Ireland’s Wars: The 1649 Siege Of Londonderry

The late Spring and early Summer of 1649 were dominated by a series of sieges in Ireland, as the newly defined Parliamentarian and Royalist factions came to blows with each other in a much more substantial way than they had before. Two of those sieges, in the east of the country, will be the focus of the next entry. For the moment, I’d like to remain where I left off last week, with the town of Londonderry.

Sir Charles Coote, governor of the county (according to Parliament anyway) was embedded within Londonderry itself, holding a few fortifications outside its walls, most notably Culmore Castle overlooking the approach through Lough Foyle. But he had precious few men and little expectation of getting any more. What parts of Ulster the Parliament had held were being lost to the east, through a simple resurgence of Scottish forces now operating under the larger Royalist banner.

The forces facing Coote directly weren’t Scots though, at least not predominantly. The Laggan Army was lacking its traditional commander, locked up in the Tower of London, but was operating under his nephew, Alexander Stewart, just fine. In March of 1649, they had made camp on the approaches of Londonderry, placing the town in state of siege that would last for five months.

This siege of Londonderry is oft forgotten, little remembered due to the much more notable siege that took place around the expanded city over thirty years later in the War of the Two Kings. In many respects, its remembrance is similar to the first siege of Limerick in 1642, a city whose major siege history centres around the conflict of 1689 to 1691. But this siege still had its importance, part of a double pronged assault by the Royalist faction on the Parliamentarians, that may well be viewed as their last great chance to upend their enemies in Ireland for good, before the Cromwellian conquest brought everything crashing down. As well as that, it helped define Owen Roe O’Neill’s new role in the conflict.

The first days and weeks of the siege were anti-climatic. Londonderry was no giant fortress town (yet) but it had walls that were of considerably competent design. The Laggan Army, lacking any kind of artillery, had no way to force a breach. As such, they had to aim for a starvation strategy, hoping they could outlast Coote’s men inside the walls with their more plentiful supplies and stable supply lines. They didn’t even attempt to encircle the city directly, just choke the life out of it by occupying all of the major transport links leading to it.

Alexander Stewart focused his troops on clearing out the surrounding area. By the end of March the Laggan Army had secured the towns and townlands of Manorcunnigham and Carrigans, areas that had previously been supplying Coote. Then, he swing northwards, over the Rivver Foyle, to menace the small village of Muff – not far from Culmore – from where Parliamentarian sympathisers were still trying to get food and other supplies into Londonderry.

April stretched on, marked by the odd raid and minor skirmish as each side probed the other seeking any kind of weakness. Coote was severely outnumbered – by how much is not recorded, but it must have been substantial – but he still realised that he could not simply stay cowed behind his walls and await an inevitable surrender through starvation, not when the Laggan Army was likely to be reinforced and resupplied by its allies in the province.

On the 23rd of April, Coote personally led what cavalry he had on the Laggan base at Carrigans. The raid was, apparently, a spectacularly success that caught Alexander Stewart completely by surprise. The Royalists lost many men in the sudden attack, as well as food, weapons and other supplies that Coote carried back to Londonderry. Further, he took some prisoners too, some of which he was able to exchange for more food. Such actions would have been a large morale raiser within the town just as much as they were a disgrace to the Laggan Army.

It was probably in reaction to this raid that Stewart moved his forces up. Having previously been content to simply set on the supply routes – the roads and the Lough Foyle approach – he now set his army as close to Londonderry as he dared and set to digging real siege works. Coote had what existed of the town outside the walls destroyed. The Laggan Army now went about creating entrenchments and siege lines which were soon snaking around the walls of the town.

The small raids and skirmishes continued apace, a few dead here and there, with fighting on the strands of the River Foyle and in the Bog-side area to the west of the town proper (it being subject to sectarian fighting long, long before the “Troubles”. The Laggan’s were buoyed in late May by the return of Robert Stewart to command them: he had somehow managed an escape from the Tower of London and had then made his way back to Ulster as fast as he could (though, some sources claim the Parliament let him go on his word not to continue his previous command, which he then broke). His nephew was no cretin, but Robert was a far more accomplished, experienced commander.

But soon all was not wine and roses in the Royalist camp. Stewart brought soldiers with him, and was soon joined by more under George Monro, the son-in-law of Robert Monro. A mixture of Scots and Confederates given to his command, their arrival outside Londonderry precipitated a degree of sectarian and political tension, as a combined Protestant and Catholic force were now working together in a nominal common cause.

These disputes were tied into larger conflicts within the Protestant church in Ireland, a squabble as dull as it is convolutedly recorded in what sources remain, mostly to do with the various reactions to the execution of King Charles and which exact strain of Protestantism would reign supreme in the aftermath. Clerical factions and their military favourites argued these points as if the Parliamentarian threat was nothing to be really worried about. It was for things like this that George Monro absented himself from the siege of Londonderry, to engage in gunboat diplomacy around Belfast and Coleraine, before returning, with reinforcements of cavalry and artillery, in mid-July. In the meantime, attempts had been made to end the fighting by getting Coote to simply change sides. It might be tempting to believe that he thought long and hard about it (so many others had), but however he came to the decision, he decided to stick with the Parliamentarians, despite his increasingly desperate position.

With more men and now with artillery, the besiegers were emboldened and pressed their advantage. A fort was built between Culmore and Londonderry to deflect the assistance that the castle could provide, and meant even more overwatch on the Lough Foyle approach, through which Coote was entirely dependent in terms of relief. Coote ordered the soldiers manning Culmore to sally out and destroy this new fort, but despite undertaking an ambitious amphibious attack on it, these musketeers were repulsed, unable to stand up to the artillery pieces that now defended “Charles-Fort”, named after the dead King.

Coote was now entirely dependent on what supplies his sailors could pirate from enemy vessels and ports, after which they had to brave the dangerous approach to Londonderry itself. As the summer wore on, the situation seemed to get worse and worse, as more men came into Derry to join the besiegers, the latest being the Viscount Hugh Montgomery.

Montgomery, now Charles II’s chosen commander of Ulster, called on Coote to surrender. Again, he refused. A few days later, in response, Montgomery ordered an assault on the town walls. The attack was a costly failure, though the Royalists were able to inflict a few casualties of their own before withdrawing, casualties that Coote could ill-afford. The same day Coote attempted a naval counter-attack, trying to bring a few ships up Lough Foyle to bombard Charles-fort, but the position was spared due to an unexpected change of winds – not the last time Londonderry would see such things in a time of siege.

The repulses, combined with the sectarian divisions within the besiegers, now started to cause more tangible problems, as many officers resigned their commission and left, along with a sizable amount of soldiery. The conversion of the Scots from Covenanter to Royalist was not a smooth process and many were unwilling to let go of their previous hardline stance, or to accept the promises of the exiled Charles II. But even with the departures, Londonderry remained surrounded and hard-pressed. Even another successful raid from the town into the border of Donegal, which left several villages burned, was not enough to give Coote the salvation he needed.

On the 7th of August, five months into the siege, any Parliamentarian soldier guarding the walls of Londonderry might well have had cause to lose heart, prepare to throw down his arms and accept captivity. He would have seen the banners of a Catholic army appear in the distance: that of Owen Roe O’Neill, with four thousand men and several hundred horse.

But, to what must have been the shock of the besiegers and the besieged, Owen Roe did not go to join the encirclement of the town. Instead, he drew up his army in a fighting formation, and made to attack the Laggan Army. Badly outnumbered, Stewart and Montgomery, in no position to fight a battle, were obliged to strike their tents and withdraw, their forces scattering in the face of the Irish advance.

The siege had not been incompetently carried out, but once the besiegers had gained the use of artillery and a greater amount of men, it could be argued that they should have simply pressed the issue until the town was taken. The delay in an attack, and the piecemeal nature of what military operations actually took place, allowed the internal divisions within the Royalists to ferment and eventually cause a fracture. The frontal assault that was undertaken did fail, but with what few details we have, it is possible that not enough men or guns were allocated to this attack. Certainly, the starvation approach should have been abandoned at some point before August, though the besiegers could have been forgiven for not expecting t=what actually did end up happening.

Londonderry was saved. Charles-fort and its garrison were obliged to surrender, along with a few other positions in the immediate area that had been held by the Royalists. Owen Roe O’Neill and Charles Coote, once enemies, now met as allies.

The story of how this state of affairs came to pass will be the focus of the next entry. We’ll skip back in time a few months to look at the war raging in the east of Ireland and how what remained of the old Confederation adapated.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1649 Siege Of Londonderry

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