“The Battle of the Boyne (I)”

Author: Lieut. Colonel William Blacker (1777-1853)
Earliest date: battle Ireland royalty rebellion
Keywords: battle Ireland royalty rebellion


Battle began "upon a summer's morn, unclouded rose the sun." Williamites Schomberg, Walker, and Caillemotte are killed. James deserts his supporters who are "worthy of a better cause and of a bolder king." William would not pursue the fleeing Jacobites

Supplemental text

Battle of the Boyne (I), The
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

The Battle of the Boyne

From Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859 (reprint of 1855
London edition)), Vol I, pp. 210-211, "The Battle of the Boyne"

By Colonel Blacker

It was upon a summer's morn, unclouded rose the sun,
And lightly o'er the waving corn their way the breezes won;
Sparkling beneath that orient beam, 'mid banks of verdure gay,
Its eastward course a silver stream held smilingly away.

A kingly host upon its side a monarch camp'd around,
Its southern upland far and wide their white pavilions crowned;
Not long that sky unclouded show'd, nor long beneath the ray
That gentle stream in silver flowed, to meet the new-born day.

Through yonder fairy-haunted glen, from out that dark ravine,
Is heard the tread of marching men, the gleam of arms is seen;
And plashing forth in bright array along yon verdant banks,
All eager for the coming fray, are rang'd the martial ranks.

Peals the loud gun--its thunders boom the echoing vales along,
While curtain'd in its sulph'rous gloom moves on the gallant throng;
And foot and horse in mingled mass, regardless all of life,
With furious ardor onward pass to join the deadly strife.

Nor strange that with such ardent flame each glowing heart beats high,
Their battle word was William's name, and "Death or Liberty!"
Then, Oldbridge, then thy peaceful bowers with sounds unwonted rang,
And Tredagh, 'mid thy distant towers, was heard the mighty clang;

The silver stream is crimson'd wide, and clogg'd with many a corse,
As floating down its gentle tide come mingled man and horse.
Now fiercer grows the battle's rage, the guarded stream is cross'd,
And furious, hand to hand engage each bold contending host;

He falls--the veteran hero falls, renowned along the Rhine--
And he, whose name, while Derry's walls endure, shall brightly shine.
O! would to heav'n that churchman bold, his arms with triumph blest,
The soldier spirit had controll'd that fir'd his pious breast.

And he, the cheif of yonder brave persecuted band,
Who foremost rush'd amid the wave, and gain'd the hostile strand;
He bleeds, brave Caillemotte--he bleeds--'tis clos'd, his bright career,
Yet still that band to glorious deeds his dying accents cheer.

And now that well-contested strand successive columns gain,
While backward James's yielding band are borne across the plain.
In vain the sword green Erin draws, and life away doth fling--
O! worthy of a better cause and of a bolder king.

In vain thy bearing bold is shown upon that blood-stain'd ground;
Thy tow'ring hopes are overthrown, thy choicest fall around.
Nor, shamed, abandon thou the fray, nor blush, though conquer'd there,
A power against thee fights to-day no mortal arm may dare.

Nay, look not to that distant height in hope of coming aid--
The dastard thence has ta'en his flight, and left thee all betray'd.
Hurrah! hurrah! the victor shout is heard on high Donore;
Down Platten's vale, in hurried routthy shatter'd masses pour.

But many a gallant spirit there retreats across the plain,
Who, change but kings, would gladly dare that battle field again.
Enough! enough! the victor cries; your fierce pursuit forbear,
Let grateful prayer to heaven arise, and vanquished freemen spare.

Hurrah! hurrah! for liberty, for her the sword we drew,
And dar'd the battle, while on high our Orange banners flew;
Woe worth the hour--woe worth the state, when men shall cease to join
With grateful hearts to celebrate the glories of the Boyne!

Long description

"It was upon a summer's morn, unclouded rose the sun." On William's side, Duke Schomberg ["the veteran hero falls, renowned along the Rhine"], Rev George Walker ["whose name, while Derry's walls endure, shall brightly shine"], and Caillemotte were killed. James deserted his supporters ["O! worthy of a better cause and of a bolder king ... many a gallant spirit there retreats across the plain, Who, change but kings, would gladly dare that battle field again"]. William would not pursue the fleeing Jacobites [.".. vanquished freemen spare"].


Hayes's footnotes on p. 210 confirm that the allusions are to Schomberg and Walker.

Huguenot Colonel Caillemotte was killed just before noon, at about the same time Schomberg was killed. James left the field and de Lauzun sent Sarsfield's Horse and Maxwell's Dragoons to insure his safety, compromising the remaining forces's effectiveness against the Williamite cavalry (source: Michael McNally, _Battle of the Boyne 1690: the Irish Campaign for the English Crown_ (Oxford, 2005), pp.82, 86). - BS

Panic and indecision was, indeed, a strong characteristic of James VII and II (1633-1701) -- easy traits to understand in a younger son of an imperious father whose self-importance was thoroughly dealt with when he was deposed and executed when James was still only 16.

After the Restoration of the Monarchy, James's older brother Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) had managed to control parliament by many years of skillful maneuvering, and the use of French subsidies to allow him to rule without parliament. But Charles had advantages James did not: He had come in on the groundswell of support following the downfall of Oliver Cromwell's "Protectorate" (religious dictatorship) -- and Charles was, at least nominally, Protestant. Whereas James was Catholic, and there were rumors that he was behind the "Popish Plot" -- a story concocted in 1678 by one Titus Oates, which claimed the Catholics were trying to assassinate Charles and bring a Catholic takeover (see Clark, pp. 88-92. For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note). It was basically a series of lies by Oates for personal gain, but it made the whole nation nervous.

Of James II, Clark writes (p. 111), "If tragedy is the story of a man of high worldly rank whose sufferings are due to his virtues as well as to his vices, then the reign of James II was tragic, and it is not surprising that historians... should take his personal share in them as the guiding thread through the events." Clark describes Charles as an "easy, clever temporizer" and James as "inadaptable, indeed obstinate."

James faced a rebellion at the very beginning of his reign by Charles II's illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth; it was easily crushed (see, e.g. the notes to "Bothwell Bridge" [Child 206] and, for this whole messy period, the notes to "The Vicar of Bray."). But then James made the first of his many mistakes: Rather than disband his army, he kept it together, even giving it many Catholic officers. This at the very time that Louis XIV of France was revoking the Edict of Nantes which had granted toleration to Protestants (Clark, p. 116). Naturally the Protestants were afraid. But this did not keep James from appointing more and more Catholics to high offices (Clark, p. 117).

According to Foster, p. 141, "[T]he uneasy political strife was tipped over by a _deus ex machine_ from another quarter. This was the birth of a Catholic heir in June 1688, and the escalation of the political tempo caused by James's importation of Irish regiments in the autumn."

The heir was the real surprise. James's second wife Mary of Modena had long been barren, but now she gave birth to a son. James had two daughters by his first wife who were safely Protestant. But this child -- the so-called Old Pretender, or James III -- would be Catholic. This came as a "bombshell" to the Protestants, including the supporters of James's protestant daughter Mary and her Protestant husband William III of Orange (see Prall, p. 173). So concerned were many of the Protestants that they invited William III -- who was King of the Netherlands in his own right -- to invade England and depose James. And, by sheer luck, William was able to do so -- Louis XIV of France, who had been planning to invade Williams's kingdom, went haring off after other objectives in 1688 (Clark, p. 129) when the German princes came to William's support (Bardon, p. 151). William then was free to sail to England, helped by the famously fortunate "Protestant wind" (Clark, p. 132). Representatives of Parliament came to him after his landing (Prall, p. 234), and in effect a new form of government was agreed upon -- a much more limited monarchy, and one which placed greater stress on what we would call "human rights."

But it placed James in a difficult position. He could stay and try to convince parliament to stay on his side -- and, in the opinion of Kenyon, p. 251, he was likely to have succeeded: "James's position was still strong, probably stronger now that the idea of a military campaign had virtually been abandoned. William was in the position of aggressor, and James was free to renounce any settlement at a later date on the grounds that it had been imposed on him by force."

But James was afraid. Kenyon, p. 252, points out that all the Protestants' problems would be solved if James were dead --they could raise the infant James as a Protestant (perhaps with William and Mary as regents), or they could simply crown William and Mary as king and queen in their own right; either way, Protestantism would prevail. It was true that no sitting English king had been assassinated since at least 1100 (when William Rufus died in suspicious circumstances) and possibly since 978 (when Edward the Martyr was killed) -- but Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and Edward V had all died after being deposed. And there were still alive men who had ordered James's father executed forty years before. James simply didn't want to risk it; he took his family and fled England (Clark, pp. 136-138), burning the wrists of summons to the parliament while he was at it (Prall, pp. 237-238).

Technically, it was a smart move; Parliament was not in session, and had not been called, so formally the government was non-functional; it could not take action without James (see Trevelyan, p. 67). But England was not as bureaucratically paralyzed as, say, France; Parliament in effect summoned itself (Prall, p. 247), calling the meeting a "convention" to satisfy the legal niceties (Clark, p. 139). It was decided that James had abdicated (Clark, p. 140; Kenyon, pp. 254-257; Prall, p. 261; Trevelyan, p. 77). With the Old Pretender also missing, it was decided that he could not be the heir; in February the throne was awarded jointly to William III and Mary II (Bardon, p. 151) with the understanding that William was in charge for the moment, but that Mary would succeed him if she outlived him, and their children after her, and the princess Anne if William and Mary had no children. (And, as it would turn out, William and Mary didn't have offspring. Anne had quite a few, but they all predeceased her, which would lead to another set of problems.)

But James, not too surprisingly, wasn't willing to give up that easily. His mistakes meant that England was almost universally happy with the settlement the Parliament created (the Whigs had of course long wanted to reduce the power of the monarchy, which they had, and even the Tories, who would ordinarily have supported James, were Protestants and so preferred a Protestant monarch). But there was discontent in Scotland -- and then there was Catholic Ireland.

Plus there was Louis XIV of France. In the reign of Charles II, he had used cash to keep England out of his way. But William III would not be bought -- so Louis used distraction instead. Foster, p. 141, notes that "[t]he impetus that led to James's last stand at the Boyne came from Louis XIV's encouragement rather than his own ambition." Clark, p. 291, adds that "Within three months of his arrival [in France,James] was packed off again, and on 22 March he landed at Kinsale.

"His aims still diverged from those of the Irish. He wanted to return to Britain, merely taking Ireland on his way, and once he had got back to England or Scotland, he would no doubt have looked on Ireland as before" [i.e. as a dependency].

James spent the next few months fiddling around with Irish politics. His military situation deteriorated badly in that time; the siege of Londonderry failed (see the notes to "The Shutting of the Gates of Derry"), and his troops had been defeated at Newtownbutler (Clark, p. 294); the battle ended in a massacre which almost destroyed the Jacobites of Ulster (Bardon, p. 159).

James lasted as long as he did only because William of Orange didn't really think his invasion was of much significance: "King William had at first been disposed to regard [Ireland] as altogether subsidiary to the continental was, and he did not yield to the English statesmen who urged him to lead an army against James in person. It was even with reluctance that he sent his best general, Schomberg, with a force which should have amounted to 20,000 men, or more than double the contingent sent in that year to the Low Countries. Schomberg landed on August 23 on the cost of County Down near Bangor. His army was far below its nominal strength, ill-provided and, except for the foreign regiments, untrained and badly officered.... None the less he made a good start, capturing Carrickfergus and moving forward in September to Dundalk. Here, however, he had to halt. Rain and very heavy losses from disease were added to his troubles" (Clark, pp. 294-295).

Schomberg landed in Ballyhome Bay on August 13, 1689 by the modern calendar; there was no opposition, only a great crown of Protestants giving thanks for their deliverance (Bardon, p. 159). Unfortunately, Schomberg -- who was 74 or 75 and a former Marshal of France expelled for being a Protestant (Hayes-McCoy, p. 222) -- was slow to follow up his success that year (Bardon, p. 160). Some of the soldiers on James's side thought that Schomberg was trapped, but James refused to do anything about it. Schomberg, his forces reduced to about 7000, sat tight for the winter (Hayes-McCoy, p. 223).

After half a year of inaction, the English King decided that Schomberg was not getting the job done (William reportedly met him with coldness; Bardon, p. 161); on "24 June 1690 William himself landed at Carrickfergus" (Clark, p. 295), not long after Schomberg had captured Charlemont, the last holdout for James in Ulster. (Fry/Fry, p. 161, and Bardon, p. 161, however, give William's landing date as June 14, and most other sources I checked say simply "June 1690." It appears this is the usual difference between Old Style and New Style dates, since Clark also uses the date of July 11 for the Battle of the Boyne itself.)

The Battle of the Boyne soon followed. Clark, p. 295, reports, "The Protestant army numbered something less than 40,000 men, including six Dutch, eight Danish, and three hugenot battalions, so that the greater part of the infantry were foreign. Against them James had a somewhat smaller force, of which seven battalions were Frenchmen who had come over in the winter under the command of the romantic and incompetent duc de Lauzun."

However, the Irish force was ill-equipped and ill-trained; Hayes-McCoy, p. 218, reports "There was no lack of men, 'the finest men one could see,' said D'Avaux, strong, tall and capable of enduring fatigue; but they were poorly armed -- some whom D'Avaux saw carried only staves; their opponents noticed that 'some had scythes instead of pikes' -- and they were inadequately trained and most inadequately equipped." And this at a time when even pikes were going out of use -- although the habit for some time had been to mix muskets and pikes, the ratio of muskets to pikes was steadily increasing -- a ratio of 5:1 or more was becoming standard in the regiments in William's army (Hayes-McCoy, p. 219), since the only purpose of the pikes was to resist cavalry. A portion of William's troops had the new flintlock muskets; the rest of his forces, and nearly everyone on James's side, had to use matchlocks (Hayes-McCoy, p. 220).

Foster, p. 148, observers, "The most striking thing about this confused battle is the internationalism of both sides: Irish, French, German, and Walloon [for James] versus Irish, English, Dutch, Germans, and Danes [for William]." Bardon, pp. 162-163, adds French Huguenot to this list; William's's army "represented the Grand Alliance against France."

According to Fry/Fry, p. 161, "William review his army of 36,000 men in Co. Down on 22nd June. Then he moved south toward Dublin, which was the immediate prize, and reached Dundalk. James decided to make his stand upon the river Boyne. He was only slightly outnumbered, he had had all winter to train his Irishmen, and he picked his ground well." The battlefield site is just west of the town of Drogheda (Bardon, p. 162). Hayes-McCoy, p. 224, reports that "To defend the line of the Boyne was the only practicable course open to James if he was to prevent an opponent who had come as far as Dundalk from reaching Dublin. The ground between Dundalk and the capital is in general low lying and easily traversed." The Boyne was the only significant east-west obstacle in the area.

Hayes-McCoy, p. 225: "The Boyne was fordable in many places in 1690; still, William's progress might be contested on its banks. The Jacobite army which occupied the south bank with its centre at Oldbridge, Co. Meath, its right at Drogheda and its left towards Slane was in position to make the attempt. It would have been impossible for William, if the Jacobites were to stand, and he was to retain anything of his reputation, to avoid the battle. Unfortunately, the Jacobite position, although it was the only one that could have been taken up on the river, had two serious defects. The river Boyne... forms a large loop around [a] ridge of high ground...." In other words, there was a salient in the center of James's line, which William could attack from three sides with his artillery.

"The second weakness of the terrain as far as James was concerned lay in the fact that an enemy force on the south bank at Rosnaree would be nearer to Duleek [a town in James's rear that offered the only good crossing of the river Nanny] than he was at Donore" (Hayes-McCoy, p. 226). In other words, a maneuver around James's left could block his retreat to Dublin and take him in rear. As a result, "James's security depended on guarding his left." And, according to Hayes-McCoy, he had only about 25,000 men. That meant that William would have a big advantage somewhere along the line.

William himself nearly became the first casualty of the batle; he was among his Dutch Guards when they came under Jacobite artillery fire, and his shoulder was grazed -- but he continued his inspection (Hayes-McCoy, p. 226).

Reportedly the day began with mist, "but the day brightened with the mounting sun and the words of the song that the victors were to sing -- 'July the first, in a morning clear' -- were justified" (Hayes-McCoy, p. 230).

There is a map of the battle on p. 217 of Hayes-McCoy, William, though not known for his generalship, fooled James: He sent a feint upstream (west), around James's left, which drew off James's Frenchmen, meanwhile using his much-superior artillery to bombard James's front at Oldbridge. William's army then crossed the stream for a frontal attack on the Jacobite center (Bardon, p. 163).

According to Hayes-McCoy, p. 228, about two-thirds of the army made the attack at Oldbridge, and one-third made the encircling movement. The latter proved a smashing success; James had only a regiment of dragoons guarding the crossings on his left, and they were forced back and their commander killed (Hayes-McCoy, p. 230). The entire 10,000 troops of William's flanking maneuver were soon across the stream. James responded by sending roughly half his army there. But, of course, that left that big salient in his center relatively weak -- and under attack by twice its numbers.

The main attack went in at 10:00, timed to coincide with a tide that lowered the river somewhat. The first assault was met by an Irish counterattack that stopped them. (For a brief moment, the lack of pikes in the Williamite army helped the Irish cavalry.) It was at this point that Caillemotte, the Huguenot commander of a regiment in the second line, was killed; his troops had neither pikes nor bayonets nor any sort of obstacles to stop cavalry. (Hayes-McCoy, p. 232).

There is confusion about what happened to Schomberg, though he too fell at about this time; Bardon, p. 163, reports, "Schomberg was killed by mistake by a French Huguenot who 'shot him in the throat, and down he dropped dead,' according to Southwell; however, Danish and Irish accounts say the Duke was slain by one of Tyrconnell's Life Guards. The Reverend George Walker was also killed." (Walker was, according to Bardon, p. 154, "Church of Ireland rector of Donoughmore," famous for his part in organizing the successful defence of Derry; he managed to find time before his death to write a _True Account of the Siege of Derry_.)

But William had other troops available, and a second column crossed the Boyne (at a place the Jacobites thought unfordable) and attacked at 11:00. A third force joined the attack around noon. Finally, the Jacobite center was forced back. The left, now threatened with attack in front and back, had to follow. The Irish cavalry performed magnificently -- but they were not enough (Hayes-McCoy, pp. 234-235).

Fry/Fry, p. 162: "James' Irish infantry could not hold them, though his cavalry under Tyrconnell (now a duke) charged with reckless valour again and again. The French had been positioned too far away to be of much help; they only lost six men in the whole battle, but hey checked William's men sufficiently to give James the chance of a fairly orderly retreat. Dublin was evacuated, and Tyrconnell ordered the French and Irish forces to Limerick, while James slipped quietly back to France."

Clark, p. 295, estimates James's losses at 1500 (or 6% of his force), and William's at 500 (less than 2%).

Clark, p. 296: "[James] himself, despairing too soon, spent only one night in Dublin, made off to Waterford and Kinsale, and landed in France before the end of the month."

The fight in Ireland continued until the Battle of Aughrim -- which, unlike the Boyne, was a complete defeat for the Irish and French. For the aftermath, see "After Aughrim's Great Disaster."

Bardon notes, pp. 163-164, "The Battle of the Boyne was not a rout.... The Irish and French retired in good order to fight doggedly behind the Shannon for another year. Yet the battle was decisive; it was a severe blow to Louis XIV's pretensions to European hegemony... James, who made a precipitate flight to France, could no longer think of Ireland as a springboard for recovering his throne; for the English the Glorious Revolution and parliamentary rule were made secure... and for Ulster Protestants the battle ensured the survival of their plantation and a victory for their liberty to be celebrated from year to year."

Hayes-McCoy, pp. 235-236: "The Boyne was a significant rather than a great battle. As a result of it William won Dublin and Leinster and more than half of Munster -- priceless advantages. It was reckoned a great victory by that part of Europe that opposed Louis XIV... but its real significance was, after all, Irish. Although the defeated army continued to fight for more than a year after the date of its discomfiture, it did so with diminishing hope of success. Militarily the Boyne was the decisive battle of the war. Yet the fact that it became the rallying cry of the ascendancy that it served to set up was to suggest that it hadn't really been decisive after all."

Trevelyan, p. 121: "The destruction of James's army [at the Boyne]... and his own too early flight first from the field and then back to France, put the victors in possession of Dublin and three-quarters of Ireland. The English Revolution was saved, and England had set her foot on the first rung of the latter that led her to heights of power and prosperity in the coming years. And by the same action Ireland was thrust back into the abyss."

Author Blacker also wrote "No Surrender (II)" in this Index.


Bardon: Jonathan Bardon, _A History of Ulster_, Blackstaff Press, 1992

Clark: G. N. Clark, _The Later Stuarts 1660-1714_, Oxford, 1934, 1944

Foster: R. F. Foster, _Modern Ireland 1600-1972_ Penguin, 1988, 1989

Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _A History of Ireland_, Barnes & Noble, 1988, 1993

Hayes-McCoy: G. A. Hayes-McCoy, _Irish Battles: A Military History of Ireland_ (Barnes & Noble, 1969, 1997)

Kenyon: J. P. Kenyon, _Stuart England_, being part of the Pelican History of England, Pelican,1978

Prall: Stuart Prall, _The Bloodless Revolution: England, 1688_, Anchor, 1972

Trevelyan: G. M. Trevelyan, _The English Revolution 1688-1689_, Oxford, 1938 - RBW

Historical references

Cross references


  1. O'Conor, pp. 71-72, "Battle of the Boyne" (1 text)
  2. Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859 (reprint of 1855 London edition)), Vol I, pp. 210-211, "The Battle of the Boyne"
  4. ST PGa014A (Full)
  5. BI, PGa014A