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

The Battle of the Boyne, remembered on the 12th of July every year by (mainly Northern Irish) Loyalists with enthusiasm and colourful parades (even in the Republic of Ireland, in Rossnowlagh), is one of the most iconic events in Irish history - surrounded by its own mythology. Not always near to the historical truth of the Battle of the Boyne as it happened.

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

Has the Battle of the Boyne been fought on the 12th of July?

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 somebody was mathematically challenged - 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 has become enshrined in Loyalist tradition ever since it is widely believed to be historically correct ... and it may have become conflated with the really decisive encounter of the Williamite Wars, the Battle of Aughrim, which was fought on Juky 12th, 1691 (old calendar date).

Did Protestants Fight Catholics During the Battle of the Boyne?

They did.

And Protestants fought Protestants as well as Catholics fought their co-religionists. 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.

But William had not only the support of the Pope, Catholics were fighting on both sides.

And so 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.

Didn't William III Cross the Boyne Triumphantly on his 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.

Was the Battle of the Boyne about Irish Issues?

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.

Wasn't the Battle of the Boyne Irish Fighting English?

Again an over-simplification - the 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).

Didn't Finnish Mercenaries Fight for William?

Another piece of confusion - 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. 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.

Anyway - the Orange Order has Celebrated the Battle of the Boyne Ever Since!

Again ... not strictly true. Mainly for the fact that the Orange Order is a much later creation.

But the (mis-dated) anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne quickly became the focus of celebrations for the Orange Order ever since its foundation in 1795. As a quasi-Masonic defensive association of lodges dedicated to preserving the Protestant ascendency.

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.

Around 1,500 casualties are assumed to be correct, though the high-profile death of the Duke of Schomberg tends to eclipse these.