Letters: Cromwell’s negotiations with Wexford.

On Saturday, the 2nd of October, 1649, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army arrived at the outskirts of Wexford Town, which was a Royalist-Confederate stronghold. During the ensuing siege, which lasted for nine days, Cromwell negotiated with Colonel David Sinnott, who was the Governor of Wexford at the time.

On the 3rd of October, Cromwell demanded that Sinnott surrender the town:

Sir – Having brought the army belonging to the Parliament of England before this place, to reduce it to its due obedience, to the end effusion of blood may be prevented, and the town and country about it preserved from ruin, I thought fit to summon you to deliver the same to me, to the use of the state of England. By this offer, I hope it will clearly appear where the guilt lie, if innocent persons should come to suffer with the nocent. I expect your speedy answer. Sir, your servant.

In this letter, Cromwell tells Colonel Sinnott that he has come to take Wexford Town and make it “obedient” to the English parliament (at the time, Wexford was a stronghold for the Royalist-Confederate alliance, which Cromwell intended on crushing). He outlines his hope that bloodshed can be prevented and that the town and its surrounding landscape can be spared from ruin. He also tells Sinnott that the blame will lie with him if innocent people are hurt during his quest to punish the guilty.

Sinnott replied to Cromwell’s demands on the same day:

I have received your letter of summons for the delivery up of this town into your hands, which standeth not with my honour to do of myself; neither will I take it upon me, without the advise of the rest of the Officers and mayor of this Corporation (this town being of so great consequence to all Ireland), whom I will call together and confer with, and return my resolution unto you tomorrow by twelve of the clock. In the mean time, if you be so pleased, I am content to forbear all acts of hostility, so you permit no approach to be made: expecting your answer in that particular, I remain. My lord, your lordship’s servant.

Sinnott tells Cromwell that he can not make the decision to surrender the town by himself. Instead, he must first confer with the mayor of Wexford and the other officers inside the town; and that his “resolution” (conditions for surrender) will come by 12PM the following day. He ends his letter by suggesting that, in the mean time, both sides should restrain themselves from showing acts of hostility.

Cromwell replied the following day (4th of October, 1649):

Sir, – Having summoned you to deliver the town of Wexford into my hands, I might well expect the delivery thereof, and not a formal treaty, which is seldom granted, but where the things stand upon a more equal footing. If therefore yourself or the town have any desires to offer, upon which you will surrender the place to me, I shall be able to judge of the reasonableness of them when they are made known to me. To which end, if you shall think fit to send the persons named in your last, entrust by yourself and the town, by whom I may understand your desires, I shall give you a speedy and fitting answer. And I do hereby engage myself, that they shall return in safety to you. I expect an answer hereunto within an hour; and rest. Your servant, O.C.

Here, we get the impression that Cromwell is willing to entertain Sinnott’s demands, despite them not being on an “equal footing”. Although Wexford was guarded by a stone wall, it is worth noting that Cromwell’s army was considerably larger than the town’s forces and that it was equipped with heavy siege guns and mortars. Still – It seems as though Cromwell was interested in hearing Sinnott’s list of conditions on the off-chance that they might prove to be acceptable to him; thereby allowing his forces to take the town with ease. The letter ends with Cromwell promising the safe return of anyone who delivers these list of conditions.

Sinnott’s reply:

Sir, – I have returned you a civil answer, to the best of my judgement; and thereby I find you undervalue me and the place so much, as you think to have it surrendered without capitulation or honourable terms, as appears by the hour’s limitation in your last. Sir, had I never a man in this town but the townsmen and the artillery here planted, I should consider myself in a very befitting condition to make honourable conditions; and having a considerable party with them in the place, I am resolved to die honourably, or make such conditions as may secure my honour and life in the eyes of my own party. To which reasonable terms, if you hearken not, or give me time to send my agents till eight of the clock in the forenoon tomorrow, with my propositions, with a further safe-conduct, I leave you to your better judgement, and myself to the assistance of the Almighty; and so conclude.

Here, it seems as though Sinnott is attempting to buy time. Looking back; we can see that he is drawing out the negotiations in order to reinforce the garrison inside the town (during the negotiation process, he managed to bring the troop numbers in Wexford up from 1,500 to nearly 5,000). In this letter, he tells Cromwell that his demand of a quick surrender is selling the town short; and that he considers himself to be in a situation where he can make “honourable” demands. He then asks that Cromwell wait until 8AM the next morning, so that a meeting can be held between the two sides to discuss the terms of the town’s surrender.

Later that day, Sinnott sends another letter, confirming the details of the proposed meeting:

Sir, – I have advised with the Mayor and Officers, as I promised, and thereupon am content that four, whom I shall employ, may have a conference and treaty with four of yours, to see if any agreement and undertaking may be begot between us. To this purpose I desire you to send mine a safe conduct, as I do hereby promise to send unto yours when you send me the names. And I pray that the meeting may be had tomorrow at eight of the clock in the forenoon, and that they may have sufficient time to confer and debate together, and determine and compose the matter; and that the meeting and place may be agreed upon, and the safe conduct mutually sent for the said meeting afternoon. Expecting your answer hereto, I rest, my lord, your servant.

Sinnott is telling Cromwell that he will send four of his men to meet with Cromwell’s delegates at 8AM the next day, in the hope that both parties can come to some sort of agreement. He asks that Cromwell give his men safe passage and that they be given the time and space to debate and confer with one another.

Again, Sinnott sends a letter to Cromwell. This time, he informs him of the names of those who will be representing Wexford at the meeting. He also asks that Cromwell send him the names of his delegates:

Send me the names of your agents, their qualities, and degrees. Those I fix upon are – Mayor Thomas Byrne, Major Theobald Dillon, Alderman Nicholas Chevers, Mr. William Stafford.

The next morning, Sinnott informs Cromwell that his agents are ready to be sent out and that he hopes both sides can come to an “honourable agreement”. Again, he asks that Cromwell promise them safe passage:

Sir, – My propositions being now prepared, I am ready to send my agents with them unto you; and for their safe return, I pray you to send a safe-conduct by the bearer unto me; in hope an honourable agreement may thereupon arise between your lordship, and My lord, your lordship’s servant.

Unfortunately, there is a slight “hitch” in the negotiation process:

My Lord, – Even as I was ready to send out my agents unto you, the Lord General of Horse came hither with a relief, unto whom I communicated the proceedings between your lordship and me, and delivered him the propositions I intended to dispatch unto your lordship; who hath desired a small time to consider of them and to speed them unto me; which, my lord, I could not deny, he having a commanding power over me. Pray, my lord, believe that I do not this to triffle out time, but for his present consent; and if I find any long delay in his lordship’s returning them back to me, I will proceed of myself, according to my first intention: to which I beseech your lordship give credit, at the request, my lord, of your lordship’s ready servant.

In this letter, it looks as though Sinnott is attempting to stall things by saying that his superior, the Lord General of Horse, James Touchet, has commanded him to wait for confirmation before proceeding with the negotiations. According to Ireland 1649-52 by Michael McNally, the Earl of Castlehaven, James Touchet, had managed to slip 500 troops into Wexford via the River Slaney while the negotiation process was still ongoing – hence Sinnott’s usage of the word “relief”. Sinnott goes on to say that he will proceed with the negotiations by himself if Touchet takes too long to respond.

Cromwell’s response:

Sir, – You might have spared your trouble in the account you gave me of your transaction with the Lord General of your horse, and of your resolution in the case he answer not your expectation in point of time. These are your own concernments, and it behoves you to the improve the relief to your best advantage. All that I have to say is, to desire you to take notice, that I do hereby revoke my self-conduct from the persons mentioned therein. When you shall see cause to treat, you may send for another. I rest, sir, your servant.

Cromwell responds by telling Sinnott that his communication with the Earl of Castlehaven, James Touchet, is not his concern. He also states that it is Sinnot’s responsibility to improve Wexford’s defences. He ends the letter by revoking his promise of safe-passage for the delegates that Sinnott listed in a previous letter: Mayor Thomas Byrne, Major Theobald Dillon, Alderman Nicholas Chevers and William Stafford.

On the 11th of October, Cromwell ordered his artillery at Trespan Rock to begin firing on Wexford Castle. This prompted the Governor of Wexford, David Sinnott, to call for a truce. It is at this point that Sinnott sent his list of propositions to Cromwell. The delegates that delivered these propositions were Major Theobald Dillon, Major James Byrne, Alderman Nicholas Chevers and Captain James Stafford. Sinnott’s list contained the following proposals:

  1. That the people of Wexford should have leave to hold and practice the Roman Catholic religion.
  2. That the regular and secular Clergy should be permitted to hold their livings, and exercise their ministry.
  3. That the Bishop should be suffered to continue to govern his diocese.
  4. That the garrison should be allowed to withdraw with the honors of war.
  5. That such of the inhabitants as pleased to withdraw might carry their goods, chattles, ships, or military stores with them.
  6. That the municipal privileges of the town should not be curtailed.
  7. That the Burgesses should continue to be capable to hold property elsewhere in Ireland.
  8. That the Burgesses wishing hereafter to leave should have liberty to sell their property, and have safe-conduct to England or elsewhere.
  9. That the inhabitants be regarded as in all respects freeborn English subjects.
  10. And that there be an absolute amnesty in regard to all past transactions.

Later that day, Cromwell rejected these proposals:

Sir, – I have had the patience to peruse your propositions, to which I might have returned an answer with some disdain. But, to be short, I shall give the soldiers and non-commissioned officers quarter for life, and leave to go to their several homes with their wearing clothes, they engaging themselves to live quietly there, and to take up arms no more against the Parliament of England. And the commissioned officers quarters for their lives, but to render themselves prisoners. And as for the inhabitants I shall engage myself that no violence shall be offered to their goods, and that I shall protect the town from plunder. I expect your positive answer instantly, and if you will upon these terms surrender, and in one hour send forth to me four officers of the quality of field officers, and two Aldermen, for the performance thereof, I shall thereupon forbear all acts of hostility. Your servant, O. Cromwell.

Here, Cromwell seems as though he is willing to agree to some of Sinnott’s terms. Regular soldiers can return to their homes and commissioned officers will be taken prisoner. He promises that civilians will not be harmed and that Wexford will not be plundered. However, he seems to have disagreed with the proposals concerning religion and Catholicism, as he was a staunch Puritan who believed in reformation. He ends the letter by asking Sinnott to reply within the hour.

Unfortunately, the negotiations were never allowed to run their course, as later that day, Captain James Stafford surrendered Wexford Castle, allowing Cromwell’s army to attack and scale the town wall. If you look at Sinnott’s previous letter, you can see that Captain James Stafford was named as one of the four delegates that would deliver the ten proposals to Cromwell. Stafford’s decision to surrender Wexford Castle has been the source of much debate, with many people believing that he struck a deal with Cromwell.

The Sack of Wexford has gone down as one of the most infamous events in Irish history, as Cromwell’s soldiers massacred hundreds of people, with many civilians being among the dead. The damage to Wexford was so great that Cromwell’s army could not use the town as a winter’s quarters. Its population had been so badly decimated that Cromwell asked the English Parliament for English soldiers to help repopulate the town; as many of the civilians had simply  died or “run away”.

As for the Governor of Wexford, David Sinnott, who negotiated with Cromwell – he was hanged and his family estate’s confiscated.