Breaking the news: the storming of Drogheda

by Nick

On the night of 11 September 1649, the Irish town of Drogheda fell to regiments of the New Model Army under the command of Oliver Cromwell. The storming of the town was brutal. Most of its garrison and civilian inhabitants were killed during the assault, and still others were executed after being taken prisoner. The commander of the town, Sir Arthur Aston, was beaten to death with his own wooden leg, and Catholic friars were clubbed on the head with muskets in order to save ammunition. Those of the garrison who survived the assault were shipped to Barbados to be slaves.

The siege had lasted over a week, and in England many waited anxiously for news of the New Model’s progress. By 17 September, news had reached London about progress of the early stages of the assault. Snippets of information started to appear in newsbooks. The Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer reported that St Mary’s church had been destroyed by the artillery bombardment. A day later, The Impartiall Intelligencer also reported that the assault had begun, but held back from giving any details until more accurate information was available. On 20 September, The Moderate Intelligencer mentioned a letter from Liverpool dated the 14th and received on the 17th, which had information on how the first assault on the breach by Colonel Hewson’s regiment had been pushed back. By 21 September,  Perfect Occurrences was reporting that the breach had been stormed and part of the town captured by Parliamentary forces.

More definitive news arrived on Saturday 22 September. That day, Henry Walker – the author of Perfect Occurrences – got hold of two letters. One was from Liverpool, dated 14 September, and gave a second-hand account via the captain of a ship recently arrived from Dublin that Drogheda had fallen. It reported that 3,000 of the garrison had been slain, and 16 captured royalist officers executed. A second letter was from Dublin, giving a blow-by-blow account of Cromwell’s campaign up to Drogheda, finishing just at the point where the assault on the town had begun.

Walker rushed into print. Perfect Occurrences came out every Friday, and it would be nearly a week before the next edition. Instead, Walker and his regular printer, Robert Ibbitson, reprinted the two letters in a standalone pamphlet. The timing was not opportune. The day before, Parliament had enacted a new Licensing Act, sweeping away the press licences granted to existing newsbooks and putting in place a new licensing regime, with tougher penalties for reader, authors, booksellers, and printers of unlicensed pamphlets. As a result, Walker placed a caveat on the title page of his pamphlet:

Reader the Act for regulating of Printing being not yet published, I know not what it enjoyns, nor to whom to go for Licence, but when it is made known, I shall be very observable to the rules therein expressed, but this being such extraordinary good newes I thought it my duty to publish it to stop the mouths of Malignants.

Malignants aside, one suspects that Walker was also after a scoop. However, he was not the only newsbook writer to break the news. On the same day, A Modest Narrative of Intelligence also reported the good news, adding that the lack of wind in Dublin had prevented vessels sailing until now. Some newsbooks followed suit, although others, like The Moderate Messenger, cautioned that:

Reports are commonly accompanied with such incredible stories, that it diminisheth that credit which otherwise would be given thereto.

By the next week, however, Walker had his scoop: by virtue of his extensive contacts book. One of his regular correspondents was Hugh Peters, the chaplain to Parliament’s forces in Ireland. On 28 September, the day the next edition of Perfect Occurrences was due to go to print, a letter from Peters dated 15 September arrived giving more details about the assault on Drogheda. Peters had not been present at the siege, only arriving in Dublin on 11 September, but passed on very precise information nonetheless:

SIR,

THE Truth is Tredagh is taken, Three thousand five hundred fifty and two of the Enemies slaine, and sixty foure of ours. Collonell Castles, and Captaine Simmons of note. Ashton the Governour killed, none spared. Wee have also Trimme and Dundalk and are marching to Kilkenny. I came now from giving thanks in the great Church, we have all our Army well Landed.

Dublin Septemb, 15. 1649.
I am Yours Hugh Peters.

Walker reprinted the letter in Perfect Occurrences, listing from a separate, un-named source the casualties amongst the garrison’s officers and also the deaths of “2500. Foot-Soldiers, besides staffe-officers, chirurgions, and many Inhabitants”. He also took it to the House of Commons. Although it is not recorded in the House’s journal, it seems to have been read to MPs and the clerk of the Commons, Henry Scobell, appears to have ordered it to be published. At least, that is what Walker claimed: he and his printer Ibbitson issued a short and rather overblown pamphlet the next day, much of which was taken up with a large woodcut of the Commonwealth’s coat of arms rather than the brief contents of Peters’ letter.

Parliament rose on 28 September and did not return to sitting until 2 October. However, on Saturday 29 September two letters from Cromwell about the assault had arrived with the Speaker, William Lenthall, and were read out in the Commons when it returned. The letters went into horrible detail about the fate of the garrison:

Our men getting up to them, were ordered by me to put them all to the Sword; and indeed being 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 two thousand 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. Peters Church Steeple, some the West Gate, and others, a round strong Tower next the Gate, called St. Sundays: These being summoned to yield to mercy, refused; whereupon I ordered the Steeple of St. Peters Church 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 summoned, in one of which was about six or seven score, but they refused to yield themselves; and we knowing that hunger must compel them, set onely good Guards to secure them from running away, until their stomacks were come down: from one of the said Towers, notwithstanding their condition, they killed and wounded some of our men; when they submitted, their Officers were knockt on the head, and every tenth man of the Soldiers killed, and the rest Shipped for the Barbadoes; the Soldiers in the other Town were all spared, as to their lives onely, and Shipped likewise for the Barbadoes. I am perswaded that this is a righteous Judgement of God upon these Barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood, and that it will tend to preventthe effusion of blood for the future.

The letters also enclosed lists of the numbers killed. Cromwell’s second letter seems to have included the following in its list, echoing the phrasing of the list in Perfect Occurrences:

Two thousand Five hundred-Foot Soldiers, besides Staff-Officers, Chyrurgeons, &c. and many Inhabitants.

This list has been the subject of much argument amongst those seeking to absolve or blame Cromwell for what happened at Drogheda. Cromwell’s original letter does not survive, but Thomas Carlyle denied that the phrase “many inhabitants” was present in the original printed version, arguing it was added on later in an eighteenth-century reprint. C. H. Firth suggested that the printers, Edward Husband and John Field, added the list. Carlyle’s claim is demonstrably false, while Firth’s is put in doubt by this entry in the Commons journal for 2 October:

A Letter from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, from Dublin, of the Seventeenth Day of September 1649, with a List, therein inclosed, of the Defendants in Drogheda, was this Day read.

A Letter from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, from Dublin, of the Twenty-seventh Day of September 1649, together with a List of the Officers and Soldiers slain at the Storming of Drogheda, was this Day read.

What has also been claimed is that the authorities tried to hush up the fact that civilians had been killed. The Edwardian historian Joseph Muddiman argued that Walker paid the price for being the first to break the news about the slaughter of the town’s inhabitants. On 12 October, the last edition of Perfect Occurrences appeared. It had been running continuously, albeit under various similar titles, since the start of 1644. It and all of the other previously licensed newsbooks were swept away, to be replaced with three officially-sanctioned and censored newsbooks. For Muddiman, this was evidence of the regime trying to cover its tracks. More recently, Jason Peacey has also made this suggestion.

At first glance, there is evidence that suggests Muddiman may have had a point. Not every newsbook writer was as keen as Walker to mention the deaths of civilians. The Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer for 2 October published the list with the phrase “many inhabitants”, while The Perfect Weekly Account for 3 October and A Perfect Diurnall of 8 October missed it out. One of the official newsbooks published from October onwards, Severall Proceedings for 9 October, also missed out the phrase. Another, A Briefe Relation of 2 October, summarised the assault with reference only to civilian casualties. Does this represent an attempt to damp down unwelcome details of the assault?

The answer seems to be yes and no. The fact that Cromwell’s letters were published on 2 October, apparently unaltered, suggests there was not at first any attempt to hide or cover up reports coming into London. However, that civilian deaths were not subsequently mentioned in officially sanctioned newsbooks is striking, and may well have been deliberate. This probably relates more to a desire to avoid giving royalist critics ammunition with which to attack the Commonwealth, than to hide Cromwell’s role or otherwise deny responsibility altogether. Royalist newsbooks made great play of the savagery of the assault. Mercurius Elencticus for 15 October, for example, claimed that soldiers who had surrendered were killed:

In the most cruell manner they could invent, cutting off their Members, and peeces of their flesh.

It may well be that the hostile reactions Cromwell’s letters prompted from critics influenced how the assault was subsequently described.

However, the closure of other newsbooks around the same time is probably coincidence. The Council of State began shutting down non-official newsbooks from 2 October onwards. On that date, the Council wrote to Sir John Wollaston (one of the aldermen of the City of London) asking for action to be taken against unnamed printers of a newsbook:

Notwithstanding any pretence of being  licensed by one Hatter, whom we do not know to be secretary to the army; and if he were, he has no power to license anything but those of  the army.

The Licensing Act passed by Parliament on 21 October had envisaged a nominee of the Council of State, the secretary to the army, and the clerk to Parliament becoming official newsbook licensers for the new press regime. Richard Hatter was part of  the army secretariat, but was clearly not  the secretary of the army the Council of State had envisaged: the rightful candidate being John Rushworth, secretary  to Fairfax and also to the Council of Officers. However, Hatter seems to have made a determined start to his brief licensing career. On 1 October, he licensed two editions of A Perfect Diurnall. (This must have been the title that prompted the Council of State to write to Sir John Wollaston). On 3 October, he licensed Perfect Occurrences;  between 6 and 11 October he licensed several other newsbooks.

The Council of State soon began to act against the titles Hatter had licensed. An undated warrant of arrest survives in the state papers targeting John Clowes and Robert  Ibbitson, the printers of Perfect Occurrences, together with its author, ordering that they be fined under the terms of the new Licensing Act. This probably relates to the edition for 4 October that Hatter had licensed the day before publication.

The reason why the Council went after Hatter and the titles he licensed seems to lie in a mixture of politics and a desire to enforce the new Licensing Act robustly: not in the fact that these newsbooks printed details about the slaughter of civilians. A Perfect Diurnall missed out the phrase “many inhabitants” when republishing the list of deaths, and was still shut down. Walker quickly got involved with Severall Proceedings after the closure of Perfect Occurrences, and was writing it either from the start or very shortly after it began. This is not the treatment that might be expected of a writer who had offended the regime. It makes more sense, however, if the Council’s actions are seen as an attempt to bring authors and printers into the fold of the new Licensing Act.

One newsbook from this period underlines this point. The Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer for 1 October stated cautiously that:

I have for the most part waved the Parliament news, and shall so continue until I am better satisfied with what safety (in relation to their Counsailes) this Pen may walk upon this Paper which I conceive was never more uncertaine then at this present. And truly for my owne part if I had their owne journalls lying by me, I should forbeare to give you account thereof. I shall also forbeare in this place to give you the Letters of Master Peters concernin the taking of Tredagh: In regard he saith that at the storming of the Towne there were none spared I shall give you therefore in the Roome thereof the Letter from the Lord Governour himself and affixe it for my next dayes Intelligence, which indeed is able to make any dayes Intelligence most remarkable.

The wording here is ambiguous, and could be read as an unwillingness to publish details of civilian deaths. However, later in the same edition the author, Richard Collings, was happy to print the phrase “many inhabitants” when listing casualties. Given that Peters’ letter was about the casualties inflicted on the garrison, this extract seems instead to be about the accuracy of Peters’ report. This was criticised: the royalist newsbook Mercurius Pragmaticus mocked the exact body count, appending the phrase “not a man more or lesse” in square brackets after the 3,552 casualties mentioned.

It is significant here that Collings uses the word “Intelligence” to describe his reprinting of Cromwell’s letter. Newsbooks distinguishe between mere news and intelligence. News was unmediated information that migght very probably be wrong or distorted. Intelligence was information that had been sifted and evaluated so as to give readers the truth. The Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer made this clear in its title. It was an Intelligencer, nor a Diurnall or Mercury, and its full title was “The Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer Sent Abroad To Prevent Mis-Information”. Collings’s reluctance to print Peters’ letter seems to derive from this impulse, not any fear that the authorities would punish him for it. What he was scared of though, as he makes clear, was printing any state-related information that had not otherwise been authorised or licensed, such as extracts from the Commons journal (hitherto a common source for newsbook writers with contacts within Parliament).

Richard Hatter’s background, too, makes clear that the closure of newsbooks was probably not linked to Drogheda. Hatter seems to have been associated particularly with the army’s Council of War. This was Fairfax’s personal advisory body, made up of around thirty to forty officers of the rank of captain or above. John Rushworth, by contrast, seems to have acted as secretary to the Council of Officers. This was a wider body drawing on officers from all levels of the army, which had evolved from the General Council of the Army established in July 1647 as part of radical agitation within the army. By late 1648, the Council of Officers was the body driving events at Westminster, initiating the purge of Parliament on 6 December.

Although Fairfax had remained as Lord General Army throughout the king’s trial and into 1649, there was a clear political divide between him and the Council of Officers. Pride’s purge thrust him into events that he had not initiated, having been opposed to political intervention by the army.After the purge, secluded MPs attempting to see him were rebuffed by a written statement by John Rushworth given to them by Edward Whalley (one of the members of the Council of Officers). Nor did Fairfax participate in the king’s trial, withdrawing from his position as one of the trial’s commissioners. Although Rushworth was also secretary to Fairfax, he too was strongly associated with this faction. Orders to the army that were ostensibly from Fairfax were issued in Rushworth’s name during the build-up to the regicide, probably as a result of intervention from Ireton and other radicals on the Council of Officers.

Quite why Hatter decided to start licensing newsbooks at the end of September 1649 is unclear. It may have been an attempt by moderates on the Council of War to influence printed publications in their favour. Or it may be that Samuel Pecke, the author of A Perfect Diurnall, took his copy to Hatter rather than Rushworth without making the distinction, and that other newsbook writers followed suit before Rushworth or the Council of State had a chance to catch up.

Whatever the explanation, Muddiman’s interpretation does not quite stack up: the reaction in London newsbooks to the fall of Drogheda does not seem to suggest attempts to engineer a media blackout. What it does give an insight into, though, is how news spread at this time. The speed of transmission was affected by unpredictable factors like the winds or the state of the roads. How the news was broken in print depended on whether Parliament or the book trade got hold of it first. In this case, the private sector beat the public sector: the networks of contacts and correspondents that successful journalists had to develop both then and now were what got Henry Walker his scoop.

But the desire to rush to print could also spread misinformation. Exaggerated or entirely untrue reports could be spread quickly by printed newsbooks and pamphlets the same day they were received, sold to a direct audience of hundreds within London and beyond, and reaching a much wider secondary audience when passed on second-hand, read aloud, or summarised to friends and neighbours. Arguments over what newsbooks said about Drogheda and other significant incidents during the civil wars have arguably overshadowed what these texts can tell us about the circulation of news more widely.