The Seige of Derry and The Battle of the Boyne
1689 was a good year for William of Orange. Parliament had asked him to invade and outst James II and seeing the writing on the wall, James had fled to France, leaving the throne vacant and available for William and James’ daughter Mary to take it without too much effort. Things were looking pretty good for him until James decided he wanted his throne back again at any cost and the best way for James to do that was to use Ireland as a springboard for his invasion.
In Ireland, tension was mounting with James’ Catholic friend Richard Talbot still holding the position of Viceroy. From the Protestant side, Talbot was the one responsible for disrupting their power base but from Talbot’s side, he was determined that they would remain under Jacobite rule, whether James was sitting on the throne or not.
Central to this disturbance was Derry, a strategic city full of supporters loyal to Scotland. Desperate to avoid trouble at all costs with the Scots, Talbot arranged for the military garrison to be replaced by a regiment of Scottish highlanders and clansmen, known as Redshanks. It was a smart move because as Catholics, their loyalty to James was unquestionable.
It was like waving a red flag at a bull. The Protestants thought that once the Redshanks were in, they would never leave, even though the Anglican bishop urged them to be allowed to enter the city. They were, after all, James’ soldiers and he was still their king. But the Presbyterian bishop thought otherwise. He stated that the gates to Derry should be locked immediately and they shouldn’t waste any time dithering about it if they valued their lives. If they delayed, all would certainly be lost.
It was a critical moment in the history of the nation. Eight or nine young men, acting on the impulse of the moment, ran to Ferry-Quay gate, drew their swords and raised the drawbridge. They seized the keys and locked the gate against the Redshanks when they were only 60 yards from the spot. They literally slammed the gate shut in their faces. Three or four others joined in and with no time to lose, the other gates were secured as well.
It was a major step to take and one that left no allowances for going back. They had taken matters into their own hands and had started a rebellion that was inviting the king’s anger. Soon after, when the garrison at Enniskillen heard what had happened, they followed suit by shutting their gates against the Scots as well, knowing full well that their show of solidarity could bring the whole of the English army down on them.
In Dublin, Talbot was furious by the turn of events but in France James was simply stunned. It was all going terribly wrong. Ireland was a Catholic nation, just as he was a Catholic. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Knowing that word was probably on its way to William, and with time running out, the siege in Derry forced James to put his plan into action sooner than he had hoped.
It was not a complicated plan. All James hoped for was for the support of Catholics in Ireland. He also hoped that if he could hold out, he could use Ireland as a launch pad to take back Scotland and England. Then he would march on to London and seize his throne. And there was no time to waste. William and Mary were about to be crowned king and queen of England. But if worst came to worst and they actually pulled it off, James was determined that it would be the shortest reign in history, daughter or no daughter. But the fly in the ointment was the Ulster Protestants.
On the 12th March, James landed in Kinsale, along with several French generals and 6,000 of their men, ready to start his fight-back. Together, they would join another 5,000 loyal Catholics under Commander Richard Hamilton who was already on his way north to subdue Derry’s rebels. What James didn’t realise was that there were just as many Protestants in Ireland who supported William and they were already taking up arms and preparing to attack James and his supporters.
James advanced north, taking town after town, until he finally reached Ulster. By April, he was at the gates of Derry, hoping that his tremendous show of strength would force them to surrender. James had thought that the mere sight of his soldiers would shock and awe Derry into submission. It never occurred to him that this might never happen.
What James didn’t know was his commander, Richard Hamilton, had already spoken to the leaders in Derry and he had guaranteed that the Jacobites would not approach the city.
It was inevitable that there would be confusion on James’ part. Part of that confusion was that he had no idea that there had been any sort agreement made. When the guards saw James and his army standing outside the gates demanding entry, there was no doubt in their minds that it as an act of duplicity. Derry had been offered an agreement, and they had accepted, and yet here was the king himself breaking that very agreement.
Before James knew it, the guards on duty were firing at him and his troops. He had ridden straight into a storm of anger as the city prepared themselves to fight against him to the death.
Outside the walls, James was in no mood to hang around for the fight. Talbot had already sent word that 4,000 Dutch troops had arrived in Belfast to help William, which meant James was desperately needed in Dublin. Leaving the French generals in charge until the additional 6,000 troops promised by Louis in France arrived to help, he left to make plans with Talbot. He gave the generals clear orders. Take Derry at any cost. He left before the smell of smoke reached his nostrils and women’s screams filled the air.
You would think that 17,000 men would be invincible but from the very beginning, the lack of armament and the lack of discipline were evident. Cannonballs crashed into the rooves of houses and smashed into their walls but it was the Williamites who made the important strikes and in the chaos, two of James’ French generals were killed.
But as bad as it was on the outside, inside the walls of Derry was worse. They were suffering from malnutrition and starvation, forced to eat rats, horse flesh and even their own dogs. It was a slow death for some in the bitter cold and due to the unavailability of fresh water; the streets ran with faeces and urine. Soon, disease was rampant.
It was an epic power struggle to decide, not only who would control England and Ireland, but also the balance of power in Europe and it shaped the course of our history to the present day. It was a remarkable 105 days where the people of Derry defied James and refused to surrender the city to his Catholic army. The words ‘No surrender’ are as meaningful today as they were when they were first shouted three centuries ago.
On 26th July, starving and rife with disease, the remaining citizens of Derry were preparing to give in and begin negotiations when reinforcements from London arrived. At the 11th hour, Derry was saved. What they hadn’t known was that while they were waiting for help to arrive, on 14th June William had arrived in Ulster, pale and asthmatic, but ready for a fight. Although his face was lined with constant pain and fighting ill health, he had marched south at the same time that James was marching north from Dublin. As Derry was struggling to survive, the two armies had met on 1st July at the River Boyne, 30 miles north of Dublin on the outskirts of Drogheda.
No year in Irish history is better known and no Irish battle is more famous than William III’s victory over James II at the River Boyne. It would be the last time in history that a king would fight on a battle field.
On one side, there was James who had fought with his brother Charles in Europe and although he was prone to panicking under pressure and making rash decisions, that was 1658 and a lot had changed in 30 years. Still, he was a man in his late fifties and his best years as a military leader were behind him.
On the other side, there was 40-year-old William, a fragile man but a battle-hardened commander known for his reckless courage in countless campaigns who was yet to win a major battle. But William had one advantage over James. William had 36,000 strong, composed troops gathered from all over Europe and all of them were better trained and better equipped than James’ 23,500 troops.
On the night before the battle, soldiers on both sides prepared themselves nervously for the day ahead. On the march down, both armies had taken whatever metal and lead they could find, mostly from churches along the way, and they were sitting by their camp fires, melting it all down to make bullets for their muskets. After the lead had melted, they prepared cartridges with rolls of paper in which they poured gunpowder and then dropped the bullets on top. In battle, the soldiers would bite the top off the cartridges to release the bullet, literally biting the bullet.
As his men worked, William walked around his soldiers with his arm in a sling after a near miss earlier on in the day. He believed that his presence would encourage his men and he’d even bought with him a portable house so he could sleep among his men. On the other side of the river, it was a different story. James sat alone in his tent, never showing his face.
The fight started in the early hours of dawn as the sky became a watercolour of pinks, reds and oranges but after four hours of fighting, neither side could say they were ahead. By noon, William decided he had to do something and the only possible option was for his army of Dutch and English cavalry to go down to the riverside and cross over to the south side, meeting the Jacobites head on. But in making that decision, he had chosen the most difficult place to cross where the banks were deep and muddy and for a frail king, getting across the river was going to be more than a little bit difficult.
Sure enough, his horse lodged in the mud halfway across and as he tried to move his horse forward, he had an asthma attack. One of his men saw that he was in trouble and waded back across the river and threw William over his shoulder, carrying him to safety on the south bank. Behind him, 2,000 cavalrymen were still struggling to cross the river and face the Jacobites along the mile and a half stretch of mud.
By early afternoon, William’s vast number of men were beginning to make progress. With the Jacobites heavily outnumbered and worn down by the relentless attacks, their only chance for survival was to make a stand on high ground. Ahead of them, they saw a church on top of a hill and they desperately ran towards it with the Williamites hot on their heels. But by doing that, they’d actually allowed themselves to be surrounded on three sides and by late afternoon, it was all over. They simply couldn’t hold out any longer.
Throughout the battle, William fought bravely alongside his men. James however was nowhere to be seen. Instead, James had remained behind in a ravine where he could see the battle raging on the hill three miles away. When it was obvious that his wearying army could not possibly win, James sped down the road to Dublin ahead of his men.
He was unaware that his men had seen him running and they already knew he was miles ahead in an attempt to get himself to safety. Two days after his victory, William triumphantly marched into Dublin as James was making a speedy retreat back to Louis in France. His cowardly behaviour would earn James the title Seamus an Chaca or ‘James the Shit’.
William was jubilant when he returned to London. He rode through the streets, waving happily and was greeted with cheers by people who had come out and lined the streets to see him. Even Parliament praised him. He had fulfilled his promise as a Protestant monarch to defend the country against Catholicism and in doing so, he had secured the throne for himself and his family.
But as successful as he was, he hadn’t finished yet. Not by a long shot. There were still the Scots to deal with for their complicity in the Jacobite and there were many Highland clans who were still loyal to James, and as such, a possible threat to William. Not too far in the future, the massacre of Glencoe was looming.