Ireland’s Wars: Death At Drogheda

Postscript 08/01/15: I would like to dedicate this post to the memory of John Bradley, one of NUIM’s best history lecturers, who passed away in November 2014, which has only just come to my attention. It was he who first got me interested in the topic of the Siege of Drogheda and its historiography. He will be sadly missed. 

So we come to Oliver Cromwell. It is probably fair to say that no other English figure has had the effect that he had on Ireland, in terms of national consciousness and general remembrance. He is the poster boy for Irish resentment towards their neighbours, seen by many even today as a devil in human form, a man who slaughtered and burned his way throughout Ireland, crushing the last real hope of the nation for centuries.

Naturally, much of this is exaggerated, a convenient tool for the more nationalistic forces in Ireland, not least the Catholic Church. But Oliver Cromwell did lead a very wide-ranging and bloody military campaign in Ireland, and he started off less than a month after he arrived, in an event that might be the most infamous of his time on this island.

But who was Cromwell anyway? For a man with such a powerful legacy here and in the wider British Isles, it is surprising to note how little known he was prior to his 40th year. A member of the middle-class, he was an MP from 1628 on. When the wars came, his martial skill and immense leadership capabilities came to the fore fast as he rose in the ranks as one of the most committed Parliamentarians. Coming to command armies and eventually to dictate much of his faction’s policy, he won victory after victory in England, latterly at the head of the New Model Army, a fearsome fighting force built specifically for that war on the basis of being able to fight anywhere as a professional unit (hence the name. It was different to the regionally committed part-time militia that dominated other armies). A hardline puritan, Cromwell had a special dislike for “papists” and any kind of Rome-based religious interference in England.

The Parliament long left the issue of Ireland on the back burner, mostly because they had more pressing, and local, matters in England and Scotland to take care of. But by the summer of 1649, most of that had been sorted out. But still, there was Ireland. With Cromwell’s urging and popular support in the legislature, the Parliament drew up plans for a large expeditionary force of the New Model Army to be sent across the Irish Sea, with Cromwell at their head of course. This was probably the most experienced and battle hardened army, relative to its size, to be found in Britain. While the oft-believed opinion that its soldiery was fanatical loyal to their commander might not be quite true – there was plenty of disputes over ideology and pay in the ranks – they were still some of the most committed soldiers that could have been sent to Ireland at the time. The Royalist faction rightfully feared what could happen when they arrived.

As Cromwell was preparing to leave the west coast of England in a vast armada, he received the news of Rathmines, an unexpected triumph that gave him and his men the timeliest kind of morale boost. It was seen as a sign of divine providence in their mission, and more tangibly made the task of defeating the Royalists easier. Any wavering doubts about the campaign vanished, and the New Model Army was in excellent spirits when it landed at Dublin in mid-August of 1649. When combined with a slightly later fleet of ships commanded by Henry Ireton, one of Cromwell’s main subordinates and also his son-in-law, that arrived later (they had briefly attempted to force a landing in Munster, but found no acceptable ports) his combined army counted its numbers at over 12’000, 4’000 of that number being cavalry and with a large and modern artillery train. When combined with the troops that had been sent on beforehand, and with the garrison of Michael Jones, the total size probably reached over 20’000. It was the largest field army in Ireland, by a very wide margin. The question now was what to do with it.

The goals in Ireland were, put simply, three fold. Firstly, Ireland was the last bastion of the Royalist faction. If it could be pacified, then Charles II (named “Charles Stuart” by a derisive Cromwell in his correspondence) would have nowhere left to turn. The Royalist presence in Ireland always threatened to re-ignite the wider civil war, and its defeat was a requirement for any future plans of Parliament and Cromwell.

Secondly, there were many financial aims. The Parliament was heavily in debt in 1649, having bled their treasury dry in seven years of war, with extensive loans having been taken out to pay the troops. Cromwell himself was in possession of over 100’000 pounds, an gigantic fortune in those days, for the purposes of troop payment and bribery. It had all come from loans given by various banks. The planned conquest of Ireland was meant to alleviate those circumstances, with Parliament planning to pay back the loans through land distribution, given both to creditors and to soldiers, all part of the Adventures Act that had become law many years ago. Moreover, a pacified Ireland would, once again, become an area to be taxed and levied.

Lastly, there was simple revenge. The Parliament, and Cromwell in particular, had never forgotten the bloodshed of 1641, the sectarian massacres that marked the opening phases of what became the Confederate Wars. Cromwell, seeking to put the world to rights, certainly had in mind getting some vengeance for all of those fallen Protestants, repeatedly imbuing his effort in Ireland with religious terminology.

Having arrived in Dublin, Cromwell did not move out immediately as some expected he would, instead staying in and around the city for a few weeks, getting the lay of the land and re-organising his army after the merger with the garrison troops. Cromwell could be said to be many things, but he was no military incompetent: he took this time to relieve unsuitable officers and tinker with the sizes of his regiments to make them more combat effective.

At the same time, he took the first steps in what could later be recognised as a counter-insurgency strategy not unlike that which was waged in the Middle-East in more recent years. The New Model Army was kept on a tight leash while in Dublin, with any hint of rowdiness and abuse towards the civilian population stamped out. If they needed supplies, they paid for them. Cromwell offered protection to any merchants or traders who wanted to set up business inside the city walls again. His entire tone at this point was conciliatory as he addressed the cities inhabitants, insisting he was only in the country to pacify it, not to conquer it like a tyrant. His words were well received, but of course they would be: most of Dublin’s Catholics had left or been expelled long before Cromwell’s arrival. He also drew a line between the loyal denizens of Dublin and the “blood-thirsty Irish”, who were still to pay for 1641.

All of this was in marked contrast to James Butler, the Earl of Ormonde, desperately trying to rescue the situation that had turned against him so horribly at Rathmines. Daily he had to take of complaints made against his army, which ransacked the Irish countryside for what they needed, the victims of their pillaging lucky if they received credit notes that were not even worth the paper they were printed on. Ormonde was distracted just trying to reform an army with which to defend the Royalist cause against Cromwell and mostly powerless in the face of such activity – he was in no position to keep his men supplied and paid the way that Cromwell was. The effect was a certain level of bitterness towards the Royalists from parts of the civilian population, who had already suffered so much in the wars. It is telling that, in the early months of his campaign at least, Cromwell had few issues in keeping his army supplied, even whilst it was on the move.

By the time September was beginning, Cromwell was ready to leave Dublin and embark upon his purpose. The question was where to go. A direct attack on Kilkenny would probably have been successful, that town being ill-equipped to resist any kind of attack, but it lacked really critical strategic value. A move to bring Ormonde and his army to a fight was probably considered, but discounted when it was realised the Royalist commander would probably shy away from such a fight. The failures of the Earl of Essex less than half a century before could well have coloured the thoughts on such a course. There was an attack into Munster to consider, to bring Inchiquin to heel and to secure the southern ports, but this would take Cromwell far away from his base of supplies, a dangerous prospect.

Instead, Cromwell decided to aim initially northwards, with a view to opening up the road into Ulster. The northern province remained a Confederate/Royalist heartland, with Irish and Scottish foes abounding. The only other key Parliamentarian position in Ireland, Londonderry, lay that way and its isolation was still an issue.

But, in the more short term geographically, the road to Ulster led through the garrisons of Drogheda and Dundalk, held by the Royalists since late July. Securing them would secure Dublin even more, and provide a springboard for an attack in Ulster. Drogheda, the larger and more important of the two, was the chosen objective for the first moves. It was not too far away, its proximity to the sea meant that the army could be supplied via naval means and it was a dearly held point for the Royalists.

Ormonde, his manpower too decreased and his options limited, now set about undertaking a defensive strategy, and knowing that Drogheda would be a likely point of assault, was intent on holding it. At a council of war held there in early September he and his lieutenants agreed upon the course they would take: the town would be defended by a large garrison, as large as its population could reasonably expect to support. Cromwell would besiege. His guns would likely force a breach, but this would be thrown back if possible, and even if it wasn’t, the structure of Drogheda, dissected by the River Boyne, would allow defenders to retreat from the southern part of the town to the northern, raising the drawbridges behind them. With Cromwell’s army marching perilously close to the winter months, the hope would be that the siege could be lengthened and played out much like the one in Londonderry had been, with the New Model Army either staying through the cold, and thus opening themselves up for the depredations of hunger and disease, or retreating back to Dublin, leaving the Royalists with what would have been a very important victory. There was also the chance, if opportunity allowed, that Ormonde’s army, reassembling once more, might get the chance to force a battle on Cromwell that he would not want.

Drogheda’ strategic vitality was of less importance to the Royalists then its morale breaking nature. True, the holding of it threatened Dublin, but for the moment that was not a realistic possibility. Ormonde saw in Drogheda a chance to really break the New Model Army before it could get going. For that, the place had to hold, which would also give Ormonde more time to get affairs elsewhere in order.

Part of that involved Owen Roe O’Neill. He was, presumably, horrified upon hearing the news of Rathmines and the subsequent landing of Cromwell’s army. His previous truce with Monck and the Parliamentarians was denounced by the legislature before he could even get a chance to sever it, with Monck himself apparently being a voluntary scapegoat for what had been a necessary, if somewhat unpalatable alliance of convenience. Now, far away in the north of the country, Owen Roe swung back to his previous compatriots once more. He recognised the power and reputation of Cromwell for the threat that it really was, and realised that his own hard stance against any kind of coming together with the Royalist power could no longer be maintained. His alliance with Monck had been one of convenience, and now he would do the same with Ormonde, agreeing, in principal, to ally his Ulster Army with Butler to take on Cromwell together. But the negotiations were ongoing in September and he was too far away to play an active role in the immediate events that followed anyway.

The garrison in Drogheda was at least 2’000 men strong, maybe as much as 3’000. The records are unclear on this particular topic, which I will get to in a moment. They would have been a mixture of various troops, some of the perpetual Royalists that had fought with Ormonde since the start, some of the former Parliamentarians that had switched sides with Inchiquin and some of the former Confederates of the Leinster Army, not to mention any stray snatchings of local militia also swept up into the defence. At their head Ormonde placed Sir Arthur Aston. Aston had served in several different European armies before and during the Thirty Years War, before fighting for Charles I in the Bishops Wars with Scotland and then on into the Civil Wars proper, seeing service in many different battles and sieges. He had lost a leg in 1644, ironically enough to a riding accident away from the conflict. By 1649 Aston had been sent on the Kings instruction to aid Ormonde, and now found himself garrison commander of Drogheda. Well known as a disciplinarian with a fearsome reputation during his time in command of the Royalist court in Oxford, Aston, as an English Catholic, was probability seen as a suitable choice to command this mix of Catholics and Protestants.

His orders were simply to hold out while Ormonde and his army, what existed of it anyway, withdrew to Meath to observe events from relative safety, ready to intervene if such a move would be advantageous. Ormonde did not have the strength – or, likely, the will – to place his army in the path of Cromwell just yet. But even for that, he was soon making public proclamations for all the soldiers under his command to stand fast and fight to the last man.

Aston had a sizable garrison and a well fortified position, defences he added to by preparing obstacles behind the walls to impede any attacker, and getting the smaller fortresses within the town ready for action. But Drogheda had its problems. The walls were tall and thick, but were built in an era before gunpowder, and could not be counted upon to stay standing for long under an artillery bombardment. This was clear to the Royalists, who had taken the town themselves only a month and half before, though they had faced a much smaller garrison. The defenders themselves had a critical lack of gunpowder for their own weapons and limited cannon, with Ormonde’s promises of supply on that score going unfulfilled.

Leaving behind a good amount of his troops in Dublin, Cromwell took roughly 10’000 men northward to Drogheda, having an easy time of the approach. The Royalists had a terrible deficiency in cavalry, that meant that the sallies and raids that should have hampered the New Model Army’s approach were either non-existent or quickly snuffed out: 200 soldiers were captured in such an endeavour, just as Cromwell came close to Drogheda itself.

With the Boyne barring progress north, Cromwell did as his enemies expected and focused on the south walls only. Splitting his army up to attack both sides was not something he wanted to do, fearful of the various sections being defeated in detail if the garrison was as large as he thought he was. He arrived outside Drogheda on the 3rd of September, but no action took place for a week, as his army assembled itself properly and waited for the artillery, which was transported by sea to spare the army its movement: Cromwell’s guns were exceptionally large and powerful. Aston, from within Drogheda, and Ormonde, 20 miles away, only observed.

Cromwell, as his guns arrived and preparations were made to fire them, contacted Aston and offered him the chance to surrender. Aston refused. Cromwell discarded the white flag and raised the red. On the 10th of September, having seized what high ground existed outside the southern walls, his guns opened fire, his infamous campaign begun in earnest.

Two points of attack were made on the southern and eastern walls, either side of the south-eastern corner. The aim was for two breaches to be made where attacking troops could converge with each other in the same area of the interior. It only take a day of firing for a significant part of the walls to crack and crumble, the medieval masonry unable to stand up to such punishment for long. As night fell and the firing ceased, Aston rushed to make what repairs he could and to prepare defences on the other side, but he must have known he was only delaying the inevitable.

The sun rose on the 11th and the firing resumed, and before too long “workable” breaches had been created. Cromwell, who was aware of Royalist hopes to trap him for an extended time outside of Drogheda, decided to take the bold course and order an immediate assault on the evening of the 11th. Three regiments of his infantry, a “forlorn hope”, went forward. Aston’s men were waiting at the other side. A bloody fight of guns, swords and pike erupted on the rubble that used to be the wall.

Attacking such gaps had always been risky, such things being far easier to defend than to take. There is little opportunity to surprise the enemy, and the narrowness of the defile tends to eliminate any advantage of numbers. Artillery and cavalry cannot be used in such endeavours, and attackers can frequently find themselves assaulted from the front and from above, on whatever remains of the walls. And even if the breaches could be forced, sometimes the forlorn hope would find themselves trapped and cut off in the town before their achievement could be secured.

This first assault was thrown back with some loss at both breaches. A unit of infantry captured a tenalia – a small fortification placed just outside of a larger one to supplement defence – but the effort was useless to the larger task of taking Drogheda. Cromwell was largely unmoved, and immediately ordered the attacks to begin again. He had some kind of personal involvement at the second attack on the southern breach, though it is unclear whether he simply directed it from close by or actively engaged in the assault with his men. Either way, this time, in both breaches, the attackers succeeded, in part because key Royalist officers charged with defending the gaps were shot down, demoralising their own troops.

Of course, even now, the situation might have been saved, if strong leadership was present and the garrison disciplined for the kind of action required. If the Royalists could affect a fighting withdrawal, they could have inflicted severe punishment on the enemy on the way over the Boyne, before raising the drawbridges and trapping Cromwell on the southern side. This did not happen. The Royalists, reeling from the slaughter at the breaches, broke and fled in a haphazard manner, with little organised resistance past this point being recorded. Aston and 200 others fled to Mill Mount, the slightly upgraded 12th century castle within the walls, where they holed up and awaited the inevitable attack. The rest of the garrison seems to have tried to make it over the Boyne, presumably in a chaotic haze of fleeing civilians and advancing Parliamentarians. Before anyone in command had the chance to order the drawbridges raised, a Colonel Robert Venables, a former subordinate of Michael Jones and veteran of Rathmines, seized them and kept them lowered. Parliamentarian troops flooded across the Boyne and into the northern part of the town. Drogheda had fallen.

What is left is the immense controversy and bitterness over what occurred after the breaches were secured and the New Model Army entered Drogheda in force. Cromwell was among those who entered first and, perhaps angered by the Parliamentarian dead around him, ordered that no quarter was to be given to those “in arms”, or so he says.

His soldiers largely carried out his orders. Nearly the entirety of the garrison, save for a few that holed up in towers and surrendered later when the bloodlust had subsided, and a few that dashed over the north wall and ran for it, were killed. If hands were thrown up, they were mostly ignored. Cromwell claimed to have slaughtered most of those that had defended Drogheda for Ormonde, with the few survivors taken prisoner shipped to the West Indies as punishment.

The dead included Aston and the men who fled to Mill Mount. Allegedly the local Parliamentarian officer offered them their lives if they would surrender: Aston did so and was then cut down with his men when they dropped their arms. The offer for clemency might be true, it could just have been overturned on the orders of Cromwell. If you believe the more grisly accounts, Aston was beaten to death with his own wooden leg.

While the slaughter of the garrison was immense, it would not have been a war crime under the strict rules (or rather, the generally accepted tenets of the time) of war. They had been offered the chance to surrender and refused. Once that happened, once “the ram had touched the wall” as the Romans would have put it, the discretion to accept surrender was entirely in the hands of Cromwell. Aston, and his men, knew that refusing to surrender before the fighting started meant they had no guarantee of their lives if Drogheda fell. The death toll was large, but not much larger than several other sieges and assaults had been responsible for in England.

But it is the civilian casualties that draws the true controversy. The accounts coming out of Drogheda, from many sources, not all of them reliable, speak fiercely of the terrible retribution that the civilians within the town suffered. But, for various reasons, the true death toll of non-combatants eludes us today.

We can safely assume that some were killed. Cromwell is not very specific about how many his men killed, but he seems to have misread the amount of defenders that were in his own reports to Parliament. Of course, those civilians who carried arms to defend themselves or their families as the killing started might have been classed as “in arms”. Catholic clergy would likely have been specific targets, and a few them were among those killed in and around St Peter’s Church, which Cromwell ordered to be fired when those taking refugee inside refused to give it up. He does not speak as to whether those killed there were soldiers, civilians or both.

But we will never just how many civilians died within Drogheda, or if the subsequent demonization of Cromwell was justified. There is no census data for Drogheda before or in a reasonable time after the sack, and what few records are available to us, mostly registration of merchant families and the like, do not indicate that the town’s population was totally gutted. What bodies there were, were apparently burnt, so no death pits could have been subsequently exhumed. Pro-Royalist and Catholic “reports” on Drogheda, repeated ad nauseum by numerous publications, included wild stories of children being used as human shields and thousands upon thousands of civilians being butchered. We can safely assume that these stories are exaggerations for propaganda purposes. But we can also safely assume that a notable degree of civilians perished in Drogheda, for no other reason than the immediate notoriety that the action became attached with. Even taking Cromwell at his word, the death toll was extremely large. Something out of the ordinary happened there, even if it was not the total massacre that it has often proclaimed to have been.

Part of this was certainly the writings and actions of Cromwell himself. His letters back to the Parliament, some of which were written for public consumption, have been major points in the defining his reputation in Ireland. He claimed divine approval for his actions and launched a savage verbal attack on the Irish. His words are re-printed with every book and article written on the exact subject, but bear repeating:

“I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future.”

The difference between his words after arriving in Dublin and these is striking. It has been argued that Cromwell was engaged, with these words, on a bit of a propaganda attack himself. He may have decided to simply terrorise the Irish, who still had numerous garrisons not far from Drogheda, with tales of massacre and slaughter for those who had dared to oppose him. He may well have exaggerated his own actions for this purpose, in the hope that the Royalist soldiers would refuse to fight his army if it came to it. He wanted his army to begin their campaign with a bang; with a sharp shock to the Irish system that could pay dividends down the line. This does not mean that Cromwell particularly enjoyed the work he was engaged on. Certainly, there are glimpses of a man with more of a conscience than his popular Irish remembrance would allow. The sentence immediately after the above reads:

“Which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.”

This is not the sentiment of a cold blooded butcher, and indicates that Cromwell may well have felt just a bit queasy about what had happened. But, he was still a hard man, and doubtless he did not let the deaths of so many bother him for very long. He had other things to do.

We cannot fault Aston too much when it comes right down to it either. He made the best of the defence with what he had and was pro-active in trying to improve his position. But the walls of Drogheda were not meant for this war, and in time Cromwell could have battered down gigantic sections of them. Aston’s troops were not disciplined or effective enough to keep their heads without strict leadership, which cost most of them their lives when they simply turned and ran at the sight of the breaches being forced. If they could have, if they had raised the drawbridges, they might have been able to hold out a bit longer, or maybe even get the chance to surrender on terms, but it was not to be. We should not, I suppose, delude ourselves into thinking that the water barrier would have been an unsolvable problem for a man like Cromwell.

For Ormonde and the other senior Royalists, it was to them that fell the task of picking up the pieces. Another sizable chunk of their military strength gone, another vital point lost. And Cromwell was only just getting started.

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

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