King Billy

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Volume 12

Overwinning van Kon. Willem De III-Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe depicts a cavalry míªlée in Oldbridge, endowed with unlikely-looking sturdy peasant houses and a steeple. An Irish trooper is shooting Schomberg the elder (numbered ‘11', left of centre) in the back of the head. (Stichting Atlas Van Stolk, Rotterdam)

Overwinning van Kon. Willem De III-Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe depicts a cavalry míªlée in Oldbridge, endowed with unlikely-looking sturdy peasant houses and a steeple. An Irish trooper is shooting Schomberg the elder (numbered ‘11′, left of centre) in the back of the head. (Stichting Atlas Van Stolk, Rotterdam)

Padraig Lenihan assesses William of Orange’s performance at the Battle of the Boyne.

When he painted William of Orange, as he did so many times, Jan Wyck (1652–1700) was especially fond of posing his hero gripping a sword in his right hand, looking at the viewer, and sitting calmly atop a rearing white horse. The battlefield of the Boyne in the early afternoon almost certainly forms the backdrop of the example reproduced on the front cover. Blue-clad Dutch foot guards and the red-coated Huguenot, English and north Irish infantry regiments are packed into columns and blaze away, and long sinuous columns of Williamite horsemen slip by them. The image is of course idealised. William rode a dark horse at the Boyne before the poor animal sank to its haunches in riverside mud. If William wielded a sword at all (some accounts say he carried a baton) he carried it in his left arm because his right shoulder was bruised and stiff where a cannon ball grazed him the day before.

What made a hero?

All the same, this hackneyed image captures a real truth. William was brave, though even his admirers (in this case the Huguenot historian Rapin de Thoyras, who probably fought at the Boyne) doubted William’s competence: ‘His genius lay chiefly to war, in which his courage was more admired than his conduct’. But courage mattered too. Seventeenth-century battle demanded prudence and delegation on the part of the general, except in the crisis or turning-point, when inspirational, conspicuous and hazardous displays of calmness were expected. Two examples will suffice.
When the infantry attack across the Boyne stalled shortly after noon on Tuesday 1/11 July, William personally led cavalry squadrons up Donore Hill. When eyewitnesses speak of him ‘leading’ they do not mean that he rode in front right up to contact with the enemy. Rather they mean that he pressed ahead and displayed what one trooper admired as ‘coolness’ (calmness and fortitude rather than homicidal fury represented the contemporary ideal of heroism) by unflinchingly enduring the first volley from the enemy ‘without breaking his horse’s pace’. At the last moment he pulled aside to bring up another body of horsemen. Misunderstanding him, the north Irish horsemen also wheeled aside, and in the dust and confusion of converging attacks rode down other Allied cavalrymen, Dutch or Danish. Most of the Allied casualties at Donore can be blamed on what we call nowadays ‘friendly fire’. William III was nearly one of them. A north Irish horseman pointed a cocked pistol at him until William cried out, ‘What, are you angry with your friends?’ (It was just as well William spoke fluent English.)
William gave another notable performance of fortitude in a crisis three years later at the battle of Neerwinden or Landen (1693). He spent most of the day ‘at a great distance from the place of action’ until his battle lines began to buckle under attack. Then he rode to the very front. Rapin de Thoyras again:

He got more honour that day, than even when he triumphed at the Boyne. He charged himself in several places, and was in the midst of the most imminent dangers; many being shot around him with the enemies’ cannon, and himself escaping no less than three musket shots, one through his peruke [wig] which deafened him for some time, another through the sleeve of his coat, and a third which carried off the knot of his scarf and left a small contusion on his side.

So much for his courage. But what of William’s ‘conduct’? To envelop, trap and destroy the Franco-Irish army demanded reasonably skilled scouting, coordination of movement (the pocket-watch was quite a recent innovation) and realistic estimates of how long a march would take. I will argue on the basis of his record before and after the Boyne that William just did not have these qualities. The best a modern biographer, indeed hagiographer, Nesca A. Robb, can do is to insist that ‘his military record is by no means contemptible’.

William’s record

For a quarter-century, from 1672 to 1697, Louis XIV fought coalitions of neighbouring states. The heaviest fighting took place in the eastern half of the Spanish Netherlands, where the French tried to grind their way, town by town, towards the Dutch United Provinces. (Sarah Gearty)

For a quarter-century, from 1672 to 1697, Louis XIV fought coalitions of neighbouring states. The heaviest fighting took place in the eastern half of the Spanish Netherlands, where the French tried to grind their way, town by town, towards the Dutch United Provinces. (Sarah Gearty)

For a quarter-century from 1672 to 1697, broken by a decade of phony peace, Louis XIV fought coalitions of neighbouring states comprising the Dutch, Spanish, varying numbers of German states, and latterly England. The heaviest fighting took place in the eastern half of the Spanish Netherlands (above), where the French tried to grind their way, town by town, towards the United Provinces. As stadholder or head of state over the United Provinces William III was the linchpin of these anti-French alliances and, more often than not, commanded the allied armies in battle.

In doing so he tended to repeat the same mistakes. In August 1674 William and the legendary French commander Condé lay close near Charleroi. The Dutch and their Spanish allies planned to sidestep Condé near the village of Seneffe and to threaten his supply routes. But rather than detour around a thick belt of woodland, William took the advice of a Spanish senior officer and cut through a track on the inner side of the wood that could in fact be overlooked from the nearby French camp. Not believing his luck, Condé swooped down on the rearguard, still filing along the narrow track, and captured the entire baggage train. William regrouped and held his ground. Writing to his grandmother, he consoled himself that the French ‘gained not an inch of ground from us’ in a twelve-hour battle that did not peter out until moonlight shone on the carnage. No one was better than William III at retrieving hopeless situations. Or at falling into them. One might reasonably blame the Spanish officer who offered such woefully bad advice (William certainly did), but next year William perpetrated exactly the same mistake. He left his rearguard to be mauled, and but for the slowness of the French commander, Herman von Schomberg (who ironically would be William’s second-in-command at the Boyne), ‘it might have proved a second Seneff for the prince of Orange with his army was far off’.
The next example, exceptionally, took place in west Flanders, just across the French border. In 1677 William of Orange marched to relieve the siege of St Omer but was blocked by a French army of about the same size at Mont Cassel. Here he failed to scout and find that not one but two streams lay across his line of advance. In the words of the earl of Castlehaven, he found himself ‘fighting on ground he knew not and where he met with rivers and defiles or narrow ways that he never heard of’. William did not make full use of all his manpower, leaving eight or ten cavalry regiments behind the first stream throughout the day. He hurried on to a bridge over the second stream, his men ‘ill drawn up and easy to be broken’. The French, under the usually languid and uninspired leadership of Louis XIV’s younger brother, were ‘offered too fair an occasion’. They quickly attacked the allied left wing. That precipitated a Dutch stampede, with William spurring his horse into the throng and laying about him with his sword, desperately trying to rally the fugitives. With his left wing crumbling, William skilfully extricated the rest but lost up to 10,000 men killed or captured, and all his artillery and baggage.
Round two of the long war threatened to go no better for William III. He lost the citadel of Namur, perched at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse, in 1692. In revenge he sought to impose battle on Luxembourg’s somewhat smaller army. The French campsite (such sites were usually linear in shape) at Steinkirk was anchored on a river to the right, while a large wood covered the left and centre of the campsite. These obstacles forced William to attack on a narrow frontage against the French right. But such a plan of attack was fundamentally flawed. A single-pronged attack could not work, at any rate once the initial advantage of surprise was lost: ‘he [William III] could not expect to beat a whole army in one point’, commented James II’s bastard son, the duke of Berwick, then fighting for the French. If the plan was flawed, the execution was ham-fisted. The pre-battle march was a ‘total mess’, in Child’s characteristically robust judgement. The vanguard of English and Danish troops, led by the German soldier of fortune the duke of Württemberg, pushed on at a snail’s pace: they took all of seven hours to clamber 14km over a plateau where small streams had etched ravines cutting across their line of march. William’s kinsman Count Solms, ‘proud, haughty’ and not very bright, led the main body, which lagged behind the vanguard, largely because William sent it off so late, at daybreak. When Württemberg appeared in front of the French camp between 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning he faced only a rather smaller mass of defenders hastily cobbled together. The French, taken by surprise, might have crumpled under a quick and determined attack, but William had ordered the vanguard to halt, deploy in line of battle and wait for Solms. He sent only seven battalions and it took them three to five hours to struggle through the congestion and obstacles. Nothing would convince the English that Solms did not deliberately hold back to let the English in the vanguard be slaughtered. The true reason was less sinister. Solms deployed prematurely from marching column to battle line, some 2km behind Württemberg. To engage in the battle would necessitate painfully reforming his infantrymen, marching forward and deploying again, a matter of hours. Instead, Solms sent horsemen forward. They were worse than useless on ground where, complained Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, ‘the French had such a nation of hedges, and copses, and ditches, and fell’d trees laid this way and that to cover them’. While Luxembourg threw in his crack troops to overwhelm the Anglo-Dutch vanguard, William was ‘at a great distance, without making any motion’. He should have gone up earlier to chide, to encourage, and to disentangle the lumbering columns. Instead, ‘in great passion’ he ‘bit his nails, and with tears in his eyes said, that he could not have his orders obeyed’. Even a hagiographic account cannot entirely gloss over the muddle as William III belatedly tried, in person, to push his troops forward: ‘The eagerness of the soldiers to follow their Royal Leader and to engage the enemy was such that they put themselves in some disorder . . . they were forced to retreat in great confusion’.
Ultimate responsibility for mistakes like that lay not with subordinates like Solms but with William. He was a second-rate battlefield general. His plans were uninspired and he often fumbled their execution when moving his army to contact with the enemy. His limitations influenced the outcome of the Battle of the Boyne.

Attack manoeuvres

The Battle of the Boyne-the outcome was not clear-cut. (Sarah Gearty)

The Battle of the Boyne-the outcome was not clear-cut. (Sarah Gearty)

The outcome at the Boyne was not clear-cut. William did not deliver a killer blow to the Jacobite army. We may dismiss the suggestion of his spin-doctor, Bishop Burnet, that William was crippled by scruples because capturing the hapless James II, his uncle and father-in-law, ‘would be a vast trouble’. He desperately wanted to finish his campaign in Ireland, and the more crushing the victory the more likely he was to achieve that over-riding aim. To do so he could try one of three types of attack.

The first was the frontal attack. In its crudest form as a ‘general’ attack, opposing lines faced each other and one or other side marched forward simultaneously all along the enemy line of battle (these were not unbroken lines; gaps yawned between regiments standing in line).

If there was a typical battle it involved a subtler variant of a frontal attack, having first weakened a vulnerable point in the other line by drawing troops away to meet attacks elsewhere along the line: the Williamites at Aughrim did something like that. But if the frontal attack did not punch right through the enemy’s first and second lines he might very well pull back in good order. The second manoeuvre, the flank attack, exploited the fact that battalions were much wider than they were deep and faced one way—ahead. If a longer line overlapped the shorter and turned inwards, more men facing the right way would overwhelm fewer men now facing the wrong way.
However, to destroy the Jacobites at the Boyne, William III should really have ‘enveloped’ or surrounded them, the third attacking manoeuvre under discussion. After all, James II had obligingly put his army in a box defined by a tongue of the Boyne to his front, the Irish Sea to his right and Roughgrange ravine to his left. Worse, the Nanny River stretched across his rear, a narrow but impassable river with only one crossing-point close by: it would take 25,000 retreating soldiers at least two hours to squeeze across Duleek bridge, where ‘not above six can go abreast’.
When I say that William should have enveloped the Jacobite army, I do not mean ringing them with a cordon of troops but rather cutting off their line of retreat. Envelopment promised a big pay-off but carried high risks. The enveloping force moved out of direct contact with the rest of the army, which typically stayed facing the enemy. For some hours (a march around and behind an enemy line could hardly be shorter than six miles) the attacking force was divided and courted defeat ‘in detail’, that is, by locally superior numbers. Minimising the risk demanded speed and coordination. Contemporary generals could rise to this challenge. At Fleurus, twelve days before the Boyne, Luxembourg brought the greater part of his army curling around and behind a Dutch army with devastating effect. But William was no Luxembourg.

The Boyne

‘He scorns wounds and rough paths'-a contemporary commemorative medal depicting William crossing the Boyne.

‘He scorns wounds and rough paths’-a contemporary commemorative medal depicting William crossing the Boyne.

William’s army appeared in successive packets on the north bank of the Boyne from late morning to evening on Monday 30 June/10 July 1690. He did not attack that day. Counting the banners fluttering across the river, one of William’s veteran Dutch officers accurately guessed the strength of the Franco-Irish army to be 25,000 men, no more. William still feared that many Irish and French were tucked away in Drogheda or behind Donore Hill, but in fact he enjoyed a comfortable 3:2 numerical advantage.
A Danish envoy (the king of Denmark loaned a large contingent of troops to William) described the council of war that night as split ‘between two very different opinions’. Herman von Schomberg advocated ‘a false attack’ at Oldbridge to ‘draw the enemy’s attention’ while the bulk of the army marched that very night to cross upstream towards Slane to ‘attack the enemy in flank, so that they, being thus hemmed in between the river and that part of the army that had crossed it, should find it difficult to extricate themselves with any advantage’.

Opposing him, a bull-headed Solms pleaded ‘to attack the enemy in front, to cross the river in their teeth’. William, essentially, chose Solms’s plan, less likely to strike a killer blow than envelopment but safer. Frederick the Great concluded that troops sent on a wide sweep behind the enemy ‘ordinarily lose their way and arrive either too early or too late’—one could change the word ‘ordinarily’ to ‘certainly’ in William’s case.
It was, then, to be a frontal attack, albeit with two much smaller prongs on either side. On the day, Tuesday 1/11 July, the main attack would comprise the bulk of the infantry, backed by artillery guns, wading across the stretch of river half a mile downstream of Oldbridge ford, at a time variously given as between nine and ten o’clock the next morning. On the allied left Godard van Reede, Baron Ginkel, would lead a smallish wing of horsemen (about 1200) downstream to cross at a point that the Williamite diarist Colonel Bellingham calls Mill ford (map page 21), close to the recently opened Boyne toll-bridge. On the right, Meinhard or Maynard von Schomberg, son of Herman von Schomberg, would lead a rather larger wing of horsemen and an infantry brigade (up to 5000 men in all) upstream to cross the river and attack the Jacobites ‘at the same moment’ as William’s main attack. Many Williamite sources explicitly or implicitly claimed afterwards that Meinhard Schomberg’s march was a clever feint to draw off part of James’s army. In doing so, they succumbed to the temptation to rewrite the original plan in the light of what happened, not primarily for bombastic motives but from the human need to retrospectively impose a cause and effect narrative on formless events and shadowy motives.
Peering into the fog of war (the cliché is unusually apt here because mist clung to the river valley until about eight o’clock), James and his advisers credited William with a bigger army, more dash and much more skill than was the case: they were already fearful of a larger Williamite force crossing upstream and sweeping around behind them. So the Franco-Irish army was striking its tents and loading baggage by eight o’clock on Tuesday morning, and the left wing, about a third of the army, was getting ready to march off to block any force that crossed. Meinhard Schomberg’s aide-de-camp then galloped up to confirm that some Williamite squadrons had crossed at Rosnaree. The Scottish general, James Douglas, tells what happened then: ‘We perceived the enemy marching to attack the Count [Meinhard Schomberg] with their whole army. This did oblige the King to command me to sustain the Count with twelve thousand foot’. (Douglas’s ten battalions of infantry and a cavalry brigade could not have amounted to much more than 7000–8000 men.) Evidently, what looked like a prompt and vigorous Jacobite riposte rattled William III. He was notoriously prone to having detachments of his army cut off and overwhelmed, and it may have seemed to him that Meinhard Schomberg’s force was facing annihilation. Douglas could hardly expect to reach Rosnaree, cross, and form up in battle line alongside Schomberg in less than three hours. For that crucial time Douglas was, so to speak, off the chessboard. William had pared away much of his margin of numerical superiority to little purpose. Now the numbers of men facing each other across the Boyne and drawing closer upstream were more equal in numbers. What happened next decided who would win and lose that day.

James more incompetent

James II-his gross incompetence trumped William's muddling on the other side. (Mansell Collection)

James II-his gross incompetence trumped William’s muddling on the other side. (Mansell Collection)

Douglas’s flurry of movement looked to James II and an increasingly jittery Duc de Lauzun (commanding the French expeditionary force) like what they had feared all along: that William was sending most of his men around behind them. How they could have made an intelligence blunder of such delusional proportions need not detain us here. In response, James made the snap decision to send to his left not just the detachment that had already set out, and probably triggered Douglas’s march, but over two thirds of his army. This now left over half the Allied army back in the Oldbridge–Yellow Island sector, facing three times fewer Irishmen. William’s own muddling was trumped by gross incompetence on the other side of the river.

So when William sent his shock troops, the Blue Guards, wading across Oldbridge ford around eleven o’clock in the morning he had been handed back a 3:1 advantage in weight of numbers. Conceivably, William could instead have waited until the Jacobites were inextricably engaged in fighting Meinhard Schomberg’s and Douglas’s forces. ‘Some will pretend to say that his majesty was a little too soon in the passing his foot over the river’, but George Story loyally insisted that he could not have waited much longer after the turn of the tide before crossing. Perhaps.
There was some hard fighting ahead: ‘much about this time there was nothing to be seen but smoke and dust nor anything to be heard but one continued fire for nigh half an hour’, said George Story. The Dutch artist de Hooghe depicts a cavalry mêlée in Oldbridge, endowed with unlikely-looking sturdy peasant houses and a steeple (pp 18 & 19). An Irish trooper is shooting Schomberg the elder (numbered ‘11’) in the back of the head. But once the main attack began, with more or less equal amounts of luck, muddle and dash on both sides, the outcome could be predicted. The Irish would be pushed off the battlefield but not destroyed. By the time Douglas and Meinhard Schomberg joined up, the main body of the Jacobite army had time to react to the bad news from Oldbridge, pull back to Duleek and cross the Nanny. It was a narrow escape. Indeed, the rearmost infantrymen were run down and scattered by their own panicked cavalry. It was Ginkel’s cavalrymen attacking from the direction of Donore who had panicked them. The belated envelopment, led now by Douglas (who would be relieved of his command for incompetence the following winter), missed catching the retreating Jacobites at their most vulnerable, disordered, bunched up and divided while crowding through Duleek.

Not too little, but the enveloping sweep was certainly too late. Anything from half an hour to two hours late, according to various frustrated officers in the column. It did not help that Ginkel managed to enmire his infantry in a smallish—about 100 Irish acres—bog at Gillinstown, and the only bog in the entire battle ‘box’. But the column had already lost at least two hours waiting for Douglas to catch up with Meinhard Schomberg. The blame for that lay squarely on William. Either he should have beefed up the force he was sending on a wide sweep in time or he should have kept them with his main army. Douglas’s men, who played no effective part in the battle, amounted to about one fifth of the entire Williamite army, perhaps more. William considered these second-line English and Scottish troops to be poor and even untrustworthy. Perhaps they would not have added much impetus to the Allied attack across the river at Oldbridge, but they could have been kept in reserve while the Dutch, Huguenots and north Irish bore the brunt of Irish counter-attacks. The lack of fresh infantry to dog the footsteps of the retreating Jacobites was a major reason why a small rearguard could cover their escape.

The Boyne, then, was relatively bloodless. By comparison, twice as many men fought at Landen, and at least ten times as many fell. But for all my armchair generalship at William’s expense, the fact remains that his victory, however tactically equivocal, set in train the disintegration of the Jacobite army, which began from the top down the next morning. The Boyne should have been the last battle. Why it wasn’t is another story.

Padraig Lenihan lectures in history at the University of Limerick.


Further reading
S.B. Baxter, William III (London, 1966).
J. Childs, The Nine Years War and the British Army 1688–1697: the operations in the Low Countries (Manchester, 1991).
P. Lenihan, 1690 The Battle of the Boyne (Stroud, 2003).
J.A. Lynn, The wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714 (London, 1999).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568