On 11 July 1690 (Gregorian calendar) the Battle of the Boyne was fought between King James II’s Jacobite army, and the Williamite Army under William of Orange. Despite only being a minor military victory in favour of the Williamites, it has a major symbolic significance.
The Battle’s annual commemorations by The Orange Order, a masonic-style fraternity dedicated to the protection of the Protestant Ascendancy, remain a topic of great controversy. This is especially true in areas of Northern Ireland where sectarian tensions remain rife.
The Glorious Revolution and King James II
Following on from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which William and Mary deposed Mary’s father King James II, James abdicated to France.
This abdication was a result of pressures from the Protestant majority of England, growing more and more frustrated at James’ attempts to slowly re-instate Catholicism to England.
However, James hadn’t given up on English rule, and thought that he could reclaim his power through the ‘backdoor’ of Ireland, where he would draw support from the Catholic majority there.
William landed troops in Belfast and intended to march on Dublin, in order to halt James’ attempts at gaining a foothold.
James’ army marched north from Dublin to confront William’s forces (which outnumbered his own by approximately 12,000 men), and set up defences to dig in along the south bank of the River Boyne, just west of Drogheda.
The Battle of the Boyne
With both sides poised for battle either side of the River Boyne James’ forces had gained a favourable strategic position.
William’s troops would have the cross the river under musket and cannon fire whilst keeping their own weapons and gunpowder as dry as possible.
By cleverly marching a minority of his troops west from Oldbridge, where the majority of James’ forces were initially stationed, William successfully tricked James into marching a significant portion of his troops to meet them.
He split James’ Jacobite troops and would go on to eventually cross the river at Oldbridge.
Despite James’ Irish horsemen and French cavalry (loaned to him by Louis XIV) threatening the crossing of Williamite troops, they were clearly overstretched, and the lack of Jacobite command structure led to the deterioration of James’ forces.
Consequences and legacy
As well as securing the fate of the Glorious Revolution of two years before, the Battle of the Boyne marked a significant turning point in the history of the English (later British) monarchy.
James II remains the last Roman Catholic monarch of England to this day.
In addition to the conclusion of the monarchy’s Catholic ties, James II is often regarded as the last monarch who sought absolute rule. Mary II and King William III accepted the primacy of parliament.
Perhaps the most tangible and long-lasting effect of the Battle of the Boyne comes in its significance to Protestant Irish Unionists, whose annual commemorations, often in close proximity to Republican areas, have often become associated with sparking sectarian violence characterised in the era of The Troubles.
It remains a confusion to some as to why the battle itself is actually commemorated on the 12 July and the night before, this is often thought to be due to a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
On these days, huge bonfires are lit as well as parades from Unionist marching bands with British flags.
Few battles as historic as the Battle of the Boyne hold such a visible legacy, and it is clear that it has an ongoing importance in both English and Irish society.
The battle’s sectarian connotations serve as a constant reminder of the role that religion has played throughout historical conflict.