Battlefield Britain - A Clash Of Kings: The Battle Of The Boyne

By Corinne Field | Updated: 27 February 2012
BBC Battlefield Britain

The BBC series Battlefield Britain spanned 2000 years and told the story of eight key battles fought on and over British soil. See the spoils of war and discover the story behind these violent clashes at a museum or historic site with Culture24's Battlefield Britain trails.

Shows a painting of the Battle of the Boyne.

The Battle of the Boyne, Ireland by Jan Wyck, 1690 © National Army Museum

The Battle of the Boyne

On July 1, 1690 two kings faced each other across Ireland’s River Boyne. By evening King William had won a decisive victory, preserved the Protestant settlement in Ireland and driven King James into exile.

Today William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne is still celebrated by the Orange Order whose name honours the Prince of Orange.

Shows costumed re-enactors firing a volley from their muskets.

James' musketeers fire a volley in a BBC reconstruction. Weapons were so scarce in James' army that many of his men were armed only with clubs and axes © BBC

"The Battle of the Boyne was crucial in that it gave William the city of Dublin and caused James to flee," says Robert Heslip, curator in the department of history at Ulster Museum. "It was symbolically important and that is why it is commemorated but the conflict did go on for a year after that."

In 1685 James became James II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Having converted to Catholicism some years before, he appointed catholics in positions of power and in 1688 ordered a Declaration of Liberty of Conscience giving permission for catholics to worship freely.

Shows a portrait of King William III. He has long curly hair and is wearing armour.

King William III after Sir Peter Lely © National Portrait Gallery, London

In June 1688 he had a son, which meant a catholic heir to the throne. This was the final straw for his opponents. They appear to have invited James’ eldest daughter Mary, William of Orange’s wife, to take her father’s throne and planned to have William as Consort but he wasn’t satisfied with that offer. It is possible they appealed to William to defend the protestant settlement.

William landed in Torbay on November 5 with 10,000 men and advanced on London. Not only was William backed by most of the English nobility but even soldiers defected from James’ army to join the Dutch prince.

Almost overnight James’ rule collapsed and he fled to France.

Parliament declared that James had abdicated and that Mary should have the throne. Two months later, on February 13, 1689 William and Mary were proclaimed joint sovereigns of England. The National Portrait Gallery has a painting of William on display and a portrait of Mary in their primary collection.

Shows a painting of Queen Mary II.

Queen Mary II after William Wissing © National Portrait Gallery, London

Shortly after the Glorious Revolution (the name given to the events surrounding the abdication of James II in 1688 and his replacement by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange as joint sovereigns in 1689) the Scottish parliament accepted the new rulers but Catholic Ireland stayed loyal to James. Only protestant Ulster and Sligo supported William and the war began as Jacobite forces, loyal to King James, attacked Williamite forces in Ulster.

Ulster Museum has an exhibition called Conflict running until early 2005 featuring contemporary gold and commemorative medals from 1690, one of which shows William crossing the river Boyne.

On show is also some footage from the Northern Ireland film archive including newsreels from parades in 1914, 1921 and the 1950s. They also have some contemporary engravings of the Battle of the Boyne in their collection.

Shows a photograph of an Orange Lodge march

The Orange Order on parade. Courtesy of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland

James himself arrived in Ireland from exile, landing in Kinsale on March 12, 1690 with a large force including French regulars and headed north to Dublin.

There were only three significant pockets of Williamite resistance left in Ireland, Derry, Enniskillen and Sligo. In May the Jacobites, under the command of Patrick Sarsfield, took Sligo. In July they attacked Enniskillen.

Shows a photograph of Enniskillen Castle - a large house-like building sits in the centre of a courtyard and parts of a wall can be discerned in the background.

Enniskillen Castle. Courtesy of Enniskillen Castle County Museum

Enniskillen Castle still stands today and is largely unchanged since the time of the attacks. The site also includes a regimental museum. The Enniskillen regiments were formed as a result of the attacks in 1689 and 1690.

On August 4, thanks to a relief convoy sent by William to help the Protestants in Derry, the siege was lifted. Soon after William sent an army to Ulster under the command of the Duke of Schomberg and they quickly regained control of the city.

Shows a photograph of Schomberg House.

Schomberg House. Courtesy of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland

Today the Grand Orange Order’s headquarters are based at Schomberg House, named after the Duke, William’s General and second in command at the Battle of the Boyne. It includes a Cultural Heritage Centre where there is a tableau of the Battle of the Boyne on show as well as contemporary medallions, King William’s gauntlet and saddlecloth and a cannon ball from the siege of Derry.

As winter set in the armies went into their respective quarters. The campaign in 1690 began with the Battle of the Boyne.

In June 1690 William’s 300 ships set sail for Ireland with an army made up of Dutch, Danish, Finnish and Prussian fighters. Picking up Protestant volunteers along the way, William’s 36,000-strong allied forces marched south to Dublin.

Shows a computer generated film still of an army encamped by the side of a river.

What the scene may have looked like as James' men guarded the south bank of the Boyne the day before the battle in 1690 © BBC

The night before the battle James is thought to have stayed at Dublin Castle where they have what is said to be William’s ceremonial throne. Today the castle is very different from what it was in James’ day. Only part of the city wall, the moat and the gunpowder tower survive from the period.

James’ army set up camp at Donore Church on the summit of Donore Hill. Today the church is in ruins. Not only was it the sight of James’ camp but also where some of the fiercest fighting during the battle took place.

Shows a view from Tullyallen church - it is of fields and hills.

View from Tullyallen Church © Office of Public Works

William’s army camped at Tullyallen Church, which is still in use and still standing today. He met his officers the day before the battle at nearby Melifont Abbey where he summoned a council of war. Today the abbey is a ruin.

Another place worth visiting is Malahide Castle, the home of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time of the battle, Richard Talbot. Known as Fighting Dick Talbot, he was close to King James. According to legend, on the morning of the battle 14 members of his family had breakfast together in the Great Hall, before going off to fight at the Boyne. All of them were killed in battle.

Shows a photograph of Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle. © Office of Public Works

On show in the Great Hall is a famous painting of the Battle of the Boyne by Jan Wyck as well as a portrait of Fighting Dick Talbot.

On July 1 1690, for the first time, two men crowned King of England faced each other in battle on either side of the River Boyne in County Meath.

James’s 30,000 men had a formidable defensive position with the fast flowing river between them and the enemy. His army also included French cavalry, some of the finest fighters in the whole of Europe.

Shows a painting of Richard Talbot of Malahide.

Richard Talbot of Malahide, attributed to Lely © National Gallery of Ireland

William’s professional army had the advantage of greater numbers and better equipment. While the Jacobites carried matchlock muskets and pikes, many of William’s soldiers had the superior flintlock muskets and bayonets.

The National Army Museum has information about the Battle of the Boyne in its Redcoats: The British Soldier Gallery. Highlights include a copy of the Jan Wyck painting as well as a very rare engraving of William’s army lined up on Hounslow Heath before the battle by Willem van de Velde.

There is also a display of a model battalion of the period including pikemen and grenadiers as well as an original musket, armour and medals.

shows an old painting of the British Army drawn up in formation on the Boyne Battlefield

See below for caption. © National Army Museum

William sent 10,000 men, commanded by Count Schomberg (son of the Duke) to attempt a crossing of the river at Rossnaree. The Jacobites mistakenly took this as William’s main attack and sent half their army to meet them.

The real action however was going on at Oldbridge, where James’ forces were outnumbered two to one. Some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand fighting of the day took place at the site of the ruined church and burial ground at Old Donore where the retreating Jacobites were forced to shelter.

Shows a colour photograph of a graveyard and tombstones

Donore graveyard © Office of Public Works.

Both armies fought in a confusing multitude of uniforms so it was difficult to tell who was who. In the melee William was almost killed by one of his own soldiers who pulled a pistol on him but realized his mistake just in time.

In the end the battle was a decisive victory for King William. The Jacobites retreated and James fled back to France where he died forgotten 11 years later in 1701.

The conflict raged on for a year in his absence but it was not really a matter of who would win but when.

Shows a photograph of replica cannons.

Replica cannons on display at Oldbridge Estate © Office of Public Works.

Bought in the wake of the Good Friday Peace Agreement by the Irish Government, the Battle of the Boyne battlefield on Oldbridge Estate in Drogheda comprises 503 acres. There is a temporary visitor centre on the site as well as a display of replica weapons including cannons, matchlock and flintlock muskets and swords.

Guided tours take place between May and September and there are weapons demonstrations every Sunday.

A new visitor centre is planned which will house any original artifacts recovered during archaeological excavations over the past few years as well as an audio visual and battle plan.

shows a silver medal with the image of King William III on it.

Silvered electrotype copy of medal commemorationg King William III at the Battle of the Boyne, 1690 © National Army Museum

Nearby Millmount Museum has a small exhibition on the Boyne, which includes a cannon and swords of the period and even boasts King William’s mace and sword.

The National Museum of Ireland is developing a major military gallery called Warfare in Ireland, devoted to warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries. It will cover four wars including the Williamite Wars, which will feature a section all about the Boyne.

Highlights on show will include the remnants of a Jacobite ammunition store including some 200 musket balls and a sword given to an Irish family by William of Orange. Based in the Collins Barracks, the gallery is due to open in November 2005.

The outcome of the Battle of the Boyne ensured the future of a protestant settlement in Ireland and, to this day, Protestant Orangemen celebrate the anniversary of the battle on July 12.

To find out more about the BBC television series visit the Battlefield Britain website.


Photo 12: The Grand Review of the British Army drawn up in battalion before the King, at the Encampment at Hounslow Heath by Willem van de Velde the Elder, 1687 or 1689 © National Army Museum

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