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Men in Tights – The Battle of the Boyne 1690


On a warm and sunny summer afternoon, I am walking across the River Boyne at Oldbridge, County Louth, when I chance upon an old codger taking his hound for a stroll. We strike up a conversation, about a ruined shell of a house just up the way. He tells me it used to belong to a fellow known as “Pope” Heaney on account of his having been a Guard to the Pope during the Great War. He says it’s a funny thing to have a Papal Guard living so close to the obelisk they erected for William the Orange in 1732. But then one evening in June 1923, some Republicans arrived and took “Pope” Heaney away for the night and when he got back next day, the obelisk was no more. “That’s where they had the big battle”, the old fellow tells me, pointing to a field nearby. “Up in ta bog beyant”.

It’s always strange getting to grips with battlefields. Looking out across the quiet meadowy banks of the Boyne, sparrows twittering in the hawthorn bushes, yellow buttercups swaying in the grass, thinking so, hmmmm, this is where it all happened, musket shot, blinding smoke, clash of swords, screams of agony, red blood seeping into the soil. But, for me, the peace and the birdsong hit the spot. A moment for contemplation.

The Battle of the Boyne was indeed a monumental scrap. It took place at Oldbridge on the banks of the Boyne outside Drogheda on July 1st 1690 (July 12th if you follow the new calendar, as the drum-banging marching bands of Ulster’s Loyalists are wont to do). The armies were led by King Billy, then William, Prince of Orange and King of Britain, and James Stuart, the deposed King of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This battle was a showdown between two enormous spiritual beliefs competing for the domination of Christian Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that a bunch of closely related beardless monarchs with multi-coloured frocks, high-heeled shoes, skimpy tights and long, girly hair down to their belly-buttons just didn’t like each other.


Born in October 1633, James Stuart was the second son of King Charles I and his French wife, Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV, the fun-loving Bourbon monarch who brought France out of its religious civil wars only to be assassinated by a fanatical schoolteacher in May 1610. Educated and raised as a Protestant during the hard times of England’s Civil War, James was just 16 years old when Cromwell’s Republicans captured his shy but egotistical father and axed his head off at Whitehall in January 1649. James fled to Catholic France to join his elder brother Charles Stuart and the other Royalist leaders, and there they remained for the duration of Cromwell’s Interregnum. Following the collapse of Cromwell’s Republic in 1660, James’s 30 year old brother was installed as King Charles II. He was quite a sound chap, Charles II, a Protestant by name but an enlightened reveller, randy Casanova and all-round cultural party animal by nature. Unfortunately he didn’t have any sons so, on his death in 1685, the kingdom fell to James, a rather serious fellow who’d by now fallen passionately in love with all things Catholic. This created a tricky situation. England had been to-ing and fro-ing ‘twixt Catholicism and Protestantism since the 1530s when Henry VIII told the Pope to get stuffed and married Anne Boleyn. By the time Charles II took to the throne, most Englishmen felt that being a Prod was better than being a Catholic.

So when 52 year old James ascended that same throne in February 1685 and started babbling about bringing the suppressed Catholics back into the mainstream, discontent arose among the higher ranks once again. To begin with, most people thought James would come to. He had proved himself a capable admiral of the British fleet when, as the Duke of York, he oversaw an expansion programme that was to make Britain the most formidable naval power in the world for the next 250 years. When his fleet captured the port of New Amsterdam from the Dutch, the port was renamed New York in his honour. And he was, after all, the brother of Charles II, as popular a king as there has ever been in England’s turbulent history.

During his first parliament in 1685, James was given more money to play with than any English sovereign had received since Queen Elizabeth the previous century. And when Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, attempted to take the throne by force that summer, nobody supported the rebellion. James had his handsome 36-year-old nephew swiftly executed at the Tower of London. I guess the English people were hoping James would kick back and take his brother’s calm and flexible approach to being king of the castle. James had different ideas. He was convinced Catholicism was the way to go and, moreover, felt the only means of protecting the realm from another Cromwell style revolution was to establish a hardcore authoritarian regime. He began appointing loyal Catholics to high positions in the army, local government and civil service; when his Protestant parliament objected, he told them all to sod off. In January 1687, he dismissed the leading Protestants from his Court and appointed the deeply unpopular Earl of Tyrconnell – a Catholic – Lord Deputy of Ireland. A few months later, he kicked all the Prods out of Oxford University and turned it into a Catholic institution.

In April, advised by the Cork-born Quaker leader William Penn, he shocked the nation by suspending the Penal Laws that had kept Catholics in check since Elizabeth’s clampdown over a hundred years earlier. James was on a roll. He dissolved his gob-smacked parliament and then called for a new one, making sure that there was good loyal Catholic candidates spread across the length and breadth of the country. Within less than 30 months, it looked like the 150-year struggle to eliminate Catholicism from the British Isles had come to nowt. The Protestants were in a terrible pickle. For a while they consoled themselves with the fact that James’s two daughters by his first marriage, Anne and Mary, were good Prods and the latter, heiress to the throne, was married to a thoroughly good Prod from the Netherlands called William. But then James’s new wife, a French Catholic called Mary of Modena, got a tubby belly and James was suddenly running around in great heart talking of how this time it’d surely be a boy and a Catholic boy at that and how, at long last, the re-catholicisation of the British Isles was nearing completion. Things were looking drastic for the Protestants. And then, as so often happens, the pendulum began to swing the other way. James pushed it too far. He locked up seven Anglican bishops in the Tower of London because they’d refused to stand up in front of their congregations and tell everyone Catholicism was a thoroughly Good Thing and should never have been suppressed. When the courts acquitted the Bishops and the public went on a celebratory rampage, the Prods realised James’s pro-Catholic antics were going down like a lead balloon (or an Annesley) with a lot of people.

The Queen dutifully delivered a bouncing baby boy on 10th June 1688 and christened him James Edward Stuart. Figuring that this hairless heir to the throne was going to be humming the Te Deum Laudamus in Latin before he could walk, the Prods decided it was time to take action. It might be over the top to have two revolutions in the space of fifty years but, hey, would Britain have been called ‘Great’ if they hadn’t assassinated the occasional monarch here and there? On 30th June 1688, the day the Bishops were acquitted, a group of seven men – military officers, aristocrats, politicians and bishops – sent an invitation across the Channel to the Netherlands and cordially invited William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart (James’s tall and beautiful eldest daughter) to cross the Channel and take the throne. William replied that he’d love to. Would the autumn suit?


It is perhaps a measure of just how unpopular James had become that the leading men of his kingdom settled on a short, asthmatic, bisexual, hunch-backed 48 year old Dutchman named Billy as the solution to their woes. But there you have it, it takes all sorts and Billy was certainly a very good soldier. More importantly, he was a Prod and a staunch, well-connected Prod at that. Born in November 1650 a week after his father, William II of Orange, the Stadholder of Holland, died of smallpox, his mother was Mary Stuart, daughter of King Charles I of Britain and thus a sister of Charles II and the above-named James II. The fact Billy went on to marry his Uncle James’s daughter, another Mary Stuart, in 1677 is indicative of just how incestuous the European Royalty were in these strange old days.

At the age of 22, the Calvinist- educated Billy was appointed head of the Netherlands and entrusted with the task of strengthening Dutch Protestant resistance to the expansionist aims of Louis XIV’s Catholic France. Billy had a gift for languages – Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish and Latin – and he had a gift for command. Within less than a decade he’d kicked the French out of his country, made peace with Charles II’s Britain and secured a Grand Alliance with the major European Protestant powers. The Dutch Parliament liked his style. When, come 1689, he told them of his plan to take the throne of Britain from his Catholic uncle / father-in-law, they whooped with joy and granted him plenty enough ships and soldiers to do the job.

When James got wind that Billy and his Orangemen were on their way across the Channel, he sat up straight and panicked, running around like a wild thing trying to patch things up. He made Oxford Protestant again, reappointed Prods to prominent positions in his court, the army, the civil service, cancelled commissions, called off the election, apologised for his erratic behaviour, said he’d been having a hard time, kind of tricky getting it right when your father’s executed when you were only sweet 16, any chance of a second chance, my Friends, my Countrymen … no, it was too late.

King Billy landed at Torbay in Devon in mid November 1688 and immediately advanced on London, emboldened by the news of pro-Dutch uprisings breaking out across the English Midlands. John Churchill (later the Duke of Marlborough) and Princess Anne were among those defecting from James’s court to join the Williamite retinue. To keep it brief, James didn’t stand a chance. Billy allowed him to ‘escape’ to France a few nights before Christmas 1688 and take some time out with his first cousin, Louis XIV, at the brand new palace of Versailles. On 13th Feb 1689, the Bill of Rights confirmed the abdication of King James II and the accession of King William and Queen Mary. For the record, this event is known as the Glorious Revolution.


But our James wasn’t a quitter. In March 1689, he landed on the south coast of Ireland with a large Franco-Irish army and a cunning plan. His mission was to oust the Protestant settlers brought into the country by Cromwell fifty years earlier and restore the lands to the original Catholic owners. The idea was, get rid of the settlers and all Ireland, good Catholics that they were, would surely rise to join James and depose Dutch Billy from the throne. James and his army did quite well for a while and then they didn’t do very well at all. Their failure to capture the Protestant strongholds of Londonderry and Enniskillen prompted Billy to send a highly disciplined army of Danish and Dutch mercenaries across the sea to Belfast Lough under the command of the very able 80 year old General Schomberg in the spring of 1690.

On Sunday June 28th 1690, James’s 25,000-strong army of Catholics (known as the Jacobites) crossed the River Boyne and set up camp in a field and James set up his HQ in the Church on Donore Hill. A few days later, Billy himself arrived in the neighbourhood with 36,000 well-equipped, experienced Protestant soldiers (known as the Williamites) and came to a halt in the hills and glens around the ancient Cistercian HQ of Mellifont Abbey. The setting for the battle couldn’t have been more suitable if they tried. The Boyne Valley has been pivotal to Irish history from the word go. This golden triangle is where our ancient pagan forefathers constructed the burial chambers of Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth. 2000 years later, the High Kings selected the Hill of Tara as the site of Ireland’s Royal Palace. In the 5th century, Saint Paddy figured that if Christianity was to get off the ground in Ireland, Royal Meath would have to be won and so he made a beeline for the Hill of Slane and there lit the Paschal Fire. In 1142 AD, the Cistercian monks chose Mellifont as their base camp for the introduction of community monasticism into Ireland. And now, 550 years on, the Kings of Europe were meeting in the Boyne Valley to decide the spiritual fate of their kingdoms.

With nearly 70,000 men preparing to kill one another in hand-to-hand combat, the two commanders honourably decided there must be some form of uniform to distinguish the two teams as it were. Billy’s boys were to wear sprigs of green leaves in their cloaks; James’s were to wear white pieces of paper of the French White Cockade style. The teams took positions on either side of the River Boyne and regarded one another. This being a European conflict, the forces consisted of Irish, English, Welsh, Dutch, French Huguenots, French Catholics, Belgian, Swiss, Danes, Prussians, Bavarians and Flemish Walloons. I assume the babble was only ferocious. Badges on, chaps? All set? Jolly good. On my command, unleash Hell. Chaaaaaaarge!

As it happened, Billy scored the winning goal when he split his army in two and sent a decoy force of 10,000 men to Rossnaree, near Slane. Watching from the south side of the river, James figured the entire battleground must be shifting up the way and duly sent the bulk of his army off to see what was going on. Not missing a beat, Billy whipped out his trump card – 26,000 more soldiers hiding in a wooded ravine beneath Mellifont, known ever since as King William’s Glen – who crossed the river at Oldbridge at low tide, tip-toed up behind the Jacobites and yelled out “Boo!” Caught off guard and stuck in a bog, James’s forces were forced to retreat, fighting a rearguard action all the way to Duleek. The casualties weren’t high by the standards of the day – Billy lost 500 men, James about 1500. Compare that to the 9000 who died at the decisive battle of Aughrim, County Galway, a year later. Nonetheless, counting the corpses that littered the Boyne Valley at day’s end, Billy couldn’t have been sure that victory was his. For one thing, the Jacobites had managed to kill his commander, General Schomberg, as he crossed the main ford at Oldbridge. And they’d nearly managed to whack Billy himself, nicked him in the shoulder while he was on a pre-battle recce mission. What sealed it though was James taking a long look at the entire situation, deciding sod this for a game of soldiers, bailing south to Waterford and hopping a ship to France a few days later, where Louis XIV said “there, there, me boy” and gave him an annual pension of a million livres.


Billy and Mary ruled Britain for the remainder of the 17th century. Young Mary, whom Billy truly loved, died of small pox in late December 1694 without providing a son and heir. Billy spent the last years of his life engaged in a European conflict against the increasingly ambitious Sun King, Louis XIV of France. When Louis inherited the Spanish Empire in 1698, Billy found himself at the head of an international coalition determined to bring France to its knees. He never got the chance to prove his worth. While testing a new horse in London’s Richmond Park, he slipped and broke his collar-bone. Confined to bed he caught a chill and died, aged 52, at Kensington Palace on 19th March 1702. In the absence of any children, he was succeeded by his 37-year-old sister-in-law, the Protestant Princess Anne, James’s younger daughter, last of the Stuart dynasty. James had died in France 6 months earlier, a despondent and deeply confused 68-year-old man, unable to comprehend why Britain and his own daughters had betrayed him. The thing is, like his headless father before him, James was 100% convinced he’d been divinely appointed to the throne by God, that he was God’s agent on earth. So he couldn’t figure out why God had let that throne be taken from him. At any rate, he never returned to the British Isles and that was the end of the Jacobite cause in the British Isles … well, until his son, James Edward Stuart, the “Old Pretender” made a grab for the throne in 1715, and then there was the grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, who took a shot in 1745 … but that’s another story. TB©2000.