March 1650, and the city of Kilkenny was increasingly surrounded. The heart of the Confederate movement since the foundation of that entity, it was now just another beleaguered Royalist stronghold, waiting for the Parliamentarian hammer to fall.
The Kilkenny area, including the city, had been put in the overall command of James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, an appointment he does not really seem to have enjoyed being given. With Ormonde and what existed of the Royalist “government” fleeing west over the Shannon, Castlehaven was left with a great deal of leeway and authority to attempt to resist Cromwell. What he didn’t have was substantial numbers of men. A bout of plague had rapidly reduced the number of soldiers in the Kilkenny garrison to little more than a few hundred troops, and whatever civilian levy was willing to assist them. Castlehaven’s army, bolstered by a strong-ish regiment of Ulster Army men, reached 3’000 according to his own memoirs, but it’s likely that this is an exaggeration.
Ormonde and Castlehaven hoped to be assisted by forces of the Viscount Thomas Dillon, one of the original confederates and a controversial Catholic convert. Accused of corruption and “false musters” by many, Dillon still controlled a few thousand men in the more northerly parts of Leinster that would have greatly aided Castlehaven, but the troops never marched south. Dillon claimed that the troops needed to stay put in case the Ulster Army decided to ravage Leinster; more likely he did not want to throw them into a losing cause, and as one of the Rinuccini’s former confidantes was unwilling to play second fiddle to the likes of Castlehaven.
Castlehaven and his subordinates were on their own. Receiving intelligence from spies among the New Model Army and the Irish countryside, he discovered the marching route of Colonel Hewson’s Dublin column. Marching quickly and avoiding his adversary, Castlehaven swopped on the recently taken town of Athy in Kildare, which (according to him) had a garrison of 700 and a substantial supply of powder. Castlehaven took the place by storm and with very little loss, taking the defenders totally by surprise.
But while this was an impressive success, it was relatively meaningless. Castlehaven had taken the action on his own initiative, as Athy was nowhere near where he was supposed to be, and the taking of it could little help Kilkenny. He lacked the men or the supplies to hold Athy, or even to take care of the prisoners he had taken. He thus abandoned Athy and his prisoners, hoping Cromwell would recognise the mercy. It was shortly before the massacre at Gowran.
Castlehaven’s little venture thus came to nothing. It certainly did not slow the Parliamentarian advance. Castlehaven and his army marched back towards Kilkenny but found it beleaguered upon their arrival. The Ulster Army units left his command and went north, apparently fearing the plague as a sign from God. They took most of Castlehaven’s strength with them.
Kilkenny was on its own. Its commander was a kinsman of Ormonde, Sir Walter Butler. Butler is a little noted figure in history, but at that moment he held the fate of Kilkenny and its residents in his hands. Surrender and he could probably save their lives from a Drogheda-style slaughter. Fight, and they could all suffer.
As noted, he had only a few hundred soldiers to help him resist, facing over 4’000 outside the walls, approaching from three directions. But Kilkenny had other advantages. Essentially split into three separate sections that had their own walls – High Town and Irish Town north of the River Nore, St John’s to the south – Kilkenny could resist an outside attack and survive if one of its thirds was taken. It also had the substantial position of Kilkenny Castle in High Town, one of the more imposing fortifications of the Butler family.
Butler was no fool, and set the townspeople and his soldiers to work on improving the position anyway that they could, with entrenchments and ditches dug behind the walls and defensive positions set-up elsewhere. The bridges over the Nore would be better protected than those at Drogheda had been. Moreover, Walter Butler had the will to resist and the commitment to see such resistance through. When Cromwell called for his surrender, the notice was rejected.
Cromwell had hoped to take the town without a fight, with a much noted incident involving one of its defenders, a Captain Tickell. He allegedly offered to betray the town to Cromwell in return for payment, but Cromwell arrived at the gates to find the conspiracy uncovered and Tickell hanged. Such things were small in the grand scheme of things, but may have affected the morale of the defenders and the attackers in different ways.
Not dissuaded by such things, or the rejection of his surrender terms (which had been generous), Cromwell set about his task. He had arrived at and surrounded the city by the 22nd of March, and by the 23rd his attacks had begun. A cavalry regiment stormed one of the gates of Irish Town on the north-west of the City’s outer defences. However, met by resistance in the form of a unit of civilian militia, they were beaten back. At around the same time, St Patricks Church, outside the walls of High Town, was taken.
The church was the perfect position for a battery of artillery, which Cromwell spent the next day setting up before opening fire on the 25th. It only took a few hours for a breach to be created. Now would have been another moment for Walter Butler to contemplate surrender, but he persisted, trusting in the defence and the defenders.
Cromwell was taking few chances. He called for a two-pronged assault on the city. One unit, led by Colonel Hewson, would assault the breach in the south of the city, while another, under Colonel Isaac Ewer, would attack another of the gates leading into Irish Town. With the defenders divided, it was hoped that if one of the attacks was successful, then the entire city would fall.
Ewer’s force was the more successful, his attack having an infantry component that provided for a greater substance of assault than the previous cavalry offensive on Irish Town. The mostly civilian defenders fled and Irish Town fell without much bloodshed. Cromwell now held the higher ground of Kilkenny City.
It was a different story to the south. Hewson’s attack was a bloody affair, as his men fought through the breach only to face an additional entrenchment behind it, one palisaded and guarded by a unit of musketeers. The assault was beaten back with Hewson himself injured in the process. Cromwell quickly ordered a withdrawal, recognising that a continued attack at the point would only result in a terrible defeat. There has also been suggestions that Cromwell tried to get his men to attack again, but they refused.
Butler’s defensive work had paid off in one point, but the situation was increasingly desperate. Cromwell still held the initiative and used it, ordering another one of his subordinates, Colonel Gifford, to cross the Nore and assault into St John’s. St John’s was the weakest of the three sections, being little more than a suburb really, and quickly fell into Parliamentarians hands without much fighting. The defenders streamed across the Nore and into High Town, holding St John’s Bridge behind them. Gifford attempted to storm the bridge and destroy its gate house, but another valiant defence turned him back with some loss, far more than he had taken in the process of capturing St John’s.
Cromwell was prepared to make another assault, but patient enough to increase his advantage. Another artillery battery was set-up, not far from St Johns Bridge and Kilkenny Castle. Another bombardment was enacted, and quickly another breach had been made in the walls.
Walter Butler had been prepared to continue his resistance at St Johns Bridge and the other breach, but this additional attack was the last straw. A coordinated attack on all three points would be too much for his tiny and exhausted garrison. Moreover, continued resistance only made sense if there was the possibility of relief, and there was none. Ormonde was far away, and Castlehaven could not do anything from his position, other than to grant Butler official permission to seek terms.
On the 27th, before Cromwell was given the chance to launch another assault, Butler signalled his surrender. This time Cromwell accepted, probably fearful that any assault would carry with it tremendous casualties. The city was occupied, as was the castle. The garrison was allowed to march out with its arms and colours. Kilkenny had fallen. Cromwell was delighted upon observing the inner defences, especially those of the castle, being “exceeding well fortified by the industry of the Enemy…which might have cost much blood and time…we look at it as a gracious mercy that we have the place for you (the Parliament) upon these terms”.
The former capital of the Confederation was taken, but Walter Butler and its defenders, both civilian and military, must be given a large amount of credit for their five day defence, which was more than many would have reasonably expected for such a position, so outnumbered and suffering from disease and demoralisation. Butler’s defence was pro-active and dogged, with fortifications improved before the fighting started and civilian levies used to bolster the effort where needed. One can only imagine that if disease had not reduced the garrison to such an extent, that Cromwell could very well have been repulsed before Kilkenny.
On the Parliamentarian side, we might just get a glimpse at some complacency. Kilkenny really was the first place, bar the Waterford/Duncannon region, that had given them any trouble. Certainly it was the only major stopping point in the winter offensive up to that time. Cromwell’s initial attack was fairly small scale, and his decision to leave St John’s unmolested until an initial attempt on High Town took place does seem like the kind of choice that makes little sense in retrospect. Moreover, after over seven weeks of marching and siege work, it’s likely that the New Model Army was just tired, having failed to really find a point to stop and take stock at in the course of the offensive. That may explain the sluggish nature of some aspects of the Kilkenny siege, which Cromwell got away with due to the deficiencies in the defenders numbers.
Kilkenny was not an immensely valuable location in tangible terms, something I have noted before. Most of the surrounding area had been cleared before its fall, there was only a small garrison with small supplies to encounter and the city’s political importance was negligible at that point. The only really major consequence of the siege was that Waterford, now totally isolated on the south-east coast, could no longer be supplied via the Nore, though that was difficult enough since New Ross had been captured the previous year.
But Kilkenny’s worth was better recorded in the symbolic. The former capital of the Confederation, generally considered to be the second city of Ireland and a major seat of Ormonde’s family, it was now held by a force who, by its capture, continued to add to their mystique of invincibility. The Royalists were left scattered and defeated, their war effort focused more and more on the west of Ireland.
But Cromwell was not done with his offensive yet. His time in Ireland was drawing to a close, but now he doubled back and headed for a position he had deliberately ignored in the course of his earlier movement: Clonmel.
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