Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In Defense of Oliver Cromwell: Part 3: The Conquest of Ireland

Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Ireland was
in order to quell the Irish Catholic rebellion,
which resulted in the deaths of thousands
of innocent English settlers.
by Steve C. Halbrook

(posts in this series:
part 1part 2, part 3)

Many hate Oliver Cromwell because of his treatment of the Irish in his conquest of Ireland.  But we must consider the historical context.  In 1641, Irish Catholics, fearing English Puritanism would eradicate Catholicism in Ireland, rebelled.  They deprived English settlers of their cattle, ejected them from their homes, and even killed around three to five thousand outright.  Puritans in England were shocked by the news, which they received in exaggerated form.[1]

For example, a preacher declared at the House of Commons in 1645, "Behold, Scotland comes with her thousands of slain men; England with her ten thousands; Ireland with her millions."[2] How many Protestants were ultimately killed by the Irish, we are unsure; Merle D’Aubigne estimates between 50,000-200,000, when taking several different accounts into consideration.[3] A more contemporary historian holds that the generally agreed upon number of deaths is five thousand.[4] Any of these figures more than justified the use of force to quell the murderous Irish rampage.

(Due to either ignorance or an anti-Cromwell agenda, this rampage is either not mentioned or sugarcoated by some historical accounts. For instance, see this video and this video, as well as this article--none of which mentions the massacre. It's a lot easier to view Cromwell as a bloodthirsty conquerer and to sympathize with the Irish if the Irish atrocities are ignored. If historical accounts ignored Nazi Germany's atrocities, then it would be much easier to sympathize with Nazi Germany as well.) 

In 1649 Cromwell set out to stop the rebellion. One of his first actions was to lay siege to the Irish-controlled city of Drogheda.  He sent the commander, Sir Arthur Aston, the following message:
Having brought the army belonging to the Parliament of England before this place to reduce it to obedience to the end effusion of blood may be prevented I thought fit to summon you to deliver the same into my hands to their use.  If this be refused, you will have no cause to blame me.[5]
Cromwell thus made sure to replace the white flag with a red ensign before attacking.  “According to the rules of war, the defenders of a fortress who failed to surrender after a breach had been blown in had no claim to quarter.”[6]

Aston resisted even after Cromwell inflicted two large breaches on the south wall.  Eventually, Cromwell led a successful charge, and ordered the death of all enemy soldiers and armed townspeople.  As Cromwell told the President of the Council of State, “Being thus entered, we refused quarter; having the day before summoned the town.”  He did, however, spare most of the soldiers captured in wall towers the next day.[7]

On why the garrison received no quarter, Cromwell writes:  “Truly I believe this bitterness will save much effusion of blood,”; “It will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future.”  Did it work?  Yes, says the Marquis of Ormonde, in a letter to King Charles II: “It is not to be imagined how great the terror is that these successes and the power of the enemy has struck into these people.”  In Trim and Dundalk, Irish garrisons panicked, fleeing without their guns and stores.  The governor of Ross surrendered, and Wexford’s garrison lost its morale.[8]
War is relentless, and similar acts of calculated terror are to be found throughout modern history:  the siege of Munster in the Thirty Years War, the sack of Leicester by the Royalists, the devastation of the Palatinate by Turenne and of Bavaria by Marlborough, the “obliteration” bombing of British and German towns in the last war, and finally the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[9]  
Cromwell's putting two thousand
Irish to the sword in Drogheda was
not out of cruelty, as he believed
the defenders had much innocent
blood on their hands.
And unlike World War 2's allied bombings of German noncombatants and American bombings of Japanese noncombatants, at Drogheda, only combatants were targeted. As the historian Tom Reilly (a Drogheda native, interestingly), who meticulously researched Cromwell's Ireland campaign, writes about Drogheda: "So far we have no solid proof that any unarmed civilians had died at Cromwell's hands."[10]

MoreoverCromwell’s putting two thousand Irish to the sword in Drogheda was not out of cruelty.  The Irish soldiers were thought to have “imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.”[11]  Unfortunately, the reports about the Irish uprising were exaggerated, and it is possible that most of the troops executed were not, contrary to what Cromwell and his troops heard, involved in massacring English settlers.[12]

Although it's important to note that Cromwell was willing to spare the Irish; unfortunately, they stubbornly chose to fight Cromwell's army, even after being given a warning of no quarter. Moreover, Maurice Ashley writes, 
"It has been urged that, in fact, the bulk of the defenders of Drogheda could not be held responsible for the ill-treatment of the English settlers eight years earlier. On the other hand, the decision taken by the Protestant Marquis of Ormonde, on the instructions of King Charles I, to come to terms with the Irish Catholic leaders who had directed the revolt condoned the original rising and invited the Irish nationalists to repeat their guerrilla tactics with all the suffering that flowed from them. The Royalists [Cromwell's political enemies in England, ed.] were ready to use any methods, from the exploitation of Irish or Scottish nationalism to the hiring of assassins to murder republican agents, in order to win back their heritage in England. Honourable men like Aston or Sir Edmund Verney, who forfeited their lives at Drogheda, paid the price for their loyalty to an unscrupulous leadership."[13]    
The terror instilled by the execution of Irish combatants may have in the long run spared the unnecessary deaths of Cromwell's troops and innocent English settlers. On Drogheda, one writes that Cromwell “was probably the only man in the victorious army who imagined what had taken place needed any excuse at all.  When Monck’s storm of Dundee in 1651 was followed by a massacre, he said nothing in his own justification.”[14]

Cromwell’s steward John Maidstone observes, “He [Cromwell] was naturally compassionate towards objects in distress, even to an effeminate measure; though God had made him a heart, wherein was left little room for fear but what was due to Himself … yet he did exceed in tenderness towards sufferers.”[15]  And Erwin J. Urch writes, “By a radical opponent it was said of Cromwell, ‘he will weep, howl, and repent even while he smites you.’”[16]
Cromwell's conquest of Wexford, which occurred a month after Drogheda, is another Cromwell controversy. Again, Cromwell sent a summons, this time to the port of Wexford’s governor, Colonel David Sinnott.  He warned Sinnott that unless he surrendered, innocent deaths would be on his head.  Sinnott rejected the summons. But after the attack commenced, he lost his nerve and proposed very liberal surrender terms.  Cromwell refused the liberal terms, but was willing to spare the lives of the officers and soldiers.  Moreover, he would not plunder the town.  But Cromwell’s answer didn’t arrive in time; Captain Stafford, who served Sinnott, betrayed Wexford’s castle to the English Puritan soldiers.  The soldiers would subject the city to plunder and the sword.[17] 

A depiction of the aftermath of the St. Bartholomew's
Day Massacre, where French Catholics murdered
thousands of French Protestants. Similarly, the Irish
uprising, which provoked Cromwell's conquest of
Ireland, saw Irish Catholics murder thousands of
English Protestants. It was the Irish
St. Bartholomew.
Cromwell’s reasoning behind not intervening included Wexford's rejection of the first summons, as well as Wexford's role in the drowning of “seven or eight score poor Protestants,” and the starvation of others.  The situation also differed from Drogheda.  Here, “the Irish had not sought quarter, but determined to sell their lives dearly, and in trying to exact a toll from their foes had perished to the man.”[18]

But like Drogheda, there is no evidence that Cromwell had noncombatants killed. Again, we quote Tom Reilly: "It is still the case that no eyewitness gives details of either an indiscriminate slaughter or the death of even one unarmed defender."[19] This is harmonious with Cromwell's declaration just prior to his Irish campaign:      
"I do hereby warn ... all Officers, Soldiers and others under my command not to do any wrong or violence toward Country People or persons whatsoever, unless they be actually in arms or office with the enemy ... as they shall answer to the contrary at their utmost perils ..."[20]
All this notwithstanding, Cromwell's reputation has long been tainted by propaganda painting him as a merciless butcher. Reilly observes:
"[I]t remains a sad fact that the perception of the battles of Drogheda and Wexford in modern Ireland is riddled with historical inaccuracies. This is the result of the plethora of nineteenth century misconstructions of the events from the pens of bigoted writers and from the subsequently unbalanced Irish educational system of the 20th century."[21] 
"Ireland was no match for Oliver Cromwell, which is mainly why historically inaccurate judgments have been made about him. To put it another way, he is the subject of a colossal grudge held by one nation against its larger neighbor."[22]
Regardless of Cromwell’s actual and perceived faults in Ireland, even the most anti-Cromwell historians admit that Cromwell did more to benefit Ireland than any other statesman.  Following his campaign, Ireland had for the first time in many years greater public order and security; Connaught transformed from a “desert district” to a “fruitful country”; the land teemed with new buildings, plantations, inclosures, and “activity and confidence”; and Ireland revived in “peace, ease, and industry.”[23]  “There is,” writes D’ Aubigne, “no impropriety in applying the rule of Scripture to Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland: the tree is known by its fruit.”[24]

In closing, we must note that Cromwell's wartime conduct must be judged by the Bible, not simply by whether Cromwell or anyone else judged his actions to have been beneficial in the long run.  Although in light of what we have covered, we can safely say that Cromwell was far from a bloodthirsty warmonger bent on genocide--regardless of what his shortcomings may have been in regards to biblical principles.     

Having said that, we do find the actions of Cromwell and his army in 
Drogheda and Wexford to largely adhere to biblical principles of warfare. Consider Deuteronomy 20 (the principles of which, to our understanding, still applies today, cf. Matthew 5:17-20, 2 Timothy 3:16, 17):
When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)
Note the terms of peace, which Cromwell offered at both sieges; the putting of all males to the sword, and how Cromwell and his army, similarly, put combatants to the sword; and the authorization of plunder, which Cromwell's army engaged in at Wexford.

Given such conformity to biblical principles, we see no possible basis to the charge that Cromwell acted unjustly at Drogheda and Wexford, unless it can be established that Cromwell should not have been in Ireland to begin with. But given the massive bloodshed committed by the Irish--and the lingering possibility of more to come--we don't believe Cromwell had any choice in the matter. 

     [1] Maurice Ashley, The Greatness of Oliver Cromwell (London: Readers Union Hodder and Stoughton, 1959), 227.  
     [2] Peter Sterry, on November 25, 1645; published as The Spirits Conviction of Sinne (1645), 15. Cited in Robert S. Paul, The Lord Protector: Religion and Politics in the Life of Oliver Cromwell (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 208.
     [3] Merle D’Aubigne, The Protector: A Vindication (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1983), 102.
     [4] Tom Reilly, Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy: The Untold Story of the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland (Ireland: Brandon, 1999), 20.
     [5] Ashley, 230.
     [6] Ibid.
     [7] Ibid., 230, 231.
     [8] Ibid., 231.
     [9] Ibid.
     [10] Reilly, Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy, 85.
     [11] Ashley, 233.  Ashley on Cromwell’s view of the Irish: “Ingrained in his mind was the belief that the Irish were savages who during the sixteen-forties had spilled seas of innocent blood.  To him also they were the servants of Antichrist, the victims of proud and grasping prelates, far removed from the apostolic brethren of primitive times.  ‘Your covenant,’ he told the Catholic clergy, ‘is with death and hell.’  The Irish, he claimed, had ‘barbarously massacred’ the English, who had ‘lived peaceably and honestly’ among them, and in days of peace and prosperity had broken the union and campaigned for men of blood” (pp. 238, 239).
     [12] Ashley, 233.
     [13] Ibid.
     [14] S. R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate (1901), 138, note 3. Cited in Ashley, 232.
     [15] Thurloe State Papers, I, 766. Cited in Ashley, 232.
     [16] Erwin J. Urch, Scaling the Centuries (Boston, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1939), 482.
     [17] Ashley, 234, 235.
     [18] Ibid., 235.
     [19] Reilly, Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy, 187.
      [20] Cited in Ibid., 51.
     [21] Ibid., 3.
     [22] Ibid., 198.
     [23] D’ Aubigne, The Protector: A Vindication,111.
     [24] Ibid.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector: Part 3

Hear entire series

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