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‘The most cunning of Machiavellians’?

Henry Ireton  1611 to 1651

Ireton was born in Nottinghamshire, the son of Puritan gentry. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford and then the Middle Temple. In 1642,serving under Lord Essex, he led a troop of Horse before Edgehill but doesn’t seem to have met Cromwell until the following year.  From then on, Ireton’s career was closely linked with that of Oliver. They make an interestingly contrasting pair. Cromwell the emotional extrovert, passionate and ebullient; and Ireton … the dark, ice-cold, ruthless intellectual.

Ireton fought at Marston Moor, Naseby and Bristol. And after the surrender of Oxford in June, 1646,he married Cromwell’s daughter, Bridget.  Although he was a brave soldier, he wasn’t a particularly distinguished military commander. He did, however, have a very sharp intellect and managed to combine constitutional law with political reality – a rare gift among his fellow officers in the New Model.

He was effective if somewhat long-winded orator. Judging from the Putney Debates of 1647, he seems to have had a habit of saying that he desired ‘but one word’ and then remaining on his feet for half an hour or more at a time. The Debates were complex; an attempt to deal with the Army’s negotiations with the King, the Presbyterians in the Commons, the Agitators in the rank and file and, in time, the newly emerging Levellers. It was John Lilburne who described Ireton as ‘the cunningest of Machiavellians’ – a description open to argument. Certainly, during the talks at Putney, Ireton’s aim was to create a settlement which would guarantee peace, religious toleration and reasonable terms of disbandment for the common soldier.
Ireton was the principal architect of the Heads of the Proposals – the terms offered to Charles l in 1647. Terms which, though he didn’t immediately say so, the King had no intention of accepting.

During the Second Civil War in 1648 Ireton was responsible for putting Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle before a firing squad after the fall of Colchester. Then, later that same year, Ireton set in motion the moves which culminated in Pride’s Purge.

At the King’s trial, Ireton’s name was 4th on the list of Commissioners, only preceded by those of Bradshaw, Cromwell and Fairfax.

After the execution of Charles l, Ireton was appointed as Cromwell’s second-in-command in Ireland and, in 1650, he became Lord Deputy there. He took both Waterford and Limerick and gained a reputation for the ruthlessness with which he crushed the Irish. After the summary executions of Lucas and Lisle, this is hardly a surprise.

Weakened by incessant work and recurrent bouts of fever, he died in Ireland in November 1651 and was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey.
After the Restoration, his remains were dug up and, along with those of Cromwell and Bradshaw, taken to Tyburn and hung there for a day. His head was cut off and exhibited in Westminster Hall where it remained for the next twenty-four years.

One final, interesting thought is this; if Ireton had survived Cromwell, might he have prevented the Restoration? Might he, indeed, have ended his days as Lord Protector? It’s not impossible.

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