Battle of the Boyne – Pope backed King Billy!

king billy pope boyne

On July 12 every year, Loyalist Protestants and members of the Orange Order celebrate the Battle of the Boyne. Why? Because this was when the Protestant King William III of England – or King Billy if you prefer – defeated the overthrown English king, James II who had fled to Ireland with his forces. James had tried to restore the Catholic faith in his realms (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland) and been overthrown. The English parliament invited a Dutch Protestant prince, William, to take the throne and protect the Protestant faith. William’s victory at the Boyne against James ensured that aim. But here’s a curious thing – the Pope at the time backed Protestant William and not Catholic James.

Three hundred years of celebrating the Battle of the Boyne

Best put my cards on the table at this point. I’m half Irish and my family come from what is now Northern Ireland – mainly county Tyrone. My grandmother, born in the city of Omagh, was an ardent Irish Republican. One of my cousins, Charlie McMahon, was a well-known Irish Republican operative in the early 20th century involved in both the 1916 Easter Uprising and 1921 burning down of the Custom House in Dublin. This was when the whole of Ireland was still under British rule.

However, long ago I rejected the simplistic histories peddled by sectarians. Because the past, as we’ll see below, is way more complex.

What’s the big deal with the Battle of the Boyne?

Every year, the rest of the United Kingdom watches in bemusement as a 17th century battle is recalled by men marching in bowler hats and orange sashes. What on earth is going on? Some detours into history required!

In 1922, Ireland was partitioned with the Irish Free State, as it was called, detaching itself from the British Empire as a predominantly Catholic country soon to declare full independence becoming a republic. The northernmost six counties, which then had a Protestant majority, remained in the United Kingdom.

Ruled by a devolved parliament at Stormont that was accused of privileging Protestants over Catholics. Decades of grievance and discrimination boiled over in the 1960s. Civil rights demonstrations by Catholic leaders, undoubtedly influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, were put down sparking three decades of ‘The Troubles’ – sectarian terrorist attacks that pitched armed Republicans against armed Loyalists.

An annual flashpoint in this ongoing sectarianism were – and still are – the annual marches by Loyalists and the Orange Order commemorating King William’s victory over the deposed King James. Not only do these marches take place in northern Ireland but also, as I’ve seen myself, in Glasgow and Liverpool. They’re distinguished by lots of drums and flutes and Orange Order members in their distinctive uniforms.

The Battle of the Boyne was fought in 1690 and the Orange Order founded a century later. The name refers to William’s royal title in his native Netherlands where he was the Prince of Orange. Orangemen and Catholics were involved in brawls and murderous exchanges through the 19th century, sometimes immortalised in songs as if they’d been great, heroic battles.

The lead up to the Battle of the Boyne

From the Irish point of view, the Battle of the Boyne was the continuation of a conflict going back over a century. Catholics believed their rights and land were being taken by Protestant settlers. Both Catholics and Protestants wanted more self-governance as opposed to direct rule from England. None of this was going to be resolved peacefully. Throughout the 1640s, Ireland was in open rebellion against King Charles I, the second king of the Stuart dynasty that had succeeded the Tudors.

Like the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Charles championed the Church of England of which he was the head. But this irritated Catholics who were obedient to the Pope in Rome and Presbyterian Protestants who rejected royal control and bishops in fancy robes. The latter also suspected, with good cause, that the Stuarts were up for chipping away at the Protestant Reformation that had ended Catholicism and papal influence in England.

Charles I was overthrown in the English Civil War and beheaded. Oliver Cromwell established the Commonwealth and a no-nonsense affirmation of Protestantism. The ongoing Irish revolt was met with utter ruthlessness and bloodshed – a fact still burned on the memories of Irish Catholics.

Then Cromwell died and a year later, the monarchy was restored under King Charles II who, it was rumoured, converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Worse, his brother James then became king of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland in 1685 and didn’t even bother pretending to be a Protestant but announced the country was going back to Catholicism. Invoking the ‘divine right of kings’ – a Stuart dynasty mantra that had got his father beheaded – he tried to push England back towards loyalty to Rome.

He also aligned himself to King Louis XIV of France – an autocratic royal ruler who dubbed himself ‘the Sun King’. James wanted that model of monarchy! This was too much for the English establishment who not only had no wish to bend the knee to the Pope in the Vatican but also detested the absolutism of the French king. Three years after being crowned, James was deposed.

DISCOVER: Irish Lives Matter back in the 1920s

The Battle of the Boyne and Pope Innocent’s support for King Billy

A group of English lords invited William of Orange over to take the throne. James skulked off to Ireland to marshal his forces. He reckoned on having both the support of the Irish people – who were mainly Catholic but also disgruntled Irish Protestants – and of course his mentor and ally, King Louis XIV of France.

And this is where things get more complicated. Because the forthcoming bust up between King Billy (the new King William of England as he would come to be known in Ireland) and the ousted King James was part of a much bigger European conflict. And this being the 17th century, it was all about kingdoms and duchies that no longer exist taking sides to pummel each other in big set piece battles across the continent.

What it boiled down to was that most of Europe loathed King Louis XIV of France and his expansionist ambitions. There he was in his new gilded palace of Versailles thinking he could laud it over everybody. And among his enemies was Pope Innocent XI.

In his historical writings, Winston Churchill described King Louis XIV as “a good Catholic who wanted to be his own Pope”. The king set out to control the Catholic clergy in France. Louis also took control of the city of Avignon, which had been ruled by the Popes – and even been their main residence for a period – since the Middle Ages. The only thing that separated Louis XIV from Henry VIII was that he remained a Catholic but in most other respects, he was a threat and major irritation to the Pope.

We still have an enraged letter from Pope Innocent to King Louis complaining bitterly that “the Authority of Bishops is trampled upon, the order and discipline of the Church disturbed and overthrown, and new practices contrary to those of the Ancient Church and the Divine Institution, are introduced by the Secular Power, and that not timorously and by stealth, but openly by the Kings Authority”.

All of which led to the Nine Years War (1688-97) – what some have termed the first true world war. King Louis and the deposed King James of England on one side. And King Billy plus Spain and the Holy Roman Empire opposing them. Though King Billy was the European champion of Protestantism – Spain most definitely was not. And neither, obviously, was the Pope who slid behind Billy to oppose Louis. This was about putting the French monarch back in his box.

There can’t be any doubt that within the walls of the Vatican, the Pope and his advisers must have felt very conflicted but realpolitik seems to have won out. King James was a busted flush. King Louis was an enemy of Catholic power. My guess is that the Pope was resigned to the Catholic/Protestant division of Europe as it stood, focussing on entrenching church power in kingdoms still loyal to Rome.

So, when the forces of King Billy and King James met at the Boyne, it was Billy who had papal support. His army even included a sizeable Catholic contingent. It was the Dutch prince turned King of England who won the day on July 1, 1690. There were reports that when the news reached Rome, the Pope offered a mass of thanksgiving to King Billy!

The Battle of the Boyne was not so much a victory for Irish Protestants over Irish Catholics, as a defeat for King Louis of France and his wider ambitions. A further battle at Aughrim on July 12 the following year finally finished off James who retired to a chateau in France a broken man. And King Louis had seen his wings clipped.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: