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
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
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.