Oliver Cromwell’s reputation in Ireland is bloody and bitter. That his one personal legacy to the country should be not only particularly beautiful but also rather erotic is history’s little black joke. This very fine ebony cabinet is thought to have been made in Flanders, most likely Antwerp, around 1652. Antwerp became the leading European centre for painted cabinets, many of which were given as wedding gifts.
There is a tradition that Cromwell gave this one to his daughter Bridget when she married the lord deputy of Ireland, General Charles Fleetwood. (Bridget had previously been married to one of Cromwell’s most feared generals, Henry Ireton, who died near Limerick in 1651.) If so, it was a lavish gift. Inlaid in the cabinet are ten painted scenes illustrating the erotic tales of the Roman poet Ovid, including Perseus rescuing Andromeda, the Rape of Europa and Venus being carried off by Jupiter in the form of a bull.
When Cromwell arrived in Ireland in August 1649, he was effectively the head of a republic. Victory over the forces of the Scottish Covenanters and of King Charles I had been followed by the latter’s execution in January 1649. What remained to be achieved was the punishment and suppression of the Irish Catholic rebels, whom Cromwell saw as the perpetrators of barbaric massacres in 1641, and the mopping up of royalist resistance under the duke of Ormond. Ormond and the Catholic confederates, having fought each other for years, joined forces to oppose him.
Cromwell had a splendid, battle-hardened army of 12,000 men. Their republican ideology was not necessarily anathema to ordinary Irish people. The royalist commander in Wexford had trouble stopping locals from dealing with Cromwell’s troops, as ‘the rogues allure them by speaking that they are for the liberty of the commoners’. Cromwell himself had little interest in persuasion or conciliation. He made for Drogheda, which was garrisoned by royalist forces. After a siege, his troops massacred about 3,000 defenders, including many civilians. Cromwell made it clear that revenge for 1641 was on his mind: ‘This is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood’. (Many of those who died in his assault on Drogheda were English royalists or Irish Protestants.) In October, Cromwell repeated the lesson, massacring about 2,000 people in Wexford.
His subsequent campaigning was more moderate. He observed the terms of surrender at Clonmel in 1650, even though his army had been badly mauled in attacking it. Cromwell departed Ireland shortly after taking Clonmel, leaving the command to Ireton. The cost to Ireland as a whole was catastrophic: about 20 per cent of the population died from violence, famine and disease between 1649 and 1653. An account published in London in 1652 said, ‘You may ride 20 miles and scarce discern any thing or fix your eye upon any object, but dead men hanging on trees and gibbets’.