6.4 Oliver Cromwell's Reputation
How many Irish were killed at the Siege of Drogheda and Sack of Wexford in 1649?
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Oliver Cromwell is possibly the most controversial figure in British history. People have had strong opinions about him throughout history – from the good, the bad, to the very ugly – meaning that his character is shrouded in mystery. Can our gang get to the bottom of it?
This lesson contains:
- The chronology of Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power in the English Civil War, his actions in Ireland, and the demise of his reputation with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
- The complexity of analysing Cromwell’s actions, amid such contrasting accounts, and exploring how historians have reached such different interpretations and conclusions.
- An opportunity to practice valuable historical skills, such as analysing source materials for different biases and reliability, and considering the importance of historical context.
Who was Oliver Cromwell?
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was a prominent English military and political leader during the 17th century. He is best known for his role in the English Civil War. Cromwell was a key figure among the Parliamentarians and became the commander of the New Model Army, a disciplined and effective military force that played a decisive role in the war.
After the Civil War, he served as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth in the republican government that temporarily replaced the monarchy, effectively ruling England as a dictator until his death in 1658.
Why did Cromwell want to re-conquest Ireland in 1649?
In 1641, there was a rebellion in Ireland by Irish Catholic rebels in Ulster as a result of tensions between Irish Catholics and Protestant English settlers. As a result, the English Parliament sent troops to Ireland which caused a series of conflicts lasting for many years.
Cromwell’s actions in Ireland continue to be a subject of historical debate and controversy, with some seeing him as a ruthless oppressor and others as a military leader fulfilling his political and religious goals.
How has Cromwell’s reputation changed over time?
After Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the monarchy, Cromwell was declared a traitor. His body was dug up and posthumously executed and his head put on a spike.
During the 19th century, Cromwell’s reputation started to become more positive, as his foreign policy influenced Victorian imperial expansion and his role in opposing tyranny was emphasised. In the 20th century, however, with the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, Cromwell was described as a “proto-fascist”.
|Hello, you’re through to the office of History Bombs
Investigates? Oh my god, we’ve been hearing so much
about this guy!
Yes... yes... okay, I’ll pass that right on. No, thank you sir.
Hey boss, that’s another one. Everyone’s talking about
this guy, Oliver Cromwell.
|Thank you René. Okay people, look lively. The phones are
lighting up. I got these people in England, they’re telling
me this guy is the best thing since sliced bread, they’ve
got a statue of him outside the Houses of Parliament
in London. He’s got more streets named after him than
anyone except Queen Victoria, alright!
And over in Ireland you can’t say his name without it
being some kind of a curse. They call him a snake, they
call him a murderer, they say he massacred Irish women
and children. Archie, what gives?
|Well, he wasn’t always that popular in England, boss.
After he died his body was dug up and his head put
on a spike, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the
Victorians decided to turn him into a national hero.
|Okay, okay, I get it, people’s reputations change over the
years, as history proceeds. But I’ve got an Irish school
book here that says that he killed women and children by
locking them in a church and burning it to the ground at
Drogheda in 1649!
|We’ve got to be careful here. Some pretty sensational
stories have been passed down over the years, like
the one about Cromwell’s soldiers beating to death Sir
Arthur Ashton with his own wooden leg. They’ve almost
become part of Irish Catholic folklore. But we need to
focus on the facts and the hard evidence.
|Okay, so what actually happened? What does the
evidence tell us?
|At Wexford and Drogheda it is true there were civilian
deaths - Irish priests record that 4,000 townspeople,
mostly Catholics, were killed. They called it ‘unparalleled
savagery beyond any slaughterhouse’.
|Woah, hang on! This was Irish priests that wrote this?
They were Catholics. They’re exaggerating everything to
drum up support for the Irish.
|Not always, but it is worth looking at other accounts, like
perhaps Cromwell’s army. Even Officer Hugh Peters puts
the number of civilian deaths between 700 and 800, and
he was one of Cromwell’s own men.
|That’s a little more reliable. But it’s still only one point of
view, I need more. Get me more!
|There was a Protestant cleric, Dean Bernard who
said that Cromwell’s soldiers went from town to town
shooting at the Catholic residents, whether they were
armed or not.
|A Protestant huh? Just like Cromwell. Well, he had no
obvious reason to lie... I think we need an exact number
of how many people were killed, in the hot blood of
battle and the cold blood afterwards. Winifred, how do
those numbers stack up?
|The death rate for most battles in England was between
five and ten percent, but at Drogheda and the Battle of
Wexford it was more like 80 per cent. That’s huge!
|That sounds fishy to me. We need to get some exact
numbers on the civilian casualties at these battles. We
need some hard, physical evidence. Get me Mindiana
|Hi boss. I’ve just been digging out at Wexford and
Drogheda and all I found was this: It’s just soil. If that
many people did die in these battles, you would expect
mass graves. But there’s no evidence at all. I did get
some great soil though!
|Okay okay, great work.
|Hello, History Bombs? Oh, is that right? How interesting.
Of course, I’ll pass that on. Thank you, sir.
Boss, an English guy just called. Apparently the siege at
Drogheda actually had mainly English people on both
sides - some were loyal to Cromwell and some were
loyal to the future king, Charles II. The Irish weren’t the
only ones fighting by any means!
|What a scoop! But it’s still just the military side of things.
What about the ordinary Irish people living there at the
time of the war? Surely a massacre of that scale would
have torn the town apart.
|Boss, I’ve been doing the numbers and something just
doesn’t add up. According to recent research by some
local historians, the same people are on the Merchant
Register the year after the siege as the year before.
If there was a massacre, how come so many men
|So the numbers were exaggerated. But Archie, what
do we think of Cromwell’s own behaviour? Is he a war
criminal? Or do we believe Cromwell when he said that
the sack of Drogheda would ‘prevent the effusion of
blood for the future’?
|Actually, an argument could be made that he was pretty
standard for military commanders of the time. We must
be careful not to judge people in the 17th century by the
standards of today. It was pretty standard practice to
show no mercy to a town that refused to surrender.
Besides, these are town records from Drogheda and they
show that in the days after the battle, people went about
their daily business pretty much as they always had.
Things seemed pretty normal. That doesn’t sound like a
complete wipe-out to me.
|Drogheda and Wexford were the only two places of
unusual accounts of violence. In fact at the Siege of
Clonmel, where he lost 2,000 of his own men, Cromwell
still spared the townspeople.
|Hmm, what a complicated guy. He’s an aggressive
invader of another country, he seems to show
tremendous mercy some times, but not others.
Everybody who writes anything about him seems to have
some sort of agenda - a strong opinion, some prejudice
even. Even 400 years later, now, the evidence doesn’t
seem to be comprehensive. I’ve got to get my best
investigators on this case.
So, what do you think?
|Hey guys! I also picked up Cromwell’s head, do you want to see it?