Ireland’s Wars: The Sack Of Wexford

Cromwell did not spend long in Drogheda after its sack, content to leave a small garrison to secure it while he moved on. The news of Drogheda, mixed with a healthy dose of rumour and misinformation, was spreading far and wide in Ireland. The effect of that news would be exactly as Cromwell intended. He wanted the Royalists to be scared of him and his army, of the damage they could do and the deaths that they could inflict. While the Royalist leadership themselves were willing to play up the events of Drogheda for their own purposes, they could not stop fear from creeping into their own men.

Cromwell realised that he had hard choices to make. The winter was still oncoming, and the suitable weather for campaigns would soon vanish. Realistically, he could only expect a month of more before he would have to consider winter quarters, but he wanted the New Model Army to be productive until then.

But the question then was what direction to go in. Should the army keep moving north, hook up with Charles Coote and secure Ulster for the Parliament? Or should it about turn and drive into the face of the Royalist heartland in southern Leinster and Munster?

Having a large army, and facing a divided enemy, had its advantages, and so Cromwell was comfortable in splitting his force up into two main contingents. One, under Colonel Venables, the man who had crucially seized the drawbridges in Drogheda, would keep moving into Ulster, aiming to combat and, if possible, eliminate the Irish and Scottish threats there. But the bigger part would turn around and head south, under Cromwell’s continued command.

Venables’ section of the New Model Army headed north, leaving Drogheda and its dead in their wake. For the next two weeks, they suffered almost no hindrance or challenge as they moped up a succession of Royalist held positions, the majority of which saw their garrisons simply flee with the approach of this force, the few who remained surrendering without a fight. Dundalk, Carlingford and Newry all fell to the New Model Army in a matter of days. The careful build-up of Ormonde’s Dublin campaign was undone in a matter of days.

Cromwell meanwhile had turned into Meath, where Navan and Trim fell into his hands without any fighting, the garrison at Trim running away without carrying out the orders to fire the town, such was their panic. Ormonde was ceding the northern part of Leinster to Cromwell. His losses at Rathmines and Drogheda were simply too big, and his faction needed time to adjust and consolidate before making any drastic moves.

Cromwell was back in Dublin by around the 20th of September, having accomplished in less than a month the capture of six Royalist held towns and the destruction of several thousand Royalist troops, all for losses of an acceptable nature. He did not stay long, pausing simply to re-supply and coordinate with his naval forces. He had already picked the next objective.

Wexford was a small enough town that lay south of the River Slaney. It had seen precious little combat in the course of the war, to the extent that the appointed Royalist governor essentially seemed to share power with the local citizenry. But, it had its martial importance. Its status as a continental link made it an important thoroughfare for correspondence with the exiled Charles II, and a likely port of call for any reinforcements that could come from that outlet. Several successful privateers operated out of Wexford, preying on Parliamentarian shipping in the Irish Sea. Lastly, it was also simply another part of the Royalist chain in south-west Ireland, which included spots like Kilkenny, New Ross, Duncannon and Waterford. If Wexford could be taken, it would provide another port for Cromwell to utilise in any push down the Irish coast into Munster, and places like Youghal and Kinsale.

Cromwell probably guessed that Wexford would not be quite so easy as the last few conquests – it was too important and too strongly garrisoned to be given up without a fight – but when he moved out from Dublin on the 23rd of September, he was clearly hoping to be inside the walls of the town within a few weeks, so as to use it for winter quarters. His reduced army still boasted over 9’000 men, easily larger than any force that could hope to oppose him, and once again his naval support would transport the larger guns, and supplies, down the coast for him.

Ormonde could do little to really oppose Cromwell at this point, having seen his initial strategy blown to pieces by the rapid taking of Drogheda. The regiments of Inchiquin, those that had been absent from Rathmines, had now returned to him, but his army was still in a pitiful state, having lost so much of its number in the last month. They were under-supplied, under-paid and under-fed, and totally unable, as a whole, to face up to a force like the New Model Army on the field of battle. There were still concerns about the garrisons in Cork, and the likelihood of reinforcements was slim.

Facing this scenario, Ormonde decided to roll the dice on another lengthy siege. If Wexford could hold, in a way that Drogheda had failed to do, then Cromwell’s army could get stuck in a costly siege where the elements and disease would do the Royalist’s fighting for them. Cromwell would either have to endure such torments, risk an assault that could be thrown back or withdraw.

Ormonde was banking on the defences of Wexford holding up. It had a sturdy enough castle just outside its southern walls, supplied with guns. Its walls were supplemented by an earthen rampart to deflect artillery fire while the vital harbour was sheltered by two stretches of land and by the guns and men of Rosslare fort to the south. It was a prosperous, wealthy town, which could hold out under a siege for a time, with a well-regarded commander, Colonel David Sinnot, who had been fighting with the Confederates since Thomas Preston’s arrival. Ormonde was happy to move his army to New Ross from Kilkenny, around 25 miles west of Wexford, to protect the towns supply lines on the landward side, and was prepared to send sections of his army to aid Sinnot’s defence.

But everyone on the Royalist side was caught out by the rapidity of Cromwell’s advance. Gone were the days when the Irish countryside could not be crossed at speed by a large army. The disciplined, experienced ranks of the New Model Army, marching on paths beaten out over the last century, made use of all the advantages the Tudor conquest had brought for English militaries in Ireland. Cromwell moved fast, with even more garrisons – Wicklow Town and Arklow in particular – falling to him without a fight. Only a smattering of small ambushes, carried out by the O’Byrne clan, impeded him. But the days of Fiach Hugh and the likes of Glenmalure were long gone, and the New Model Army barely lost any of its fighting strength on the journey from Dublin to Wexford.

So fast was this advance that the Royalists were left blind, suddenly finding that the New Model Army had crossed the Slaney River on the 1st of October, at Enniscorthy, an undefended crossing. Cromwell was thus able to approach Wexford from the south. Rosslare stood in his path as an obstacle, but as his army approached it on the 2nd, the defenders inexplicably fled, Michael Jones having the honour of capturing it without any fighting. Cromwell’s reputation had struck again.

The loss of Rosslare was a critical early victory in the campaign, as it allowed Cromwell to bring his navy into a port very close to Wexford, discharging supplies, troops and most importantly heavy guns. Cromwell wasted little time, and was prepared to open his offensive against the town by the 3rd.

In the meantime, Ormonde had tried to reinforce Wexford as best he could, sending troops to Sinnot under the command of Castlehaven, who claimed to know the country well. They were a random mix of troops, Royalists, former Parliamentarians and even units of Owen Roe O’Neill’s Ulster Army that had been sent south to help. Their arrival bolstered the defence, but undermined the command of Sinnot, who suddenly found Castlehaven, who outranked him, in the immediate area.

It was to be the last major bit of support that Ormonde could give. Before any chance to become more directly involved had shown itself, news came of a possible revolt in the Youghal garrison, with many of its officers suddenly deciding that it might be best to throw their lot in with Cromwell. The loss of the port was unacceptable, and so Inchiquin was obliged to split off from the main Royalist army once more and head back to Cork. That left Ormonde with little more than 3’000 men at his command, a force unsuitable for confronting Cromwell.

Outside Wexford’s walls, with his artillery train ready to open fire, Cromwell did the same as he had done at Drogheda and called on the garrison to surrender. There were plenty of people inside the town, including much of the civilian population, who would have been happy to do so, on condition of their safety, but Sinnot and his troops were able to steel some reserve in them. With the weather turning increasingly stormy and hopeful that a delay could harm the attackers, Sinnot played for time. He insisted on a cessation of hostilities as the talks progressed, and that in the event of surrender Cromwell would allow the Catholic religion to continue to be practiced in the town. Cromwell was not inclined to agree to either point, and the discussions dragged on, with the New Model Army commander getting increasingly perturbed. His men suffered in their tents, battered by wind and rain, while the Royalist garrison enjoyed better shelter. Having, as with Drogheda, chosen to cover only one side of the town, Cromwell could also only watch impotently as ships continued to enter Wexford harbour with men and supplies.

After a week of negotiations that went nowhere, Cromwell had enough. On the 10th he ordered his artillery to open fire. It is worth noting that he waited to attack once Sinnot had proven open to negotiations. Unlike Drogheda, where Aston had refused to talk at all, Cromwell was willing to talk things out for the chance of a bloodless solution. But, with Sinnot simply not playing ball as Cromwell wanted, his patience had run out.

The castles walls, while enjoying an extra earthen rampart, were no more able to stand up to Parliamentarian artillery than Drogheda’s had been, and within a day Cromwell had created two “workable” breaches in its southern defences, leaving Sinnot in a desperate quandary. Castlehaven had, at this point, left, seeing his job as little more than delivering troops it seems, so Sinnot was on his own, bereft of higher guidance.

On the 11th Cromwell called on Sinnot to surrender again, still willing to seek a peaceful end to the campaign, though he continued launching artillery balls at Wexford Castle. Sinnot again sought terms that Cromwell was unlikely to agree to, including allowing the garrison to march to New Ross with all of their guns, permission for privateers and merchants in the harbour to be allowed free passage out of the area and a commitment to spare the lives of Catholic priests within Wexford. The negotiations became frayed, and there appears to have been miscommunication between the camps, with an agreement made on semi-lenient terms at one moment, only for subsequent provisions to be placed in front of Cromwell.

All this changed when James Stafford, the Royalist officer in command of the castle, suddenly surrendered to Cromwell on his own, without orders from anyone. Much detested in subsequent Irish accounts, Stafford’s actions may well have been down to a sense of self preservation, with the man perhaps unwilling to suffer through any more of the Parliamentarian bombardment. Typical of Irish sources, there are suggestions of bribery.

The castle suddenly taken, Parliamentarian troops were quick to lay hands on its guns and re-aim them at Wexford itself. It only took a smattering of fire, as clear a signal that the castle had fallen as you could get, for panic to set in amid the defenders of the town. Suddenly, Royalist troops were abandoning the wall in a panic, seeking shelter in the depths of the town, or escape through the north or the seaward route.

It does not seem as if Cromwell actually had any part in what followed, still in the midst of negotiations, but he certainly endorsed the action afterward. Parliamentarian infantry, seeing the walls suddenly abandoned, surged forward without orders from their commander. The walls were scaled and the gates to Wexford broken open, before Sinnot or any other Royalist officer could do anything about it. The New Model Army rushed in. Wexford had fallen.

Another massacre followed. Cromwell may have been in a position to rein his men in – Irish sources certainly like to think he was – but the truth is that any army that breaks into a town in such circumstances, in this time period, is unlikely to be in a state capable of being restrained. But, regardless, Cromwell was not interested in restraining them. Wexford was populated by Catholics and armed enemies, so it was fair game in his mind, both for military reasons and for the vengeance sought for 1641. The New Model Army pillaged and killed as they wanted, especially priests.

What elements of the garrison that still existed and were not fleeing for their lives retreated to the Market Square near the centre of the town and tried to hold out, fighting a grim struggle as the New Model Army closed in around them. Few survived the bitter street fighting, Sinnot among those cut down. A few did manage to escape, either over the north wall or on boats, but most were not so lucky. Many drowned trying to cross the Slaney or escape out the harbour. Cromwell claimed to have killed at least 2’000 people, and such a number is easily believable. The losses, combined with those suffered at Drogheda, were catastrophic to the Royalist cause, severely hamstringing any possible plans they were formulating. Ormonde, just to the west at New Ross, must have received the news of Wexford’s fall with an increasing sense of dread.

Cromwell had also captured numerous guns, supplies and closed off Wexford as a port of harbour for the Royalists. The loss of that point and Rosslare would cripple any subsequent Royalist naval operations and the fall of Wexford was probably a direct cause of Prince Rupert squadron choosing to leave Ireland and head for safer waters around Portugal.

Royalist strategy had been shown up again, and in much the same circumstances as Drogheda. The New Model Army was too well equipped and too determined to be drawn into a lengthy siege, and its commander was fully capable of applying a harsh policy to get results, even if it came with a large amount of collateral damage. Now, the Royalists had lost several more strongholds, and another few thousand troops.

While he was happy enough to endorse his troops activities, Cromwell was actually more than a little put out by the rampage, as his plans to use Wexford for winter quarters was now unworkable, the town having been largely gutted by his own soldiers. Instead, he would have to keep his army moving for a bit longer, even as the weather deteriorated further. But before we talk about that, we have to go back north to look at the Parliamentarian offensive into Ulster.

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

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Sack Of Wexford

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