Monday, March 23, 2009

Siege of Kilkenny

Confederate Capital

In October 1641, a coup was launched by disaffected members of the Ulster gentry. The coup proved only to be partly successful, but it led to a wave of discord across Ireland over the following months. This breakdown in social order increasingly alarmed the Catholic propertied classes. On the 11th of May in 1642, the clergy of Ireland held a national meeting at Kilkenny, which would set an example for the nobility and gentry. A body describing itself as the lords and gentry of the Confederate Catholics met at Kilkenny on the 7th of June, and from this point onwards began to make arrangements to form an army and create a system of local courts. On October 24, the first of a series elected general assemblies met at Kilkenny. Kilkenny thus became the heart of what was in effect an independent Irish government.

The meetings were held in a house belonging to a wealthy Kilkenny merchant, Richard Shee. The last such meeting was held in January 1649, after which James Butler, the leading Irish Royalist, subsumed the Confederation into a general Royalist alliance in opposition to the Parliamentarian regime. Because of its role as the capital of the Confederation, Kilkenny was a symbolically important centre for the Catholic majority of Ireland, but it was also dear to the Royalist supreme commander Ormond, as the town was the traditional seat of power of his family. As such, the town was of some strategic importance and a target for the Cromwellian forces who had launched their reconquest of Ireland in August 1649. By the Spring of 1650 the Parliamentarians had conquered most of the eastern seaboard, presenting the major towns of Kilkenny and Waterford as the next targets of attack.

Capture of Gowran

On March 20, 1650, John Hewson rendezvoused with the force of Soldiers led by Cromwell near the castle of Gowran. At the end of January, the Parliamentarian army in Ireland had launched their campaign for the year early, due to the unseasonably mild winter of 1649-50. Colonel John Hewson had led a force from Dublin eastwards into Kildare, capturing a number of strongholds after facing little resistance. This included Leighlinbridge, a strategically important stronghold overlooking a bridge over the river Barrow, the formidable river running several miles to the east of Kilkenny town. Hewson then marched the force under his command south into county Kilkenny. In the meantime Cromwell, with John Reynolds, had captured a number of fortresses to the south of the town of Kilkenny. The only major regional garrison left in the hands of the Irish defenders was at Gowran, a village and castle several miles east of Kilkenny. The Govenor of the castle was an Englishman from Kent, Colonel Hammond. Upon arrival at Gowran, Cromwell offered lenient terms of surrender, but Hammond refused, and the following day the heavy cannon opened fire. Within an hour a gap had been blasted in the wall. Hammond asked for a treaty, but Cromwell ignored him, instead informing the garrison directly that he would give them quarter upon surrender. The soldiers surrendered both the castle and Hammond to Cromwell. Hammond and several of the officers of the garrison were shot, and a priest captured in the castle hung. Clearly, the brutal tactics adopted by the Parliamentarians at Drogheda and Wexford were still being put into practice six months on. It was an ominous sign for the population of Kilkenny.

Kilkenny Town

Kilkenny was one of the largest towns in Ireland. The town was built on either side of the river Nore, an important river which facilitated trade between Kilkenny and the city and harbor of Waterford, and from there, with the wider world. Kilkenny Castle, the home of the marquis of Ormond, dominated the town, which in turn was divided into two parts. The High town, next to the castle, was surrounded by a strong wall connected to the castle. The Irish town, as it was called, was adjacent to the High Town on its north side. To the east, across the Nore, was another walled suburb, connected to the High Town by St John's Bridge. Kilkenny was thus a series of self-contained fortifications, which if competently defended could prove a formidable obstacle to the Parliamentarian conquest.The garrison and local population, however, had been the victims of the plague for the past several months. No more than 400 soldiers were still alive out of the 1,200 men whom Castlehaven (the commander of the Irish Leinster forces) had sent to garrison the town. As a result, the mayor and city fathers were responsible for the defense of Irish town, while the soldiers held the High Town and the castle. In spite of the odds against him, the govenor, Sir Walter Butler, was determined to prevent the fall of the town to the best of his ability.

Cromwell's Commanders

The commanders serving under Cromwell at the siege of Kilkenny were amongst the most skilled and determined commanders in the Parliamentarian army. Issac Ewer, John Hewson, and Daniel Axtel were all fanatically loyal to the Parliamentarian cause, each having played a part in the execution of King Charles in 1649. Ewer was a skilled horseman who had served as a major of Dragoons in the English Civil War and had fought in the brutal storm of Drogheda. John Hewson had worked his way from humble origins up to the rank of Colonel during the 1640s, and like Ewer had played a part in the taking of Drogheda, being appointed as governor of Dublin as reward. Another prominent Parliamentarian was Daniel Axtel. Axtel, a Baptist, had served in John Hewson's regiment during the second civil war, and was known for his extremism even by the unforgiving standards of the Parliamentarians.One of the more unusual Parliamentarian leaders to play a part in the Siege of Kilkenny was Colonel Giffard, an Irish Protestant who had served under Inchiquin during the Irish wars of the 1640s. Giffard had fought at the battle of Rathmines on the Royalist side in 1649, but he and his soldiers were forced to surrender after being overwhelmed by the Parliamentarians. He subsequently joined the invading army, and played a major part in the defection of the Royalist and mostly Protestant Cork garrison to the army of Parliament in October 1649.

The overall Irish commander of the Leinster Irish Army at this time was James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven. (Ormond, the overall commander of the Irish army, had by this time fled to a more secure Westerly location). The 3,000 soldiers under his command however badly required reinforcements, leaving the army in a state of paralysis as the invaders pushed westwards. Castlehaven was thus able to do little more than observe the English attack on Kilkenny from a location twelve miles away and the soldiers under his command played no real part in the siege
Walter Butler, the Governor of Kilkenny, was responsible for the defence of the town. Walter Butler was a brother of the arch-royalist and overall commander of the Irish forces, Ormond. Unlike Ormond however Walter was a Catholic. These qualities meant that Walter Butler was a safe choice as town Govenor in the circumstances.

Siege of Kilkenny

Having captured Gowran, Cromwell had now isolated Kilkenny. On 18 March he ordered Ireton to move the heavy artillery from Fethard to Gowran. On 22 March Cromwell had led his army from Gowran , across the river Nore at Bennettsbridge, and north along the road known as the Bothar na Thoundish to within a mile of Kilkenny Castle.

On the 22nd of March, Cromwell demanded that Butler surrender the town, but this demand was promptly rejected by the Governor. When Cromwell summoned him to surrender the town, Butler made it clear that his intention was to 'maintain this city for his majesty, which, by the power of god I am resolved to do'. The following morning the English launched a sudden, large-scale cavalry thrust towards the gate leading to Irish town, hoping to panic the defenders, but this ruse failed, the townsmen holding firm. At the same time the attackers seized St Patrick's Church, just outside the south-western wall near a gate, and there established a battery of three cannon aimed towards a portion of the wall that was not flanked by other defenses.By now it was clear that the defenders of the town were determined to resist, so Cromwell planned a two-pronged attack. One infantry regiment, commanded by Colonel Hewson, would assault into the breach which the guns were going to establish near St Patrick's Church. Another regiment of 1,000 infantry commanded by colonel Ewer, was simultaneously to attack the gate on the West side of the Irish Town, hoping to burn or batter it down.

The English siege guns began to fire early on the morning of 25 March, and by noon a breach had been created by the 100 rounds fired at the wall near St Patrick's. Sir Walter Butler did not remain idle. As the English guns were firing he had commanded the town defenders to construct two counterworks opposite the inside of the breach. His troops fortified these works and lined up behind them in anticipation of an English assault.

The signal to attack was given, and Ewer's regiment charged the gate of the Irish Town. The town militia defenders panicked, falling back and allowing the attackers to seize the gate without loss. Once inside, the troops secured St Canice's Cathedral on the high ground overlooking Irish Town and advanced south towards the wall separating the High Town from the Irish Town. Ewer next attempted to fight his way across the small stream that divided the two parts of the city near its juncture with the River Nore, in the north-east corner of the High Town. But the townsmen this time held their ground, inflicting forty or fifty casualties. Ewer also failed to take the gate in the centre of the High Town's north wall.

The other prong of the assault, at the breach in the south wall of the High Town, was even less successful. There the attackers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Axtell and Colonel Hewson, charged into the breach and were met by deadly fire from Butler's soldiers. Hewson was to later claim that the signal to attack was given prematurely, and that his soldiers were repulsed because the defenders had been able to prepare for the onslaught. He also somewhat implausibly claimed that only four or five men were wounded in the attack, a claim at odds with Cromwell's own account of the fighting. In any case, Butler's cleverly posted troops killed and wounded thirty or forty attackers, included Hewson, who probably here lost the sight in one of his eyes as a result of a wound. This was the first significant repulse the royalists had inflicted upon an Parliamentarian assault during the Winter offensive. Butler's defence so far had been impressive, however he had little hope of any outside relief, making it, and it was becomming increaingly clear he was only postponing the inevitable.

Butler's men were still in possession of the High Town and the castle as night fell on 25 March, but they were hemmed in by an increasingly unhappy Cromwell, with little hope of outside help reaching them. However, Cromwell renewed his offers to Butler to surrender on generous terms that would allow the townsmen to remain or depart with their goods, and the garrison with its priests, to march away.

This offer reflected a new approach by Cromwell to convince garrisons to surrender before it was necessary to go to all of the effort and losses required to take a town by siege or an assault, an approach more in tune with how the New Model Army had operated in England and Scotland. Butler asked for time to consider these terms. Cromwell allowed the negotiations to go on but continued with his preparations for taking the city by force.

With the Irish Town now under his control, Cromwell ordered eight companies of infantry commanded by Colonel Giffard to cross the River Nore and seize the weakly defended suburb of St John's, to the East of the High Town. The suburb was seized with minimal loss. This force next attempted to break into the High Town by crossing into St John's Bridge and assaulting a gate near the bridge. Butler saw this maneuver developing and shifted enough men to the newly threatened wall to repulse the attack. Giffard's column lost forty or fifty men in the process. Cromwell then ordered a second battery, on the east, to be prepared: The defenders, seeing that they were caught between the breach on the western side and the new battery on the east sent for a treaty on the night of 26 March.

Cromwell agreed to receive commissioners from Butler and the mayor, but he refused to stop his operations. By the morning of 27 March a second breach had been blasted near the bridge over the Nore, and an assault was being prepared. However, before this could happen, Sir Walter Butler agreed to surrender both the castle and the town in return for the favorable terms offered earlier. Cromwell accepted, feeling that continued battering and assaults against the defenses would cost him too much time and money. The agreement ending the siege of Kilkenny was signed that day. Cromwell had gained control of the second city of Ireland. He agreed to protect the inhabitants and their goods from his soldiers and to allow those who wanted to leave the town to do so. Butler and his men received a free pass to march away with arms, baggage and 150 horses, and were to be given an escort for the first six miles away from Kilkenny.
Cromwell accepted the surrender of Kilkenny on 28 March.


The stout defense of the town can be explained in part by the ruthless conduct of the Parliamentarians at Drogheda and Wexford, partly due to the fact that the Irish leadership were adapting to the tactics of the New Model Army, but also undoubtedly due to the fact that Kilkenny, as the former capital of the Confederate Catholics in the 1640s, was of some symbolic importance to the defenders. The fierce fighting claimed the lives of around 150 Parliamentarian soldiers, with the defenders suffering only light losses, a particularly notable feat considering that most of the defenders were town militia rather than professional soldiers. The Parliamentarians had faced one serious setback before the siege of Kilkenny, having had to lift the siege of Waterford during December 1649. The difference at Kilkenny was that concerted attempts to storm the town were repeatedly thrown back, essentially a tacitcal failure.

The New Model Army however was slow to learn from this setback. The following month, during the siege of Clomnel, Cromwell once again attempted to employ the assault tactics he had used with success at Drogheda and Wexford. This time the consequences would prove even more disastrous than they had been at Kilkenny.


Scot-Wheeler, James (1999). Cromwell in Ireland, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
O'Siochru, Micheal, (2008). God's Executioner- Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland, Faber & Faber: London
S.J Connolly (2008). Divided Kingdom Ireland 1630-1800, Oxford University Press: Oxford

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