Opinion: ‘Cromwell was Framed’

cromwell was framedTom Reilly argues that Oliver Cromwell did not, as folk memory has it, slaughter the inhabitants of Drogheda in 1649. (See also Cromwell Storms Drogheda and for wider Context, the Eleven Years’ War, a brief Overview)

On the morning before Oliver Cromwell swung his legs out of bed to travel to Ireland, the notion of besieging the town of Drogheda – the event that would later become the biggest blot on his career – would never have even occurred to him.

That’s because Drogheda was under roundhead control that day as it had been for the lengthy duration of two whole years previously. He could simply have strolled through any of the gates of the walled town any time that day and he would have been greeted with a barrage of deferential good morning sirs.

On 11 July 1649 the town of Drogheda was captured by the royalists under Lord Inchiquin and wrested from the hands of Parliament, who had been in military occupation since the summer of 1647. It was parliamentarian soldiers who would later be accused of committing civilian atrocities at Drogheda, yet it was parliamentarian soldiers who had lived peaceably, side by side with these very same inhabitants for two long years beforehand, with no recorded evidence of discord between the military and civilian occupants whatsoever.

The Parliamentarian garrison of Drogheda from 1647 to 49 had no recorded discord with the townspeople

Indeed, there is even some evidence to suggest that Cromwell’s attacking forces at Drogheda included members of roundhead regiments who had fraternised with the local populace for those two years previously. Cromwell, who would not have been aware of the royalist victory at Drogheda the previous day, left London for Ireland on 12 July 1649 to crush royalist resistance there.

A ‘virtually indestructible’ myth

A depiction of the assault on Drogheda 1649.
A depiction of the assault on Drogheda 1649.

But that’s not what the history books will tell you – especially Irish history books. In Irish history it is much more difficult than in the story of most other countries to reverse traditional views, and although there have been many investigators of this period at first hand, few have concluded that Cromwell was not a war criminal.

The idea that the massacre of the unarmed civilian populations of both Drogheda and Wexford by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army did indeed take place has survived through the centuries almost perfectly intact. Indeed, it is so well constructed that it is virtually indestructible. The years bristle with the names of erudite academics who have studied Cromwell’s Irish campaign and who have produced hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

Even the most ardent Cromwell enthusiasts who have studied the period forensically have conceded that large-scale massacres of defenceless civilians occurred in September (Drogheda) and October (Wexford) 1649. Done deal. Case closed. The result of their labour is captured in short sound bytes in both past and present Irish school textbooks.

Irish school textbooks tell students that Cromwell massacred 3,000 civilians at Drogheda.

In 2004, Folens published Earthlink 5th Class. On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’ The Educational Company of Ireland released Timeline in 2008. A paragraph on page 223 reads, ‘He [Cromwell] first laid siege to Drogheda. He was determined to make an example of the town. When he captured it he slaughtered the entire population.’ There is no ambiguity there.

Such is his murderous Irish legacy, Cromwell features in a modern-day cult card game called Terror Top Chumps, a ‘politically charged version’ of the children’s card game Top Trumps (created by Fear Trade Ltd.) alongside Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden; a total of thirty-two terrorists and dictators in all – and has a body count of 600,000 attributed to him. Not by coincidence, this figure has often been used as the entire number of people who died due to famine, pestilence and war during the Cromwellian period in Ireland.

What evidence is there for a massacre of civilians?

A 19th century depiction of the sack of Drogheda, showing Cromwell observing the massacre of civilians.
A 19th century depiction of the sack of Drogheda, showing Cromwell observing the massacre of civilians.

When discussing the horrific events at Drogheda in 1649, one of the ‘go to’ sources for many is the (second hand) account of the parliamentarian soldier Thomas á Wood, who fought at Drogheda and therefore could be (and often has been) described as an eyewitness.

Wood reputedly tells us that children were used ‘as a buckler of defence’ by the attackers and he describes the gruesome killing of a young local girl, whom he tried to save but one of his crazed colleagues stabbed her through ‘her belly or fundament whereupon Mr Wood seeing her gasping, took away her money, jewels &c., and flung her down over the works.’

Although some have determined that Wood’s tract is melodramatic hyperbole it has generally been used in a primary source context coming directly from an eyewitness. This is a mistake. Now for the first time the stories of Thomas á Wood, which were transcribed decades later by his brother Anthony, (rendering it non-eyewitness testimony) in the context of fireside stories with which he regaled his ‘brethren’ can be revealed as unequivocally untrustworthy. The source is normally cited loosely as The Life of Anthony á Wood from the year 1632 to 1672 written by himself.

One of the most graphic accounts of a massacre of civilians, as opposed to Royalist troops, was published 123 years after the siege of 1649.

New evidence now clearly shows that this book was first compiled (not published) in 1711 by a Doctor Thomas Tanner, 16 years after Anthony á Wood died and 62 years after Drogheda. Most significantly however, is the fact that it might easily have been influenced by the hands of others and it did not see the light of day until 1772, when a Thomas Hearne edited and published it – that’s 123 years after the events!

Anthony á Wood, a staunch royalist, who was always suspected of being a Catholic had his life’s historical works published after his death in various publications, and all with different editors (including the Rev Sir J Peshall 1773, John Gutch 1786, Phillip Bliss 1813, Andrew Clark 1889), some of which included the story of his life, which in turn contains the account of his brother Thomas at Drogheda. Wood’s biography was not in fact published by himself in the literal sense, but was transcribed by editor Hearne in 1772 from pocket diaries, documents and manuscripts that Wood left to Dr. Tanner, among others, on his deathbed.

This is not exactly what you would call an authentic primary source directly from an eyewitness. Diminishing the credibility of the source even further is the fact that Colonel Henry Ingoldsby, Thomas á Wood’s commanding officer described Thomas as having ‘an art of merriment called buffooning.’ Just the type of soldier, as Samuel Rawson Gardiner has suggested, who might make up sensational stories to impress a fireside audience.

It is important to analyse Anthony á Wood’s commentary because his is the only account that gives details of civilian deaths at Drogheda, using his brother’s lurid stories, if they even were his brother’s own lurid stories.

Cromwell’s actual words

Oliver Cromwell, a hate figure in Irish popular memory.
Oliver Cromwell, a hate figure in Irish popular memory.

In stark contrast to what the Wood brothers purportedly say are the actual words of Oliver Cromwell. As soon as he landed in Ireland he issued orders to his troops not to do ‘any wrong or violence to any person, not in arms or office with the enemy.’ In the main, commentators on this topic throughout history tend to assume that Cromwell just ignored the fact that many of his troops simply disregarded this order and lost their self-control at Drogheda, as indeed did their commanding officer himself. But the evidence does not support this point of view.

In his declaration to the Catholic clergy in the winter of 1649, after Drogheda and Wexford Cromwell categorically denies that he has stepped outside the military domain, and on no less than ten occasions he emphasises that the ordinary unarmed people of Ireland are to be left unmolested.

On several occasions throughout his life Cromwell shows his abhorrence of indiscriminate civilian massacres when he hears of them.

On one occasion he even denies that he has actually killed unarmed civilians and he is consistent in this respectful attitude to the civilian population in all of his documented utterances throughout his entire campaign in Ireland. On his approach to Drogheda he even had two of his men hanged for stealing hens from an old woman, a clear breach of his orders.

On several occasions throughout his life Cromwell shows his abhorrence of indiscriminate civilian massacres when he hears of them. In Ireland he unequivocally blames the Catholic clergy for the 1641 massacres of innocent Protestant settlers and outlines his revulsion of such behaviour in no uncertain terms in the above mentioned declaration.

Also in May 1655 as Lord Protector he is clearly horrified when he learns of the massacre by the troops of the Catholic duke of Savoy, of some 200-300 Protestants known as Waldensians who lived in the adjoining isolated Alpine valleys in Piedmont to the west of Turin.

There is ample evidence from throughout his life that Cromwell’s moral threshold was high and even in this narrow context of an appreciation of his character, a massacre of unarmed blacksmiths, cobblers, innkeepers, their wives, daughters, babies and toddlers at either Drogheda or Wexford at his hands does not accord with his personality and now given these fresh insights seems ludicrous in the extreme.

Those who promote Cromwell as a war criminal perpetuate the idea that he simply lost his moral compass in Ireland and returned to his old self on his return to England. This is not an inaccurate portrayal.

So where then did the allegations of civilian atrocities come from?

Did Cromwell report that he had killed ‘many inhabitants’ of Drogheda?

Much store has been put into the letters (or military despatches) that Cromwell sent back to his superiors in London from both Drogheda and Wexford that outline the events at both towns in detail. In the opinion of many the letter concerning Drogheda in particular has incriminated Cromwell, where he is alleged to have admitted that he killed ‘many inhabitants’ in that town in a list of the slain that appears in the official pamphlet that was printed by parliament on 2 October 1649 to officially announce the news of the fall of Drogheda.

In the pamphlet Letters from Ireland relating the Several great successes it hath pleased God to give unto the Parliament’s forces there, in the taking of Drogheda, Trym [Trim], Dundalk, Carlingford and the Nury [Newry]. Together with a list of the chief commanders, and the number of the officers and soldiers slain in Drogheda this list appears at the end of Cromwell’s letter, the last line of which reads, ‘Two thousand Five hundred Foot Soldiers, besides Staff Officers, Chyrurgeons, &c and many inhabitants.’

The phrase ‘and many inhabitants’ comes from reprints of Cromwell’s report of the action at Drogheda, not the original.

For the first time in 365 years this official government document has now been analysed forensically (by me) in conjunction with the newsbooks (newspapers) of the day that also carried the exact same list of those killed. And for the first time ever it can be almost categorically said (inasmuch anything from that period can) that the three words ‘and many inhabitants’ were NOT the words of Cromwell himself.

Up to now, most early modern historians have deemed these lists (There is also a list of the composition of the garrison.) in Letters from Ireland… to have been from the quill of Old Ironsides himself. (The original letter does not survive.) But this writer’s analysis proves that the published list of those slain at Drogheda was in separate circulation to Cromwell’s letter and that it was published in no less than seven newsbooks in early October 1649 in isolation, without Cromwell’s letters directly preceding it.

Furthermore, none of the newsbook writers attribute the list to Cromwell himself. It can also be shown that of the seven publications that printed the list of the slain, only two include the phrase ‘and many inhabitants’. Most significantly, this list of the slain can now be shown to have been in circulation on 22 September, TEN days before Cromwell’s letter was even opened in parliament. It can further be shown that the pamphlet was printed in haste and that these two lists were simply slotted into the available spaces on the 16-page leaflet with clear demarcation lines to separate the lists from Cromwell’s letters.

Of course, the caveat here is that these ‘many inhabitants’ may well have been armed and involved in the conflict, a scenario that is perfectly plausible since The Moderate Intelligencer of 6 September says of Drogheda that ‘every man in that kingdom fit to bear arms is in a posture of war.’ This is another inconvenient fact that is now being brought to general public attention for the first time ever and that gets in the way of the tales of indiscriminate massacres of unarmed civilians. After all, an armed civilian is no longer a civilian.

Seventeenth-century historians rightly generally disregard (or at least view with acute suspicion) the later accounts of post-Restoration writers who, when writing their memoirs, documented their accounts about this issue years afterwards (like Bulstrode Whitelocke, the Earl of Clarendon, Dr George Bate, and the officer in the regiment of Sir John Clotworthy). None of these individuals were at either Drogheda or Wexford, they were not qualified to comment, had axes to grind and all allege that Cromwell engaged in deliberate civilian massacres.

The most pragmatic way to approach the question of the origin of the deliberate civilian atrocity allegations is to separate the wheat from the chaff and identify the primary sources themselves, those that date from the year 1649 and were written in the weeks and months following the sackings of Drogheda and Wexford. These 1649 sources are well-known and mostly comprise the newsbooks of the day, the letters of those in command of the royalist army (Lord Ormond and Lord Inchiquin) and one or two private letters.

It may therefore occasion surprise for one to learn that in the eleven intervening years between the stormings of both Drogheda and Wexford and the Restoration there are just TWO contemporary accounts that allege Cromwell slaughtered the lawyers, merchants, servants, farmers, doctors, carpenters, washerwomen, widows, teenagers and children of Drogheda and Wexford.

Wharton and Crouch – the men who framed Cromwell

That being the case, it is not such a wild leap of faith to identify these two individuals as the ones who instigated the civilian massacre stories – or alternatively to identify them as the ones who framed Oliver Cromwell. Sir George Wharton and John Crouch were royalist propagandists who spewed out their radical anti-government newsbooks Mercurius Elencticus and The Man in the Moon respectively on a weekly basis. Both Wharton and Crouch have been described by many early modern print experts as the purveyors of little news but lots of outlandish absurdity.

After the Royalist Restoration in 1660, Cromwell’s reputation was systematically besmirched by Royalist partisans Wharton and Crouch.

Any analysis of any of their publications will reveal their penchant for lies, slander, slurs, calumny and character assassination, including crass sexual innuendo directed at Cromwell himself and his high profile parliamentary bosses. Indeed, in his edition of 7 November 1649 John Crouch decides to spread a rumour that Cromwell’s penis was shot off at Drogheda and goes into some explicit and gaudy details as to how this might affect Mrs Cromwell.

For eleven long years no other document, that we know, of accuses Cromwell of civilian atrocities. There the matter should really have ended. Indeed, it is worth speculating that if the House of Cromwell, in the guise of his son Richard in the first instance, the second Lord Protector, had survived into the 1660s and beyond it is likely that both Crouch’s and Wharton’s outrageous publications would have been long cast to the mists of time.

Instead, of course, the Restoration happened when Charles II restored his royal seat on the throne and it wasn’t long before his father’s killers became the victims of vengeful royalist wrath. Not long after the bodies of Cromwell, his parliamentarian compatriot John Bradshaw and son-in-law Henry Ireton were exhumed and defiled as the chief protagonists of the failed republic, people couldn’t get to the printing presses quickly enough to destroy their reputations.

The royalist James Heath was one of the first out of the traps when he published his scurrilous Flagellum, The Life and Death, Birth, Burial of O Cromwell, the Late Usurper in 1660 where the author alleges that Cromwell himself ordered the massacre of 300 women around the market cross in Wexford. Indeed, Heath further alleges that those troops he ordered to carry out the dastardly deed refused and Cromwell, sneering them for their refusal, called another group of soldiers up to complete the task. Few historians take anything Heath says seriously.

The Catholic clergy in the 1660s claimed that 4,000 civilians had been massacred at Drogheda while Royalist partisans wrote that Cromwell had ordered the killing of 300 women at Wexford.

Interestingly, Heath doesn’t even mention the deaths of any inhabitants of Drogheda in his heavily biased narrative. That particular privilege is left to the Catholic clergy in Ireland, who join in the post-Restoration Cromwell bashing free-for-all and now ludicrously declared that 4,000 civilians had died in Drogheda without a scrap of primary source evidence.

Naturally 4,000 dead civilians at Drogheda makes no sense whatsoever, since the population of the town was approximately 3,000 and we already know that upwards of 3,000 soldiers were slaughtered. No other source, credible or otherwise suggests for a moment that 7,000 souls lost their lives at Drogheda. Furthermore, this same body politic of Catholic clergy had already had their say about Drogheda and Wexford in their decrees from Clonmacnoise in the winter of 1649, when there is no mention of this assertion whatsoever. And the difference in the timing? Cromwell was still alive and well, still in Ireland, and he would have dismissed such claims out of hand in the strongest possible terms, one imagines, with any talk of a restoration at that point aeons away.

Among the many other fresh revelations that this writer has discovered is evidence from several different sources that suggest the civilian population of Drogheda were not even in the town by the time the 12,000 Roundheads sat down in front of the walls. For instance, there was a siege of Drogheda just eight years earlier when the Irish rebels, under the command of Sir Phelim O’Neill surrounded the entire town and reduced the population to eating rats and horses. It is difficult to believe that they would stay put to have a similar culinary experience so soon afterwards.

Furthermore, Ormond was expecting a long siege and ordered all ‘superfluous’ people to depart from the town in order that the provisions (a reported nine-month supply) stored there would stretch among the soldiers over the several months they expected the siege to last. Dean Nicholas Bernard, the Protestant minister at St Peter’s Church in Drogheda in 1649, and an eyewitness, confirms that his family were sent out of the town. Bernard, who saw what happened that day and wrote a detailed account of it later, says nothing of civilian deaths.

Many inhabitants of Drogheda had already left the town before the start of the assault in September 1649.

There is no doubt that some women died in Wexford as a result of them cramming into boats and the boats sinking in the harbour in an attempt to flee the place. But they clearly died as the result of an accident and not because of a deliberate policy to kill the innocent by the New Model.

Also into this anti-Interregnum maelstrom of vengeance came the petition of the people of Wexford, who were pleading to Charles II for the restoration of their properties following the Cromwellian Plantation. Remarkably the petition writers seem to have chosen to grossly exaggerate Cromwell’s actions in Ireland in order to receive clemency from their new king. In their petition they claim that after entering Wexford, Cromwell ‘put man, woman and child, to a very few’ to the sword, again a scenario that has no supporting contemporary evidence or eyewitness attestation.

In the same petition the writers allege that Cromwell ‘put all of the inhabitants and soldiers’ of Drogheda to the sword, an allegation that simply does not stand up since nobody who was there on that fateful day corroborates this contention. This significantly reduces the credibility of the petitioners’ sycophantic petition, which Charles II ultimately ignored anyway.


The evidence now being revealed by this writer simply hones in on whether or not Cromwell was responsible for deliberately killing large numbers of innocent, unarmed civilians in Ireland in the year 1649. Some may have died in the cross-fire, as the result of collateral damage, others definitely drowned by accident.

Cromwell’s legacy is complicated by the subsequent war and plantation that devastated Ireland but the question remains, was he guilty of massacres during his campaign of 1649-50 in Ireland or not?

The subsequent dreadful Cromwellian Plantation that devastated Catholic Ireland is another matter altogether and should not cloud one’s judgement when discussing these alleged war crimes. Were large numbers of innocent civilians deliberately massacred? Did Cromwell do it, or did he not? Should we still be teaching children that Cromwell indiscriminately slaughtered entire town populations? As President of the Cromwell Association, Prof John Morrill has recently announced, ‘Paradoxically, by blaming Cromwell for the much more lasting horrors of the Commonwealth period in Ireland, we let those really responsible off the hook.’

I, for one, as an Irish citizen and native of Drogheda would like to start the ball rolling and posthumously apologise to Oliver Cromwell and his family for staining his reputation. He was an honourable enemy and the victim of a huge miscarriage of historical justice. Cromwell was framed. Wharton and Crouch fitted him up.

 Tom Reilly is a historian and native of Drogheda. His previous book, ‘Cromwell an Honourable Enemy’ was published in 1999. His forthcoming book ‘Cromwell was Framed‘ will be published on August 29, 2014. 


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