Battle of the Boyne
Boyne, Battle of the
Boyne, Battle of the
Undoubtedly the most famous military engagement in Irish history, the Battle of the Boyne occurred on 1 July 1690 (old style; 12 July, new style) along the river of the same name, roughly two miles to the west of the town of Drogheda. There, some 36,000 troops commanded by King William III defeated an army of approximately 25,000 troops led by King James II. For the entire year prior to the battle there were no major military engagements between the two cautious armies. But when William arrived in Protestant-controlled Ulster in mid-June, he moved quickly to engage his rival, whose supporters controlled the rest of Ireland. While James's French advisors suggested burning Dublin and retreating west of the river Shannon, James decided to guard the capital. He chose to make his stand along the river Boyne, the best defensible obstacle between Ulster and Dublin. Drogheda, at the mouth of the river, was well garrisoned, but the Boyne was fordable a few miles to the west near Oldbridge, and this is where James placed his army. Unfortunately for James, there was a loop in the river at Oldbridge, a geographical feature that helped to determine the outcome of the battle. Arriving on the north side of the river on 30 June, William and his advisors recognized their advantageous position and decided upon a diversionary, flanking movement further upstream. On the morning of 1 July, as mist cleared, James decided to split his troops—the French to the left flank and the Irish in the center—lest they all be encircled from behind. With over half of James's troops drawn off, the bulk of William's army easily forded the river at Oldbridge, where they outnumbered the Irish infantry and cavalry by three to one. The latter held out for three hours of fierce fighting before giving way, and news of the action at Oldbridge prompted a general Jacobite (supporters of James) retreat to Duleek, where in confusion the entire army crossed the river Nanny. The Williamite army pursued them no further that day, but the victory was theirs. Within three days James was on a boat to France, never to return to Ireland or any of his three former kingdoms, and within a week William was crowned king of Ireland in Dublin.
One of the most striking aspects of the battle was the internationalism of both armies. William's best troops, the Blue Guards, came with him from Holland, while the rest of his army was comprised of French Huguenots, Germans, Danish, English, and Irish. Although the Williamite army was overwhelmingly Protestant, a number of regiments were predominantly Catholic. James's army was primarily Irish and French, but there were also large numbers of Germans, Walloons, and English. The diverse origins of the soldiers who fought at the Boyne reflect many of the key participants' feeling that the battle was not primarily about who ruled Ireland, or even who was the rightful ruler of England. Rather, the battle was part of a much larger, pan-European conflict between William and Louis XIV of France, who supported James's claim to the crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland. William's victory at the Boyne was seen in Europe as a defeat for the French, not for the Irish Catholics. This point is illustrated by the behavior of Pope Innocent XI—no friend of Louis XIV owing to the king's lack of support at Innocent's first papal nomination and to his subsequent extension of secular authority in France—who greeted news of the battle with joy, although not, as has sometimes been claimed, with a Te Deum at St. Peter's.
Despite this international dimension, within Ireland the outcome of the battle had dramatic consequences. William's victory gave his forces control of Leinster and much of Munster as well, while placing the supporters of James on the defensive and confining them to Connacht. A year later at Aughrim they were decisively smashed. Jacobites and their spiritual descendants have downplayed the military importance of the Boyne precisely because it was such a great, symbolic victory for the Williamites: two kings, one Catholic, one Protestant, fighting each other on Irish soil for the crown of Ireland, with the Protestant king victorious. Irish Protestants at the time, and indeed many more hence, came to see William's victory as a sign of divine providence and as the event that saved their lands and their lives from Irish Catholics. In Northern Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne is commemorated annually as a state holiday on 12 July, known commonly as "Orange Day."
SEE ALSO Jacobites and the Williamite Wars
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Charles C. Ludington
Boyne, battle of the
J. A. Cannon