Post 5- Confederates and Cromwell.

Last post we looked at the political and religious background to the Ulster Rebellion of 1641, how the remaining Catholic Ulster elite, alarmed by the ever growing Plantations,  vexed by the loss of their religious and civil liberties, and constantly frustrated by the bad faith and double dealing of Charles I, tried to orchestrate a show of force  But the rebellion quickly span out of control into unplanned  violence and many settlers, including civillians lost their lives.


The survivors now fled in terror, flooding south as refugees along the roads into Dublin. In their wake a catholic rebel army, now advanced on Dublin and seemed to menace the capital and the lives of its citizens.

In fact, the more violent popular part of the rebellion was put down or at least brought back into control, the Catholic gentry had again resumed leadership, but people inside Dublin did not know this and were terrified.

This precarious, unpredictable drama put several groups in a highly difficult position. What, for example, were the “Palesmen” to do?  These were the old-English gentry based around the outskirts of Counties Dublin, Kildare, and Meath, territories now occupied by the rebels.  The Palesmen were Norman-descended yet in Ireland for centuries, with many ties of marriage to both sides.   The family of Patrick Sarsfield, who was later to be the Irish hero of the Williamite Wars,  is one good example.   Here, below, is an entirely gratuitous picture of Patrick Sarsfield,  although was not even quite born in 1641, but simply because he is one of my heros and because I am going to write about him in a later post.


Gratuitous picture of Patrick Sarsfield. 

Like other Palesmen however, the Sarsfield family provide a good example of how some groups were now trapped by events and in a serious dilemma.  They  had been in Ireland for centuries, since the Anglo-Norman conquest of the 12 century.  So, they were old English yet now also Irish, proudly catholic.   Irish and, despite the mistrust of the new English protestant administration, and the bigotry of the London parliament,yet they were still loyal to the English, Stuart crown.  But now the rebels seized their lands and opposition was futile.  What were they to do?

The Ulster Rebellion had now become the full scale Confedrate War, (1641-53)  The conflict is sometimes hard to follow because it is bound up with, in fact was one theatre of, a whole series of complex, distinctive, yet interrelated conflicts across England, Ireland and Scotland.

In September 1642 the English Civil war commenced, between Roundheads (Puritans) fighting for Parliament, and Cavaliers (Royalists) fighting for Charles, (later for his exiled son)  This is the best-known theatre of the War of the Three Kingdoms.  But there were also Scottish Conventers, and the Scottish civil war.

In Ireland, from 1642 -47  the Confederates  were coalition of Old Irish (Gaels) and Old English, including many of the Palesmen  a broadly Catholic Coalition.   They controlled most of Ireland, well over two-thirds of the island,  and had set up a de facto capital in KIllkenny.   At this stage, they were fighting against both Parliamentarians, and the Royalists under Ormonde.  James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, was Ireland’s premier nobleman and the king’s viceroy. Yet he was a first generation Protestant, and he was fighting many of his own close relatives on the Confederate side.   In Spring 1642 for example, Ormonde, (James Butler)  commanded forces at the Battle of Kilrush.  The opposing commander was his cousin Richard Butler, 3rd Viscount Montgarret.


above: Portrait of James Butler, Duke of Ormonde.  

In 1647, Ormonde was still fighting the Confederates. He felt he could not hold the city of Dublin against them and was in a dilemma.   The entire drama was massively complicated by the fact England was itself divided in two, with the King and English parliament fighting a bitter civil war.   Ormonde was supposed to be holding Dublin for the king, not for parliament.  Yet-prior for departure to France-  Ormonde not only gave up Dublin to the Parliamentarian commander Michael Jones (no relation to Thomas or Roger Jones).  , but also 3,000 of his formerly Royalist troops who would now fight for Parliament.  Ormonde is reputed to have remarked, he “would prefer English rebels to Irish ones”.

Yet within a year,  the Royalists under Ormonde would conclude a treaty and an alliance with the Confederates against Parliament.

Now Irish Royalists (both Catholic Royalists and Protestant Royalists)  put aside religion and joined together with the Confederate side  to fight for the crown against parliament.  But it was a very loose and unstable alliance.  Some were Gaelic Irish fighting for local rights and land.  In fact, some on the catholic wing of the struggle could not decide if they were fighting for King Charles or for the catholic faith in Ireland.  Priests in camp and talk of the Pope made their protestant colleagues uneasy and the camp was often affected by mutual suspicion and distrust.

In the dreary religious and ethnic bigotry and mutual suspicion so typical to those times, many protestant Royalists especially mistrusted the Gaels, even though they actually possessed some of the best fighting men, and some of the best, most experienced commanders. These included some of the O’Neill clan, like Owen Roe O’Neill and Hugh Dubh O’Neill, returning to Ireland from senior commands in the Spanish army of the Netherlands.


Owen Roe O’Neill

This Gaelic experience and military expertise was in sharp contrast to Ormonde whio had now become commander of the entire Confederate War effort.  James undoubtedly possessed some fine qualities. Much later in life, he proved an able and enlightened peacetime leader; indeed he is one of the most significant figures in the development of Dublin.  But as military leader, general, tactician, and head of the Confederate effort, James was an unmitigated disaster.

As we’ve already seen, he started in the worst possible way, when he gave up the capital to parliamentarian Michael Jones.   Perhaps that judgment has to be seen in the context of the bloody and chaotic events of the Ulster Rebellion, if one was being very generous to Ormonde.  Either way it was an appalling mistake.  To call it costly would be the understatement of the 17th century.  Ormonde was soon fighting alongside plenty of those “rebels”, and had to try to win back Dublin.  He failed.

His side lost several key battles.  First the Confederates, before they even allied with James’ Royalists, lost the Battle of  Duggan’s Hill in County Meath.  After the Confederates formed an alliance with the Royalists.

In January 1649 came shocking news from London.  Parliament had not only tried and convicted the imprisoned Charles I, they had executed him.  Some one hundred years before the French revolution, they cut off the head of an anointed sovereign, an unthinkable act that sent shock waves around Europe.  The Confederate/Royalist side in Ireland, now united under Ormonde, now immediately declared for his orphaned son,      (also Charles)  Both he and his younger brother James had been sent for safety with his younger to France.

The most costly defeat in this stage of the war was the battle of Baggotrath.   For readers who know Dublin, this took place, between modern day Rathmines and Baggot St Bridge, very near where I live, as it happens.  There was once a castle in the area, now long gone. see below.  An ugly red/brown brick office building now stands around this spot today, called Baggotrath House.   For years I passed it everyday, without being aware there was a castle, and a battle of that name here.

File:Baggotsrath Castle (Co. Dublin)

Ormonde’s planning, strategy and reparations for the battle were all woefully inadequate.  His forces were surprised, then outmaneuvered and ultimately routed.  Thousands of men were cut down in the retreat, which went on as far as Milltown, near present day UCD.   Apart from the horrific loss of life,  it was another body blow for the Confederate/Royalist cause.

This defeat was costly and demoralizing enough. But Ormonde’s failure to regain the port-capital in July 1649 would have even more dire long-term consequences for Ireland.

By this stage the royalists of England had lost the English Civil war. The victorious parliamentarians were now determined to compete the job in Ireland and (ominously) to revenge the victims of the Ulster rebellion. They sent over their leader and most fearsome commander to prosecute the war and bring the Irish to heel.  That commander was Oliver Cromwell.


Above: a rather unflattering, but probably highly accurate  portrait of Oliver Cromwell.  It is this very painting that gave birth to the phrase “warts and all”  When the artist asked Cromwell’s blessing for some “artistic licence”, the blunt hard general said,  “No, paint me as i am, warts and all”.  

With Dublin in Parliament’s hands, Cromwell had the main port in the country, and an easy, unopposed, access to the east coast of Ireland. He landed at Ringsend on 15 of August.  His New Model Army would pass “like a fire through the land”


Cromwellian Troops, the New Model Army in Ireland, at Dunbar.

Ormonde now put his faith in the rather passive strategy of holding the other fortified towns in the east of Ireland.  He hoped protracted sieges would waste English troops to cold, hunger and disease, or as Ormonde called them “Colonel Hunger and Major Sickness”.

Historically besieging troops did suffer from dysentery and other illness, and indeed it happened again, but in general Cromwell was well resourced, financed and highly organized, and had made enough provision for the army.  If you know your Irish history, even the words “well financed” will send a shudder down your spine.  Because not only does modern capital tend to triumph.  But the money which financed Cromwell’s army, often by the private backers known as “Adventurers”, would have to be repaid.  In general, it would be repaid in land, taken from the Irish inhabitants.

Cromwell soon marched his army north out of Dublin.   They headed to besiege the Royalist-held walled town of Drogheda.  His siege there, from the 3-11 of September 1649,  is one of the most notorious and controversial events in Irish history.

When the town fell most of the Royalist garrison were killed on his orders, alongside many priests.   Cromwell may not have hated ordinary Catholics, but he was a fierce and driven puritan zealot who loathed Catholicism, as he considered it idolatrous.  More relevant, he also considered priests directly responsible for the Ulster massacres of 1641, de facto combatants in the war.

Aside from priests, it is extremely hard to ascertain how many civilians Cromwell’s troops killed at Drogheda.Later 19th century accounts from the catholic, (later Nationalist) side may have greatly affected how this undoubtedly-awful event is seen today.  Many Irish people even believe the entire civilian population was put to the sword.  But some commentators, including a well known book by Tom Reilly, telling called “an Honourable Enemy”, published 1999, claim Cromwell and his army’s general conduct at the siege of Drogheda was well within the contemporary norms of 17th century siege warfare.

By the conventions of the day, and remember the brutal 30 years war had just swept across Europe with appalling massacres on and by both sides, this was not at all unusual.  By the conventions of the day, since the garrison refused offers to surrender, “on terms” they had no right or expectation of quarter.

Even when historians debate the issue, there is much disagreement about exactly what happened at Drogheda.   But the ferocity of the attack certainly frightened contemporaries, which was of course exactly the idea. Other formerly Confederate towns in the Northeast were now either evacuated or surrendered immediately.

File:Massacre at Drogheda

The undoubted killing of civilians at Wexford, soon after, understandably did little to help Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland.   Reilly incidentally also points out that Cromwell did not order the attack on Wexford either, it was caused by his soldiers running amok (although it is true that he did little afterwards to punish the atrocities)  Wexford, in the South East,  fell a month after Drogheda.   Next, New Ross, in the same region, put up an initial show of resistance but eventually had to be evacuated.   Cromwell was in the town of Youghal, East Cork, for the Christmas of 1649.

The following Spring, campaigning resumed and Cromwell attacked the city of Kilkenny which had been the home of the Confederate Parliament, and de facto capital of Ireland for 1642-43.  It fell now to Cromwell, in March 1650.   He now pushed west into county Tipperary, taking the towns of Fathard, Clonmel and Cashel.  (below, image of the spectacular Rock of cashel, with its ancient Bishops palace on the hill) 


Things were going very badly for the Confederate side now.  The mighty Castle at Cahir, with its formidable defenses, (see below) and ideally situated on a river,  was surrendered without a shot being fired.


Arguably, Cromwell behaved “better” later in the campaign, with surrender agreements at places like Clonmel being honoured in full, even when the English had taken heavy casualties.


an image of the siege of Clonmel, painted by artist Graham Turner.  

Clonmel in fact, was a rare, perhaps one of the last examples of the Irish side giving Cromwell a bloddy nose.      It is true that the town fell in the end, but  the Irish, under Hugh Dubh O’Neill put up a spectacular and highly effective defense.  They repelled the attacks on the walls, inflicting up to 2000 casualties on the English.

Not only that, but even when the walls were finally breached by English artillery bombardment, and the town decided it had better negotiated for surrender while they still had the chance,  O’Neill still managed to “get one over”   on Crowell.   With the town’s mayor  surrendering on terms, Cromwell was fooled into thinking he was securing the surrender of hundreds of Irish troops inside as prisoners. In fact O’Neill’s men managed to slip away at night, across the river Suir,  to fight another day.  Cromwell was instead given entry to a town with civilians only.  Despite his rage at the deception, he at least still honoured the terms of the surrender and it is generally accepted that no civilians were harmed.

Nevertheless, for the vast majority of Irish people, Drogheda and Wexford are enough. Not to mention the land confiscations, indentured labour and forced exile to Barbados and Bermuda plantations that followed for thousands.   For most Irish Cromwell remains a detested hate figure, even a genocidist, a cruel, bigoted tyrant, with innocent Irish blood on his hands.

By this stage , the Confederates had decided they could just not afford to have the hapless Ormonde in command any longer. He departed for France, to the Stuart court-in-exile of the young, orphaned future Charles II.  What would have happened if experienced commanders like the O’Neills had been trusted earlier in the war is a matter for conjecture.   It is unlikely that the ultimate outcome would have been different but it seems likely  the English would have paid a much higher cost for their conquest.


Map showing Cromwell’s army’s route and campaign through Central and south Ireland.  Reproduced from the excellent Fame of Tipperary Group website 

Even before Ormonde’s departure, the Confederates council hardened in its catholic stance.  The Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Runcini started to have more sway.  To many protestant Royalists this was starting to look like a religious war, with them on the wrong side. In the chaos and banditry of Ireland of that time, returning to their farms was not an option.  One had to fight on one side or the other.  Many, but not all, changed sides, to join the parliamentarians.

From his arrival in August 1649 until May 1650 Cromwell campaigned round Ireland taking town after town.   In May word reached him that the Scots had declared for Charles II. Cromwell was ordered back to England to face this new threat.  He left to fight the Scots and handed over command of the army in Ireland to his son in law, Henry Ireton. (below)


Ireton fought around Ireland, leading expeditions to counter the Irish “Tories”  (irregular, Guerilla style fighters and bandits) who harassed his supply lines.  In June he was occupied with the North and a resurgence in Ulster fighting,  but in August he took Waterford i the South East.  Limerick was besieged in June but did not surrender until late October, the 27th, 1650.   (Limerick has astonishing and proud tradition of defending sieges.  They were to fight two more at the end of the century, the subject of a future post)

Galway was the last major town to fall, in November that same year.

Ireton  also took the momentous, indeed horrific decision to destroy crops and farmland, to deny feed and forage to the enemy.

Remarkably, people today still focus on Cromwell’s sieges of Drogheda and Wexford.  At Wexford a few hundred civilians were killed, at Drogheda some almost certainly were, and perhaps many, and over half the garrison were undoubtedly slaughtered.   But Ireton’s decision led to famine in the Irish countryside on a huge scale and suffering and death of a completely different magnitude.  That famine certainly cost the lives of tens, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.   In fact, some plausible, credible estimates suggest that up to a third of the Irish population died.  We don’t have an accurate census records, but that could even mean up to half a million.  Overwhelmingly the victims were non-combatants.  Hardly any died from a sword or a musket but from hunger and hunger related illness.  The vast majority perished long after Cromwell had departed.

Ireton died of fever on campaign in 1651, just after he took the city of Limerick. His body was returned to England.  At this stage however, the Cromwellian/Parliamentarian conquest of Ireland was more or less a fait accompli 

However, what was it all for?   In Ireland,  the victorious Parliamentarian side now embarked on a massive programme of land redistribution, confiscating estates from the losers in the war and giving it to the winners,  including Cromwell and Ireton’s soldiers, and those who had provided financial backing for the war back in England.   Few of these land confiscations would be reversed.   So in Ireland the effects would be long-lasting and profound.

But in England?  The English Commonwealth, a Republic in all but name that filled the interregnum, between the reigns of Charles I and the Restoration of his son Charles II, lasted just 11 years in total.

During that time the Puritans banned dice, restricted taverns and closed the theatres, which they considered dens of vice and inequity.  They even, more or less literally, banned Christmas, (that is to say, they forbade feasting, forbade decorations and forbade taking the day off as a holiday)

The death of the Lord protector, Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658 looked set to continue with the rule of his son Richard.  But Richard did not enjoy the same power base, the same massive authority or prestige his father had.   People understandably had begun to weary of the joyless Puritan world.  Then a Scottish general Monck, marched on London and forced the parliament to hold elections.   Results were evenly spilt between roundheads and royalists. Negotiations were entered into with Charles II to restore the monarchy.


In 1660 in the Declaration  of Breda, and later through legislation wonderfully named The Act of Indemnity and Oblivion, Charles II agreed to respect the safety and lands of most of his father’s former enemies. There were a few key exceptions specifically excluded from forgiveness.   As you might expect, the main exceptions were those who had directed the death of his father and/or  signed the death warrant,around 50 people in total. .  Some of these  people, were now already dead, or else were now deemed expendable.  Many of the remainder, those who were tipped off in time, grabbed what they could and fled for their lives.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II ruthlessly punished those he could catch.    Only one was pardoned,.  Of the others, around thirteen, who could be caught, all were tried, tortured and executed.

Among those signatories of his fathers death warrant who were already dead, including Cromwell himself,  Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw,  even death was no escape.  They were disinterred, dug up. Bizarrely,  their copses were now ritually “tried”.  You will not be surprised to hear they received a guilty verdict.  The bodies were now hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the traditional fate for traitors throughout English history.  (“Drawn incidentally means ritually mutilated by disembowelment, having the entrails “drawn” out. not “stretched”)


above:  a contemporary depiction of the bizarre posthumous “execution”  of Oliver Cromwell’s dead body.  

After this grotesque ritual, Cromwell’s mangled, decapitated body was then thrown into a commoners’ pit.   His head was mounted on a spike, where it stayed for nearly 25 years,  until blown down in a storm.

In the meanwhile Ireland had lost up to a third of its population to war causalities, mass-exile, mass-dispossession, the destruction of homes and farmland  and the resultant  famine and  hunger related disease. (Almost certainly in that in that (steeply) ascending order)

Incredibly, this would happen again, in the space less than fifty years.   Such was the 17th century in Ireland, an era soaked in suffering and blood.


11 thoughts on “Post 5- Confederates and Cromwell.

  1. So unfortunate that so many eras of Irish history have been punctuated with war casualties, mass dispossession, land destruction, famine and disease. It certainly wouldn’t have been to Charles II’s benefit to reverse the Irish policies put in place by Charles I or Cromwell, even though life returned to “normal” after the 1660 restoration. This is great stuff, Arran–I hadn’t read much about the military campaigns in Ireland during Cromwell’s reign, so this was very interesting to me. I wonder if O’Neill et al weren’t entrusted earlier, lest the Irish commanders take up arms against their Royalist allies?

    Hope you had a Merry Christmas, best wishes for a happy new year to you as well!


    1. Many thanks MW for your generous comments as always. Yes, you are right on all scores, Irish history from the late 15th to the mid-19th century (some would say the mid-20th century) often seems, alas, to be more or less a catalogue of tragedy and suffering. Of course there is far more to it than that, it also produced some great people, some extraordinary literature and so on, but for sure the general picture is not good and is doted with misfortunes and sadness of various kinds.
      More specifically, your insight about the O’Neills and mistrust among the Royalist v Gaels in the broader, (post-1647) Confederate coalition is also spot on: I believe the Protestants in the coalition were indeed fearful of their Gaelic allies as you say, (and possibly just greedy too, vis a vis a post war land settlement) and those same fractures and lack of trust meant the woud-be allies would definitely loose the war.
      Thanks again, finally, for some excellent proof reading (:)) , Charles I was of course executed 1649 and correction duly made. A very happy new year to you also; hope you and yours have a safe, prosperous and very happy 2013. best of luck, all through this year. – Arran.


  2. Dare I say that I think it a myth well established unfortunately, that Cromwell banned Christmas (although you do not directly mention him) it was the elected parliament, which in the 1640s, clamped down on the celebration of Christmas because they did not like the ‘Mass’ bit, they were the real culprits.
    A bit like the idea he banned alcohol, if you read his comments on the the subject of banning things, he thought that banning anything put it underground and so, less controllable.
    Is it possible that the famine was an unforeseen circumstance of “lets use absolute war” as Carl von Clausewitz puts it. It would seem that although tragic, a couple of massacres would subdue the rest of the country; it certainly seems to have.
    A good read …. 🙂



    1. If you look again above David, its not so much that I don’t “name him directly”. It’s more like I just don’t at all say, (no, nor even imply!) that “Cromwell banned Christmas” What i wrote was reasonably clear and specific (and as far as i know, accurate?) … “During that time, the Puritans banned dice, restricted taverns and closed the theatres, which they considered dens of vice and inequity. They even, more or less literally, banned Christmas, (that is to say, they forbade feasting, forbade decorations and forbade taking the day off as a holiday)… ”

      And, if Cromwell himself (and you seem a fan) thought that prohibition was counter-productive, well, then he was a clever boy. Clearly, history has proved him right on that score, not that the politicians seem capable of absorbing this lesson!

      Delighted you seem to enjoy the piece however. Many thanks for all your comments today.
      best regards


      1. Arran,
        I think I should read your posts with more care – you do have a lot that needs thought and concentration. So apologies if I misinterpreted that section of it (A Guinness or two would soon put all right I am sure, which if you didn’t know, is cheaper here than UK))
        I am not complaining 🙂 it has been a pleasure finding your site.
        As for being a fan of Cromwell; not really, no more than other people in history who seems to constantly get a bad press.



  3. Hi Arran, I came across this post researching my family history. You mention a Cardinal Runcini. Do you have any references for this? Thanks very much Filippo Runcini


  4. Hi Filippo,
    thanks for your inquiry. I am afraid I made a mistake with the spelling of the name of the Papal Nuncio here in the 1640s. His name was spelt “Rinuccini” – which is of course slightly different to how you spell your family surname today. On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible that in the last 200 -300 years, somebody in your family has changed the way they spell it (the name). And if that’s the case then of course it would still be possible he could be from the same family as yours.

    You ask about a source, this looks reasonably authoritative…
    “Rinuccini, Giovanni Battista, Archbishop of Fermo, who acted a prominent part in Ireland between the years 1645 and 1649, was born at Rome, 15th September 1592. In 1645 he was sent by Pope Innocent X. as Nuncio to the Confederate Catholics in arms in Ireland. The main object of his embassy was to secure the free exercise of the Catholic religion in Ireland. The 14th section of his instructions reads: “Let him promote the interests of the Catholic religion in such a manner as to show he considers it one with the English crown, and hold firmly to the principle that at no time could he wish its yoke to be thrown off, nor ever hearken to propositions which tend to the contrary.”

    His retinue consisted of twenty-six Italians, several Irish officers, and his secretary, Belling. Leaving Rome in April, he spent some time in Paris, where lie in vain sought an interview with Queen Henrietta. At Rochelle he bought the frigate San Pietro, freighted her with military stores, and embarked with his retinue. He had drawn on the Pope for 150,658 dollars, while Cardinal Barberini advanced 10,000 crowns, and Cardinal Mazarin 25,000 dollars. Having narrowly escaped capture by Parliamentary cruisers, he landed in Kenmare Bay, 22nd October 1645, and celebrated Mass in a shepherd’s hut. The Supreme Council sent troops to escort him to Kilkenny, which he entered in state on the 13th November…. ” etc, etc..
    To see more Filippo, please go to But you could also try finding the history book “Modern Ireland, 1600-1971” by R.E Foster, which is a very well-known, widely respected work of history here. I’ve just checked the index of it, and there are 6-7 references to Giovanni Battista Rinuccini within the Index of names (index, on p685)
    Good luck, with all your family research. and very best wishes
    -Arran Henderson.


    1. Hello Arran, thanks for your thorough reply! It is a fascinating story. I will do some more digging into Rinuccini as it seems my family is the only one with the Runcini name so it has likely been changed over the centuries. All the best. Filippo

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