror tactics to ensure a swift conclusion to the campaign and thereby end any unnecessary effusion of blood. This is perhaps being a little disingenuous, Cromwell wanted a swift end to the campaign no doubt, but it seems unlikely that casualties and certainly not enemy casualties was ever a primary concern.
But his merciless approach certainly appeared to work and following the fall of Drogheda the towns of Carlow and New Ross surrendered to his army without a fight and the Earl of Ormonde was to complain that his army had been terrorised into paralysis.
Following his subjugation of Drogheda, Cromwell dispatched Colonel Robert Venables with 5,000 men to subdue Royalist resistance in Ulster which was finally achieved with the defeat of a Scottish Covenanter Army at the Battle of Lisnagarvey on 6 December. In the meantime, he would take his army south to capture the port of Wexford which was both a lifeline to the Continent for the Royalists and a base from which to raid English shipping.
The mayor and the people of Wexford were eager to surrender to forces and yet again the Earl of Ormonde was forced to further weaken his own army by sending a thousand men under the command of Colonel David Synott to stiffen its resolve and take over the negotiations for the surrender of the town. Synott knew that his position at Wexford was untenable, but he was determined to draw out the negotiations for the towns surrender as long as possible to buy for Ormonde the time he so desperately needed.
By 1 October, Cromwell had Wexford invested by both land and sea. He wanted the town intact so as he could use it as winter quarters for his army and the terms he delivered for its surrender on 3 October were generous. The town would not be plundered, the Catholic clergy would not be harmed, the soldiers once disarmed would be permitted to leave and only the Officers would be taken into captivity. Synott continued to prevaricate however, adding proposals of his own while sending Cromwell gifts of tobacco and beer in the hope of distracting him but by 10 October Cromwell had lost patience and he ordered his siege guns to begin the bombardment of the town. Synott now indicated that he was willing to surrender the town into Cromwell’s care but he was too late. He had overplayed his hand.
By 11 October the siege guns had made two wide breaches in the walls of Wexford Castle which once assaulted quickly surrendered; clambering onto its ramparts the soldiers were able to fire down into the town. The defenders below quickly fled leaving the gates undefended which once opened allowed the troops of the New Model Army to flood in.
The attack on Wexford occurred as negotiations for its surrender were still continuing and it has been seen ever since as a betrayal of trust. But Cromwell had not ordered the initial attack though he did take advantage of it. The anger and indignation felt at the betrayal was to be of little consequence compared to its outcome, and the butchery in Wexford was the equal to anything that had earlier been witnessed in Drogheda as the people fled in terror from Cromwell’s rampaging troops.
The town was pillaged, and houses burned and destroyed. Colonel Synott was killed in the fighting along with 1,500 of his men, many again after they had laid down their arms. Some 300 women who had been sheltering in the town square were also killed mostly caught in the crossfire or trampled to death.
The massacre that occurred at Wexford had not been ordered by Cromwell, but he had done nothing to stop it or restrain his men in any way. Neither did he express any remorse for what happened though he did regret that the town had been so badly damaged that it could not be used as a base of operations. *****
Cromwell was now accused by the Catholic clergy of the deliberate massacre of innocent men, women, and children to which he wrote an angry letter in response:
Your words are massacre, destroy and banish. Good now, since my coming into Ireland give me one instance of a man not in arms, massacred, destroyed, or banished?
It was true that he had never ordered any such thing and he believed that he had given fair warning of the consequences for those who refused terms and continued to resist.
From Wexford, Cromwell advanced towards Waterford but for the first time in his campaign things did not go exactly according to plan.
On 20 October the Earl of Ormonde at last came to an agreement with the Commander of the Catholic Army of Ulster, Owen Roe O’Neill. They had been opponents during the Irish rebellion when Ormonde had been the King’s enforcer in Ireland and O’Neill had resisted the English presence in his country and wanted to be free of it. As a result, he had distanced himself from the Royalist struggle with Parliament but it had become apparent that faced by Oliver Cromwell they would have to unite to defeat him or both the King’s cause and that of Irish freedom would be lost.
It came as a crushing blow when just three weeks after the signing of the treaty on 6 November, Owen Roe O’Neill died throwing the Ulster Army into confusion. Ormonde wanted it placed under his command, but the ruling Council of Catholic Bishops refused to incorporate it into his largely Protestant Army.
Cromwell was a brilliant cavalry commander but he was neither an engineer nor an expert in siege warfare and he continued to try and coax Ormonde into meeting him in open battle but the wily Earl would not be drawn so by mid-November the New Model Army was besieging Waterford but unable to make any significant progress on 2 December, Cromwell abandoned the siege and withdrew his army into winter quarters.
The hoped for decimation of Parliaments Army by disease now appeared to be happening as sickness gripped their camp. Over the next two months over a thousand of Cromwell’s men died of malaria, dysentery, and hypothermia, many more than had been lost in the fighting and among their number, was Colonel Michael Jones the hero of Rathines. Cromwell was to complain that he had lost a great many experienced Officers and had barely three thousand men fit for service.
The Earl of Ormonde however was too weak to take advantage of the situation. Many of his men had already abandoned the cause and he was reduced to begging the ruling Council of Bishops for Catholic support which they reluctantly agreed to in early December, but little practical help was forthcoming.
The capture of the East Coast ports meant that Cromwell’s Army could be readily resupplied by ships sailing from England and by 29 January 1650 he had been sufficiently reinforced to renew his campaign by advancing on the Confederation capital at Kilkenny.
On 21 March he captured Gowran Castle which having not surrendered at his first summons Cromwell refused to negotiate any further with its Commander Colonel Hammond. He was to order Hammond and all the other Officers taken prisoner that day executed.
Kilkenny had been decimated by the plague and its garrison reduced from 1,200 down to fewer than 400 men. Even so they refused to surrender but with insufficient numbers to defend it walls they retreated to an area known as Irish Town where supported by many of the townspeople they put up a stiff resistance. Even so, the outcome was inevitable and on 27 March they surrendered.
It was while he was at Kilkenny that Cromwell received the news that he was required to return to England to oppose the threat of a Royalist invasion from Scotland, but he still had not yet pacified Ireland and was in a hurry to do so. He now issued a General Order which stated that in any Confederation outpost that continued to resist the Officers would be put to death and the soldiers sold into slavery. But the fall of Kilkenny had already broken the Royalist Protestant/Catholic Coalition and many of those who had previously been fighting for the King now went over to Parliaments side or sought to end hostilities.
On 24 April a treaty was signed in which the remaining Royalist Protestant forces undertook not to act against the interests of the Commonwealth in return for the assurance of their lives and the protection of their property. With most of the Royalists in Ireland having laid down their arms the powerful Catholic clergy demanded that Ormonde disband what remained of his army so that they ceased to be a burden on the Catholic population and a cause of retribution.
With the end of Royalist resistance in Ireland Cromwell’s campaign had now become an ethnic Anglo-Irish conflict. Triumphant Cromwell now re-joined his army besieging the town of Clonmel.
Clonmel was defended by Hugh Dubh O’Neill in command of 1,200 men of his recently deceased uncle Owen Roe O’Neill’s Ulster Army. A veteran of the Thirty Years War on the Continent and experienced in siege warfare in a way that Cromwell never was and the events at Clonmel were to expose the latter’s limitations as a military commander.
Upon the arrival of his heavy siege guns Cromwell began the bombardment of Clonmel on 16 May. The guns were not of the calibre of the ones used earlier at Drogheda and Wexford and they were able to make only one significant breach in Clonmel’s walls, but it was a breach large enough for a major assault to begin the following day. Hugh O’Neill had already pinpointed where the weakness in his defences lay however and had made provision for it. He had constructed an inner V shaped defensive position with cannon at its apex that would funnel any attacking troops into a killing zone. When Cromwell’s troopers attacked around midday on the 17 May they were cut down in what was a maelstrom of musket ball and cannon fire and over a thousand of his best soldiers were killed.
A furious Cromwell ordered a second assault, but his infantry refused point blank to do so demanding that he instead send his cavalry who at least wore body armour. There was much recrimination, and the cavalry troopers chided their comrades for their cowardice. At 4 pm Cromwell ordered his cavalry now dismounted and organised into infantry formations to assault the breach. The firing was again intense but this time they made progress capturing the first line of defence and forcing the Irish to retreat further into the town. The fighting was fierce and often hand-to-hand but after three hours the English were once more forced to withdraw.
The failed assault upon Clonmel which had cost the New Model Army 2,500 killed and wounded was to prove the greatest setback in Cromwell’s military career and with no prospect it seemed of taking the town by storm Cromwell was devoid of ideas. Faced with the likelihood of a prolonged siege and of having to return to England with his reputation for military invincibility shattered Cromwell was despondent.
But Hugh O’Neill also had his problems. He had lost some 350 men killed in the fighting with many more wounded. His ammunition was almost exhausted, and he knew food stocks were low. That night under the cover of darkness he abandoned the town and withdrew his army across the River Suir. It was no doubt a tactically correct decision on his part but by doing so he had squandered the opportunity to psychologically damage the English Army and place the seed of doubt in the minds of those who believed that the conquest of Ireland was inevitable.
The following morning Cromwell could not believe his good fortune when the Mayor of Clonmel John White approached him offering to negotiate the surrender of the town. Ignoring his own previous instruction that no quarter should be given he granted generous terms in the belief that with the towns surrender so he would capture O’Neill’s army. When he later discovered they had escaped, and that White had deceived him he went into a rage but even so he honoured the terms that had been agreed.
Cromwell returned to England at the end of May to a hero’s welcome. He had defeated the Catholic Irish and avenged the massacres of 1641; even though the conquest of Ireland was not yet complete, and he was to hand over the responsibility for its pacification to Henry Ireton.
Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland remains one of brutal recrimination and savage reprisal yet it was never his intention upon landing in Ireland to behave as he did. The barbarous war he waged was not his responsibility alone and they were to pale in comparison to the savage ethnic and religious genocide that was part and parcel of the campaign waged by his more systematic and remorseless successor. But the fact that Cromwell did not adopt the scorched earth policy and ethnic cleansing of Ireton in no way excuses him of the acts for which he was responsible, but it does serve to put them into some perspective.
Cromwell had stated upon his arrival in Ireland that he would not wage war on innocent me, women, and children. And it can be argued that he never ordered any such thing. Nevertheless, thousands were to die, and he never expressed remorse for this fact or went out of his way to prevent it. As far as he was concerned the Irish were savages who in their religious beliefs endorsed and gave succour to a great heresy and were saved from eternal damnation only by the presence of Godly English Protestantism. His views are best expressed in his Declaration to the Catholic Bishops and Clergy of January 1650:
You say your Union is against a common enemy. I will give you some wormwood to bite on, by which it will appear that God is not with you. Who is it that created this common enemy? I suppose you mean Englishmen. Remember ye hypocrites Ireland was once united to England, Englishmen had good inheritances which many of them or their ancestors purchased from many of you and your ancestors with their money and good leases. They lived peaceably and honestly among you. You broke this union. You unprovoked put the English to the most unheard of, the most barbarous massacre without respect of sex or age that the sun ever beheld. It is a fig leaf of pretence that they fight for their King when really they are men of so much prodigious blood. You are a part of anti-Christ whose Kingdom scriptures expressly state shall be laid in blood, yea the blood of the Saints. We are come to ask an account of the innocent blood that has been shed. We come to break the power of a company of lawless rebels who having cast off the authority of England live as enemies to human society whose principles are to destroy and subjugate all men not complying with them. We come by the assistance of God to hold forth and maintain the lustre and glory of English liberty in a nation where we have an undoubted right to it.
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