The Battle of the Boyne - Beyond the Myths

Myths Surrounding the Battle of the Boyne

William III and James II - two English kings slugging it out in Ireland.

The Battle of the Boyne may have taken place in 1690 but it remains one of the most iconic events in Irish history - and as such, is naturally surrounded by its own mythology. The event is so famous that many some of the stories floating around about this military clash fall pretty far from the historical truth of the Battle of the Boyne as it happened.

In short, the Battle of the Boyne was a fight between the forces of William of Orange and the deposed King James II of Scotland, England, and Ireland. It was James who lost the battle next to the River Boyne, close to where you find the town of Drogheda today.

Setting the record straight has some modern-day importance as well because the battle is still remembered on the 12th of July every year by (mainly Northern Irish) Loyalists with enthusiasm and colorful parades (even in the Republic of Ireland, in Rossnowlagh),

So let us have a look at what we really know about the Battle of the Boyne, and sort the historical truth from time-honored mythology.

When the Battle of the Boyne Took Place

Here is the first stumbling block, because actually, the very date it is celebrated on is wrong. It was not really fought on July 12th - the Battle of the Boyne, ending with the victory of King William III over King James II, took place on July 1st, 1690.

It is celebrated on July 12th simply because someone made a mistake in their calculations. In 1752, the change to the Gregorian calendar necessitated a re-calculation of all historical dates to determine anniversaries. July 1st (old style) really became July 11th (new style).

As the wrong date is now enshrined in Loyalist tradition, it is widely believed to be historically correct. To add to the date confusion, many people mix up the day of the decisive encounter of the Williamite Wars, the Battle of Aughrim, which was fought on July 12th, 1691 (old calendar date), with the Battle of the Boyne.

The Protestants and Catholics Question

To portray the battle as a religious conflict would be nowhere near the truth - though James II was hated by some of his opponents for his Catholicism and William III was often hailed as a Protestant savior, the battle was not about rotestants against Catholics.

William had the support of the Pope, and there Catholics were fighting on both sides, as were Protestants. It was all about politics in the end - with a few supporters even merrily switching sides during the war. Political sides, their religion did not change.

Ultimately the war was about the foundations of British society – and about the choice between an absolutist or a parliamentary monarchy.

The White Horse

The color of the horse William rode on the day is traditionally deemed to be white - but this is disputed by some historians (maybe those with too much time on their hands). Current consensus seems to be that he rode a dark horse.

It is, however, even more unlikely that the king actually rode across the Boyne in triumph. He would have had to dismount and lead his horse across. Less heroic pose, same outcome.

Yet in Loyalist iconography the image of King Billy (with on orange sash) on a white horse riding across the Boyne is immortal.

Was the Battle of the Boyne the Decisive Battle of the Williamite Wars?

Definitely not - even if the crossing of the Boyne was an important step towards securing Dublin. But the Jacobite defeat was neither the end of the war nor the start of a Williamite string of victories.

The one decisive battle of the Williamite Wars was the Battle of Aughrim (County Galway) in 1691. Curiously enough fought on July 12th ... according to the old calendar. See above for the date-conflation.

The Battle Wasn't About Ireland at All

Not really - though (most of) the Irish Catholics were sympathetic to their co-religionist James and would have grudgingly accepted an absolute monarchy in return for religious favors.

Ultimately the battle was about a Scotsman and a Dutchman slugging it out over the English crown on a foreign field. Irish issues were never really raised.

And Irish freedom wasn't even mentioned.

It wasn't a battle about the Irish against the English, either. For starters, a majority of James' troops were Irish, and William's army relied mainly on Anglo-Irish forces. In addition James enjoyed the support of the French, providing nearly a third of his fighting force (to indirectly thwart the ambitions of France's continental enemies). William's force was even more diverse, with Dutch, German, French Huguenot and even Danish soldiers marching for him (and, in the case of the Danes at least, hard cash).

The Finnish Mercenaries

It is sometimes reported that William won thanks to the support of Finnish mercenaries. This is another rather confused notion - the Danish king hired out troops to William when he had to call off a war against Sweden due to insufficient support by his French allies. As with today, politics certainly were complicated and armies were expensive.

One of the regiments serving under William was the Fynske - from the island of Funen (Danish Fyn) in Denmark, occasionally and very loosely translated into English as the "Finnish" regiment.

The Orange Order Celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne

Some would say that the Orange Order is a quasi-Masonic defensive association of lodges dedicated to preserving the Protestant ascendency. However, they have not always celebrated the victory of the Battle of the Boyne, mainly for the fact that the Orange Order is a much later creation.

But the (misdated) anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne quickly became the focus of celebrations for the Orange Order ever since its foundation in 1795. 

Did the Battle of the Boyne Involve Massive Bloodshed?

Actually it did not - in proportion to the armies involved the casualties were low. This had to do as much with the inhospitable terrain as with early decisions to withdraw or to fire at targets outside range.

The best scholarly guess puts the casualties around 1,500 in total, though the high-profile death of the Duke of Schomberg tends to eclipse all of these.

Was this page helpful?