It would be difficult to find a battle more indelibly etched into the folk memory of a people than the Battle of the Boyne, which remains as meaningful to Irish Protestants today as it was to their forefathers in 1690. Each year on July 12, thousands of Orangemen march to the sound of tin whistles, accordions and booming lambeg drums to honor the ‘glorious and immortal memory’ of William III, Prince of Orange and King of England. On the day of the Orange Parade, countless street murals throughout Northern Ireland depict ‘King Billy,’ as he is affectionately known to the Protestants, heroically crossing the Boyne River on his beautiful white mare.
William himself would have been surprised to learn that he had become a folk hero to so many Protestant Irishmen. To him, the entire conflict in Ireland was but an irritating sideshow to his main interests on the European Continent. The Dutch prince had accepted the invitation to come to England and preserve the Protestant religion from the Catholic designs of the Stuart King James II because he saw England as a useful ally in his principal struggle against King Louis XIV of France.
Indeed, much of William’s life was spent either at war or preparing for war against France’s ‘Sun King,’ whose great ambition was to make himself supreme monarch of Europe. Biographer Nesca A. Robb described William’s obsession with thwarting Louis at every turn as ‘the governing passion of his whole life.’ Even when barely into adulthood, William began to see France as a threat to the prosperity, religion and political freedom of his homeland, the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Louis, on the other hand, came to regard the Dutch prince as his greatest enemy.
Most of William’s contemporaries, friend and foe alike, found his life to be one of the great success stories of the 17th century. Willem, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau, was born on November 14, 1650. His father, Willem II, had died of smallpox just eight days before his birth. The leaders of the Netherlands had long distrusted Orange power and influence, which had dominated the government for the previous 70 years. Consequently, upon Willem II’s sudden death, the five leading Dutch provinces did not appoint a successor, instead governing the United Provinces collectively from 1650 to 1672 as a republic. In 1653, Jan de Witt became the dominant figure in the Dutch republic.
During that period, young Willem was cared for under various guardianships. Being a member of the House of Orange filled the youngster with a sense of the greatness of his family tradition. His guardians groomed him for leadership. At age 2 1/2, Willem had his own court. By age 4, he was making public appearances and, five years later, he began to appear alone in public. His education included a thorough grounding in military theory and instruction in his responsibilities as a future military leader.
As a child of state, Willem was surrounded by men who distrusted him and were determined to prevent his rise to power. That hostile situation schooled him from a very early age to be politically astute, to trust his instincts and to be his own best counsel.
On April 29, 1672, 21-year-old Willem was thrust into the European military arena when Louis XIV invaded the Netherlands. The Dutch had to face not just the military might of France, but of England, which sought revenge for the humiliating destruction of the English fleet at the Medway near London by the Dutch navy in 1667, and had therefore agreed to an alliance with Louis. It was a time of dire crisis for the Netherlands as the French crossed the Rhine River on June 14, and seized Utrecht on June 20. A few days later, the French were outside Amsterdam, and the Dutch government was suing for peace. Louisâ terms proved to be too exorbitant for the Dutch, who in desperation broke open their dikes and flooded the countryside, bogging down the French army. In August, the people rose in a stormy rebellion against their own government that soon swept the country. On August 27, Jan de Witt was overthrown and murdered, resulting in Prince Willem III being chosen as captain general and stadholder at the head of the government.
At that time, Louis, ignoring the advice of his best generals, dispersed his forces against the Dutch and their German allies, while waiting for the winter to freeze the flooded Netherlands and restore mobility to his army. Willem, meanwhile, found allies among fellow heads of state who were becoming fearful of Louisâ growing power–the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, King Charles II of Spain, and Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg.
In September 1672, Willem tried to take advantage of the dispersal of French forces with a series of raids, most notable at Chareroi, but none succeeded. The advent of winter in December brought a French offensive under Franois-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg, which threatened to take Leyden and the Hague, until an unexpected thaw turned the marshy ground into a boggy quagmire, forcing him to withdraw to Utrecht. Louis II, Prince de Cond, suffered similar problems when he tried to take Amsterdam. While Dutch troops held on behind their flooded polders (lands reclaimed from the sea), their navy, under the formidable Admiral Michael A. de Ruyter, repeatedly defeated the English and French fleets off the coast.
In June 1673, King Louis, in personal command of a 40,000-man army, invaded the Netherlands and, aided by his chief engineer, Sbastien le Prestre de Vauban, briefly besieged and took the Dutch fortress at Maastricht on June 29. Willem’s allies, however, forced Louis to commit his forces to other fronts, such as the Franche-Comt, Alsace and the Rhineland. Meanwhile, growing public opposition to the war in England helped Willem convince the English government to withdraw from the conflict with the signing of the Treaty of Westminster on February 19, 1674.
Throughout the summer of 1677, Willem and the duc de Luxembourg carried on a campaign of maneuver that was generally advantageous to the French, but in which neither side struck a decisive blow. Although he had been confronted time and again by superior forces and more experienced generals, the tenacious Willem managed to thwart French war objectives against his country. Finally, informed by his financial minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, that the war was becoming a disastrous burden on the French treasury, Louis agreed to negotiate an end to hostilities. The Dutch States General agreed–over the objections of the still-bellicose Prince of Orange.
The Dutch War ended, for the time being at least, with the Treaty of Nijmegen on August 10, 1678, but the next decade was a tense period in the history of the Netherlands. Relations between Willem and many Dutch leaders worsened because the prince was determined to resist the aggressive designs of Louis XIV, while most of his countrymen desired peace. That situation changed on February 6, 1685, when King Charles II of England died and his brother, James Stuart, Duke of York, acceded to the throne as James II. In 1673, James had converted to Catholicism and that, as well as his friendship with King Louis, threatened to revive the Anglo-French alliance. Most English, who were overwhelmingly Protestant, disliked James but were willing to put up with him, expecting his daughter Mary to become queen after he died. Not only was Mary a Protestant, but in November 1677, she had married her cousin, Prince Willem of Orange.
Encouraged by the presence of a Catholic on the English throne, on October 18, 1685, King Louis repealed the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of worship to French Protestants, or Huguenots. As a result, some 50,000 Huguenot families left France. Another consequence was a revived fear of France among the Protestant princes of Germany, which Willem exploited by forging a new coalition against Louis, the League of Augsburg–also known as the Grand Alliance–on July 9, 1686.
Then, in 1688, James had a son by his second wife, causing concern throughout England that a Catholic Stuart dynasty would become permanent. In July of that year, a group of prominent Englishmen invited Willem and Mary to come over with an army and help the people rise against King James. The Netherlands government gave its blessing to the enterprise, and Prince Willem of Orange, backed by a 15,000-man army, sailed off to become King William of England.
William landed at Torbay on November 5, 1688, and marched slowly through the country, gaining followers as he went, while support for King James withered away. James fled to France on December 11, and in January 1689, a specially called Parliament declared that James had abdicated, and offered the throne to William and Mary. Although the English made an attempt to appoint Mary the sole English monarch, she rejected the proposal. William, too, had no intention of being his wife’s consort, stating that if that was all England could do for him after he had saved the country, then he would go back to the Netherlands ‘and meddle no more in their affairs.’ The two were declared joint sovereigns–King William III and Queen Mary II–on February 13. To confirm his claim to the throne, on April 21 William promised to obey the Declaration of Rights (later called the Bill or Rights), which assured the English people of certain basic rights while making it illegal for the king to keep a standing army, levy taxes without Parliament’s approval or become a Roman Catholic. The pragmatic William was willing to let Parliament limit his power in return for its support against France.
Meanwhile, James was not about to give up his kingdom without a fight. He still had considerable support among the Catholics of Ireland, and he looked upon that island as a stepping stone to the recovery of his throne. He landed there in March 1689, and William declared war on Louis XIV the following May.
Initial opposition to Jamesâ invasion was nonexistent, and he marched into Dublin on March 24–the first English monarch to visit the Irish capital since Richard II almost 300 years earlier. Within a month, however, English power in Ireland had been reduced to Londonderry and Enniskillen. Those cities managed to withstand a 105-day siege and gave William time to raise a large army.
In August 1689, 10,000 soldiers under the command of William’s most trusted officer, Marshal Frederick Herman Schomberg, landed unopposed at Groomsport, in County Down. The army’s composition reflected the international character of the war then engulfing the European continent. William’s troops included not only English and Dutch soldiers, but Danish mercenaries and French Huguenots–the latter including the 75-year-old Schomberg himself. Jamesâ Jacobite supporters were reinforced by a 6,000-man French brigade commanded by Antonin Nompar de Caumont, comte de Lauzun, although one of its six battalions was made up of Walloons and two of Protestant Germans who until recently had been French prisoners of war.
William soon became disillusioned with the lethargic way Schomberg was handling the campaign, and he wrote several letters to the marshal, urging him to attack the Jacobites, as Jamesâ supporters called themselves (after the Latin term for James, Jacobus). Instead of taking the initiative, however, Schomberg gave excuses, making much of the strength of Jamesâ army, and complaining about the weather, disease and lack of medicine.
On June 14, 1690, a frustrated William, determined to take personal charge of the Irish campaign, landed at Carrickfergus with 36,000 troops, to an enthusiastic welcome from the townspeople. Along the way, bonfires lit up the hills of Antrim and Down, spreading the news of the king’s arrival. William remained in Belfast for five days while Schomberg advised caution. Then, impatient to end the Irish nuisance, William organized his troops and set out southward to seek out and engage the Jacobites.
James remained elusive for a time, but finally, on June 29, he halted his army near the Boyne River, a few miles from Drogheda, indicating his intention to stand and fight. The next morning, William gazed down from the high ground into the Boyne Valley and surveyed the Jacobitesâ tents lining the south bank. ‘I am glad to see you gentlemen,’ he is reported to have said. ‘If you escape me now, the fault will be mine.’
While his troops made camp, William and his officers rode down to the north bank to get a better assessment of the enemy–during which they stopped to sit down for a picnic lunch. Some of Jamesâ officers spotted the king, wearing his Star of Garter, and could not believe their good fortune. They quickly brought up and mounted two cannons behind a clump of bushes. As William and his entourage mounted their horses, the Jacobites fired two shots. The first struck the horse of Prince George of Hesse, while the second ripped through the sleeve of William’s uniform.
William slumped over on the neck of his horse. His followers gasped in horror, while Jacobites across the river shouted joyfully. News of William’s apparent death spread through the Jacobite camp with lightning speed and James dispatched messengers to France to convey the good news to King Louis. For 48 hours, the Jacobites celebrated. Some staged a mock funeral, while others made a dummy of straw and wax, christened it the ‘Prince of Orange’ and shot at it all night long.
To paraphrase future humorist Mark Twain, however, reports of William’s death proved to be greatly exaggerated. He had merely suffered a slight shoulder injury. Within a few hours of the incident, he was riding along the ranks of his army, waving his right arm to show that he was all right. That brush with death only stiffened his determination to engage his adversaries–he had waited long enough. At 9 a.m. on June 30, he called a council of war and informed his officers that they would attack the enemy the next morning.
The battle began on July 1 (later altered to July 12 when England changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752), when William’s Blue Dutch Guards crossed the Boyne. The Jacobites fired at them, but fled when the Guards reached the south bank. The Danes and Huguenots then tried to cross, but were driven back into the river. The battle’s outcome remained much in doubt, but William’s troops held firm and repulsed three charges by Jamesâ cavalry.
As the Jacobite horsemen attacked once more, William came up on the left wing, having forded the river a mile downstream at Drybridge, and struggled to the south bank through the marshy ground. Unable to use his right arm, he drew his sword with his left and addressed the Inniskilling Cavalry with the exhortation, ‘Men of Enniskillen, what will you do for me?’ They replied by following him without hesitation to a hill at Donore, where they became embroiled in an engagement so confused that on several occasions Williamite units found themselves fighting one another.
William’s bravery proved to be a decisive factor in the battle’s outcome. One bullet had grazed his leg, tearing away a piece of his boot, but he refused to leave the field. At one point, one of William’s men failed to recognize him and pointed a gun at his head. William pushed the weapon way and chided the officer, saying, ‘What, do you not know your own friends?’
Less fortunate was Marshal Schomberg, who upon seeing the Williamite foothold on the south bank endangered near the village of Oldbridge, personally led his fellow Huguenots to reinforce them, only to be hacked twice by sabers and fatally shot in the back–by one of his own panicky troops or by a deserter to the Jacobite side, depending on whose account one reads.
At about 2 p.m., a messenger brought James the news that Williamsâ forces had secured Oldbridge and the right wing of the Jacobite army was defeated. James still had not committed the main part of his army, which he had held in readiness for what he thought would be the main Williamite effort at Rosnaree. At that point, however, he also became aware that Williamite dragoons, commanded by Marshal Schomberg’s son, Count Meinhard Schomberg, were flanking him to the south. His friend Lauzun persuaded him to withdraw to Dublin before that dragoon force cut off his escape route. His army followed in disarray, leaving behind its baggage and artillery. Continuing his flight to the south coast, where a squadron of French frigates awaited him, James sailed to France. He would never set foot in the British Isles again. On July 6, William entered Dublin in triumph.
William’s victory at the Boyne was less than overwhelming, but the outcome of the Irish campaign was no longer in doubt. Spain and Austria, William’s partners in the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV, rejoiced upon learning of it. Illustrated brochures of the battle circulated in many parts of Europe. In Ireland itself, William’s victory was to have importance that reached well beyond the politics of the day and enshrined his name in its history and folklore.
William remained in Ireland until late August, but the Jacobites reorganized and fought on under the leadership of Colonel Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan. Bitterly disappointed at his failure to break the back of Jacobite resistance, William returned to England. The subordinates he left behind to conduct the war did not finally defeat their stubborn opponents until the fall of 1891. The Pacification of Limerick, signed on October 13, 1691, provided for an honorable settlement, guaranteeing the rights and property of the Irish Catholics in return for their sworn loyalty to King William and Queen Mary. Although the treaty was ratified by the English Parliament, its liberal terms were rejected by the Protestant Irish, who enacted a harshly anti-Catholic Penal Code of their own, which drove Sarsfield and a multitude of other Irish Jacobites out of the country and into service with the French army.
William’s war against Louis XIV dragged on, with neither king able to gain the upper hand. Finally, a stalemated peace came in the form of the Treaty of Ryswyck, signed by France, England, Spain, the Netherlands and the German principalities between September 20 and October 30, 1697. During the last years of his life, William became concerned with the possibility that the death of the childless Spanish King Charles II might lead to the accession of a French Bourbon to the Spanish throne, thus bringing Spain, her prosperous colonial empire and the Spanish Netherlands under French influence. That fear became a reality in 1700, on March 13, Charlesâ will revealed that Philip of Anjou, Louisâ second grandson, had been declared the heir to the Spanish throne; and Charles died on November 1 of 1700. Louis continued to aggravate relations with William by sheltering James II and, after Jamesâ death in 1701, recognizing his son as the rightful heir to the English throne.
While England and the Netherlands prepared for another war, French forces occupied the Spanish Netherlands, which were also claimed by the counterclaimant to the Spanish throne, Emperor Leopold I, in March 1701. With France and Austria at war, King William III again showed his immense diplomatic skill by negotiating another Grand Alliance against Louis XIV on September 7, 1701. This alliance involved Austria, England, the Netherlands, Prussia, most of the other German states and later, Portugal. William was not destined to long outlive the man he had deposed, however, nor would he see England launch the all-out campaign against France that had been his life-long ambition. While riding at Hampton Court in London on March 19, 1702, he was thrown from his horse and died at age 51.
Assessing William III’s place in history has led to much controversy over the years. One of his biographers, Nesca A. Robb, has said that ‘it may be the force of his living personality, as well as a measure of his greatness, that he can still arouse passionate hero worship and passionate animosity.’
William was a soldier king, one of the last European monarchs to lead his troops into battle. He is not regarded as an outstanding strategist, but it should be noted that he constantly had to face Louisâ generals, some of whom were the greatest military geniuses of the century, and who commanded larger armies than William could muster. William proved adapt at the diplomatic aspect of warfare, particularly in his organization of effective alliances against France. This would prompt British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to later say of William that ‘perhaps he has never been surpassed in the sagacity, patience, and discretion of statecraft.’
It was as an English monarch that William left his greatest mark on history. By coming to England and accepting the crown, he made possible the Glorious Revolution, which led to great changes in English politics and society, and paved the way for many of the freedoms enjoyed by Britishers–and Americans–today.
As for his impact on his native Netherlands, it is true that he saved the republic in 1672 and transformed the Dutch army into one of the world’s best fighting forces. It is also true, however, that his obsessive fight with Louis XIV drained the Netherlands financially and that in the years following his death, that once-formidable Dutch naval and commercial power declined to second-rate status.
Ironically, it is in Ireland, which least interested him and where he spent the least amount of time, that ‘King Billy,’ whether loved or hated, is best remembered today.
This article was written by Ron Chepesiuk and originally published in the June 2001 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!