Sunday, 3 March 2019

Was Oliver Cromwell Really Framed

“Whether the proletarian revolution will have its own ‘long’ parliament we do not know. It is highly likely that it will confine itself to a short parliament. However, it will the more surely achieve this the better it masters the lessons of Cromwell’s era.”

Leon Trotsky —Where Is Britain Going?

“What is History but a fable agreed upon”.  Napoleon I.

Despite the title which comes from one of Tom Reilly’s books on Oliver Cromwell[1] this article is not so much concerned with the rights and wrongs of Reilly’s defence of Cromwell although that will be discussed it is more concerned with the economic and political motives which drove the plunder of Ireland by the English Bourgeoisie in the late 1640s. The second part of the article will address the heat generated by another historikerstreit debate.

While much of the historiography of this period has concentrated on Cromwell, it should be borne in mind that he was not the only player in this game and was working under the political direction of Parliament and also under the economic and political direction of the English bourgeoisie.

Before the invasion of Ireland Cromwell had to do two necessary things both crucial to a successful outcome in Ireland. First was the execution of Charles I. Although in the short term far from stabilising an already unstable ruling elite the execution lead sections of the bourgeoisie to pursue negotiations with the Royalists both in England and Ireland. One of the reasons for the invasion was to subdue a possible Royalist/Catholic revolt and to secure Cromwell’s and a large section of the English bourgeoisie's strategic political and economic interests in that country.

Second, Cromwell was charged by Parliament to deal with the growing radicalisation of the New Model Army. One manifestation of this radicalism was the Leveller inspired revolt over the army being shipped to Ireland to put down the revolt.

The Levellers held contradictory views on Ireland but showed solidarity with them as in the case of William Walwyn who wrote, “the cause of the Irish natives in seeking their just freedoms...was the very same with our cause here in endeavouring our rescue and freedom from the power of oppressors”.[2]

When Cromwell moved against the Levellers earlier in the revolution, he did so reluctantly not so now. Cromwell and his generals ruthlessly attacked and crushed the mutinies in the army. As Christopher Hill said the generals “were now the government; and the government decided Ireland had to be subdued once and for all.” [3]

The bourgeoisie rewarded Cromwell for his actions against the Levellers. He was given an honorary degree by Oxford University, a city already known for its steadfast support of Royalism. The City of London held a banquet in his honour. 

The English Bourgeoisie and The Conquest of Ireland.

The Cromwellian conquest began the British colonisation of Ireland. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, this conquest was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’ As can be seen with the heated historian's debate this episode has caused bitterness that has carried on for centuries. For centuries the Irish and English Catholics were seen as second class citizens an did not become full political citizens of the British state again until 1829. They were also barred from buying land interests until 1778.

The English Bourgeoisie from the beginning saw Ireland as a money-making adventure. As an incentive to make the conquest easier it got parliament to pass an  “Adventurers Act” in 1642 in order to invite the “Middling Sort” to invest in the army. The greater the investment the great the return of land. Cromwell himself had loaned over 2,000 pounds and had been promised land in Leinster. Christopher Hill correctly states Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was “the first big triumph of English imperialism and the first big defeat of English democracy”.[4]

While many of the bourgeoisie stumped up money for their adventure in Ireland Parliament felt a little more cooperation was a need and this came in the form of a series of ordinances which was a demand for money with menaces. In February 1648: it issued An Ordinance For raising of Twenty thousand pounds a Month for the Relief of Ireland.

The Citation reads“Whereas it hath pleased God of late so to bless and prosper the Forces of this Kingdom in the Kingdom of Ireland, and to give them such Success against the inhumane and bloody Irish, as that those Rebels are reduced to very great straights, and our Affairs put into such a condition, as gives very great hopes to put that War to a happy and speedy period (if there be now an effectual and vigorous prosecution of the Advantages we have) with seasonable Supplies, the want whereof hath hitherto hindered the compleating of that work, notwithstanding that great sums have been at several times raised and spent for that service: The Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, taking these things into their consideration, and also how much the honour and interest of this Kingdom is concerned, in the reducing of Ireland to the obedience of the Crown of England. And of how absolute and indispensible necessity it is for the Peace and Tranquillity of this Kingdom, that this relation should be compleat; And considering also in how great want, both of food and clothing these Forces are, And that after so much good service, and such great Success and Victory against the Rebels, themselves are in danger to be lost by Famine and Nakedness, and this Kingdom to lose the fruit of all their service and success, if there be not speedy care taken to provide against these Necessities: Therefore although the said Lords and Commons are very sensible of the great burthens that have been and still are upon this Kingdom in other Taxes and Payments, which the exigency of Affairs by the late Troubles have necessitated to be laid and levied; And that by a late Ordinance there hath been Sixty thousand pounds per mensem charged upon the Kingdom for the service of England and Ireland, of which notwithstanding by reason of the said exigencies and necessities, no part can possibly be spared for the Kingdom of Ireland, They have thought fit to order and Ordain, and be it Ordained by the said Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, and by the authority of the same, That for the intents and purposes aforesaid, the Sum of Twenty thousand pounds a moneth shall be charged, rated, taxed and levied upon all and every the several Counties, Cities, Towns, Liberties, places and persons hereafter mentioned, according to the several Proportions, Rates, and Distri butions in this present Ordinance expressed; the same to be paid in monethly to the several Collectors to be appointed for the receiving thereof, and so to continue for the space of six moneths, the moneths to be accounted according to the moneths in the Kalender, and not according to Twenty eight days for the moneth, beginning from the First day of February, 1647”[5].

One striking feature of these ordinances is the list of small “investors” who stumped up money for the plunder in Ireland in which well forty per cent of Irish land changed owners. While the making of money was one of the prime movers for the treatment meted out to the mainly Catholic population religion was another. The majority of the Irish poor were Catholic. As Hill states there was substantial anti-Irish prejudice in England, writing “The hatred and contempt which propertied Englishmen felt for the Irish is something which we may deplore but should not conceal”.[6]

The Irish socialist James Connolly while not blaming the English bourgeoise for everything that befell the Irish people after the conquest of Ireland in the latter part of the seventeenth century wrote perceptively “ Just as it is true that a stream cannot rise above its source, so it is true that a national literature cannot rise above the moral level of the social conditions of the people from whom it derives its inspiration. If we would understand the national literature of a people, we must study their social and political status, keeping in mind the fact that their writers were a product thereof, and that the children of their brains were conceived and brought forth in certain historical conditions. Ireland, at the same time as she lost her ancient social system, also lost her language as the vehicle of thought of those who acted as her leaders. As a result of this twofold loss, the nation suffered socially, nationally and intellectually from a prolonged arrested development. During the closing years of the seventeenth century, all the eighteenth, and the greater part of the nineteenth, the Irish people were the lowest helots in Europe, socially and politically. The Irish peasant, reduced from the position of a free clansman owning his tribeland and controlling its administration in common with his fellows, was a mere tenant-at-will subject to eviction, dishonour and outrage at the hands of an irresponsible private proprietor. Politically he was non-existent, legally he held no rights, intellectually he sank under the weight of his social abasement, and surrendered to the downward drag of his poverty. He had been conquered, and he suffered all the terrible consequences of defeat at the hands of a ruling class and nation who have always acted upon the old Roman maxim of `Woe to the vanquished'[7].

Cromwell, Ireland and the Historians

The subject of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland is a contentious one, to say the least so much so that significant numbers of historians have steered well clear of the topic. The debate over Cromwell in Ireland has tended to reveal more about 20th-century politics than early modern historiography. Broadly speaking the historiography is divided into two camps. On the one side, we have Tom Reilly and his supporters who believe that “Cromwell was Framed”. Reilly’s books have been aimed at demolishing some myths about Cromwell’s and for that matter Parliaments behaviour in Ireland. 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. “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”.

Reilly is currently organising the conference and a collection of new essays. In an email sent to a number of writers and historians inviting them to take part, including this writer Reilly explained his project “this new book will be an attempt to harness the variety of current perceptions of Cromwell's Irish campaign by a range of established and early career scholars, within the context of the war in Ireland 1641-1653. Cromwell’s reputation is variously construed and depends greatly upon standpoint and the nation from which it is looked at. In England and Wales he is regarded as a figure of national importance, from Scotland there is a great deal of antipathy, as he is seen as part of a long history of English interference. In Ireland however, Cromwell’s reputation remains most controversial and where most of the accusations of his being a ‘war criminal’ are levelled. It is intended that most if not all of the essays will address this controversy directly, placing Cromwell’s reputation generally and especially in Ireland into the context of modern scholarship and research. It will be a fresh, new, balanced and contemporary series of perceptions of Oliver Cromwell from a miscellany of academics which it could be hoped will contribute to peace and reconciliation initiatives that were borne out of the Good Friday Agreement throughout the island of Ireland”.

Some questions arise from this project. If a number of participants go along with Reilly’s opinion that Cromwell was an honourable enemy and that he was framed by historians who want to harm his record, then this is hardly going to be an objective assessment of Cromwell’s historical reputation.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the email was Reilly’s belief that the book and conference will “be a fresh, new, balanced and contemporary series of perceptions of Oliver Cromwell from a miscellany of academics which it could be hoped will contribute to peace and reconciliation initiatives that were borne out of the Good Friday Agreement throughout the island of Ireland”.

While I have nothing against the group of writers and historians who will contribute to the conference and later book I do have a problem with Reilly’s promotion of the Good Friday Agreement. Reilly’s defence of Cromwell is connected to his stance on the agreement in that he would like to prevent the  “escalating deterioration of Anglo Irish relations over the years”.

Reilly’s promotion of the Good Friday Agreement is politically naïve and dangerous given that “The Good Friday Agreement was patched together by the United States, Britain and Ireland as a means of creating a more stable economic environment for corporate investment in the North. Irish workers were excluded from any real say so over the future course of events. The US in particular, which is the largest and most influential investor in the island, was concerned to replicate the success of the Southern Irish Republic which had been transformed over the preceding decades into a boom area for corporations seeking an avenue into European markets. But plans to extend the cheap labour economy north of the border depended upon establishing a stable political and economic framework for investment by ending the sectarian-armed conflict, and enabling greater collaboration between London and Dublin.”[8]

The opposition to his thesis on Cromwell in Ireland is equally reckless and dangerous. Reilly’s historiography has many opponents among them are the historians Simon Schama, John Morrill and Micheál Ó Siochrú[9]. Simon Schama in 2001 threw a live hand grenade into the debate when he referred to Oliver Cromwell's alleged massacre of 3,000 unarmed enemy soldiers at the Irish town of Drogheda in 1649 as a 'war crime' and 'an atrocity.” Schama claimed in his History of Britain series on BBC2. Whether Schama believes Cromwell was a “war criminal” is not essential; his use of inflammatory language is not conducive to a healthy debate of the subject.
As Bernard Capp, professor of history at Warwick pointedly wrote “War crimes are a twentieth-century term, not a seventeenth-century one, and its use is problematic,' said 'It is true he treated the enemy in Ireland much harder than elsewhere, but there was a strong military rationale.''A bloodthirsty episode would have served the purpose of driving the war to a speedy conclusion,'”.

John Morrill[10] while being a little more restrained believes that Cromwell if not a war criminal was insensitive to the suffering caused by his soldiers. He writes “the principal evidence against Cromwell comes from his reports sent to the Speaker of the English Parliament. They are the words of a General insensitive to the suffering of others; conditioned by the relentless propaganda of the previous ten years into believing that Irish Catholics were collectively responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of unarmed Protestant settlers; convinced that he was the divinely ordained instrument of retribution. 

He wrote of Drogheda:‘In the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town, and, I think, that night they put to the sword about 2,000 men. Divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the Town, where about one hundred of them possessed St Peter’s steeple [and two other Towers]… I ordered the steeple of St Peter’s to be fired where 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 two Towers were summonsed. When they submitted, their officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the others shipped [as slaves] to the Barbadoes… The last Lord’s Day before the storm, the Protestants were thrust out of the great church called St Peter’s, and they had a public Mass there; and in this very place near one thousand Catholics were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety. I believe all the friars were knocked promiscuously on the head but two; the one of which was Fr Peter Taaff… whom the soldiers took and made an end of; the other was taken in the round tower, under the repute of lieutenant, and when he understood that the officers in the Tower had no quarter, he confessed he was a friar; but that did not save him.’[11]

Morrill concludes his essay by saying that “Cromwell failed to rise above the bigotry of his age in respect of the Irish people. He did rise above it in other respects (especially in his commitment to religious liberty in Britain). As a general, he behaved differently in Ireland from how he behaved in England and Scotland. There were massacres at Drogheda and Wexford in hot and cold blood. Cromwell’s contempt for the Catholic clergy meant that he permitted them to be slaughtered. However, whether he broke the laws of war then prevailing, and whether he was anything like as brutal as many others in the Irish wars, whether indeed he should be blamed for things much worse than what happened in Drogheda and Wexford, is still difficult to establish”.

The historian most associated with the opposition to Reilly’s views on Cromwell in Ireland is Micheál Ó Siochrú. In a review of Ó Siochrú book God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland Jason Peacey perceptively points out the dilemma faced by most historians writing about Cromwell “ the civil wars that engulfed the three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland in the mid-17th century remain a battlefield, and generation after generation they retain a capacity to provoke passionate debate and heated historical controversy. Within this field, however, there is probably no single individual more likely to generate historiographical heat than Oliver Cromwell, utterly convincing analysis of whose complex personality continues to elude even the greatest of scholars. Moreover, within scholarship on Cromwell and the Cromwellian period, there is no more controversial topic than his attitude towards, and activity in, Ireland. Cromwell’s name retains the capacity to inflame passions, and in at least some quarters he has become synonymous with religiously inspired brutality and atrocity, with something little short of ethnic cleansing, and with tyranny and military dictatorship. At the same time, however, he is capable of making the ‘top ten’ in a 2002 BBC poll of In a review of greatest Britons’”.[12]

Ó Siochrú repeats Morrill’s claim that Cromwell  ‘uncritically accepted’ the horror stories regarding the rebellion, and the claim that the rebellion had no justification or back-story (p. 19), and who was determined to exact revenge upon the Irish Catholic population, irrespective of their involvement in the rising.

I have the same problem with Ó Siochrú as with Reilly in that a lot of what he writes is more to do with Irish politics than it is to do with historical accuracy. Ó Siochrú believes that Cromwell's use of violence was not justified “but a pre-determined exercise in religious and ethnic vengeance”. "Even by the standards of the time [Cromwell's] behaviour was beyond the pale,"

I wish Tom Reilly and his friends well with their conference and their book. I look forward to reviewing it. It is hoped that he will produce a more objective account of Cromwell and the English bourgeoise’s adventure in Ireland. It is the least the Irish people deserve. It is also hoped that the new historiography produced by the book will not add to the already crowded book market lending justification to the centuries-long plunder of Ireland.




[1] Cromwell was Framed: Ireland 1649 by Tom Reilly
[2] Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men By Antonia Fraser
[3] God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution.
[4] The English Revolution 1640- https://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/
[5] 'February 1648: An Ordinance For raising of Twenty thousand pounds a Moneth for the Relief of Ireland.', in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. 1072-1105. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp1072-1105 [accessed 18 February 2019].
[6] God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
[7] Labour in Irish History by James Connolly
[8] Northern Ireland election: An attempt to rescue the Good Friday Agreement
By Steve James -26 November 2003-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/11/nire-n26.html
[9] God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland
Micheál Ó Siochrú London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN: 9780571218462; 336pp.; Price: £14.99
[10] “Was Cromwell a War Criminal?” by John Morrill
[11] 'For the Honourable William Lenthall, Esquire, Speaker of the Parliament of
England: These.'Dublin, 17th September, 1649.