Oliver Cromwell in Ireland (Classroom Activity)

Oliver Cromwell was asked by Parliament to take control of Ireland. The country had caused serious problems for English generals in the past so Cromwell was careful to make painstaking preparations before he left. Cromwell ensured that the wage arrears of his army were paid, and that he was guaranteed sufficient financial provision by parliament. On 15th August 1649, Cromwell arrived in Ireland and took control of an army of 12,000 men.

Cromwell, like nearly all Puritans "had been inflamed against the Irish Catholics by the true and false allegations of the atrocities which they had committed against English Protestants settlers during the Irish Catholic rebellion of 1641." He wrote at the time that "all the world knows their barbarism". Even the philosopher, Francis Bacon, and the poet John Milton, who "believed passionately in liberty and human dignity", shared the view that "the Irish were culturally so inferior that their subordination was natural and necessary."

Cromwell's first action on reaching Ireland was to forbid any plunder or pillage - an order that could not have been enforced with an unpaid army. Two men were hanged for plundering to convince the soldiers he was serious about this order. To control Dublin's northern approaches Cromwell needed to take the port of Drogheda. Once in his hands he could feel confident of controlling the whole of the northern route from Dublin to Londonderry. On 3rd September, around 12,000 men and supporting vessels had arrived outside the town. Surrounding the whole town was a massive wall, 22 feet high and 6 feet thick.

Sir Arthur Aston, who had been fighting for the royalists during the English Civil War, was the governor of Drogheda. On 10th September, Cromwell advised Aston to surrender. Cromwell had four times as many men as Aston and was better supplied with weapons, stores and equipment. Cromwell's proposal was rejected and the garrison opened fire with what weapons they had. Cromwell's reply was to attack the city wall and by nightfall two breaches had been made. The following day Cromwell led his soldiers into Drogheda.

Aston and some 300 soldiers climbed Mill Mount. Cromwell's troops surrounded the men and it was usually the custom to allow them to surrender. However, Cromwell gave the order to kill them all. Aston's head was beaten in with his own wooden leg. Cromwell instructed his men to kill all the soldiers in the town. About eighty men had taken refuge in St Peter's Church. It was set on fire and all the men were killed. All the priests that were captured were also slaughtered.

Parliament had told Cromwell that they were unwilling to pay for a long war. He was told to take control of the large estates owned by Catholics and to sell or rent it to Protestants. This money was to be used to pay his soldiers. Cromwell decided that the best way to bring a quick end to the war was to carry out another massacre. After an eight days' siege at Wexford, around 1,800 troops, priests and civilians were butchered.

Hugh Peter, a chaplain to the Parliamentary army and a passionate anti-Catholic, was with Cromwell in Ireland. He reported that the town was now available for English Protestant colonists to settle. "It is a fine spot for some godly congregation, where house and land wait for inhabitants and occupiers."

During the next few years of bloodshed it is estimated that about a third of the population was either killed or died of starvation. The majority of Roman Catholics who owned land had it taken away from them and were removed to the barren province of Connacht. Catholic boys and girls were shipped to Barbados and sold to the planters as slaves. The land taken from the Catholics by Cromwell was given to the Protestant soldiers who had taken part in the campaign. Before the rebellion in 1641, Catholics owned 59% of the land in Ireland. By the time Cromwell left in 1650 the proportion had shrunk to 22%.

Primary Sources

Oliver Cromwell
(Source 1) Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (1656)
© National Portrait Gallery


(Source 2) Oliver Cromwell, speech to the people of Dublin after his arrival in Ireland (16th August, 1649)

God has brought us here in safety... We are here to carry on the great work against the barbarous and blood-thirsty Irish... to propagate the Gospel of Christ and the establishment of truth... and to restore this nation to its former happiness and tranquility.

(Source 3) Oliver Cromwell, letter sent to Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Drogheda (10th September, 1649)

I have brought the army belonging to the Parliament of England to this place, to reduce it to obedience... if you surrender you will avoid the loss of blood... If you refuse... you will have no cause to blame me.

Oliver Cromwell in Ireland (1650)
(Source 4) Oliver Cromwell in Ireland (1650)


(Source 5) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988)

Aston himself with some 300 soldiers climbed Mill Mount. It had been erected for defence and there is no reason to believe that they did not intend to carry on the fight. Cromwell's soldiers followed, breaking down the defences of the Mound and offering quarter, as was customary, to all who surrendered. But Cromwell was incensed. The heat of battle was upon him. The ferocity of the fighting that had gone before, the dearly bought victory paid for in the blood of his own men, was not to be challenged by a few hundred Catholics on Mill Mount. He gave the order to kill them all. His command was carried out. Aston's head was beaten in with his own wooden leg which was thought to contain his money. Even this was not enough. Cromwell and his men followed the rest of the defending army across the river and into the northern section of the town slaying, on Cromwell's command, all who were in arms. About eighty men had taken refuge in St Peter's church at the top of the northern hill. On Cromwell's orders the wooden pews were dragged beneath the steeple and set on fire to burn them out. No one escaped... From the whole engagement there were few prisoners, and these were sent as slaves to the Barbadoes. Every priest in the town was killed. Even civilians perished, though immune by the rules of war.

Oliver Cromwell in Drogheda
(Source 6) Oliver Cromwell in Drogheda

(Source 7) Oliver Cromwell, letter sent to William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House of Commons (September, 1649)

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 of blood for the future, which are the satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret...

Every tenth man of the soldiers were killed and the rest sent to the Barbados... I think we put to the sword altogether about 2,000 men... about 100 of them fled to St Peter's Church... they asked for mercy, I refused... I ordered St Peter's Church to be set on fire.

Oliver Cromwell in Drogheda
(Source 8) Engraving of Oliver Cromwell's attack on Drogheda (c. 1650)

(Source 9) Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970)

The massacre at Drogheda was followed by another at Wexford, which had long been a thorn in the side of English traders as a privateering centre. Again the town refused to surrender, and after an eight days' siege it was sacked. Anything from 1,500 to 2,000 troops, priests and civilians were butchered. Since the inhabitants were dead or fled, Cromwell reported, the town was available for English to settle.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Give one possible reason why Sir Arthur Aston did not surrender to Oliver Cromwell on 10th September, 1649.

Question 2: Study source 2. Why, according to Cromwell, had he brought his army to Ireland?

Question 3: Select sources from this unit that provide information on: (i) the weapons and tactics Cromwell used in Ireland; (ii) Cromwell's religious beliefs.

Question 4: Why do some historians believe that Oliver Cromwell was a "war criminal"?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.