What I’m writing about this week, No1: the Siege of Carrickfergus
This is the first in a series of short blogs that is meant to give my readers an idea of what bits of history I’m writing about at the time. I’m going to try to do one a week, other novelistic duties permitting, and aiming to be informative and amusing. There may be a few spoilers but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum. Anyway, this week’s blog is about the Siege of Carrickfergus in August 1689.
First a little background: I’m writing the third novel in my Holcroft Blood series, which will be called Blood’s Campaign and will be published in November 2019. It concerns the Williamite Wars in Ireland (also known as The War of Two Kings) and I have my hero Holcroft Blood a brilliant and slightly autistic artilleryman travelling to Ireland with a large English army under General Fredrich-Hermann von Schönberg (aka the Duke of Schomberg) to fight the deposed James II, erstwhile king of the Three Kingdoms. James Stuart had been ousted by the Glorious Revolution the year before, when William of Orange was invited by a cabal of powerful Protestant English noblemen to come over from Holland and take the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland (as told in Blood’s Revolution, out October 2018). Schomberg arrived at Bangor Bay in mid-August 1689 and quickly surrounded the town and old Norman castle (see picture above) of Carrickfergus, about 12 miles northeast of Belfast.
The Irish garrison of about 500 well armed and well provisioned fighting men was holed up inside the fortified town and castle. Schomberg had more than ten thousand men outside the walls. The result of the siege was a forgone conclusion – Carrickfergus would fall. But the question was when.
James’s forces – backed by six thousand French troops sent over by the Sun King Louis XIV – were in retreat. They had besieged Derry/Londonderry for three months but the belated arrival of English troops had broken the siege and the Jacobites had been more or less expelled from Ulster, leaving only a few minor outposts and the garrison at Carrickfergus. Schomberg was eager to capture Carrick and begin his march south after the Jacobites, hoping to crush them in one decisive battle before the Irish winter put a stop to hostilities. He was an old man of 74, and although he was a famous half-German, half-English warrior, who in a spectacular career had fought for everyone and against everyone, he was now past his best.
Schomberg needed the siege to be over quickly so he could go after James’s retreating men. The Governor of Carrickfergus, Colonel Charles McCarthy More, had orders to hold out as long as he could. The Irish asked for a parlay – a time-wasting tactic – and when the talks came to nothing, they trained their cannon on Schomberg’s personal tent, blowing it apart the moment the parlay was ended. Schomberg escaped with his life but he was furious. This was an outrage; this, it seemed to him, contravened the gentlemanly etiquette of war. He ordered his artillery officers – including Holcroft Blood – to make a breach in the town walls as soon as possible. At the same time he had other detachments bombarding the castle and town, aided by several ships of the Royal Navy who were at anchor out in Belfast Lough. Many loyal, Protestant civilians were killed in the bombardment. Holcroft Blood (my semi-fictional hero) discovers that there are two French murderers trapped in the town, who killed a very dear friend of his, and disobeys orders to work his battery and make a breach, deciding instead to go after these two men himself and personally bring them to justice . . . I won’t say any more about this because I don’t want to spoil the story.
The Irish were ingenious in their methods to prolong the siege. They asked for more talks to discuss the surrender. They also drove a herd of cattle into the breach that the English guns had created, slaughtering them there so that their bodies formed a sort of meaty barricade (see below).
Eventually, of course, the rebel garrison had to surrender. But Schomberg was so eager to get them out of Carrickfergus that he allowed them to march out with all honours and their arms and baggage, drums beating and flags flying, and granted them safe passage to Jacobite-held Newry.
The siege was not so good for Holcroft Blood . . . but what happened to him is a blog for another day.