The Sack of Wexford takes place on October 11, 1649, during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, when the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell takes Wexford town in southeastern Ireland. The English Parliamentarian troops break into the town while the commander of the garrison, David Synnot, is trying to negotiate a surrender, massacring soldiers and civilians alike. Much of the town is burned and its harbour is destroyed. Along with the Siege of Drogheda, the sack of Wexford is still remembered in Ireland as an infamous atrocity.
Wexford is held by Irish Catholic forces throughout the Irish Confederate Wars. In the Irish Rebellion of 1641, over 1,500 local men muster in the town for the rebels. In 1642, Lord Mountgarret, the local Commander of the Confederate Catholic regime, orders Protestants to leave Wexford.
Wexford is also the base for a fleet of Confederate privateers, who raid English Parliamentary shipping and contribute 10% of their plunder to the Confederate government based in Kilkenny. In 1642, Parliamentary ships begin throwing captured Wexford sailors overboard with their hands tied. In reprisal, 150–170 English prisoners are kept in Wexford and threatened with death if such killing continued.
In 1648, the Confederates and Royalists in Ireland sign a treaty joining forces against the English Parliament. After Cromwell’s landing in Ireland in August 1649, therefore, Wexford is a key target for the Parliamentarians, being an important port for the Royalist alliance and a base for the privateers.
Cromwell arrives at Wexford on October 2, 1649 with about 6,000 men, eight heavy siege guns, and two mortars. The town’s garrison initially consists of 1,500 Confederate soldiers under David Synnot. However, the morale of the town is low and many of the civilians in Wexford want to surrender. Synnot, however, strings out surrender negotiations with Cromwell insisting on several conditions for surrender that Cromwell does not countenance, including the free practice of the Catholic religion, the evacuation of the garrison with their arms, and the free passage of the privateer fleet to a friendly port.
Negotiations are reopened when Cromwell’s guns blast two breaches in the walls of Wexford castle, opening the prospect of an assault on the town. However, while negotiations are still ongoing, the town is unexpectedly stormed and sacked on October 11, 1649.
Stafford, the English Royalist captain of Wexford Castle, surrenders the castle for reasons that have never been determined. The troops of the New Model Army, on their own initiative, immediately assault the walls of the town, causing the Confederate troops to flee in panic from their positions. The Parliamentarians pursue them into the streets of Wexford, killing many of the town’s defenders. Several hundred, including David Synnot, the town governor, are shot or drowned as they try to cross the River Slaney. Estimates of the death toll vary. Cromwell himself believes that over 2,000 of the town’s defenders have been killed compared with only 20 of his troops. Several Catholic priests, including seven Franciscans are killed by the Roundheads. Much of the town, including its harbour, is burned and looted. As many as 1,500 civilians are also killed in the sacking. This figure is difficult to corroborate but most historians accept that many civilians are killed in the chaos surrounding the fall of Wexford.
The destruction of Wexford is so severe that it can not be used either as a port or as winter quarters for the Parliamentarian forces. One Parliamentarian source therefore describes the sack as “incommodious to ourselves.” Cromwell reports that the remaining civilians have “run off” and asks for soldiers to be sent from England to repopulate the town and reopen its port.