The Battle of the Boyne

On 5 November 1688, Prince William of Orange landed at Torbay in Devon with an army of 20,000 men in an unusual turn of events that had actually seen him asked to invade the country by prominent members of the English Establishment to rein in or possibly even depose the Catholic King James II. They had been willing to tolerate James as long as he had no legitimate heir for already in his mid-fifties he was quite elderly for the time but when on 10 June 1688 his wife Mary of Modena gave birth to a healthy baby boy and the prospect of a Catholic Dynasty loomed their patience snapped.

boyne william of orange x

William, whose invasion had been delayed many months due to bad weather, had little interest in being King of England and was unsure of his decision to intervene. He was after all James’s nephew and son-in-law and had spent much of his young life at the Court of Charles II in London but he could see the strategic advantages of doing so with his Dutch Republic in conflict with the forces of the Catholic King Louis XIV of France and he would rather have the powerful English Navy and its Army under his command than as an ally of his enemy as seemed likely.

His hesitancy sat so uneasily with his English supporters who feared the consequences of his non-arrival that when an accommodating Protestant Wind at last permitted his invasion force to land it was greeted almost as a form of deliverance.

boyne james ii x

The reception granted to William wasn’t lost on James but with the army he had at his disposal almost twice the size of William’s there didn't appear to be any imminent danger but prone to see enemies both real and not he feared London would rise up against him were he absent, so much of his army he left in the city to maintain order.

Even so, his chances of victory remained high as he marched west to confront William but he doubted the loyalty of his army and had received reports of Catholic Officers within its ranks not only being disobeyed but even on occasion attacked. Beset by nose bleeds and uncertainty his confidence was dealt a shattering blow when his best General, John Churchill, defected. Losing his nerve he returned to London to await developments.

At first there appeared to be a willingness on both sides to negotiate a settlement but James was haunted by the fate of his father Charles I who had tried to do similar only to meet his end on the scaffold. Fearing for the safety of his wife and young son he sent them abroad before on 11 December he too tried to flee the city contemptuously dropping the Royal Seal, the symbol of his authority into the River Thames as he did so.

He did not get far however, and was captured disguised as a priest and returned to London wherein he tried to resume negotiations but William had by this time made up his mind to be rid of him altogether and with his tacit approval on 23 December, James was permitted to flee once more.

The fact that James had left the country of his own volition allowed his opponents to depict events as an abdication rather than a, usurpation but the English Parliament were still faced with the thorny problem of how to deal with someone who had in fact seized the crown and had thousands of troops on the streets of London. They were disinclined to simply hand authority over to William, who at one point threatened to take his army home and leave the way open for James to return. Eventually, after long, complicated and often bitter negotiations William was crowned King on 13 February 1689, but he would rule jointly with his Queen, Mary, James’s daughter. He had also had to sign into law the Bill of Rights that guaranteed that real power in the land would remain firmly in the hands of Parliament.

Despite developments in London, James, now in France, had no intention of simply relinquishing his crown without a fight. His pro-Catholic reforms had made him popular in Ireland and it not only remained a bastion of support but here his rule still ran, and he believed it would be his route back into England.

He also had the support of his fellow Catholic Monarch, and the most powerful in Europe, Louis XIV of France, not just financially and politically, but also militarily.

James had been nurturing support in Ireland for some time and he had ordered his Viceroy in the country, Richard Talbot, to clear the path of any opposition to his return and secure all the arsenals and strongholds.

The epicentre of opposition to James in Ireland was in the North of the country around the province of Ulster which had been colonised over the years by mostly Scottish Protestants and one of the places Talbot pin-pointed as being potentially disloyal was the city of Londonderry and so he decided that the garrison there should be replaced by an army of loyal Catholics appointing Alexander MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim, to oversee the change but instead of discharging his task quickly as ordered Antrim spent many months trying to recruit men from the Catholic Highlands in Scotland who he demanded must be at least six feet tall.

It gave the people of Londonderry a long time to prepare and so when he finally arrived outside the city’s walls on 7 December 1688 with his 1,200 strong army of ‘Redshanks’, the local apprentice boys on their own initiative had already seized the keys and locked the gates to him.

James arrived in Dublin unopposed on 23 March 1689 accompanied by 6,000 French troops under the command of the experienced Antoine de Caumont, Duc de Lauzon where too much rejoicing and great acclaim the Irish Parliament reaffirmed him as their King.

Passing a bill that granted liberty of religious conscience for Catholics his priority however remained recruiting an army large enough to oppose the reinforcements he knew William would send but Irish Catholics believing his arrival was the beginning of a new dawn of freedom and the end of Protestant domination flocked to his banner even if many were poorly armed with antiquated muskets, clubs, knives, and even farm implements such as scythes, and few had any military experience.

In April, aware that Londonderry was still refusing to admit his forces James marched north to demand it do so in person believing that once confronted with the person of their King the people would yield. If so he was to be bitterly disappointed for appearing before the gates of the city he was roundly jeered and even fired upon - the Siege of Londonderry had begun.

On 14 June, frustrated that his forces in Ireland had done little to prevent James reasserting his authority the now King William III landed at Carrickfergus with an army of 36,000 men.

Unlike the forces opposing him William’s army were professional soldiers, well-trained and with combat experience drawn from many nations including England, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

James with his much smaller army of 23,000 men made up in large part of enthusiastic but ill-disciplined peasants was disinclined to engage William’s forces but he knew if he wanted to regain his throne he would have to confront and defeat the usurper. He was also under pressure from Louis XIV who had no desire to be involved in a long and drawn out civil war.

On 29 June, James made camp on the south bank of the River Boyne at the village of Oldbridge some 30 miles north of Dublin.

It was the last natural barrier on the way to the capital and it formed a good defensive position, the river was deep and fast-flowing with high banks on either side and James ensured that those places where any attempt by William to cross might be made was well covered by his artillery and sharpshooters - confidence in the Jacobite camp was high.

On the north side of the river was arrayed William’s army and this small asthmatic man who had none of the haughtiness of James was an experienced soldier, as tough as old boots who relished the prospect of combat and certainly wasn’t going to be disheartened by the prospect of overcoming a strong defensive position. Spying the Jacobite camp he remarked:

“I’m pleased to see you gentlemen. If you escape me now it will be my fault."

The 30 June was a Monday, and William who considered Monday to be unlucky had decided there would be no fighting that day. Instead, he decided to dine by the riverbank and peruse the Jacobite lines.

After finishing lunch he rode along the riverbank to get a closer look at the enemy dispositions when an eagle-eyed Irish gunner recognising him quickly discharged his cannon, more in hope than expectation.

boyne cannon xx

The ball barely missing William's head ripped through his sleeve, grazed his shoulder, and knocked him from his horse. The rumour quickly spread through the Jacobite camp that William had been killed but in truth he was virtually unscathed and merely picked himself up, brushed himself down, put the incident down to fate and good fortune, and remarked:

“Well, it could have come closer."

But it had been a lucky escape.

Other than Oldbridge there was one other place where it was thought the River Boyne could be forded, Ros Na Ri some four miles to the West and James had already dispatched a force of 800 men to cover it though he hoped William lacked the local knowledge to be aware of it, but his preparation was always thorough and he knew well the lie of the land.

Late on the night of 30 June the Jacobites could hear movement in the Williamite camp, it was the sound of marching feet. James believed that William was moving his army under the cover of darkness to Ros Na Ri and after holding an emergency Council of War he ordered his army to do the same leaving only around 5,000 men at Oldbridge.

James had made a terrible blunder, for though William had indeed sent troops to Ros Na Ri it had only been a detachment of 10,000 men whilst he had remained at Oldbridge with the bulk of his army. It had been his intention for the troops to ford the river at Ros Na Ri, wheel East and attack James’s exposed flank and threaten his line of retreat to Dublin. He knew that James would have to respond to such a move and divide his army but he hadn’t expected James to take the bait hook, line, and sinker.

James did not arrive at Ros Na Ri in time to prevent the Williamites from fording the river but even though the 800 men he had defending the south bank fought ferociously for over an hour under the inspired leadership of Neil O’Neill, once he was killed they broke and fled.

After a brief but sustained bombardment at 08.00 on 1 July, William ordered his elite Dutch Blue Guards to ford the river at Oldbridge. The poorly armed Irish defenders, stripped of most of their artillery and further hampered by a low-lying mist that shrouded the enemy from view could do little to prevent them.

After a brief but furious hand-to-hand struggle the Irish abandoned their positions and dispersed to nearby hills.
It seemed as if a swift Williamite victory was close at hand.

James, who had taken his well-armed French infantry with him on his march to Ros Na Ri had however left behind a contingent of French cavalry and they now stepped into the breach evacuated by the Irish and repeatedly charged the Dutch lines pinning them to the riverbank. Unable to make any progress and fearful that his favoured Dutch Guards might be wiped out a frustrated William ordered two more crossings to proceed further down the river in an attempt to thin out the French cavalry.

They were no more successful than the earlier attempt to ford the river as William's men continued to struggle to maintain a foothold but the French were taking heavy casualties and as their numbers diminished so did the frequency and potency of their attacks. In one charge alone only six of the sixty men who participated returned.

Seizing his opportunity William now took personal command leading 2,000 men in a final attempt to seize the riverbank on the other side.

boyne horses xx

Buoyed at the sight of their general his men rallied and the battle at last began to swing in his favour, even if William himself suffered an asthma attack and had to be led from the field and carried back to camp.

The Irish who had been firing down on William’s troops from the hills now ran in great haste up a long slope to the churchyard at Dunmore with the Williamites hot on their heels. Here they would make a gallant last stand but outnumbered almost five to one it was hopeless.

Those who had survived the fighting now retreated towards Dublin, screened by what remained of the French cavalry.

Whilst the battle was being decided at Oldbridge James, camped just three miles away, did nothing. His army had confronted the Williamite detachment advancing from Ros Na Ri but an impassable boggy swamp had divided the two armies preventing them from engaging.

As news of the events unfolding at Oldbridge reached him he simply waited once more afflicted with nosebleeds and uncertain what to. Eventually, aware that the Williamite forces facing him were manoeuvring to cut off his line of retreat instead of rushing back to Oldbridge where the battle still raged, he, with a few subordinates abandoned the army and fled to Dublin.

Back in the Irish capital James blamed his defeat at the Boyne on the cowardice of his Irish troops whom he declared had run away. Upon hearing his words an Irish noblewoman present interrupted him saying:

“If so, then they did not run as fast as you, for you are the first here."

The casualties at the Battle of the Boyne were relatively light by the standards of the day and for the combined size of the two armies, but not necessarily so for the actual numbers engaged. The Jacobites had lost 1,500 men of whom some 800 were killed, the Williamites 750 men with around 350 fatalities.

Most of the Jacobite dead were Irish peasants who had enthusiastically volunteered to defend the cause of their King in Ireland. They had fought for eight hours against overwhelming odds whilst James less than an hour’s ride away did nothing to help them; he was known thereafter by the Irish, many of whom now deserted his cause, as Seamus a’ Chaca – James the Shit!

But why did James behave the way he did? He was an experienced military commander who had proven both his competence and courage in combat but the same could not be said of his chief advisers Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnel and Alexander MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim whilst the Duc de Lauzon was to prove less effective than hoped. But James had always been prone to despondency and panic, though some have suggested that his indecisiveness at the Boyne was the first signs of the dementia that was to overwhelm him in later life.

Despite most of his army never even having been engaged at the Boyne and remaining intact, James decided his cause was lost. Perhaps he was right for he had only ever viewed the conflict in Ireland as a stepping stone on his path to regaining his throne in England and opposed by the well-trained professional army of William with seemingly limitless resources at its disposal how could he hope to win with what was little more than poorly armed Irish Militia, and he had no desire to be the leader of an Irish rebellion.

After less than 48 hours in Dublin he made for the port of Kinsale and departed for France.

Despite James absence the war was to continue in Ireland for another two years.

In early August the city of Londonderry was relieved after a siege of 105 days, and though there had been little actual fighting the city was under constant bombardment and had come perilously close to starvation. More than 8,000 of its citizens had died mostly of disease and malnutrition and like the Battle of the Boyne itself the Siege of Londonderry has since become an epic of Protestant Irish history, and its battle-cry of “No Surrender” continues to echo to this day.

With neither side able to secure total victory on 3 October 1691, the war came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Limerick.

For William the war had never been about religion, he had merely wanted a peaceful and compliant Ireland so he could secure his position in England and more importantly retain Dutch independence in their on-going conflict with France. The terms he offered therefore were generous. Those Irish Catholic nobles who had been in rebellion were permitted to retain their titles and estates if they swore allegiance to William. Meanwhile, the Jacobite army was disbanded but those who wished to could follow James into exile and some 14,000 did so. Known as the Flight of the Wild Geese they were to go on and form the Irish Pickets and be assimilated into the French army. Some others were to enlist in William’s army, but most simply returned home.

James lived out his remaining years at the grand palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye just outside Paris that had been donated to him by Louis XIV. There he established a Royal Court in exile with ministers, military advisors and a retinue of servants. He appointed a shadow government and would tend to the business of administering a country he no longer had any authority over, reading dispatches from his agents in England and making appointments, but it was in truth a barren fantasy.

James was totally reliant upon the generosity of a French King who no longer believed he had the capacity to win back his Kingdom and withdrew not only military support but much of the funding as his Court in Exile descended into what can best be described as shabby chic.

It would be left to his children and grandchildren to keep the flame of a Stuart Restoration burning.

James descended into his dotage a befuddled, bemused, and bitter man dying on 16 September 1701, aged 67.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked