The Battle of the Boyne – A Jacobite Flame Turned to Embers
In the near modern history of Ireland and Scotland, the Jacobite risings played a very important role. In a never-ending struggle for wealth and power, noble monarchs pitted the poor folk of these lands into a conflict that spanned generations. And each new Jacobite uprising placed the sons and daughters of Ireland and Scotland into new peril and stirred their freedom seeking hearts.
Today we are retracing the moments of a crucial battle of the Jacobite war in Ireland, and a somber moment in the pages of history. It is the Battle of the Boyne, a bloody clash on Irish soil, which saw Williamite forces defeating the Jacobite forces of James II and VII. An important aspect of the independence and the freedom of the Irish people, this crucial battle certainly needs to be remembered.
Jacobite Risings – Prelude to the Battle of the Boyne
In November of 1688, King James II of England and Ireland, and VII of Scotland, was deposed and replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband, James’ nephew, William III of Orange. In what was an essentially Catholic versus Protestant conflict, with deeper political connotations, the deposition became known as the Revolution of 1688.
Although completed quickly and with success for William III, it led to many future decades of struggle and conflict in the United Kingdom and continental Europe. As Mary and William initially successfully overthrew James, they began ruling the three kingdoms – England, Scotland, and Ireland – as joint monarchs.
James II and VII was forced into exile, but quickly regained control over almost the whole of Ireland, mostly by the aid of his loyal supporters. It was the king’s intention to use Ireland as a ‘ stronghold’, allowing him to successfully regain full control of all of the kingdoms.
But the conflict only gave rise to the already present struggles in Ireland, and only deepened the religious problems of the time. Irish Catholics , as well as those in Scotland and a small number in England, rallied to the cause of deposed King James, offering support and hoping that with his victory, their hardships and rights would be corrected. On the other hand, Protestants rallied to the side of William of Orange.
Exiled at first, King James II and VII came to Ireland in 1689, some four months after he was deposed. He was backed by French support. He had at his disposal the loyal Irish Royal Army which soon got into conflict with Irish Protestants, who were mainly stationed in Ulster – in Derry and the north of Ireland. The war for the restoration of James II and VII began with these conflicts.
The first crucial event of this conflict was the Siege of Derry in 1689. Jacobite forces attempted to enter Derry on 7th of December 1688, but in an act of rebellion against King James the Protestants barred the gates and denied entry.
The Jacobite forces, led by King James himself, returned in March of 1689, laying siege to the town. The Siege of Derry lasted 105 days and was unsuccessful. Sea borne supplies on four ships managed to break through the blockade and enter the city to bring relief to the Protestant forces. As these newly delivered supplies made the siege futile, the main Jacobite commander, Conrad Von Rosen, lifted the siege and retreated.
Build up to the Battle of the Boyne, the armed merchant ship Mountjoy breaks through the defensive boom to relieve the Siege of Derry. (Howicus / Public Domain )
The next conflict was the Battle of Newtownbutler. In an attempt to capture Enniskillen, Jacobite forces under the leadership of Justin MacCarthy, Viscount Mountcashel, were defeated with many casualties. This defeat coincided with the end of the Siege of Derry, and essentially meant that James had lost control over the north of Ireland.
In the meantime, William III landed seasoned troops in Ireland, led by the experienced commander Friedrich Hermann von Schönberg, 1st Duke of Schomberg. James’ military advisors urged the king to retreat behind the River Shannon , in hope of preparing a more effective defense. All the while, the seasoned veteran Schonberg, captured Carrickfergus and set up camp north of Dundalk.
At this camp, short of supplies and hampered by constant delays, the Williamite forces of Schonberg suffered from rampant illness and lack of medical supplies. Some 6,000 men died in the encampment. This forced Schonberg to delay the campaign, choosing instead to wait through the winter. William III had to boost these losses by fresh troops from England and elsewhere, and it gave both sides enough time to prepare for what 1690 was to bring.
The Fate of Ireland at Hand – the 1690 Campaign
While William III had ample forces prepared for his 1690 campaign – some 36,000 – Jacobite forces were able to muster significantly less. William of Orange commanded around 14,000 mounted Life Guards, 46 foot battalions – around 22,000 men – five regiments of dragoons, and 23 cavalry regiments, and plenty of artillery.
King James on the other hand, had under his command six French and 50 Irish foot battalions, two troops of Life Guards, eight regiments of cavalry, and seven regiments of dragoons. He also had 18 cannons. In total, this numbered some 26,000 men.
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James II & VII as head of the army, wearing a general officer's state coat. (P. S. Burton / Public Domain )
Things weren’t looking good for James, and his lead commander, Richard Talbot , 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, knew this all too well. William III had constant supplies that came by sea from England, undisturbed. James wouldn’t and couldn’t settle to be the ruler of just Ireland, and his whole cause was quickly losing ground.
Another upper hand of William’s was his colorful troops. He had support from Europe, and among his rank were experienced and well equipped troops from Germany, Denmark, France (Huguenots), Netherlands, and Protestants from England, Ireland, and Scotland. His commanders were also experienced European nobles , including the Duke of Wurttemberg, the Duke of Schomberg, the Earl of Portland, Duke of Ormonde, Earls of Oxford and Manchester, James Douglas, and many other prominent figures of the time. James’ commanders were the Earl of Tyrconnell, the 1st Duke of Berwick James FitzJames, and Duc de Lauzun.
In June of 1690, William III and his troops sailed from England in the attempt to seize Dublin. To defend against this, James chose to set up his defenses on the River Boyne, near Drogheda, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Dublin.
William III ("William of Orange"), his troops were victorious in the Battle of the Boyne. (BotMultichillT / Public Domain )
As they approached Dublin, the Williamite forces ravaged Ardee on the 29th of June, and from there marched on to Dublin. During their march, their advance guard, under the command of Sir John Lenier, was in constant contact with harassing Jacobite picket lines. When the Williamite forces neared Drogheda, some 1.86 miles (3 kilometers) out, they were able to survey the entire Jacobite positions from a high hill.
William of Orange and his commanders made a preliminary plan of operations. They proceeded to move closer to the Boyne and pitch a camp amidst the hilly countryside. This made it difficult for the Jacobites to correctly gauge their strength. William’s forces quickly took to reconnaissance, searching for a suitable fording spot. Jacobite lines were spotted, spread around near Oldbridge – on direct route to Dublin.
William of Orange joined the reconnaissance himself, and at the westernmost end opposite the Jacobites on the other shore, he settled on a hillock for rest. Here he enjoyed refreshments, and his entourage observed some 40 Jacobite Irish cavalry men across the river. These men remained in formation and did nothing – as it seemed.
But in fact, they provided a screen for two six pounder field guns which were carefully brought up and hidden opposite the positions of William III on the other bank. They waited until William and his entourage mounted for departure and fired in attempt to kill him. The barrage killed one man and two horses some 328 feet (100 meters) from William III, and a shot ricocheted and wounded William III lightly – the shot merely grazed his shoulder.
Soon after the incident, recovered from the shock, William ordered a large part of his English and Dutch cavalry to line up on the shore opposite to Oldbridge and the Jacobite troops. These troops came under fire from Irish eight pounder cannons and suffered moderate losses. To counter this, Williamite cannons were brought up and exchanged fire – without any crucial losses on either side.
Some of the artillery used during the Battle of the Boyne. (Ioannis Syrigos)
This exchange of fire went on for five hours, with the dismounted cavalry ready in formation and under fire the whole time. Observing this, William of Orange reportedly stated: “Now I see that my men will stand”. Only then was the cavalry pulled back.
Fight for the Ford
Things escalated into a full battle on 1st of July. The previous evening, at an improvised council of war, William and his commanders debated a further plan. Several men opted for a night attack, but a morning attack was favored. They planned on a feint attack – the idea was to have a part of the Williamite forces march towards Oldbridge in an attempt to cross, while the actual bulk of the army would march up the stream and attempt to cross and flank the Jacobites.
Several options were regarded, with William refusing several of these. In the end, they settled on a diversionary tactic. Around a quarter of his forces were to cross the River Boyne southwest of Oldbridge, led by Meinhardt Schomberg, 3rd Duke of Schomberg.
This attack was opposed by a counter attack by Sir Neill O’Neill, 2nd Baronet of Shane's Castle, Killyleagh, and around 800 Jacobite dragoons under his command. The counter attack failed, with O’Neill losing his life in the process.
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Map of the Battle of the Boyne. (Metilsteiner / Public Domain )
King James II and VII feared a flanking maneuver and commanded a portion of his army, unfortunately his seasoned troops, to execute counter-flanking movements. They ended up stuck in an swampy ravine near Roughgrange, wasting their potential.
The main crossing at Oldbridge saw the Williamite elite troops – the Dutch Blue Guards – successfully beating back the Jacobite defenders and crossing the river – only to be stopped by cavalry under the command of James FitzJames, the king’s illegitimate son. Nonetheless, the village of Oldbridge and the crossing were secured by the Williamite forces.
These men quickly came under attack from the Jacobite Irish cavalry and were forced into the river. In an attempt to keep the crossing secured, William’s chief commander, Friedrich Schomberg, 1st Duke Schomberg, rode among his men in the water, hoping to rally them. He was then hit thrice in the head with a saber, and shot in the neck, perishing at the spot.
The area of the Battle of the Boyne. (Ioannis Syrigos)
Some said that the shot came from his own troops, amid the chaos. This resulted in the Williamite forces not being able to advance further. Even though the mainly French Huguenote forces suffered heavy losses at the ford and managed to maintain it. Eventually, William’s cavalry was able to cross the Boyne and cause the Jacobite mounted troops to retreat.
Ultimately, the superiority in numbers of William III began to show. After the vicious clashes, he had a three to one superiority in the field, and by the afternoon of the same day, the Jacobite forces were in open retreat. James II and VII himself was rushing to retreat to Dublin, warning the remaining garrison there of the impending arrival of William of Orange.
William III at the Battle of the Boyne. (Hohum / Public Domain )
He then went into exile and was in France before the end of July. William of Orange and his victorious troops finally entered Dublin on July 6th. On the other hand, the defeated Jacobites were badly demoralized, and fled beyond the River Shannon.
All Embers Turn to Flame
The Battle of the Boyne remains one of the crucial, and last great battles of the Irish history. It claimed the lives of some 1,500 Jacobite soldiers and around 800 on the Williamite side. Its result dictated the outcome of the war for the restoration of James II and VII and put a stop to the Catholic restoration – for a time.
James spent the rest of his life in exile, but it was his son – James Francis Edward Stuart – The Old Pretender, who continued the fight for the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne. His was the Jacobite Uprising of 1715, and after him came his son – the Bonnie Prince Charlie , and the bloody, final, Jacobite Uprising of 1745. And so, we see that the Battle of the Boyne was only the first in a series of bloody struggles in the histories of Ireland and Scotland – and the event that shaped the future of these nations.
The Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre. (Ioannis Syrigos)
Top image: The Battle of the Boyne (Ireland) between James II and William III, July 12, 1690. Source: Scolaire / Public Domain .
Adams, S. Date Unknown. Battle of the Boyne . Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] Available at:
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O’Brien, E. 2003. What if the Irish had Won the Battle of the Boyne? Southern Illinois University Carbondale. [Online] Available at: http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1238&context=uhp_theses
Wallace, M. 1994. A Little History of Ireland . Appletree Press.