Oliver Cromwell and the Storming of Drogheda, County Louth, in 1649

From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 36, March 2, 1833

SAINT Mary's, founded by the citizens of Drogheda under Edward the I., was originally a convent of Carmelites, and called Saint Mary's of Mount Carmel, a name very expressive of its situation, being erected on the most elevated part of the southern division of the town, and occupying the south east angle of the town wall. It was made subject to the prior of Saint Keenan's, Duleek, by Walter de Lacy, and received a portion of its support from the tolls taken from butter at John's Gate, hence anciently denominated Butter Gate. The present church is a modern structure, plain and small, but sufficiently spacious for the congregation of the parish: this is the second church erected on this spot since the demolition of the original one by Cromwell, the only remains of which are the walls of a small vestry, near the east end of the present building, and the foundations of the old tower, about 150 feet distant.

As before stated, St. Mary's Church and burial ground, occupy the south east angle of the ancient town wall; the defences here were strong, both by nature and art, the wall to the east running along the brink of a deep precipitous valley, called the Dale, at the bottom of which a stream flows, which, after supplying James'-street Brewery with water, falls into the Boyne: in this church-yard are the remains of a regular bastion and platform for cannon, being the only vestige of modem fortification, in the entire circuit of the town walls.

This spot is remarkable, as being the place at which Cromwell directed all his efforts in the storming of Drogheda in 1649, efforts crowned with a complete, but bloody and inhuman success. The following copies of his letters to the parliament of England on this subject are extracted from the parliamentary history of England, vol. 19, and need no apology for their insertion here, accompanied by notes, descriptive of the present situation of this place.



Dublin, September 17th, 1649.

SIR.--Your army being safely arrived in Dublin, and the enemy endeavouring to draw all his forces together, about Trym and Tecroghan, as my intelligence gave me, from whence endeavours were used by the Marquis of Ormonde, to draw Owen Roe O'Neill to his assistance, but with what success I cannot yet learn. I resolved after some refreshment taken for our weather-beaten men and horses, and accommodations for a march, to take the field, and accordingly upon Friday the 30th of August last, rendezvoused with eight regiments of foot, six of horse, and some troops of Dragoons, three miles on the north side of Dublin, the design was, the endeavouring the regaining of Drogheda, or tempting the enemy upon his hazard of the loss of that place to fight.

Your army came before the town, upon the Monday following, where, having encamped, as speedy a course was taken as could be to frame our batteries, which took up the more time, because divers of the battering-guns were on ship board. Upon Monday the 9th of this instant, the batteries began to play, whereupon I sent Sir Arthur Ashton, the then governor, a summons to deliver up the town to the use of the parliament of England, to the which receiving no satisfactory answer, I proceeded that day to beat down a tower[1] on the south side of the town and to beat down the steeple of a church not far from the same place, which you will perceive by the chart inclosed.

Our guns not being able to do much that day, it was resolved to do our utmost the next, to make breaches assaultable, and, by the help of God, to storm them;[2] the place chosen was that part of the wall next a church, called Saint Mary's, which was the rather pitched upon, because we did hope, that if we did enter and possess that church, we should be the better able to keep it against their horse and foot, until we could make entrance for our horse, which we did not conceive that any other part of the town would afford the like advantage for the purpose with this: the batteries planted[3] were two, one was for that part of the wall against the east end of the said church, the other, against the wall on the south side, being somewhat long in battering; the enemy made six entrenchments, three of them from the said church to Duleek gate, and three of them from the east end of the said church to the town wall, and so backwards. The guns, after some two or three hundred shot, beat down the church tower,[4] and opened two reasonable good breaches in the east and south walls.

Upon Tuesday the 10th of this instant, about five o'clock in the evening, we began the storm, and, after some hot dispute, we entered about six or seven hundred men, the enemy disputing it very stiffly with us, and indeed, through the advantage of the place, and the courage God was pleased to give the defenders, our men were forced to retreat quite out of the breach, not without some considerable loss, Colonel Cossel being there shot in the head, whereof he presently died, and divers officers and men doing their duty, killed and wounded.

There was a tenalia [5] to flanker the south wall of the tower, between Duleek gate and the corner tower before mentioned, which our men entered, and wherein they found some forty or fifty of the enemy, which they put to the sword, and this they held; but this being without the wall, and the sally port through that tenalia being choaked up with some of the enemy which were killed in it, it proved of no use for our entrance into the town that way.

Although our men that stormed the breaches were forced to recoil, as before is expressed, yet, being encouraged to recover their loss, they made a second attempt, wherein God was pleased to animate them, that they got ground of the enemy, and, by the goodness of God, forced him to quit his entrenchments, and after a very hot dispute, the enemy having both horse and foot within the wall, they gave ground, and our men became masters both of their retrenchments and the church, which, indeed, although they made our entrance the more difficult, yet they proved of excellent use to us, so that the enemy could not annoy us with his horse, but thereby had advantage to make good the ground, that so we might let in our own horse, which accordingly was done, though with much difficulty.

Divers of the enemy retreated into the mill mount,[6] a place very strong and of difficult access, being exceedingly high, having a good graft, and strongly pallisaded. The governor, Sir Arthur Ashton, and divers considerable officers, being there, our men getting at them were ordered by me to put them all to the sword, and indeed, being in the heat of action, I forbad them to spare any that were in arms in the town, and I think that night they put to the sword about two thousand men, divers of the officers and men being fled over the bridge into the other part of the town, where about one hundred of them possessed Saint Peter's church steeple, some the west gate, and others, a round tower[7] next the gate, called Saint Sunday's, these being summoned to yield to mercy, refused, whereupon I ordered the steeple of Saint Peter's to be fired,[8] when one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames, "God damn me! God confound me! I burn! I burn!"

The next day the other towers were summoned, in one of which was about six or seven score, but they refused to yield themselves, and we knowing that hunger must compel them, set only a good guard to secure them from running away, until their stomachs were come down; from one of the said towers, notwithstanding their condition, they killed and wounded some of our men; when they submitted themselves, their officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the rest shipped for the Barbadoes.

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. The officers and soldiers of this garrison were the flower of their army, and their greater expectation was, that our attempting this place would put fair to ruin us, they being confident of the resolution of their men, and the advantage of the place. If we had divided our force into two quarters, to have besieged the north town and the south town, we could not have had such a correspondency between the two parts of one army; but that they might have brought their army, and have fought with which part they pleased, and at the same time, have made a sally with 200 men upon us, and have left the walls manned, they having in the town the number hereafter specified, but some say near four thousand.

Since this great mercy vouchsafed to us, I sent a party of horse and dragoons to Dundalk, which the enemy quitted and we are possessed of, as also a castle they deserted, between Trym and Drogheda upon the Boyne. I sent a party of horse and dragoons to a house within five miles of Trym, there being then in Trym some Scots companies, which the Lord of Ards brought to assist the Lord of Ormonde, but upon the news of Drogheda they ran away, bearing their great guns behind them, which we also have possessed.

And now give me leave to say how it came to pass, this great work is wrought; it was set upon some of our hearts that a great thing should be done, not by power or might, but by the Spirit of God; and is it not so, clearly, that which caused your men to storm the breach so courageously, it was the Spirit of God, who gave your men courage, and took it away again, and gave the enemy courage, and took it away again, and gave your men courage again, and therewith this great success, and therefore it is good that God alone have all the glory.

It is remarkable that this people at the first, set up the mass in some of the places of the town that had been monasteries; but afterwards grew so insolent, that the Lord's day before the storm, the Protestants were thrust out of the great church called Saint Peter's, and they had public mass there; and in this very place near one thousand of them were put to the sword, flying thither for protection: I believe all their Friars were knocked on the head promiscuously but two, the one of which was Father Peter Taaffe, brother to the Lord Taaffe, whom the soldiers took the next day, and made an end of; the other was taken in the round tower, under the report of a lieutenant, and when he understood that the officers in that tower had no quarter, he confessed he was a Friar, but that did not save him.

A great deal of the loss in this business fell upon Colonel Cossell's and Colonel Ewers' regiments; Colonel Ewers having two field officers in his regiment shot, Colonel Cossells, and a captain of his regiment slain, Colonel Hewson's captain lieutenant slain. I do not think we lost one hundred men, though many be wounded.

I most humbly pray the Parliament may be pleased, this army may be maintained, and that a consideration may be had of them, and of the carrying on of affairs here, as may give a speedy issue to the work, to which there seems a marvellous fair opportunity offered by God; and although it may seem very chargeable to the state of England, to maintain so great a force, yet surely to stretch a little for the present in following God's Providence, in hope the charge will not be long. I trust it will not be thought by any, that have not irreconcileable or malignant principles, unfit for me to move for a constant supply, which, in all human probability, as to outward means, is most likely to hasten and perfect this work. And, indeed, if God is pleased to finish it here as he has done in England, the war is likely to pay itself.

We keep the field much, our tents sheltering us from the wet and cold; but yet, the country sickness overtakes many, and therefore, we desire recruits, and some fresh regiments of foot may be sent; for, it is easily conceived by what the garrisons already drink up, what our field army will come to, if, God shall give more garrisons into our hands. Craving pardon for this great trouble, I rest, Your most humble Servant,


P. S.--A major who brought off 43 horse from the enemy, since writing the above, told me that it is reported in their camps, that Owen Roe and they are agreed.

The Defendants in Drogheda, consisted of the Lord of Ormonde's regiments, Sir Edmund Verney, Lieutenant Colonel of 400, Colonel Byrne's, Colonel Warren's, and Colonel Wall's 2100, the Lord of Westmeath of 200, Sir James Dillon of 200, and 200 horse.


Dublin, September 27th, 1649.

Mr. Speaker--I had not received any account from Colonel Venables (whom I sent from Drogheda to endeavour the reducing of Carlingford, and so to march Northwards toward a conjunction with Sir Charles Coote), until the last night, after having come to Carlingford, having summoned the place, both the three castles and the fort commanding the harbour, were reduced by him, wherein were about 1,000 muskets, 40 barrels of powder, 7 pieces of cannon, and 500 pikes, wanting 20. In the entrance into the harbour, Captain Fern aboard your man-of-war had some damage, being shot at from the sea fort, a bullet shooting through his mainmast. The captain's entrance into the harbour was a considerable advantage, and a good service; as, also, was Captain Brodley's, who, with 40 seamen, stormed Tenalia at Drogheda, and helped to take it, for which he deserves an owning by you. Venables marched from Carlingford, with a party of horse and dragoons to the Newry, leaving the foot to come after him. He summoned the place, and it was yielded before his foot came up to him, which promises well towards your northern interest--which, if well prosecuted, will, I trust God, render you a good account of those parts.

I have sent the things to the council of state, to be presented for their consideration. I pray God, as these mercies flow in upon you, he will give you a heart to improve them to His glory alone, because he alone is the author of them, and of all the goodness, patience, and long-suffering, extended towards you. Your army is marched, and I believe lieth this night near Arklow, in the county of Wicklow, on the sea side, about 30 or 40 miles from this place. I am, by God's grace, going towards it. I crave your pardon for this trouble, and rest,

Your humble servant,


P.S. I desire the supplies moved for may be hastened. I am verily persuaded, though the burthen be great, yet it is for your service. If the garrisons we take swallow up your men, how shall we be able to keep the field. Who knows but the Lord may pity England's sufferings, and make a short work of it--it is in His power so to do, and therein is your servant rejoiced.

I humbly present the condition of Captain George Jenkins's widow. He died presently after Tredagh's storm--his widow is in great want.

The following officers and soldiers were slain at the storming of Drogheda:--Sir Arthur Ashton, Governor; Sir Edmund Verney, Lieutenant-Colonel to Ormonde's Regiment; Colonel Fleming; Lieutenant-Colonel Finglass; Major FitzGerald, with eight captains, eight lieutenants, and eight cornets, all of horse, Colonels Wall, Warren, and Byrne--of foot, with their lieutenants, majors, &c. &c.; the Lord Taaffe's brother, an Augustinian friar; 44 captains, and all their lieutenants, ensigns, &c.; 220 reformadoes and troopers; 2,500 foot soldiers, besides staff-officers, surgeons, &c., and many inhabitants.[9]

Thus far the account as laid before parliament by Cromwell, their Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

The Marquis of Ormonde, the Regal Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in his letters to Charles II. and Lord Byron, says, that, "on this occasion, Cromwell exceeded himself, and any thing he had ever heard of, in breach of faith and bloody inhumanity; and that the cruelties exercised in Drogheda for five days after the town was taken, would make as many pictures of inhumanity as are to be found in the book of martyrs, or in the relation of Amboyna." General Ludlow writes, "that the slaughter was continued all the day of the storming, and the next, which extraordinary severity was used to discourage others from making opposition;" and it is observable, that this terrible slaughter charged upon Cromwell, is so far from being palliated or excused by him, in his own letters, that he seems to look upon the defenders of Drogheda as a body of amalekites destined to destruction, and himself, only as the executioner of the Almighty's vengeance; and, accordingly, a writer of his life, terms this extraordinary act of severity "A sacrifice of 3,000 Irish to the ghosts of 10,000 English, whom they had massacred some years before."

How agreeable the conduct of General Cromwell, in this affair, was to the parliament, appears by the resolutions of the house, after reading the foregoing: letters; for they appointed a thanksgiving day, to be held on the first day of November next ensuing, throughout the whole kingdom. They likewise ordered that a declaration should be prepared and sent into the several counties, signifying the grounds for setting apart that day. A letter of thanks was also voted to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and to be communicated to the officers there, in which notice was to be taken "that the house did approve of the execution done at Drogheda, as an act of justice to themselves, and of mercy to others, who might be warned thereby."



[1] "I proceeded that day, &c" This must have been the steeple of St. Mary's, as we do not know of any other church in the south side of Drogheda. There was indeed the Priory of St. John's in John-street, but it is not probable this building ever had a steeple, the tower mentioned, stood in the S. E. angle of the Town wall, and was then a modern work compared to the rest of the defences in that place: the ruins of it shew that the ancient wall was demolished, and this tower or bastion erected a little further in, with a batter or slope to the level of the church yard, which is perhaps 20 feet higher within the wall, than the ground on the outside. There are the remains of vaults in this angle, which were probably used as a Magazine.

[2] "The place pitched upon, &c." It has been a matter of surprize to many who have not read these letters, that Cromwell should have chosen this spot, (undoubtedly the strongest and most difficult of access) on which to make his attack,--the church yard of St. Mary's, forming a rampart 20 feet high, faced with stone, and well flanked with towers, besides the advantage of the church within and the valley of "The Dale," forming a tremendous and almost impassable ditch to the east--in fact so precipitous, that it is impossible to ascend it in a direct line. On the south the access was not so difficult, but the wall was high, defended by towers at intervals, and strengthened by arched buttresses on the inside. However he has made his reasons sufficiently obvious, and although we detest the inhumanity of the man, we must admire the courage and generalship of the officer, which prompted him to storm the strongest part of the fortress, that he might insure a secure lodgement within.

[3] "The batteries planted were two, &c." Of these batteries, the scite of that to the east is yet visible, situate about 800 yards distant on the opposite side of the Dale, and still called "Cromwell's mount." As they have begun to till it lately, it is probable that in a few years it will entirely disappear. The battery on the south cannot now be traced; there are no remains of the entrenchments mentioned.

[4] "Beat down the Church Tower, &c." The besieged having planted cannon on the battlements of this tower, which annoyed him very much, Cromwell succeeded in beating down the upper part of it. About 50 feet high remained standing in 1750, as appears by a view of Drogheda painted at that time, at present in the Mayoralty house: it was built on an arch, and resembled Magdalene's. Shortly after this period it was taken down, and the materials used in constructing the quay wall, or some other public work. I have been informed by an old inhabitant, who remembered the circumstance, that the person employed to take it down, wishing to make short work, undermined it, but it happening to fall sooner than he expected, he was unfortunately buried beneath the ruins, and killed on the spot. The town wall remains in the ruinous state to which Cromwell reduced it, except that the breach on the east has been partially filled up. It bears lasting tokens of the violence of his attack. The parapet on the east side is completely demolished, the stones composing the facing of the rampart, in many places indented or shattered to atoms, and a tower which occupied an angle to the north of the church, entirely destroyed. The breach on the south side, has been greatly enlarged. As it now appears, Cromwell would have had no difficulty in marching 50 men abreast into it, the part of the wall that remains is about 20 or 25 feet high, having a parapet and loopholes, and about 6 feet thick, besides a range of buttresses connected by circular arches on the inner side.

[5] "There was a tenalia, &c." This tenalia probably stood in the orchard, which now occupies the ground from the S. E. angle to Duleek-street, as a small arched door is visible in the wall, though now filled, which perhaps is the sallyport mentioned. These tenalia or small towers, were originally placed at regular distances round the entire circuit of the town wall, but the one of which a sketch is given, and which stands in the rere of Mill mount is the only one which at present remains.

[6] "Divers of the enemy, &c." Mill mount, a very large and high Danish moat or tumulus, connected by a raised cause way or bridge with a high precipitous bank, rising abruptly from the river Boyne, on which are erected a barrack for Infantry, military stores, hospital, &c. This place formed the S. W. angle of the town wall, and being exactly as Cromwell describes it, and commanding the entire town, north and south of the river, must have been always considered the citadel of Drogheda. On Mill-mount a strong round tower has been erected, in the government of the Duke of Richmond, called Richmond fort: it is capable of containing 200 men, is mounted with two pieces of cannon, and has a magazine beneath, which is bomb-proof.

[7] "Others a round tower, &c." This round tower stood to the east of Sunday gate, not on the town wall, but a little detached from it: it was taken down some time since, and was probably one of the Round towers attributed to the Danes, and peculiar to Ireland.

[8] "I ordered the steeple of St. Peter's to be fired, &c." Johnston, in his History of Drogheda, says, and Leland concurs, that "Quarter had been promised to all those who should lay down their arms, but it was only observed until all resistance was at an end. Many, confiding to this promise, at once yielded themselves prisoners, and the rest, unwilling to trust to the mercy of Cromwell, took shelter in the steeple of St. Peter's church, which was composed of wood, though the body of the building was composed of stone. The most respectable of the inhabitants sheltered themselves within the body of the church. Here Cromwell advanced, and after some deliberation, concluded on blowing up the building. For this purpose he laid a quantity of powder in an old subterraneous passage which was open, and went under the church, but changing his resolution, he set fire to the steeple, and as the garrison rushed out to avoid the flames, they were slaughtered." "After this Cromwell ordered the inhabitants in the church to be put to the sword, among whom many of the Carmelites fell a sacrifice."--"He then plundered the building, and defaced its principal ornaments."

[9] "And many of the inhabitants, &c." It is traditionally said that Cromwell's men spared neither age nor sex, during the first evening of the storm, but exercised the most inhuman cruelties on all who had the misfortune to fall in their way, until Cromwell in his advance to St. Peter's, perceived a woman dead (near the centre of Peter-street) and an infant endeavouring to draw nourishment from her breast! This affecting sight so far softened his callous heart, that he gave immediate orders that the work of carnage should cease, and the work of death be confined to those taken with arms in their hands.