Battle of the Boyne: William of Orange Defeats Deposed English Monarch James II
Today in Military History: July 12, 1690
My military history offering for this day involves a war for the throne of Great Britain. We have the king of the moment, William II – also known as William of Orange – versus the former, deposed monarch, James II, returning from exile to reclaim his kingdom.
The English Civil War (1642-1651) deposed Charles I – who lost his head by execution in January of 1649. From 1649 to 1660, England was ruled first by Oliver Cromwell as "Lord Protector," followed by his son Richard, then by Parliament. In 1660, Charles II – son of the beheaded Charles I – was restored to the British monarchy. This is known in English history as "The Restoration."
Upon King Charles's death in 1685, he was succeeded by his brother James II. However, while James was in exile in France he converted to Catholicism. When he was crowned king, many Englishmen were apprehensive of James's religious convictions. Many nobles and commoners feared a repeat of the English Civil War unpleasantness. Over the next three years, King James took a number of actions that pointed to his favor of English Catholics and his willingness to denigrate Anglicans and Presbyterians.
The last straw occurred in June of 1688, when Queen Anne of Modena produced a male heir, James Francis Edward Stuart. Although King James had two daughters by his first wife – they were named Mary and Anne – they were both displaced by their new half-brother as the heir to the throne. English leaders now began to make plans to put a stop to this renewed attempt to replace Protestant leadership with Catholics. An appeal was made to a foreign monarch, who had married King James's daughter Mary Stuart. He was William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic.
The Antagonists: William of Orange and James II
"Portrait of King William III, (1650-1702)"
Oil on canvas painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1680's)
William of Orange was born in November of 1650. His father was William II, stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. This position was a unique office, whereby someone was appointed to an office to provide order and security. William's mother was Mary Stuart Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of King James I of England and sister of Charles II and James II. He was himself appointed stadtholder of various provinces of the Dutch Republic between 1672 and 1675. In November of 1677, William married his first cousin, Mary Stuart. Despite her becoming pregnant shortly afterwards, she miscarried and never produced an offspring for William.
William led Dutch land forces in wars against France and England. He was not a very successful commander, but he employed talented underlings who led his armies. William led his soldiers against the armies of France. French King Louis XIV, the "Sun King," sought to bring much of Europe under his control. A number of wars involving England, France, Spain and the Netherlands during the mid-seventeenth century kept Louis's ambitions in check.
After the birth of James F.E. Stuart in June of 1688, the people of England truly feared for the future of Protestantism. A number of British nobles officials asked William to invade England to remove King James. William demurred, asking for a formal request from a number of high-ranking British leaders. On June 30, William received the letter, asking him to come to England with an army to force James to recognize William's wife Mary as the heir to the throne. One sentence in the letter said, "Nineteen parts of twenty of the people…are desirous of change."
[There were rumors going about England, saying that James F.E. Stuart was a fraudulent heir. There were claims that during Queen Mary of Modena's delivery, that no baby was produced, and the new Prince of Wales was brought into the delivery room in a bed warming pan. No, really…]
Bed warmer from the Netherlands
William had been marshalling his forces since November of 1687, waiting for an invitation. William's intentions to invade became public knowledge in England by September. Finally, on November 5, 1688 William of Orange landed at Brixham in southwest England, landing an army of 11,000 foot and 4000 horse soldiers. Many English nobles announced their support for William and Mary. Perhaps the most prominent defector was John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough (and ancestor of Winston Churchill). On April 11, 1689, the Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic and his wife were crowned William III and Mary II of England and Ireland. One month later, they were recognized as the king and queen of Scotland.
"James II of England" oil on canvas by Peter Lely (1600's)
James II was born in September of 1633. After the execution of his father Charles I, James and his older brother Charles fled England to live in exile in France. James served for a time in the French army, later in the Spanish army. In 1660, his brother was recognized as King Charles II of England, allowing James to return home. He married Anne Hyde, a woman he seduced while in exile. James was later appointed Lord High Admiral, commanding the Royal Navy during the 2nd and 3rd Anglo-Dutch wars (1665-1667, 1672-74).
As the Duke of York since 1644, James was given title to American land between the Delaware and Connecticut rivers, which eventually became the Province of New York. He was also appointed governor of the Hudson Bay Colony, though never exercised direct control. In 1666 his brother King Charles appointed him to organize efforts to battle the Great Fire of London, which he apparently carried out magnificently.
When his brother died in 1685, James was crowned king. Almost immediately, he began efforts to place the Church of England in a subordinate position to Catholicism. He also sought to increase the size of the army, alarming many English. The final straw for most Englishmen was the birth of James F.E. Stuart in 1688. As the forces of William of Orange landed on the southwest coast, James at first sought to confront the invasion. But, as many prominent nobles and military commanders defected to William, he thought better of that plan. For a time he was incarcerated by William, but eventually the Dutch stadtholder allowed James to escape in December. James fled once more to France, where he was given a palace and a pension by his cousin, King Louis XIV.
However, after only a few months in exile James decided to make an attempt to reclaim the English throne. He received fiscal support from King Louis, who also loaned him 6000 French troops. In March of 1689 James and his French troops landed in Ireland, where there was widespread support for the Catholic former monarch. The Irish parliament recognized James as the legitimate English monarch, and Irishmen began flocking to his banner. James promised religious freedom to the Irish, and nullified the confiscation of land from Irish leaders which had occurred in the 1640's. Soon, armed militias representing both the Catholic and non-Catholic Irish factions clashed throughout Ireland.
Frederick Schomberg, 1st Duke of Schomberg
(Artist and date unknown)
In August of 1689 a Williamite army of 20,000 men under the command of Frederick Schomberg, 1st Duke of Schomberg, an 84-year old German soldier of fortune, landed in Ireland. The army consisted of 17 regiments of foot and 6 of cavalry. From August through June of the next year, Duke Schomberg confronted, but did not attack the Jacobite forces. In fact, he lost more men from disease and lack of food than from enemy bullets. During that time, Schomberg receives reinforcements of French Huguenots and Scots-Irish from Derry. In June of 1690, flustered by Schomberg's lack of progress, King William arrived in Ireland with 16,000 reinforcements. A battle was now inevitable…
The Two Armies: Jacobites vs. Williamites
The late seventeenth century was a time of transition in the art of war in Europe. Some countries were still using musket and pike units for their infantry. However, with improvements to muskets occurring the importance of pikemen was diminishing. By 1690, many nations had a pike-to-musket ratio of 1 to 5 or 1 to 6, rather than the standard 1 to 2 of the English Civil War era. Due to lack of long-term training, tactics in this time period were fairly rudimentary: long lines of 2 or 3 ranks lined up and fired at their opponents. Improved technology allowed musketmen to fire at a higher rate of fire than soldiers armed with the old matchlock musket.
Armored cavalry were becoming less important. In fact, many cavalry units began to depend on pistol-armed troopers. Also, dragoons became more and more the "thing" in armies. These men were armed with muskets cut down to size for carrying on horseback. Sometimes, these men would dismount and fight similar to regular foot soldiers.
James's army – about 23,500 strong – was composed primarily of Irish Catholics, some even had some military training. The Jacobite cavalry primarily consisted of Irish gentry, who were trained horsemen and acquitted themselves well. The majority of the infantry – outside the 6000 French soldiers who accompanied James to Ireland, the best troops in his army – were peasants, impressed into service. They received only minimal military training, with a few given pikes but many were armed with scythes and agricultural tools. There were some musket-armed soldiers, but most of the muskets were near-obsolete matchlocks, which had a slower rate of fire and were prone to misfire in wet, rainy weather.
By contrast, William of Orange's army contained about 36,000 men. After receiving financial backing from Pope Alexander VIII – as a result of their alliance against Louis of France – William was able to recruit some Danish mercenaries. He also brought over Dutch troops, which he trusted more than his English troops. He also had several regiments of French Huguenot troops – though these were still wielding pikes and matchlocks – and Scots-Irishmen from Ulster. William's force had more cavalry and artillery than the Jacobites. Also, the Dutch and Danish troops were equipped with snaphance muskets, the first-generation of flintlock muskets. They were also probably equipped with plug bayonets, which resulted in the decrease of pike-armed troops in European armies.
Preliminaries to the Battle
King William's army proceeded towards Dublin, the capital of Ireland. James's army, hoping initially to block the progress of the Williamite forces, draws up near the town of Drogheda, 35 miles north of Dublin, camping about 6 miles west of Drogheda. Some of James's subordinates urged him to withdraw to western Ireland, which would force William's army to pursue them. However, James decided to attack, thinking perhaps that he needed a bold act to defeat the Williamite army. His first command was for his army to fall back south of the River Boyne. Both forces encamped opposite each other, with William's army taking up position opposite the Jacobites on July 11th, 1690 (N.S.).
Upon arrival, William observed the Jacobite army across the river. One of his staff dismissively remarked about James's "petite army." William responded that the dips and folds in the countryside could conceal more enemy than appears. This showed William's limited appreciation for military matters from past experience. He had commanded field armies before, albeit carelessly for the most part, whereas James really had not. William brought up his Dutch Blue Guards to draw the fire of the Jacobite guns and judge their strength and position. A desultory artillery duel occurred. [Gunnery is not very accurate in this period due to lack of elevation devices on the guns that would be added later in the century. Also, the guns must be reset after every discharge, greatly reducing accuracy and rate of fire.]
"William III And His Staff, With Dutch And British Troops On The March"
Oil on canvas painting by Jan Wyck (1690's)
The Dutch Guards are fully exposed for a length of time, and only a few men are hit. The more numerous Williamite artillery damages several houses in the the village of Oldbridge across the river, which is the center of the Jacobite line. Several Jacobites guns are taken out of action as well.
William, feeling confident, and wishing to set an example of bravado to the army, decided to take lunch on the banks of the Boyne. There is some debate whether this was actually lunch or just a staff ride to observe the ground. As William prepared to depart, two Jacobite 6-pounder guns hidden in the hedges of the damaged town opened fire. Their projectiles struck several staff members and slightly wounded William with a solid shot on his right shoulder. King William quickly made light of the near fatal wound, is nothing. His coolness under fire was amazing and he was very fortunate that he escaped with just a graze that will require him to wear a sling during the battle.
At the Williamite council of war that evening, several options of attack were discussed. Schomberg suggested a flank attack on the Jacobite position at Oldbridge, a village about a mile upriver. The English officers agreed. Some of the Dutch officers advocated a frontal attack; to do otherwise, they believe, is cowardice. With these evident signs of division between his officers, King William took matters into his own hands. He will demonstrate against the Jacobite left at Slane about 5 miles west and then attack at Oldbridge when James drew troops away to protect his flank. William will send Schomberg's son Meinhard, a military commander in his own right, to make the turning movement at the ford of Rosnaree. It is a compromise plan and shows William's ability to work with rival factions within his own command.
In contrast, James had really no plan other than to stand behind the Boyne and await developments. For the most part his troops don't even bother to improve the riverline position with breastworks or other protection. To some historians this is evidence that James did not really intend to fight at the Boyne, and was considering a withdrawal under the advice of some of his generals. [Throughout the coming battle James's intentions were largely unclear. The same vacillation that lost him his crown just a year earlier seems to have returned where it will deny him his ability to regain it.]
Tomorrow: Part II, Battle of the Boyne