On 11 October 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s Army stormed and sacked the Irish Royalist city of Wexford, allegedly whilst the defenders were trying to negotiate a surrender. It is remembered in Ireland as one of the worst atrocities in their history.
Oliver Cromwell was the most influential General of the English Civil War, famous for creating the New Model Army and decisively defeating King Charles I at Naseby in 1645. However, his fighting career didn’t end with the final defeat of the King.
Resistance in Ireland
Ireland still held Royalists, who had recently allied with the local Confederate rebels, and the these combined forces were preying on Parliamentary shipping. Cromwell was not a man to sit my and let this happen and in August 1649 he landed in Ireland with a highly trained army of Civil War veterans.
Wexford, a seafaring settlement on Ireland’s east coast, had been a thorn in Parliament’s side for eight years since the Irish rebellion of 1641. It could not have done anything more to offend Oliver Cromwell than eject its Protestants, which it did in 1642, leading to 80 of them drowning. Finally, it was the hub of Royalist Privateers and perilously close to the English mainland.
So infamous were the Wexford raiders that if Cromwell’s ships caught them they were thrown overboard with their hands tied. In response, the 170 English prisoners in the town were threatened with summary execution. For all these reasons Wexford was a crucial target for Cromwell’s invading army, and after taking Drogheda in September his troops arrived at the walls of the town on October 2.
Playing for time
Cromwell’s army consisted of roughly 6000 men, and crucially he had with him eight heavy siege guns designed for destroying the walls of a town. The garrison, meanwhile, was Irish and by the time the city was stormed on 11 October its commander David Sinnot had bolstered its numbers to 4,800.
Knowing that the Duke of Ormonde’s main Royalist army was close at hand, Sinnot knew that he only needed to play for time. After the sacking of Drogheda, however, the civilians were demoralised and demanded that Sinnot surrender. As a result he entered into negotiations with Cromwell, making demands that he knew would not be accepted to play for time.
Cromwell, predictably, dismissed the ideas that he would let the Catholic garrison and their privateer go with all their weapons. While these negotiations were carried out his siege guns opened two breaches in the city walls, opening the way for an attack should he order it.
While negotiations continued on 11 October Cromwell’s troops suddenly stormed the vulnerable town. Cromwell denied giving the order, but chaos ensued as the Parliamentarian troops flooded into Wexford. The town’s castle was inexplicably surrendered without a fight by its English Royalist captain, Stafford, and after this any notion of a fight was over.
A massacre ensues
Irish troops fled from their stations in panic and were then pursued and often massacred by Cromwell’s men. Many more tried to cross the nearby river Slaney to escape the orgy of violence unfolding in the town, but most, including the governor Sinnot, drowned or were shot as they tried to swim.
Violence in the town grew out of hand, spreading to its civilian population and the buildings as well as the survivors of the garrison. By the end of the day 2000 soldiers and 1500 civilians had been killed, at the cost of just 20 of Cromwell’s men.
Such a massacre of innocents remains a serious stain on Cromwell’s reputation. Though he did not give the order explicitly, he did little to halt the violence. This can be compared to Henry V during the Agincourt campaign, who famously hanged his men for stealing even minor items of loot.
Cromwell in fact justified the actions of his men by arguing that they were merely taking revenge for the treatment of Protestants in the town and the actions of the privateers that it sheltered. Other historians have argued on the other hand that though this was brutal it was simply what happened in warfare at the time. The debate continues.
One thing that is certain is that the sack was somewhat counterproductive for Cromwell’s army, as they damaged the port so much as to make it unusable: it did also prevent Royalists using the port to land in Ireland though. The sack is also said to have had a psychological effect on the Irish and Royalist armies.
Ormonde observed shortly afterwards that terror that Cromwell’s men inspired encouraged other garrisons to surrender without any attempt at resistance, and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland was well underway by the end of 1649, as Parliamentarian forces controlled the provinces of Munster and Ulster.