The summer of 1648, and the Confederation of Kilkenny was in tatters. The acceptation of the Inchiquin truce had led to a split between Ormondist and Clericalist factions, which now threatened to turn into open warfare. Giovanni Rinuccini had played one of his final cards in a desperate bid to get back on top of the situation in the form of a mass excommunication of any who went along with the truce, but all this really did was to further the extent of the split.
Those wavering on the fence that had never had much time for the Nuncio now found their allegiances heading more to the Ormondist faction, shocked at the extreme lengths that the Papal representative had gone. Entire towns that fell under its edict felt aggrieved, while even large parts of the clergy struggled with its implications. It was not long before several bishops were publically seeking a more conciliatory position, downplaying their support for the Nuncio and going as far as declare his proclamations null and void. The Supreme Council, perhaps seeing a way to rid themselves of the Nuncio for good, sent messages to the Pope appealing for his intervention, indicating that his representative was acting entirely outside of his allotted bounds.
Where Rinuccini did get support was with Owen Roe O’Neill and his Ulster Army. Owen Roe and the Nuncio would always be the firmest of allies, and Rinuccini needed that support now, lest his entire cause be destroyed irrevocably. But there were still significant problems. O’Neill’s army had been reduced to a very small size, due to availability of just garrison duty, lack of pay, lack of supplies, and the necessity to release men for farm work back home when there were no campaigns to be fought. Owen Roe remained a competent, respected leader, whose very name carried a great deal of clout, but he could accomplish very little if he did not have the men to do so.
Facing him would be the cobbled together remnants of several Confederate armies, along with the troops of Inchiquin who were now, apparently, allies of Kilkenny. Thomas Preston and the Theobald Taafe, fresh off their disastrous showings at Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanuss respectively, were given new commands by the now completely Ormondist governing body of the Confederation, while even the Earl of Clanrickarde, long a spectator whose allegiances were in doubt, now came fully into the war on the Confederate/Royalist side.
Such realities painted a grim picture for O’Neill and Rinuccini, facing enemies on every other side – there were still the Covenanter remnant in the north-east of Ulster, the Lagan Army in Derry and the Parliamentarians in Dublin remember – and greatly outnumbered. But things were not all entirely grim for the Clericalists – their counterparts were scattered, poorly led and had chronic miscommunication issues. The Confederate armies were threadbare and of inferior quality, with so many soldiers sick to the teeth of continued fighting for so many years, and not exactly exultant of fighting their own people. For Inchiquin, plenty of his troops were more reluctant to cast off the cause of the Parliament for Charles. Desertion was rife.
And so it came to blows, but it would be an exaggeration to dub the months that followed a true “civil war”. The Clericalists and the Ormondists were violently opposed, this is true, but little large scale combat took place between them. Instead, a low-level contest of manoeuvre, raid and siege took place, with both sides steering clear of a direct, potentially catastrophic, engagement. To that end, I hope I can be excused for picking my own term, used in the title.
By the beginning of June Owen Roe was committed to military action against the Ormondists, making an open declaration of his intent. He quickly marshalled what forces he could from his base in Laois and set off for Kilkenny. The exact number of men that he had is in dispute, with estimates as varied as 700 to 10’000, but it seems more likely that the number was close to the first guess than the second.
O’Neill got close to Kilkenny, hoping most likely that a quick sharp attack would seize the city and the political enemies of the Nuncio, much as it had in Rinuccini’s coup a few years earlier. It was not to be. While O’Neill’s march caused some panic, he soon realised that the combined forces of Preston, Taafe and Inchiquin in the vicinity were far too much for him, and was obliged to withdraw. Pro-O’Neill accounts paint this as a victory for the Ulster Army commander, being able to march up to the gates of Kilkenny before leaving without duress, but it is more likely that O’Neill simply realised the size of the task in front of him before he got a proper chance to try and take Kilkenny.
Interestingly enough, Michael Jones in Dublin simply watched all of these events and did nothing to interfere, going so far as to allow O’Neill to march through lands held by his forces without any kind of harassment. With the loss of Inchiquin’s forces, the Parliamentarian position in Ireland had been greatly weakened, and he clearly saw the benefits of letting this civil squabble be carried out to the full, so as to leave all of his remaining enemies weakened, secure within his own walls.
Owen Roe fell back to the garrisons he held in Laois and Offaly, but he wasn’t long before his enemies came to him. Inchiquin was unwilling to let any of his troops serve under Preston or Taaffe, but the two were able to cobble together some kind of army, though it was unlikely to be as large as the 10’000 men some sources say it was – the combined effects of supply shortage, war exhaustion and casualties over the past year made such a number next to impossible.
But the force was of some size, and was numerically superior to that of O’Neill. Preston marched on Birr, hoping to take it before O’Neill could react, but faced the humiliation of a large segment of his army deserting him and joining Owen Roe’s camp before he could do so, cowed by the threat of excommunication, angry over lack of pay, and disillusioned with the leadership of the Ormondist generals. O’Neill, still gathering up the fullness of his strength, choose to fall back to the north, hoping to gain some breathing space in Athlone, but found to his horror that Clanrickarde, out in the field with 3’000 men, had already forced its small garrison to yield.
With little other option, O’Neill and the Nuncio parted ways, Rinuccini travelling to Galway in the hopes of mainlining the cohesion of the clergy behind him and Owen Roe taking the Ulster Army back into the northern province, skilfully outmanoeuvring the attempts of Preston, Clanrickarde and others to try and trap him. The Confederates and Royalists lacked the supplies or will to follow him, and had other enemies to contend with anyway. For the moments, as the autumn of 1648 began, this particular conflict was stalled, and would remain so, for the most part, until 1649.
There were, during this time, much more critical developments happening within Ulster. The province had been, since the spectacular result of Benburb, been reduced from its former domination by the Covenanters and the Lagan Army of Sir Robert Stewart. Monro’s army had largely retreated into the cities and garrisons that it held, waiting for expected supplies from England to reassume a proper offensive. Owen Roe had filled some of the power vacuum, but large parts of Ulster still remained without any firm power.
Monro didn’t realise it of course, but his time was running short in the province. The English legislature was increasingly unhappy with his time in command, which was going nowhere and had involved some key military failures. When he detached a significant portion of his force in Ulster to be sent back to Scotland, it left Monro further weakened, stuck in places like Belfast, Carrickfergus and Coleraine.
With Scotland suddenly turning from its previous Parliamentarian alliance in favour of Charles (an alliance known as the “Engagement”), the English legislature could no longer tolerate Monro’s presence. In September, they moved rapidly, in the form of George Monck. Monck was a fairly low ranking member of the English nobility, but had caught many eyes with his military career, in Spain, France, Netherlands and then in the early days of the Irish rebellion, where he served underneath Ormonde. Captured by Parliamentarians after a visit to see the King, he spent two years in the Tower of London before being released, on condition of swearing an oath to the Parliamentarian cause leading to him commanding forces against the Irish rebels once more.
Soon then, Monck was back in Ireland, outfitted with a small force out of Dublin. In the autumn of 1648, he was instructed to remove Monro from command and take over. He found the task far easier than one might expect, given the martial reputation of the Covenanters. But the Scots were reduced in number, stationary and, in many cases, increasing rebellious against Monro, on matters of pay and allegiance – the same old story throughout this phase of the war. When Monck secretly approached garrison leaders in Carrickfergus, he found friendly ears.
On the 16th of September, Monck made his move. The gates to Carrickfergus were opened for him, and the garrison surrendered without a fight. Monro was woken from his bed already arrested. When the news went out, the garrisons in Belfast and Coleraine laid down their arms.
The Covenanter cause in Ulster was finished, in an ignominious fashion that was a far cry from the height of Monro’s power in Ireland. Monro himself was sent to the Tower of London, where he spent the remainder of the war. His military career was finished and, upon release, he lived out the rest of his life quietly on his estates in County Down until his death in the 1670’s. Monro had been a fine wartime commander, who juggled the twin issues if war with the Confederates and internal dissensions well enough. But his disastrous approach to the Benburb campaign utterly ruined him and his armies cause, and was the death knell of the Covenanter Scottish interest in Ireland…but was not the end of the Scottish in Ireland totally.
Now, some of the Covenanters fled back to Scotland while other simply gave up on the war and settled in Ireland. Others took up the Parliamentarian cause under Monck, who was now the master of most of Ulster. Owen Roe O’Neill and Sir Robert Stewart still lay in his path, but Monck was already formulating solutions to those problems.
So, one faction of the five in Ireland had been neutralised, and the time was coming for the same to be done to another. With the Ulster Army in retreat, and the issue of the Parliamentarians in Dublin to be tackled, the Royalists and Confederates now turned back to the man who had given the Ormondist faction their name. On the 3rd of October, one year and three months since he had left, James Butler arrived back in Ireland, with authority from Charles to make a permanent agreement between the Royalists and the Confederates, to amalgamate the two into one, pro-Charles, faction. Those negotiations would dominate the rest of 1648.
And they, in turn, would be influenced by what was happening in England. The Second Civil War had erupted, as numerous Royalist sympathisers and groups rose against Parliament, culminating in a Scottish invasion in support of the King.
Winston Churchill offered a succinct summation of this conflict when he wrote “King, Lords and Commons, landlords and merchants, the City and the countryside, bishops and presbyters, the Scottish Army, the Welsh people and the English fleet, all now turned against the New Model Army. The Army beat the lot.”
This new Royalist cause was piecemeal and un-coordinated, allowing the Parliamentarians military, now dominated by Oliver Cromwell, to defeat each section in detail, with the most decisive victory coming at Preston in mid-August, when Cromwell defeated a larger Royalist/Scottish army and essentially ended their invasion of England.
This second Parliamentarian victory had greater consequences than the first. In December, independent factions of the New Model Army instituted what was essentially a coup d’état of the Parliament in the face of renewed negotiations with the King, to whom they offered nothing but contempt. A new, very reduced Parliament – known as the “Rump Parliament” – was now the nominal power behind this faction, but in truth it was Oliver Cromwell and his “grandees” that were controlling things now.
With many places watching on – not least Ireland, where the negotiations between Ormonde and the Confederates continued – they now moved to end the issue of Charles I. Permanently.
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