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Battle of The Boyne

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A Lost Cause
Artist: Andrew Carrick Gow 
A Lost Cause: Flight of King James II after the Battle of The Boyne

 

 

WILLIAM III, PRINCE OF ORANGE


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.

 

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 Last updated 3 December, 2011