The day was either July 1st or July 12th. The battle would determine that. On the northern bank of the River Boyne were the adherents of William of Orange, Parliamentary rule, and the Julian Calendar. Across the river stood the defenders of James II, absolute rule and the Gregorian Calendar. (Both armies acknowledged that the year was 1690.) Yes, there would seem a logical inconsistency on each side. William’s army fought for modern government and a medieval calendar, while James’ army fought for medieval rule and a modern calendar. Of course, any logic was irrelevant because this was a matter of religion.
English Protestants would not acknowledge the more accurate Gregorian Calendar because the calendar had been sponsored by the Catholic Church. Protestants do have feelings (whether John Calvin approved or not), and Gregorian was not exactly an ecumenical name for a calendar. It referred to Pope Gregory XIII who reigned at the time of the calendar’s introduction in 1582 and had been unquestionably enthusiastic about killing Protestants. (He congratulated the French for the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.) So the English Protestants rejected the “Papist” calendar, preferring to be wrong than admitting a Catholic was right.
In fact, the whole point of ousting James II from the British throne was the fact that he was a Catholic. Worse, he was a convert–and you know how dogmatically irritating they can be. Ironically, James should have converted to Judaism. First, the Protestants would have slightly preferred it. More significantly, despite being tall and attractive James was the quintessentence of a schlemiel. The man just had a talent for doing everything wrong. James might find a needle in a haystack but get tetanus from it.
Being the legitimate Stuart heir to Charles II, James had been endured by Parliament so long as he would be succeeded by his Protestant daughter Mary. While his brother Charles adroitly negotiated and manipulated–his charm was not solely confined to venereal pursuits–the clumsy, prickly James II managed to offend and exasperate. Personality does have its role in history. On paper, his domestic policies encouraging religious tolerance seem reasonable and just. Trust James, however, to make look everything look like a Jesuit conspiracy. His pro-French foreign policy, at a time when Louis XIV was beginning his wars of expansion, was remarkably short-sighted and irrational. Of course, the biased Protestants regarded it as further evidence of a Catholic conspiracy. In reality, it was a case of personal virtue being a political disaster. James was grateful to France for providing sanctuary during the Protectorate, and he was Louis’ cousin.
In 1688, James was 54; Parliament was hoping that he would act his age and die. Charles II had died at 54, James I at 58; yes, Charles I had assistance. But the ever maladroit James was anything but withering. On the contrary, he fathered a son and a political crisis. The infant Prince was Catholic and primogeniture gave him precedence over his adult Protestant sisters. Parliament might tolerate James as a Catholic aberration but not as the founder of a Catholic dynasty. If Parliament could execute a king, it could certainly fire one. James was to be ousted; in his place, Parliament invited his impeccably Protestant daughter Mary and her reassuringly Calvinist husband William of Orange to take the throne.
William and Mary arrived in England with the invitation, but they were cautious enough to bring along a number of Dutch regiments. Mr. and Mrs. Orange may have been popular in Parliament, but the loyalty of the English army was in question. Some regiments supported the migrant monarchs, but James still had the loyalty of at least half of the English army. He had a good chance to defeating the rebellion; of course, that would have required James to make a correct decision. His strategy was to flee the country. The man apparently enjoyed exile in France.
Having abandoned his English forces, his loyal subjects in Scotland, and a good chance of retaining his throne, it finally occurred to James that he might have made a mistake. In 1689, James landed in Ireland and attempted to establish himself as the king of the island. He certainly was the popular choice among the Catholic majority; if rosary beads could be used as cannon balls, James would have triumphed over the British army sent to crush him.
Unfortunately, James had the smaller army and most of his men were Irish enthusiasts rather than professionals. Facing a larger and throughly professional force, James showed an unprecedented prudence and retreated behind the River Boyne. His defensive position was excellent. The Boyne was very difficult to cross, and James’ army was dug in behind one of the few passable stretches of the river. Even there, William’s force would be wading through chest-high water and a rapid current. Nor could James’ position be easily outflanked. The nearest ford was six miles to the west, but along it was a thick bog that would have stymied any British troops trying to move around James’ army.
Given James’ excellent position, you have to wonder how he would ruin it. Although paranoia had yet to be diagnosed, James was a pioneer practitioner. He was convinced that William’s forces were going to cross the western ford, find some way through the bog and attack him. So he divided his force, leading two-thirds of it to the bog to await William’s assault. That left one third of his army to face the full frontal assault of William’s forces. The British attack was not a quiet affair; James could hear it from his position along the bog. However, he was convinced that it was just a diversion. He would not send any reinforcements to his forces along the Boyne.
So two-thirds of James’ troops had a very restful day. For his men along the Boyne, it was much more exciting, being outnumbered four to one. Yet, their defensive position was so good that they only gradually gave ground and then succeeded in an orderly retreat. James also made an orderly retreat–to France. Even without a worthy leader, his army would continue to fight on for another year. At least the Irish had still a hatred of England to inspire them, and the English would certainly justify that.
So, the battle of the Boyne was fought on July 1, according to the victorious Julian calendar. (In 1752, the English finally put science ahead of dogma and adopted the Gregorian Calendar.)
p.s. If you don’t wish to offer your congratulations to William of Orange, today is also my wedding anniversary. So you can offer your condolences to either James II or my wife Karen.