Henry Ireton, 1611-1651

Cromwell's right-hand man in his dealings with the Levellers and the leading architect of the King's trial and execution. Cool, taciturn and intellectual in contrast to Cromwell's passion and emotion.

Portrait of Henry IretonHenry Ireton was born at Attenborough, near Nottingham, the eldest of five sons of German Ireton, a minor country gentleman. Owing to the archaic practice of ultimogeniture, or inheritance by the youngest son, that was prevalent in parts of 17th century Nottinghamshire, Henry did not inherit the family estate when his father died in 1626.

Ireton went to Trinity College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, then to the Middle Temple in 1629, after which he returned to Nottinghamshire. Although he was not called to the bar, Ireton probably practised as a lawyer during the 1630s. As tensions between King Charles and the Long Parliament grew, he became prominent among the Puritans of Nottinghamshire by organising the Root and Branch petition against Episcopacy in the county. As war clouds gathered, Ireton joined his kinsman John Hutchinson in recruiting a company to protect the magazine of the Nottingham militia from the King's men.

Puritan Soldier

In 1642, Parliament commissioned Ireton captain of a troop of horse to be raised by the citizens of Nottingham. He took his troop south and joined the army of the Earl of Essex. After fighting at Edgehill, Ireton returned to Nottinghamshire and served as major in Colonel Thornhaugh's regiment of horse. In July 1643, the Nottinghamshire horse participated in the Parliamentarian victory at Gainsborough, where Ireton began his close association with Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell became governor of the Isle of Ely, he appointed Ireton deputy-governor with responsibility for organising the region's defences. Like Cromwell, Ireton believed in freedom of worship for the Independent sects. He tried to create a godly commonwealth in Ely, which became notorious to Presbyterians as a hotbed of radical sectarianism.

In 1644, Ireton returned to active service and was promoted to quartermaster-general in the Eastern Association army under the Earl of Manchester. He fought at Marston Moor (July 1644) and second Newbury (October 1644). When Cromwell denounced Manchester's leadership in December 1644, Ireton submitted a deposition supportive of Cromwell and extremely critical of Manchester. In 1645, he took command of a regiment in the New Model Army. The night before the battle of Naseby (June 1645), Ireton led a daring raid on the Royalists' quarters and took a number of prisoners. On Cromwell's recommendation, he was promoted to the rank of commissary-general on the day of the battle and given command of the cavalry on the left wing of the Parliamentarian army. Ireton's division bore the brunt of Prince Rupert's charge, during which Ireton himself was wounded and briefly taken prisoner. He escaped when the tide of battle turned against the Royalists by promising his captors their freedom. He recovered from his wounds in time to take part in the siege of Bristol (September 1645).

In March 1646, Ireton was one of the negotiators at Truro when Lord Hopton surrendered the Royalist western army. He then played a leading role in the siege and final capitulation of Oxford. On 15 June 1646, a few days before the surrender of Oxford, Ireton married Cromwell's eldest daughter Bridget at Cromwell's headquarters at Holton.

Army Grandee

Ireton was elected MP for Appleby in the recruiter by-elections of October 1645 and emerged as the ablest politician amongst the Army leadership. In March 1647, he spoke in defence of a petition circulating amongst the soldiers, which Denzil Holles MP had declared seditious. Their quarrel degenerated into physical threats. Ireton and Holles left the House of Commons intending to fight a duel, but were stopped by other MPs and forbidden from proceeding. Realising that Holles and the Presbyterians were intent on disbanding the Army in order to push through a settlement with the King on their own terms, Ireton threw himself wholeheartedly into the political struggle that was developing between Parliament and the New Model Army.

In collaboration with Cromwell and Lambert, Ireton directed Cornet Joyce to secure King Charles at Holmby House in June 1647 in order to isolate him from the Presbyterians and their Scottish allies. Ireton was also prominent in the establishment of the Council of the Army, where Grandees and Leveller-inspired Agitators met to formulate the Army's political direction. He drafted the Representation of the Army (June 1647), which stated the Army's objectives and demanded the removal of corrupt Members of Parliament, and which led to the expulsion of the Eleven Members in July 1647 and the Army's occupation of London in August.

Despite his involvement in these revolutionary actions, Ireton worked closely with Cromwell to moderate the extreme demands of the Levellers. Like Cromwell, his principal objective was to secure freedom of worship for the Puritan sects rather than to achieve political or social reform. In consultation with Major-General Lambert, Lord Saye and Lord Wharton, Ireton drafted an outline treaty with the King known as The Heads of the Proposals. He urged the King to adopt the Army proposals rather than the less conciliatory Newcastle Propositions offered by Parliament, but Charles would accept neither. The Levellers accused Ireton of servility, and denounced his dealings with the King as a betrayal of the soldiers and people of England.

In October 1647, the Putney Debates were held between the Army radicals and the Grandees. Ireton emerged as the most eloquent representative of the Grandees against the Levellers and Agitators, putting the case for the preservation of property rights and maintaining the privileges of the gentry. He promoted the Heads of the Proposals as a less disruptive alternative to the Levellers' political demands. After the Grandees curtailed the Putney Debates, Ireton drafted a new manifesto to be presented to the Army at the Corkbush Field rendezvous. By concentrating on settling the soldiers' material grievances rather than political argument, Ireton ensured the loyalty of all but the most radical officers and men, and averted a potentially dangerous mutiny. Meanwhile, the King's escape from Hampton Court and his attempts to start another war with assistance from Scotland alienated both Ireton and Cromwell, and turned them implacably against him.

During the Second Civil War (1648), Ireton went with General Fairfax to suppress the Royalist uprising in Kent. Canterbury surrendered to Ireton on 8 June 1648 and he rejoined Fairfax at the bitter siege of Colchester in Essex. When Colchester surrendered, Fairfax controversially ordered the execution of the Royalist commanders Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle. Said to have been instigated by Ireton, the executions were calculated to deter others from taking up arms against Parliament and to set a precedent for the execution of Parliament's enemies.

The Regicide

During the autumn of 1648, with Cromwell in the north at the siege of Pontefract and Fairfax unsure what to do, it was Ireton who set in motion the train of events that led to the trial and execution of King Charles. Ireton drafted the Army Remonstrance, which demanded that the King should be brought to account for causing unnecessary bloodshed among his subjects, and he persuaded Fairfax and the Council of Officers of the necessity of moving against Parliament because of its continuing attempts to negotiate with Charles. Despite strong opposition from the Levellers, Ireton called for the forced dissolution of Parliament but was persuaded by Ludlow and other Independent MPs to purge it of the King's sympathisers instead. Pride's Purge was duly carried out on 6 December 1648.

When Cromwell returned to London, the Army leaders set up their headquarters in Whitehall Palace. Ireton was the chief representative of the Grandees in a further round of debates over the new national constitution proposed in the Levellers' Agreement of the People. John Lilburne wanted the Agreement to be widely circulated and offered for signing by every adult male in England. He walked out of the discussions when Ireton insisted that it should first be presented to Parliament for ratification. As everyone expected, Parliament put aside discussion of the Agreement until the King had been dealt with, and it was never taken up again.

Appointed a commissioner of the High Court of Justice, Ireton was one of the most enthusiastic of the 59 signatories of the King's death warrant. After the King's execution, he proposed an "Engagement" to be signed by all members of the newly-formed Council of State, pledging their loyalty to the new Commonwealth régime and their approval of the regicide. In a modified form, this was later extended to the whole population in the Oath of Engagement of 1650.

Ireton was nominated to sit as a member of the Council of State but, along with the religious radical Colonel Harrison, his nomination was rejected by moderates in Parliament.

Lord-Deputy in Ireland

In the summer of 1649, Ireton was promoted to major-general and went as second-in-command to Cromwell on his campaign against the Royalists and Catholics in Ireland. Ireton participated in the storming of Drogheda and Wexford in September and October 1649, then took command of the English army when Cromwell fell ill in November. Ireton jointly commanded an expedition with Colonel Michael Jones to capture Inistioge and Carrick, and in February 1650 Ireton captured Ardfinnan Castle.

In May 1650, Cromwell was recalled to England to undertake his campaign against Charles II and the Scots. Ireton was appointed lord-deputy in his place and took over command of the army in Ireland. With the assistance of Edmund Ludlow and three other commissioners, Ireton worked to advance the Protestant religion and to suppress Catholicism—primarily through the continuation of the process of colonisation by English settlers and soldiers. Ireton himself invested heavily in land in County Kilkenny and Tipperary. He recommended to the Council of State that a more lenient approach should be adopted towards the native Irish in the interests of shortening the war, but this advice was ignored.

During Ireton's summer campaign of 1650, several of the remaining Irish strongholds were captured, including the port of Waterford. However, Ireton mismanaged the campaign against Limerick, which enabled the town to hold out for another year. Ireton spent the winter of 1650-1 regrouping his forces and preparing for a new offensive against Limerick and the province of Connacht. The siege of Limerick was resumed in June 1651 and the town finally surrendered in October after a four-month siege. Ireton's tireless efforts in supervising military operations in Ireland apparently exhausted him; he caught a fever at Limerick and died there on 26 November 1651, aged 40.

His body was returned to England for a state funeral in Westminster Abbey where a magnificent monument was raised in his memory. Many Puritans were offended at this extravagance, and it is probable that the austere Ireton would also have objected. The monument was destroyed after the Restoration. Like other prominent regicides, Ireton's corpse was exhumed and hanged at Tyburn in 1661. His head was exhibited at Westminster for at least 24 years.


C.H. Firth, Henry Ireton, DNB, 1891

Ian Gentles, Henry Ireton, Oxford DNB, 2004

James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland, (New York 1999)