The war was considered over, by the most of the players and by modern historians, but the fighting continued past 1653 and through the reign of the British Commonwealth, that varied succession of governments and Parliaments that ruled in the latter half of the Civil Wars right up to the Restoration, sometimes dubbed “the Protectorate”.
While it took a bit of time for it to become official, Oliver Cromwell was the ruler of the land in this period, eventually taking on the grandiose title of “Lord Protector” – a King in all but name – and governing in most respects as a military dictator, his position backed by the intense loyalty of the Parliamentarians armed forces.
Peacetime brought many challenges for Cromwell. The country had to deal with heaps of debt, political instability and the need for a permanent settlement in the countries of Scotland and Ireland. His period of rule had mixed results, for a lot of reasons, but was certainly a defining era for the Three Kingdoms.
Parliament had already been largely subjugated to the will of the military earlier in the war, and Cromwell was soon disagreeing with most of its desires and workings, even after reducing it to its most ineffective size and powers with the so called “Barebones” Parliament of 1653. Before too long, Cromwell choose to dismiss this body totally and rule his domains through his own power and that of regional military governors, the “Major Generals”, whose numbers made up some of his most loyal confidents and advisors.
But even then things were not rosy. There was a great deal of financial uncertainty, severely limiting any initiatives that Cromwell wanted to pursue. The Puritan aspects of the new regime, though much exaggerated in historical reporting since, caused discomfort and anger in some. Royalist supporters and their conspiracies to plot the return of Charles Stuart, back in France, were never-ending, and a source for many panics during the period. Cromwell’s own faction was divided into smaller groups which included radical elements who wanted a total republican style form of government and some who were considering a return to monarchy. There were some fanatically loyal to Cromwell, and others who saw him as an obstacle to real political progress. Cromwell did have to face several assassination attempts and plots during his reign, indicating how dangerous the situation was.
Outside of Britain, there was continued commercial and naval conflict with the Dutch along with a messy war with Spain to consider. Started in 1654, it would not be officially concluded until after the Restoration. Mainly naval, the war had two notable flashpoints. The first, a botched Commonwealth attempt to capture the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, involved the incompetent military leadership of Robert Venables, the Parliamentarian commander who had previously conquered much of Ulster during Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland. After losing most of his force and having to make do with the (then) much lesser prize of Jamaica, Venables would end up imprisoned in the Tower of London and then stripped of his official positions, living out the rest of his life in relative obscurity. The second flashpoint was land combat in Flanders and northern France, undertaken with French allies that Cromwell had spent a great time cultivating. This endeavour went better, and after several victories the English actually controlled land – Dunkirk and the surrounding areas – on the European mainland for the first time since the reign of Mary I.
And there were the settlements. In Scotland, the process went relatively smoothly, with another Irish veteran, George Monck, placed there as the military governor. Though there was some uprisings and scattered resistance, it is fair to say that Scotland under the Commonwealth was relatively peaceful, albeit with some barely hidden resentment against the new regime.
Ireland was a different story. The subject of this series is military affairs, so I will not go into too much detail about the majority of the Commonwealth’s activities in Ireland during this time period. I imagine most readers will be very familiar with them anyway. The defeated Irish, starving and subjugated, received little mercy from the Parliamentarian regime headed by Charles Fleetwood. Catholicism was oppressed, mass deportations of undesirable elements occurred and there was wholesale land seizures in large parts of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, land taken from Catholics, low born and noble, to be given to English settlers, soldiers and “adventurers”. The Catholic Irish who found themselves stripped of their earth were sent into the altogether less productive and valuable land of Connacht, the act of which was the source of, perhaps, the most famous phrase of Oliver Cromwell, at least in Ireland.
What we dub today the “Protestant Ascendency” was being created in Ireland, with a government, military and local administration dominated by Protestant English and Irish, with the Catholic Irish reduced to rump holdings in the west, and still desperately reliant on the new leadership to avoid starvation and other perils. It is only natural that these acts created resentment and, inevitably, resistance.
The Tory attacks never stopped, even after the generally accepted end of the Eleven Year Wars. But after 1653 they had become very small scale, pinpricks against the might of the Parliamentarian regime, which soon felt comfortable enough to actually draw down the amount of New Model Army soldiers still garrisoning Ireland, in order to reduce the costs of the occupation. Large parts of Ireland remained depopulated, but once new settlers began to arrive, there was no longer as much need for vast amounts of soldiers to keep the peace.
But still, all the way up to the final days of the Commonwealth, some of the Irish continued to fight back. The Dublin administration enacted its own counter measures to this task of law and order, including the wholesale disarmament of Catholics, an extensive system of bounties on the heads of killed or captured Tories and the strict regulation of village sizes – so as to better control the population – but still the ambushes, raids and burning continued to occur. The civilian population, who had suffered so greatly in the previous decade, continued to find themselves in the middle of a bitter insurgency conflict, where to stay neutral was largely impossible and where to aid one side was to draw on the anger and revenge of the other. Any Tory attacks were liable to bring down extensive retribution on the local area, in the form of arrests, executions, transplantation to other parts of the country for entire families or villages and even deportation to the West Indies. With the powers that Charles Fleetwood had, it was easy for local commanders to operate with impunity.
Parliamentarian efforts to enact initiatives and policy in the more rural parts of Ireland were especially targeted by Tories. Surveyors in charge of organising seized estates for plantation were hated by many, and they came under a sustained attack, with a Tory leader by the name of Donough O’Derrick, nicknamed “Blind Donaugh”, being particularly successful in attacking these workers in the east Leinster regions, especially in Kildare and Wicklow. These areas remained remarkably unsafe even years after the end of the war, with the local Irish clans a continual thorn in the side of the Dublin leadership. O’Derrick was just one, but after an increase in the price of his head and proactive counterinsurgency operations, he was eventually brought to heel.
In other areas, and despairing of a manner in which to end the Tory nuisance, the Parliamentarians took the unpalatable step of hiring former Confederates and Tories who had surrendered to build and lead new counter-guerrilla units, to hunt down their former comrades. It only made sense, as these men would have had the knowledge of Tory tactics and local terrain that New Model Army troops would not have had. It would have been some of the only times that the Parliamentarians willingly armed and supplied Catholic Irish. And so, in exchange for payment and exemption from transplantation, many former Confederates did indeed take up the anti-Tory Parliamentarian cause.
Perhaps the most notable of these was Charles Kavanagh who, with a group of 13 others, set up shop in Carlow on behalf of the Parliamentarians. There, they guarded against the approach of Tory bands coming down from the Wicklow mountains, being easily placed to respond to threats on Wexford as well.
The murder of planters, the retaliation against civilians and the seemingly never ending struggle continued, though the Tory cause had long since been sunk. This part of the conflict between Catholic Ireland and the Parliament was more simply a lashing out of dissatisfied and bitter Irish natives, who refused to simply follow Parliamentarian order and laws without some form of resistance. If becoming a Tory or aiding the few bands of them that remained helped to deal a blow against the Parliament, then so be it, but all and sundry must have realised that there was no way that the limited movement of remaining Tories would ever bring a lasting victory.
In 1655 Fleetwood’s infamous reign came to an end. His policies were starting to be viewed as counterproductive by London, who wanted greater tax yield and peaceful settlement from Ireland. Moreover, following the assumption of near-Royal power by Cromwell, Fleetwood was criticised for failing to rein in his more radical officers, like Edmund Ludlow, who refused to recognise the authority of the new regime.
His eventual replacement as Lord Deputy was Henry Cromwell, Oliver’s fourth son. Henry had served in the New Model Army since 1649, and had campaigned with Lord Broghill in Munster during his father’s Irish campaigns. Since then, he had moved more into civilian administration, serving as one of Ireland’s few representatives in the Barebones Parliament. His rule in Ireland is generally viewed sympathetically, even by Catholic historians traditionally hostile to anything Parliamentarian. Henry is viewed as a loyal hard-working moderate, who rowed back on some of the more intense repression of Fleetwood’s era, and made efforts to bring greater stability to Ireland by urging various Protestant factions into harmony. Transplantation did continue, but at a slower pace, and the thought of full scale ethnic cleansing that had previously dominated Dublin thinking was now cast aside. The Tory attacks did not stop, with even the final days of the Protectorate marked by complaints towards London, from Dublin, of their continuance. But though they remained a problem, they were no longer the threat they once were.
In England, Cromwell continued his rule, rejecting an offer of the crown and arguing with and dismissing several Parliaments when they would not bow to his wishes, and despairing at the level of discord within the faction at large. Truly, so much of what made his Protectorate regime as stable as it was, was Cromwell’s very presence at that top, a grand unifying figure who retained the loyalty of the armed forces and thus ensured that the rancour between radicals, moderates and religious extremists never erupted into full scale fighting.
But it could not last forever. Cromwell was a man in perpetual bad health, suffering from the after effects of several illnesses during the war along with other ailments. Adding the stress of political leadership during such a tumultuous time, his eventual collapse in health can be seen as inevitable. He died after a repeating bout of malarial fever on the 3rd of September 1658. He was 59.
His military campaigns in Ireland were instrumental in ending the conflict. He arrived at a pivotal moment, and through his audacity, ruthlessness and power, he crippled the Royalist/Confederate alliance and all but insured that his successors would end the war in Parliament’s favour. His methods were controversial, occasionally abhorrent, but one cannot argue with the results. Cromwell and the New Model Army smashed the Royalist cause in Ireland to bits, and that was only one part of his immense achievements.
He rose from obscurity to become one of the most influential and powerful men of his generation, the leading figure of the Civil Wars and national bogeyman for all time when it comes to Ireland. He died as the titanic figure of British politics, the only man who could keep it all together.
Now, things would start to fall apart. And the effects of that would be felt all over the Protectorate, even in Ireland.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.