The Battle of the Boyne was a turning point in the Williamite war in Ireland, between the deposed King James VII of Scotland and II of England and his son-in-law and successor, William III (“William of Orange”), for the English, Scottish, and Irish thrones. It took place on July 1, 1690 (Old Style date), just outside of the town of Drogheda on Ireland’s east coast. As a consequence of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the battle is now commemorated on July 12.
Though not militarily decisive, its symbolic importance has made it one of the most infamous battles in British and Irish history and a key part in Irish Protestant folklore. It is still commemorated today, principally by the Orange Order. Irish Protestants have cast the battle as one between William the representative of Christ and the forces of darkness. Their victory meant that the Protestants had “won” Ireland, and it justified their ascendancy.
King William’s victory was followed by systematic efforts to Protestantize Ireland with Protestant settlers and legal restrictions on the rights of Catholics. However, this was but a chapter in a continuing process of what was called the “pacification” of Ireland, beginning with Pope Adrian IV’s bull that granted Ireland to England and Henry II’s invasion of 1171. This process led to the establishment of a Protestant majority in the province of Ulster, most of which became Northern Ireland in 1921, and where conflict between Catholic and Protestants, known as the “troubles,” led to British military intervention in between 1969 and 1997.
A sectarian battle
The battle of the Boyne was the decisive encounter in a war that was primarily about James’s attempt to regain the thrones of England and Scotland, but is widely remembered as a decisive moment in the struggle between Protestant and Catholic factions in Ireland. However, recent analyses have played down the religious aspect of the conflict. In fact, both armies were religiously mixed, and William of Orange’s own elite force—the Dutch Blue Guards—had the papal banner with them on the day, many of the Guardsmen being Dutch Catholics. They were part of the League of Augsburg, a cross-Christian alliance designed to stop a French conquest of Europe, supported by the Vatican. The war in Ireland was also the beginning of a long-running but ultimately unsuccessful campaign by James’s supporters, the Jacobites, to restore the Stuart dynasty rule to the British thrones. While most Jacobites in Ireland were indeed Catholics, many English and Scottish Jacobites were Protestants and were motivated by loyalty to the principle of monarchy (considering James to have been illegally deposed in a coup) or to the Stuart dynasty in particular, rather than by religion. A handful of British Jacobites fought with James at the Boyne. In addition, some of the French regiments fighting with the Jacobites at the Boyne were composed of German Protestants. In a European context, therefore, the battle was not a religiously motivated one, but part of a complicated political, dynastic, and strategic conflict.
In an Irish context, however, the war was a sectarian and ethnic conflict, in many ways a re-run of the Irish Confederate Wars of 50 years earlier. For Irish Jacobites, the war was fought for Irish sovereignty, religious toleration for Catholicism, and land ownership. The Irish Catholic upper classes had lost almost all their lands after Cromwell’s conquest and had also lost the right to hold public office, practice their religion, and to sit in the Irish Parliament. They saw the reign of the Catholic King James as a means of redressing these grievances and to secure the autonomy of Ireland from the English Parliament. To these ends, under Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell they had raised an army to restore James to his throne after the Glorious Revolution. By 1690, they controlled all of Ireland except for the Northern province of Ulster. Most of James II’s troops at the Boyne were Irish Catholics.
Conversely, for Williamites in Ireland, the war was about maintaining Protestant and British rule in Ireland. The Irish Williamites were mainly Protestant settlers from England and Scotland who had come to the country during the Plantations of Ireland. They were a majority in the northern province of Ulster. They feared for both their lives and their property if James and his Catholic supporters were allowed to rule Ireland. In particular, they feared a repeat of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when there had been widespread massacres of Protestants. For these reasons, the Protestant settler community fought en masse for William III. Many of the Williamite troops at the Boyne, including their very effective irregular cavalry, were Protestants from Ulster, who called themselves “Eniskilleners” and were referred to by contemporaries as “Scotch-Irish.”
The competing sides
The opposing armies in the battle were led by the Roman Catholic King James of England, Scotland and Ireland and opposing him, his son-in-law the Protestant William III (“William of Orange”), who had deposed James from his English and Scottish thrones in the previous year. James’ supporters still controlled much of Ireland and the Irish Parliament. James also enjoyed the support of the French King, Louis XIV, who did not want to see a hostile monarch, such as William, on the throne of England. To support James’ restoration, Louis sent 6000 French troops to Ireland to support the Irish Jacobites. William was already Stadtholder of the Netherlands and was able to call on Dutch and allied troops from continental Europe as well as from Great Britain.
James was a seasoned general who had proven his bravery when fighting for his brother—King Charles II—in Europe, notably at the battle of the Dunes in 1658. However, recent historians have noted that he was prone to panicking under pressure and to making rash decisions. William was also a seasoned commander and able general but had yet to win a full battle. Many of his battles ended in bloody stalemates, prompting at least one modern historian to argue that William lacked an ability to manage armies in the thick of battle. William’s success against the French had been reliant upon tactical maneuvers and good diplomacy rather than force. His diplomacy had assembled the League of Augsburg—a multi-national coalition formed to resist French aggression in Europe. From William’s point of view, his takeover of power in England and the ensuing campaign in Ireland was just another front in the war against Louis XIV of France.
James II’s subordinate commanders were Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, who was the Lord Deputy of Ireland and James’s most powerful supporter in that country; and the French general Lauzun. William’s second in command was the Frederick Schomberg, 1st Duke of Schomberg, a 75 year old professional soldier. He had formerly been a Marshal of France, but had been expelled in 1685, from his native country by Louis XIV because he was a Huguenot Protestant.
The Williamite army at the Boyne was about 36,000 strong, composed of troops from many countries. Around 20,000 had been in Ireland since 1689, commanded by Schomberg. William himself arrived with 16,000 more in June 1690. William’s troops were in general far better trained and equipped than were those of James. The best Williamite infantry were from Denmark and the Netherlands, professional soldiers equipped with the latest flintlock muskets. There were also a large contingent of French Huguenot troops fighting with the Williamites. William did not have a high opinion of his British troops, with the exception of the Ulster Protestant irregulars who had held Ulster in the previous year. The English and Scottish troops were felt to be politically unreliable, since James had been their legitimate monarch up to a year before. Moreover, they had only been raised recently and had seen little combat. The Jacobites were 23,500 strong. James had several regiments of French troops, but most of his manpower was provided by Irish Catholics. The Jacobite’s Irish cavalry, who were raised from among the dispossessed Irish gentry, proved themselves to be high caliber troops at the battle. However, the Irish infantry, predominantly peasants who had been pressed into service, were not trained soldiers. They had been hastily trained, badly supplied, and only a minority of them had functional muskets. In fact, some of them at the Boyne carried only farm implements, such as scythes. On top of that, the Jacobite infantry who had firearms were all equipped with the obsolete matchlock musket.
William had landed in Carrickfergus in Ulster on June 14, 1690, and marched south to take Dublin. It has been argued that the Jacobites should have tried to block this advance in rugged country around Newry, on the present day Irish border. However, James only fought a delaying action there and chose instead to place his line of defense on the Boyne river, around 50 km from Dublin. The Williamites reached the Boyne on June 29. The day before the battle, William himself had a narrow escape, when he was wounded by Jacobite artillery while surveying the fords over which his troops would cross the river.
The battle itself was fought on July 1, over a ford of the Boyne at Oldbridge, near Drogheda. William sent about a quarter of his men to cross at a place called Roughgrange, near Slane, about 10 km from Oldbridge. The Duke of Schomberg’s son, Meinhardt Schomberg, later the 3rd Duke led this crossing, which was unsuccessfully opposed by Irish dragoons. James panicked when he saw that he might be outflanked and sent half his troops, along with most of his cannon to counter this move. What neither side had realized was that there was a deep ravine at Roughgrange, so that the forces there could not engage each other, but literally sat out the battle. The Williamites there went on a long detour march which, late in the day, almost saw them cut off the Jacobite retreat at the village of Naul.
At the main ford at Oldbridge, William’s infantry led by the elite Dutch Blue Guards forced their way across the river, using their superior firepower to slowly drive back the enemy foot-soldiers, but were pinned down by the counter-attacks of the Jacobite cavalry. Having secured the village of Oldbridge, some Williamite infantry held off successive cavalry attacks with disciplined volley fire while others were driven into the river. William’s second in command, the Duke of Schomberg, and George Walker (1645-1690) were killed in this phase of the battle. The Williamites were not able to resume their advance until their own horsemen managed to cross the river and, after being badly mauled, held off the Jacobite cavalry, who retired and regrouped at Donore, where they once again put up stiff resistance before retiring. The Jacobites retired in good order. William had a chance to trap the retreating Jacobites as they crossed the river Nanny at Duleek, but was held up by a successful Jacobite rear-guard.
The casualty figure of the battle was quite low for a battle of such a scale—of the 50,000 or so participants, about 2,000 died, three quarters of whom were Jacobites. The reason for the low death toll was that in contemporary warfare, most of the casualties tended to be inflicted in the pursuit of an already-beaten enemy. This did not happen at the Boyne because the counter-attacks of the Jacobite cavalry screened the retreat of the rest of their army. The Jacobites were badly demoralized by their defeat, however, and many of the Irish infantrymen deserted. The Williamites triumphantly marched into Dublin two days after the battle. The Jacobite army abandoned the city and marched to Limerick, behind the river Shannon, where they were besieged. James left so quickly that he outpaced the messenger that was sent to warn Limerick of the defeat.
After his defeat, James quickly returned to exile in France, even though his army left the field relatively unscathed. James’s loss of nerve and speedy exit from the battlefield enraged his Irish supporters, who fought on until the Treaty of Limerick in 1691.
The battle was overshadowed in its time in Great Britain by the destruction of the Anglo-Dutch fleet by the French two days later, off Beachy Head, a far more serious event in the short term; only on the Continent was the Boyne treated as a major victory. The reason for this was that it was the first proper victory for the League of Augsburg, the first ever alliance between Catholic and Protestant countries, and in achieving this William of Orange and Pope Alexander VIII (its prime movers) scotched the myth—particularly emanating from Sweden—that such an alliance was blasphemous, resulting in more joining the alliance and in effect ending the very real danger of a French conquest of Europe.
The Boyne was not without strategic significance on both Great Britain and Ireland, however. It marked the end of James’s hope of regaining his throne by military means and virtually assured the triumph of the Glorious Revolution. In Scotland, news of this defeat led to the Highlanders gradually abandoning the Jacobite Rising which Bonnie Dundee had led. In Ireland, the Boyne was the beginning of the Williamite victory over the Jacobites, which maintained British and Protestant dominance over the country. For this reason, the Boyne is still celebrated by the Protestant Orange Order on the twelfth of July.
Commemoration of the battle
Originally, Irish Protestants commemorated the Battle of Aughrim on the July 12, as symbolizing their victory in the Williamite war in Ireland. At Aughrim, which took place a year after the Boyne, virtually all of the old native Irish Catholic and Old English aristocracies plantations under Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell) were wiped out. The Boyne, which in the old Julian calendar, took place on July 1, was treated as less important, third in commemorative value after Aughrim and the anniversary of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 on October 23. What was celebrated on the twelfth was not William’s “victory over popery at the Battle of the Boyne,” but the extermination of the elite of the native Irish at Aughrim, thereby ending the fear of having to surrender the planted lands.
In 1752, a new Gregorian calendar was introduced to the United Kingdom, which placed the Boyne on July 12, instead of Aughrim. However, even after this date, “The Twelfth” still commemorated Aughrim. But after the Orange Order was founded in 1795, amid sectarian violence in Armagh, the focus of parades on July 12, switched to the battle of the Boyne. Usually the dates before the introduction of the calendar on September 14, 1752, are mapped in English language histories directly onto the Julian dates without shifting them by 11 days. Being suspicious of anything with papist connotations, however, rather than shift the anniversary of the Boyne to the new July 1, or celebrate the new anniversary of Aughrim, the Orangemen continued to march on the July 12, which, in New Style dates marked the battle of the Boyne. Despite this, there are also smaller parades and demonstrations on July 1, the date which maps the old style date of the Boyne to the new style in the usual manner and which also commemorate the massacre of the 36th (Ulster) Division on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
It has also been suggested that the Boyne was preferred to Aughrim because the Jacobites’ rout there allowed the Irish Catholics to be presented as contemptible cowards, whereas at Aughrim they fought bravely and died in great numbers. In the context of a resurgent Irish nationalism from the 1790s onwards, it is argued that the narrative of the Boyne was more comforting for Loyalists in Ireland. The commemoration of the battle of the Boyne therefore has more to do with the politics of the Unionist community than it has to do with the military significance of the battle itself. It is not uncommon to see large murals of a monarch, William on a white horse at the head of his army marking out Loyalist territory.
The memory of the battle also has resonance among Irish Nationalists. Most Irish people see the battle as a major step on the road to the complete British colonization of Ireland. In 1923, Irish Republican Army members blew up a large monument to the battle on the battlefield site on the Boyne and also destroyed a statue of William III in 1929, that stood outside Trinity College Dublin in the center of the Irish capital.
“The Twelfth” in Ireland today
The Battle of the Boyne remains a controversial topic today, especially in Northern Ireland where Protestants remember it as a great victory over Catholics and responsible for the sovereignty of Parliament and the ‘Protestant monarchy’.
In recent years “The Twelfth” has often been marked by confrontations as members of the Orange Order attempt to celebrate the date by marching past or through what they see as their traditional route. However some of these areas now have a nationalist majority, who now object to marches passing through their areas. This is mainly due to population migrations caused by institutionalized sectarianism in Northern Ireland in the mid 1900s which had made Northern Ireland, in the words of Ulster Unionist Party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, a “cold house for Catholics” at the time.
Each side thus dresses up the disputes in terms of the other’s supposed attempts to repress them; Catholics still see Orange Order marches as provocative attempts to ‘show who is boss’, while Protestants insist they have a right to “walk the Queen’s highway” and see any attempt to deny them the right to walk through traditional routes used for centuries as an attempt to marginalise and restrict their freedom to celebrate their Protestant identity earned in the Glorious Revolution settlement. Thus the battle is still very present in the awareness of those involved in the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Ireland.
The battlefield today
The site of the battle of the Boyne sprawls over a wide area west of the town of Drogheda. Oldbridge, the scene of the main Williamite crossing, has an Irish Government Interpretive Centre on it, which is dedicated to informing tourists and other visitors about the battle. This facility is currently being redeveloped. The other main combat areas on the day (at Duleek, Donore and Plattin—along the Jacobite line of retreat) are marked with tourist information signs.