William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, painted by Jan Wyck



On July 1 1690 two Kings faced each other across the River Boyne. By evening King William had won a decisive victory, preserved the Protestant settlement in Ireland and drove King James into permanent exile.

A Lost Cause: Flight of King James II after the Battle of the Boyne 1888 Andrew Carrick Gow 1848-1920 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

The Jacobite war in Ireland was bloody and long. It was an inter-national war. William employed not just English but also Scottish, Anglo-Irish, Dutch, German, Danish and even French (Huguenot) troops. Although the mainstay of the Jacobite army was Irish Catholics, it did have some British and French officers, and for the campaign of 1690 was supplemented by a sizeable contingent of French, Germans and Walloons. Initial Jacobite successes enabled James to regain control over most of the north, with the exception of Derry and Enniskillen. Derry famously withstood a lengthy siege, lasting 105 days, against the odds and in the face of severe privations. Such was the shortage of food inside the garrison that people were forced to live upon dogs, cats, rats, mice and horseflesh. At the beginning of July 1689 the Jacobite commander General Rosen, in a desperate attempt to induce a surrender, ordered all Protestant men, women and children from within thirty miles to be rounded up and brought before the city walls, where they were to be left without food or shelter. Those inside were faced with the stark choice of either coming to the aid of their Protestant friends and relatives – admitting them into the garrison where they would place an added burden on the dwindling food supplies – or watching them die of starvation at the gates. William King claimed that between 4,000 and 7,000 were brought, naked, before the walls, including ‘old decrepit Creatures’, ‘Nurses with their sucking Children, Women big with Child’ and ‘some Women in Labour’, although his figures were probably an exaggeration. The garrison responded by erecting a gallows on the ramparts and threatening to hang the Jacobite prisoners they had taken if the Protestants outside the gates were not allowed to return home. James was furious with Rosen for violating the terms of the protections he had offered Protestants in Ulster, and ordered his general to back down. The city was finally relieved on 28 July 1689 by Williamite forces under the command of Major-General Percy Kirke; the Jacobite army raised the siege on the 31st and marched away. The depredations caused by the siege were such that when King went to Derry as its newly appointed bishop in March 1691, he ‘found the land almost desolate’, and nearly all ‘country houses and dwellings burnt’; whereas ‘before the troubles’ there had been ‘about 250,000 head of cattle’ in the diocese, after the siege there were only about 300 left; out of 460,000 horses, two remained, ‘lame and wounded’, while there were but seven sheep, two pigs, and no fowl. A Commons’ Committee Report of 1705 estimated that ‘12,000 perished by Sword or Famine’ during the siege.

William III came over in person to lead the campaign in June 1690, and on 1 July achieved what proved to be a decisive victory over the Jacobite forces at the Battle of the Boyne, just outside Drogheda. Given that William had an army of 36,000 mainly veteran professionals against James’s 25,000, the result might have seemed a foregone conclusion. As always, however, luck and human miscalculation played their part. William himself was nearly killed the day before the battle: as he was reconnoitring the river crossings on 30 June, he was fired upon from enemy lines and struck on the right shoulder by a bullet which ‘tore his Coate and shirt, and made his skinn all black’. If William had fallen, it would undoubtedly have been ‘a fatal Blow to his Army, and Kingdoms too’, as one Protestant eyewitness put it. The actual battle the next day was more conceded by the Jacobites than won by William. When a small contingent of William’s troops managed to cross the Boyne at Rosnaree, to the west of the Jacobite camp, James wrongly guessed that the rest of the Williamite army would follow, and so sent the bulk of his forces to cut them off. This opened the way for the major part of William’s army to cross the river further east at Oldbridge to face what was a seriously depleted Jacobite right flank. In danger now of being caught in a pincer movement in the bend of the river, the Jacobite troops opted to retreat, throwing down their arms and equipment in a state of confusion. When he saw his men give way, James made haste for Dublin where, at an emergency meeting with his privy council, he announced that since his army was unreliable and had ‘basely fled the scene of battle and left the spoil to his enemies’ he was ‘never more determined to head an Irish army’ but was resolved ‘to shift for myself, as should they’. The next day James left for Duncannon, in Waterford harbour, and thence took ship for France (via Kinsale), ‘leaving his poor Teagues to fight it out, or do what they pleased for him’. The Jacobites withdrew to Limerick and William secured control of Dublin on the 5th.

The actual fighting at the Boyne was limited and the losses slight: perhaps 1,000 on the Jacobite side and half that on William’s. Yet although James’s flight and the Williamite capture of Dublin were of crucial significance, William failed to cut off the Jacobite army in retreat, thus missing the chance to bring the war to an end there and then. Missed opportunity was followed by a major reverse, when William failed to take Limerick in August. After that William himself returned to England, and although Williamite forces under the command of John Churchill, now Earl of Marlborough, captured Cork and Kinsale in late September and early October, the campaigning season ended without the conflict in Ireland having been brought to a definitive conclusion. Those parts of Ireland back under Protestant control saw a return to the status quo ante. Thus, following the withdrawal of the Jacobite government from Dublin in July 1690, eleven aldermen who had been displaced by Tyrconnell in 1687 took it upon themselves ‘to revive the magistracy and take up the exercise of it’, petitioning William to approve their action and authorize them to elect other members to make the full quota of the city government, which he did accordingly. In October, the restored corporation passed an act disenfranchising Catholic freemen. When Waterford fell, also in July, William simply restored the old corporation ‘upon application made… by the [displaced] Protestant aldermen’. Likewise Youghall and Kinsale saw the restoration of their old corporations in August and October 1690 respectively.

Following James’s flight the Jacobites were divided over the wisdom of continuing the war. Tyrconnell thought the time had come to submit to England and try to get the best terms possible. According to O’Kelly, those Catholics who had bought lands since the Restoration, only to have their purchases jeopardized by the Dublin parliament’s repeal of the Act of Settlement, were the most eager to reach an accord with William, knowing that he would not let the repeal stand. The Old Catholic proprietors, together with the Gaelic Irish, tended to want to continue the struggle; the Irish feared that the English intended to extirpate them ‘Root and Branch’. There was some discussion about whether the Irish should break completely with England, and ‘join themselves to some Catholic crown able to protect them, rather than be subject to the revolutions of the Protestant kingdoms of Great Britain’. Some of the Gaels would have liked to have seen the kingdom put ‘into the hands of the antient Irish’, a design allegedly promoted by one Balderic O’Donnel, who was trying to build up a popular following among the soldiery with the intention ultimately of making his own peace with the British without James’s knowledge or consent. The war therefore dragged on for another year, with Tyrconnell recommitted to the cause, until Jacobite resistance was effectively crushed at the Battle of Aughrim on 12 July 1691, ‘the most disastrous battle in Irish history’. As many as 7,000 Irish soldiers were slain and another 450 taken prisoner; the Williamite casualties were about 2,000 killed. A Danish chaplain in the Williamite army described the ‘horrible sight’ after the battle: ‘when many men and horses pierced by wounds could have neither flight nor rest, sometimes trying to rise’ only to fall back down suddenly, ‘weighed down by the mass of their bodies’; when ‘others with mutilated limbs and weighed down by pain’ would cry out ‘for the sword as their remedy’, only to be denied this by their conquerors; and when still ‘others spewed forth their breath mixed with blood and threats’. ‘From the bodies of all’, our source continues, ‘blood… flowed over the ground, and so inundated the fields that you could hardly take a step without slipping’.

By now William was determined to bring the war in Ireland to an end, so that he could concentrate his efforts and financial resources on the continental campaign. He authorized his commander in the field, Baron de Ginkel, to offer the Jacobites favourable terms if they would surrender. On 21 July the Jacobite enclave at Galway caved in, and in return procured a rather generous treaty of surrender whereby both the garrison and the townsmen were guaranteed their estates. Tyrconnell’s death on 14 August following a stroke proved a fatal blow to Irish morale, and the war eventually came to an end when Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan, now effective ruler of Jacobite Ireland, surrendered Limerick on 3 October. By the time the war was over, some 25,000 men had died in battle. Thousands more had died of disease.

In negotiating their surrender at Limerick, the Jacobites pushed for terms that would have sanctioned the gains they had achieved during James II’s reign and, in effect, would return them to the position they were at in 1688. Thus they asked for a full indemnity, the restoration of all Irish Catholics to the estates they had held before the Revolution, complete liberty of worship, and the right of Catholics to be members of corporations, trade freely, and hold military and civil offices. Such proposals were rejected out of hand; the Protestant negotiators wanted a return to the position of Charles II’s reign.

The treaty that was finally agreed comprised thirteen civilian and twenty-nine military articles. The first clause of the civilian articles provided that ‘The Roman Catholicks of this kingdom’ should ‘enjoy such privileges in the exercise of their religion’ as were ‘consistent with the laws of Ireland, or as they did enjoy in the reign of king Charles the second’. Such ‘privileges’ had, of course, been very limited, and what liberty of conscience the Catholics had enjoyed had been by connivance rather than legally established right. Nevertheless, the same article went on to promise that William and Mary, as soon as their affairs allowed them to call a parliament in Ireland, would try to procure for the Roman Catholics ‘such farther security… as may preserve them from any disturbance upon the account of their said religion’. Article two promised that all the inhabitants of Limerick, or any other garrison in the possession of the Irish, and all soldiers now in arms in the counties of Limerick, Clare, Kerry, Cork and Mayo (the remaining areas under Jacobite control), ‘and all such as are under their protection’, would be restored to ‘their estates… and all the rights, titles and interests, privileges and immunities’ they were entitled to ‘by the laws and statutes that were in force in the… reign of Charles II if they submitted to William and Mary and took the oath of fidelity and allegiance contained in the English Declaration of Rights. Another article stated that merchants from the city of Limerick, or any other towns in the counties of Clare or Kerry, who had absented themselves overseas and not borne arms since William and Mary were proclaimed in February 1689, would also have the benefit of the second article if they returned home within eight months. Subsequent clauses provided an indemnity for any acts committed during the course of the war and insisted that the only oath to be administered to Catholics who submitted to the government should be the oath of fidelity and allegiance of 1689; no longer could they be penalized, in other words, for refusing to acknowledge the royal supremacy. The military articles allowed ‘all persons, without any exceptions’, to have ‘free liberty’ to leave Ireland, if they so desired, for any country beyond seas, England and Scotland excepted, with their families and household possessions. The soldiers were to choose whether to stay behind or go to France, where they would be transported at English expense.


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