Cromwellian Conquest

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Cromwellian Conquest

Between August 1649 and June 1652, Ireland was largely reconquered by English forces. Since October 1641 the island had seen campaigns in which locally raised contingents of Protestants and separate armies dispatched from England and Scotland struggled against the insurgent Confederate Catholics, who controlled much of the country outside Dublin and eastern Ulster. The need to reconquer Ireland acquired greater urgency following the execution of Charles I in January 1649 and the establishment in England of a Commonwealth, because it was feared that the numerous opponents of this republican regime would use Ireland as a base from which to attack it.

On 15 August 1649 an army of approximately 12,000, commanded by Oliver Cromwell, landed near Dublin. Its task was eased by the victory over the Confederates of a local Protestant force under Michael Jones a fortnight earlier at Rathmines, close to Dublin. Cromwell rapidly captured the strategic garrisons of Drogheda (11 September 1649) and Wexford (11 October 1649). With those successes he shortened the campaign and reassured his employer, the Westminster parliament, that he was spending its money well, but the savagery meted out to civilian inhabitants as well as to the garrisons was at odds with Cromwell's restraint in England. It attested to the hostility of English and Scottish Protestants toward the Irish Catholics, and in the longer term it blackened Cromwell's and England's reputations in Ireland. Although Cromwell met setbacks, as at Clonmel in May 1650, where his force suffered heavy casualties, he was confident enough that resistance had been broken to leave Ireland in the following month. His sonin-law Henry Ireton took over the command, but he died of plague while campaigning in November 1651. Besides English officers, some local Protestants, such as Roger Boyle, Baron Broghill (later earl of Orrery), and Sir Charles Coote (subsequently earl of Mountrath) joined the campaign. By April 1653, with the surrender of Cloughoughter, the entire island was again under nominal English control.

The Westminster parliament appointed parliamentary commissioners to govern Ireland, and peacetime administration was slowly restored. However, English rule could be maintained only with the help of large garrisons. These arrangements kept costs high and impoverished Ireland, wasted by warfare throughout the 1640s and more recently depopulated by plague. In the early 1650s, as much as a third of the total population may have died. Many of the defeated went into continental exile, some entering the armies of Spain, Portugal, and France.

For the Irish administration the most pressing task once military resistance had been contained was to reallocate property. It was assumed that the future security and prosperity of Ireland could best be guaranteed by confiscating the lands of the rebels and transferring them to others. In addition, it was hoped that this action would finance the military campaign. The essential measures that reserved the Irish insurgents' estates to pay for the reconquest had been taken by the English parliament in 1642. Its successors in 1652 and 1653 amplified the earlier acts. Two groups benefited: civilians, mainly in England, who had invested money in the reconquest on the security of future grants of Irish property; and soldiers serving in Ireland after 1649 who were to be paid largely in Irish lands. Furthermore, as a guarantee of future security, those implicated in the uprising of 1641 were also to be expelled from the boroughs and from coastal areas. As much as 11 million acres—55 percent of the total acreage of Ireland—was supposed to be at the disposal of the state. The work of surveying these holdings taxed the regime and provoked controversy. First, the wisdom of such a wholesale expropriation and the proposed banishment of the surviving rebels west of the river Shannon into the province of Connacht and County Clare was questioned. Next, the competence of the original surveyor, Benjamin Worsley, was impugned. Then, once Sir William Petty, Worsley's successor, had completed his Down Survey, quarrels erupted between the civilian investors and the soldiery. The redistributions eventually created 8,000 new proprietors, not all of whom settled on their new holdings. Of these, only about 500 were civilian adventurers or their heirs; the rest were soldiers, many of whom, rather than waiting to receive their portions, made over their claims to superior officers or civilian speculators. The undoubted beneficiaries from the upheavals were the members of some of the Protestant families who had settled in Ireland before 1641. Those dispossessed during the Cromwellian interregnum hoped that the Stuarts, once restored to power after 1660, would reinstate them. Lucky individuals did regain their estates, but the essential contours of the Cromwellian settlement were not altered between 1660 and 1688. The dramatic impact is clear from a simple statistic: In 1641 Catholics owned about 59 percent of the land in Ireland; by 1703 this total had dropped to 14 percent.

Some constructive measures accompanied the confiscations. As earlier, the English conquerors insisted that they only wanted to break the power of the traditional leaders of Catholic Ireland. Their prime targets were therefore the priests, heads of the septs (clans), lawyers, and military men. The English administration hoped to persuade the bulk of the people of the merits of its rule through a program of social and legal reforms. At the same time, efforts to convert Catholics to Protestantism were redoubled, but resources—of manpower and money—proved too meager to transform Irish society. Schemes to bring the law within the reach of more were disappointing, as were attempts to improve the provision of education and Protestant preaching. Initiatives such as the creation of a second university college in Dublin were short-lived. So, too, were schemes to map and exploit natural resources. A further difficulty was that the English regime in Ireland was no longer monarchical but republican, and this characteristic was detested by some Protestants as well as by many Catholics.

The regime tended toward introversion and quarrelling. Necessarily, it concentrated on routine affairs. Most efforts were directed toward guarding against internal subversion and foreign invaders. These threats worsened when in 1656 the Cromwellian protectorate went to war with Spain, a frequent ally of Irish Catholics and confederate of the exiled Charles Stuart. It had also to collect taxes and try to restore a measure of prosperity so that tax yields could be increased. In addition, it was hampered by unresolved differences over how best to treat the Catholic majority. As in the past, opinions varied between coercion and conciliation. Yet if this regime failed to put down deep roots among the Catholic populace, it did gradually endear itself to many within the Protestant population, who saw their grip on property, office, and power tighten. Irish Catholics, despite English professions to the contrary, were subjected to a series of discriminations that depressed almost all into the condition of "hewers of wood and bearers of water," where once they had owned and governed the island. For this reason, the decade after 1649 can be seen as inaugurating in outline, if not in name, what would be known in the eighteenth century as the Irish Protestant Ascendancy.

SEE ALSO Confederation of Kilkenny; Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690; Petty, Sir William; Puritan Sectaries; Solemn League and Covenant; Primary Documents: On the Capture of Drogheda (17 September 1649); From The Great Case of Transplantation Discussed (1655); From The Interest of England in the Irish Transplantation Stated (1655); From The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow (1698)


Barnard, T. C. Cromwellian Ireland: English Government and Reform in Ireland, 1649–1660. 1975. Reprint, 2000.

Bottigheimer, K. S. English Money and Irish Land. 1971.

Corish, P. J. "The Cromwellian Conquest, 1649–53," and "The Cromwellian Regime, 1650–1660." In A New History of Ireland, vol. 3, Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976.

Ohlmeyer, J. H., ed. Ireland from Independence to Occupation, 1641–1660. 1996.

Toby Barnard