“And Our Enemies We’ll Scatter”: The Glorious Revolution and the Battle of the Boyne Considered
It is fair to say that England was in political (and religious) turmoil across the period 1530 to 1700. The ascendancy of the Stuarts was punctuated by an arduous and destructive civil war, which, in turn, saw the abolition and subsequent restoration of the monarchy. Suspicion towards the Roman Catholic faith remained abundant in this period, with many penal laws in place to prevent Catholics gaining high office. In such a climate, the announcement of the birth of a Catholic heir to the throne in June 1688 caused many Protestant ministers to panic. This article will consider the Glorious Revolution, looking at the primary participants, as well as the significance of the event. To do this, the article will particularly review the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, and this battle’s enduring significance within British history.
Charles II was officially crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland on the 29th May 1660, marking the return of the monarchy from exile. However, he failed to produce a legitimate heir, meaning his younger brother, James, succeeded him. In turn, James’s first marriage to Anne Hyde produced only two living female children, the Ladies Mary and Anne. This meant that, upon James’s accession in 1685, his heiress presumptive was his eldest daughter, Mary, married to the Protestant King William of Orange.
Upon taking the throne, James had created alliances with the Conservatives within Parliament to try and remove some of the penal laws upon Catholics. A practicing Catholic, James sought religious tolerance within England, feeling the restrictions unfair. As John Miller rightly asserts, however, one of the few things that the various factions within Parliament could agree upon was a distrust of Catholics. Therefore, James’s attempts to restore Catholicism stalled – until an announcement in 1688 shocked Parliament.
James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, was pregnant. Parliament was fully aware of the fact that, should the child be a boy, it would take Mary’s place as heir, meaning that England’s next King would also be a Catholic. This fear was confirmed in June 1688, when it was announced that Mary had given birth to a son, James. This dashed all hope of a swift return to Protestantism through Mary, and caused uneasiness within Parliament.
Very shortly after the birth of James Frances Edward Stuart, seven Protestant politicians sent a letter to Mary and William in the Netherlands. This letter invited the thirty-eight-year-old Dutchman, who was a respected and popular military commander, to intervene in England to stem the growth of Catholic power. A fervent Protestant, William accepted this offer and landed in England in November 1688. Almost overnight, James’s rule ended; though he commanded a 20,000-strong army, the majority of the men were Protestants, and chose to defect to William’s cause.
With the ‘abdication’ of James II, it appeared that this Protestant coup d’état had succeeded. Or had it?
The Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights
A key element of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ is the political and social change that it wrought. In February 1689, Parliament began to draft what eventually became known as the Declaration of Rights, which is also referred to as the Bill of Rights. This Bill listed the failures of James II before asserting the ‘ancient rights and liberties’ of the English people. These rights included the right of subjects to petition the king, free elections and free speech. It also included the statement ‘that levying money for or to the use of the Crown…without grant of Parliament…is illegal,’ hereby ending the constant, unfair taxation of earlier monarchs.
The Bill also confirmed the line of succession. First in line would be the children of Mary and William, followed by Princess Anne and her issue, before finally any subsequent offspring that William sired. This was important, because it confirmed that the heirs would be of the Protestant faith; it also continued the Stuart line of kings and queens. This meant that outsiders would be unable to consider William and Mary as usurpers, thereby reducing the likelihood of another civil war.
However, alongside affirming rights, the Bill of Rights also removed rights from a proportion of the population. The Bill permitted Protestants to carry weapons for self-defence, but not Catholics. It also stated that ‘it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a popish prince’, thereby excluding Catholics from the throne. The Bill of Rights, in conjunction with the penal laws which prioritised Protestant creeds over Catholicism, created a two-tier system where Catholics were lesser subjects; this was particularly true in Ireland, where the effects of such sectarianism are felt to this day.
Historiography debates the significance of this Bill of Rights, and debate increased following the tercentenary of the Bill in 1989. The political Left asserts that the Glorious Revolution and the Bill were insignificant: the real revolution had occurred with Oliver Cromwell and the overthrowing of the monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century. Others say that the Ancien Régime actually continued until 1836. However, most historians agree that the Revolution led to major changes within England, both politically and socially; as Miller argues, it led England to ‘develop a European and world role out of all proportion to her population and resources’.
Clearly, the Glorious Revolution changed the way Parliament conceptualised rights; it confirmed that absolutism had no place within government, and is considered the inspiration for the American Bill of Rights. Yet how far would the impacts of this Bill and this Revolution have affected a pre-Industrial Revolution population?
1690: The Battle of the Boyne
Whilst the Bill of Rights suggested that William and Mary had consolidated their power, peace was not guaranteed. Following his escape to France in December 1688, James II had commenced preparations for a battle. Support for James remained strong in Ireland, and so it was from here that James staged his attempt to regain the English throne. He landed on the south coast of Ireland in March 1689, and headed straight to Dublin. Most Irishmen and women sided with James – except for certain walled towns in the north, including the town of Derry.
Battlefield Britain, a BBC documentary produced in 2004 by historians Peter and Dan Snow, covers the siege of Derry in excellent detail. It explains how, when a Catholic garrison was sent to subdue Derry, apprentice boys slammed the city gates shut, thereby starting the siege. To the residents of the city, ‘their faith mattered more than loyalty to the king’ – even when the King came in person to demand surrender. And yet, despite a three-month siege which halved the population of Derry, James did not win: a late convoy of supplies sent by William of Orange saved the citizens from starvation, and reinforced the Protestants’ defiance. It ultimately indicated to William how determined the Irish Protestants were, and played an important factor in his decision to travel to Ireland in June 1690.
The two sides met at what is known as the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690. William’s army – called Williamites – was well-equipped and strong, yet made up of remarkably few British soldiers; Peter Snow asserts that William was not convinced that his new subjects had the heart to fight against their former king. Therefore, his 36,000-strong force was comprised primarily of Dutch, Danish and Prussian soldiers, as well as the Irish Protestants. In comparison, James commanded approximately 25,000 soldiers (referred to as Jacobites), most of whom were Irish Catholics or troops on loan from the French king, Louis XIV. Included in these troops was some of the best cavalry in Europe, and morale amongst the men was high. This was primarily due to the superior position James possessed; to fight, William’s men had to wade through the deep river, holding their gunpowder high in the air to keep it dry. They were, essentially, slow-moving ducks for James’s musketeers to pick off.
The battle hung in the balance for most of the day; despite William’s superior numbers, mistakes and the river kept him from an immediate victory. Indeed, James’s French cavalry held the fort at Oldridge for many hours, pinning down the crossing soldiers. This was despite the fact that James had taken two thirds of the army westwards, towards the 10,000 soldiers William had sent as a distraction. Only when 2,000 men in William’s cavalry joined the battle did it turn in William’s favour.
Although the Battle of the Boyne was not the end of the fighting between Williamite and Jacobite soldiers, this battle was decisive: the question now became not would the Protestants win, but when? It is unclear why James failed to return to support the cavalry and remaining infantrymen at Oldridge; before the battle was over, he had already started the hasty journey back to the safety of Dublin.
Historical Significance: The Commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne
Most battles in history are not commemorated; most have no lasting national significance, particularly those occurring in early modern Europe. The Battle of the Boyne is not one of these battles; instead, this battle is the symbol of victory for many in the North of Ireland.
Officially founded in 1795 in a time of fierce sectarian conflict, the Orange Order was created to show the members’ support for ‘the Crown, the country, and the Reformed religion’. It showcases its beliefs through parades, which involve biblical, historical, cultural and political symbolism. The Order is named after William of Orange, and uses an inaccurate portrait of him as their symbol; the members view him as a staunch defender of their faith. Although it began in, and is most associated with, Northern Ireland, the organisation spread to Scotland, Canada and parts of West Africa. It is in commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne that the Order marches annually on 12 July, referred to by many as the “Twelfth”.
The “Twelfth” marches very ostentatiously celebrate the victory of William of Orange over James II, therefore very literally the victory (and ensuing legal supremacy) of Protestants over Catholics. Unsurprisingly, this often leads to increased violence in the period running up to 12 July, with the police presence increasing accordingly. Tension has also grown in recent years, with the growth of the Catholic minority. The Orange Order parade routes are unchanged from its foundation; this is a problem, as many of the areas are now occupied by Catholics. A prime example of this is Drumcree in Portadown, where the march traditionally heads down the Garvaghy Road. The area is now a Catholic residential area, resulting in violent altercations during the marching season.
Therefore, the Battle of the Boyne has a very real, lasting significance in its annual commemoration in Northern Ireland. However, it is less clear how important the event is in wider Great Britain. Whilst cities such as Kingston-Upon-Hull have statues of King William (referred to locally as ‘King Billy’), there is little commemoration of the event of the Battle of the Boyne outside of Northern Ireland and some Scottish parades.
It is fair to say that the Glorious Revolution at the very least symbolised political and social change within Great Britain. The event led to the Bill of Rights, which confirmed the rights of free speech and the right to petition the monarch. The event is also seen as a break with the previous ‘Ancien Régime’ within Britain. However, the Revolution also confirmed the hegemony of Protestantism at the expense of Catholics’ rights. The Battle of the Boyne, whilst hugely important in establishing William and Mary’s rule, is scarcely remembered in the modern day, with the huge exception of Northern Ireland. Here, the Battle of the Boyne has essentially shaped the course of modern Irish history; though sectarianism’s roots can be traced back to Elizabeth I, the events of 1690 provided the symbolism needed for some Protestants to showcase their ‘superiority’. This has been important in helping some Protestants understand their national identity.
Written by Victoria Bettney
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