Cromwell’s coordinated offensive, which has become known as his “Winter Offensive”, caught the Royalists completely by surprise. While the winter had been a little bit milder than usual, Ormonde and his lieutenants were in no way expecting any kind of attack from the Parliamentarians that soon. What troops they had were still in winter quarters, meaning that the castles and other garrisons in Cromwell’s path were, for the time being, largely on their own. There was no kind of unified Royalist strategy to counter that of Cromwell initially, Ormonde was simply reacting, waiting to see in which direction Cromwell’s four columns would go before preparing any kind of countermove. For the first few weeks of the campaign, Cromwell and his forces would have relative freedom of movement in their areas of operation.
We shall look at the first month and a half of this new offensive column by column, starting in the far west with Roger Boyle. The Lord Broghill had been crucial in delivering the southern Cork towns and ports into Cromwell’s hands, and now he sallied out with the aim of protecting the far western flank of the whole operation. He only had limited numbers of troops with which to do so, but his task would not be a difficult one, merely to keep what Royalists forces that existed in the area quiet.
They were not many. The area of north Cork, Kerry and Limerick was apparently left in the hands of Inchiquin to guard over the winter, but the former Parliamentarian was a shadow of the commander he once had been. Defeats at Arklow and then at Carrick-on-Suir had humiliated him and reduced his army of troops killed in action and those who deserted. Operating out of the Limerick/Kerry region, he could call upon only a bare minimum of troops. The result was a succession of minor positions in Cork and Kerry falling to the Parliamentarians over the winter and in the early days of Cromwell’s larger offensive, while Inchiquin could only watch from afar. None of them could be said to be too important to the larger war effort, but it was a gradual erosion of Royalist authority in Munster: they no longer had the power to combat Parliamentarian moves in the likes of Kerry, and had to rely on local guerrilla forces to provide some kind of threat. Sometime early in March at a location that sources describe only as “near Limerick”, Broghill and Inchiquin did finally come to blows: Inchiquin appears to have sought out the encounter, weeks after the offensive began, seeking to capture the River Blackwater crossing at Mallow. Broghill moved to counter him. The result was a Parliamentarian victory, with several hundred casualties inflicted on Inchiquin.
O’Brien’s time appeared to be over with the result. Grabbing what soldiers and cattle he could, he fled north out of Munster and took refuge in the safer location of Connacht, across the Shannon. Broghill did not have the numbers to pursue him, or to threaten Limerick itself, but he had done all that was required of him on the far left flank of the overall operation. Royalist power in western Munster was irreparably damaged.
It was the next column over that introduced the larger amounts of drama. This was the largest, under the command of Cromwell himself, several thousand men and plenty of cavalry units. It is indicative of the differences between the Royalist and Parliamentarian positions in Ireland that just before the offensive started Cromwell was visiting his units individually to get the mood of his men and boost their morale, as well as welcoming further reinforcements from England commanded by one of his sons, Henry. Ormonde on the other hand was in Kilkenny, arguing with former Confederates about garrison commanders, away from any semblance of an army.
It would take a while for Ormonde to understand what Cromwell’s exact objective was. This was largely due to the initial direction the Parliamentarian leader took, heading north-west from Youghal and into Cork. It was likely that initial Royalist assessment thought Cromwell might have been aiming for Limerick. After all, an attack on Kilkenny would surely have seen him double back over previous marching routes.
But Cromwell was patient, and willing to set things up to his satisfaction before he tackled Kilkenny. That meant marching into Tipperary – an area that had actually seen surprisingly little fighting in the wars thus far despite its importance to the Royalists – and that meant securing a crossing over the Blackwater. Cromwell achieved this only a few days after leaving Youghal, by securing Mallow, the town Inchiquin would later move to liberate. From there the New Model Army forces under his command took a sharp turn westwards. Their speed is to be noted. The New Model Army, unlike their Royalist counterparts, had the training, discipline and motivation to move fast despite significant numbers of troops and artillery pieces to take care of, further damaging any hopes Ormonde had of effectively countering them. Cromwell had barely been outside of Youghal four days before his troops were in Tipperary, and that was with a very circular route to the county.
Once there, the business of reducing the largest and most important of the local garrisons commenced, aside from numerous minor positions, most of which surrendered without a fight, or simply saw their garrisons flee. Fethard, around ten miles east of Cashel, was one of the first important sites to be deliberately targeted. The castle there had a decent garrison and could have resisted for a time, but its commander declined the opportunity and gave in without a fight. Allegedly the arrival of Cromwell’s troops outside of its walls and its subsequent capitulation took place during a sudden bout of terrible weather: the commander was thus able to boast that Fethard had not fallen without a storm. Cromwell offered generous terms – allowing the garrison to march away and guarantee’s of the townspeople’s safety – to avoid having to actually fight, an approach he and others in the New Model Army used successfully over and over again.
After that, the position at Cashel surrendered without offering even a token resistance. Royalist spirit and will to oppose Cromwell was disappearing in Tipperary. By now, due to the movement of Cromwell and of other forces, it was obvious that the New Model Army was advancing on Kilkenny. Ormonde and what was left of his government there fled westwards to Limerick and Ennis to avoid the political catastrophe of being captured – a bout of plague in the town would also have influenced their decision – but the Lord Lieutenant was not forgoing a military defence of the town. However, with this flight, Kilkenny’s essentially symbolic role as capital of the Royalist movement in Ireland, once of the Confederates, had ended.
Cromwell’s next major target of importance forced him to meet up with the third column, which was commanded by Colonel Reynolds and Henry Ireton. They had moved north-east from Dungarven with the other larger amount of troops. Moving through Carrick-on-Suir, they continued their course without interruption, reaching the town of Callan at the same time that Cromwell had reached Fethard. They waited until Cromwell and his forces had joined him before attacking, and after a short bombardment the position was taken, most of the garrison killed in the process.
Reynolds and Ireton continued to operate in that general area for the rest of February, with Cromwell doubling back to target Cahir Castle back in Tipperary. He could afford such movements, with the Royalists completely immobile in the face of his offensive. Ormonde was more busy sending letters to the Royalist court on the continent begging for help then rallying his own troops in Ireland, and there were no reinforcements from the Ulster Army forthcoming.
Cahir was besieged on the 24th of February and, like Inchiquin before him, Cromwell was able to take the ancient structure with some ease. Cahir was more a symbolic point of resistance and strength than an actual one, and not even a spirited defence by its commander, a George Matthew leading a unit of the Ulster Army, could save it. He surrendered on terms once a breach was made and marched out with his troops. The capture isolated the nearby Clonmel, a town and position that Cromwell was willing to ignore for the time being. Matthew happened to be the half-brother of Ormonde. When the Royalist commander ordered his appearance to explain his conduct, he simply refused to turn up, another indication of Butler’s crumbling authority.
The last part of the offensive was that of Colonel Hewson, marching from Dublin. His was, first and foremost, a mop-up operation in Leinster, as the men and artillery he commanded proceeded to take the last of the isolated Royalist positions in the province. Hewson had already been active in east Ireland during the winter, helping to deflect some basic attacks Ormonde had ordered in the direction of Arklow, but now he was firmly on the offensive himself. Kilmaog, Maryborough and Athy were all taken with barely any resistance, the kind of forts and castles that had only the smallest and most desperate kinds of garrisons.
The ring around Kilkenny was being tightened now. As March began and wore on, the Parliamentarians were closing in on Kilkenny from three sides, with Cromwell only ever troubled by the sight of Royalist troops, who never engaged. Leighlinbridge, with a crossing over the Barrow, was captured by Hewson on the 19th. He then moved onto the more substantial position at Gowran, on the eastern border of Kilkenny, where he was joined by Cromwell and Ireton. Gowran is one of the few places that actually attempted a sustained resistance, its commander, a Colonel Robert Hammond, refusing the summons to surrender. Cromwell blew a breach in the walls over the next few days. Refusing to negotiate with Hammond further, he instead made a deal with the castles rank and file defenders, to spare their lives in exchange for their officers, who were nearly all executed on the spot, Hammond included. Such places were part of Ormonde’s own lands, possession of which was now slipping from him.
These are just the most major and notable points that the Parliamentarians captured. The truth is that there are many more, so many that the surviving histories barely mention some of them. Cappoquin, Clogheen, Roghill, Oldtown, Ballihock, Knocktofer, Blackreath, Ardfinnan and Thomastown are just some of these places, nearly all of which were taken without the expense of much blood.
The winter offensive had been a stunning success, with the Royalist position, already battered, now irreparably smashed. They still held on in parts of Munster and Leinster, but in an ever more isolated fashion. They still held very tough locations to capture, but they had increasingly slim hopes of keeping them long-term. On nearly every level, they were outmatched: number of troops, quality of troops, gunpowder, other supplies, artillery, cavalry, troop payment.
Yet, the overwhelmingly one-sided result of this phase of Cromwell’s operations need not have been so totally. If Ormonde had been better prepared, more willing to guard against any early move that Cromwell made, then he could have undertaken counter-measures. If his command was more absolute, his army better brought together, then he may have had the opportunity to face the New Model Army when it was broken its several different parts, and much weaker as a result. Defeat in detail might have been a bit of a stretch, but the Royalists would have had a much better shot.
But all that would have required a degree of authority, preparation and commitment that Ormonde was no longer able to call upon. Cromwell knew this, which was why he was willing to divide the New Model Army in the first place. The Royalist situation in Ireland was weak, in so many respects, and Cromwell was simply taking advantage of that. There were some limited counter-offensives undertaken during this timeframe, but as they directly concern the defence of Kilkenny, I’ll talk about them in detail next time.
By the 22nd of March, Cromwell had reassembled his separated forces into a larger unit at least 4’000 men strong, not counting its strong cavalry and artillery sections. The next goal was Kilkenny itself, but it would not be taken without a fight.
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