Did you know?

Some facts about 1690 and all that

By Vincent O'Toole

DID you know that a report of King Billy's death was celebrated in Paris before news of his victory at the Battle of the Boyne reached the French capital?

Why did that happen?

On the day before the famous battle, King Billy met with some of his staff just over 200 feet from the enemy, who were on the other side of the Boyne River. One of the Irish fired a shot which grazed the king's shoulder and drew blood.

Word of King Billy's wound spread in the Irish camp and because he slumped on his horse, rumour spread that he was dead.

A report of this went to Paris where bells were rung to celebrate the news and a straw image of the king was dragged through the mud.

In reality these actions were wrong, for King Billy was only slightly injured, and at the time the French were rejoicing over the death it was the Irish who were in full flight after their defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.

But to get a better insight into the king's role at the battle, let us go back to the start of his Irish campaign.

King Billy embarked on the yacht Mary at Hoylake, Lancashire on June 11, 1690 and three days later he handed at Carrickfergus. He went by coach to Belfast where a great crowd welcomed him.

At a reception, the Dutch-born monarch, who spoke five different languages, told the city fathers in halting English that he had come to set up a lasting peace and he implored the blessing of God on his person and army during its presence here.

He brought £25,000 with several tons of tin halfpence and gave the order that all his troops were to be paid by June 19.

King Billy's army of 36,000 were from 11 different nations and his elite unit was the Dutch Blue Guards, who were mainly Catholic.

Few of the king's soldiers doubted the outcome of the battle, for they had five times the artillery of their opponents, were better fed, armed and supplied. Also they had the belief that God was on their side.

James II, who was King Billy's father-in-law, had just over 25,000 troops and many of them had never fired a shot or knew anything about arms. It was said that one man in every three had no musket, while another man in every three had a musket that would not go off.

The Battle of the Boyne was fought on Tuesday, July 1, 1690. The day started misty, but the sun soon shone from a cloudless sky.

King Billy was on horseback by six o'clock that morning wearing his Star and Garter, which made him a target.

His wounded shoulder still troubled him, so he did not put on all his defensive armour.

In the heat, dust and smoke of the battle it was difficult to tell friend from foe, but King Billy seemed to lead a charmed life. He was struck by two musket balls, one of which grazed his pistol and another that carried off the heel of his boot.

At a crucial stage of the battle, King Billy came upon the Enniskillen troops and their leader Colonel W Wolseley who shouted to his men: "It is his Majesty."

"I have heard much of you," replied the king when the cheering died down, "you shall be my guards, let me see something of you."

Some accounts say that these men stayed with their monarch until the end of the battle.

King Billy's opponent, James II, was just a figurehead, who did not take part in the battle and he fled to Dublin at 5pm. Within a few days he sailed to France.

Few of King James's soldiers captured during the battle were shown much mercy. In one report it stated: "They were shot like hares among the corn."

Though exhausted after the victory, King Billy played down the congratulations of his officers and showed much concern for the wounded. He spent the night in his coach and his weary soldiers camped nearby.

When the king entered Dublin on July 6 he went to a service of thanks in Christ Church Cathedral in the city.

Crowds lined the streets to welcome King Billy when he returned to London after almost three months in Ireland. An effigy of James II was burned and bonfires were lit to celebrate his victory.

How do historians view the battle?

Some dismiss it as little more than a bloody skirmish (King Billy lost about 500 men and less than 2,000 soldiers of King James's army were killed). But all agree that no other battle here has left such an impression on the memory of the people.

In modern times, as King Billy looks down peacefully from gable walls on the citizens, how would he feel about the way they celebrate his victory?

The battle is still seen by some people as the day when King Billy and their immortal forefathers overthrew the Pope and Popery at the Boyne. And that it was followed by an era of civil and religious liberty.

But would the king have supported these ideas?

King Billy was a tolerant Calvinist and he viewed this battle in Ireland as an attempt to help maintain a balance of power in Europe. James II, his opponent, was a puppet of the French King Louis XIV.

The Pope at the time was a supporter of King Billy. After his triumph at the Battle of the Boyne the Te Deum was sung in Catholic Cathedrals in Austria and Spain and when the king returned to London, messages of congratulations awaited him from Rome and Madrid.

So could the commemoration of the Twelfth be different in the future? Could it be something that both sides of the community might celebrate?

Is that what the victor at the Battle of the Boyne would have wanted?

Publication Date: 12 July 2002


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