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Massacre at Drogheda
Droghedamarker, a town in eastern Irelandmarker, was besieged twice in the 1640s, during the Irish Confederate Wars and the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The first siege occurred during the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when Phelim O'Neill and the insurgents failed to take the town. The second and more famous siege happened in 1649, during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, when the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell took the town by storm and massacred its garrison, and many civilians.

The first siege (1641–1642)

After their victory over government troops at battle of Julianstown, an Irish rebel force under Phelim O'Neill laid siege to Drogheda in December 1641. The rebels, who were mostly from Ulster and about 6000 strong,did not have siege artillery (or indeed any artillery) to breach the walls of Drogheda and so blockaded the town, hoping to starve it into surrender. Drogheda was garrisoned by about 2,000 Englishmarker soldiers under Colonel Tichborne.

The rebels tried three assaults on the town. On the first occasion they simply tried to rush the walls. In their second attempt, a small party of 500 men broke into the town at night through dilapidated sections of the walls, with the aim of opening the gates for a storming party of 700 men outside. However, the initial incursion was repulsed in confused fighting and in the morning, the garrison opened the gates to rebels outside, only to take them prisoner once they entered the town. The rebels tried for a final time in March 1642, when a relief of the town was imminent, attacking the walls with scaling ladders, but were again repulsed. Shortly afterwards, English reinforcements arrived from Dublin, under Colonel Moore. They broke the rebel siege and also drove them out of Dundalkmarker and back into Ulster.

Cromwell's siege (1649)

Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland in August 1649, to re-conquer the country on behalf of the English Parliament. Drogheda was by this time garrisoned by an English Royalist regiment under Arthur Aston and Irish Confederatemarker troops – a total strength of about 3100 (roughly half of them English the other half Irish). Cromwell had around 18,000 men, of whom 12,000 were brought to Drogheda, and eleven heavy, 48-pounder, siege artillery pieces.

Cromwell became known in the English Civil War as an excellent soldier, particularly as a commander of cavalry, but he had little expertise in siege warfare. Rather than go through the lengthy process of blockading a fortified place into surrender, which in any case was not an option because he could not afford to get stuck at Drogheda, he preferred the more risky but quicker option of assault. He positioned his forces on the south side of the river Boynemarker, in order to concentrate them for the assault and because he was not worried about whether supplies would enter the town from the north. In addition a squadron of Parliamentarian ships blockaded the harbour of the town.

On Monday 10 September Cromwell had a letter delivered to the governor, the English Royalist, Sir Arthur Aston which read:

The contemporary laws of war were clear that if surrender was refused and a garrison was taken by an assault, then the lives of its defenders would be forfeit, as Cromwell's letter strongly implies .

Aston refused to surrender so Cromwell opened the bombardment. His cannon battered two large breaches in the town's medieval walls from long range and on the 11 September 1649, Cromwell ordered the assault. Two Parliamentarian attacks were repulsed before Cromwell's men fought their way into the town.

As the Royalists had refused to surrender Cromwell, in his own words, "In the heat of the action, forbade them [his soldiers] to spare any that were in arms in the town" . The garrison was massacred as were any Catholic clergy found within the town.

After breaking into the town, the New Model soldiers pursued the defenders through the streets, killing them as they ran. A group of defenders had barricaded themselves in Millmount Fort, overlooking the town's eastern gate held out while the rest of the town was being sacked. They negotiated a surrender, but were then disarmed and killed. Another group of soldiers in St Peter's church (at the northern end of Drogheda) were burned to death when some Parliamentarian soldiers led by John Hewson set fire to the Church. Arthur Aston, the Royalist commander, was, reportedly, beaten to death with his own wooden leg, which the New Model Army soldiers thought had gold hidden in it. Richard Talbot, the future Jacobite Duke of Tyrconnell was one of the few members of the garrison to survive the sack. Only 150 Parliamentarians were killed in the attack. The few Royalists who survived were deported to Barbadosmarker. Cromwell wrote : "I do not think 30 of their whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in safe custody in the Barbadosmarker." Though Colonel John Hewson wrote "those in the towers being about 200, did yield to the Generals mercy, where most of them have their lives and be sent to Barbados.” The 200 taken prisoner tallies with Royalist estimates. It is alleged in some accounts that as few as 700 civilians died in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Drogheda, though other accounts put this figure higher .

Debates over Cromwell's actions

This massacre became infamous in Ireland and, alongside Cromwell's subsequent Sack of Wexford, remains so today.

Cromwell justified the massacre at Drogheda in two ways. Firstly, he argued that it was, "the righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands with so much innocent blood". In other words , his actions were justified in reprisal for the Irish massacre of English and Scottish Protestants in 1641. This was not a convincing argument however, as Drogheda had never fallen to the Irish rebels in 1641, or the forces of Confederate Irelandmarker in the years that followed. The first Irish Catholic troops to be admitted to Drogheda arrived in 1649, as part of the alliance between the Irish Confederates and English Royalists. Drogheda had therefore never been held by those thought to be responsible for the massacre of Protestant civilians.

Secondly, he argued that such severity would discourage future resistance and save further loss of life. Cromwell's motivation was above all that he could not afford to have his army waste away in endless sieges and waste time. This may have worked up to a point, as towns like New Rossmarker, Carlowmarker and Kilkennymarker subsequently surrendered on terms when besieged by Cromwellian forces. Moreover, the Royalist commander, Ormonde wrote of the terrifying effect that Cromwell's army had on those under his command and how it was with difficulty that he could get them to act in their defence. On the other hand, such towns as Waterfordmarker, Duncannonmarker, Clonmelmarker, Limerickmarker and Galwaymarker surrendered only after determined resistance, indicating that the terror Cromwell employed at Drogheda was not wholly effective in cowing Royalist morale.

Cromwell himself denied that his troops had killed civilians at Drogheda, but only those "in arms" . Several recent analyses by historians have claimed that Cromwell’s orders were not exceptionally cruel by the standards of the day, which were that a fortified town that refused an offer of surrender, and was subsequently taken by assault, was not entitled to quarter. Tom Reilly, a local historian, has taken this a stage further, by also claiming that there was no evidence that unarmed civilians were killed on the streets of Drogheda - and that the stories of a massacre were the result of many years of unsubstantiated accounts from Royalists and later Irish Catholic clergy and Nationalists. But most professional historians accept that at least some of the town's civilians died in the sacking of Drogheda. A book review by Eugene Coyle in the magazine History Ireland dismisses Reilly's argument:

Historian Ian Genitles records in his book, the New Model Army that, "According to official estimates there were 3100 soldiers in the town, of whom 2,800 were killed, as well as many inhabitants and every friar that could be found. The final toll may thus have been... 3,500 soldiers, civilians and clergy".


  1. Tom Reilly Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy ISBN 0-86322-250-1


  • Mckeiver Philip, " A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign" Advance Press, Manchester, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9554663-0-4
  • Tom Reilly, Cromwell – an Honourable Enemy, Dingle 1999, ISBN 0863222501

Further reading

  • Gentles, Ian. The New Model Army, Cambridge 1994, ISBN 0631193472
  • Keegan, John & Ohlmeyer, Jane (editors). The Civil Wars, Oxford 1998. ISBN 019866222X
  • Lenihan, Padraig. Confederate Catholics at War, Cork 2001, ISBN 1859182445
  • Scott Wheeler, James. Cromwell in Ireland, Dublin 1999, ISBN 9780717128846
  • Hill, Christopher. God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, New York 1970. ISBN 061316660

See also

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