Drogheda was one of the best-fortified towns in Ireland. The main part of the town was north of the River Boyne, with a smaller district to the south. The two districts were connected by a drawbridge across the river. The town was protected by a circuit of walls four to six feet wide and twenty feet high that were punctuated by a number of guard towers. Sir Arthur Aston boasted that anyone who could take Drogheda could capture Hell itself. The Marquis of Ormond hoped that Aston would gain time for the Royalists by a prolonged defence that would weaken the Parliamentarian army through disease and attrition. Cromwell was also aware of this possibility and wasted no time in deploying his siege guns to blast breaches in the walls in preparation for storming the town. A summons to surrender was issued on 10 September, which Aston rejected.
The Parliamentarian batteries were situated on the south side of Drogheda. The first battery was aimed at the southern wall between the Duleek Gate and St Mary’s Church, whose tower was used as an observation post by the Royalists. The second battery was placed to the east of St Mary’s to fire across a ravine which ran along the eastern wall. The batteries were placed so that the breaches they made would allow the two columns of assault troops to converge in the south-eastern corner of the town and mutually support one another once they had gained entry. Aston ordered the construction of additional defensive earthworks when he realised where Cromwell intended to concentrate his fire.
The bombardment began as soon as Aston had rejected Cromwell’s summons. By noon on 11 September, the heavy siege guns had blasted breaches in the southern and eastern walls and demolished the steeple of St Mary’s Church. Around five o’clock that evening, Cromwell ordered the storming to begin. The regiments of Colonel Castle and Colonel Ewer attacked the southern breach while Colonel Hewson’s regiment crossed the ravine and attacked in the east.
Hewson’s men met with fierce resistance at the eastern breach. Their first assault was thrown back and they began to retreat back down the ravine. However, the regiments of Colonel Venables and Colonel Phayre came up in support and the Parliamentarians succeeded in forcing their way into the town. The assault on the southern breach met with similar resistance and faltered when Colonel Castle was shot in the head and killed during a Royalist counter-attack. Cromwell himself moved into the breach to rally the wavering Parliamentarians. When the Royalist commander Colonel Wall was killed, the defenders lost heart and fell back as the Parliamentarians poured through the breaches and overran the Royalist entrenchments. Sir Arthur Aston and about three hundred of his men fell back on Millmount, an artificial mound that was the motte of a long-demolished twelfth century castle. In a furious passion, Cromwell ordered that no quarter was to be given. Millmount was protected by a bank and ditch and a timber palisade but these defences were soon broken down and the Royalists put to the sword. Aston was bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg, which the Parliamentarian soldiers believed to be filled with gold coins. The rest of the garrison fled across the Boyne into the northern part of the town, pursued closely by Colonel Venables’ troops who prevented the Royalists from raising the drawbridge behind them.
By late evening, up to 6,000 Parliamentarians were in the town overwhelming all resistance and slaughtering officers and soldiers. A cavalry screen outside the walls prevented escape to the north. Catholic priests and friars were treated as combatants and killed on sight. Many civilians died in the carnage. A group of defenders who had barricaded themselves in the steeple of St Peter’s Church in the north of Drogheda were burned alive when the Parliamentarians set fire to the church. Around 2,000 people died in the storming and massacre of Drogheda; a number of prisoners who surrendered before Cromwell gave the order for no quarter were murdered in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison captured the following day were transported to Barbados. Parliamentarian losses were around 150.
According to the conventions of 17th century warfare, a besieged city that refused a summons to surrender and was then taken by storm could expect no mercy. Cromwell regarded the massacre at Drogheda as a righteous judgment on the Catholics who had slaughtered Protestant settlers in the Irish Uprising of 1641, a view that was probably shared by most Protestants at the time. He also considered that the example of Drogheda would serve as a warning to other garrisons in Ireland to surrender rather than risk a similar fate, thus preventing bloodshed in the long run. However, the massacre of Drogheda left an indelible stain on Cromwell’s reputation. It has lived on in Irish folk memory, making his name into one of the most hated in Irish history.
After the fall of Drogheda, the Royalists abandoned the garrisons of Trim and Dundalk without a fight. Cromwell sent three regiments under Colonel Venables north to join forces with Sir Charles Coote in Ulster while he returned to Dublin with the main body of his army and prepared to advance into the Confederate heartlands of southern Ireland.
Photo: Millmount Fort has played a crucial part in Drogheda’s history and has been a dominant feature from Norman settlement, to Cromwell’s invasion to the more recent Civil War in 1922, in which the famous Martello tower was shelled and all but destroyed.