The Battle of the Boyne

The "Glorious Revolution", the Williamite Wars and 1690

Battle of the Boyne - painting by Jan van Huchtenburg (1647–1733)
••• public domain 

On July 1st, 1690, two armies consisting of Danish, French, Dutch, Huguenot, German, English and even Irish troops met on the banks of the River Boyne near Drogheda. Both were led by men insisting that they alone were the rightful King of England. The main force of both armies never took part in the fighting. The Battle of the Boyne was not decisive in any way. It wasn't even about Ireland - yet it became one of the most iconic events in Irish history.

1688 - The Glorious Revolution

To explain the Battle of the Boyne one has to start at the root cause of it. King James II of England, a Stuart, aroused the suspicions of the Westminster parliament by his reactionary politics and his definite leanings towards the Catholic church. Succeeding his brother Charles II as king, James was already 51 years old and not expected to last. Or build a dynasty - he was childless. And next in line for the throne was Mary, Charles' niece, married to William - an obscure European nobleman currently Stadtholder of the (staunchly Protestant) Netherlands.

While his religious beliefs might have been tolerable for a while, James' claim to being the absolute ruler got the Houses of Parliament's collective feathers immediately into a ruffle. Less than 40 years ago a king's head was chopped off for similar aspirations. Four months after James II accession the first rebellion under the Duke of Monmouth (his nephew, albeit illegitimate) failed.

The "Bloody Assizes" followed, ringing home the reality of absolute kingship.

The final straw arrived on June 10th, 1688, in the form of the Prince of Wales - as if by magic James had suddenly succeeded in creating a male heir! Catholic succession was ensured.

William then put all his eggs into one basket, sailed for England and landed at Brixham on November 5th, 1688.

Ensuring the support of English dissidents, William marched upon London, manage to throw James out of England. The "Glorious Revolution" was a success and on February 13th William and Mary were crowned joint sovereigns - after signing the Bill of Rights and effectively making absolute monarchy impossible.

Jacobites Versus Williamites

The Glorious Revolution ripped Britain politically apart - supporters of "the Old King" vowing to resist the political change by force. They became collectively known as the Jacobites, James being the English version of the Biblical name Jacob. Not surprisingly supporters of King William became known as Willamites.

To view this conflict as a religious issue is a futile exercise - though James' Catholicism caused suspicion and ultimately led to his downfall. Political issues were far more important. And the Protestant William actually had the support of Pope Innocent XI. And William's European allies were mainly drawn from the League of Augsburg - an anti-French cabal of nobility, but including Catholic states as well.

Battleground Ireland

Ireland became a battleground almost by accident - having left England, James II had de facto handed William the crown on a silver plate.

His only hope of restoration was linked to a return to his realm. And only one part was considered secure and sympathetic enough - Catholic Ireland, effectively ruled by the Jacobite Tyrconnel.

Tyrconnel was determined to hold on to power in Ireland and played a diplomatic cat-and-mouse-game involving William, James and Louis XIV of France.

With French blessings and military support James II landed at Kinsale on March 12th, 1689, bent on re-conquering Ireland, than Scotland, then England. Several Jacobite successes followed and the Siege of Derry began on April 16th, the Williamites were seemingly losing on a big scale. And James even managed to establish his own parliament in Dublin.

But the military campaign of the Duke of Schomberg, at that time a Brandenburg general "on loan" to William, almost reversed the situation.

And on June 14th, 1690, William III entered Ireland at the head of 15,000 troops (mostly Dutch and Danish) - using the port of Carrickfergus and heading south for Dublin via Newry and Drogheda.

James II decided to thwart this plan by defending Dublin on the banks of the River Boyne. Occupying Drogheda and the Oldbridge Estate to the west looked like a good idea at the time.

The Battle of the Boyne in 1690

The situation on the morning of July 1st, 1690, was clear - William III wanted to get through to Dublin and had to find a way across the Boyne. Easier said than done, with Drogheda occupied and fortified by Jacobite troops a crossing near the Oldbridge Estate looked the only achievable goal. So William marched his assorted troops there.

Waiting to meet him was the army loyal to James II, led by the man himself. And this is the first reason why the battle achieved fame: It was the only time both kings were actually on a battlefield, facing each other (albeit at a distance).

The battle itself, though bloody enough, was not a massive engagement. Many troops only "fought" outside musket range, others got (literally) bogged down, reduced to glaring at an enemy scowling back across a piece of unpassable land. And while the Jacobites had (in theory) a very defensible position the Williamites more than straightened the odds by having and employing artillery as well as fielding experienced soldiers. Within a few hours these soldiers, despite losing the Duke of Schomberg, managed to force a passage across the Boyne, to beat back counter-attacks and to establish a safe passage across the river, onwards to Dublin.

And here further iconic status was gained - William of Orange crossing the Boyne became the emblematic image it still is today. And James fleeing pell-mell southwards, finally to France and never to return, is not forgotten either. Neither is his remark to Lady Tyrconnel that her countrymen certainly ran well. In reply to which she observed that he seemed to have outrun them.

But one has to add that James was not too far off the mark - especially the "Gaelic Irish" regiments again proved their tendency to simply go home when their commanding officer was killed. The "cause" was a very nebulous concept to them.

The Subsequent Failure of the Jacobite Cause

As the Battle of the Boyne was not decisive in any way, the war continued. Mainly thanks to William's biggest blunder - instead of opting for peace and reconciliation he lambasted the Jacobites and drew up punitive terms under which their surrender might be recognized. Winning hearts and minds obviously was not very high on his agenda - and thus he actually managed to stiffen the enemy's resistance. Which only ended more than a year later at Limerick.

Jacobites made two more serious attempts to regain the throne for the Stuarts - in 1715 and again in 1745, the last under the ineffective but very romantic "Bonnie Prince Charlie". After the massacre of his troops during the Battle of Culloden (Scotland) the Jacobite cause effectively ran out of steam. But Culloden became as iconic for Scotland as the Battle of the Boyne is for Ireland.

The Battle of the Boyne as a Protestant Icon

Despite its ultimate historic insignificance, the Battle of the Boyne became a Protestant and Unionist icon - this was mainly due to the presence of both kings on the battlefield. The image of James running from the victorious William was too good to resist. Even if the Protestant William fought the Catholic James with the unlikely backing of Pope Innocent XI!

The Orange Order, founded in the 1790s to preserve the Protestant Ascendency, made the celebration of the battle the central event of its calendar. Which it still is today - though the highlight of the marching season is actually taking place on July 12th, the wrong day. July 12th is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and massive parades are held in commemoration of William's victory (only one Orange Order parade is actually held in the Republic - in Rossnowlagh). An impressive event, though highly divisive and sectarian in character. And always fluting and drumming "The Sash That My Father Wore" ...

And a tour of (Protestant) Belfast will surely bring you face to face with the iconic image burned into Irish minds - "King Billy" in a red coat, astride a white horse, pointing his sword towards victory and a glorious Protestant-dominated future. This representation may not be historically correct, but every Irish schoolboy will instantly recognize it. On both parts of the divide. It represents not only Protestant victory but also the close connection to England.