England's Dutch-born King William III pursued his
lifelong war against King Louis XIV of France with strategic
diplomacy and personal courage in battle.
By Ron Chepesiuk
It would be difficult to find a battle
more indelibly etched into the folk memory of a people than the
Battle of the Boyne, which remains as meaningful to Irish
Protestants today as it was to their forefathers in 1690. Each year
on July 12, thousands of Orangemen march to the sound of tin
whistles, accordions and booming lambeg drums to honor the "glorious
and immortal memory" of William III, Prince of Orange and King of
England. On the day of the Orange Parade, countless street murals
throughout Northern Ireland depict "King Billy," as he is
affectionately known to the Protestants, heroically crossing the
Boyne River on his beautiful white mare.
William himself would have been surprised to learn that he had
become a folk hero to so many Protestant Irishmen. To him, the
entire conflict in Ireland was but an irritating sideshow to his
main interests on the European Continent. The Dutch prince had
accepted the invitation to come to England and preserve the
Protestant religion from the Catholic designs of the Stuart King
James II because he saw England as a useful ally in his principal
struggle against King Louis XIV of France.
Indeed, much of William's life was spent either at war or
preparing for war against France's "Sun King," whose great ambition
was to make himself supreme monarch of Europe. Biographer Nesca A.
Robb described William's obsession with thwarting Louis at every
turn as "the governing passion of his whole life." Even when barely
into adulthood, William began to see France as a threat to the
prosperity, religion and political freedom of his homeland, the
United Provinces of the Netherlands. Louis, on the other hand, came
to regard the Dutch prince as his greatest enemy.
William landed at Torbay on November 5, 1688, and marched slowly
through the country, gaining followers as he went, while support for
King James withered away. James fled to France on December 11, and
in January 1689, a specially called Parliament declared that James
had abdicated, and offered the throne to William and Mary. Although
the English made an attempt to appoint Mary the sole English
monarch, she rejected the proposal. William, too, had no intention
of being his wife's consort, stating that if that was all England
could do for him after he had saved the country, then he would go
back to the Netherlands "and meddle no more in their
affairs." The two were declared joint sovereigns--King William
III and Queen Mary II--on February 13. To confirm his claim to the
throne, on April 21 William promised to obey the Declaration of
Rights (later called the Bill or Rights), which assured the English
people of certain basic rights while making it illegal for the king
to keep a standing army, levy taxes without Parliament's approval or
become a Roman Catholic. The pragmatic William was willing to let
Parliament limit his power in return for its support against France.
Meanwhile, James was not about to give up his kingdom without a
fight. He still had considerable support among the Catholics of
Ireland, and he looked upon that island as a stepping stone to the
recovery of his throne. He landed there in March 1689, and William
declared war on Louis XIV the following May.
Initial opposition to Jamesâ invasion was nonexistent, and he
marched into Dublin on March 24--the first English monarch to visit
the Irish capital since Richard II almost 300 years earlier. Within
a month, however, English power in Ireland had been reduced to
Londonderry and Enniskillen. Those cities managed to withstand a
105-day siege and gave William time to raise a large army.
In August 1689, 10,000 soldiers under the command of William's
most trusted officer, Marshal Frederick Herman Schomberg, landed
unopposed at Groomsport, in County Down. The army's composition
reflected the international character of the war then engulfing the
European continent. William's troops included not only English and
Dutch soldiers, but Danish mercenaries and French Huguenots--the
latter including the 75-year-old Schomberg himself. Jamesâ Jacobite
supporters were reinforced by a 6,000-man French brigade commanded
by Antonin Nompar de Caumont, comte de Lauzun, although one of its
six battalions was made up of Walloons and two of Protestant Germans
who until recently had been French prisoners of war.
William's bravery proved to be a decisive factor in the battle's
outcome. One bullet had grazed his leg, tearing away a piece of his
boot, but he refused to leave the field. At one point, one of
William's men failed to recognize him and pointed a gun at his head.
William pushed the weapon way and chided the officer, saying,
"What, do you not know your own friends?"
Less fortunate was Marshal Schomberg, who upon seeing the
Williamite foothold on the south bank endangered near the village of
Oldbridge, personally led his fellow Huguenots to reinforce them,
only to be hacked twice by sabers and fatally shot in the back--by
one of his own panicky troops or by a deserter to the Jacobite side,
depending on whose account one reads.
At about 2 p.m., a messenger brought James the news that Williamsâ
forces had secured Oldbridge and the right wing of the Jacobite army
was defeated. James still had not committed the main part of his
army, which he had held in readiness for what he thought would be
the main Williamite effort at Rosnaree. At that point, however, he
also became aware that Williamite dragoons, commanded by Marshal
Schomberg's son, Count Meinhard Schomberg, were flanking him to the
south. His friend Lauzun persuaded him to withdraw to Dublin before
that dragoon force cut off his escape route. His army followed in
disarray, leaving behind its baggage and artillery. Continuing his
flight to the south coast, where a squadron of French frigates
awaited him, James sailed to France. He would never set foot in the
British Isles again. On July 6, William entered Dublin in triumph.
William's victory at the Boyne was less than overwhelming, but
the outcome of the Irish campaign was no longer in doubt. Spain and
Austria, William's partners in the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV,
rejoiced upon learning of it. Illustrated brochures of the battle
circulated in many parts of Europe. In Ireland itself, William's
victory was to have importance that reached well beyond the politics
of the day and enshrined his name in its history and folklore.