Sometimes it’s useful to look at the history leading up to an event, in order to view it in the context of the time.
Here’s a short piece on the build-up to why the gates were shut on that fateful day!
James II becomes King
After Charles I was executed in January 1649, his sons, James II & Charles II were both been exiled in France.
The death of Cromwell and the collapse of the Commonwealth in 1660, meant Charles II was restored to the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, and James returned to court with him as Duke of York & Albany, and acting as Lord High Admiral.
James was married to Anne Hyde, the daughter of Charles’s chief minister, and they had 2 Daughters, Mary and Anne. James however, had been heavily influenced by the beliefs and ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church during his time in France, and he converted in 1668 or 1669 although his conversion was kept secret for almost a decade. King Charles II opposed James’s conversion, ordering that James’s daughters, Mary and Anne, be raised in the Church of England.
Growing fears of Roman Catholic influence at court led the English Parliament to introduce a new Test Act in 1673, which required all civil and military officials to take an oath disavowing the doctrine of transubstantiation and denouncing certain practices of the Roman Church.
James refused instead choosing to relinquish the post of Lord High Admiral. His conversion to Roman Catholicism was thereby made public. On the death of his wife Anne, James married a second time to Mary of Modena, a fifteen-year-old Roman Catholic Italian princess, increasing concerns.
In 1677, King Charles II arranged for James’s daughter Mary to marry the Protestant Prince William III of Orange, son of Charles’s and James’s sister Mary. James reluctantly acquiesced after his brother and nephew had agreed to the marriage. Despite the Protestant marriage, fears of a potential Catholic monarch persisted, intensified by the failure of Charles II and his wife, to produce any children.
On 6th February 1685 King Charles II passed away with no legitimate children, leaving his next of kin, James II, to become king. James immediately started to implement pro-Catholic policies which alarmed the nation, including:-
- Enlarging his standing army
- Allowing Roman Catholics to command several regiments without having to take the oath of the test act
- Publishing papers stating the arguments for Catholicism over Protestantism
- Advocating repeal of the penal laws for Catholics, but death and confiscation of property for Presbyterians
- Allowing Roman Catholics to occupy the highest offices of his kingdoms
- Dismissing Judges who disagreed with him and peroguing Parliament when it disagreed – it never met again during his reign
- Issuing the Declaration of Indulgence, also known as the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, in which he used his dispensing power to negate the effect of laws punishing both Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters(Presbyterians)
In April 1688, James ordered Anglican clergy to read the Declaration in their churches. When seven bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, submitted a petition requesting the reconsideration of the King’s religious policies, they were arrested and tried for seditious libel.
Public alarm increased when Queen Mary gave birth to a Roman Catholic son and heir, James, on 10 June that year. The prince’s birth opened the possibility of a permanent Roman Catholic dynasty. Parliament and the Noblemen now had to act.
On 30 June 1688, a group of seven Protestant nobles invited William, Prince of Orange, to come to England with an army.
Tyrconnell aka Richard Talbot
Shortly after he came to the throne, James gave control of the Irish regiments to Richard Talbot, promoting him to 1st Earl of Tyrconnell.
His directions where to purge the armies of all protestant officers. Tyrconnell began immediately.
On his promotion to Lord Lieutenant general and commander in chief of the army of Ireland in 1686, Tyrconnell turned his attention to reforms of all judiciary, civil and corporation structures, purging protestants from their ranks as well.
By 1687, the remodelling of the army to Roman Catholic was almost complete, and Catholic dominated Corporations (similar to our councils) controlled all towns and cities.
For the past three years Protestants had been watching all the developments with growing concern and steadily mounting alarm.
Within the city of Londonderry, Roman Catholics were openly looking forward to the day when they would completely dominate the city. By this point they were conducting a daily mass at the market-cross.
Many of the priests were publicly declaring that they had a great design in hand which would highly concern them and all the nation. The people were not told what this great design was. It was top-secret but they were assured by their priests that they would have special notices when the time came.
It was impressed upon the Catholic parishioners that they would have to do whatever their priests should direct. In the meantime they were being urged to buy the best weapons they could.
This was all being openly talked about by the Roman catholic congregations so it was also common knowledge among the Protestants in Londonderry and elsewhere. It was also noted that throughout Ulster not only the Catholic men but the woman and boys as well began to arm themselves with skeans and half pikes and Irish blacksmith’s all over the country were busy making these.
In County Donegal there were said to be great debate between the priests and Friars about the execution of the grand design. Certain priests in the county warned their Protestant friends to depart because there was a general massacre designed. And evidence was given that a Roman Catholic Dean had been buying arms and horses for the past two or three years.
The Roman catholic soldiers quartered in the city had been overheard to utter terrible threats against the Protestants about burning their houses and some of them broke into houses and forcibly seized provisions.
William Arrives, James Responds
William III landed at Brixham on 5th November 1688. The news of the landing of William was received with a sense of satisfaction by the Protestants in Londonderry but they felt that they would not have any imediate help in a situation which was becoming more menacing daily.
Upon the news of William landing in England, Tyrconnell ordered a new regiment to be raised in each of the four provinces. In Ulster the regiment was put under the command of the Earl of Antrim and were soon known as the “redshanks”. This was a completely Roman Catholic regiment recruited from Irish and Scottish Highlanders and was to be ready by 20th November.
Lord Mountjoy’s Regiment of foot had been garrisoned in Londonderry for some years with Robert Lundy acting as Lieutenant Colonel. Lord Mountjoy’s regiment was one of the few which had not been entirely purged of Protestants.
Tyrconnell did not want this regiment remaining in Londonderry, so on the 23rd of November 1688 he ordered Mountjoy‘s regiment to leave Londonderry for Dublin. However at this point the Earl of Antrim‘s regiment was not ready to replace him.
The order for Mountjoy to leave Londonderry, heightened the anxiety of the Protestants as they looked upon Mountjoy’s regiment as a protection against any attack by the Irish Roman Catholics
After Mountjoy’s regiment left, the citizens held public meetings to discuss their fears and what to do. Prominent in these was Councillor David Cairnes, a lawyer from County Tyrone who had previously lived in the city. He strongly advised the citizens to be prepared for the worst and to form a garrison themselves and watch the gates.
He gathered a number of the younger men of the city, one of which was his nephew William Cairnes (25) and left them to carry out his suggestions while he journeyed home.
The Comber Letter
3rd December 1688 – An un-signed letter written in a semi illiterate hand was found in Comber County Down. This was addressed to the Earl of Mount Alexander a Protestant noble man who reside locally. This letter predicted a massacre of Protestants on the 9th of December.
Similar letters were sent to Mr Brown of Lisburn & Mr Maitland of Hillsborough. Copies of the letter soon circulated about the Protestants of the country. (Read more about the Comber Letter here)
2 Copies of the letter came to Londonderry: William Cunningham from Belfast sent a copy along with his own letter to George Canning of Garvagh who was to read it and notify the citizens of Londonderry at haste. Mr Canning forwarded it Via messenger to Alderman Tompkins to Alderman Tompkins.
A gentleman who met Mr Cannings messenger en route learnt of the contents and he give the information to Colonel George Phillips the proprietor of Newtown Limavady. Colonel Phillips was a former governor of Londonderry.
The arrival of Earl of Antrims’ regiments in Newtown-Limavady on their way to Londonderry, triple the size expected, in conjunction with the Comber Letter, raised concerns to fever pitch.
Colonel Phillips of Limavady, anxious for the safety of Londonderry sent a second message on 7th December to Londonderry, advising them to shut the gates of the city. The messenger who delivered this passed the advance party of redshanks about 2 miles from Londonderry. This consisted of three companies approximately 180 men.
Later the same day, on the arrival of the companies to the right bank of the Foyle opposite Londonderry, two officers – lieutenant and ensign – were ferried across the river. On admittance to the city, they went to the sheriffs to demand quarters and lodging for the soldiers and forage for the horses.
The warrant they presented was not signed which gave the sheriffs of the city the opportunity to play for time.
The Shutting of the Gates
By this point the news sent by George Canning the previous day, had spread like wildfire throughout the city and the streets where thronged with alarmed people who had no doubt that the opening phases of the predicted massacre were soon to commence and that the people of Londonderry would be the first victims.
There were on-going debates as to what would be done, with the city elders in a state of a decision and the younger citizens wanting to close the gates and shut out the redshanks.
At noon, while the citizens were still debating, the redshanks on the other side of the river decided to take charge of the city. They ferried across the river and were moving from the landing place on the city side to the ferry gate, a distance of about 300 yards.
As they drew near to Ferry gate, the apprentice boys sprang to life. Drawing their swords they ran to the main guard, seized the keys and rushed to the ferry gate, drew up the Drawbridge and locked the gate. A few seconds later and they would’ve been too late for the redshanks where within 60 yards of the gate when it was slammed in their faces.
The apprentice boys hurried to Bishops gate, Butchers gate and Shipquay gate and shut them also.
The 13 boys were named as
- Henry Campsie,
- William Crookshanks,
- Robert Sherrard,
- Daniel Sherrard,
- Alexander Irwin,
- James Steward,
- Robert Morison,
- Alexander Cunningham,
- Samuel Hunt,
- James Spike,
- John Coningham,
- William Cairnes,
- Samuel Harvy.
The redshanks couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the Ferry gate closing in their faces and they stood there dumbfounded expecting it to be opened again. They knew that their two officers were still within the city arranging quarters so they expected to gain entry soon.
One of the Citizens Mr James Morrison, was on the ramparts at Ferry gate when it was shut in their faces and seeing that they weren’t leaving he told them to clear away. When they still hopefully hung about he called out loud for them to hear “bring about a great gun here“. The redshanks took to their heels, made for the ferry with all possible speed, and never paused until they had joined their fellows on the other side of the river.
On hearing that the gates had been shut, the 2 officers of Antrim’s regiment who had been inside the city sent a party to secure the magazine. However the apprentice boys were ahead of them and reached the magazine first.
During the scuffle the Sentinel, Linegar, shot Henry Campsie in the arm, making him the first to shed blood in defence of the city. But the apprentice boys gained control of the magazine and Linegar was seized and jailed. That he wasn’t lynched on the spot shows it was not an uncontrollable rabble seizing the magazine.
The deputy mayor and two redshank officers, the sheriffs of the town and Roman Catholic citizens went to the market place and there made promises and threats to the apprentice boys to open the gates. But the apprentice boys refused.
David Cairnes arrived that afternoon and expressed approval for the actions of the apprentice boys, commending their courage. He used his influence to ensure others approved of their actions, and at a meeting held in the town hall that night, the majority were adamant the gates remained closed.
The deputy mayor and Bishop Hopkins were both in favour of allowing the troops entry the city, but were outnumbered and the Bishop left the following day to go to Raphoe and then eventually England.
Guards were posted within and without the walls
That night the senior citizens of the city wrote letters to other in the country advising of their situation and the need for concerted action to ensure a common defence and safety. Of the replies received, some of these expressed approval and promised support while others were disapproving.
Now the gates had been closed…….what were the residents to do next?