The time after the signing of the cessation was a critical one, where the war became more and more complex in Ireland. The cessation agreed between Ormonde and the Confederates essentially brought most combat operations in Ireland to a temporary end, a state of affairs also helped by the Irish withdrawal from Ulster. There were precious few engagements, almost none of note, in this time period. Between the autumn of 1643 and the late Spring/early summer of 1644, the war was one fought with words, threats, diplomacy and treaty, as the various factions of the Civil Wars tried to position themselves as best they could for the fighting to follow in Ireland. It was the Scottish army in Ulster, under Robert Monro, that would be at the heart of these discussions, and this series entry.
The Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters in Ulster were nominally allies, both engaged in a fight against royalist-minded factions. But relations between the two were frequently strained, and that strain could have produced an outcome in the Confederate War very favourable to the Irish, if things had gone just a little bit differently.
The Scottish were in Ulster to defend Scottish settlers and their religious practise from Catholic rebels and “papist” ideology, but so much of their upkeep was in the hands of the Parliament, for whom the Covenanters were doing a favour, securing English land in the north of Ireland and keeping the likes of Owen Roe O’Neill in check.
But suspicion, double-dealing and recriminations abounded. Supplies were often late. So was pay, which typically was months in arrears and more than anything threatened the resolve and cohesion of the Covenanters as an effective unit. The Covenanter leadership threatened to quit Ireland and return to Scotland if prompt payment of their dues was not made, either in cash or land in Ulster: the negotiation with the Parliament on this score were long and drawn out as the cost of paying the Scots was not inconsiderable. Parliament was split on the issue with many who felt it would be better to cease payment and withdraw English forces back to the secure Carrickfergus region until a more opportune time, so that the royalist threat in England could be dealt with decisively, before returning to sort out the Confederate rebels. This faction initially wanted the Scots to take a larger role in the English Civil War, joining their cause in the main conflict against Charles I, and that included the armies in Ulster. The Scottish were willing to do this, even to siphon off troops from the Irish front, which was off secondary importance after all, if they got the right remuneration – threats that they could possibly even join the royalist side if they didn’t get their way were taken seriously.
Others in the Parliament, not trusting the English garrisons to follow their lead and unwilling to essentially abandon Ireland to the Irish and royalists, wanted the Covenanters to remain in place, even if they meant continued upkeep of their army, and giving in to other demands. They feared a firm royalist/Confederate alliance conquering all of Ireland in the name of the King, and then carrying their forces over to Britain.
The cessation made that possibility all too real. It altered many thoughts about what the Covenanters would be best served doing. The negotiations with Scotland eventually resulted in a new army being levied from there to fight in England, while the Covenanters remained in place to act as a block to both Ormonde and the Confederates, with the Parliament paying up requested wages.
Even if they were just to delay the royalist/Confederate alliance in its victory, it would be a help, though the Parliament may have over-estimated the ability of Ormonde and the Kilkenny government to come to terms. The other crucial matter was the issue of leadership, with the Covenanters insisting that all friendly forces in Ireland – Scottish and English – should be under the command of one individual. No one could think that the Covenanters meant for anyone but Robert Monro to hold such a position.
All the while, Charles and Ormonde watched and hoped for a chance to drive a wedge between the Parliament and the Scottish. The Covenanter army, which largely acted like an entity independent of both England and Scotland, could easily go too far in throwing its muscle around, and bring doom upon itself and its cause. But, much like Parliament, Charles’ opinions on the Covenanters would change over time. At first, he wanted them to be kept in Ireland, permanently if possible, and ordered Ormonde to do everything in his power to bring this about and get the Scots to hold to the cessation. For obvious reasons, he wanted the Covenanters away from the key battlefield of England. It was only later, possibly at the prompting of the more knowledgeable Ormonde, that Charles realised the problem: as long as the Covenanters were in Ulster, the Confederate Irish he hoped would send armies to aid him would refuse to budge, fearful of the threat Monro would pose to the rest of Ireland outside of Ulster. For Charles, when it came to Covenanters, there were no completely positive options to take.
The situation had added complicity, as Monro’s command was no longer absolute, and many of his regimental commanders now acted in concert against his wishes. In February of 1644, three of the ten regiments of the army actually left Ireland for Scotland when Parliaments promised supplies and pay failed to arrive again, with the stretched forces of Arthur Chichester, a high-ranking English officer who controlled the forces garrisoning Carrickfergus and Belfast, occupying many of the forts and castles previously held by Monro’s army. Monro was eventually able to secure his command and get the rest to stay, but it was not an easy process.
Chichester and many others were actually caught between a rock and hard place. Some of them were hardly hardcore Parliamentarians and had great sympathy and respect for Charles, and for his appointed commander in Ireland. But they were completely reliant on the Covenanters for defence and on the Parliament for supply, so were unable, realistically, to come out on the side of Charles, Ormonde and the cessation, even if many of them would have preferred to declare themselves royalists. Fear of Monro and his army would feed much of what happened later.
The Parliament and Scotland were able to agree to a “Solemn League and Covenant”, a binding oath between them to shore up their alliance. Its tenants included commitment to introducing Scottish religious practise throughout England and a rejection of the cessation. Monro was appointed commander in chief of “British” forces in Ireland.
Conflict immediately brewed up between Monro and the English commanders in Ulster. Monro busied himself trying to get as many soldiers in Ulster, Scottish and English, to sign take the new oath, and many did so, willingly. But Chichester was opposed to Monro’s command, and was not alone. In mid-May he called a meeting in the town of Belfast, controlled by his garrison, to determine if the English officers and nobles would agree to Monro’s leadership.
Rumours spread that Ormonde, keen to cause dissent in Ulster and seeing that the cessation period was about to come to a close, was sending supplies and material to Belfast in order to aid the English in resisting any attempt by Monro to impose his command by force. Ormonde, seeing swelling Covenanter numbers, probably feared a Scottish assault on the Pale region, and had little faith in the Confederates capability to stop such an occurrence.
Monro, hearing such rumours, had to act. Before the meeting could take place, he marched on Belfast as fast as he could. Sympathetic elements in the garrison ensured that he was able to do so without detection, and on the morning of the day that the meeting was supposed to take place, he was able to get inside Belfast’s walls and seize the town without bloodshed. Chichester’s loyal troops were caught completely by surprise and no resistance is recorded. Chichester was shown the door, with his forces splitting into various pieces, some heading to England, some to other English forts in Ulster, and still others to Dublin to join Ormonde.
Monro’s actions were ruthless and risky, but there were several factors that pushed him into the decision to take Belfast:
-he had to, after the minor rebellion of the three regiments who had left Ulster, re-exert his authority as leader of the Covenanters. Sudden and decisive action helped to show him as the strong leader that he had to be seen as.
– It was vital action which essentially destroyed English resistance to his command in Ulster, without the need fore actual fighting. Monro knew that a large part of the rank-and-file disliked the very idea of the cessation, as evidenced by the multitude who willing signed up to the new covenant, so all he had to do was eliminate their wavering leadership as a threat. Further evidence can be seen in his attitude towards the English controlled garrison of Lisburn, which was left intact despite the opportunity to besiege and take it.
– Monro was also operating under the very real and immediate threat of an attack on Ulster from the Irish Confederates. He needed to unify the Parliamentarian/Scottish forces in Ulster fast, and end any chance of a civil war in his rear.
Monro got what he wanted: firm support from the Parliament and an expansive command in Ulster. With these two things he was now to face into a new campaign, against an Irish enemy keen to reverse the previous abandonment of Ulster. That campaign, and the trouble it caused to both sides, will be the focus of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.