11 September 1649: The Massacre at Drogheda/ Droichead Átha on this day.[above]* It was carried out by the troops of Oliver Cromwell. The town was protected by a circuit of walls four to six feet wide and twenty feet high that were studded by a number of guard towers. Sir Arthur Aston (an Englishman) was the commander of the Royalist garrison and was convinced he could hold the town against the Parliamentary Army.
But Cromwell had shipped over to Ireland a siege train that was put to work against the walls and within days had made a breach wide enough for the besiegers to risk a storming. 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 defenders put up a spirited defense and cost their attackers dear. In a furious passion, Cromwell ordered that no quarter was to be given. Catholic priests and friars were treated as combatants and killed on sight and many civilians died in the carnage as the ‘Roundheads' ran amuck.
About 3,000 men of the Royalist garrison, both Irish and English soldiers were killed with the majority being put to the sword after they had laid down their weapons. The few hundred taken alive were shipped as slaves to Barbados. Aston was bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg, which the Parliamentarian soldiers believed to be filled with gold coins.
Cromwell wrote afterwards that:
"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 satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret."
For the Honourable William Lenthall, Speaker of the Parliament of England. Dublin, 17th September, 1649.
Some of the defenders of the town made it over the north wall that was deliberately left unguarded by Cromwell and made their way to safety. There they related the horrendous events that took place in Drogheda on that infamous day. Within weeks the Royalist pamphleteers were reporting on the terrible events in this Irish town and the massacre of the garrison and its inhabitants.
However while the numbers of defenders who were put to the sword is reasonably well established (circa 3,000) the numbers of inhabitants who died is a matter of conjecture. What though the fate of the civilians caught within the walls when the town fell? Perhaps hundreds of Catholic inhabitants were put to the sword when the town was taken - maybe more... Cromwell himself admitted that ‘many inhabitants’ died.
There is no doubt that by the conventions of War as then practised in the 17th century that the attackers had the right to destroy any caught in arms after the walls had been breached. On this occasion that ‘right' was carried out to the hilt. We know that at that time when a town was Stormed that it could be put to the Sack - usually of three days duration - and that all property and persons within were at the mercy of the troops. Sacking of towns and cities during the 30 Years War in Germany (1618-1648) most famously at Magdeburg in 1631 and indeed to some degree in the Civil Wars in Britain at that time showed what could happen once soldiers stormed a place.
There is no reason to expect that Cromwell’s men, fired up at seeing their companions fall in the taking of the place and filled with a deep desire for revenge against Irish Catholics over the events of 1641 would have behaved any better than to take, loot, kill and ravish what they considered the spoils of War.
*The view from the headquarters of Colonel John Hewson, in command of the attack on the eastern wall at the time of the second - and successful - assault on Drogheda. Gouache painting by Graham Turner