In 1689, the King of England was ousted from his throne. As a Catholic, James II had already been unpopular in a country defensive about its Protestant identity; but with the birth of a son in 1688, there was the prospect of a dynastic shift to Catholicism. His son-in-law, William of Orange, landed in England with a token force, but it was only to await a formal invitation to take power. In contrast to the bloody Civil War that attended the ouster of Charles I, this “Glorious Revolution” was accomplished relatively peacefully. James II was not without his supporters, however, and the newly-crowned William III would not be able to keep his throne without bloodshed. To the English, it seemed more peaceful than it was because the fighting was carried out in Ireland; the decisive blow came at the River Boyne near Drogheda.
The overthrow of James was never strictly a British matter. Itself conducted for religious reasons, it occurred in the context of broader Catholic-Protestant conflict that was endemic to the Seventeenth Century. Catholic France was already in conflict with Protestant Holland, and while England’s existing dynastic ties confirmed its religious orientation with the Dutch, the accession of James II brought about the possibility of a reorientation towards the French. Once overthrown, James could therefore count on the aid of Louis XIV. Even if he could not restore his English ally to the throne, Louis could at least hope to siphon off some of the Dutch energy to the defense of William’s crown.
Having lost most of his support in England, James withdrew to France and regrouped. He still had supporters in Ireland and Scotland. Louis XIV offered James a small body of trained French soldiers in exchange for some fresh Irish reserves, and James sailed with these reinforcements to Ireland in order to gather strength. His forces were not inconsiderable, but they had one significant flaw: too little artillery.
At the time, Ireland was considered a part of British territory; while English kings had long been involved in Irish politics, under Cromwell the island had been conquered outright and made a part of the Commonwealth. A large Jacobite force (as the supporters of James II were known) operating in Ireland was a threat that William could not ignore, and so he brought a mixed Protestant force of his own.
Landing at Carrickfergus in June of 1690, William directed his men to march on Dublin. They numbered anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000. James positioned his men, 25,000 strong, to block their progress at the Boyne on July 1.
Although he was outnumbered, James did not have a hopeless position. William would have to cross the river under fire, and that made up for some of the disparity in numbers. More telling were the disparities in artillery and training. James was acutely aware of the possibility of defeat, and not least of the position’s virtues was its access to a road in the event of retreat.
Having a force that was larger as well as better equipped, William split up his force to negate the effectiveness of the river as a barrier. While one part of his army engaged the Jacobites directly across the river, another part crossed it at some distance upstream and fell upon the Jacobite flank. Together with William’s superiority in artillery, this enabled the main body to cross the river and force the Jacobites to withdraw. In all, the Jacobites lost about a thousand men, while the Protestant force lost about 500.
James’ best troops, more than 6,000 French soldiers, had been positioned in such a way that they had little impact on the fighting. They did, however, serve to assist in the retreat, although it is likely that William would have been more than happy to allow them to escape anyway: With James as his own father-in-law, it would have been awkward to capture him.
This defeat was hardly the end of the fighting; Jacobite forces in Ireland would continue to resist for a year before submission. It was, however, the decisive blow, inspiring James to return to France and allow his supporters to carry on the fight without him. William was secure in his throne, and the campaign became an effort to restore control over Ireland.
To England, the Battle of the Boyne was a footnote to the Glorious Revolution, ensuring Protestant control over the British Crown. Scotland, equally subject to that same Crown, was more divided in its loyalties, and the eighteenth century would bring Jacobite uprisings there. For Ireland, however, the Battle of the Boyne was decisive for all. To Irish Catholics, it meant the end of a thaw in their status that had begun under Charles II and would likely have continued under James II; to the Protestants, it ensured their supremacy. Indeed, this battle was a key part of their identity as Irish Protestants: as supporters of William of Orange, they were therefore Orangemen, a designation that has survived to this day.
Childs, John. Warfare in the Seventeenth Century. Cassell & Co., 2001.
Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker, eds. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
The Desk Encyclopedia of World History. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Eggenberger, David. An Encyclopedia of Battles: Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 B.C. to the Present. Dover, 1985.
Somerset Fry, Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry. A History of Ireland. Barnes & Noble, 1993.
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