Everything we know about Oliver Cromwell is wrong. Generations of scholars deliberately maligned him. For centuries propagandistic church officials denounced him erroneously.
Only one man knows the real truth.
Step forward Drogheda, Co. Louth native Tom Reilly, 54, author of "Cromwell Was Framed, Ireland 1649" (Chronos, $24.95).
Reilly grew up in the shadow of the walls Cromwell’s New Model Army once famously attacked, and he has come to a novel conclusion about the despised English leader that is certain to provoke his neighbors – we owe Cromwell an apology.
“I feel he was much maligned and I think we should apologize to him posthumously and to his family for accusing him of war crimes,” Reilly tells the Irish Voice.
“We blamed him for killing the ordinary men, women and children of Ireland. But only two individuals from 1649 and for the next 11 years make that allegation, and those two are unreliable. It didn’t happen.”
By making this explosive claim Reilly is letting Cromwell off the hook for the massacre in Drogheda in a way that no historian ever has before.
“My book is a challenge. I’m an amateur, this is what I’ve found,” Reilly says.
“If any historian can prove what they’re teaching Irish children today in the history books is wrong then go and prove it. I believe that Cromwell is innocent of war crimes. He’s not guilty.”
Most historians agree that at the siege of Drogheda in September 1649, Cromwell’s troops killed nearly 3,500 people after the town’s capture – comprising around 2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town reportedly carrying arms, including some civilians, prisoners and Catholic priests.
Cromwell himself, ardently believing he was doing God’s work, wrote of the carnage afterwards that: “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches…”
In his first letter back to the Council of State Cromwell also wrote: “I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think 30 of the whole number escaped with their lives.”
There you have it from the horse’s mouth. Not 30 people in the entire town escaped the bloodshed.
Case closed, right? Wrong, says Reilly.
“Those who promote the view of Cromwell as a war criminal perpetuate the idea that he simply lost his moral compass in Ireland and returned to his old self on his return to England. This is an inaccurate portrayal.”
Reilly admits he’s an unlikely champion of the Puritan parliamentarian. For a start he failed history at school.
“That’s a significant point. I was never interested in history when I was in school. But I became curious to know why Cromwell killed all my ancestors. That was what I was I was taught,” he says.
To research his explosive claims Reilly went to the local municipal records and also checked out the Drogheda corporation records. There he realized that there were hundreds of names of people who were very much alive before the siege and after it.
So if the entire population wasn’t killed how true was any of it, he asked himself.
“I read voraciously. Mostly English biographies in the first instance, 19th and 20toh century work. I began to realize the English had a completely different attitude to him. He was actually voted for in the top 10 Britons in history.”
Well they would say that though, wouldn’t they? From their perspective, standing in their shoes, Cromwell had dispatched a tyrannical king. He was the first republican and an advocate for democracy.
“There was a huge contradiction between the Cromwell that they wrote about, not just in his military and political achievements, but also the man – with the Irish telling. That’s what made me look into it.”
Thomas Woods, an eyewitness of the Drogheda siege, should not be believed says Reilly.
“His account could have been interfered with by a lot of people. We can go back to Cromwell’s own account from 1649, but we can’t do that with Woods because it’s written so long after the fact,” Reilly says.
“A lot of people sit on the fence about him. I absolutely believe that on the date in question most of the population were not even in the town.”
Where would they have gone? It would be no small undertaking even today for the population of Drogheda to up sticks.
“I think they vamoosed,” says Reilly. “I think they moved to the local monastery.”
The entire population retreated to a monastery?
“Yes, most of them. Outside the walls. The policy was when a town was being besieged, they would fill the town with soldiers, ensure there were victuals for a certain amount of time, and get all the superfluous people out so they didn’t take up the food.”