This was the most politically significant battle of the Glorious Revolution and the war in Ireland.
It was the last time two rightful kings of the British Isles would fight each other, face to face, for the throne.
In June of 1690, after a briefly threatening to take his main army into Ulster, James II withdrew his forces south towards Dublin.
This was much against the advice of his military commanders. This withdrawal meant that the last physical barrier between the advancing Williamites and Dublin was the River Boyne outside Drogheda.
It was here that James hoped to fight the decisive battle of the war.
June 1690 also witnessed the arrival of King William in Ireland. His aim – to finish the war as quickly as possible and to concentrate on the wider conflict in Europe.
He encouraged his forces to mop up Jacobite resistance in Ulster and push south for a knockout blow.
On 1 July 1690, 35,000 Williamites and 25,000 Jacobites faced each other across the River Boyne outside Drogheda.
The Jacobite army had a strong defensive position on the south side of the river, occupying the small village of Oldbridge and manning as many of the river crossings as they could.
They also held the walled city of Drogheda and its main bridge across the river. This meant that the Williamite forces had to cross the river and meet them head on… or so they thought.
The Fortunate escape of the Prince of Orange
The newly crowned King William III arrived on the banks of the Boyne on 30 June 1690.
Despite advice from some of his commanders that he should immediately launch an attack on Jacobite positions, William adopted a more cautious approach.
A Council of War was held between William and his generals.
Some advocated a direct assault across the Boyne River to smash the Jacobite centre. Others believed that he should try and flank James’ forces by sending a large part of his army to the west and cross the Boyne River at Rossnaree and Slane.
In the end William adopted elements of both plans.
First thing in the morning, he would send forces to capture the crossings at Slane and Rossnaree, while the rest of his army would cross the Boyne at several places between Oldbridge and Drogheda.
The adoption of this strategy would prove extremely productive.
The new king then decided to scout the positions of the Jacobite forces himself.
Accompanied by his advisors and bodyguards he slowly travelled along the north bank of the River Boyne to see where the Jacobites had placed their cannons.
A keen-eyed Jacobite officer spotted this group of riders and ordered small cannons to be fired from a hidden position.
William was struck on the boot and on his left shoulder by a ricochet piece of cannon shot.
Two soldiers were killed in the attack.
Seeing him knocked from his horse a cheer rose for the Jacobite held side of the river – was the new King dead?
Certainly, the Jacobites believed so and news of the incident quickly spread to Dublin and even France.
In a fatal mistake, elements of the Jacobite camp celebrated into the night, fully expecting that there would be no battle the next day.
How wrong they were!
King William was only wounded. Indeed, the impact of the shot had been more keenly felt on his leather jerkin, than his shoulder.
His wound was quickly attended to by William Bentinck, and he vowed to be in the heat of battle the next day.
However, rumour of the incident had also spread through the Williamite camp.
To counter any misplaced news that he was dead or mortally wounded, William decided to show himself, in person, to several regiments.
As soldiers gathered round campfires, the Prince of Orange rode through the camp demonstrating that not only was he alive, but he was in good health.
This incident was recorded in several first-hand accounts of the Williamite War in Ireland and has also been immortalised in paintings and on several Orange banners down through the years.
The Earl of Meath, who was with William III that day recounted the incident in a letter written just a few days later. He wrote the following
After the war George Storey, who had accompanied the Williamite forces in Ireland and compiled a history of the war, pointed out the spot where William had been injured to those planning to erect a memorial to the battle.
The foundation stones of the mighty Boyne Obelisk were laid on this spot in 1736.
Clash for the Throne!
The battle itself lasted for the equivalent of a school day.
At 8am 10,000 Williamites, commanded by Count Meinhard Schomberg, moved, under the cover of a lingering mist, to attack the Jacobite left flank.
They headed towards the Rossnaree and Slane crossing points. Only 800 Jacobite dragoons guarded the ford at Rossnaree.
Sir Neil O’Neill’s dragoons fought bravely but were unable told hold back the Williamites for long. In the end, they were forced to retreat.
When news reached James that a large party of Williamites had moved on Slane, he sent more than half of his troops to meet, what he believed, was the main Williamite attack.
This fateful decision weakened the Jacobite centre at Oldbridge and allowed the Williamites to push their main attack across the river.
It was here, at Oldbridge, that most of the fighting took place.
The Williamites waded across under heavy fire from the southern bank.
The Earl of Meath recorded that shots fell on both sides like “showers of leaden hailstones.”
Bitter-hand-to-hand fighting took place as the Williamites gained a foothold on the southern shore.
As fighting intensified around Oldbridge, James continued to hold a large part of his army near Slane, where a large gorge and marshy ground prevented any fighting.
This mistake allowed the Williamites to seize the initiative and drive home their numerical advantage.
With their infantry falling back, wave after wave of Jacobite cavalry thundered across the battlefield and fell upon the Williamites in the hope of driving them back into the river.
After several hours of fighting, the Jacobite army broke and retreated towards Dublin.
The Battle of the Boyne was over.
Only the spirited actions of the Jacobite cavalry and French infantry, saved the whole army from collapse.
Many nationalities would see action in the battle.
On the Jacobite side were soldiers from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany and France.
On the Williamite side the army contained contingents from across the British Isles, France, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland and Germany.
The battle also witnessed the death of two significant figures in the Williamite Army.
The Duke of Schomberg, previously William’s commander in Ireland, was killed in fierce fighting, as was Rev. George Walker, of Londonderry fame, who had tried to reach the surrounded Schomberg.
After fleeing the battlefield, James II embarked for France, never to return.
Although a heavy blow for the Jacobites, his absence left more able leaders in charge of the campaign.
They retreated the army west of the Shannon River.
Pitched battles, sieges and guerrilla warfare would continue for another year until the war finally came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Limerick.