Protestants and Catholics had fought before.
After Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church over the institution’s refusal to allow him a divorce, the religious wars on the continent had been imported to England.
Like almost any conflict rooted in religious doctrine, the initial dispute – in this case, German theologian and monk Martin Luther’s contention that people should read the Bible for themselves and not rely upon the clergy to interpret the Latin-only text for them – became intermixed with historical grievances as both sides clashed.
This same pattern would play out in England, Protestant and Catholic becoming polarities around which people rallied, fought, and hated one another.
Somewhat counter-intuitively then, the English Civil War that broke out in the mid-17th Century was not defined by the Protestant-Catholic divide, but instead by that between Republican Parliamentarians and loyalist Monarchists.
But, when the monarchy was restored following a period of republic and dictatorship (termed ‘the Protectorate’), the religious divisions re-emerged, and played a key role in the issue of royal succession.
In ‘Battle of the Boyne 1690: The Irish campaign for the English crown’, Michael McNally tells us:
“After a reign of almost a quarter of a century, King Charles II of England died on 6 February 1685. In the main, his rule had been a successful one (the Raid on the Medway aside), healing the wounds of the Civil War and Protectorate, and yet, in the final analysis he failed his people by being unable to provide the country with a legitimate heir. Instead, his successor would be his younger brother, James, Duke of York.”
James Duke of York would become King James II of England (and VII of Scotland), but his reign was soon challenged by another James – James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth.
James Scott was the illegitimate son of Charles II (he’d been conceived out of wedlock – the late king had had a reputation for sleeping around). But that didn’t hold him back.
He claimed that it was, in fact, King James who was the illegitimate one – not illegitimate by birth, but because of religion.
James II was a Catholic, and Catholicism was rapidly going out of fashion in the English monarchy.
Beefing up his claim further, the Duke of Monmouth also accused his uncle of killing his brother, the late Charles II, and of arson (namely, of starting the entire Great Fire of London in 1666. Fake news was apparently alive and well back then too).
The accusations must have stung because King James crushed Duke James’ little rebellion mercilessly, executing hundreds, including some who’d only been involved on the periphery (such as bystanders who’d helped the wounded).
The terrible penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering was even applied in certain cases.
Monmouth soon changed his tune and offered to convert to Catholicism to placate his now very angry uncle.
It didn’t work – or rather, it didn’t convince the King to spare the life of his nephew.
The Duke was at least ‘lucky’ enough to avoid a protracted execution. He got away with merely a beheading, although it’s said to have taken roughly half-a-dozen blows to have finally decapitated him.
That, however, did not settle matters. James II’s two heirs – his daughters Mary and Anne – were both Protestants, or, to be precise, Anglicans.
The Anglican Church, or Church of England, had originally been set up as a third way between Catholicism and Protestantism but had come to be seen as a branch of Protestantism.
James’ Catholicism could be tolerated by England’s ruling elites as long as one of his daughters succeeded him.
Mary was the elder and the favourite, being married to the Protestant William of Orange.
He was the Dutch head of state, though the Principality of Orange was in what is now southern France.
Sons, though, were the ace card in the 'Game of Thrones' of the past, and when James’ queen gave birth to a boy who was to be raised Catholic, and James himself appeared to be getting ready to go to war with the Dutch as an ally of Catholic France, the proverbial apple cart seemed about to tip over.
High-level dissidents invited William and Mary to invade England in 1688 in what would come to be known as both the ‘Glorious’ and ‘Bloodless’ Revolution, because nobody died.
James, of course, had had every intention of putting up a fight – he’d had troops throughout the south of England.
But they were simply bypassed by William’s ships, which landed on the southwest coast.
Furthermore, several nobles, including John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough, and ancestor to Prime Minister Winston Churchill), defected to William’s side.
It was all over before it had even begun for poor James, who was allowed simply to escape to France.
THE CAMPAIGN STARTS
There was, though, a way back in.
During the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentary rebellion against King Charles I, had defeated the Irish Catholic Confederacy in 1649.
They’d rebelled against English rule in Ireland and allied themselves with King Charles I against the Parliamentarians.
Cromwell and many of those he led were Puritans, a form of Protestantism, and Charles was married to a Roman Catholic, which helped to cement an alliance with these Irish Catholic confederates.
In lieu of full payment to his Protestant allies in Ireland, Cromwell granted them lands there.
When the monarchy came back in the guise of Charles II, loyalists in Ireland who’d had their estates confiscated by Cromwell now expected that Charles would give them back.
Unfortunately, many of the Protestant soldiers who’d fought for Cromwell were now royalists, and Charlies relied upon them for protection.
He tried a compromise - the Restoration Land Settlement Act.
This must have got the balance just right because it didn’t go far enough for either side.
One Irish noble, the Duke of Ormonde, summed the situation up by saying that there was only one way to settle the matter, and that was to find two Irelands, each one bigger than the original!
With these embers already burning the background, a full-blown conflict seemed inevitable.
It kicked off 1689 with a series of sieges of Protestant strongholds in the North of Ireland and was an attempt by James’ Jacobite supporters to get him back on the throne.
The term Jacobite is derived from the Renaissance ‘Jacobus’, a Latinised version of James.
He landed in Southern Ireland because that was his closest and best base of support.
As Michael McNally puts it: “The war for the crown of England would, after all, be fought in Ireland”.
While Irish Protestants held out, for his part, it took William a little while to organise a response.
The holdup was due to the fact that he didn’t trust the gentlemen around him – men like John Churchill.
They may have turned to William’s side, but that didn’t make them loyal.
Having done so when it was clear he was going to win, the new king couldn’t rule out the possibility that men like Churchill were merely fair weather friends, liable to switch sides again at the slightest prospect of a Jacobite victory.
So King William built an army around largely Dutch commanders and raised his own regiments, 15,000 men in total, whom he landed with at Carrickfergus on June 14, 1690, before linking up with Irish supporters.
Delay aside, by this point, William’s army significantly outnumbered James’.
McNally also informs us that James had serious limitations as a commander:
“He displayed a worrying lack of knowledge of the realities of his situation, confidently writing to his Scottish supporters that… an army of 8,000 troops (would come) to their assistance in the spring of 1690. Exactly how this was to be achieved in the face of overwhelming English naval superiority and without the commitment of the French fleet was never explained.”
James’ loyal deputy, Richard Talbot, the Earl of Tyrconnel, knew, however, that James had an opportunity to at least win in Ireland.
Furthermore, if he did so, Tyrconnel anticipated that resistance in England would melt away as a result of William’s main army having been defeated.
Tyrconnel knew William mistrusted those around him, and saw his relative unpopularity as an opportunity, though one with a rapidly closing window:
“He will by all sorts of wayes and meanes establish his tyranny over these helpless people in one year’s time more.”
The trouble was, there was a certain level of discord on the Jacobite side too.
James’ main ally, his cousin, Louis XIV of France, was looking out for his own interests rather than James’.
He was focused on Flanders (which is partially in France, though mostly in Belgium, and an area where the British fought heavily in the First World War).
Louis had expanded militarily into this region, and William was worried he’d launch an attack on his homeland of the Netherlands from here.
His goal was to establish a grand alliance of Austria, Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland and Holland to fight Louis.
As far as William was concerned, his coming battle with James in Ireland was merely a sideshow.
The main event would be a showdown on the continent.
Thus, Louis was prepared to give James French troops, but this ‘help’ was largely cosmetic.
Beyond providing military supplies, the extra troops he sent would merely be exchanged for Irish troops that James was expected to give Louis in return.
At least in the process, the former English king would lose some unwanted guests:
“The French ambassador, d’ Avaux, and Marshal de Rosen, neither of whose departure was viewed as a serious loss by King James. To him, one was simply a French spy whose advice could not be relied upon, whilst the other was a barbarian, as exemplified by his conduct during the siege of Derry.”
As William got closer, James, considering Dublin to be vital to Ireland, knew he had to stop William reaching it.
It’s thought he had about 24,000 men to William’s 36,000, and so he had to find terrain that was useful defensively, that would act as a force multiplier.
That left one spot: The River Boyne, behind the banks of which James could sit and cut down the enemy as they tried to cross both it and the rough terrain on the other side of it.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
Strangely, the grand battle very nearly ended before it had even begun, in an anti-climax.
William and an entourage of staff took their horses down to the river to take a look at what was going on.
They rode eastwards along the northern bank for a while before dismounting and having lunch.
This would have been fine, except that they did it all in full view of the enemy - enemy that included James’ number two man, the Duke of Tyrconnel.
While they ate their picnic, the Jacobites brought up two small cannons and opened fire:
“The first shot exploded amongst the staff, killing one man and several horses, but the second took a cruel deflection and, bouncing off the ground, struck William in the shoulder. The horsemen closed ranks, and rode back to headquarters in order to have the King examined by his physician.”
The King of England (and Scotland and Ireland) was dead!
So claimed a printed page in France that showed a picture of a mortally wounded monarch being carried from the field of battle.
Celebrations broke out all over Paris – William and Queen Mary were burnt in effigy.
But it was, you might say, just a flesh wound. Bounding around camp on his horse, William demonstrated to his men that he was very much alive, and now positively itching for a fight – one that would become an integral part of Irish history.
The Battle of the Boyne would take place on July 1, 1690.
It is, however, celebrated by Orangemen on July 12. That’s because the occasion combines the Boyne with another Protestant victory, that of the Battle of Aughrim, which took place on July 22.
These dates were also part of the Old, or Julian, calendar system, which, it was subsequently recognised, had drifted towards a shorter year.
The New (Gregorian) calendar was introduced to Britain in 1750 and corrected this by adding 10 days to dates before 1700, and 11 days to dates after that point.
In other words, the Battle of the Boyne would have actually taken place on July 11 in our more up-to-date system.
The two armies that prepared to do battle on that July 1 (or 11) were very similar – so much so, in fact, that their largely identical uniforms had to be modified so that they could tell one another apart (the Protestants wore a sprig of green in their hats, the Catholics a white cockade of cloth on their uniforms).
Beyond the superficial, though, there were some important differences in organisation, differences that did not work in James’ favour.
To begin with, there was great variance in the quality of James’ troops, and this made the army under him unpredictable and unreliable.
The best troops were the 400 officers and men in his two units of Life Guards, as well as the eight regiments of horse (these were heavy cavalry).
The first three of these regiments had nine troops each of 53 men (so 477 officers and men in each regiment) while the remaining five horse regiments had only six troops, and therefore 318 men in each.
They were all armed with broadswords and two pistols.
Other mounted troops, dragoons, were really mounted infantry on lighter horses; three of these regiments had eight troops of 60 men (480 in total) and the other five six troops of 60 (for a total of 360).
The rest were foot soldiers, or several regiments of foot, to be exact. Most of these had only one battalion, though a few had two.
In the field, of course, after having been at war for some time, the makeup of each unit varied quite a lot.
However, on paper, each battalion had 13 companies of 100 men, arranged in a ratio of 3:1, musketeers to pikemen.
The Battle of the Boyne took place at the end of the pike and shot period, in which men with spears, or pikes, would defend musketeers from cavalry counter-attacks while they reloaded their cumbersome and rudimentary firearms.
Having said that, the last company in any battalion would always be issued with a flint instead of matchlock muskets, wherever possible.
These were the latest high-tech weapons for the time, and relied upon steel hammers that clamped around flint to create the spark necessary to fire the weapon.
When the trigger was pulled, the hammer would snap shut, scraping the flint (an incredibly hard rock) along the edge of a frizzon, a steel receiver for the hammer upon which the flint created sparks.
These would ignite the gunpowder in the pan at the bottom of the frizzon, setting off the powder in the adjacent breech and blowing the bullet out of the barrel.
Matchlock muskets, by contrast, featured a cord that was pre-lit and, as it burned, it was released (by pulling the trigger) onto the breech of the gun where it would then ignite the powder charge and make the gun fire.
That was how it was meant to work, at any rate. In reality, wet weather might dampen the cord and snuff out the burning end.
And even when it did work as intended, its rate of fire was considerably limited by the fact that the burning cord had to be continuously unclamped and repositioned as it got shorter.
The last weapon in James’ arsenal was his artillery, but, despite the fact that it had come so close to killing King William III, it was a comparatively pitiful force.
James had started out with only 18 6lb guns (named after the weight of the balls they fired), and two-thirds of these had been sent off the battlefield before the conflict on the Boyne had started.
That left only six operational cannons on the Jacobite side, a single battery, essentially.
William’s side, which, incidentally, included some Catholic forces sympathetic to ‘King Billy’ and antagonistic to France’s Louis XIV, was better equipped as well as being more numerous.
His core troops were Dutch, with three Guards battalions (the most elite infantry), nine other foot battalions, nine cavalry regiments and a single Guard Dragoon Regiment.
He also had English troops: 19 regiments of foot, eight of horse, two of dragoons and two troops (about 50 or 60 men each) of Life Guards.
There were also 7,000 Danish mercenaries.
Exact numbers for artillery are difficult to pin down, but according to the BBC, more than a thousand horses were brought ashore to drag guns and artillery equipment when William had landed.
We can presume that a plentiful supply of cannons was brought into battle that day on the Protestant side.
Even more importantly, troops in the field were far better equipped.
By this point bayonets were being phased in, and that meant that every soldier could fit one and be both a pikeman and a musketeer simultaneously.
With an already larger army, that gave William’s side a two to one advantage in terms of infantry firepower.
Moreover, William’s men carried only flintlock muskets, giving them a far more reliable weapon with a greater rate of fire. According to John Barratt’s ‘Battles for the Three Kingdoms: The Campaigns for England, Scotland and Ireland – 1689-92’, matchlocks could fire two or possibly three rounds per minute.
Well-drilled troops could get off four or possibly five rounds a minute with a flintlock.
Knowing he was the underdog, James set up camp at the Hill of Donore, south of the Boyne, and fortified Oldbridge and Drogheda on the southern bank of the river.
He also destroyed the bridge at Slane to his west so as to prevent William flanking him.
He believed, incorrectly as it turned out, that the river was unfordable anywhere else except at Yellow and Grove Islands, which stood in the middle of the Boyne.
He expected William to use them as stepping stones, and so put his force on the south side, ready to shoot the Protestants down when they tried to cross.
As for William, his intention was to pound James’ force with artillery, before attacking across the river between Oldbridge and Yellow Island (his troops’ movements would be concealed by a ravine later dubbed ‘King William’s Glen’).
Just as James had a dependable number two in the form of Tyrconnel, William’s main man in the field was Frederick Schomberg, 1 Duke of Schomberg.
He, in turn, had a son – Meinhardt Schomberg, Count Schomberg, second son of the Duke – who would ford the river near Slane, at Rosnaree, creating a distraction and forcing James to turn to face it.
Schomberg senior would simultaneously lead the main force across the river, followed by William leading the main reserve.
Crossings would commence, if all went according to plan, at 9:00am, then the tide was lowest.
It started with a column of cavalry led by Count Schomberg.
The crossing at Rasnaree was likely intended to pincer James’ force and then cut off its retreat. Instead, the Williamites were almost forced into retreat themselves when their opposite numbers, 1,200 Jacobite cavalry, spotted them fording the river and opened fire.
Count Schomberg pushed on, as later related to William by Schomberg’s aide, St Felix:
“(The Count) detached a hundred horse grenadiers to march to the ford in formation to draw enemy fire. At the same time he advanced with the Royal dragoon regiment… They were no sooner at the ford when the enemy opened fire on them. The Count, from the riverbank, urged them to cross now. The enemy, some 1,200 horsemen, came again ‘a la charge’ but the Count noticed that the enemy fire grew ragged after his firing and called out to the dragoons that they must take the ford by force; at the same time he plunged into the river, sword in hand, at the head of the dragoons. He charged the enemy so well and with such spirit that he pushed them back on each other and pursued them for 2 miles towards where the enemy was drawn up in battle formations.”
At first, Schomberg’s side was pushed back, but when his artillery arrived, the tables were turned.
The Jacobites’ cavalry commander, Sir Niall O’Neill being killed by a cannonball in his thigh:
“O’Neill’s mortal wound – he died a week later in Waterford – shows the brittle nature of James’s ‘Gaelic Irish’ troops. Their loyalty was not to a king or a commander appointed by him but to their clan chief. In this respect they were similar to the Scottish Highlanders with whom they shared a language and culture. While their leaders ordered them to fight they would, but with their loss and despite the regimental organization to which they submitted, there was no real structure available which would facilitate an immediate change in command.”
In other words, with their leader dead, the Jacobite cavalry were thrown into disarray, allowing Count Schomberg to seize the moment and lead his men across.
Meanwhile, the main body of William’s force was also advancing, on Oldbridge and Drybridge.
These were tactical measures, meant to pin a portion of James’ force before Duke Schomberg led the main body of William’s army (11,000 men) over the river to hammer James’ force.
William, meanwhile, hung back with his 8,000 reserves.
James, though, was not ready to meet this main assault. When he heard about the diversion launched against his left wing by the Duke’s son, Count Schomberg, James began to panic, assuming that this was, in fact, the main body of the Protestant army preparing to flank him entirely.
He turned increasingly large portions of his army to face this illusory threat.
Tyrconnel was ordered to prepare to meet this threat emerging on the left flank as well, but that put him in a bind.
As far as he was concerned, he could see a large number of Protestant troops advancing right in front of him.
James, after all, was all the way behind, at the Hill of Donore, and had to rely on messengers to convey information back and forth.
No matter what the size of the force coming from the north was, one thing was for certain – most of the artillery was located there.
It was at that point that three batteries of guns and one of mortars unleashed fire on Oldbridge and the Jacobite artillery at the Hill of Donore, where James was situated.
James ordered his artillery to withdraw, out of range, but the enemy merely switched his fire from there to a nearby regiment.
This failed to silence them, however, and they seemingly ‘(rose) out of the ground’ from behind a protective bank, and fired upon the Dutch guards as they spearheaded the advance across the river.
Thankfully for the Dutchmen, they were beyond the range of their enemy’s muskets and they charged the enemy with bayonets:
“(These) men were forced out of their defences and into the cornfields that lay outside the village, exchanging volleys with the enemy – the Irishmen equipped with outdated and slow-firing matchlock muskets or pikes competing with an enemy armed with modern flintlocks and socket bayonets, where each soldier was a musketeer or pikeman in equal measure.”
Elite Jacobite troops now attempted to counter-attack while simultaneously, Colonel de la Meloniere’s leading regiment of William’s Huguenot brigade traversed the river from Grove Island; but the river had been dammed when the Dutch guards crossed and now the water that had built up was suddenly released, slamming into them as they crossed.
Fortunately for them, their mere presence discouraged the Jacobite counter-attack. James’ officers tried in vain to rally their men for one last charge but it was to no avail.
They did not fling weapons down and retreat in complete disarray, as, McNally says, has been claimed in some histories of the battle – these men were brave, but not experienced.
It was, for many, their first taste of combat and they were going toe-to-toe with some of the best troops in Europe (who also outnumbered and were better equipped than them).
It was now 11:30 am and, watching from a ridge that overlooked the river’s southern bank, Tyrconnel could see his men gradually being pushed away from the river. He sent in his best troops – his own horse regiment, and the King James’s Life Guards:
“Led by Lieutenant Colonel Dominic Sheldon and the 19-year-old Duke of Berwick, the Jacobite horsemen thundered downhill, slowly gathering speed and momentum as they approached the Dutchmen. As the range close and the Irishmen rode through the pall of smoke that lay on the battlefield, the Dutch Guards presented muskets and opened fire.”
The fire forced them to retreat and rally. William’s men continued to press over the river, and the Jacobite side crumbled and pulled back.
By this point, things were very confused.
James was receiving reports from Tyrconnel that, in fact, a major force was attacking from the north; James tried desperately to reconcile this with what he had thought was happening – that the force crossing the river to the north was a diversion, and the main force was coming for his left wing.
In actual fact, it was the other way around.
And it was a good thing for the Protestants that they’d planned things this way.
The area Count Schomberg’s force now found themselves in was named Roughgrange, and, as per the moniker, it was rough, boggy and too difficult to cross (with a stream, a tributary of the Boyne, at the centre of it)
Realising this, the Count began working his way south to try and find a way around the obstacle.
Meanwhile, James continued to direct the battle as if the force to his north needed to be dealt with quickly so that his men could get on and face those coming from the west
But Tyrconnel was being forced to respond to the major attack unfolding in his sector.
He sent in a furious counterattack:
“After their abortive charge upon the Gardes le Voet (the Dutch Guards), the Life Guards and Tyrconnel’s regiment quickly rallied and this time, accompanied by John Parker’s regiment of horse, they thundered back downhill towards the enemy forces now clambering up the southern bank of the Boyne.”
The troops on both sides ploughed into each other, and a huge melee ensued, soldiers firing and slashing madly at one another.
One of William’s regimental commanders, Colonel Caillemotte, was killed, though he would not be the highest profile casualty that day:
“Slightly ahead of (Caillemotte), the Duke of Schomberg vainly tried to rally (his men) as the wave of enemy horsemen engulfed his small party, and, as the Jacobite charge rolled on, Schomberg and his aides were left head or dying.”
The Jacobite cavalry now reined in their charge and regrouped; William’s side, on the other hand, was in trouble.
After the death of Schomberg, they were left leaderless and it took a while for them to reorganise.
Still, they doggedly continued their advance, with Danish troops now holding their muskets above their heads and crossing the river so they could join the battle.
They were joined by their own cavalry, but now Tyrconnel flung his own infantry and, far more experienced, cavalrymen at them.
The Danish infantry held firm and fired volleys at their attackers, driving them back, but not before they, in turn, had driven the Danish cavalry back across the river.
Now William entered the battle, crossing the river himself.
He followed more of his cavalry over, but, when his horse got caught in the churned-up riverbed, and he dismounted and tried to lead his mount across, the king suffered an intense asthma attack.
The King could have drowned, were it not for a soldier named McKinlay who “unceremoniously dragged him and his mount to firmer ground on the southern bank”.
Watching the rest of William’s force come ashore, Tyrconnel wrote to James:
“The Enemy has forced the river, the Right Wing is defeated.”
It was now time to conduct a fighting withdrawal. One major site for this defensive positioning was a walled graveyard south of the battlefield.
It was here that many Jacobites put up fierce resistance and a confused close-quarters firefight intermixed with hand-to-hand combat broke out.
It was so chaotic that many were killed by friendly fire – King William himself was almost shot dead by one of his own troops.
But as the retreat continued, the Jacobite side became more disordered, breaking into stores of alcohol, losing formation, and flinging away arms and even shoes to help them run faster.
This loss of equipment would prove crippling to the long-term military prospects of the Jacobite cause - it was not easy to replace and would prove perhaps even more damaging than the casualties they’d sustained that day.
It’s easy to see why equipment was dropped though.
Their last obstacle to escape was a bottleneck in the form of the stone Magdalene Bridge at Duleek.
This was surrounded by high, muddy banks that could not be navigated easily, and the bridge itself was only wide enough for six men to march abreast.
Jacobite commanders ordered some men to hold off the pursuers while selected troops and artillery were sent across the bridge.
In this way, bit by bit, the Jacobite army slipped away, William calling off the pursuit not long after that.
James, however, kept running, first to Dublin, then by boat back to France, where he spent the remainder of his life.
William would go onto to rule England, Scotland and Ireland along with Mary II.
The British crown would never again pass to a Catholic.
To learn more about the Battle of the Boyne, read ‘Battle of the Boyne 1690: The Irish campaign for the English crown’, and look at ‘Matchlock Musketeer 1588-1688’ by Keith Roberts for more on the weapons of the period. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.
Cover image: Blend of the Duke of Schomberg’s death from Michael McNally and an image of the Valley of the River Boyne by Jule Berlin