Williamite Army at Oldbridge

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


EARLY on the morning of June 30, 1690, William's army approached the Boyne in three divisions. "Such was his impatience to behold the enemy he was to fight, and the ground they had taken up, that by the time the advanced guard was within view of the Jacobite camp, he was in front of them, having ridden forward from the head of his own division. Then it was that he beheld a sight which, yet unstirred by soldier shout or cannon shot, unstained by blood or death, might well gladden the heart of him who gazed, and warm with its glorious beauties even a colder nature than his! He stood upon a height, and beheld beneath him and beyond him, with the clearness of a map and the gorgeous beauty of a dream, a view as beautiful as the eye can scan. Doubly beautiful it was then; because the colors of a golden harvest were blended with green fields and greener trees, and a sweet river flowing calmly on in winding beauty through a valley whose banks rose gently from its waters, until in lofty hills they touched the opposite horizon, bending and undulating into forms of beauty.[1] "To the southeast the steeples and castle of Drogheda, from which floated the flags of James and Louis, appeared in the mid-distance; while seaward might be seen the splendid fleet which attended the motions of the Williamite army. But of more interest to the phlegmatic but experienced commander, whose eagle eye now wandered over the enchanting panorama, were the lines of white tents, the waving banners, and moving bodies of troops, which, to the southwest, between the river and Donore Hill, indicated the position of James' camp."[2]

Having viewed the ground carefully, William selected the Oldbridge fords for the principal attack, and fixed upon sites for batteries to command the opposite or Jacobite bank. He then rode a short way up the river, and alighted to take some refreshment. On his return he was fired upon by some fieldpieces at the other side of the river, the first shot striking to the earth one of the group beside the prince. A second shot followed; the ball struck the river bank, glanced upward, and wounded William slightly. He sank upon his horse's neck, and a shout of exultation burst from the Irish camp, where it was believed he was killed. He was not much hurt, however, and rode among his own lines to assure his troops of his safety; and shouts of triumph and defiance from the Williamite ranks soon apprized the Irish of their error.

That night—that anxious night!—was devoted by William to the most careful planning and arrangement for the morrow's strife. But ere we notice these plans or approach that struggle, it, may be well to describe for young readers with all possible simplicity the battlefield of the Boyne, and the nature of the military operations of which it was the scene.

The Boyne enters the Irish Sea a mile or more to the east of Drogheda, but for a mile or two above or to the west of that town, the sea-tides reach and rise and fall in the river. Two miles and a half up the river from Drogheha, on the southern bank, is the little village of Oldbridge. About five miles in a direct line due west of Oldbridge (but considerably more by the curve of the river, which between these points bends deeply southward), stands the town of Slane on the northern bank. The ground rises rather rapidly from the river at Oldbridge, sloping backward, or southward, about a mile, to the Hill of Donore, on the crest of which stand a little ruined church (it was a ruin even in 1690) and a graveyard; three miles and a half further southward than Donore, on the road to Dublin from Oldbridge, stands Duleek.

James' camp was pitched on the northern slopes of Donore, looking down upon the river at Oldbridge. James himself slept and had his headquarters in the little ruined church already mentioned.

Directly opposite to Oldbridge, on the northern side of the river, the ground, as on the south side, rises rather abruptly, sloping backward forming a hill called Tullyallen. This hill is intersected by a ravine north and south, leading down to the river, its mouth on the northern brink being directly opposite to Oldbridge. The ravine is now called King William's Glen. On and behind Tullyallen Hill, William's camp was pitched, looking southward, toward, but not altogether in sight of James', on the other side of the river.

At this time of the year, July, the Boyne was fordable at several places up the river toward Slane. The easiest fords, however, were at Oldbridge, where, when the sea-tide was at lowest ebb, the water was not three feet deep.

To force these fords, or some of them, was William's task. To defend them was James' endeavor.

The main difficulty in crossing a ford in the face of an opposing army is that the enemy almost invariably has batteries to play on the fords with shot and shell, and troops ready at hand to charge the crossing party the instant they attempt to "form" on reaching the bank, if they succeed in reaching it. If the defending party have not batteries to perform this service, and if the assailants have batteries to "cover" the passage of their fording parties by a strong cannonade, i.e., to prevent (by shot and shell fired over their heads at the bank they rush for) the formation there of any troops to charge them on reaching the shore, the ford is, as a general rule, sure to be forced.

James had not a single cannon or howitzer at the fords. From fifty splendid fieldpieces and mortars William rained shot and shell on the Jacobite bank.

William's plan of attack was to outflank James' left by sending a strong force up the river toward Slane, where they were to cross and attack the Jacobite flank and rear; while he, with the full strength of his main army (the center under Schomberg senior, the extreme left under himself), would, under cover of a furious cannonade, force all the fords at and below Oldbridge.

It was only at the last moment that James was brought to perceive the deadly danger of being flanked from Slane, and he then detailed merely a force of five hundred dragoons under the gallant Sir Neal O'Neill to defend the extreme left there. His attention until the mid-hour of battle next day was mainly given to the (Oldbridge) fords in his front, and his sole reliance for their defense was on some poor breastworks and farm-buildings to shelter musketry-men; trusting for the rest to hand-to-hand encounters when the enemy should have come across! In fact, he had no other reliance, since he was without artillery to defend the fords.

All else being settled, ere the anxious council-holders on each side sought their couches, the password for the morning and the distinguishing badges were announced. The Jacobite soldiers wore white cockades. William chose green for his colors. Every man on his side was ordered to wear a green bough or sprig in his hat, and the word was to be "Westminster."


[1] The Harp for March, 1859; The "Battle of the Boyne," by M. J. M'Cann.

[2] "Williamite and Jacobite Wars in Ireland," by Dr. Cane.