Ireland’s Wars: The Bishops Coup

This entry will be fairly “action-light” in terms of actual military activity. I always try and focus on that primarily, but you can’t separate war from politics. Clausewitz had it right, it’s not mindless violence. It has people directing it, and for a purpose. In the Royalist faction during this period of the Civil Wars, those people were having a battle of their own.

James Butler, the Earl of Ormonde and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in Charles Stuart’s name, was struggling as the nominal commander of the Royalist faction in Ireland. Nearly all of Leinster, Munster and Ulster had been lost, and what remained was resisting him at every turn. In the summer of 1650, even as the Scarrifholis campaign, the siege of Tecroghan and the fall of Waterford occupied his attention, he also had to leave enough time to deal with these “internal” affairs (perhaps too much, considering the small amount of time he actually spent leading armies in the field).

A real flashpoint was the garrisoning of Limerick City, arguably the strongest position that the Royalists had left. Ormonde had a mind to make it the new capital of Royalist Ireland, to use its resources to swell his army’s manpower and supplies, its wealth to keep his soldiers paid. But in this he was resisted by the cities own authorities, well used to having a large degree of autonomy under any system of government then or previous. Mostly Catholic of course, they had a growing dislike and distrust of Ormonde, and resisted his attempts to place his own troops within Limerick as a garrison. Using the excuse that the placing of such troops would bring a danger of plague, these authorities were able to insist upon Ormonde’s local forces camping outside the city in temporary lodgings, little more than tiny huts. Ormonde was unwilling to provoke a direct confrontation by trying to march inside.

Ormonde wanted to control Limerick’s defences more definitively, but could not make any real headway with the local government. He was warned by subordinates that what “soldiers” existed within the walls were poorly armed and trained, and many could not be trusted to actually fight the Parliamentarians when it came to it. An air of defeatism could not be mistaken. Ormonde’s own man, Piers Walsh, was already the commander of the existing Limerick garrison, and for a time Ormond was satisfied with this. But as the summer wore on, this became less and less acceptable to him.

Negotiations with the authorities were ponderous but eventually produced an acceptable compromise, though not before the city nearly reached a point of open rebellion against Ormonde. Limerick agreed to accept a garrison of Ulster Army troops if they were led by Hugh Dubh O’Neill, so celebrated by Catholics after his stand at Clonmel earlier in the year. Ormonde reluctantly agreed to this, but was still disgusted that he and his own troops were not permitted entry to Limerick in the time it would take O’Neill to travel to the city.

The whole situation was a potent example of what was wrong with the Royalist faction in Ireland, torn apart by sectarian mistrust and military frailty. Ormonde grimly predicted that such people who opposed him in these matters would soon be ruined by their actions, as the Parliamentarians under Ireton, while not completely harmonious, had no such serious disputes to trouble them. Even as the Limerick situation appeared to be heading towards a resolution, Galway City suddenly decided to shut out Royalist garrisons for much the same reasons.

Around this time, another thunderbolt struck home, one that would be among the very last straws for Ormonde. On mainland Europe, Charles Stuart, the claimed Charles II, had been continuing negotiations with the Scottish authorities, with an aim of getting their open allegiance, control of their armies and a means of striking back directly at the Parliamentarian foe in England. While the Covenanters had been, at different points, friends and enemies of the Parliament (a more conciliatory faction within them, the “Engagers” had been defeated by Cromwell in the “Second” Civil War in 1648, leaving the hard line “Kirk” faction in control), by 1650 they had swung mostly against the forces of Cromwell. The Scottish had not liked Charles I, mostly due to his religious policies, but had been uniformly horrified by his execution, which went against the natural order of things. Moreover, a powerful Parliament stopped any of their hopes of spreading their own brand of Presbyterianism across the land and, invariably, came with fears for their own existence, provoked by a militant and expansionist looking government in London.

So, when Charles Stuart came looking for support, those in control of Scotland were willing to listen. They had already declared him to be King in the emotionally fuelled days after his father’s execution, but were now ready to be a bit more demanding. In return for their open support of Charles and the providing of an army to aid him, they expected nothing less that the institution of Presbyterianism as the dominant religion throughout Britain, the upholding of Scotland’s autonomy within the Kingdom and the absolute oppression of Catholicism. As part of the last point, the Scots expected Charles to abandon any alliance he had with the hated “popery” of the former Confederation of Kilkenny.

An attempt to intimidate the Scots by means of Montrose’s ill-fated second invasion came to nought and so Charles was forced to make a decision between the Scots and the Irish. A quick look at the strategic picture will explain his decision. The Scots had an army, were in a position to strike at Parliamentarian England directly and seemed to suffer no internal division of any seriousness. The Irish were being well beaten, forced into the westernmost part of the island, and seemed near rebellious to any of the commands from Charles’ chosen representatives.

After the failure of Montrose, Charles agreed to the Treaty of Breda (often called the Declaration of Breda, but because there was a more important Declaration of Breda in 1660, from the same person, I prefer “Treaty”). The treaty basically gave the Scots everything they wanted: promises to take the Covenant, receive instruction in their religion and then to promote it vigorously, agreements to respect the civic independence of Scotland and a repudiation of any previous agreements with the Catholics of Ireland. Ormonde was not consulted, or warned in advance.

The news came slowly to Ireland, firstly rumour, then wild supposition and then undeniable fact. The Catholics in rebellion had been fighting in the name of the Stuart line since the formation of the Confederation (that entity’s very motto had been “Irishmen united for God, King and country”) and had later agreed to its virtual disbandment as part of a larger alliance with the Royalists. Now, in a gross act of betrayal, Charles had essentially turned his back on them. And if the Catholic Irish were rejected by him, what was the point of their war?

Ormonde was shocked by the Treaty of Breda, spending his time trying to deny its rumoured contents even while desperately prodding Charles for further information. But Charles was already in Scotland, essentially under Presbyterian control, and in no free position to communicate with Ormonde in his previous manner. He had made his choice, and it was now to Ormonde, still acting with a Royal decree, to keep governing in his stead.

But elements of the Catholic Irish ascendency, already pushed to the brink, now decided to make their move against Ormonde. It was the clergy, in the form of the Bishops, which would provide the main blow. They were already distrustful of Ormonde’s religion and his consistent failure as a military commander even that year alone – by August the Ulster Army was largely destroyed, Tecroghan had fallen, Waterford had been surrendered and Charlemont was beset – were enough to justify, in their minds, their subsequent actions. Ireton’s forces would soon be moving against the Royalists once more, and there were real fears that the war in Ireland would be brought to a close by 1651 if things did not change.

On the 6th of August the Bishops met at a synod in Jamestown, Leitrim. They invited Ormonde to send a representative, but he instead opted to communicate with them only by letters. The Bishops mood was acrimonious: they criticised Ormonde, he wrote back making his usual excuses and pleas for time.

On the 12th, the Bishops made their move. They issued a complete denunciation of Ormonde’s command, including a long list of his apparent deficiencies: the appointing of treacherous Protestants to command positions, the failure at Rathmines, the incompetently carried out defensive strategy of repeated sieges to contest Cromwell and his general refusal to try and meet the Parliamentarians in the field. The Bishops released all Catholics from any previous allegiance they may have had to Ormonde, and then further threatened any who continued to support him with excommunication. A direct message was sent to Ormonde asking him to leave Ireland and his position in the name of establishing greater unity.

This was no less than an attempted coup, albeit one that the Bishops, for now, would not try to pursue violently. They wanted Ormonde gone and probably no less than the resurrection of the Confederation, a political body that they had previously had far more power as part of.

But who was their chosen man to replace Ormonde? That decision occupied much of the discussion before, during and after Jamestown, even as Ormonde prepared his countermoves. The list of possible commanders was disappointingly small. Among those considered and rejected were Hugh Dubh O’Neill (not enough political pull), the Viscount Mountgarrett (now senile), the Marquis of Antrim (had now openly joined the Parliamentarians), the Viscount Muskerry (not enough support outside Munster) and the Earl of Castlehaven (not enough support outside Leinster and was considered too close to Ormonde). The Bishops were smart enough, after the unmitigated disaster that had been Heber MacMahon’s command of the Ulster Army, to not want to appoint one of their own number to the position.

The only man left was Ulick Burke, the Earl of Clanrickarde. The attitude towards him was mixed: he was a senior Catholic noble and a commander of the Royalists in Connacht, but his military record was poor and many saw him as being, like Castlehaven, too close to Ormonde. His state of mind, prone to bouts of depression and defeatism, would surely have caused some worry. But of all the candidates, Clanrickarde was the one that garnered the most support. Not that the Bishop’s made an immediate attempt to appoint him, but it was clear he was their preferred choice to be a new leader of their cause.

Ormonde responded with almost uncharacteristic vigour, on paper anyway, to the Bishops’ claims about him. He insisted his appointments had been correct and proper, that Rathmines could not have been avoided and that his defensive strategy was the only possible way of combating the overwhelming strength of the Parliamentarians. On the issue of whether he should leave or not, Ormonde did not mince words: it was for Charles to dismiss him from the Lord Lieutenancy and not the clergy, whom he had come to greatly despise. Privately however, Ormonde began to seriously consider the possibility of abandoning his hopeless task and by mid-August had officially requested to be relieved. But until he received such a relief, Ormonde was determined to keep going, even as Clanrickarde, usually so loyal, began to urge him to resign as well.

The Royalist faction was barely holding together, with the Bishops determined that no one in its territory should continue to follow Ormonde, and the Lord Lieutenant considering drastic action to be taken against the clergy to preserve his own position. But then these enemies had to turn and face the real threat: Ireton’s great offensive, which aimed to secure crossings over the Shannon and then to destroy the Royalists in Ireland for good.

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

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Bishops Coup

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ireton’s Autumn Offensive | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Meelick Island | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Eleven Year Wars | Never Felt Better

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