Massacre of Drogheda under Oliver Cromwell

Dan Graves, MSL

Massacre of Drogheda under Oliver Cromwell

After the massacre, Oliver Cromwell declared to the English Parliament, "I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion [shedding] of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret."

Just what happened at Drogheda, Ireland on this day, September 11, 1649 is hard to pin down with certainty. Two groups stood to gain by issuing propaganda against Cromwell. The Irish hoped to inflame patriotic fervor by magnifying the event and certain Englishmen hoped to discredit Cromwell because they feared his growing power.

Parliament had sent the Protestant Cromwell into Catholic Ireland to subdue it and prevent Prince Charles from landing and preparing an invasion from the nearby Island (he used Scotland as his launch pad instead). Aware that previous armies had bogged down in Ireland, usually because of insufficient financing, Cromwell insisted on having the necessary money in hand before he sailed. That way he could pay for supplies as he needed them and not make enemies by robbing the common folk. Once in Ireland, he moved quickly, knowing that a drawn-out war favored the inhabitants, not the invaders.

The situation in Ireland was complex. The Irish were badly divided and several betrayed their own towns. They offered little effective resistance to Cromwell. In fact, he reduced opposition across most of the island within eight months, although subordinates required another decade to complete the work he had begun.

Drogheda was one of the first cities Cromwell faced. He offered fair terms and gave his men strict instructions against excessive violence. However, the situation fluctuated a good deal. As Drogheda's fortunes waned or waxed, the garrison alternately negotiated or stalled. Cromwell's troops broke through the wall before negotiations were complete (possibly with inside help) and rushed through the town, killing virtually everyone in the city. They set fire to St. Mary's church, burning alive those who had taken refuge in it and then butchered women hiding in the vaults below. Some accounts say they used Irish children as human shields and killed every priest, treating them like combatants, because they had encouraged the defenders. According to those tales, only thirty defenders survived and they were sold as slaves to Barbados. At least one of the English soldiers claimed that Cromwell himself ordered the slaughter.

Defenders of Cromwell say that not only did he not order the slaughter but that the massacre of the women never happened. Cromwell himself insisted (even before he left Ireland) that no one in arms was massacred, destroyed or banished. His statement fell short of denying that civilians were slaughtered. Tales of civilian massacres increased at the time of the restoration of the English throne when it was both politically correct and safe to say the worst things one could about the man who cut off the head of King Charles I.

Whatever the truth, Cromwell surely is to blame for not attempting to stop the massacre. By the brutal standards of the time, killing a defiant garrison was acceptable, but butchering civilians was not. By his own statement, it is clear Cromwell hoped that the events at Drogheda (and at Wexford a few days later) would shorten the war. At Wexford, his troops committed another massacre, although apparently without his approval. A priest writing over a century later claimed 300 women were slaughtered beside a cross at which they had taken refuge and seven friars were killed in the performance of their duty. Whether this is true or not, Cromwell considered the victory an unexpected providence and said he prayed that God would have all the glory.

The present religious troubles in Ireland were aggravated by the events at Drogheda and Wexford. British soldiers, for example, are called "Cromwell's lads." However, it would be unjust to leave the impression that Cromwell's campaign was the beginning of the Irish religious troubles. Eight years before Cromwell's invasion, for instance, Catholics slaughtered hundreds of Protestant civilians in Ulster and thousands more throughout Ireland.

Bibliography:

  1. Allen, John. One Hundred Great Lives. New York: Journal of Living, 1944.
  2. Coonan, Thomas L. The Irish Catholic Confederacy and the Puritan Revolution. New York: Columbia University, 1954.
  3. Copeland, Lewis. World's Greatest Speeches. New York: Book League of America, p. 147ff.
  4. "Cromwell." A History of the Irish Race. http://www.ireland.org/irl_hist/hist31.htm
  5. "Cromwell, Oliver." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  6. "Cromwell and the Drogheda Massacre." http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/beyond/factsheets/makhist/ makhist7_prog5c.shtml)
  7. "Cromwell Devastates Ireland." http://www.doyle.com.au/cromwell.htm
  8. Drinkwater, John. Oliver Cromwell. New York: George H. Doran, 1927.
  9. Hill, Christopher. God's Englishman; Oliver Cromwell and the English revolution. Harper and Row, 1970.
  10. Russell, Bertrand. Wisdom of the West. New York: Fawcett, 1964; p. 252.
  11. Smellie, Alexander. Men of the Covenant. Revell, 1903. Source of the image.

Last updated July, 2007.

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