Vanquishing Cromwells flagship, the Great Lewis

On January 23rd 1645 one of the most surprising victories of any Irish action against the English was realised, when an Irish force managed to sink the flagship of the English parliamentary navy at Duncannon Co. Wexford.  The ship was the Great Lewis and she lies to this day beneath the sands of Waterford Harbour.

Back story

The background to this story lies in what is regularly called the Confederate Wars or in some cases the 11 years war 1641-1652.  Although there were many aspects to this upheaval which would ultimately lead to a civil war in England and end in crushing defeat for the Irish under Cromwell, a key motivation of the catholic uprising sought to win concessions from the English king, Charles I, as a reward for supporting him against the English parliament.   

The Great Lewis and her three comrades via local marine artist Brian Cleare. With permission of the artist.

“In May 1642, on the initiative of the Catholic church, Irish Catholics formed what could be called an Irish government at Kilkenny (the Confederate Catholic Association of Ireland) led by a supreme council elected by a landowners and Catholic clergy.  It took an oath to uphold the King’s rights, the Catholic religion and the ‘fundamental laws of Ireland’. Regular armies were formed under Irish Catholic officers who had served in continental Europe.”[1] 

Duncannon comes center stage

In 1643 Charles I signed an uneasy truce with the Confederates in an effort to concentrate his efforts against Parliament.  As is so often the case with civil wars alligencies chopped and changed and the troops stationed at Duncannon fort under Lord Lawrence Esmonde, initially loyal to the crown, decided to switch to the Parliament’s side.  As the fort was of such strategic importance, the confederates dispatched troops from Waterford to attack it under General Thomas Preston, while from England, Parliament dispatched four ships to support it with additional troops and supplies. 

The flagship of this group of ships was a requisitioned merchantman, the Great Lewis.  She was under the command of Captain Richard Swanley. The others were made up of the Madeline, (I’ve read elsewhere Mary and also Magdalen) Mayflower and Elizabeth. The command of the flotilla fell to a Captain Bell.[2]

The Irish had an advantage of height over the four ships that were at anchor below them in Duncannon bay.  During the night of the 22nd of January 1645 they moved their artillery to forward positions. As dawn broke on the 23rd they commenced firing upon the four ships, who realised they were in peril and prepared to make their escape.  But fate was on the side of the Irish, or was it exceptionally good timing? For as the tidal and wind conditions were unfavourable, the ships found themselves at the mercy of the elements and the Irish cannon fire. The sailors did what they could to withdraw their ships out of range, the Great Lewis being severely damaged in the process. 

A sketch of the siege from Hore. Via Wexford Co Library. With thanks to Michael Dempsey.

With her masts damaged and her deck on fire the ship drifted slowly away from the onshore barrage, later to sink on the 26th, supposedly with the loss of 200 men (a figure I find difficult to understand in the circumstances).  The other three ships escaped back to England once emergency repairs had been made.

Duncannon, looking from upriver

Discovery

In 1999 when dredging works were being carried out by the Port of Waterford on this natural sand bar, timbers were uncovered which prompted archaeological monitoring.  Subsequent underwater investigations discovered a 17th century wreck with canon sticking out of the sand.[3] 

Amazingly, the report (written by Dr Connie Kelleher) goes on to explain that “The wooden structure survives almost intact below the seabed, and the line of cannons, with their breech ends exposed, provide an insight into the potential nature and extent of this protected site.”  (See diagram below)

Perhaps predictably, given the little excavation work that has been carried out to date, it also expresses a word of caution “Though the historical evidence is plausible, further investigation is needed to determine the nature, extent and, if possible, the true identity of this wreck.”  I guess in the graveyard of a thousand ships, its well to be cautious until a proper assessment can be made.  The current level of investigation has only literally scratched the surface of the seabed.

A sketch of the wreck lying off Duncannon, note the tiny fraction exposed.
Archaeology Ireland, Heritage Guide No. 26: The Duncannon Wreck —a seventeenth-century ship in Waterford Harbour (May 2004) Copy supplied by Brian Sharpe

Nevertheless its importance nationally and internationally, even if not the Great Lewis, is undeniable.  

Kelleher continues; “ The historical and archaeological value of this site cannot be over-estimated. Although it would be excellent to positively identify the wreck, the fact that these are the substantial remains of a seventeenth-century ship is what is of real significance… it is the first shipwreck from that time to be discovered and then investigated in Irish waters. The possibility that it could have been directly involved in a period of our history that has left such an immense mark adds even more importance to the wreck, as does the realisation that we could, in fact, be looking at a war grave.”

Conclusion

The sinking of the Great Lewis was the turning point in the siege and a huge moral boost for the Irish, although the beleaguered garrison did not finally surrender until the 18th of March 1845.  (Some supplies and extra troops had been landed before the onshore barrage began)

Both events were significant achievements for the confederate forces, and you can’t help but wonder when Cromwell finally reached Waterford harbour did he have a particular malice towards the area when he thought of the humiliation of the loss of his navy’s flagship and the taking of the fort.

A previous guest blog by James Doherty gives a terrific insight to the era and specifically the activities pertaining to Duncannon Fort.

Next weeks blog looks forward to the Waterford Civic Trust event to acknowledge the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the unveiling of a blue plaque to a survivor of the tragedy, Philip O’Keeffe. The blog will focus on his story, but also at least three others from the county, and three others from the harbour area.


[1] http://www.theirishstory.com/2014/01/10/the-eleven-years-war-a-brief-overview/#.XKCAQ_lKgvg

[2] The Great Lewis and the siege of Duncannon 1645.  Kevin Downes.  Decies #60 pp155-6

[3] Archaeology Ireland, Heritage Guide No. 26: The Duncannon Wreck —a seventeenth-century ship in Waterford Harbour (May 2004)

For more information on the wrecks around Duncannon including the speculation on the Great Lewis see Connie Kelleher’s article Pirates, slaves and shipwrecks pp181-199 in Medieval Wexford, Essays in memory of Billy Colfer. Eds Doyle. IW & Browne B. 2016. Four Courts Press. Dublin