LivingTravelBoyne's Battle: Beyond the Myths

Boyne's Battle: Beyond the Myths

The Battle of Boyne may have taken place in 1690, but it remains one of the most iconic events in Irish history and as such is naturally surrounded by its own mythology. The event is so famous that many of the stories floating around this military clash fall far short of the historical truth of the Battle of the Boyne as it happened.

In short, the Battle of Boyne was a fight between the forces of William of Orange and the deposed King James II of Scotland, England, and Ireland. It was James who lost the battle along the River Boyne, near where the city of Drogheda stands today.

Setting the record straight also has some importance today because the battle is still remembered on July 12 each year by loyalists (mainly Northern Irish) with enthusiasm and colorful parades (including in the Republic of Ireland, in Rossnowlagh) ,

So let’s take a look at what we really know about the Battle of the Boyne, and separate the historical truth from traditional mythology.

When the Battle of Boyne took place

Here is the first stumbling block, because in reality, the date it is celebrated is incorrect. It wasn’t really fought on July 12: the Battle of Boyne, which ended with King William III’s victory over King James II, took place on July 1, 1690.

It is celebrated on July 12 simply because someone made a mistake in their calculations. In 1752, the change to the Gregorian calendar required a recalculation of all historical dates to determine anniversaries. July 1 (old style) actually became July 11 (new style).

As the wrong date is now enshrined in the loyalist tradition, it is believed to be historically correct. To add to the confusion of the date, many people mix the day of the decisive encounter of the Williamie Wars, the Battle of Aughrim, which was fought on July 12, 1691 (old calendar date), with the Battle of Boyne.

The question of Protestants and Catholics

To portray the battle as a religious conflict would be nowhere near the truth, although James II was hated by some of his opponents for his Catholicism and William III was often hailed as a Protestant savior, the battle was not about Rotestants against the Catholics.

William had the support of the Pope, and there the Catholics fought on both sides, as did the Protestants. In the end, it was all about politics, with some supporters even happily switching sides during the war. Political side, his religion did not change.

Ultimately, the war centered on the foundations of British society, and the choice between an absolutist or a parliamentary monarchy.

The White Horse

The color of the horse that William rode back in the day is traditionally considered white, but some historians dispute it (perhaps those who have too much free time). The current consensus seems to be that he was riding a dark horse.

However, it is even more unlikely that the king actually crossed the Boyne in triumph. He would have had to dismount and cross his horse. Less heroic pose, same result.

However, in loyal iconography, the image of King Billy (with an orange sash) on a white horse crossing the Boyne is immortal.

Was the Battle of the Boyne the decisive battle of the Williamsmite War?

Definitely not, even if crossing the Boyne was an important step in securing Dublin. But the Jacobite defeat was neither the end of the war nor the beginning of a series of knock-on victories.

The decisive battle of the Williamsmite Wars was the Battle of Aughrim (County Galway) in 1691. Interestingly, it fought on July 12… according to the old calendar. See above for combination of dates.

The battle was not over Ireland at all

Not really, although (most) Irish Catholics sympathized with their co-religionist James and would have grudgingly accepted an absolute monarchy in exchange for religious favors.

Ultimately, the battle was about a Scotsman and a Dutchman who beat him over the English crown in a foreign field. The Irish problems never really arose.

And Irish freedom wasn’t even mentioned.

Nor was it a battle over the Irish against the English. To begin with, most of James’s troops were Irish, and William’s army relied primarily on Anglo-Irish forces. Furthermore, James had the support of the French, providing nearly a third of his fighting force (to indirectly thwart the ambitions of France’s continental enemies). William’s force was even more diverse, with Dutch, German, French, and even Danish soldiers marching for him (and, in the case of the Danes, at least, cash).

Finnish mercenaries

William is sometimes reported to have won thanks to the support of Finnish mercenaries. This is another rather confusing notion: William was hired by the Danish king when he had to call off a war against Sweden due to insufficient support from his French allies. Like today, politics were certainly complicated and armies were expensive.

One of the regiments that served under William was the Fynske , from the island of Funen ( Danish Fyn ) in Denmark, occasionally and very loosely translated into English as the ‘Finnish’ regiment.

Celebrations of the Orange Order of the Battle of Boyne

Some would say that the Orange Order is a quasi-Masonic defensive association of lodges dedicated to preserving Protestant ancestry. However, they have not always celebrated the victory of the Battle of the Boyne, mainly due to the fact that the Orange Order is a much later creation.

But the (erroneous) anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne quickly became the center of celebrations for the Orange Order since its founding in 1795.

Did the Battle of Boyne involve massive bloodshed?

In reality it was not so: in proportion to the armies involved, the casualties were low. This had to do with both the inhospitable terrain and early decisions to retreat or fire at targets out of range.

The best academic guess puts casualties at around 1,500 in total, although the high-profile death of the Duke of Schomberg tends to overshadow all of this.

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