I feel that it would be helpful, at this point, to pause just for a moment and take stock of the situation, in both Ireland and in the larger British Isles, as 1649 drew to a close and 1650 dawned, another year promising a fresh wave of bloodshed throughout the land. I have spent much of the last few weeks talking about sieges, campaigns and battles, but not really a whole lot about actual war aims. If we are to greater understand what has come to be known as the “Cromwellian Conquest”, we should examine the aims of each side, and how they meant to achieve them.
The Royalists were in a weak position and only getting weaker. They still held nearly all of Connacht, Limerick, Kerry, Tipperary, and the Midlands. They held parts of Cork, Kilkenny, Carlow, and Waterford, as well as a few isolated positions in Ulster. Everywhere else was in the hands of their enemies.
I say “they” and “their” when I really mean a loose conglomeration of various factions and forces, ranging in political viewpoint from the hardcore Catholics of the Ulster Army to the barely loyal Protestants still serving under Inchiquin. They had found a common cause in the Parliamentarian foe, but the Royalists were riven by discord, of both political and religious varieties. Victories on the field of battle, a stable financial situation and the possibility of crops being grown, harvested and eaten created harmony. But the defeats of the latter part of 1649 ripped it all apart. Now the Royalists faced repeated turnabouts at the hands of the Parliamentarians, a substantial lack of cash and a population in the territories they nominally controlled growing ever more exhausted by the pressures of sustaining such a lengthy and seemingly futile war effort. The soldiery was growing ever more rebellious and libel to desertion or defection and faith in the established leadership of Ormonde was getting shakier by the day.
So what did Ormonde intend from that position of weakness? In the short term, simple survival seems like it would have sufficed. If the winter and the subsequent campaigning could damage Cromwell and the New Model Army enough, as the Parliamentarians went back on an offensive that was as inevitable as it would be testing, then the Royalists could put enough of a dampener on the legislatures plans that they could get further time to refit and recover. For the immediate few months ahead, Ormonde would have simply wanted to keep most of what he already held, and create a system of defensive positions that Cromwell would have immense trouble breaking into. Limerick, Clonmel, even Kilkenny itself were the kind of cities and towns that, if properly defended by capable leaders, could cost Cromwell much in the taking of them, if he could take them at all.
While that was going on, forces of the Ulster Army to the north and men under the Earl of Clanrickarde, could yet turn the war in Ulster into a competitive contest again. It was reactionary and played second fiddle to Cromwell’s movements, but Ormonde did not have the men or the means (or, perhaps, the will) to go on the offensive. Ormonde would also have wanted to cool the simmering tensions and get the Catholics of the Royalists behind him in a more firm way. In that, Cromwell himself would be his best friend, as his pressed for surrender terms would have been nothing less than the renunciation of what little rights Catholics had for freedom of conscience as it stood, and the domination of the Protestant religion throughout all of Ireland.
In the medium term, say past 1650, Ormonde would probably have hoped that, with the New Model Army either weakened, neutralised or forced to withdraw, the Royalists would have a chance to bounce back. First on the agenda would surely have been the southern Cork ports of Cork Town, Youghal and Kinsale, to be retaken from the garrisons that had defected and securing communications, and supply channels, with the court of Charles II on the European continent. With a more secure method of gaining finance, powder and other supplies, Ormonde’s task would become considerably easier. He could pay, feed and arm his men, make his military strong again, and then face the Parliamentarians at a more even level and undo the damage that had occurred after the likes of Rathmines.
The long term plans were probably as vague as they were difficult to reach. If a deal could be worked out with the Scots and Ireland secured by Ormonde, then an invasion of Parliamentarian England could again be thought possible, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the likes of Cromwell and placing Charles II on the throne properly. Charles could actually have used Ireland itself as a base of operations, stepping foot back on the land that he claimed to be the sovereign of. But such aims would have been pie in the sky in January of 1650, an envisioned situation of complete reversal. More likely perhaps that, by inflicting damaging defeats on the Parliamentarians in Ireland and northern England, Charles would be able to bring them to the table and make a beneficial settlement, which saw him back in power in some form, much as his father previously had been. Ormonde, and the Scots, remained his best avenues of achieving that, though it looked more and more unlikely by the day.
For the Parliamentarians, things were looking far brighter, at least after the momentary brushes with disaster in Dec ember of 1649. All of Ulster bar a few points, most of Leinster bar the Midlands and parts of Kilkenny, most of County Waterford and southern Cork lay in their hands, the major towns fallen, the Royalists defeated at nearly every turn. Through Cromwell’s excellent provisioning for his army – food, money and powder – the New Model Army was more than adequately supplied through the winter, its sick allowed to recover, its morale as high as it could have been. They were numerically superior to their opponents and their better in battlefield experience as well. Mostly of one religious mind and liable to encourage deserters and defections, the New Model Army was the premier fighting force operating in Ireland still.
In the short term, Cromwell wanted to keep hitting the Royalists as hard as he previously had. He still held the initiative and had no shortage of targets. The Royalists heartlands, in Kilkenny and Limerick, were high on those lists, as well as shutting off Royalist access to the coast through Waterford and expanding the immense gains in Ulster. Getting the New Model Army moving as fast as possible and keeping the Royalists pinned back in their fortresses – that had been such easy prey so far – was what Cromwell wanted.
In the medium term though, Cromwell actually did not even want to be on that side of the Irish Sea. There was greater power to be wielded and a Scottish enemy to be confronted in England, where Cromwell was already foreseeing himself, presumably anyway, holding a position of grander authority than simply commanding the New Model Army. While he would delay his departure until things were to his satisfaction in Ireland, Cromwell was not planning on closing the campaign there. Such things would be left to trusted subordinates, but only when the Royalists defences were largely broken. That meant pushing them out of Leinster and Munster. The best result would have been a Catholic surrender, an overthrow of the increasingly hated Ormonde, which allowed Cromwell to bring all matters in Ireland to an end before he would leave himself, though such things were unlikely.
In the long term, there was the aim of securing the entire country, giving away promised land to the soldiery, recouping debts and making the rebellious Catholics pay some stiff penalties. The Royalists would have to be defeated everywhere, Dublin to Castlebar, Cork to Derry, in order to secure Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the newborn Republic that had marked its creation with the regicide of Charles I. Many still saw Ireland and its Catholic masses as the most potent threat to that dream. The Parliamentarians and Cromwell had little desire to ever make any accord with Charles II that would see their new power – at least that held by the military dominated Parliament – stunted. Ireland’s defeat and the securing of its land and religious authority would help stabilise the Commonwealth’s shaky financial situation and bring it into a new era of peace and expansion.
Before 1649 was over Ormonde had accomplished at least one of his short-term goals, as a meeting of Catholic bishops at Clonmacnoise called for members of the religion to rally behind him so as to be in a better position to oppose the real enemy, Cromwell. The Bishops had once held great power in the former Confederation, and probably hoped to one day regain that, and they would also have hoped that Ormonde would come to rely on Catholic troops more and more. They specifically decried the factionalism that was tearing the Royalist cause apart and called for what was little less than holy war against the Parliamentarians.
The Bishops message would have been both a boon and a difficulty for Ormonde. It surely would have influenced some Catholics, but would hardly have appealed to the sensibilities of the Protestants under his command. For all his faults as a military commander, Ormonde was caught in a very difficult position, trying to appeal to both Catholics and Protestants in equal measure, and sure to offend one party with any positivity shown towards the other. Perhaps only Charles II could have reconciled both to the other with his presence, but that did not seem to be a possibility in Ireland for some time.
The proclamation did result in a harsh and infamous denunciation from Cromwell, whose counter-message railed against the Catholic Church and then the Catholic Irish themselves, bringing up every perceived sin of the initial 1641 rebellion and promising devastating retribution for any who resisted his armies now. As it was, unease with, and repeatedly open criticism of Ormonde – and his largely English, Protestant subordinates – continued but the Bishops’ declaration may have bought him just a little bit more time. Still, the Catholic-majority urban centres of Waterford, Limerick and Galway, who had operated with a great degree of autonomy for the past decade, remained reluctant to fund Ormonde’s war effort or accept his garrisons. Aside from a fear that such garrisons would attract the attention of Cromwell, eager to replicate the likes of Drogheda and Wexford, there was suspicion and fear of Ormonde’s Protestant soldiers and what they represented. Waterford had only accepted Catholics soldiers coming to its defence late in 1649, and their example would be followed by others as time went on.
Ormonde’s aims being defensive in nature, he tried to maintain the Royalists’ cohesion as a viable faction. He still felt that, with the expected months before campaigning could begin with the same intensity as it had before, he had the time to bolster those defences and make things difficult for Cromwell. Of course, it was Cromwell and the Parliamentarians who stood in a far better position to actually accomplish their aims.
Cromwell’s plan for the resumption of hostilities in 1650 was simple, matching the mostly single minded-focus he had displayed with his own personal command thus far in Ireland. The aim would be the counties of Tipperary and Kilkenny, with numerous strongholds and towns in each to be targeted for capture. The final aim would be Kilkenny City, the nominal Confederate capital, the capture of which would deal another harsh blow to Ormonde’s crumbling authority, even if it lacked a really vital military importance.
The operation to capture Kilkenny would take the form of four separate advances. Furthest west, forces under Lord Broghill, operating out of Cork itself, would advance north towards County Limerick to act as a screen against any attempted Royalist incursions on the rest of the overall movement. From Youghal, Cromwell himself would advance with a force, first over the Blackwater River in Cork, before swinging east into the very heart of Tipperary, where prizes like Cashel, Cahir and Clonmel awaited. Ireton and Reynolds, moving from Dungarvan, would head north-east over the Suir towards Callan and the southern approaches to Kilkenny. Finally, from Dublin would come another column of soldiers led by a Colonel John Hewson which would march through Kildare and Carlow, to trap any Royalist forces operating in that area and clear the eastern approaches to Kilkenny.
The plan was large-scale and ambitious, in the complicated movement of four different forces operating largely independently of each other. If only one failed or was unexpectedly delayed, the entirety of the operation would be put in jeopardy. But Cromwell, who foresaw a crushing that the Royalists would never recover from, pressed on.
He had reason to be positive. Because of his own success at keeping his men supplied through winter, one which had not turned out to be as bad as previous years notwithstanding the terrible weather early in December, the New Model Army had been paid, well-fed, allowed to recover from the dysentery and fever that had previously ravaged it and could generally be said to be in a very high state of upkeep. As well as that, Cromwell’s cavalry and packhorses had remained fed and been resupplied, dramatically increasing the movement capability of his overall army. They were advantages, over the hungrier, underpaid Royalists, that could not be easily discounted.
And it was largely because of these advantages that Cromwell was able to do what he did. On January 29th 1650, weeks or even months before the Royalists would have suspected such an operation of being workable, Cromwell’s winter offensive began.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.