Battle of the Boyne: myths and misconceptions

It was only when I began to research Blood’s Campaign – the third book in the series about my distant relative Holcroft Blood, a talented English artillery officer, which comes out in hardback this week – that I realized almost everything I had assumed about the Battle of the Boyne was wrong.

The battle forms the centerpiece of my novel about the 17th-century Williamite Wars in Ireland and Holcroft Blood’s part in them. However, before I started working on the book I only had a vague idea about the details of the struggle that took place on the banks of the slow, peat-brown river (below) near Drogheda between the armies of William of Orange and James Stuart for mastery of the British Isles in July 1690. 

My mental headlines went something like this: Battle of the Boyne: Protestant English army triumphs over Catholic Irish; terrible slaughter wrecks the hopes of Stuart dynasty for all time in one decisive day.

Thanks to a great deal of background reading, some excellent advice from experts, and a trip to the battlefield in July 2017 – if you find yourself near there, make sure you go to the Visitor Centre,, which is superb – I have improved my knowledge of not only that particular battle but the long, brutal war that was fought all over Ireland between 1689 and 1691.

So this blog is about my misconceptions. Firstly, it wasn’t just the English against the Irish: King William’s army (about 36,000 strong) had many English regiments but also units recruited from Ulster and large numbers of Dutch troops, including his famous Blue Guards, perhaps the best troops in Europe at the time. He also had substantial Danish, German and Huguenot contingents. King James’s army (roughly 24,000 men) contained about 7,000 Frenchmen. And there were many Catholics and Protestants on both sides.

William and Mary
King William and Queen Mary

Moreover, the Boyne wasn’t a decisive military encounter. In fact, and I discovered this, foolishly, after I had actually begun writing the novel, it wasn’t even a particularly important battle, in the wider scheme of things. 

Compared to the massive conflicts in mainland Europe between Louis XIV, the despotic Sun King, and, well, everyone else – the Dutch, the Austrians, the English, the Spanish, the Holy Roman Empire, etc (known as the Nine Years’ War), the Boyne was a relatively unimportant sideshow.

A few days before the fight on the Boyne, the French enjoyed a crushing naval victory over the Anglo-Dutch fleet off Beachy Head. On the same day as the Irish battle, in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), at the Battle of Fleurus, the Duc de Luxembourg, a Marshal of France, thrashed Prince Waldeck’s Allied force. To give an idea of the comparative scale of the two land battles, at Fleurus, there were about 17,000 casualties; at the Boyne only a total of about 2,250 men were killed or wounded.

That is not to say the Battle of the Boyne was not an appalling bloodbath for those unfortunate enough to have taken part in it. 

The Jacobites, commanded personally by James Stuart, were occupying positions along the south bank of the river, concentrated around a hamlet called Oldbridge, three miles west of Drogheda and about thirty miles north of the Irish capital. James had declared that “the Boyne is the walls of Dublin” but the Stuart King was very concerned that the William would manoeuvre around his left flank and come behind him, cutting off his line of retreat. He gave orders on the eve of battle that the baggage should be packed up and ready to make a speedy departure the next day, if necessary. 

The next morning, just before dawn, Williamite troops were in sight on the ridge above the northern bank of the Boyne. And James saw the dust of thousands of enemy troops heading to the west along the road. The Stuart King, believing this to be a much larger force than it truly was, gave orders for a large part of his own army, including some of his finest (French) troops to head west to stop the Williamites getting behind him. 

It was a grave error. In fact, William had only sent 7,000 men to the west, initially, although he later sent more. By trying to counter it, James fatally weakened his own centre at the hamlet of Oldbridge. 

Jan Wyck’s painting: Battle of the Boyne (from the north bank of the river)

At nine o’clock, the English artillery (on William’s right flank, just above the ford over the Boyne at Oldbridge, see painting above) opened up; my distant cousin Captain Holcroft Blood commanding some of the big guns. The barrage lasted for an hour and destroyed Oldbridge and, while the dazed and battered Irish defenders were still coming to their senses, William sent in his elite Blue Guards to capture the ruins. 

The Dutch Blue Guards marched across the ford in the Boyne in a slow, tramping column, into the furious musket fire of the surviving Irishmen. The Dutch casualties at the ford were horrendous, but the Blue Guard kept on advancing, magnificently disciplined, and eventually they took Oldbridge after an hour or so of brutal hand-to-hand fighting. 

Further east, other contingents of William’s army, Englishmen, Danes and Huguenots, were also crossing the shallow river. And despite a courageous defence all along the line, and notable gallantry by the Jacobite cavalry, who attacked the oncoming Williamite hordes again and again, the Irish were overwhelmed everywhere and forced to pull back. 

Over in the west of the battlefield, at a place called Roughgrange, the two sides found themselves separated by a deep, impassable ravine – and French troops stared at English redcoats without firing a single shot.

When James, at Roughgrange, heard that William’s men had crossed the Boyne in many places, he gave the order to retreat to Dublin. At a narrow bridge over the River Nanny at Duleek, about five miles south of Oldbridge, which soon became a dangerous bottleneck, the French infantry rearguard formed up and bravely fended off the English cavalry long enough for the bulk of James’s beaten army to escape to the south. 

Re-enactor at the Boyne Visitor Centre: a Williamite cavalryman

The Battle of the Boyne was over. But thanks to the escape of the majority of James’s army, the Irish were able to fight on for another fifteen months, during which several major battles were fought. At last, the defiant Jacobites finally surrendered and signed the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691. Many of the troops were allowed to leave Ireland and go into exile in France, an episode known to history as the Flight of the Wild Geese.

The war in Ireland was not ended at the Boyne, as I had assumed, not by a long chalk, but it was certainly over for James Stuart. He fled back to the protection of Louis XIV in the days immediately after the battle – earning himself the derisive Gaelic nickname of Séamus an Chaca among the troops he deserted, which means “James the Shit”.

James II never again attempted to win the thrones of the Three Kingdoms by force of arms. But the Stuart cause was not dead: his son, James, the Old Pretender, made another attempt in 1715, and his grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie, (below) too, brought rebellion to Britain in 1745.

So the bloody fight at the Boyne was not at all the battle I had though it was. But it was, nonetheless, a fascinating and moving slice of history to get to grips with as a novelist. And I don’t regret for a minute discovering the truth. I only hope I have done justice to the struggle and sacrifice of so many brave men – on both sides of the river – in Blood’s Campaign

Blood’s Campaign is available in hardback from all good bookshops and from Amazon. Click here to buy a copy.

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