An Independent Emerald Isle as Early at 1690?!

Portrait of William III (left) James II of England (right)

No two kings of England, indeed no two men, could have been more dissimilar in their purposes, abilities, inclinations or characteristics than James II and William III. James wanted absolute authority in his kingdom, not only for its own sake but in order to promote the cause of Catholicism; William wanted to employ England’s economic and military resources to pursue his struggle against the power and ambitions of Louis XIV. James had shown himself to be a competent manager of navies; William had proved himself to be a perseverant deployer of armies. James relished the embraces of women; William preferred the company of men. For James religion was everything; William could take it or leave it. James was thoroughly English; William was first and foremost an Orangeman. The two men faced each other but once on the battlefield, and the outcome of the contest was to have a profound effect on the future of both England and Ireland.

No controversy concerning the profession of arms raged more furiously in English counsels at the time of the Stuarts than that of whether or not there should be a standing army. Our good fortune in being an island made it possible to ignore the existence of great standing armies elsewhere in Europe, for while the English navy remained in being, these armies posed no threat to England. And since the power of the purse remained in the hands of Parliament, it would not be possible without Parliament’s sanction for the sovereign to raise great standing armies at home, which would assuredly pose a threat to England. Only taxation would provide the king with a regular army and only Parliament could provide taxation. The Tudors had been wise enough to recognize this restriction in their power. The Stuarts’ refusal to do so led to their undoing. The great irony of this country’s military development was that when the time came to acknowledge that the practice of war was a distinct and separate calling, with all the social and political consequences which this entailed, it was not for the confusion of a foreign foe, but for the punishment of an English king.

Other kings had been content, or at least constrained, to rely on the militia. The militia, however, was not enough for Charles I, nor for his faithful minister, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. To make Charles as absolute a monarch as possible, Strafford devised his scheme known as Thorough. It depended on realizing what had eluded so many former monarchs: there was one thing, and one thing only, which would enable Charles to rule as he wanted to do – a standing army. All Strafford’s attempts to raise one failed, however, and Charles failed too. It was left to Parliament to form and raise the New Model Army, which in Cromwell’s hands arranged for the submission first of the Cavaliers and then of Parliament itself. In the end the army overreached itself, and despite its success in putting down all the opposing forces in Europe, once the English had felt the hand of military tyranny, they expressed their disapproval by a series of insurrections, easily suppressed by the iron hand of Cromwell. Yet paradoxically, having rid England of one Stuart king, Parliament now allowed the son of that same king to be restored to the throne without the disturbance of another Civil War. And it was Charles II, feeling perhaps with justification that the Beefeaters and trained bands might not be sufficient to guarantee the security of his household, who contrived to put aside sufficient funds to support a body of guards, thereby no doubt making a serious sacrifice of his own pleasures and dissipations. It was a modest enough body. Three regiments of cavalry, the Life Guards, Blues and Royal Dragoons; a few more of infantry, two regiments of Foot Guards, four of the line, plus the Admiral’s Regiment, forerunner of the Royal Marines, totalling some 1,700 horse and 7,000 foot. Such an establishment was hardly likely to threaten 5 million Englishmen with enslavement.

Such a thought was no doubt present in the mind of Charles’s brother, James, when he succeeded, narrow, bigoted and dull though he was. But again chance took a hand and presented James with the perfect opportunity to begin his cherished project of building up a standing army. Monmouth, bastard son of Charles II, was unwise enough to venture forth from the comforting embraces of Lady Henrietta Wentworth and land at Lyme in June 1685, mustering a force of some 1,500 men. In spite of some initial success, support for Monmouth remained local and limited, and the great men of the realm – however much some of them might dislike the rule of James, whom they had after all sought to exclude from the succession – were not disposed to risk another Civil War, with an inevitably uncertain outcome, for the sake of Monmouth. So the far more numerous forces that James was able to put together prevailed at Sedgemoor, where the presence of the King’s Household troops and regular battalions of Foot brought about Monmouth’s defeat.

This was not the only benefit which James gained. Under the guise of assuring the realm’s security during the Monmouth rebellion, he had greatly increased the strength of regular forces at his disposal by raising six regiments of cavalry and nine of infantry. He trebled the size of his army to 20,000 troops, more than any former monarch had had in times of peace. If the chance offered to him by Monmouth’s ill-fated expedition had not presented itself, James would have been hard put to raise these extra regiments. Yet he was still not satisfied. Happily for England, raising an even larger standing army depended on the ability to pay for more soldiers. And the power of the purse still rested with the House of Commons.

So little did James understand the character of the people he ruled that when opposition to his intention to destroy the Established Church by using his ecclesiastical authority reached the point of London’s trained bands refusing to disperse hostile crowds – refusing, in short, ‘to fight for Popery’ – he formed a great camp of his standing army at Hounslow Heath. Fourteen battalions of infantry and over thirty squadrons of cavalry were assembled together with artillery pieces and ammunition, all with a view to overawing and subduing the citizens of London. But James, who usually got his priorities wrong, had completely misjudged both these citizens and the soldiers, for instead of the soldiers deterring and forcing obedience on the citizens, the ideas of the citizens took a grip on the imagination of the soldiers. Apart from this, the Londoners, once their first apprehensions were overcome, took to the spectacle and active delights of the camp rather as they would to a gigantic fair or circus. ‘Mingled with the musketeers and dragoons,’ wrote Macaulay,

a multitude of fine gentlemen and ladies from Soho Square, sharpers and painted women from Whitefriars, invalids in sedans, monks in hoods and gowns, laqueys in rich liveries, pedlars, orange girls, mischievous apprentices and gaping clowns, was constantly passing and repassing through the long lanes of tents. From some pavilions were heard the noises of drunken revelry, from others the curse of gamblers.

So much for the effect of James’s standing army. Two years later, when all was put to the test, it availed him nothing. For when William of Orange, at the invitation of leading Whigs and Tories, landed at Torbay in the summer of 1688 with an army inferior in numbers to that which James, had he been able to command its loyalty, should have opposed him, this same standing army, so prudently and menacingly collected together by the king, deserted en masse. Thus in the contest for England William triumphed over James without a struggle. A struggle was still to come, however, for in 1689 the Catholic provinces of Ireland declared for James, while the Protestants of Ulster stood for William, hence their nomenclature as Orangemen ever since. James was supported by Louis XIV with troops and money and made his way to Ireland, held a Parliament and attempted to confiscate Protestant lands. The siege of Londonderry followed, relieved at length from the sea.

It was not until 1690 that William was able to leave his commitments in England to confront James. William III was not the first or the last English king to command troops in the field, but he was certainly one whose perseverance and experience progressively enhanced his military reputation. James was no stranger to soldiering either; he had served with credit in the field and had cherished his beloved Royal Navy. But however able or experienced a battle commander may be, much will depend on the material to hand and the state of mind of the commanders themselves. By the time William and James met and opposed each other in the field, the intrepid character of the one had been heightened and hardened by campaigning and heavy responsibilities, while the inherent sluggishness and ignoble nature of the other had been indulged and stimulated by a gradually deepening inflexibility of mind and a wanton misuse of power. Small wonder that the result was what it was. Both kings commanded heterogeneous armies, in itself a disadvantage, for if part of an army turns out to be totally unreliable, disaster may follow.

Let us first take a look at James’s army. It probably amounted to some 30,000 men of which about one-third – the French infantry and the Irish cavalry – was of high quality. Not so the remaining two-thirds. Both the Irish dragoons and the Irish infantry were inferior. The best they could do in an encounter with the enemy was to fire off their weapons once and then take to their heels bawling for mercy. That such behaviour should be imputed to plain lack of courage has been shown to be false by a thousand instances of Irish bravery in contests all over the world. More to the point was not so much the idea that such soldiers had been badly trained, but that they had been trained in a totally deficient manner. Above all, no sense of discipline or steadiness had been instilled into them. What, therefore, was more likely to encourage ill-discipline than an incitement to bolster their wholly inadequate remuneration by marauding? It was hardly to be expected that such a mob would be capable of standing up to the steadfast, well-drilled actions of well-led and well-trained opponents.

William’s army was very different from James’s. It was a little larger – some 36,000 in all – and was even more variously composed. There were Englishmen, Dutchmen, Germans, Danes and Finns. But Macaulay has reminded us that among this mixed assembly ‘were two bodies of men animated by a spirit peculiarly fierce and implacable, the Huguenots of France, thirsting for the blood of the French, and the Englishry of Ireland impatient to trample down the Irish’. William therefore had a slight numerical advantage, whereas James had adopted a strong defensive position on ground of his own choosing. But the real advantage lay with William by virtue of the quality of his soldiers and his own determined leadership. This leadership was admirably displayed by his courageous conduct. The excitement of battle seemed to dissolve all his cold reserve and acted upon him like an intoxicant. On 11 July 1690 William was always to be seen where the danger was greatest. Twice he came near to paying the price for his insistence on exposing himself to enemy fire. One ball struck his pistol, another the heel of his boot, but he paid no heed to the pleas of his lieutenants to retire to some more secure position from which he could issue orders. No wonder the troops under his command, inspired by his example, gained ground.

James did little to emulate his rival. He watched the battle from a safe distance. When we consider what was at stake, we may wonder at such behaviour. There he was, with the eyes of all upon him, the eyes of those who were ardently supporting his cause and of those who were bitterly opposed to it. He was after all the legitimate King of England, Scotland and Ireland, and had come to fight for his rights and for the rights of his heir. And yet when all was to be won or lost, when he observed his rival, William, despite his wounds, leading a charge through the mud, rallying the Enniskilleners, and inspiring his troops to gain further ground at a moment when determined leadership and a counter-blow might have been decisive – at this crucial point, when the future of the House of Stuart was in the balance, what did James do? Observing that the day appeared to be going against Ireland and fearful that his escape from the field might be intercepted, James quit the scene of battle and galloped towards Dublin.

Put the case, however, that William’s strength had failed, that one of the balls which struck his accoutrements had instead struck him. Put the case that the French auxiliaries and the Irish cavalry, more daringly led and controlled, had swept down on William’s troops when they were engaged in the tactically vulnerable business of crossing the Boyne. Put the case, in short, that James II ‘wrested victory out of heretic Fortune’s hands’ and that William, rather than himself, was obliged to flee the field. What then? We may perhaps conjecture that James might have remained King of Ireland for a time, but there would have been fierce resistance at Enniskillen and Londonderry. Louis XIV might have been tempted to ship reinforcements to James, and then much would have depended on the activities of the Royal Navy, James’s own special protégé. The fickleness of loyalties is usually determined in the end by the power of the purse. And this power still remained with the English Parliament, whose leading members would have seen to it that James was never allowed to return to England. England had had its fill of the Stuarts, as subsequent events in 1715 and 1745 were to show. Pretenders to the throne never got further than being pretenders. And we must remember that the very standing army which James had created, and which men like Marlborough had ensured would not fight for a cause which embraced absolute monarchy and Catholicism, would have stood firm in upholding the rights and freedoms so triumphantly acquired by the Glorious Revolution. Sooner or later, no doubt, England would have tried to re-establish her ascendancy over Ireland.

Yet the idea of an independent Emerald Isle as early at 1690 is intriguing. How would the country have aligned itself during England’s interminable wars with France? Would fox-hunting have reached its heights without the enthusiastic support of English landowners? Would there have been such mass emigration to the United States or Australia by disenchanted Irish families? Perhaps an independent Irish administration would have ruled its own people in such an enlightened way that the shadows of famine, eviction, murder and sullen hostility would never have stalked the valleys and hills of that beautiful country. But whether there could have been a reconciliation with the Protestants of Ulster must remain in question. The defiance of Londonderry, so marked and so triumphant in 1689, would have been unlikely to change in subsequent years. Could some accommodation have been reached between the rival factions whereby a degree of religious toleration and civil liberty for the Protestant North was observed? What an infinite sum of misery, bloodshed, recrimination and wrangling would then have been saved. We may predict more confidently that the Irish would still have bred magnificent horses and would have continued to provide splendid soldiers for the ranks of the British army and a generous flood of brilliant general officers. Yet we might have looked in vain for the Somerville and Ross stories of an Irish R.M. or the early novels of Anthony Trollope. What would we have done without Wellington’s Irish regiments and all those men who served the British Empire in every part of the world? Kipling would have been robbed of some of his Barrack Room Ballads and his history of the Irish Guards. Think of Alanbrooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Templer, whose contribution to our survival against the power of the Third Reich was so incalculable.

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