Battle of the Boyne

For the context of the dispute see Jacobitism.

William III King of England, Scotland and Ireland, Stadtholder of the Netherlands
William III
King of England, Scotland and Ireland, Stadtholder of the Netherlands

The Battle of the Boyne was a turning point in the Williamite war in Ireland between the deposed King James VII of Scotland and II of England and his son-in-law and successor, William, for the English, Scottish and Irish thrones. It took place on July 1, 1690 (as a consequence of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar the battle is now commemorated on July 12) just outside of the town of Drogheda on Ireland's east coast. Though not militarily decisive, its symbolic importance has made it one of the most infamous battles in British and Irish history and a key part in Irish Protestant folklore.


The competing sides

James VII and II King of England, Scotland and Ireland
James VII and II
King of England, Scotland and Ireland

The opposing armies in the battle were led by the Roman Catholic King James of England, Scotland and Ireland who had been deposed from his English and Scottish thrones in the previous year, but whose supporters still controlled much of Ireland and the Irish Parliament, and his Protestant successor, the co-monarch William III (William reigned jointly with his wife, James's daughter Queen Mary II). James was a seasoned general who had proven his bravery when fighting for his brother—King Charles II—in Europe, whereas William, his son-in-law, was a seasoned commander and able general, but he was yet to win a full battle. His success against the French had been reliant upon tactical manoeuvres and good diplomacy rather than force of arms. James II's subordinate commanders were Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell and the French general Lauzun. William's second in command was the Duke of Schomberg, an eighty-year-old professional soldier. He had formerly been a Marshal of France, but had been expelled from his native country by Louis XIV because he was a Huguenot Protestant in 1685.

The Williamite army at the Boyne was about 36,000 strong, composed of troops from many countries. Around 20,000 had been in Ireland since 1689, commanded by Schomberg. William himself arrived with 16,000 more in June 1690. William's troops were in general far better trained and equipped than James' were. The best Williamite infantry were from Denmark and the Netherlands, professional soldiers equipped with the latest flintlock muskets. There were also a large contingent of French Huguenot troops fighting with the Williamites. William did not have a high opinion of his British troops, with the exception of the Ulster Protestant irregulars who had held Ulster in the previous year. The English and Scottish troops were felt to be politically unreliable, since James had been their legitimate monarch up to a year before. Moreover, they had only been raised recently and had seen little combat. The Jacobites were 25,000 strong. James had several regiments of French troops, but most of his manpower was provided by Irish Catholics. The Jacobite's Irish cavalry, who were raised from among the dispossessed Irish gentry, proved themselves to be high calibre troops at the battle. However, the Irish infantry, predominantly peasants who had been pressed into service, were not trained soldiers. They had been hastily trained, badly supplied and only a minority of them had functional muskets. In fact, some of them at the Boyne carried only farm implements such as scythes. On top of that, the Jacobite infantry who had firearms were all equipped with the obsolete matchlock musket.

A sectarian battle?

The battle represented the culmination of James's attempt to regain the thrones of England and Scotland, but is remembered (wrongly) as a decisive moment in the struggle between Protestant and Catholic factions in Ireland. In fact both armies were mixed, and William Of Orange's own elite force — the Dutch Blue Guards — had the Papal Banner with them on the day, many of the Guardsmen being Dutch Catholics. They were part of the League of Augsburg, a cross-Christian alliance designed to stop a French conquest of Europe, supported by the Vatican. It was also the beginning of a long-running and ultimately unsuccessful campaign by James's supporters, the Jacobites, to restore the Stuart dynasty rule to Britain. Some of the French regiments fighting with the Jacobites at the Boyne were composed of German Protestants.

In an Irish context, however, the war (led by Jacobite captain Patrick Sarsfield after James's flight) was a sectarian and ethnic conflict, in many ways a re-run of the Irish Confederate Wars of 50 years earlier. For Irish Jacobites, the war metamorphosed into one for Irish sovereignty as well as religious toleration and land ownership. Conversely, for Williamites in Ireland, the war was about maintaining Protestant and British rule in Ireland. Most of James II's troops at the Boyne were Irish Catholics. On the other side, many of the Williamite troops, including their very effective irregular cavalry, were Protestants from Ulster, who called themselves "Eniskilleners" and were referred to by contemporaries as "North Irish" or "Scotch-Irish".

The battle

William had landed in Carrickfergus in Ulster on June 14 1690 and marched south to take Dublin. It has been argued that the Jacobites should have tried to block this advance in rugged country around Newry, on the present day Irish border. However, James only fought a delaying action there and chose instead to place his line of defence on the Boyne river, around 50 km from Dublin. The Williamites reached the Boyne on th 29th of June. They day before the battle, William himself had a narrow escape, when he was wounded by Jacobite artillery while surveying the fords over which his troops would cross the river.

The battle itself was fought on July 1st over a ford of the Boyne at Oldbridge, near Drogheda. William sent about a quarter of his men to cross at place called Roughgrange, near Slane, about 10 km from Oldbridge. The Duke of Schomberg's son Meinhardt led this crossing, which was unsuccessfully opposed by Irish dragoons. James panicked when he saw that he might be outflanked and sent nearly half his troops, along with most of his cannon to counter this move. What neither side had realised was that there was a deep ravine at Roughgrange, so that the forces there could not engage each other, but literally sat out the battle. The Williamites there went on a long detour march which, late in the day, almost saw them cut off the Jacobite retreat at the village of Naul.

At the main ford at Oldbridge, William's infantry (firstly the elite Dutch Blue Guards then the rest) forced their way across the river, using their superior firepower to scatter the enemy foot-soldiers, but were pinned down by counter-attacks of the Jacobite cavalry. Having secured the village of Oldbridge, the Williamite infantry held off successive cavalry attacks by disciplined volley fire. William's second in command, the Duke of Schomberg and George Walker were killed in this phase of the battle. The Williamites were not able to resume their advance until their own horsemen managed to cross the river and drive the Jacobite cavalry off, breaking them at Donore. The Jacobites nevertheless retired in good order. William had a chance to trap the retreating Jacobites as they crossed the river Nanny at Duleek, but was held up by a successful Jacobite rear-guard.

The casualty figure of the battle was quite low for a battle of such a scale — of the 50,000 or so participants, about 2,000 died — three quarters of whom were Jacobites. The reason for the low death toll was that in contemporary warfare, most of the casualties tended to be inflicted in the pursuit of an already beaten enemy. This did not happen at the Boyne because the counter-attacks of the Jacobite cavalry screened the retreat of the rest of their army. The Jacobites were badly demoralised by their defeat, however, and many of the Irish infantrymen deserted. The Williamites triumphantly marched into Dublin two days after the battle. The Jacobite army abandoned the city and marched to Limerick, behind the river Shannon, where they were besieged. James left so quickly that he beat the messenger that was sent to warn Limerick of the defeat.

After his defeat, James quickly returned to exile in France, even though his army left the field relatively unscathed. James's loss of nerve and speedy exit from the battlefield enraged his Irish supporters, who fought on until their defeat at the battle of Aughrim in 1691. In Irish folk memory, James was derisively nick-named Seamus a' chaca — "James the excrement".


The battle was overshadowed in its time in Great Britain by the destruction of the Anglo-Dutch fleet by the French two days later off Beachy Head, (a far more serious event in the short term) — only in Europe was it treated as a major victory. The reason for this was that it was the first proper victory for the League of Augsburg, the first ever alliance between Catholic and Protestant countries, and in achieving this William of Orange and Pope Alexander VIII (its prime movers) scotched the myth — particularly emanating from Sweden — that such an alliance was blasphemous, resulting in more joining the alliance and in effect ending the very real danger of a French conquest of Europe.

The Boyne was not without strategic significance in Britain and Ireland, however. It marked the end of James's hope of regaining his throne by military means and virtually assured the triumph of the Glorious Revolution. In Scotland, news of this defeat led to the Highlanders gradually abandoning the Jacobite Rising which Bonnie Dundee had led. In Ireland, the Boyne was the beginning of the Williamite victory over the Jacobites, which maintained British and Protestant dominance over the country. For this reason, the Boyne is still celebrated by the Protestant Orange Order on the twelfth of July.

Commemoration of the Battle

Originally, Irish Protestants commemorated the Battle of Aughrim on the 12th of July, as symbolising their victory in the Williamite war in Ireland. At Aughrim, which took place a year after the Boyne - virtually all of the old native Irish Catholic and Old English aristocracies (dispossessed of lands to accommodate the plantations under Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell) were wiped out. The Boyne, which in the old Julian calendar, took place on the first of July, was treated as less important, third in commemorative value after Aughrim and the anniversary of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 on the 23rd of October. What was celebrated on the Twelfth was not William's "victory over popery at the Battle of the Boyne", but the extermination of the elite of the native Irish.

However, by the time the Orange Order was founded in the 1790s, amid sectarian violence in Armagh, a new Gregorian calendar had been introduced in which the date of the Boyne was also the twelfth of July. Because the date was more familiar and because the Boyne was more prominent in British history, the Orangemen shifted their main commemoration to the battle of the Boyne, which is still commemorated with parades every year on the Twelfth. There are also smaller parades and demonstrations on the first of July, the old anniversary of the Boyne, which also commemorate the massacre of the 36th Ulster Division on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916. It has also been sugested that the Boyne was prefered to Aughrim because the Jacobite's rout there allowed the Irish Catholics to be presented as contemptible cowards, whereas at Aughrim they fought bravely and died in great numbers. In the context of a resurgent Irish nationalism from the 1790s onwards, it is argued that the narrative of the Boyne was more comforting for Loyalists in Ireland.

The commemoration of the battle of the Boyne therefore has more to do with the politics of the Unionist community than it has to do with the military significance of the battle itself.

The memory of the battle also has resonance among Irish Nationalists. Most Irish people see the battle as a major step on the road to the complete British colonisation of Ireland. In the 1920s, IRA members blew up a large monument to the battle on the battlefield site on the Boyne and also destroyed a statue of William III that used to stand outside Trinity College Dublin in the centre of the Irish capital.

"The Twelfth" in Ireland today

The Battle of the Boyne remains a controversial topic today, especially in Ulster where Protestants remember it as a great victory over Catholics and responsible for the sovereignty of Parliament and the 'Protestant monarchy', while Catholics mourn it as a great disaster when the last English king sympathetic to Irish Catholics and Irish nationhood was deposed in a Protestant coup.

In the 1990s the date of the Battle of the Boyne was often marked by confrontations as members of the Orange Order attempted to celebrate the date by marching through Catholic neighbourhoods in the Tour of the North Orange Order. Part of the problem is due to population migrations caused by institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland in the mid 1900s which had made Northern Ireland, in the words of Ulster Unionist Party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble a "cold house for Catholics". Many Catholic communities resettled in areas outside mainly Protestant towns like Portadown, only to find the Catholic housing estates (like Garvaghy Road) located alongside a "traditional" Orange Order marching route. Other traditional routes for Orangemen lost their unionist population through migration, as many Protestants moved to areas where they were numerically superior as Catholics gradually came to demand civil rights. Each side thus dresses up the disputes in terms of the other's supposed attempts to repress them; Catholics still see Orange Order marches as provocative attempts to 'show who is boss', while Protestants insist they have a right to "walk the Queen's highway" and see any attempt to deny them the right to walk through traditional routes used for centuries as an attempt to marginalise and restrict their "freedoms" to celebrate their Protestant identity earned in the Glorious Revolution settlement. Thus the battle is still very present in the awareness of those involved in the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Ireland.

See also


  • Padraig Lenihan, 1690 Battle of the Boyne, Tempus Publishing, Gloucestershire 2003. ISBN 075242597
  • G.A Hayes McCoy, Irish Battles, Belfast 1990.

External link

no:Slaget ved Boyne


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