OLIVER CROMWELL WAS framed – at least, that’s the viewpoint of one amateur historian who has already caused quite a stir with his first book on the topic, and is now back with a second.
Tom Reilly’s first book claimed that no civilians were killed in Drogheda by Cromwell’s forces, and that Cromwell did not intentionally target civilians during his anti-Catholic campaign.
The publication of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy 15 years ago sparked off a storm of controversy with many historians publically deriding the study.
Cromwell led the Parlimentary invasion of Ireland from 1649 – 50, and it is believed that at the Siege of Drogheda in September 1649, nearly 3,500 people were killed by Cromwell’s troops.
More civilians were also killed during the Siege of Wexford.
But Reilly says that his research shows him that “a lot of the academic people who have made comments on it in the past, they are just wrong, it’s as simple as that”.
He said that Cromwell is an “ogre” in Irish history and his presentation has led to the “escalating deterioration of Anglo Irish relations over the years”.
Taken to task
Reilly said that some historians took him to task over his first book, but he is now taking them to task with this latest publication.
A Drogheda native, he said that he researched local records which showed “loads of names of people who existed at that time [when Cromwell invaded] who I was told shouldn’t exist because Cromwell killed them – it just didn’t make any sense”.
He has come to the conclusion that two men framed Oliver Cromwell after the Siege of Drogheda.
“There were no eyewitnesses who give us ideas of civilian deaths,” he said of the two sieges, claiming that it was two propagandists who spread the word about Cromwell.
Reilly maintains that Cromwell had “no deliberate policy to kill the innocent”.
He sees his book as “the start of Cromwell’s rehabilitation”.
“A lot of people will be seriously ticked off by this,” he acknowledged.
Reilly maintains that virulently anti-Catholic members of the Rump parliament and the Long parliament were the ones who are not being blamed for their deeds.
“I’m not a Cromwell lover by any means,” said Reilly, but added “in my opinion he was upright and honourable”.
Ireland in the mid-1600s
Joan Redmond is a PhD student in Cambridge, writing a thesis on popular violence between 1641 and 1660. She is not connected with Reilly’s book and doesn’t share his views on Cromwell.
For those who aren’t familiar with Cromwell and Irish history of the mid- to late-1600s, Redmond explained that Cromwell was a parliamentary MP and involved with the New Model army of England.
“The background context for this is the invasion of Ireland and the rebellion of 1641,” said Redmond. “A lot of rhetoric around it was vengeance. The thing that had been going around in England, which was fuelled by a lot of small publications like newsheets, had been that thousands and thousands of British Protestants in Ireland had been massacred.”
The troops were sent to “render [Ireland] more controllable”, in the eyes of England.
Redmond said that some contemporary historians have looked at Cromwell’s conduct in the English wars as well as his time in Ireland.
“He also had a few incidents in England where he stormed places, particularly where Catholic troops were holding down forts, and towns, and behaved violently there as well,” she said. “This includes the storming of Basing House in Hampshire in 1645.”
“Some people have pointed out that in Drogheda, for example, a lot of the troops that were stationed there were actually English themselves, they were English royalists – [who supported] Cromwell’s great enemy.”
She said that one aspect that had been overlooked is that the troops in Drogheda were not 100 per cent Irish, and it was a very mixed community there. “A lot of the English people there were Catholic so that made them suspect to Cromwell,” she pointed out.
“Nearly every incident or aspect of history will eventually come under scrutiny,” said Redmond. “Especially as new ways of interpreting what we have [emerge].”
She said that Cromwell wrote a lot of letters to England, and people have started paying attention to who he is perhaps writing these letters for, in terms of audience.
“Some of his extremely bombastic letters on gaining revenge on the Irish for having killed so many were probably intended on being printed,” she said. “Whereas he writes letters that were much more private where he is more circumspect.”
Asked if it is possible for the public image of Cromwell to be changed, Redmond said: “I think in Ireland his image is so entrenched that it might take a lot for people to change their minds – not to downplay the fact that he and the armies that came after did inflict a lot of damage in Ireland.”
In fact, it was after he left that more damage was done, with plagues occurring as a result of the presence of armies.
“With large numbers of people moving around, you get famine and plague and all sorts of nasty things,” said Redmond. “Somewhere around 25 per cent of the population may have died 1640s and 50s, a lot of it due to other causes [than direct violence]. Certainly war itself contributes to not nearly as many civilian deaths as we think directly. Many were an indirect consequence of army policies.”