The Battle of the Boyne. It’s one of those events in Irish and British history that’s loaded with significance (think Orange marches and gable-ends) even though not many people know much about what actually happened. As Angus Donald confesses he discovered when writing the third of his Holcroft Blood novels.
We’ve all see them on TV, in the newspapers: burly men, grim faced, marching in their ranks, thousands strong, in sober suits, prim white gloves, bowler hats and bright V-shaped sashes; fifes tootling; drums rattling, batons twirling and huge patriotic banners waving overhead.
I remember as a teenager in my parents’ house in Kent seeing the Orangemen on the Nine O’Clock News and thinking, what is that about?
Then I read some history, got a better grip on politics and began to understand what these men – few women were visible – were all about, and to disapprove, as the young unthinkingly tend to do when confronted with alien customs. They were marching to celebrate the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne, the struggle on 12 July, 1690, between William of Orange and James II on the bank of a slow, peat-brown river in Ireland a few miles west of Drogheda for mastery of the British Isles.
I didn’t think about it much for another forty years. The impression that remained was, roughly, this: Battle of the Boyne – Protestant English army triumphs over Catholic Irish; terrible slaughter by the riverbank that wrecked the hopes of the Stuart dynasty for all time in one decisive day.
It was only when I began to research the historical background to Blood’s Campaign, the third book in my series about the brilliant but unusual artillery officer Holcroft Blood (a distant relative of mine) that I realised that almost everything I had assumed about the battle was wrong.
It wasn’t just the English against the Irish: King William’s army (about 36,000 strong) had many English regiments, of course, but also units hastily recruited from Ulster and large numbers of Dutch troops, including his famous Blue Guards, perhaps the best troops in Europe at the time. He also had Danish, German and Huguenot contingents.
King James’s army (roughly 24,000 men) contained about 7,000 Frenchmen. And there were Catholics and Protestants on both sides.
Moreover, the Boyne wasn’t a decisive military encounter. In fact, and I discovered this, foolishly, after I had begun writing the novel, it wasn’t even a particularly important battle, in the wider scheme of things.
Compared to the massive conflicts in mainland Europe between Louis XIV, the despotic Sun King, and, well, everyone else – the Dutch, the Austrians, the English, the Spanish, the Holy Roman Empire, the Duchy of Savoy, etc (known as the Nine Years’ War or the War of the League of Augsburg), the Boyne was a relatively unimportant sideshow.
A few days before the fight on the Boyne, the French enjoyed a crushing naval victory over the Anglo-Dutch fleet off Beachy Head. On the same day as the Irish battle, in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), at the Battle of Fleurus, the Duc de Luxembourg thrashed Prince Waldeck’s allied force. To give an idea of the scale of the two land battles: at Fleurus, there were about 17,000 casualties; at the Boyne only a total of about 2,250 men were killed or wounded.
That is not to say that the Battle of the Boyne was not an appalling bloodbath for those unfortunate enough to have taken part in it.
The Jacobites, commanded personally by James Stuart, were occupying positions along the south bank of the river, concentrated around a hamlet called Oldbridge, three miles west of Drogheda and about thirty miles north of the Irish capital. James had declared that “the Boyne is the walls of Dublin” but the Stuart King was very concerned that the William would manoeuvre around his left flank and come behind him, cutting off his line of retreat. He gave orders on the eve of battle that the baggage should be packed up and ready to make a speedy departure the next day, if necessary.
The next morning, just before dawn, Williamite troops were in sight on the ridge above the northern bank of the Boyne. And James saw the dust of thousands of enemy troops heading to the west along the road. The Stuart King, believing this to be a much larger force than it truly was, gave orders for a large part of his own army, including some of his finest (French) troops to head west to stop the Williamites getting behind him.
This was a grave error. In fact, William had only initially sent 7,000 men to the west, although he later sent more. By trying to counter it, James fatally weakened his own centre at the hamlet of Oldbridge.
At nine o’clock, the English artillery (on William’s right flank, just above the ford over the Boyne at Oldbridge) opened up; my distant cousin Captain Holcroft Blood commanding some of the big guns. The barrage lasted for an hour and destroyed Oldbridge and, while the dazed and battered Irish defenders were still coming to their senses, William sent in his elite Blue Guards to capture the ruins.
The Dutch Blue Guards marched across the ford in the Boyne in a slow, tramping column, into the furious musket fire of the surviving Irishmen. The Dutch casualties at the ford were horrendous, but the Blue Guard kept on advancing, magnificently disciplined, and eventually they took Oldbridge after an hour or so of brutal hand-to-hand fighting.
Further east, other contingents of William’s army, Englishmen, Danes and Huguenots, were also crossing the shallow river. And despite a courageous defence all along the line, and notable gallantry by the Jacobite cavalry, who attacked the oncoming Williamite hordes again and again, the Irish were overwhelmed everywhere and forced to pull back.
Over in the west of the battlefield, at a place called Roughgrange, the two sides found themselves separated by a deep, impassable ravine – and French troops stared at English redcoats without firing a single shot.
When James, at Roughgrange, heard that William’s men had crossed the Boyne in many places, he gave the order to retreat to Dublin. At a narrow bridge over the River Nanny at Duleek, about five miles south of Oldbridge, which soon became a dangerous bottleneck, the French infantry rearguard formed up and bravely fended off the English cavalry long enough for the bulk of James’s beaten army to escape to the south.
The Battle of the Boyne was over. But thanks to the escape of the majority of James’s army, the Irish were able to fight on for another fifteen months, during which time several major battles were fought.
The defiant Irish finally surrendered and signed the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691. Many of the troops were allowed to leave Ireland and go into exile in France, an episode known as the Flight of the Wild Geese.
The war in Ireland was not ended at the Boyne, as I had assumed, not by a long chalk; but it was certainly over for James Stuart. He fled back to the protection of Louis XIV in the days immediately after the battle – earning himself the derisive Gaelic nickname of Séamus an Chaca among the troops he deserted, which means “James the Shit”.
James II and VII never again attempted to win the thrones of the Three Kingdoms by force of arms. But the Stuart cause was not dead: his son, James, the ‘Old Pretender’, made another attempt in 1715, and his grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, led a rising in Britain in 1745.
So the bloody fight at the River Boyne was not at all the battle I had though it was all those years ago. But it was, nonetheless, a fascinating and moving slice of history to get to grips with as a novelist, and I hope I have done justice to the sacrifice of so many brave men – on both sides – in Blood’s Campaign.
And I cannot argue that it was not a significant battle. For all those doughty Orangemen marching in the summer months, it is a powerful symbol of their identity, of their pride, culture and history. And, particularly in these times of political upheaval in Britain and Ireland, we disregard these cherished cultural symbols at our peril.
See more about Blood’s Campaign.
Angus Donald is the author of Blood’s Game and Blood’s Revolution, as well as the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles. He is always happy to chat to readers on Facebook or Twitter.
He has also written about the myths and misconceptions surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the background to Blood’s Revolution.
The Battle of the Boyne by Jan van Huchtenburg: Rijksmuseum
Orange march, Belfast, 2012: via Wikimedia
Equestrian portrait of Louis XIV by René-Antoine Houasse: via Wikimedia
Map of battle: Can Pac Swire on Flickr
Limerick: the Treaty Stone on its plinth, King John’s Castle behind, by Mike Shinners (CC BY-SA 2.0): via Geograph
Wild Geese: Irish soldiers serving in the French army’s Irish Brigades. Walsh’s (enseign, 1715); Dillon’s (drummer, 1744; enseign and infantryman, 1757) from the Vinkhuijzen collection of military uniforms: via NYPL Digital Collections