Cromwell in Ireland

Eleanor Hull
Cromwell in Ireland

“A powerfull majestie to comaunde and an awfull countenaunce to execute.”Aphorismical Discoverie, Bk. IV, ch. xii.

On July 12, 1649, the day of the surrender of Drogheda to Inchiquin, Cromwell had taken over the Irish command, and on July 26 the first of his twenty-eight regiments had disembarked in Dublin.

Inchiquin was detached to meet him in Munster, where it was believed he might land, but Cromwell, who paid little attention to the expectations of his enemies, arrived in Dublin Bay on August 15, a fortnight after the rout of Ormonde’s forces at Rathmines, “being received with all possible demonstrations of joy, the great guns echoing forth their welcome.”

The passage of Cromwell through Ireland was like the swift stroke of a sword that spared not. His main object was to reduce the Royalist towns which still held for the King, and to confirm the now rapidly increasing authority of the English Parliament party in Ireland.

Having taken over the command of the city of Dublin from Jones and organized his forces, Cromwell appeared on September 3 before Drogheda, summoned it to yield on terms, and, on the refusal of the Governor, stormed the town.

The garrison of Drogheda was composed of Ormonde’s picked troops, whom he had thrown into this town and Trim, where he himself lay watching the event. It was well provisioned, and its walls had been repaired as far as time permitted, so that it was confidently believed that it could stand a long siege.

A regiment of horse and two thousand foot occupied the town under the experienced command of Sir Arthur Aston, a Catholic officer of good Cheshire family and strong Royalist principles. He had with him a number of English as well as Irish officers, as Sir Edmund Varney, Colonel Warren, Colonel Wall; their troops were Munstermen and Englishmen.

Drogheda held for the King against the Parliament. The resistance was stout, and the Cromwellians twice entered the town and were twice driven out again. The third time, led by Cromwell himself, the attacking party crossed the Boyne Bridge, capturing first the entrenchments, next the ‘tenalia’ or defensive outworks, and finally the Churches of St Mary and St Peter, and the Towers, in all of which the soldiers made successive stands.

Cromwell’s report gives a vivid picture of what occurred after the outworks were taken and the town entered by his troops:

“The enemy, divers of them, retreated into the Mill Mount; a place very strong and of difficult access; being exceedingly high, having a good graft and strongly palisaded. The Governor, Sir Arthur Aston, and divers considerable officers being there, our men getting up to them, were ordered by me to put them all to the sword. And indeed, being in the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town; and, as I think, that night they put to the sword about 2000 men; divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the town, where about 100 of them possessed St Peter’s Church steeple, some the west gate, and others a strong Round Tower next the gate called St. Sunday’s.”[1]

Being summoned to yield to mercy, the gallant defenders of these last refuges still refused. The steeple of St Peter’s was fired by Cromwell’s orders, and many perished in the flames, and the Towers were reduced by hunger, the attackers, grown savage by massacre, mounting the steps holding up each a child before him as a protection from the defenders, who brained them as they appeared at the top of the winding stairs.

Thomas à Wood, who served in Cromwell’s army, says that three thousand at least, besides women and children, were put to the sword. Sir Arthur Aston had his brains beaten out and his body hacked to pieces, and the women of high and low rank who took refuge in the vaults were slain without pity.[2]

Hear Cromwell again:

“From one of the Towers, notwithstanding their condition, they killed and wounded some of our men. When they submitted, their officers were knocked on the head; and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the rest shipped for Barbadoes. The soldiers in the other Tower were all spared, as to their lives only, and shipped likewise for the Barbadoes. … The officers and soldiers of this garrison were the flower of all their army.”[3]

The sack of Drogheda, even in a day when the sack of towns was the universal accompaniment of war,[4] sent a thrill of terror through the country. Ormonde, watching the fate of his fine troops from the distance of only a few miles, writes to Lord Byron:

“On this occasion Cromwell exceeded himself more than anything I ever heard of in breaking faith and bloody inhumanity; the cruelties exercised there for five days after the town was taken would make as many several pictures of inhumanity as are to be found in the Book of Martyrs or in the relation of Amboyna.”[5]

Even Ludlow comments on the “extraordinary severity” of the action at Drogheda, and the soldiers themselves protested against the order to kill their prisoners, who had surrendered on quarter promised.[6]

But to Cromwell the horror of Drogheda appeared in another aspect. In his report he writes:

“It was set upon some of our hearts, that a great thing should be done, not by power or might, but by the spirit of God … and therefore it is good that God alone have all the glory.”[7]

In this manner did Oliver the Puritan reflect upon the deed.

On the taking of Drogheda we may make the following remarks: First, Cromwell felt that in the destruction of these picked forces he had at one blow broken the back of the defence of the Irish Royalists, and that all that remained thereafter was to follow up his success. Secondly, he came over, filled with that detestation of the “unheard of, unprovoked, and most barbarous massacre (without respect of age or sex) that ever the sun beheld,” which, rightly or wrongly, every Englishman of his day believed had been recently practised “at a time when Ireland was in perfect peace” upon their countrymen newly settled in Ireland.

The “horrible massacre” was always on Cromwell’s lips, and there is no doubt that all his actions in Ireland were considered by him as an act of just and deserved retribution.[8] But his orders withdrawing the quarter given to the garrison, “most English” as Clarendon and Ludlow believed, “both as to men and officers,” can find no excuse; nor yet the massacre of the civilians, which his men, drunk with blood, carried out.

The sentencing of the soldiers taken prisoners to Barbadoes, after the execution of one in ten of them, was more in the manner of the times and was not confined to Ireland. Scotland was being cleared forcibly of paupers and prisoners, who were being shipped off in gangs to the newly-discovered West Indian plantations.[9]

In October, 1648, the Secretary of State writes to Ormonde:

“It is a wonderful thing and God’s just judgment, that those that sold their king not two years ago for £200,000 should now be sold for two shillings apiece, to be carried to the new plantations.”

John Morley says that Cromwell’s theory of the divine operations at Drogheda “must be counted one of the most wonderful of all the recorded utterances of Puritan theology,”[10] but it is perhaps surpassed by his declaration when the Governor of Ross demanded liberty of conscience as a condition in surrendering that town.

“Concerning liberty of conscience,” was the reply, “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 to let you know, where the Parliament of England have power that will not be allowed of.”[11]

Cromwell’s own explanation of his conduct at Drogheda was that it would prevent the effusion of blood in the future.

At Drogheda, as at every town besieged by him, terms were offered on condition that the garrison laid down its arms and surrendered the town to the Parliament. The terms included safety for the inhabitants free from injury, and the right to the common soldiers to march out, with or without arms, and in some cases permission to their officers to accompany them. Where they were refused he pointed to Drogheda as an example of what fate might overtake them. The terrible example was, in fact, not without effect.

In a few days Newry, Carlingford, Wicklow, Arklow, Enniscorthy, and several castles had surrendered and were garrisoned with Parliamentary troops, no harm having been done to their occupants, civil or military, and certainly much “effusion of blood” having been saved.

At Wexford Sinnott, the youthful Governor, stood out for high terms; his thriving town “pleasantly situated and strong” within a fifteen-foot wall and ramparts of earth, with its good houses and excellent trade and fisheries, might, he thought, be saved. But treachery threw the castle into Cromwell’s hands, and from its walls he turned his guns upon the town.

The governor had gained from Cromwell the safety of the citizens and leave for the soldiers to depart to their homes, with the lives of his officers, who were to be made prisoners. At this very moment, however, the inhabitants, suddenly stricken with terror, fled out of the town and attempted to escape in boats so heavily laden that most of them capsized, and the soldiery, entering without resistance, put all they found in arms to the sword. The priests were a special object of their hatred, but neither sex nor age was spared. Cromwell thinks that two thousand “became a prey to the soldier” at Wexford.

New Ross, commanded by Lucas Taaffe, surrendered on good terms, his men marching away with their arms, bag and baggage, drums and colours; five hundred of them, Englishmen, went over to Cromwell’s army.[12]

The effect of Cromwell’s conquering march was being felt all over the country. Ormonde in vain tried to add to the remnants of his army; everywhere men were passing over to the enemy in large numbers, partly through fear, partly for the sake of peace, which they could find nowhere else.

Ormonde’s own army was forsaking him, and the towns refused obedience to any commands. Each set up independently for itself, with the results that we have seen at Wexford and shall see later at Limerick and Galway.

Ormonde writes of “the speedy decline of the King’s business, beyond any reason that can be given for it. Towns have declared against us fifty miles from any enemy, but those within them; most remarkable is it that the Roman Catholics that stood so rigidly with the king upon religion … are with much ado withheld from sending commissioners to entreat Cromwell to make stables and hospitals of their churches.”

With all his industry the Lord-Lieutenant could not keep together his army, though superior in numbers to the enemy. Owen Roe, still alive, though slowly sinking to his grave, alone sent help. Long ago, in May, he had written to Rinuccini: “We are almost reduced to despair. On the one hand, Ormonde entreats us to join him; on the other, the Parliamentary party seeks our friendship. God knows, we hate and detest both alike”;[13] but his last act was to make peace with Ormonde and send him a body of men.

Even Cromwell dreaded this new alliance. But almost at the same moment there came the news that all Munster had revolted to Cromwell. Kilkenny, Youghal, Cork and Kinsale declared for him, partly by treachery, but chiefly by the services of Roger Boyle of Broghill, later Lord Orrery, son of the Earl of Cork.

Broghill now professed for Cromwell the affection which, at the Restoration, he instantly transferred to the King, and he exerted his great influence to bring over the south to the Parliamentary side. This was the most severe blow that had as yet fallen, and though Cromwell did not trust Broghill he found him very useful in the south, where Inchiquin’s army came over to him.

The country people, too, Irish and Catholic though they were, everywhere helped the Puritan army. Cromwell allowed no pillage; he hanged any soldier that plundered. Till money grew scarce, all was paid for and no free quarters were taken. An army that paid for everything and did them no wrong was a new experience to the poor inhabitants, who were accustomed to be pillaged indiscriminately by all parties, and they came in freely with market produce and kept the army well victualled. Everything seemed to be working for Cromwell.

Ormonde was playing an uncertain and losing game, unable to move without the sanction of the vacillating Confederates at Kilkenny, and deeply suspected of treachery; he seems to have been waiting in the vain hope that Charles II would come over and take command; it was assuredly the only possible chance of rallying parties in Ireland.

At Clonmacnois a large body of prelates were engaged in trying to make “a kind of union” among themselves and patch up the old quarrel between the Nuncio’s party and that of the independent bishops; “sitting there,” as the author of the Aphorismical Discoverie says, “canvassing many needless questions on either side.”[14] Their chief act, besides issuing proclamations, was to appoint the vigorous and warlike Ever MacMahon, Bishop of Clogher, general of the Northern army in the place of Owen Roe O’Neill, with fatal results; for in July of the following year (1650) Coote’s army encountered him near Letterkenny and completely crushed the Irish forces, reducing them to a rabble.

The Bishop, who escaped from the bloody field where three thousand of his men lay dead, was taken and hanged; he was a man regretted even by Ormonde, who deplored “the fatal itch the clergy have to govern people and command armies”; the ruthless Coote added to his severities the death of Colonel Henry O’Neill after quarter given.[15]