After his spectacular victory at the battle of Rathmines, Colonel Michael Jones, the Parliamentarian governor of Dublin, led a force of 4,700 men and four field guns in an immediate attack on Drogheda in County Louth. Situated twenty-five miles north of Dublin at the mouth of the River Boyne, Drogheda was a key strategic strongpoint guarding the most direct route from Dublin into Ulster. Jones hoped to intimidate the Royalist governor of Drogheda into surrendering the town rather than facing a siege, but the Marquis of Ormondalso recognised its importance and took steps to secure the garrison.
After Rathmines, Ormond had retreated to Kilkenny where he regrouped the survivors of the battle and began to rebuild his shattered forces. When he learned of the threat to Drogheda, Ormond advanced to Tecroghan from where he was better placed to threaten Jones’ supply lines from Dublin. Ormond sent one of his most reliable officers, Colonel Thomas Armstrong, to take over the governorship of Drogheda. After Armstrong rejected the summons to surrender, Colonel Jones fell back to Dublin. He did not have enough forces either to besiege or storm the town and was concerned over Ormond’s advance to Tecroghan. Following the Parliamentarians’ withdrawal, Ormond entered Drogheda and reinforced the garrison with some of his best troops, including his own regiment under the command of Sir Edmund Verney. The veteran Sir Arthur Aston was appointed governor of Drogheda while Ormond returned to Tecroghan to continue his attempts to recruit a new field army.
Meanwhile, Commonwealth plans for the invasion of Ireland were coming to fruition. Army unrest over the government’s terms led to the Leveller mutinies, which were suppressed by Fairfax and Cromwell during the spring of 1649. In June, Parliament formally appointedOliver Cromwell lord-lieutenant of Ireland and commander-in-chief of the army to be sent there. Throughout July and early August, Cromwell made meticulous preparations for the expedition. A condition of his acceptance of command was that his troops should be fully paid and properly equipped. Parliament authorised the sale of former crown and church property in order to clear arrears of pay in the army then raised taxes and borrowed from the City to finance the expedition.
Cromwell sailed for Dublin with a fleet of thirty-five ships and arrived on 15 August 1649. His son-in-law, Commissary-General Henry Ireton sailed with a second force for Munster where it was hoped that Protestant officers would declare for Parliament and open one of the Munster seaports to the invaders. However, Ormond had sent Lord Inchiquin to secure the province and guard against defections. After sailing up and down the Munster coast for several days, Ireton joined Cromwell at Dublin on 23 August.
The Parliamentarian expeditionary force comprised 12,000 veterans of the New Model Army (8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry) and a formidable artillery train. Colonel Jones commanded another 7,000 troops in Dublin, including four New Model regiments already sent as reinforcements to Dublin. Cromwell re-organised the Dublin garrison, combining several small regiments into regular-sized regiments of 1,000 men each and dismissing a number of ill-disciplined soldiers. In his capacity as Lord-Lieutenant, Cromwell issued a proclamation announcing that military discipline would be enforced; in future there would be no plundering of civilians; all food and supplies would be paid for. By these measures Cromwell hoped to win the support of the civilian population of Ireland, which had suffered eight years of war and depredation.
After the re-organisation of the army, Cromwell and the newly-promoted Lieutenant-General Michael Jones mustered their forces in two reviews on the meadows outside Dublin. Eight regiments of infantry and six of cavalry were selected for a new assault on Drogheda. On 31 August, Jones led the advance guard from Dublin and Cromwell followed with the main body the next day. The Parliamentarian army arrived on the south side of Drogheda on 3 September. As the army marched north, a Parliamentarian fleet under the command of Sir George Ayscueescorted transport ships carrying the artillery train and supplies. Ayscue’s fleet sailed up the River Boyne to unload the siege guns before Drogheda around 5 September. Two artillery batteries were set up over the next few days.
The fall of Drogheda, 11 September 1649
Drogheda was one of the best-fortified towns in Ireland. The main part of the town was north of the River Boyne, with a smaller district to the south. The two districts were connected by a drawbridge across the river. The town was protected by a circuit of walls four to six feet wide and twenty feet high that were punctuated by a number of guard towers. Sir Arthur Astonboasted that anyone who could take Drogheda could capture Hell itself. The Marquis of Ormond hoped that Aston would gain time for the Royalists by a prolonged defence that would weaken the Parliamentarian army through disease and attrition. Cromwell was also aware of this possibility and wasted no time in deploying his siege guns to blast breaches in the walls in preparation for storming the town. A summons to surrender was issued on 10 September, which Aston rejected.
The Parliamentarian batteries were situated on the south side of Drogheda. The first battery was aimed at the southern wall between the Duleek Gate and St Mary’s Church, whose tower was used as an observation post by the Royalists. The second battery was placed to the east of St Mary’s to fire across a ravine which ran along the eastern wall. The batteries were placed so that the breaches they made would allow the two columns of assault troops to converge in the south-eastern corner of the town and mutually support one another once they had gained entry. Aston ordered the construction of additional defensive earthworks when he realised where Cromwell intended to concentrate his fire.
The bombardment began as soon as Aston had rejected Cromwell’s summons. By noon on 11 September, the heavy siege guns had blasted breaches in the southern and eastern walls and demolished the steeple of St Mary’s Church. Around five o’clock that evening, Cromwell ordered the storming to begin. The regiments of Colonel Castle and Colonel Ewer attacked the southern breach while Colonel Hewson‘s regiment crossed the ravine and attacked in the east.
Hewson’s men met with fierce resistance at the eastern breach. Their first assault was thrown back and they began to retreat back down the ravine. However, the regiments of Colonel Venables and Colonel Phayre came up in support and the Parliamentarians succeeded in forcing their way into the town. The assault on the southern breach met with similar resistance and faltered when Colonel Castle was shot in the head and killed during a Royalist counter-attack. Cromwell himself moved into the breach to rally the wavering Parliamentarians. When the Royalist commander Colonel Wall was killed, the defenders lost heart and fell back as the Parliamentarians poured through the breaches and overran the Royalist entrenchments. Sir Arthur Aston and about three hundred of his men fell back on Mill Mount, an artificial mound that was the motte of a long-demolished twelfth century castle. In a furious passion, Cromwell ordered that no quarter was to be given. Mill Mount was protected by a bank and ditch and a timber palisade but these defences were soon broken down and the Royalists put to the sword. Aston was bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg, which the Parliamentarian soldiers believed to be filled with gold coins. The rest of the garrison fled across the Boyne into the northern part of the town, pursued closely by Colonel Venables’ troops who prevented the Royalists from raising the drawbridge behind them.
By late evening, up to 6,000 Parliamentarians were in the town overwhelming all resistance and slaughtering officers and soldiers. A cavalry screen outside the walls prevented escape to the north. Catholic priests and friars were treated as combatants and killed on sight. Many civilians died in the carnage. A group of defenders who had barricaded themselves in the steeple of St Peter’s Church in the north of Drogheda were burned alive when the Parliamentarians set fire to the church. Around 2,000 people died in the storming and massacre of Drogheda; a number of prisoners who surrendered before Cromwell gave the order for no quarter were murdered in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison captured the following day were transported to Barbados. Parliamentarian losses were around 150.
According to the conventions of 17th century warfare, a besieged city that refused a summons to surrender and was then taken by storm could expect no mercy. Cromwell regarded the massacre at Drogheda as a righteous judgment on the Catholics who had slaughtered Protestant settlers in the Irish Uprising of 1641, a view that was probably shared by most Protestants at the time. He also considered that the example of Drogheda would serve as a warning to other garrisons in Ireland to surrender rather than risk a similar fate, thus preventing bloodshed in the long run. However, the massacre of Drogheda left an indelible stain on Cromwell’s reputation. It has lived on in Irish folk memory, making his name into one of the most hated in Irish history.
After the fall of Drogheda, the Royalists abandoned the garrisons of Trim and Dundalk without a fight. Cromwell sent three regiments under Colonel Venables north to join forces with Sir Charles Coote in Ulster while he returned to Dublin with the main body of his army and prepared to advance into the Confederate heartlands of southern Ireland.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i, (London 1903)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer, (Stroud 1987)
Kenyon & Ohlmeyer (eds), The Civil Wars, a military history of England, Scotland & Ireland 1638-60, (Oxford 1998)
James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland, (New York 1999)
The Irish Story article by John Dorney on the Drogheda massacre in the wider context of Irish history.