Cromwell at Drogheda: Two Sceptical Threads

Cromwell as viewed by Ireland

Oliver Cromwell, like so many figures in Irish history, is very difficult to get an objective opinion on. The man is seen as a devil in human form by many even now, centuries after the events attributed to him took place. It is fair to say that no other English individual has become the poster-boy for Anglo-Irish division and hatred as much as the 17th century Parliamentarian leader.

Cromwell has his name attached to all kinds of deeds, but none more infamous perhaps then the Siege of Drogheda in 1649, when forces under his command captured the town after a short fight. What is infamous is the events after the town’s defences were breached: what happened there that day sealed Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland and may well have radically altered the course of Irish history.

But why talk about Cromwell here, and the Siege of Drogheda in particular? Because there are two main threads of scepticism surrounding the siege, that have provoked fierce debate both in academic circles and beyond. Today, I will discuss both of these, and offer my own thoughts and conclusions.

The Facts

First, some background. Cromwell was born in 1599, a member of the English middle class. Relatively unknown for the first 40 years of his life, he was elected a member of Parliament in 1628, becoming a “Roundhead”, a member of the Parliamentarian side, in the Civil Wars that engulfed England shortly after. A brilliant and well-regarded campaigner, he rose in power to command his own army, and became one of the main leaders of the Parliament side. His name was among those on Charles I death warrant in 1649. Shortly afterward he was chosen to lead an army to stamp out rebellion and Royalist forces operating in Ireland.

Ireland was still a hotbed of opposition to the Parliamentarian cause, following a Catholic led rebellion in 1641. Those “Confederate Catholics” and Royalist forces had allied, and provided a substantial threat to Cromwell and his cause. From his landing in Dublin on 15th August, Cromwell pursued an aggressive strategy against his foes, capturing town after town with assaults, with several, such as Drogheda, but also Wexford and Clonmel, being especially bloody. Cromwell departed Ireland in May 1650 to attend to threats from Scotland, but the commanders left after him finished his work, pacifying the island by 1653.

But we are discussing today just the Siege of Drogheda, which took place in September 1649. The military nature of the siege is straightforward and bares little study. Cromwell besieged it with 12’000 men under his own command, with 11 cannon to batter its walls. Cromwell offered the garrison their lives if they would surrender. They were 3’000 or so in number, under the command of Sir Arthur Aston, and they refused Cromwell’s terms. On the 11th September, a week after his initial arrival, Cromwell’s assaulting forces fought their way through one of two breaches made by his cannon. Around 150 of Cromwell’s men were killed in the assault. Having gotten inside the walls, the majority of the defending troops were killed. As Parliamentarian troops sacked the town, several groups of defenders attempted to hold out in internal strongholds, but all were overcome, either through force or offers of safe conduct, offers which do not seem to have been honoured afterward. Reports on matters of prisoners are very sketchy, but it seems likely only 200 at most were taken. During the ransack of the town a number of civilians were killed, the number being in dispute.

In Defence Of Cromwell

The siege has become a major point of anti-English sentiment in Irish history. Those who follow this viewpoint see Cromwell as a war criminal, who deliberately killed unarmed civilians due to religious convictions and in order to provoke terror in other Irish strongholds, all as part of a brutal English subjugation of the island, which set the scene for several centuries of British domination of Ireland. The siege has become wrapped up in nationalistic sentiments, which emphasise a narrative of foreign (Protestant) invaders oppressing and murdering Irish (Catholic) patriots, a version of history popularised by the Catholic Church.

The first thread of sceptical thinking regarding the siege is aimed at this viewpoint which, I think it is fair to say, has dominated Irish thoughts of Cromwell and the battle. I wish to examine a number of points which have gained more and more prominence in the last number of years as literature and academic debate about Cromwell has grown.

  • The allegiance/nationality of the defenders

Perhaps the most important point that goes ignored from the nationalistic narrative, that bears being especially emphasised, is that the defenders of Drogheda that day were, to a large extent, not Irish. They were English. The Siege of Drogheda was a fight between Englishmen that happened to take place on Irish soil and involve some Irish troops.

The allegiance of these men was not in any way to a free Ireland. Their allegiance was formerly to the executed King Charles I, and now his young son, the future Charles II. They were Royalist troops. Even the limited numbers of Irishmen present for the defence were supporters of the monarchy, and were not seeking to form an independent Ireland, free of Britain. At least half of the garrison was Protestant.

  • Rules of war

Speaking of the actual massacre, when it came to the defenders, the contemporary rules of war were very clear. Surrender was offered as an option before the siege began. That offer was rejected. “The ram had touched the wall”, as the Romans would have said. Once that offer was rejected, Aston’s men would either win or have their lives at the mercy of Cromwell.

All traditions of war at the time insured that accepting surrender after the breach was forced was solely up to the attacker and Cromwell was not in a generous mood. The Parliamentarians were certainly not blood thirsty maniacs: while many succumbed to the bloodlust that typically follows the successful assault of a fortress (for an even more infamous example, see the Siege of Badajoz in 1812), there were certainly plenty who tried to accept surrenders from defending troops, only for their mercy to be overruled by higher commanders, who could trace all of their orders back to Cromwell.

When it came to the actual military defenders of the town, as brutal as it may seem to 21st century sensibilities, Cromwell cannot be faulted. He was honourable enough within the confines of such military law, and it is undisputed that he would honour surrender terms from towns that capitulated before (and sometimes after) a siege started. Scenes like that in Drogheda had occurred over and over again in the fighting in England, with Aston’s side being just as “guilty” as the Parliamentarians. For example, from Trevor Royle’s Civil War, on the Royalist taking of Leicester in 1644:

“The street fighting continued until dawn. Most of it was a bloody hand-to-hand business in which quarter was rarely given and the garrison continued to resist long after they had any hope of beating off the invaders. This undoubtedly prompted the worst excesses: men who have been fired up by combat and seen their friends die are not usually given to displays of forgiveness come the cease-fire…Pyke’s soldiers surrendered and asked for quarter only to be killed in cold blood, women were raped and houses plundered…200 Scots (also) surrendered only to be rounded up and massacred.”

The Royalist defenders and Confederate Catholic soldiers were no strangers to massacre themselves, not after the 1641 rebellion and the war in England. Living by the sword, to say it bluntly, sometimes means dying by it as well.

Later in the Irish campaign, Cromwell would accept the conditional surrender of Clonmel after a bloody and failed attempt to storm a breach in the towns walls, showing that he was perfectly capable of compromise in regards to siege warfare, even after initial offers of clemency were rejected.

This is a common problem with modern study of centuries old controversies: the trend of examining such issues through the eyes of a modern morality, which does an injustice to the contemporary events. The descriptions of the deaths of the military defenders are gruesome enough, but that is not the discussion today.

  • Civilian deaths

Of course, unarmed civilians are a different quandary. The accounts coming out of Drogheda are mostly either second hand, or have a distinct suspicion of bias (it must come as no surprise that the most negative accounts come from Catholic clergy) and simply cannot be completely trusted to provide truthful remembrance of what happened.

It is the numbers issue that is truly sketchy. Cromwell, in his letters about the Siege, says only that “many inhabitants” of the town were killed and his later speeches to Parliament make little mention of civilian deaths, only those “under arms”, the future Lord Protector hazarding only rough estimations as to death toll. One of his officers, Hugh Peters, claimed that 3’552 were slain in total, but his reasoning and accounting methods are not recorded. When you subtract the total number of troops that Cromwell claimed were defending the town – around 2’800 – a civilian death toll of 700-800 can be estimated. Cromwell was far more concerned with recording the death toll of the military defenders, which he claimed was almost total.

Beyond that, everything is unreliable. Royalist newspapers claimed that civilians were killed in their thousands at Drogheda, while subsequent stories from the Catholic clergy in Ireland put it above 4’000.

It certainly does not help that there is no census data, not even a general estimation, on the total population of Drogheda before or after the siege. It was a good sized town, with several fortresses, that was supporting nearly 3’000 troops after all. But no numbers are available. For what it is worth, the contemporary merchant accounts record names of families that lived in the town before and after, and these are mostly the same, indicating that a wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants did not take place. But with the lack of solid numbers for the town’s population, we cannot know what proportion of the towns inhabitants were killed in 1649. Further, as local historian Tom Reilly points out, no graves of the dead have been discovered en masse, indicating that the dead were cremated in pyres. Another avenue of evidence is lost to us.

Those who popularised the narrative of slaughter were usually connected to the Church. Other accounts of slaughter and atrocity, such as the account of New Model Army soldier Thomas Wood (who, surprise surprise, is depicted as a virtuous hero in his own account, trying to save innocent virgins from his more blood-thirsty brothers-in-arms, those who were using live children as shields) are not much better: Wood was known as a chronic exaggerator, and some subsequent chroniclers have refused to use him as a source for this reason.

But certainly, some were killed. The account of a Protestant cleric, a Dean Bernard, is the only civilian one to have survived and indicates that Cromwell’s soldiers were firing indiscriminately into civilian homes, stopping only when they discovered that one house was filled with Protestants. This certainly indicates that the Parliamentarians were shooting unarmed civilians (civilians who carried arms were likely counted among the defenders proper) and were targeting Catholics especially.

It has been argued that civilians who shelter and aid soldiers in a time of war cannot be considered “untouchable”, especially in the time period we are discussing, when the slaughter of besieged towns was almost common in the Thirty Years War in Germany. This is a question of personal moral leanings of course. For myself, it seems plain that in the time period being discussed a line was drawn between soldier and civilian, even in siege conditions. The common man in Drogheda would have had little say in the running of the towns defence or the soldiers it admitted. Perhaps they could have left before the siege started, but few would be willing to abandon their homes.

Ultimately, it is impossible to know how many civilians were killed at Drogheda, a point I will expand upon in a moment. It is a crucial thing to note though, in all discussions: nobody knows for sure how many civilians were killed at Drogheda. No narrative of the battle, regardless of its source or nature, can know that for sure.

  • Cromwell’s brutality

Certainly, Cromwell did all that he could to promote the events as a righteous act, in his infamous words about the battle:

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future…

I will return to these words towards the end. But for now they do seem to indicate a man who was dedicated to imposing his will forcefully upon Ireland, and was more than willing to do so at the point of a sword. The famous picture of Cromwell riding casually by as his men butcher women and children is the kind of thing that was borne of this sentiment, but that is not to say that it can be relied upon.

Cromwell didn’t like the Irish, this is known. He saw his overall campaign in divinely mandated terms. But his hatred of Catholic Ireland, while having much to do with the actual religion, was also a result of the Catholic Church’s key role in the slaughter of Protestants in the 1641 rebellion, a rebellion that Cromwell was keen to avenge – that being the “innocent blood” he mentions above.

For all that, Cromwell could be a soft touch as well. His proclamations to the Irish people after his arrival were less fire and brimstone and more “hearts and minds”, promising his troops would not live off the land as they pleased and that soldiers who unnecessarily harmed the native population would be punished. This pronouncement gained Cromwell much support from locals in the Dublin area, albeit mostly Protestant support.

In condemnation of Cromwell

With all of that being said, we must now explore the second path of scepticism regarding Drogheda, which arises from attempts to defend Cromwell and his actions that day, which have gained more prominence recently, here and abroad. This goes beyond the simple fact regarding the rules of war and how Cromwell followed them (for the military defenders).

  • No civilians killed?

One of the more noted of these defenders is Tom Reilly, whose book Cromwell, an Honourable Enemy provoked much attention – and debate – when it was published. Reilly praises Cromwell and makes a number of claims about the Siege of Drogheda where he attempts to whiten the Parliamentarians reputation.

Reilly makes the claim that “not only was there no outright slaughter of the defenceless inhabitants…no evidence to substantiate the stories of the massacre of even one unarmed person”. Put simply, such a claim does huge damage to any other analysis that Reilly may make. The numbers of civilians killed at Drogheda is absolutely debatable, but what is beyond doubt is that some were killed. Nearly all primary accounts, Parliamentarian and Royalist, mention some civilian casualties. Perhaps we might struggle to condemn Cromwell in a court of law, but we must allow some common sense to prevail: the idea that no civilians were killed is laughable.

Cromwell had a reputation from the English fighting of letting his men plunder a breached town while he stayed outside, away from any such actions. This time however, he was noted as entering shortly after the breach was made, and being infuriated by the sight of his dead soldiers. He subsequently issued “no mercy” orders for those “under arms”. His actions are likely to have set a further fire under his men, who would have been difficult to control in the circumstances, which could easily have led to greater violence against civilians.

  • Notoriety of massacre

Such defenders ignore other realities. The “massacre” was certainly notorious very soon after it happened, indicating that something outside the norm happened there. In this, Cromwell played a part, with his infamous words “barbarous wretches” and “righteous judgement” openly claiming that his actions at Drogheda were meant to scare others.

The argument can be made that Cromwell was exaggerating. Certainly, he did not want to be in Ireland for too long, and he knew well the potent weapon that fear could be. To that end, it would be easy for Cromwell himself to emphasise and exaggerate the casualties at the Siege of Drogheda, and the conduct of his soldiers, in order to scare other enemy garrisons throughout the country. He wanted them to surrender, quickly. Certainly, civilians were killed at Drogheda, but it is not inconceivable that when faced with this fact, Cromwell decided to take what seemed like a potential propaganda nightmare and use it for his own ends, to terrorise the rest of the country, in his own words, “while the fear of God was upon them”. Such tactics are worthy of condemnation of their own, using the event of civilian deaths, ordered or unordered, as a psychological weapon regardless of how true the message was.

Moral? No. Successful? I would argue yes, considering the steady stream of towns and fortresses that did not offer the same amount of resistance that Drogheda had. Some, like Dundalk and Trim, saw their garrisons flee directly after the news from Drogheda reached them. And when that strategy did not appear to be working later in the campaign, Cromwell accepted surrenders from towns and cities, Clonmel being a notable example, that had resisted him. He was not fixated on slaughtering the Irish. He was fixated on victory, and could compromise with his enemies to get it.

That is not to say that Cromwell was not a very religiously motivated person. Certainly, he and his army viewed all of their actions as God driven and guided. But that does not mean that Cromwell was so one-dimensional as to view all of his exploits in that light, or not intelligent enough to use his reputation to get what he wanted (and to abandon that course when it wasn’t working).

  • Wexford

And those who seek to rehabilitate Cromwell tend to ignore events like the taking of Wexford, where the New Model Army certainly lost control, with Cromwell being just as guilty in preventing a massacre of inhabitants as his men. I take the time here to discuss Drogheda as it has become ingrained in the anti-Cromwell mindset in a special way, but Wexford deserves study and judgement of its own accord, a sack that Cromwell either allowed or didn’t do enough to stop while negotiations were ongoing with the towns commander.


It may appear that I have written a piece that is contradictory – defending and condemning Cromwell (I will admit to focusing more time on the defence, but with the excuse that there was more to be said on that thread)- but I come to my conclusion.

As in nearly all historical debates on events that happened well outside our lifetimes, the polarisation of accounts and opinions is evidence that one must seek the middle course. Allow me to indulge myself and offer some personal opinions on the Siege of Drogheda.

Cromwell’s optimum solution to the Drogheda problem was the surrender of the garrison before an attack was joined. That failed to come. Moreover, Cromwell knew that Royalist reinforcements could arrive quickly and upset the balance against him. So he threw his men into a costly attack, assaulting breaches with units dubbed “forlorn hopes” due to their high casualty rates.

Cromwell ordered the deaths of all enemy combatants, as the laws of war allowed him too. His soldiers, many enraged by the loss of life at the breaches, carried out these orders. Some tried to accept surrenders after the breach, but these were later countermanded.

Elements of Cromwell’s army ran amok in Drogheda after winning the town, firing into civilian homes, and certainly killing civilians. I do not believe that Cromwell purposefully ordered the killing of civilians, though I will accept that he is unlikely to have made much of an effort to stop it either.

The amount of civilians killed was significant enough to warrant attention, but was not as high as others make it out to be. The lack of primary sources, the lack of bodies, the same names on Merchant registers before and after the siege, the lack of census info, mean that an estimation of over a thousand civilian dead is hearsay, and less than 700 is more likely. It is within the realm of possibility that the figure is much lower, but this also cannot possibly be confirmed.

What proportion of the total townspeople this was is also, crucially to determining the correct use of the words “massacre”, unknown.

Cromwell knew that the civilian deaths would be turned into a propaganda campaign by his enemies and resolved to use it to his advantage. Thus inclined, he played up the siege and the death toll with religious language, in order to scare other garrisons into surrender and acquiescence. He focused primarily on actual armed defenders for this. The fact that, later in the Irish campaign, he began to accept surrenders after initial rejections shows that he was not committed to a “victory through terror” military operation.

Later, at Wexford, Cromwell lost control of his troops entirely and allowed a massacre to take place, without punishment in the aftermath, a much worse atrocity then Drogheda.

Much of this is simply guesswork and presumption of course, albeit based as much upon logic as I can muster.

Cromwell was a controversial man. A brilliant warrior, a devious politician, utterly determined when pursuing his aims on the field of battle or the Parliament floor. His actions in Ireland left a mark that will never be removed. But we would do better to judge our appraisal on the man and his actions using the reliable evidence that is available to us and a healthy dose of common sense, rejecting the conflicting biased narratives that have arisen since the mid 17th century. True history demands nothing else.



Cromwell letter to John Bradshaw

Cromwell letter to William Lenthall

Peters letter to William Lenthall

Wood’s account of the storming of Drogheda


“The Curse of Cromwell” in A History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol. II Part IV – Winston Churchill

The Civil Wars – John Keegan, Jane Ohlmeyer

Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences – John Morrill

God’s Executioner, Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland – Micheal O’ Siochru

Cromwell, an Honourable Enemy – Tom Reilly

Civil Wars – Trevor Royle

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Cromwell at Drogheda: Two Sceptical Threads

4 thoughts on “Cromwell at Drogheda: Two Sceptical Threads

  1. Miles says:

    It is I am not the sharpest.
    I have twice skimmed your well written article,and am impressed that you could write so much whilst missing the main historical impact of Cromwell.I understand that it is possible to study history in a university for four years and qualify as an expert in rubbishology due to no fault of the student other than listening to corrupted lecturers.I had the honour of attending UCD,about twenty years later the lights began to switch on and I threw my education into a mental shredder.

    I am not going to mention the main omission which is similar to discussing the crusades without mentioning the Pope or Islam.

    Slaves.White Slaves. Sent to the West Indies and the US.
    Hundreds of thousands of Scottish and Irish.
    Red Legs,fair skin burning in the sun,open sores oozing from the infections.
    The first slaves,until it was discovered that Blacks were more compliant and better suited to the sun.
    The torture and degradation inflicted because Papists were lower than Pagans.
    And finally the Puritan breeding programmes helpfully performed by the Settlers for the comely Celtic wenches.The child of a slave was a slave……
    It would help explain the lack of bones found around battle sites.

    The main point will “Shiver your timbers” but annoy you that it was never mentioned in your study and research.

  2. Thank you for commenting.

    “I have twice skimmed your well written article,and am impressed that you could write so much whilst missing the main historical impact of Cromwell.I understand that it is possible to study history in a university for four years and qualify as an expert in rubbishology due to no fault of the student other than listening to corrupted lecturers.I had the honour of attending UCD,about twenty years later the lights began to switch on and I threw my education into a mental shredder.”

    I, as you may expect, completely reject this. My lecturers, the Doctors and Professors I read and consulted, were not “corrupt”. It is an interesting accusation to make. Corrupted how? By who? For what purpose?

    “I am not going to mention the main omission which is similar to discussing the crusades without mentioning the Pope or Islam.”

    Since this would be like discussing Drogheda without mentioning Cromwell, I’d rather like it if you did “mention the main omission”.

    “Slaves.White Slaves. Sent to the West Indies and the US.
    Hundreds of thousands of Scottish and Irish.
    Red Legs,fair skin burning in the sun,open sores oozing from the infections.”

    I can only suppose you are using this kind of language in order to elicit an emotional response. I’m not interested. It isn’t what good historical study entails.

    “The first slaves,until it was discovered that Blacks were more compliant and better suited to the sun.”

    That’s factually incorrect. The slave trade in black African existed long before the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland, not to mention the enslavement of Caribbean natives.

    “The torture and degradation inflicted because Papists were lower than Pagans.”
    It is very arguable that Irish “slaves” were treated worse than black “slaves.”

    “And finally the Puritan breeding programmes helpfully performed by the Settlers for the comely Celtic wenches.The child of a slave was a slave……”


    “It would help explain the lack of bones found around battle sites.”

    Are you claiming that the remains of the defenders were “transported”? Aside from that assertion, I’m at a loss to understand what you mean here.

    “The main point will “Shiver your timbers” but annoy you that it was never mentioned in your study and research.”

    By all means, enlighten me. It’ll have to be a whopper, because every source I’ve cited will have missed it too.

    Unless, of course, you actually mean the slavery issue. Is that it? The transportation of Irish natives across the sea? If I didn’t mention it, it was only because it wasn’t relevant to the immediate study of Drogheda and the events that took place there in terms of determining the evidence of a massacre (that is, actual people killed that day), discussing the contemporary rules of war and Cromwell’s conduct during and immediately after the siege.

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