The Three Kingdoms & The Third Civil War: Campaigns in Ireland; Drogheda & Wexford to Tipperary, 1649-1652.

The Stuart Court at the Hague, 1649-51:

The Trial and Execution of Charles I may have shocked the whole of Europe at first, but Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon, wrote after the execution that…

The kings and princes of Christendom had their eyes fixed upon this woeful bloody spectacle; how they looked upon that issue of blood, at which their own seemed to be so prodigally poured out; with what consternation their hearts laboured to see the impious hands of the lowest and basest subjects bathing in the bowels and reeking blood of their sovereign; a brother king, the anointed of the Lord, dismembered as a malefactor … Alas! there was not a murmur amongst any of them at it; but, as if they had been all called upon in the language of the prophet Isaiah, … they made haste and and sent over, that they might get shares in the spoils of a murdered monarch.

Clarendon claimed that Cardinal Mazarin, the chief minister of the French crown, had long adored the conduct of Cromwell, and sought his friendship by a lower and viler application was suitable to the purple of a cardinal … admitted as a merchant to traffic in the purchase of the rich goods and jewels of the rifled crown. The King of Spain had, from the beginning of ‘the rebellion’, kept his court ambassador still residing in London, where the ambassador had had many audiences with parliament. Christina, Queen of Sweden, purchased the choice of all the King’s medals and jewels, and some valuable pictures. She received Cromwell’s ambassador with great joy and pomp, and made an alliance with him. The Archduke Leopold, governor of Flanders, disbursed a great sum of money for many of the best pictures in the monarch’s palaces, which were brought to Brussels, and from there taken into Germany. In this way, the neighbouring rulers assisted Cromwell to amass great sums of money, enabling him to prosecute and finish his wicked victory over what yet remained unconquered, and to extinguish monarchy. None of this wealth found its way to the exiled Stuart family, who now found themselves in the greatest necessities whichever a king was subjected to, despite the pretext and pretences that they were taking care of the royal treasures for their rightful owner. Clarendon claims that none of these ‘unlawful purchases’ were ever restored to Charles II, even following his own restoration.

Throughout 1649, Charles remained in the Hague. When he heard the horrifying news of his father’s death, he was at the court of his brother-in-law, William II of Orange at Breda. Though he had been kept informed of the desperate state his father was in, he was surprised by ‘the barbarous stroke’. The news was also received by all the common people of the Netherlands, according to Clarendon, with ‘consternation’ and the ‘States’ presented themselves to Charles, ‘to console with him’. The whole clergy also gave a lament and detestation of the actors, as unworthy of the name of Christians. But the powerful regent class of Holland and Zealand, who dominated the States-General, were dead set against involving the United Provinces in any further warfare. It was only months since the Peace of Westphalia had formally brought to an end the exhausting struggle that we call the Thirty Years’ War; their own war of independence had lasted with one short break for eighty years. Despite sinking under the burden of his grief, Charles summoned the members of his father’s council who were in exile with him to be sworn into his own privy council, before receiving a letter from the queen mother which advised him that he could not do better, than to repair into France as soon as was possible, and in the meantime, desired him not to swear any persons to be of his council, until she could speak with him. She may have felt that his councillors may prove unsympathetic to her following her husband’s death, or that she herself wanted to recommend those who would advise her son in these new, unfortunate circumstances.

Charles himself was reluctant to follow his mother’s advice to move to France, where he felt he had not been treated with courtesy to date, and was content to continue living with the prince of Orange, who provided him with everything he needed during his period of mourning. But he had no other means of support for his family, so that it was obvious that they would not be able to stay in the Hague for long. The exiled court hesitated as to what to do next, as the new king considered joining the Catholic rebels in Ireland but was also receiving invitations from the Scottish Presbyterians and the Marquess of Montrose. For Charles the great question was whether he should look first to the Irish or the Scots to help him back to his English throne. The Scots had been prompt to proclaim him King of Great Britain, but they made the actual exercise of his regal powers conditional on his giving satisfaction regarding religion and taking the oath of the Solemn League and Covenant. Ormond and his allies in Ireland had no such pre-conditions to impose.

James Butler, Earl of Ormond, by Van Egmont.

The constitutional royalists typified by Hyde and Hopton, however, were unhappy about entrusting his cause and theirs to the Covenanters, who had first risen in arms against Charles I, and had fought against him all through the first Civil War. As Anglicans, they also deplored the Scots’ requirement that the king should take the Covenant himself and enforce it on the English and Welsh people. They saw in the loyal protestant Ormond an ally after their own hearts, and they were ready not only to accept the concessions that he had made to Irish catholics but to extend at least some of them to the English ones in return for their active support. They would rather the king did not rely on any foreign military aid if he could avoid it, but if it should prove necessary they would prefer that it came from Spain rather than France, for they thoroughly distrusted the ‘Louvre’ party who attended the queen mother. The third group of royalists, ‘the swordsmen’, consisted mainly of Prince Rupert and the cavaliers who attached themselves to him. They were more adventurist, and tended to look in whatever direction seemed to offer most in the way of military advantage and their own profit.

Above: James Graham, Marquess of Montrose

Charles himself was eager to go to Ireland, and Montrose and several of the Scottish royalists advised him to do so. He remained at Breda until June, despite his mother’s urgent pleas that he should join her in St Germain. The Scottish parliament sent commissioners to treat with him there in March, hoping to negotiate terms to which he would commit himself in return for Scotland’s armed support, but they received little satisfaction, and went home empty-handed in June. His purpose was to keep the option open in case the Irish failed him, but the commissioners could not get him to dismiss Montrose, and he told them he was not prepared to impose their Covenant on England, Wales and Ireland without consulting their respective parliaments. Charles had been proclaimed king in several places in England, as well as in Ireland and Scotland, and if he could launch an invasion of Wales and England from southern Ireland, there seemed to be a good chance that the west country would come to his aid; its residual loyalty had not been put under the same pressures as had those of northern England in the Preston campaign the year before. There was considerable disaffection in London, where the Lord Mayor had been sent to the Tower for refusing to proclaim the abolition of the monarchy, and the Rump had had to resort to blatantly coercive methods to bring the City government to obedience. Relations between parliament and the army were less than cordial, given the soldiery’s widespread reluctance to fight in Ireland.

Meanwhile, on the continent, all the powers that counted had given the new king assurances of their goodwill, and none had recognised the Commonwealth; Spain was the first to do so, towards the end of 1650. In the Hague, Charles’ Chancellor did not think much of either the Scottish or Irish plan, so the courtiers had decided on a diplomatic mission to Madrid in 1650, but by 1651, this had proved a failure, though there were some redeeming moments for the English ambassadors. None of the other powers were prepared to fight for Charles, but if he could recover his kingdoms without depending on foreign arms, he would stand an even better chance of ‘enjoying his own again’ on a more permanent basis, rather than simply starting another civil war which might well result in defeat and widespread unpopularity.

The Rump, the Council of State and Cromwell:

The Rump was tentative in its moves towards a long-term settlement, but it showed a firm resolve against its enemies in arms. Soon after it was established, the Council of State had started to make serious plans for the reconquest of Ireland, proposing to send eight thousand foot, three thousand horse and twelve hundred dragoons to join the forces already there, and to maintain an army of 32,000 in England against any threat from Scotland or from insurrectionaries at home. On 15 March, Cromwell was named as commander-in-chief in Ireland, but it took him two weeks before he was ready to accept. On 23rd he made a long speech to his fellow-officers, who were urging him to accept the appointment, in which he declared:

I had had no serious thoughts on the business… (Yet) I think there is more cause of danger from disunion amongst ourselves than by anything from our enemies.

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Sir Thomas Fairfax

With the army clearly in a state of some considerable disunity, and with Fairfax increasingly out of his depth in the post-regicide political waters, he probably felt his presence was needed in parliament and the council, at least for a time. There were still powerful men among the Rumpers who were no friends of the army, who would be much happier to take decisions with Cromwell and Ireton a long way away. He probably also calculated that by delaying his acceptance he could exact firm assurances that forces would be constantly supplied, kept up to strength and regularly paid. When he did finally make his decision, there must have been many soldiers who felt their objections to service in Ireland to be mitigated by the knowledge that Cromwell was going to lead them. The choice of the regiments by lot did not prevent the mutinies developing, but it did remove any suspicion that the regiments would be chosen according to the political bias of the powerful men in parliament. Yet Cromwell also accepted the command as the servant rather than the master of the ‘Keepers of the Nation’s Liberties’, as the Rump now styled itself. Even as ‘Lord-Lieutenant’ Cromwell was still, in theory at least, subordinate to the commander-in-chief of the Commonwealth’s armies, Fairfax, until the latter resigned his commission on the eve of the Scottish War in 1650. All the issues of titles and offices which seemed to occupy many of his contemporaries, were for Cromwell beside the point. He told the Council of State:

I would not have the army now so much look at considerations that are personal, whether or no we shall go if such a Commander or such a Commander go and make that any part of our measure or foundation: but let us go if God go.

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He was clear in his own mind that, unless Ireland was subjugated, it would always remain the springboard for an invasion of Britain: perhaps in a pincer movement, with the other thrust coming from Scotland, where Charles II was king. So while the late summer and autumn of 1649 might have seemed like a time to sit back and settle the Commonwealth, for Cromwell there was still very much a wartime emergency. In addition to whatever prejudices he may have shared with his fellow English protestants towards Irish catholics, he was also fighting a war, as far as he was concerned, on behalf of a ‘Commonwealth’ and parliament which was the successor to the monarch of three kingdoms. Although both Scotland and Ireland had their own forms of government, they had been used in the past, and in the recent civil wars, to launch invasions of England and Wales. Ireland in particular was seen as the ‘back door’ to England throughout Tudor times. Before the end of May, the early signs of promise for the exiled king’s cause were fading. Those of his allies in England showed no signs of backing up their gestures with any serious plans for a rising, should he return, and after Thomas Scot was put in charge of intelligence on 1 July, the Commonwealth government was kept well informed of any royalist conspiracies. Few were reported, and after the defeat of the mutineers, the army was fully restored to discipline and good order and Cromwell was preparing to lead a now reliable force to Ireland.

What Cromwell does seem to have decided, both as Lieutenant-General and as a leading member of the Council of State, was that Ireland must be suppressed as swiftly, decisively and cheaply as possible. There were three reasons for this: first of all, the international situation, including the possibility of foreign intervention via Ireland to restore the monarchy; this demanded that the back door be swiftly slammed and bolted. Charles II arrived at Jersey in September en route for Ireland a few days after the massacre at Drogheda. He did not complete the journey, but remained there throughout the winter, with the Rump becoming increasingly anxious from mid-January, that the Scots were about to take up arms again. Secondly, the internal divisions in England called for quick successes without the imposition of heavy burdens on the taxpayer. The Irish expeditionary force and the navy were financed through the sale of church lands and rents from Crown lands, and vast sums had also been raised on the security of Irish lands, as wholesale confiscations had been envisaged from the from the start of the rebellion and wars in Ireland. Repayment at the expense of Irish landed proprietors did much to consolidate the support of moneyed men for the republican régime. Ireland was in every sense the first British colony. Thirdly, it is highly probable that many of those MPs who pressed the Irish command on an unwilling Cromwell did so in the hope of cutting him down to size, as the Earl of Essex had been under Elizabeth I, half a century earlier. If he had got bogged down in a long-drawn-out campaign in Ireland, control of the government in Westminster may well have passed to men hostile to him and Ireton. These time-related factors do not excuse his conduct of the campaign, but they do help to explain his ruthless determination to break Irish royalist resistance swiftly, finally and as cheaply as possible.

Cromwell accepted the command only on condition that it was ‘sufficiently provided’ for, and as a member of the parliamentary committee which persuaded the City of London to lend a hundred and twenty thousand pounds on the security of the sale of rents from Crown lands. As commander, he also knew that ‘out of sight means out of mind’. On 25 June, a newspaper reported a letter from Sir Charles Coote to Cromwell, complaining that his six regiments in Ireland had received only eight months pay in eight years. Within four days, the Commons had voted four hundred thosand pounds to provide for the army, and authorised a further loan of a hundred and fifty thousand. Cromwell lingered at Bristol from mid-July to mid-August when the hundred thousand pounds cash promised him actually arrived: he had assured his troops that they would not embark until it was at hand.

The Continuing ‘Rebellion’ in Ireland, 1647-49:

The situation in Ireland had continued to decline, though more slowly, but shortly before Cromwell landed in August, it took a sharp turn for the worse. After the serious defeats of the king’s supporters at Dungan’s Hill and Knockanauss, there was a fatal rift in the Confederation between the ‘Old English’ who adhered to Inchiquin and the clerical party which continued to take its orders from the papal nuncio, Rinuccini. This led to a hiatus in the fighting while the second civil war was being fought in northern England. The only clash of arms in Ireland itself was between the opposed factions of the Confederation. The royalist led by Inchiquin were allied to the moderate, pro-Ormond party and supported by what was left of the army of Leinster, which had been routed at Dungan’s Hill. Ranged against them were O’Neill’s army of Ulster. While Hamilton’s Scots were being defeated along the road from Preston, Inchiquin and most of the king’s other supporters were defending Leinster and Connaught against O’Neill. Thereafter, Charles I renewed his commission to Ormond and sent him back to Ireland late in September 1648, with instructions to reunite the Confederation. Ormond brought with him four thousand foot and one thousand horse, which were well received by Inchiquin, with whom he soon reached agreement. Riniccini’s supporters boycotted the recalled General Assembly of the Confederation, which made it easier for the other factions to come together, and the resultant articles of peace were published just as the king’s trial opened. Rinuccini did his best to frustrate these, since he no longer believed in a royalist victory and the ability of a British king to give catholics equal status in Ireland. Finding himself with no useful role in Ireland, having lost O’Neill’s support over his change in attitude to the Stuart cause, he sailed for Italy late in February, never to return.

A striking number of the main participants in the Irish wars had changed their allegiance at one time or another, more often on principle than through self-interest. Colonel Michael Jones, commander of the parliament’s forces and victor of Dungan’s Hill, had left his studies at Lincoln’s Inn at the start of first civil war to join the king’s army in Ireland. His Welsh father was Bishop of Killaloe and his brother was the Bishop of Clogher; but he himself was a strong protestant, with puritan leanings, and in 1643, outraged by the terms Ormond agreed with the king, he and his men went over to the side of parliament. He fought with distinction with its forces in Cheshire before being made governor of Dublin and commander in Leinster in 1647, and was soon to fight one of the crucial actions of the whole war in Ireland. Another of those who had changed their allegiance was General George Monck, who, when he had assumed his command of the parliamentarian forces in Ireland took a ‘negative oath’, not to assist the king, as well as the Solemn League and Covenant, and thenceforth remained unswervingly loyal to the parliamentarian cause until the Commonwealth collapsed. The commander appointed by the Scottish parliament over the Scottish forces in Ulster, Colonel Robert Munro, had sided with Hamilton and the Engagers and declared for the king, whereupon General Monck had him seized and shipped to England as a prisoner.

After the regicide, many of the Scottish officers took their lead from Edinburgh by refusing to serve under parliament’s banners. They had to be cashiered, and most of their men transferred their allegiance to Inchiquin. By the spring of 1649, the Confederation had also lost part of its army due to O’Neill’s march on Kilkenny which had made him the enemy of both Ormond and Inchiquin. His army of Ulster Irish was so short of ammunition that and provisions that it was beginning to disintegrate, and he had already tried to enter into negotiations with Michael Jones without success, and had sent an envoy to London to propose a deal whereby the Ulster Irish would have their estates restored and their religious freedoms assured, while he himself would be given a command in Fairfax’s army. At the same time, however, he was also exploring a rapprochement with Ormond. Monck himself had been starved of money and supplies, and controlled only patches of territory in Ulster, unable to defend Drogheda, which fell to Inchiquin in late June. In May, Monck had concluded a three months’ cessation of arms with O’Neill, each man giving undertakings which turned out to be insincere: Monck was buying time, preventing O’Neill from coming to terms with Ormond, which he eventually did, but only after the cessation expired.

The third parliamentary commander already in Ireland, Coote, was besieged in Londonderry by the Scottish royalists, and struck a similar deal with O’Neill, which saved the town from falling. Monck’s truce with O’Neill provided him with a defence against Inchiquin, who advanced in strength from Drogheda to Dundalk. Monck was forced to surrender to him, and most of his men promptly joined Inchiquin’s army. The terms of the surrender allowed him and other officers to return to Britain, and at Milford Haven on 4 August he had his first meeting with Cromwell, who was about to sail with his expeditionary force. Cromwell ordered him to London to explain to the Council of State his cessation with O’Neill and his failure to report it to his commander-in-chief for two and a half weeks. Monck was reprimanded at the bar of the House for entering into it, but with a gracious assurance that since he had believed it necessary to preserve parliament’s interest in Ireland he would not be required to return there. He loyally covered up the fact that Cromwell and the Council of State had known about the cessation, a loyalty which Cromwell did not forget later. As late as October 1649, in a letter to Parliament, Cromwell was stressing that the co-operation between O’Neill and Ormond should convince them that it is high time to take off their jealousy from those to whom they ought to exercise more charity. (Here, he was obviously referring to Monck.) The episode was to cement a mutual soldiers’ trust between Monck and Cromwell, in contrast with Monck’s well-grounded and ongoing mistrust towards the Rump, which Cromwell was already beginning to share.

By August the English expeditionary force was already ready to sail to Ireland, with Cromwell in command. The brutality of the reconquest of Ireland is not, in retrospect at least, one of the pleasanter aspects of his military career, and his conduct at Drogheda and Wexford cannot be whitewashed. But both the campaign itself and its aftermath must be brought into historical focus and seen in the perspective of Cromwell himself and his contemporaries, rather than through the distorted lense of posterity. Historians and biographers have attempted to do this over the last five decades, during which the popular mythology surrounding these events has remained a powerful propaganda tool. In the first place, though Cromwell must bear the responsibility for the conduct of the campaign, the policy was not his alone. It was that of the Rump parliament, and one that would prove popular with other factions of the English ruling class. Both parties in the Long Parliament from 1641-42 had supported the view that the native Catholic Irish should be subordinated to English rule: the dispute between them was only over command of the army which was to subdue them. Although Cromwell’s troops in Ireland must have contained many soldiers who had supported the Levellers just a few months before their arrival, they showed no disposition to fraternise with the native Irish.

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Above: Map of Ireland in 1641, showing percentages of land owned by Catholics, by county.

To match the ex-royalists (including Jones) who were now fighting for the Commonwealth, Ormond’s chief lieutenant was the ex-parliamentarian Inchiquin, much strengthened by the Covenanting Scots who had previously fought for parliament under Munro. Late in May, Inchiquin reckoned that his total forces at nearly thirteen thousand, though for want of money to pay them all, he was struggling to hold them together. Against him, Michael Jones in Dublin was greatly outnumbered, and he too had dissatisfaction among his ranks. But in July the Council of State reinforced him with a little over two thousand men, which enabled him to hold firm until Cromwell, delayed by the mutinies, was ready to sail on 13 August. On 2 August, ten days before the expeditionary force sailed, Michael Jones won a crushing victory over Ormond’s forces at Rathmines, just south of Dublin. Misled by Cromwell’s choice of Milford Haven as his port of embarkation into thinking that the landing would be made in Munster, Ormond sent Inchiquin to counter it, while leading his own forces in an attempt to capture Dublin. With his refreshed ranks, Jones took the initiative and advanced against Ormond’s quarters at Rathmines, taking Ormond’s small army by surprise. In a skilfully conceived and executed attack, Jones broke Ormond’s forces, who fled. Ormond himself was almost captured, and he lost all his guns, wagons and treasure, amounting to four thousand pounds in gold. The armistice with O’Neill had done its job and could now be repudiated with impunity. A week later, Cromwell disermbarked his army near Dublin, unopposed.

Cromwell’s Expeditionary Campaign, Drogheda & Wexford:

Jones’ victory at Rathmines made the expeditionary forces task immensely easier, as Cromwell gratefully acknowledged. But there was some hard campaigning ahead, consisting of sieges rather than battles, and for these Cromwell had the artillery that his predecessors had lacked. His most troublesome enemies in the coming months were to be the weather and the Irish roads, together with the illnesses that afflicted armies in damp and boggy conditions. Among the many who were carried off by disease before the year was out were Michael Jones, who succumbed to fever on 6 December, and O’Neill, who died exactly a month earlier. O’Neill had made his peace with Ormond after Rathmines and agreed to serve as his commander in Ulster, but his broken health prevented him from bringing the swift military aid that was needed by the Confederation. Cromwell’s strategy was to reduce all the important towns on the eastern and southern shores before he carried his campaign into the hinterland. Cromwell made no secret of his contempt for the native Irish population, but he made it clear that he had no quarrel with its unarmed civilians. In fact, and in keeping with his practice in past campaigns in England, Cromwell went out of his way, publicly, to threaten retribution against any of his troops found assaulting the unarmed and unresisting population. His first action was to forbid any form of looting or pillage in a published declaration which also banned free quarter and promised that farmers who brought provisions to his forces would be paid in cash at the market rate. This order was quite new in Irish warfare, and could not have been enforced with an unpaid army. He was unable to go on paying his way for long after the turn of the year, but his initial policy won him considerable support in Leinster and Munster, especially when he had two of his men hanged expressly for violating the prohibition.

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Above: The English Parliamentary Campaign in Ireland, 1649-52, showing major battles and sieges & The settlement of Ireland, 1652-57.
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The policy also had an immediate effect on Ormond’s protestant troops, many of whom deserted to the Parliamentarian army. Ormond wrote to Charles II that he feared Cromwell’s money more than his face. Before leaving England, Cromwell had secured the cooperation of Lord Broghill, son of the Earl of Cork and a former royalist, whose local influence brought many of the Irish protestant settlers over to the parliamentarian side. A fortnight after disembarking, Cromwell set out against Drogheda, where Ormond had chosen to take his stand, except that veteran English royalist, Sir Arthur Aston, was in command there, while Ormond remained at Tecroghan, thirty miles away. His justification for this distancing was that the morale of these troops was too low for him to trust them in the line of fire. Cromwell took six days to position his artillery before he summoned Drogheda to surrender on 10 September. In an attempt to obtain Aston’s peaceful surrender on that morning, Cromwell delivered a chilling ultimatum to him:

Sir, having brought the army belonging to the parliament of England before this place, to reduce it to obedience, to the end the effusion of blood may be prevented, I thought to summons you to deliver the same into my hands to their use. If this be refused you will have no cause to blame me. I expect your answer and rest, your servant, O. Cromwell.

In his summons, Cromwell warned the town’s defenders of the consequences of prolonging a hopeless resistance. Aston was outnumbered by nearly four to one, short of powder, and with Ormond ignoring his appeals for help, he nevertheless refused the summons contemptuously. The experience of the long-drawn-out siege of 1641-42 and the imposing walls of Drogheda made him believe that the town could hold out against the first shock of Cromwell’s assault, at least long enough for him to be relieved by Ormond’s troops. As it turned out, he was sadly deluded on both counts. By late afternoon the next day, 11 September, within a few hours of opening fire, the parliamentarian guns had breached the walls in two places, and Cromwell was able to send three foot regiments to storm the town. They came up against well prepared and stoutly defended entrenchments within the walls, and it took the parliamentarian infantry far longer to penetrate the breaches, from which they were ferociously beaten back by the royalist soldiery with some loss. Among the defenders was Edmund Verney, Ralph’s younger brother. He wrote of how the gaps were choked with wounded and dying. Accounts differ as to whether one assault or two were repulsed, but Cromwell and Colonel Hewson led a finally successful one on foot. It made enough ground to open a gate to the cavalry, but even then Aston and his men held out on the steep heights of Mill Mount from inside a flimsy stockade, while others retreated to the tower and steeple of the Protestant Church of St Peter.

Colonel John Hewson, regimental commander in the parliamentarian campaign in Ireland member of the Council of State.

What happened next was clearly an obscenity, yet Cromwell’s own account was, and still is, startlingly unapologetic and without any kind of euphamism. Infuriated by this ongoing resistance and, as he wrote himself, being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town, and, I think, that night they put to the sword about two thousand men. Out of approximately 3,100 soldiers there at least 2,800 were slain, most of them not in as they were frantically fighting the parliamentarian troops, but after they had stopped fighting and had either surrendered or disarmed. The refusal to give quarter to unresisting, defeated men was a calculated slaughter. At St Peter’s Church, Cromwell and Hewson had their soldiers burn the pews beneath the tower to smoke out the defenders who had taken refuge there, with the result that many of them fell to their deaths in flames along with the bells and masonry which came crashing down. The fanatical Baptist Daniel Axtell, Hewson’s Lieutenant-Colonel, was particularly active in this. Friars and priests were also killed, but there was no great slaughter of civilians, except for those who had taken up arms in support of the Irish soldiery. The total death toll was in excess of three thousand, compared with a hundred and fifty killed on the parliamentarian side. The murders were so inhuman that many among the lower ranking officers disobeyed their orders and some even went out of their way to to save their enemies. Virtually the whole garrison, and all the priests that were captured, were slaughtered. While all this was occurring, Ormond’s troops were nowhere in sight, though he had sent a small number of reinforcements to the garrison the day before.

Lieutent-Colonel Daniel Axtell.

Whatever degree of sincerity we may attach to Cromwell’s hint of compunction in his reports and letters to parliament, which I will discuss later, he made no bones about his intention to perpetrate a slaughter so ghastly that that it would dissuade other strongholds from making Aston’s mistake in refusing peaceful capitulation. Ormond himself admitted that Drogheda’s fate did indeed strike terror into the Irish countryside, and many of his surviving men deserted. When Cromwell moved against Wexford, his next major objective, its corporation and citizens were much divided as to whether to offer any resistance. Wexford was the home and base of many privateers, and much of its wealth derived from their plunder of English shipping: It had long been a thorn in the side of English traders. It was also a strongly catholic town and had been very much on the side of Rinuccini’s faction in the Confederacy. It had no garrison when Drogheda fell. Its newly-appointed governor, David Synnott, had been commissioned by Ormond to defend southern Ireland. With difficulty, Synnott persuaded the citizens of Wexford to resist Cromwell, on condition that Ormond furnished a competent garrison of exclusively catholic troops. Ormond agreed, so the city was by no means undefended when Cromwell summoned it on 2 October. Again, the town refused to surrender: Synnott made a show of negotiating terms, but Cromwell became exasperated when when he discovered that his real purpose was to spin out time while the Earl of Castlehaven brought in fifteen hundred reinforcements. Synnott’s procrastinations, under cover of which he sent an appeal to Ormond for further relief, caused Cromwell to break off negotiations, and on the 11th, exactly a month after they had done so at Drogheda, his siege guns opened a heavy bombardment.

Thereupon Synnott and the city magistrates proposed articles to surrender, but the terms they offered were so absurdly favourable to themselves that Cromwell justifiably described them as impudent. In return he offered quarter for their lives to the officers and soldiers, with leave to the latter to go home if they pledged themselves no more to fight against the English parliament. Civilian property would be respected, and the town spared from plunder. These were very generous terms in the circumstances, but they never reached Synnott, for just as they were being prepared, the commander of Wexford Castle surrendered it to the besiegers on his own initiative. After an eight days’ siege it was sacked. Cromwell’s guns had already breached the castle walls and the troops who took over the castle promptly turned its guns on the defenders manning the adjacent city walls, who quickly abandoned them. The besiegers then stormed them, and the garrison was soon in complete disarray. The parliamentarian troops were killing as many of the other side as they possibly could. Once again it’s no mitigation of the horror to realise that civilians were not among those slaughtered at Wexford. The most tragic and numerous civilian deaths occurred when there was a panicky rush for the boats moored at the quayside, as some of them tried to get over the estuary. In their haste they overloaded them, and at least one of them sank, causing nearly three hundred of them to drown. Other defending troops tried to make a stand in the marketplace, together with some armed citizens, where they were slaughtered indiscriminately. Priests and friars were again killed without mercy, though they may, understandably, have been armed. The whole action was over in an hour with a total of two thousand deaths, including those who drowned.

Since the inhabitants were either dead or fled, Cromwell reported, the town was available for English colonists to settle. The Rev. Hugh Peter wrote that, It is a fine spot for some godly congregation, where house and land wait for inhabitants and occupiers. Cromwell had assured parliament that he wished to avoid another bloodbath like that at Drogheda, and he himself was not in Wexford to give the orders when the firing began. It is questionable whether he was ever in a position to countermand the slaughter of the defenders, and whether he made any attempt to do so. In his report to parliament there are more intimations of compunction, yet it suggests that he saw Wexford’s agony, although unplanned by him, as a divine judgement:

And indeed it hath not without cause been deeply set upon our hearts, that we intending better to this place than so great a ruin, … yet God would not have it so; but, by an unexpected providence, in his righteous justice, brought a just judgement upon them, causing them to become a prey to the soldier, who in their piracies had made preys of so many families, and made with their blood to answer the cruelties which they had exercised upon the lives of divers poor protestants. I could have wished for their own good, and the good of the garrison, they (the soldiers) had been more moderate.

This is absolutely authentic Cromwell, though it is not the testimony of a genocidal lunatic, but rather, as Schama has put it, the unwitting confession of a pig-headed, narrow-minded, Protestant bigot. At New Ross, the fate of Drogheda did indeed guarantee a bloodless surrender when Cromwell came before the walled town on 17 October, and as soon as he opened his bombardment its governor Sir Lucas Taaffe sued for terms of surrender. Many of the defending troops were English, and at least five hundred of them promptly enlisted under Cromwell. His own men were short of pay, however, and he felt obliged to issue a proclamation threatening severe punishment against any caught seizing plough horses and seed corn for ransom. Good discipline and good politics went together here, because the people of Leinster and Munster would rather support the parliamentarian forces than the remnants of the Confederation. Cork, which had many citizens of English origin, went over without bloodshed, and a succession of Munster towns also declared for the Commonwealth. Inchiquin’s army was in a state of dissolution by the time the campaigning season ended, and Rupert’s little fleet, which had been blockaded in Kinsale, was fortunate to get away to make for Lisbon, when a storm forced Robert Blake’s ships out to sea.

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The Second Stage of the War, 1649-50 – Waterford, Kilkenny & Clonmel:

By the end of October, Cromwell’s losses due to military action, sickness and the need to provide sentries for the captured garrisons had reduced his field army from fifteen to five thousand. Having reached the point from which so many British armies in Ireland had failed to recover, he was now relying on what Ormond referred to as the terror that those successes … had struck into the hearts of this people. It has been argued that it was only the terror that Cromwell’s name now aroused in the Catholic Irish which saved him from the fate of so many of his predecessors. This, together with the attractive power of his success for the protestant settlers, whom Broghill had imported in large numbers. The medical supplies and food which Cromwell had provided, far more plentifully than any previous British commander in Ireland. He continued to hurry, campaigning far later into the winter than normal, again emphasising on 26 October that: We could not satisfy our consciences to keep the field as we do, were it not that we hope to save blood by it … in prosecuting the enemy whiles the fear of God is upon them. When on 14 November he wrote to Parliament for money, clothes, shoes and stockings for his troops, he insisted that the extending your help in this way, at this time, is the most profitable means speedily to make Ireland no burden to England, but a profitable part of its Commonwealth.

The reconquest and colonisation of Ireland was viewed in London as a business operation, but the immediate need to garrison captured towns had drained Cromwell’s effective strength to only three thousand men, who were all too anxious to get into winter quarters. He reported to parliament on 25 November that ‘a considerable part’ of its army was ‘fitter for the hospital than the field.’ But he did not go into winter quarters for another three weeks, still pointing out that the Irish have so much of Ireland still in contribution as ministers to them a livelihood for the war, all the natives, almost to twenty, being friends to them but enemies to you. He argued that money must continue to be applied, the sea must be patrolled to prevent supplies and ammunition coming in from the continent. It was an early form of guerilla warfare, accompanied by frequent savagery, with the bulk of the population siding with the guerillas against the invaders. But Cromwell’s policy was proving successful. By mid-November Waterford was the only port on the east or south coasts still in royalist hands, and it was a prize worth taking, for it was always vying with Limerick to be seen as Ireland’s second city. Cromwell did not expect much resistance when he set out against it, for several inhabitants had let him know he would be welcome. But despite Waterford’s strong English connections, most of its population and all its garrison were staunchly catholic, none more so than its mayor and governor. This time, Ormond sent the defenders the help they needed, and when Michael Jones tried to storm Duncannon, covering the seaward approaches to Waterford, Colonel Edward Wogan threw his men back in serious disarray.

On 2 December, Cromwell abandoned the only siege that he ever undertook unsuccessfully, his troops marching away in the teeming rain. His own troops were not immune to hunger and sickness, which were the prevalent enemies of the winter of 1649-50. Cromwell himself became seriously ill as the attrition rate in his army rose to devastating levels. Even though he had issued draconian prohibitions forbidding his soldiers from wantonly looting from the local population, the orders were unenforceable. In all likelihood, several hundred thousand more died from those kinds of depredations, as well as from the epidemics of plague and dysentric fevers which swept through war-ravaged Ireland, than from the direct assault of parliamentarian soldiers. Yet Cromwell was soon heartened by the news that Dungarvan had surrendered to Broghill in the south and Carrickfergus to Coote in the north. Altogether the achievement of the four months since Rathmines had been impressive. Waterford and its estuary formed the only pocket of resistance along the whole coast from Derry round to Ireland’s southern tip, though the territory firmly under English control did not stretch far inland. Most of Cromwell’s sick soldiers would recover, and reinforcements were on the way. He continued to keep his troops in better discipline than Ormond’s unruly and generally unpaid forces, who made themselves so unpopular that Waterford and Limerick refused them winter quarters.

Meanwhile, the clericalist party that had followed Rinuccini became increasingly concerned over the tendency of the civil population to prefer co-operating with the Commonwealth’s forces rather than support the remnants of the Confederation. His policies of elevating the Church above the King had caused rifts not only between the Old English and the Old Irish but among the bishops themselves. In an attempt to repair the damage, the majority of the Irish catholic bishops met at Clonmacnoise during the first half of December 1649. From there they published a declaration proclaiming themselves united in the defence of their faith and their king, calling for an end to to dissension, and appealing to the people to support Ormond’s and the king’s cause loyally and generously. They warned against trusting Cromwell, who they claimed was planning to extirpate not only the catholic religion but the Irish people themselves, along with all their property. But the new Stuart king, or ‘Young Pretender’ as contemporary pamphlets called him, was still waiting in Jersey: it was not until February 1650 that he abandoned hope of Ireland and returned to the continent. Ormond still had more troops than Cromwell, but he had neither the money nor adequate supplies. Nor could his fortifications stand up against the powerful and mobile New Model artillery. Consequently, he lost influence with the native Irish, and the influence of the Ulstermen and the priesthood grew. More and more protestant settlers transferred their allegiance to the English Parliament, and Cromwell issued a Declaration which sharply distinguished between the Irish Catholics, and the protestant settlers.

Cromwell was greatly angered by the Irish bishops’ propaganda against him, and by virtue of his office as Lord-Lieutenant he published a very long counter-declaration. It has often been quoted to illustrate his bigotry against the Irish, and it does indeed display ignorance of their past and insensitivity towards their hopes for the future. But though he gave his authority to the document, it is unlikely that he himself composed all six thousand words of it, and large parts of it are quite unlike his authentic writings and utterances in style. They are couched in a bully-pulpit style of rhetoric which suggests a clerical hand, perhaps that of his trusted chaplain, John Owen. But the pages which seem most stamped with Cromwell’s own tone and thought are those which address the laity and challenge the bishops’ misrepresentations of the Commonwealth’s intentions towards them. Their gist was that England had no quarrel with the Irish people as such, but only with those in arms against her, and with the clergy who incited and supported them. The declaration hotly denied that the Council of State intended to massacre, banish and destroy the catholic inhabitants of Ireland. That, it said, had been the historic method of the Roman Catholic Church in dealing with those who rejected its authority, but a better might be found:

… to wit, the Word of God, which is able to convert… together with humanity, good life, equal and honest dealing with men of different opinion, which we desire to exercise towards this poor people, if you, by your wicked counsel, make them not incapable to receive it, by putting them into blood. … I shall not willingly take or suffer to be taken away the life of any man not in arms, but by the trial to which the people of this nation are subject by law, for offences against the same. … 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. … We come… to hold forth and maintain the lustre and glory of English liberty in a nation where we have an undoubted right to do it; – wherein the people of Ireland… may equally participate in all benefits, to use liberty and fortune equally with Englishmen, if they keep out of arms.

Cromwell’s army spent less than two months in winter quarters. The mild weather meant that most of his men made a good recovery from their various sicknesses, enabling him to take to the field before the end of January. He wrote again to the Speaker for money, since local levies could barely pay the cost of the garrisons. The only places of importance eastward of Connacht and the Shannon that still held out against him were Kilkenny, Clonmel, and Waterford, though a number of smaller strong points had to be reduced before he could tackle these major objectives. Except at Clonmel in County Tipperary, where Cromwell botched an attack, there was not a lot the remaining royalist and Irish armies could do to stop the relentless campaign of subjugation. Kilkenny, the old capital of the Confederation, proved a predictably hard nut to crack, though plague was raging in the city. It was in the heartland of Irish resistance and had a full circuit of medieval walls, an imposing castle and a large garrison, commanded by Ormand’s cousin Sir William Butler. Cromwell was in no hurry to attempt it, and he spent some weeks in reducing other minor strongholds in the vicinity, so as to isolate it.

For all or most of this time he must have been aware that parliament had voted on 8 January to order him to prepare himself to return to England as soon as possible, but he received no official intimation at that time, and he was most reluctant to leave Ireland until its reconquest was absolutely assured. He did not receive the Speaker’s letter formally summoning him home until 22 March, the day on which he appeared before Kilkenny. Together with Colonel Hewson, with forces from Dublin, he threatened the city with with a pincer movement, but Butler rejected his first summons. Two attempts to storm the walls were repulsed with considerable losses to the assailants, but after its gallant defence, Butler finally agreed honourable terms of surrender on the 27th. The townsfolk had to pay two thousand pounds to be spared being pillaged, but that did not save their churches from a good deal of vandalism by the angry protestant soldiers. Meanwhile, the catholic nobles met together in Ulster in March to appoint a commander to succeed O’Neill, their choice falling on the Bishop of Clogher, Heber MacMahon, an astute clerical politician but entirely lacking military experience. This thoroughly alienated Colonel Munro’s Ulster Scottish forces, who had been supporting Charles II since the regicide. Most of them now went over to the English parliament, though some threw in their lot with Ormond.

Cromwell was finally, officially, recalled by the Council of State in April 1650, but before he went he moved against Clonmel, where he received perhaps the worst rebuff of his military career from its governor, Major-General Hugh O’Neill. The latter was a resourceful soldier with a nerve of steel, and he managed to increase his garrison from about 1,300 to over 2,000 during the three weeks that Cromwell spent in forming his siege lines and planting his batteries. During that time his bold sallies inflicted considerable losses on the besiegers and when Cromwell’s heavy guns eventually opened up, the defenders built makeshift defences within the breach, so as to force the attacking troops to traverse a narrow line, ending in a deep ditch. So, when Cromwell sent his men in to storm the town on 16 May they marched into a cleverly set ambush, raked by guns firing chain-shot from behind the ditch and by musket-fire from the upper floors of the surrounding houses. He lost a thousand dead within an hour and another five hundred by the end of the day, by which time he had found that he was pushing his soldiers further than they were prepared to go. Around midnight, the town’s mayor sent to Cromwell to ask for terms, its defenders having run out of ammunition, and the Lord Lieutenant quickly granted favourable ones, but was then furious to find out that O’Neill and his men had slipped out of the town and through his lines under cover of darkness. Nevertheless, he honoured the terms he had offered to the townspeople. O’Neill paid for his deception when he got to Waterford, twenty-eight miles away, and found the city gates shut against him due to plague, so that his remnant of the army of Ulster was forced to break up.

Final Stages, 1650-52 – Ireton’s Death & Ormond’s Demise:

The protestant soldiers were, by mid-May, hurrying to submit, and on 18 May, Cromwell was in a position to return to England, eventually setting sail a week after taking Clonmel’s surrender, having appointed Ireton as his deputy in Ireland. But the country was still far from ‘pacified’: On 21 June, against his officers’ advice, MacMahon committed his army to battle against Coote’s superior forces at Scarrifholis, and it was utterly routed, with about three thousand soldiers killed. This was as bloody a business as Drogheda and Wexford, and a significant number of officers were executed after quarter had been given. MacMahon escaped but was captured next day and eventually hanged on Coote’s orders. Ireton secured the remaining garrisons of Leinster and Munster, including Waterford and Duncannon, during the summer, and only Limerick and the wilds of Connacht still offered resistance. Hugh O’Neill, by now probably Ireland’s best soldier, had persuaded the city to accept him as their commander of its garrison. Ireton was over-confident; he thought he could tackle Limerick and Athlone simultaneously, so he divided his forces. His conduct of his first independent campaign was indecisive, and by the time he concentrated his efforts on Limerick it was too late in the season for a prolonged siege. When he eventually began these operations in June 1651, he counted on starving it out and it was not until October that he at last prepared to storm it. In addition to the suffering imposed on the inhabitants by hunger and plague, his troops were guilty of some unnecessary acts of cruelty. The terms of surrender were harsh, especially towards the principal defenders, several of whom were executed. He finally gave way to his officers over O’Neill, who survived due to their admiration of him as a soldier. But, after five months of campaigning, Ireton himself succumbed to a chill which resulted in a high fever, cutting short his life on 26 November.

By that time, the king’s cause in Ireland was in terminal disarray, not least through the action of Charles II himself. The simmering feud between the catholic prelates and Ormond came to the boil when the bishops met at Jamestown in August 1650 and published a declaration that the catholics of Ireland could no longer accept him as their leader. They released the people from their obedience to him as Lord Lieutenant, called upon him to resign his authority and leave for France, and proposed in effect to take over political authority themselves until a General Assembly could be called and the Confederation revived. They prepared a formal excommunication of all Ormond’s supporters, but held it in suspension pending his reply. Predictably, he told their envoys that he had no intention of leaving and bade the bishops to stop wrangling and support the war. They then published their excommunication of him, not knowing that Charles II had just repudiated them. There was no more for Ormond to do in Ireland and Charles advised him to leave the country. With the grudging agreement of the bishops, he appointed Clarincard as his Lord Deputy, and in December sailed for France, not returning until the Restoration (see the picture below): With him went Inchiquin, Daniel O’Neill and the remaining Old English royalists.

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It is difficult to establish an end date to the Irish Rebellion, which had already lasted for nine years by the end of 1650. The ‘reconquest’ had been assured by the time Cromwell sailed home and after Coote took Galway in April 1651 virtually all the garrisons and forts in the country, of which there were over 350, were made subject to the English Commonwealth. In the meantime, Colonel Ludlow, with good reason for trepidation, had become temporary commander-in-chief of the parliamentarian army, remaining in post until 1652, when he was replaced by Charles Fleetwood. Although there was no realistic prospect of the royalist commanders mounting a campaign that could challenge the English forces in battle, they could still muster considerable numbers of soldiers on a local basis, even though an estimated thirty-four thousand Irishmen enlisted in continental armies during the 1650s. The remnants of the Irish armies in Leinster, Munster and Connacht made their formal surrenders between March and June 1652, but that did not spell an end to resistance. It took over thirty-three thousand English troops to man the garrisons in Ulster, Leinster and Munster, and mortality was so high among them that they needed to be constantly reinforced. The peace they were able to maintain was a precarious one. The parliamentarian troops eventually mopped up Irish resistance and under the Act of Settlement of 1652, which forcibly reunited it with England, Ireland went through a huge transfer of land: the gentry and nobility associated with the revolt were stripped of their estates in the east, centre and south, and transplanted to much smaller and less fertile lands in Connacht in the west.

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The English Parliament decided to solve ‘the Irish Problem’ by transplanting the majority of the Gaelic, Catholic Irish to Connacht; the remaining three-quarters of the country was to be granted to parliamentary veterans and other protestant settlers. Large numbers of dispossessed small landowners were living in the bogs and woods and mountains, and subsisting by armed raids. These ‘tories’, as they were called, drove off so many cattle that few were left to their rightful owners, and they made cultivation so hazardous that four-fifths of the fertile land lay fallow and uninhabited. As a result, whereas even in 1650 food prices were lower in Ireland than in England, by the end of 1651 bread was much dearer. Actual starvation became common over large areas, and a serious epidemic of plague followed in 1652. Sir William Petty estimated that the total population fell from a million and a half in 1641 to 850,000 in 1652, with the steepest decline coming towards the end of the period. Though the decline was therefore due only in part to the wars, some of the officers and men taken prisoner on Cromwell’s campaign, at Wexford for example, were treated as chattels of war and were shipped to Barbados, as ‘indentured servants’. The process of depopulation and impoverishment was compounded when garrison commanders responded to ‘tory’ raids and larger-scale military activity by laying waste the territory on which their tormentors subsisted. In the event, however, few veterans took up the land allotted to them, so that the settlement could not be implemented in full. Many of them sold their rights to officers and speculators, leading to the growth of a class of English landlords, and the Irish gentry were permanently crushed. The Catholic Irish remained on the land, but as the small-holding tenants of the Protestant landowners. It was poor consolation that Ireland gained representation in the English Parliament (by the 1653 Instrument of Government) and free trade with England.

Cromwell’s Legacy in Ireland:

However ambiguous the evidence, the legacy that Oliver Cromwell engendered in Ireland in the autumn of 1649 has been remembered as one of the most infamous atrocities in the entirety of the history of the British Isles, an enormity so monstrous that it has hampered the possibilities for Anglo-Irish co-existence ever since. Unquestionably, events of appalling cruelty took place at Drogheda and Wexford. But exactly what happened, and to whom, has been clouded with misunderstanding ever since. Only recently have Irish historians like Tom Reilly, a native of Drogheda, had the courage and scholarly integrity to get the story right. Getting it right, as Simon Schama has pointed out, is not in any sense exoneration or extenuation, but simply explanation. The first fact is that the vast majority were neither Catholic nor Gaelic, nor were any of them unarmed civilians, women or children, as Woolrych attests. This myth was created by Father Murphy’s ‘history’, published in 1883. Indeed, Cromwell had been sent by the Council of State not, primarily, to confront the Catholic confederates but the the royalist, largely Protestant army led by the Duke of Ormond, which had been fighting against, not alongside, the the rebels led by Owen Roe O’Neill. Secondly, Drogheda, from the beginning a staunchly loyalist Old English town, had in fact defied the siege of Phelim O’Neill’s insurgent army in 1641. As we have already noted, when Cromwell arrived in Ireland, there were no fewer than four distinct armies in Ireland: the Gaelic-Irish Confederation, dominated by O’Neill; the royalist army of Ormond; the Scots-Presbyterian army in Ulster under Munro and the parliamentarian forces commanded by the Welsh puritan Michael Jones. Although the negotiated truce between the royalists and the Catholic Irish had simplified the military quadrille, and as much as he hated Roman Catholicism and Spain, he also identified his primary and most formidable antagonist as the royalist army.

In his influential book of Essayes, Lord Montaigne had written nearly seventy years earlier, of:

… the custom we hold in wars, to punish, and that with death, those who wilfully opinionate themselves to defend a place which, by the rules of war, cannot be kept.

By these ‘rules of war’, which were generally accepted for another two hundred years, a garrison that refused a summons after its fortifications were breached was not entitled to quarter, but Cromwell had never hitherto conducted his English campaigns in such a spirit, not even at the siege of Basing House, and certainly not at the other West Country sieges of 1645-46, even when terms were not readily accepted. Nor would he have wanted to be judged by the low standards of the slaughter of civilians at Birmingham and Leicester by Rupert’s men. He had never been guilty of the slaughter of women and children and had consistently tried to spare unarmed civilians from the ravages of war. It was not, however, unprecedented in the appalling history of seventeenth-century warfare on the continent, and especially not in the Irish wars. The Scottish-Presbyterian General Monro had massacred three thousand at Island Magee, and after the battle of Knockanauss in 1647, Col. Michael Jones had had six hundred prisoners killed in cold blood, as well as hanging deserters on his own side, including his own nephew. Coote and Inchiquin had sometimes acted with comparable severity, and brutality towards both armed enemies and hapless civilians was not confined to one side. But Cromwell can hardly have been unaware that many of Drogheda’s defenders were English and protestant, even if he did not know that the town had actually been under siege by the catholic rebels at the time of the 1641 massacre which had occurred before the first civil war in England. That had been widely publicised in the contemporary propaganda print shown below.

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In common with many of his Puritan contemporaries, he believed these pornographic exaggerations of the atrocity propaganda by which most Englishmen got news of the rebellion: there were also graphic illustrations of impaled Presbyterian babies and mutilated patriarches in Ulster and Leinster. Irish catholics were held collectively responsible for this notorious massacre of protestant settlers. These illustrations had clearly made a lasting impression on Cromwell’s psyche, for In 1650, he wrote to justify the atrocities of the previous autumn to the Irish Catholic bishops, claiming that they had put the English to the most unheard-of and most barbarous massacre (without respect of sex and age) that ever the sun beheld. There’s little doubt that his credulous belief in the bestiality of the Irish hardened him against any suffering that might be inflicted on the native population as a result of the campaign. But this did not motivate him to commit genocide. Soldiers, not civilians, were the targets of his fury. Nevertheless, it is hard to stomach his pronouncement, made in his report to the Speaker of the Commons that the outcome of the siege was …

a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood. … it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.

One thing that Cromwell could not or would not understand was the depth of devotion that the majority of the Irish felt towards the catholic religion. He frankly declared that he would not permit the celebration of mass when he had the power to prevent it, but he failed to recognise that this would deprive most of the nation of the central rite of their faith; their devotion to it, he thought, was a superstition maintained by their priests. The general catholic population, he believed, were poor laity … ignorant of the grounds of the catholic religion. Many of them were not so much ‘catholic’ as ‘unconverted’ in his view. In secular matters, however, he does seem to have envisaged a kinder and more decent treatment of the mass of the Irish population than others in the Council of State, in a sincere belief that the bulk of it could be won over by it. He wrote to his friend, John Sadler, that in divers places where we are come, we find the people very greedy after the Word, and flocking to Christian meetings. Yet something further must be added about Cromwell’s attitude towards Irish Catholicism. The tolerance which is so a feature of his religious thought, of course, only applied to protestants, to those with the ‘root of the matter’ in them, to ‘God’s children’. In England, however, he was prepared to tolerate both Episcopalians and Catholics. In fact, Catholics were better off during the Protectorate than they had ever been under the Stuart kings. But in Ireland it was different, as he told the Governor of Ross:

For that which you mention concerning liberty of conscience … I meddle not with any man’s conscience. But if by liberty of conscience you mean a liberty to exercise the mass, I judge it best to use plain dealing, and let you know, where the Parliament of England have power, that will not be allowed of.

To his mind, then, private, individual belief was sacrosanct, but public practice or worship was quite another. In his declaration to the Irish Catholic priesthood of 1649, he told them that the mass had been illegal in Ireland for eighty years before the rebellion of 1641, and that he was determined to enforce this law, and to reduce things to their former state in this respect. Legally, he was right, but there had never been such a law-enforcing power in Ireland before the invasion of his army. Again, by way of explanation though not justification, it is important to refer to the political associations of Irish Catholicism, to the lead which the priesthood and the papacy had taken in the Irish Rebellion, to the contrasting political weakness of popery in England and its lack of effective foreign contacts, throughout the 1640s. Over the same decade, the utter failure of eighty years of proscription to uproot Irish Catholicism or to sever its links with Rome, became apparent. It was a political religion in a sense in which Catholicism in England had ceased to be, with the ‘Church of Rome’ seeking to control the laws of the land, and this formed Cromwell’s ‘justification’ for hanging priests and shooting officers, whereas other ranks and civilians were usually given quarter.

Cromwell had no particular relish for what he regarded as inevitable bloodshed. If he was merciless in his onslaught it was because he had been equally implacable in his prosecution of an unfinished second civil war and a threatened third one. He resolved to wage the war in Ireland with maximum ferocity, the better to shorten its duration. Whenever there was a chance of intimidating a defending stronghold into capitulation without loss of life, Cromwell did whatever he could to make that happen. At Drogheda, commanding the main road between Dublin and Ulster, he had believed there was just such a chance, since the royalist commander, the veteran Sir Arthur Aston, had been hopelessly outnumbered, not least in the heavy artillery which Cromwell could bring to bear on any attack in the form of huge siege mortars. The subsequent atrocity which was inflicted on the soldiers, few of whom were either Irish or Catholic, is surely sufficiently unforgivable to indict Cromwell, without any additional need to subscribe to the fiction that he deliberately or even passively extended the massacre to civilians. As Reilly has pointed out, the stories of women and children raped and mutilated are derived entirely from second-hand sources, virtually all of them either passionate royalists, like the antiquarian Anthony Wood, who published the stories during the Restoration ‘witch-hunts’ of republicans, or compilers of accounts writing centuries after the events. Wood’s brother Thomas was the source of many of the ‘juciest’ stories of Drogheda, including the one about Aston being beaten to death with his own wooden leg, and that of the mysterious martyred ‘virgin’ in her finest jewels and finery, who was stabbed in the ‘belly or fundament’ by marauding troopers.

Nevertheless, the savagery of the massacre at Drogheda was different from anything that had happened in the British civil wars to date, except perhaps to the royalist camp followers at Naseby. It recalled the worst horrors of the Thirty Years’ War on the continent. Cromwell, in his report on Drogheda to the Council of State, expressed the hope this business will save much effusion of blood. In a more considered report to the Speaker of the Commons, Cromwell again showed his anxiety lest Parliament should fail to keep him financially supplied:

I trust it will not be thought by any (that have not irreconcilable or malicious principles) unfit for me to move for a constant supply, which, in human probability as to outward means, is most likely to hasten and perfect this work. And indeed, if God please to finish it here as He hath done in England, the war is like to pay itself.

A week after Drogheda, the Council of State wrote to Cromwell instructing him to put all forfeited estates in Ireland up for let at the highest possible rent, and to use the proceeds to pay for his army. The war would not finance itself unless it was finished quickly, hence the ‘reason’ why Drogheda massacre was followed just a month later by another at Wexford. Cromwell’s actions and inactions at both Drogheda and Wexford can be legitimately judged, at least to some extent, according to the hints that he himself gave in his correspondence that his conscience was not entirely at ease about either. Of course, they were separate cases, and there was nothing remotely comparable with them in the subsequent actions which he fought in Ireland. In particular, his uncharacteristic conduct at Drogheda is a reminder of the corrosive effect that assumptions about the inherent inferiority of ‘race’ or creed, especially when stoked by persistent falsifying propaganda, can have even upon hearts and minds that are otherwise capable of nobility and toleration.

Miniature by Samuel Cooper, c. 1651.

The hatred and contempt which propertied Englishmen felt for the Irish is something which we may deplore but should not conceal. Even the poet Spenser, who knew Ireland well, the poet Milton, who believed passionately in liberty and human dignity, and the philosopher Bacon, all shared the the view that the Irish were culturally so inferior that their subordination was natural and necessary. Religious hostility reinforced such cultural prejudices and stereotypes. The strategic considerations already mentioned, reinforced by the anxieties which the ongoing civil wars continued to raise. As Christopher Hill (1974) concluded,

a great number of civilised Englishmen of the propertied class in the seventeenth century spoke of Irishmen in tones not far removed from those which Nazis used about Slavs … the contempt rationalised a desire to exploit. … In these matters Cromwell was no better and no worse than the average Englishman of his time and class. Only a few intellectuals … seem to have been immune from this appalling attitude, and their ideological influence was slight, since it ran counter to to the extreme protestant assumptions which most of the radicals shared.

To Cromwell’s ‘racial contempt’ for the Irish, and his commercial-calculating attitude towards the the colonisation of Ireland, we must add a conscientious enthusiasm for conferring the benefits of ‘English civilisation’ on the natives, whether they liked it or not. His curious private letter of 31 December 1649 in which Oliver tried to persuade his friend John Sadler to accept the office of Chief Justice of Munster reveals something of this attitude:

We have a great opportunity to set up, until the Parliament shall otherwise determine, a way of doing justice amongst these poor people, which, for the uprightness and cheapness of it, may exceedingly gain upon them, who have been accustomed to as much injustice, tyranny and oppression from their landlords, the great men, and those that should have done them right as, I believe, any people in that which we call Christendom.

Sadler rejected the offer, which came with a ‘confidential’ promise of an allowance of a thousand pounds, more than ‘usually allowed’. The post was conferred instead on John Cook, the chief prosecuting lawyer at the trial of Charles I. Cromwell’s colonial attitude towards Ireland is also evident in the assurance he gave to Edmund Ludlow, Ireton’s successor as governor of Ireland, that the country was…

… a clean paper in that particular, and capable of being governed by such laws as should be found most agreeable to justice, which may be so impartially administered as to be a good precedent even to England itself; where they once perceive property preserved at an easy and cheap rate in Ireland they will never permit themselves to be so cheated and abused as they now are.

The quotation above provides a fascinating glimpse of what Cromwell thought was the republican ‘utopia’ of Ludlow and his friends. One of them, John Jones, hoped that ‘all men of estates’ would be banished, and the Irish ploughman and the labourer be admitted to the same immunities with the English. This would at least have been a postive if paternalistic policy for Ireland: better than what actually happened. On reflection, it was a misfortune that the Irish rebellion was launched shortly before British military power increased to a degree that left the Irish no chance of winning their independence, or at least an Irish parliament, firm titles for Irish landowners and a ‘de facto’ toleration of the Catholic faith as the religion of the vast majority of the Irish people. Once they were up against the undistracted military might of the English Commonwealth, ultimate defeat was only a matter of time. Yet the real curse of Ireland was not Cromwell but the conjunction of attitudes, largely shared by both the English and the Scots which went back to the time of Thomas Cromwell and John Knox; attitudes which assumed Ireland to be a dependent kingdom, looked upon her land as consisting of ‘four green fields’, open for colonisation, and equated ‘popery’ with idolatry. The ‘Act for the Settling Ireland’ of 1652, which set into motion the Rump parliament’s pre-meditated, wholesale confiscation of Irish lands, also rendering eighty thousand Irishmen officially subject to the death penalty, was passed at a time when Cromwell, far from dominating it, was seriously at odds with it.


John Morrill (ed.), Sarah Barber et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Glenn Foard (1994), Colonel John Pickering’s Regiment of Foot, 1644-45. Whitstable: Pryor Publications.

Austin Woolrych (2004), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: OUP.

Simon Schama (2001), A History of Britain: The British Wars, 1603-1776. London: BBC Worldwide.

Christopher Hill (1974), God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin (Pelican) Books.

G. Huehns (ed.) (1955), Clarendon: Selections from ‘The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars’. London: Oxford University Press.

(to be continued… )

One thought on “The Three Kingdoms & The Third Civil War: Campaigns in Ireland; Drogheda & Wexford to Tipperary, 1649-1652.

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