Busting the Historical Myths Conclusion: The Battle of the Boyne…

Firstly I would like to extend a massive thank you to the Slugger O’Toole users who have responded to my articles. This series has been an attempt to stimulate debate and hopefully be an accurate interpretation of events which have become more myth than truth in many ways. For my final article I thought I would focus on the most famous Battle in Irish history which ironically was a Battle between two Kings of England with European significance- the Battle of the Boyne. This battle has become the central event in the Loyal Orders calendar. To be fair to the Orange their website does try to reflect the true nature of the Battle itself without however venturing too deeply into the aftermath. Amongst the general populace a myth tends to endure, namely that the Battle of the Boyne was the great victory of the rule of law and representative Government over tyranny and absolutism and a victory which led to the Protestant Ascendency in Ireland. But why has the Boyne taken on such significance and glamour when it was a largely indecisive encounter amongst a continuous campaign? And did the victory of King William really signal civil and religious liberty and the defeat of tyranny?

James II acceded to the throne in 1685 and he was quite well aware of the suspicions held against him as the first Catholic monarch in 127 years. He would face a brief rising which was easily crushed. However within a year of taking power James would prorogue Parliament after it disagreed with his exempting of Catholics from the Test Act and he would then embark upon a radical change of policy with the Declaration of Indulgence in 1687. This effectively offered religious toleration to all including Catholics and Presbyterians, indeed Catholics were given offices in Government and even positions within the Army. Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell would be appointed Deputy of Ireland. Talbot a Catholic was part of the ‘Old’ English Pale society and would fill his administration with Catholics and would also admit Catholics into the army. This raised fears of Protestants in Ireland fearful of a takeover and of possibly facing a repeat of 1641.

Eventually when James wife had a son and heir in 1688 factions within the English Parliament began to conspire with foreign powers to affect a takeover. The throne was offered to William of Orange, Stadholder of the Netherlands who duly accepted and landed in England with a strong Dutch Army. Most interestingly was that William was in dire need of English support in his war against Louis XIV of France. As head of a Grand Coalition William would even garner the support of the Pope who was fearful of Louis expansionism.

So it was that William was declared King. However contrary to popular belief only a small cabal of the army leadership backed him on his landing, indeed around one third of the army accompanied James into exile. Of the other two thirds a significant proportion either returned home with their weapons or would be vetted over the winter by John Churchill with many dismissed as unreliable. William’s wife who ironically was James daughter Mary and a Protestant would be Queen. However it would be as late as February before William was made King and the Convention Parliament had actually resisted it for months: indeed they would only accept him with Mary by his side when he threatened to return to Holland.

Tyrconnell remained in place in Ireland and the Jacobites there had moved quickly to secure fortified towns and declare James the rightful King in Ireland. James himself would arrive in Ireland in March 1689 setting up his court in Dublin Castle. Initially he brought with him a cadre of high ranking officers, a few engineers and officer cadets. An Irish Parliament would be called in May and it would be a Catholic Jacobite Parliament. Notably however Anglican Bishops would still sit in the Lords. The Parliament took steps to address what were seen as Catholic grievances in Ireland, namely overturning the Cromwellian land settlement restoring all lands to Catholics confiscated since the 1650’s, removing discrimination against both Catholic and Presbyterians and announcing a declaratory act giving the Irish Parliament greater Independence.

This whole period although in essence a fight between two Kings for one throne must also be seen in its wider European context. Indeed the Battle of the Boyne could well be seen to be a totally insignificant event in that regard. France was the most formidable power in Europe but was concerned by the Habsburg ruler, the Holy Roman Emperor who commanded a large area around France. The war in Europe was France’s attempt to make inroads into this Habsburg encirclement. To this end the French were attempting to bog William down in Ireland fighting against Jacobite forces there. Despite French support for James their real concern was not Catholicism in Ireland but diverting William’s attention away from the war in Europe. However William initially sent his Dutch General, Schomberg to Ireland to put down the Jacobite resistance. The Jacobites had been displaced from Ulster after the relief of Derry and defeat at Newtonbutler. What followed were a few months of skirmishing and indecisive encircling from both sides in Dundalk. In the end William decided he would come to Ireland personally and put down the resistance himself. Schomberg had made clear in his letters to William that overwhelming odds would be needed to fight James. William duly landed in Carrigfergus in June 1690.

William would personally lead his army south to march on Dublin. James army would attempt to block William’s path and so the two would face off at the River Boyne, just outside Drogheda. The Battle of the Boyne was fought on 1st July but due to a calendar change from the Julian to the Gregorian it would fall on 12th July from 1752 onwards. It would be painted as two Kings facing off across one river to win control of the three Kingdoms. Although at places during the Battle there had been some tough fighting for the most part the Battle was not particularly bloody nor did it result in a disorderly withdrawal by the Jacobite forces. Indeed the Jacobites retreated in good order thanks to the determined counter attacks mounted by the renowned Jacobite calvary. The Battle was significant in one respect- it predicated a seeming loss of confidence by James who would within a few days be sailing from Duncannon to France. A day before the Battle of the Boyne however the English and Dutch navies had been badly defeated at the Battle of Beachy Head and the French fleets now controlled the English Channel. It is mere speculation on my part but maybe James flight could be seen as a chance to outflank William who would be preoccupied in Ireland and possibly stranded. James did appeal to Louis to invade England but the French did not press home the advantage. It may be worth discussion.

As it was James flight led to a different war emerging in Ireland. The Jacobite forces would fall back to a defensive line in the West and William would enter Dublin victorious on 27th July. The Jacobites however at this stage were much more interested in safeguarding any gains they had made via the Parliament rather than restoring James to the throne. William would march west to Limerick were the town was besieged but not before Patrick Sarsfield, who would go on to achieve legendary status as a Jacobite leader led an ambush destroying their artillery train. At Limerick William’s troops would encounter fierce resistance and around 3,000 of the Danish and Dutch troops would be killed. William withdrew his forces east and would leave Ireland for England leaving his forces under the command of Godert Van Ginkel, a Dutch General. French aid would arrive to the Jacobites in late 1690 and the French Commander the Marquis of St. Ruth would arrive with more troops. This would eventually lead to the truly defining battle in Ireland at that period, the Battle of Aughrim on 12th July 1691.

The Battle of Aughrim is the less well known of the two battles as the Boyne overshadows it. This was however a much more bloody and eventually decisive affair although it lacked the glamour of two Kings on opposite sides. It was fought with much more intensity however and hung in the balance for much of the day. Eventually the Jacobite commander St. Ruth was killed- decapitated by a cannonball and his forces over run and eventually routed. It was a crushing defeat and resulted in the Jacobite army falling back westwards eventually reaching Limerick. Here the Williamites would besiege the inhabitants for several months before Patrick Sarsfield would oust the French leaders and negotiate surrender. That resulted in the Treaty of Limerick. There had been a Treaty at Galway two weeks after the Aughrim defeat; however the Treaty at Limerick was less desirable although still fairly favourable to the Jacobites. It would contain 28 articles covering both civil and military clauses. Indeed the Jacobite forces were offered passage to France, of which around 14,000 accepted. More importantly however was the civil articles however which provided for those Catholic’s remaining in Ireland to retain their property, practice their trades or professions, bear arms and retain religious freedom as were consistent with the laws of Ireland or as they had enjoyed under Charles II.

One wonders then after all this why the Boyne takes such significance. The WIlliamite war in Ireland ended in an orderly and humane fashion with a peace treaty and favourable terms to the defeated forces long after the Battle of the Boyne. Indeed William had little interest in Ireland bar preventing James using it as a springboard to reclaim his throne. One also wonders at its significance when the Parliament in Ireland which would be recalled in 1692 would water down and disregard the Treaty of Limerick. This Protestant Parliament would however be dominated by Anglicans and in the years that followed the Penal laws would be extended signalling a destruction of Catholic political and civil liberties. What is more is that Presbyterians would also suffer under the Penal laws and face discrimination throughout the following century.

The Protestant Ascendancy which emerged in Ireland would have a near monopoly of landed property and influence over Government matters. Did, as the narrative suggests, William’s victory signal ‘victory over the despotic power which laid the foundation of Constitutional Democracy in the British Isles’, or was the victory a pyrrhic one for all but the Anglican elite. Indeed if one considers that William was involved in fighting expensive wars and thus required tax revenue to fund them his continuous calling of Parliament can be seen in a different light. The relaxing of the penal laws by James in both England and Ireland must also be worthy of discussion. The Boyne has become a symbol of victory and even survival for the Loyal Orders but maybe in the end the victory at the Boyne is much overstated. Maybe it was the Protestant Parliament of 1692 onwards which played a much more significant role in securing Protestantism in Ireland, even if it favoured the Anglican Church over all others. For Catholics it would symbol Perfidious Albion leading to the famous war cry which for years would dominate Nationalist emotions:

“Cuimhinígí ar Luimneach”. “Remember Limerick”.

I will end with what I think are definitive words from the great objective historian Theo Moody,

“History is a matter of facing the facts, however painful some of them may be. Mythology is a way of refusing to face facts. The study of history not only enlarges truth about our past, but opens the mind to ever new accessions of truth. On the other hand, the obsession with myths, and especially the more destructive myths, perpetuates the closed mind”.