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Battle of the Boyne

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of the Boyne was a controversial military clash between the deposed King James II and his son-in-law and successor, William III, for the English, Scottish and Irish thrones. It took place on July 1, 1690 just outside of the town of Drogheda on Ireland's east coast. Though a minor miltary skirmish in reality, its symbolic importance has made it one of the most infamous battles in British and Irish history and a key part in Protestant and Catholic folklore.

Table of contents
1 The competing sides
2 Catholics and Protestants fought on both sides
3 'The Twelfth' in Ireland today: Reality & Myth

The competing sides

The opposing armies in the battle were led by the Roman Catholic King James II of England, Scotland and Ireland who had been deposed from his English and Scottish thrones in the previous year, but whose supporters still controlled much of Ireland and the Irish Parliament and his Protestant successor, the co-monarch William III (William reigned jointly with his wife, James's daughter Queen Mary II). James was a seasoned general that had proven his bravery when fighting for his brother - King Charles II - in Europe, whereas William, his son-in-law, was a seasoned commander and able general, but he was yet to win a full battle. His success against the French had been reliant upon tactical manoeurves and good diplomacy rather than force of arms. That all changed after the Boyne Water. After his defeat, James quickly returned to exile in France, even though both armies left the field relatively unscathed.

Catholics and Protestants fought on both sides

The battle represented the culmination of James's attempt to regain the thrones of England and Scotland, but is remembered (wrongly) as a decisive moment in the struggle between Protestant and Catholic factions - in fact both armies were mixed, and William Of Orange's own elite force - the Blue Guards - had the Papal Banner with them on the day. They were part of the League of Augsburg, a cross-Christian alliance designed to stop a French conquest of Europe. It was also the beginning of a long-running and ultimately unsuccessful campaign by James's supporters, the Jacobites, to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty rule to Britain. In terms of the war in Ireland, however, the conflict (now led by Jacobite captain Patrick Sarsfield upon James II's flight) metamorphisised into one for Irish independence.

The casualty figure of the battle must stand as the lowest ever for a battle of such a scale - of the 40 000 or so participants, under 2 000 died, mostly as a result of heat exhaustion. It was regarded in its time as a minor affair in Great Britain (the Anglo-Dutch fleet was all but destroyed by the French two days later off Beachy Head, a far more serious event) - only in Europe was it treated as a major victory. The reason for this was that it was the first proper one for the League of Augsburg, the first ever alliance between Catholic and Protestant countries, and in doing so William of Orange and Pope Innocent (its prime movers) scotched the myth - particularly eminating from the Swedes - that such an alliance was blasphemous, resulting in more joining the alliance & in effect ending the very real danger of a French conquest of Europe.

'The Twelfth' in Ireland today: Reality & Myth

Officially the reason why the Orange Order marches to commemorate the 12th July is due to the Battle of Aughrim that took place a year later - in which virtually all of the old native Irish Catholic and Old English aristocracies (dispossed of lands to accommodate the plantations under England and Oliver Cromwell) were wiped out during the melee that followed the chance death of the French commander of the Jacobite forces. However most people presume that what is being celebrated in William's "victim over popery at the Battle of the Boyne", even though the actual celebration is of the extermination of the natural leadership cadre of the native Irish, not the victory of the Boyne Water.

The Battle of the Boyne remains a controversial topic today, especially in Northern Ireland where Protestants remember it as a great victory over Catholics and responsible for the sovereignty of parliament and the 'protestant monarchy', while Catholics mourn it as a great disaster when the legitimate 'true' king sympathetic to Irish catholics and Irish nationhood was deposed in a protestant coup - both having more to do with each sides agendas and perspectives (dating back to trade feuds of the 18th Century) than any historical facts.

In the 1990s the date of the Battle of the Boyne has frequently caused confrontations as members of the Orange Order attempted to celebrate the date by marching through Catholic neighbourhoods. Part of the problem is due to population migrations caused by institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland in the mid 1900s which had made Northern Ireland, in the words of Ulster Unionist Party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble a "cold house for Catholics". Many Catholic communities resettled in areas outside protestant towns like Portadown, only to find the Catholic housing estates (like Gervaghy Road) located alongside a "traditional" Orange Order marching route. Other traditional routes for protestants lost their protestant population through protestant migrations, caused by sectarian attacks on the small local protestant community. Each side thus dresses up the disputes in terms of the other's supposed attempts to repress them; Catholics see Orange Order marches as provocative attempts to 'show who is boss' still, while Protestants insist they have a right to 'walk the Queen's highway' and see any attempt to deny them the right to walk through traditional routes used for centuries as an attempt to marginalise and restrict their 'freedoms' to celebrate their protestant identity earned in the Glorious Revolution settlement. Thus the battle is still very present in the awareness of those involved in the catholic-protestant rivalry in Ireland.