6 – Siege of Drogheda, 1649
For our next Civil War massacre, we jump forwards 5 years and across the Irish Sea. Despite the loss of Bolton, the Parliamentarian side had won the civil war in England. The so-called “New Model Army” had been instituted by Oliver Cromwell in 1645 and was dedicated to his cause as opposed to the local area in which they were raised. They were experienced, devoutly religious and possessed a level of discipline that was well beyond that of most armies of the time.
While the war had raged in England between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, an uprising in Ireland – where the vast majority were neither Puritan Protestant or Anglican but Catholic – had all but established the sovereignty of the local, Catholic upper classes. In 1649, after the dust had settled back in England, Cromwell embarked on a reconquest of Ireland that would have devastating consequences. When a Parliamentary commander remarked of the Burren, the treeless limestone pavement that covers a large swathes of the West of Ireland that “there is no water to drown a man, no tree from which to hang him, and no soil to bury him in if you did” one can garner an idea of what the staunchly Protestant, anti-Papist Puritan New Model Army thought of the Catholic Irish. They would show little mercy when they arrived.
Cromwell’s tactics required several swift victories: the Royalist forces in Ireland had decided to hole up in several stronghold cities and attempt to let disease, the famously cold and wet weather and hunger defeat the invaders, so the Parliamentarians resolved to engage in sieges that were quick and could be fed by supplies shipped over from England. Having landed in August 1649 and quickly captured Dublin – at the time not the capital of Ireland, nor the major port – and moved up towards Drogheda, directly between Dublin and Belfast. The town was split into two, as Cromwell later explained:
“The officers and soldiers of this Garrison were the flower of their Army. And their great expectation was, that our attempting this place would put fair to ruin us: they being confident of the resolution of their men, and the advantage of the place. If we had divided our force into two-quarters to have besieged the North Town and the South Town, we could not have had such a correspondency between the two parts of our Army, but that they might have chosen to have brought their Army, and have fought with which part ‘of ours’ they pleased,—and at the same time have made a sally with 2,000 men upon us, and have left their walls manned; they having in the Town the number hereafter specified, but some say near 4,000.”
As was military protocol at the time, Cromwell offered the option of surrender to the Royalist defenders: had they accepted it, they would have been spared. Instead, despite lacking severely for gunpowder and shot, they refused to back down. Cromwell attacked, breached the mediaeval walls and took the town. When the Parliamentarians were inside the walls, there would be no mercy. They murdered all enemy soldiers they found, taking no prisoners, battered to death any Catholic priests that they came across and murdered countless civilians. “I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think Thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives;” wrote Cromwell.
The massacre would have its intended effect: other garrison towns later surrendered rather than face the same fate as Drogheda. Historians to this day debate Cromwell’s decision to massacre the town: it was not particularly unusual for those who failed to surrender ahead of a siege to suffer reprisals, but the level of brutality was well beyond what was generally accepted. Tom Reilly, a leading civil war historian, later wrote: “Arthur Aston (the Royalist commander at Drogheda) had refused a summons to surrender, thereby technically forfeiting the lives of the garrison in the event of a successful assault … the sheer scale of the killing [at Drogheda] was simply unprecedented.”