Brandy & the Battle of the Boyne

An interesting and little known tale about the Battle of the Boyne from Wistorical!

battle of the boyne



Oldbridge, Duleek & Donore, County Meath, Ireland
Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland
Londonderry, County Derry, Ireland
Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Ireland
Versailles, France

Despite the grey mist that hovered above the banks of the Boyne that hot July morning in 1690, Captain John Stevens of the Jacobite army could clearly see the low hills where King William III’s forces were camped along the north side of the river. He was uncertain how many soldiers the Dutch monarch had mustered. Thirty or forty thousand perhaps?

The Jacobites were clearly outnumbered. Of that, Stevens had no doubt. They were also out-gunned and out-experienced. Yes, they could count on 6,000 French troops. And there were at least 1,500 Irish Catholic gentry who, after a year of war, now formed a series of highly organized cavalry regiments.

But otherwise, the Jacobites comprised of some 17,000 untested and poorly equipped peasants, armed with scythes, sharp sticks and the occasional virtually useless matchlock musket.

Faced with such long odds, King James II, commander of the Jacobites, ordered his men to spread themselves along the south side of the Boyne, with a primary focus on the ford at Oldbridge. From this position they might at least be able to prevent the Williamites advancing any further south on Jacobite-controlled Dublin. If they could hold William at bay, they might even be able to secure sufficient reinforcements to drive the Williamites back into Ulster.

‘But’, as Captain Stevens noted in his diary later that day, ‘no human policies are sufficient to stop the course of fate.’

Only two years earlier, Stevens had been working as an excise collector in Wales. A devout Catholic Englishman, contemporaries described him as ‘an honest, sober, young fellow, and a pretty scholar.’ He was also an ardent Jacobite and, following William of Orange’s invasion of England, he fled first to France and then, in May 1689, to Ireland.

By the time of the Boyne, he was in the Lord Prior’s Regiment, affiliated to the Knights of Malta, which was commanded by 16-year-old Henry Fitzjames, the youngest of James II’s illegitimate children.

A journal which Stevens wrote while on campaign in Ireland sold at auction in London in June 2010 for £43,000. One of the most important developments to emerge from this journal concerns Stevens’ observations on the Jacobite forces on the morning of the battle.

With mounting disgust, he noted that a huge number of men were sprawled unconscious along the riverbank and that the air reeked of brandy.

He explained how James had ‘appointed brandy to be distributed to each regiment’ in order to cheer the men ‘for the fatigue of the day’. However, there had been such a hold up in the delivery of the brandy that when the barrels finally arrived, the soldiers turned into a veritable mob. They abandoned their orderly lines, ripped the lids off the barrels and thrust their kettles into the alcohol-filled vats. And, as Stevens grimly noted, they ‘drank so extravagantly that I am sure above 1000 men were thereby tendered unfit for service, & most were left dead drunk scattered about the fields’.

Brandy was evidently a game-changer. Not long after Stevens first arrived in Ireland, a Williamite ship had managed to make its way up the Foyle to break the 105-day siege of Derry simply because the Jacobite gunners on the shore were so drunk on brandy that they couldn’t shoot straight.

Even as Stevens was surveying the drunken Jacobites, the Williamites began to execute their battle plan. A third of the army was dispatched west along the riverbank towards Slane. And the other two thirds hid in a wooded ravine behind a hill opposite Oldbridge which, to this day, is known as King William’s Glen. They hid. And they waited.

It was James II’s turn to play. James was the younger son of Charles I, the English king beheaded by Cromwell. In 1685, he succeeded to the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland. However, within four years, his pro-Catholic policies turned London’s Protestant elite against him and he was hounded out of his kingdom by his own nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, ruler of the Dutch Republic.

It is perhaps a measure of just how unpopular James had become that the leading men of his kingdom settled on a short, asthmatic, hunch-backed, Calvinist-educated and probably bisexual 40-year-old Dutchman as the solution to their woes.

But William was no bad choice. He was of Royal blood for he was a grandson of Charles I. He was also an extremely intelligent individual and the mastermind behind the League of Augsburg, a pan-European alliance designed to halt the land-grabbing ambitions of the French monarch, Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. And it was to the Sun King’s palace at Versailles that James fled when William’s army arrived in England in November 1688.

In February 1689, William and Mary were crowned King and Queen of England and Ireland. The Glorious Revolution was complete.

And then, on 12th March 1689, James stepped on-shore in Kinsale, Co. Cork, with a fleet of twenty French ships and a plot to regain his throne. His key ally in Ireland was Dick Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, whom he had appointed Lord Deputy in 1687. The fourteenth child of a bankrupt Catholic knight from Co. Kildare, Tyrconnell made his fortune as a property agent for Irish Catholics in exile in France during the 1660s. As Lord Deputy, he sent shockwaves through the Protestant community when he launched a purge of both the Irish army and political hierarchy, replacing Protestants with loyal Catholics.

By the time James arrived, the whole country bar Ulster was effectively in Catholic control. After a quick visit to Wexford to canoodle with his mistress, Catherine Sedley, the 57-year-old ex-king set off for Dublin. His sympathy towards Catholics had not gone unnoticed and everywhere he went, he was greeted by huge, cheering crowds. ‘Rural maids danced before him as he traveled’ while, in Carlow, he was ‘slobbered with the kisses of rude countrywomen so that he was forced to have them kept away’.

James entered Dublin triumphantly on Palm Sunday and the city’s guns fired in salutation. The Patriot Parliament, so called because of its Catholic majority, persuaded him to pass legislation to reverse the laws against Catholics and to restore them to their confiscated lands.

Ulster continued to resist the Catholic resurgence. In April, Tyrconnell’s army pushed north, driving the Protestant defenders back into their strongholds at Derry and Enniskillen.

Accompanied by 6,000 French troops, which had arrived courtesy of the Sun King, James rode north to Derry to try and coax the city’s submission. He was greeted with musket fire and cries of ‘No Surrender’.

When William learned that his father-in-law was in Ulster, complete with French assistance, he consulted Pope Alexander VII, co-founder of the League of Augsburg. Both men were deeply alarmed about the possibility of a new war front opening up with the French in Ireland. And so, in the first known military alliance between Protestant and Catholic powers, the Vatican threw its support behind the Orangeman’s proposed invasion of Ireland.

In the summer of 1689, William sent an army under the 75-year-old Duke of Schomberg across the sea to Ireland to relieve the sieges of Derry and Enniskillen. Job done, the Williamites held the line in Ulster and settled into a long, harsh winter during which several thousand died from pestilence and hunger.

By June 1690, the war seemed to have reached a stalemate. William decided to take control and, on 14th June, he arrived at Carrickfergus with 300 ships, carrying 16,000 fresh troops. These included his own elite Dutch Blue Guards as well as several highly disciplined regiments of Danish, German and French Huguenot mercenaries. Many were armed with cutting edge flintlock muskets. Amongst the artillery guns on board was one so powerful that it required twelve horses to pull it. The balance of power was now very much in the Williamites favour.

William quickly united with Schomberg where he was introduced to the Inniskillngs, the soldiers who had been battling the Jacobites on the Ulster frontline for the previous year. William was impressed by the determination of these Scots-Irish Protestants settlers who clearly understood that a victory for James would lead to the collapse of their entire way of life.

William set his sights on Dublin and began to march south. James advanced north to meet him and lined his forces along the Boyne west of Drogheda.

No July 12th parade is complete without someone riding a white horse, pretending to be King Billy. William’s horse was in fact a bay. The concept of the white horse descends from a somewhat fantastical portrait by the Dutch artist Jan Wyck in which William, clad in long black boots and a richly embroidered pink and gold coat, leads his stallion into battle, sword outstretched. The painting with this post is by another Dutch artists, Jan van Huchtenburg.

Orange lore also has him trotting along the lines of his loyal troops on the eve of the battle roaring Braveheart-style, ‘What will you do for me, brave boys? For God shall be our King this day, and I’ll be general under’.

As it happens, William kept his distance during the battle. This was in no small part due to a close call the day before when, while sounding out possible places to cross the Boyne, a volley from the Jacobite artillery struck home and lodged a piece of shrapnel into William’s shoulder, drawing drew ‘near half a spoonful of blood’.

James was in his headquarters in the church on Donore Hill when he learned that William’s army seemed to be advancing towards Slane. In younger years, he might have considered his options. He was after all the man who effectively created the Royal Navy. And as Duke of York, he had won the American port of New Amsterdam from the Dutch; the port was renamed New York in his honour.

However, age and stress had come to bear and James duly fell for the ploy. He sent the bulk of his army in pursuit, including the 6,000 Frenchmen and most of his artillery.

As the Jacobites abandoned Oldbridge, William whipped out his trump card. Led by the Dutch Blue Guards, a further 26,000 soldiers advanced towards the river and began to wade across, weapons held high above their heads. It was low tide but the numbers were such that the water rose to their armpits.

Realizing the ruse too late, the Jacobites began a hasty counter-attack. A suicidal charge by the Irish Guards left 150 men dead, but the Jacobite cavalry fared considerably better with no less a soul than Tyrconnell wielding his sword and urging them on.

Perhaps eager to match Tyrconnell’s daring, Schomberg then made a move of uncharacteristic folly and advanced into the middle of the river to rally his troops. He was joined by the Rev. George Walker, who had shot to fame with his “No Surrender” cry during the Siege of Derry. All too soon, the duo were surrounded by Jacobite horsemen. Shot at close range in the back of his neck, the elderly Duke died shouting ‘huzza!’ When William heard of their deaths, he shook his head and asked ‘why were they there, the fools?!’

Nonetheless, the Dutch Guards and Huguenots quickly secured Oldbridge, formed themselves into disciplined lines and began unleashing concentrated volleys at the Jacobite cavalry. Tyrconnell’s horsemen showed tremendous pluck and charged at the lines, scattering the infantry, driving them into the river. ‘My poor Guards’, groaned William as the battleground became a melee of whirling bayonets, crackling gunfire and blood-curding screams.

The battle at Oldbridge wore on for three hours on this ‘excessive hot day’ during which William’s Dutch Guards fought ‘like angels’. At length, the Williamite cavalry came to the rescue, suffering considerable losses in their initial charge. Gradually they pushed the Jacobites backwards so that James’s exhausted forces were finally, and devastatingly, ordered to retreat. The cavalry fought a rearguard action all the way to Duleek, via Donore, constantly wheeling their horses around and charging once more into the breach with considerable loss of life.

That said, the casualties weren’t high by the standards of the day, largely because the Jacobite cavalry shielded their troops from what would otherwise have been a massacre. James lost perhaps 1,500 men and William was down 500. Compare that to the 9,000 who died at Aughrim a year later. However, the importance of the Boyne was that the retreat broke the Jacobite spirit. The soldiers realized they were out-numbered and out-classed and began deserting in droves.

Particularly devastating to men like Captain Stevens was the behaviour of the Jacobite commanders who fled the field in front of their men. Indeed, Stevens noted how leadership was utterly lacking throughout the battle. ‘No General Officer above a Brigadier was seen among us’, he complained, ‘&, which is very rare, among us no word was given.’

While Stevens was too loyal to criticize James, the former king also destroyed his good name when he too took flight without addressing his men, making his way back to Kinsale and thence to France. The icon of Irish Catholic hopes soon became known as ‘Seamus a’ chaca’, or ‘James the shit.’

William’s victory was of huge significance to the European efforts to contain the Sun King. It also put an end to the hopes of Irish Catholic seeking to regain their lands in Ireland. In Dublin, the laws passed by the Patriot Parliament were declared null and void while the first Penal Laws came into effect under an increasingly hard-line Protestant administration.


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