TO THE BANKS OF THE BOYNE I

Friedrich von Schomberg/Schönberg (1615–1690)

Parliaments, as William III was coming to appreciate with ever-growing clarity, could be troublesome things. He had watched with dismay as the proceedings of the English Convention had devolved into bitter wranglings over his revenue and as the Whigs had tried to hold up the promised Act of Indemnity, in an attempt to purge local government for good of their Tory rivals, and to confer an inbuilt majority for their own partisans in any future parliament. More disturbing to the Dutchman, who had the blood of the House of Stuart flowing through his veins, was the decision of MPs to turn the Declaration of Rights into law, transforming sentiments which William had been led to believe were merely the restatements of customary privilege into far more radical attempts to transfer power from the Crown to Parliament. By December 1689, the dispensing power – so closely identified with James II’s resurgent monarchy – had been declared illegal and removed from the arsenal of royal prerogatives. For a King who had hoped to pass on the throne with all its powers still intact to his eventual heir – at this point, likely to be his nephew, the little Duke of Gloucester, who had been born to Princess Anne in July and named in his honour – such moves came as a particularly heavy blow. They were interpreted by William as representing nothing more than a singular mark of ingratitude from a legislature that he alone had saved from ruin. Furthermore, while £2,000,000 had been earmarked by parliament in October 1689 for the prosecution of the war in Ireland, much of the money had already found its way into the seemingly bottomless pockets of the Chief Commissary, Henry Shales, whom some suspected of Jacobitism and all noted as showing utter indifference to the plight of the soldiers who sickened at Dundalk and Lisburn. Just as serious was the Whigs’ intention to use the question of supply for the war in order to tie the King’s hands, and to compel him to rubber-stamp their ambitious legislative programme, which included the remodelling of the boroughs. Even though the Corporation Bill eventually went down to defeat in the Lords in the new year, the threat to hold up the granting of loans for the war now compelled William to act in order to reassert his will, dissolving the Convention in February 1690 and calling for fresh elections, so that he might preserve both the power of the Crown and his chance of leading an army into Ireland during the forthcoming campaigning season.

With his envoys shuttling from one north German and Baltic court to the next in an attempt to hire troops, settle subsidies, and preserve the fragile patchwork of alliances that had maintained the League of Augsburg, William remained fearful that, in his absence, the States General of Holland might undertake to negotiate a separate peace with France. Louis XIV had taken the Dutch invasion and the overthrow of James II as the signal for the outbreak of hostilities with both England and Holland, though it was not until 5 May 1689, after the battle of Bantry Bay had actually been fought, that a formal declaration of war was delivered on behalf of the English, by William’s diplomats. Yet William’s luck held, with the allied generals slowly consolidating a series of gains along the disputed Rhine Valley, re-garrisoning the fortresses of Kaiserwerth, Cologne and Bonn, and inflicting a sharp rebuff to de Humieres at the battle of Walcourt in August 1689. Of far greater value was the ‘Grand Alliance’ concluded between the Dutch Republic and the Empire at The Hague, on 12 May 1689, and the successful courting of both Bavaria and Denmark over the summer months. By the following year, as William was preparing to sail for Ireland, alarm at Louis XIV’s territorial ambitions had driven Spain into the arms of the allies and persuaded Pope Innocent XI to advance large sums of money to finance the expedition. Further delays, resulting from the visceral electioneering of February and March 1690, had led William to despair of the inefficiency and faction that beset English politics, declaring that: ‘One loses patience in seeing the slowness of the people here in all they do, although I hurry from morning to night’. Nevertheless, the heavy defeat of the Whigs at the polls, and the return of large numbers of Tories to office – who, in their desire to secure place, privilege and the dominant position of the Established Church, had reconciled themselves to the revolutionary settlement – actually served to ease the pressure on the joint monarchy and permitted Queen Mary, clearly petrified at the prospect of taking executive power in her husband’s absence, to be gifted the services of Danby, the one familiar counsellor in whom she could trust.1 William, though often overcome with exasperation at his wife’s obtuse nature, had now good cause to be thankful for her gifts and for her ability both to soothe the tempers of the quarrelsome magnates who sat on her council, and to salve English national pride, which had been sorely dented by the flight of the native king and the importation of a foreign one. Indeed, if the slight, silent, and – more worryingly – Calvinist, William had distinctly failed to impress his new subjects, carrying with him always the dignified reserve of a stranger, then Mary fitted almost perfectly the Tory ideal of a monarch, English to the core and devoted with every fibre of her being to the rituals and doctrine of the Anglican Church. Almost entirely without guile, she combined the deference and modesty expected of a dutiful wife with feminine tact and good grace, and acted as a valuable counterbalance to her sister Anne, who was both attempting to found a rival polity based about her own Household, and preparing – under the tutelage of Sarah Churchill – to play the national card without the faintest trace of shame or scruple. It was this consideration, and the knowledge that her dull and moon-faced husband, Prince George of Denmark, had managed to change his allegiances within the space of the last year, with scarcely a blink or any certain reflection, that decided William upon taking his brother-in-law with him to Ireland, where he would be out of the way of temptation and, as a staff officer with no real responsibilities, could do no significant harm.

William had hoped to sail first to Scotland, thoroughly securing and pacifying that nation, before landing his reinforcements in Ireland. However, the winds dropped away, leaving his fleet stranded off the Cheshire coast for several days at the beginning of June 1690, and effectively removing all remaining possibility of the voyage north, while adding appreciably to the King’s mounting sense of frustration. William had been deeply disappointed by von Schomberg’s failure to press the campaign in Ireland to a successful conclusion. He had always valued the Marshal’s combination of far-sighted judgement and bluff bravery, but this unexpected reversal, coupled with what he believed to be the dereliction of duty among his general officers, only confirmed in him the desire to take the conduct of the war into his own hands. One of the most troublesome and intractable of problems was presented by the presence of James himself, for if he fell in battle his blood would surely be seen to cling to the hands of both his daughter and son-in-law, while if he was captured he might become as great a nuisance, and as forceful a rallying point, as he had been before his escapes from London and Rochester. Furthermore, it was the more personal and devastating vision of ‘how terrible it must have been’, if ‘my husband and my father would fight in person against each other, and if either should have perished in the action’ that tore at Queen Mary’s thoughts, as she agreed to the cancellation of a joint coronation in Edinburgh and chose to overlook the graffiti chalked on the gates of Kensington Palace – under cover of dark by some Jacobite wit – promising that by midsummer the place would be open ‘to let’ again to a new tenant. However, a plan had already been drawn up that seemed, at face value, to offer a solution to these problems, by endeavouring to lure James on board a 3rd rate which had supposedly defected from the Williamites, before weighing anchor and racing out of Dublin Bay, effectively kidnapping the hapless monarch and eventually landing him safely in either Spain or Italy, as he ‘should desire’, and pressing upon him some £20,000 for his future subsistence. Bishop Burnet believed that William ‘thought it was a well formed design, and likely enough to succeed; but would not hearken to it’, saying that he would have no hand in treachery and fearing that a scuffle might break out and shots be fired, once the subterfuge was discovered, which might have resulted in the former King bleeding his life away upon the decks of an English battleship. If James could not be dislodged from Ireland, in good conscience, without the use of force, then William was prepared to make clear to the House of Lords in January 1690, that high taxation and the ills currently afflicting his lands could only be curbed quickly by the ending of hostilities, while he was the only commander who was both fully willing and capable of delivering the knock-out blow. Thus, he declared, to expedite ‘the speedy recovery of Ireland … and to preserve the peace and honour of the nation, I am resolved to go in person’ to Ireland. However, had William been a suspicious general he might have felt – as the fog closed in about his yacht as soon as it got out into the Irish Sea, obscuring it from the anxious sight of the look-outs aboard its escorts – that the new campaign appeared to be extremely ill-starred. For days the convoy struggled to edge its way forward against prevailing winds, and it was only after sheltering in Ramsey Bay, at the north-west tip of the Isle of Man, early on 14 June 1690, that the King’s luck and the winds changed, with the gathering breeze suddenly filling sails and pushing the fleet on towards its destination. That same afternoon some 300 ships, troop transports, supply vessels and men-of-war, together with scores of rowboats and pleasure craft loaded with curious spectators, crowded into the harbour at Carrickfergus, as William III was slowly rowed ashore and the guns of the fleet answered the salute given by the cannon run out on the castle walls, intoning both a welcome obeisance and the thunderous intent of a second King who had arrived in Ireland to claim what he believed to be his by right.

Knowing that a fresh (and much more significant) challenge was to be launched against his power in Ireland that year, it is all the more remarkable that James had made no effort, in the intervening months available to him, to break the deadlock and destroy von Schomberg’s forces before they could be properly reinforced. He had spent the winter in Dublin, presiding over a little court which, with its attendant pages, gentlemen ushers, grooms, cooks and confectioners, attempted to replicate the functions and formulas of his old Household at Whitehall. College Green had become a fashionable area for courtiers to live, with the King’s faithful valet, de Labadie, moving quickly to take possession of a mansion sequestrated from Viscount Charlemont. Scurrilous tongues at Versailles would credit James with keeping two of his Irish mistresses – allegedly but poor creatures, all skin and bone – close by, while later aristocratic visitors to Dublin would accord him only the far more mundane honour of introducing spaniels into the land, and with popularising the breed, after a little pack of the animals was seen to be constantly trailing in his wake. Far more telling was the absence of goods and livestock from the capital’s markets, and the fact that the great estates and parklands had been swept long ago for horses with which to mount cavalry troopers and pull siege guns. James had attempted to enforce a blockade on the enemy’s ports and to disrupt von Schomberg’s naval communications, but he had refused to license privateers to disrupt English trade, and he could only lead his soldiers down to the quayside and look on as a helpless spectator as Sir Cloudisley Shovell seized the Pelican – the only frigate belonging to the Jacobite navy – after a brief fight in Dublin Bay and carried her back out to sea as a prize for his daring.

James had been troubled by the late arrival of the French fleet and resolutely clung to the belief that the landing of crack French regiments would not only restore the military balance in his favour, but also assist in the training of his own soldiers, providing the necessary reservoir of expertise that his army had hitherto struggled to make good. Though it seemed that the King had won his battle with Louvois to make a straight exchange, with numerical parity of forces on either side, he bitterly resented the attempt by the French military to strip his army of its best officers. Although James had never particularly cared for Sarsfield, whom he had considered stupid, he had grown to value his usefulness and bravery after his capture of Sligo, and refused to be parted from him. Conversely, the French had heard quite enough of the failings of the Hamilton brothers, from the pages of d’Avaux’s increasingly Jeremiah-like despatches, to want nothing to do with them, rejecting their services after James had offered them. It is conceivable that the King might have been prepared to send his son Berwick into France, if he could have been guaranteed the command of the Irish Brigade, but his allies were not inclined to trust such an important post to a youth, who although recognised as a promising and courageous officer, still lacked wide-ranging experience of independent action. The natural choice to lead the Brigade had been Justin Macarty, who was competent, well-bred and respected by both parties, but whose gifts would not outshine or provoke the jealousy of too many French officers in the constant search for preferment, honours and titles. Unfortunately, his capture at Newtown Butler had effectively removed him from the frame, until he chose to break his parole in the most controversial of manners, and rejoined a clearly delighted King James in Dublin in December 1689. From then on, it was Macarty’s hand that was to be instrumental in the shaping of the Brigade, bringing five heterogeneous foot regiments up to strength, and fighting hard to raise the issue of their pay and conditions with their new masters. The regimental names of Clare, Mountcashel and Dillon would win battle honours from Italy and the Alps to Catalonia, Flanders, and the Rhine over the next twenty-five years – their illustrious pedigrees finally being eclipsed only by the tide of Revolutionary warfare in France – but for the moment, as just over 5,000 unarmed men were herded aboard transports, the success of these first ‘Wild Geese’ to flee the shores of Ireland was far from certain, and their leaving was accompanied by ‘a great deal of howling’ and the wails of distraught families who feared, with good justification, that they would never see their loved ones again.

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