Northern Ireland: 10 Key Facts You Need To Know About The Battle Of The Boyne

Orangemen lead the main parade in Belfast in 2016
Orangemen lead the main parade in Belfast in 2016 CREDIT: PAUL FAITH

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On July 12 each year, the Battle of the Boyne is commemorated by Orange Men walking through the streets of Northern Ireland.

The battle was not really fought on July 12th – the Battle of the Boyne, ending with the victory of King William III over King James II, took place on July 1st, 1690 – 30 miles north of Dublin, across the River Boyne at period known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

The Battle marked a turning point in Protestant history in the country. Over the years the day has also been marked by sectarian violence between pro-Unionist groups and pro-Republican forces.

The Battle of the Boyne (Irish: Cath na Bóinne IPA: [ˈkah n̪ˠə ˈbˠoːn̪ʲə]) was a battle between the forces of the overthrown King James VII and II of Scotland, England and Ireland and those of Dutch protestant Prince William of Orange who, with his wife Mary II (his cousin and James’s daughter), had just acceded to the Crowns of England and those of Scotland.

Every year, on 12 July and the night before, some Protestants in Northern Ireland light towering bonfires, hold street parties and march through the streets to celebrate an event that took place more than 300 years ago.

This event, William of Orange’s crushing victory over James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, was to mark a major turning point in Irish and British history and its ramifications are still being felt today. Here are 10 facts about the battle.

1. The battle pitted the forces of a Protestant Dutch prince against the army of a deposed Catholic English king

William of Orange had deposed James II of England and Ireland (and VII of Scotland) in a bloodless coup two years before. The Dutchman had been invited to overthrow James by prominent English Protestants who were fearful of his promotion of Catholicism in the Protestant-majority country.

2. William was James’ nephew

Not only that but he was also James’ son-in-law, having married the Catholic king’s eldest daughter, Mary, in November 1677. After James fled England for France in December 1688, Mary, a Protestant, felt torn between her father and her husband, but ultimately felt that William’s actions had been necessary. 

She and William subsequently became co-regents of England, Scotland and Ireland.

3. James saw Ireland as the backdoor through which he could reclaim the English crown 

Unlike England, Scotland and Wales, Ireland was overwhelmingly Catholic at that time. In March 1689, James landed in the country with forces supplied by the Catholic King Louis XIV of France. In the months that followed, he fought to establish his authority over all of Ireland, including its Protestant pockets.

Eventually, William decided to go to Ireland himself to assert his power, arriving at the port of Carrickfergus on 14 June 1690.

4. William had the support of the pope

This might seem surprising given that the Dutchman was a Protestant fighting a Catholic king. But Pope Alexander VIII was part of the so-called “Grand Alliance” opposed to Louis XIV’s warring in Europe. And, as we have seen, James had the support of Louis.

5. The battle took place across the River Boyne

After arriving in Ireland, William intended to march south to take Dublin. But James had established a line of defence at the river, around 30 miles north of Dublin. The fighting took place near the town of Drogheda in eastern modern-day Ireland.

6. William’s men had to cross the river – but they had one advantage over James’ army

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With James’ army situated on the Boyne’s south bank, William’s forces had to cross the water – with their horses – in order to confront them. Working in their favour, however, was the fact that they outnumbered James’ army of 23,500 by 12,500. 

7. It was the last time that two crowned kings of England, Scotland and Ireland faced each other on the battlefield

William, as we know, won the face-off, and went on to march to Dublin. James, meanwhile, abandoned his army as it was retreating and escaped to France where he lived out the rest of his days in exile. 

8. William’s victory secured the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland for generations to come

The so-called “Ascendancy” was the domination of politics, the economy and high society in Ireland by a minority of elite Protestants between the late 17th century and the early 20th century. These Protestants were all members of the Churches of Ireland or England and anyone who wasn’t was excluded – primarily Roman Catholics but also non-Christians, such as Jews, and other Christians and Protestants.

9. The battle has become a key part of the folklore of the Orange Order

The was founded in 1795 as a Masonic-style organisation committed to maintaining the Protestant Ascendancy. Today, the group claims to defend Protestant liberties but is viewed by critics as sectarian and supremacist.

Every year, members of the Order hold marches in Northern Ireland on or around 12 July to mark William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne.

10. But the battle actually took place on 11 July

Although the battle has been commemorated on 12 July for more than 200 years, it actually took place on 1 July according to the old Julian calendar, and on 11 July according to the Gregorian (which replaced the Julian calendar in 1752).

It is not clear whether the clash came to be celebrated on 12 July due to a mathematical error in converting the Julian date, or whether celebrations for the Battle of the Boyne came to replace those for the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, which took place on 12 July in the Julian calendar. Confused yet?


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