William III, recently crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland, stood on the high ground to the north of the River Boyne and looked south at the army of his rival, King James II. Until 18 month ago James had been King of England, Scotland and Ireland and been removed from his throne by William. Now, after weeks of inconclusive marching and skirmishing, James had decide to stop and fight and William was happy to see it. “I am glad to see you gentlemen,” William reputedly said to the tents of his enemy. “If you escape me now, the fault will be mine.” This would be the last time that two kings would content in person on the battlefield for the thrones of the three kingdoms of the British Isles.
When Charles II, the Protestant King of England, died, his brother the Catholic James, Duke of York, became James II. Even though James made moves to loosen the legal restrictions placed on Catholics, the mostly Protestant nobility and landed class were willing to weather the storm of a Catholic monarchy, after all, James was well into his fifties and his second wife, Mary of Modena, had produced no healthy children. Also James’ Heirs Presumptive were his Protestant daughter, Mary and her husband, William.
Unfortunately James was soon showing some of the absolutists trends of his father when he made several very unpopular political moves. First, he appointed several Catholics to high positions in the Army, and then when the Parliament of 1685 refused to confirm these appointments and also refused to fund a larger military establishment, James dismissed the Parliament. Next, James avoided calling another Parliament while he attempted to ‘pack’ the next one that he would call with men loyal to him. The final straw was the birth of a healthy son to Mary of Modena and James. Now faced with the possibility of Catholic dynasty, “the Seven Immortals” invited William to come to England and defend Mary’s place in the line of succession. William landed at Torbay on 5 November with a well trained, professional army of 15,000 men and moved on London. While the English Army of James numbered about 21,000, it was scattered around the country and was notoriously undisciplined. James soon lost the support of several key civil and military leaders and tried to flee, but was captured. William, having no desire to execute his rival, made it easy for him to escape and James was quickly on his way to France.
Neither James nor more importantly, was Louis XIV, going to let William have the British Isles without a fight. The French fleet managed to land James and some supporters and supplies in 1689. This was followed up with a landing of some seven thousand French troops in Ireland in March 1690 to support a Jacobite rebellion lead by Richard Talbot, the Earl of Tyrconnell. James hoped to use Ireland as a stepping stone to reclaim his crown, while Louis hoped to distract William from mobilizing the resources of his new realms against France.
Within a month of landing, James and his Jacobite followers controlled all of Ireland except the Protestant strongholds of Enniskillen and Derry (Londonderry). Even though William viewed the Irish conflict as a worrying distraction from the main theater of war in the Netherlands, the English Parliament, naturally enough, did not see it that way. In fact, it was James’ arrival in Ireland with French support that prompted Parliament to finally declare war on France. This declaration required William to dispatch an expedition to relieve Derry, shortly followed by another force of some 20,000 troops lead by the 73 year old Duke of Schomberg. This force was designed to put an end to the rebellion within a year. Neither Schomberg nor his army was up to the task. While Schomberg did manage to take Carrickfergus and secure the north, he was stopped on his march to Dublin by the scorched earth tactics of James’ illegitimate son, James Fitzjames, the Duke of Berwick and by his own poor logistics.
William grew frustrated with the situation in Ireland and soon determined to bring the whole bloody business to an end, even though he had no desire to go to Ireland in person, he felt he had no choice. William himself put it most empathically: “I think it is terrible that I can contribute so little to the cause of the allies this year, that I am obliged to go to Ireland where I will be, as it were cut off from the civilized world. If I can conquer that Kingdom soon, I will be able to take action against the common enemy with all the more vigor. . .”
Despite his misgivings, William and a cosmopolitan army of 15,000 landed at Carrick-fergus on 14 June 1690. William quickly combined his army with Schomberg’s troops and moved south with a combined force of 35,000 to take Dublin from his father-in-law. James meanwhile moved north with an army of 25,000 to confront his son-in-law.
While battles of this age usually turned into brutal slugging matches where sheer numbers usually determined the outcome, surprisingly the Boyne didn’t turn into such a battle of attrition. In fact, William ultimately attempted, however accidently, a double envelopment battle of annihilation.
The Jacobites had taken a strong position on the south side of the river. 1300 Jacobite infantry occupied the town of Drogheda on the Jacobite right, blocking the only bridge for miles. The main force occupied a loop in the river at the village of Oldbridge opposite the sallowest ford, with the infantry in the village and the excellent Jacobite cavalry on the high ground behind them. Another 800 men was dispatched to guard the next crossing to the west at Rosnaree on the Jacobite’s left. William devised a plan to take advantage of greater numbers and seize the initiative. He dispatched 10,000 men to force the crossing at Rosnaree, flanking James on the left and perhaps even cutting off his retreat. Meanwhile, at ebb tide the main Williamite force, lead by the elite Dutch Guards would cross the river and attack the Jacobites at Oldbridge.
James informed of the Williamite flanking move and presuming it was William’s main assault, took two-thirds of his army, including his best French infantry, and marched west to stop the Williamite attack. This left only 7000 troops guarding the ford at Oldbridge. The Williamites had crossed the river and were moving east when they ran into impassible bog at Roughgrange. Just as the Williamite came in from the west, James and his force came in from the east. Neither side could get at the other across the swamp. Stuck in these circumstances there was essentially no fighting on the Jacobite left that day.
William opened the attack on Oldbridge with a two hour artillery barrage. Then the Dutch Guards crossed the river and forced a foothold at Oldbridge, but were stopped from advancing further by the repeated attacks by the French and Irish cavalry coming down off the hills to their front. William seeing this and fearing this toehold would be crushed now ordered another crossing a few hundred yards downstream. Here the Huguenot, Ulster and English infantry crossed the Boyne, but they too were stopped by attacks of the Jacobite cavalry. William next ordered his Danish troops to cross the Boyne, downstream from the second crossing. This third crossing was also halted by the now desperate charges of the enemy horsemen.
After almost 4 hours of combat, William’s original plan had stalled. He now led his last reserves, the Dutch, Danish and English cavalry across the Boyne, on his far left. This last attack broke the Jacobite line. James’ infantry began a hasty retreat while the cavalry and dragoons fight a ferocious rearguard action at Dunore village located on high ground about two miles from the river. All this time James and his part of the Jacobite army had done nothing but stare at the Williamites on the other side of the Roughgrange bog. But upon hearing his right and center had been defeated and urged by his French generals, James started to retreat toward Dublin. The retreat soon became a rout. But the Williamite army, exhausted after days of marching and nearly six hours of fighting, failed to pursue the defeated enemy.
The battle was a defeat for the Jacobites, but not a disaster. They had lost about 1500 men, while William had lost almost 1000. The largest effect had been on James himself. He lost confidence in the Irish and just as in 1688, his nerve shattered. He left Dublin the day after the battle and rode the 120 miles to Duncannon in two days. Three days after the battle he set sail for France, never to set foot on British soil again.
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