Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Is that King Billy on the wall?

By Chris Thornton

On a wanted poster, he could pass for the ultimate loyalist leader. and of course to many, he already is.

On a wanted poster, he could pass for the ultimate loyalist leader. and of course to many, he already is.

To help illustrate the men behind the Battle of the Boyne, the makers of Battlefield Britain aimed to create the most realistic portraits of the two kings who clashed across the river.

"People in Northern Ireland may think they know what King Billy looks like. After all, for years now they have seen images of him on everything from T-shirts, plates and tea towels, to huge banners and murals on gable-end walls," said Stephen Douds, assistant producer.

"Legend would have us believe that he was a rather unattractive person and that even his own wife found him repulsive. He is said to have been just 5ft 6ins tall and was hunched over, with a hook nose.

"However, our e-fit of King Billy, painstakingly taken from a wide range of portraits from the 17th century, shows him as he has never been seen before. It is possibly the most realistic image ever to be seen of him and suggests that he is not quite as repulsive as legend would dictate."

TV's Peter Snow and son Dan on the Battle of the Boyne

It was 21st century technology that brought Peter Snow, king of the Swingometer and Newsnight's 'man in the sand box with toy tanks', and his son Dan back across four centuries and plonked them on to the lovely banks of the Boyne. But it was old fashioned foot-slogging - just like King Billy's infantry - that got them across.

The technology was a big factor in bringing the father-son team on to television screens as the presenters of the BBC's Battlefield Britain series, which retells the stories of epic combat from the Romans against Boudicea to the Battle of Britain, and recounts the Battle of the Boyne tomorrow night.

"I've always wanted to tell the story of the great battles of history," says the elder Snow. "I always regarded it as a great challenge to tell the stories of battles as they happened

"I'd done the whole thing with sand tables and models for the Falklands and the Gulf War, but felt we never really cracked it. It's only in the last two years that there's been this amazing breakthrough in graphics that meant we could realistically depict the battles as they happened."

He says it was the BBC's idea to team him up with his son Dan - "I wish I had thought of it" - a military historian who'd already presented a programme about the Oxford-Cambridge boat race (he captained Oxford in 2000).

The Boyne was a natural stop for them in telling the stories of the battles that shaped the UK. "We were very keen to include the Boyne," says Snow, "because we wanted to tell the story of the great battle that ultimately extended the United Kingdom into Ireland as well.

"And also because, of all the battles we've done, including Culloden which has huge echoes today - go to Culloden today and you will still see people putting posies on the various clan graves - none of the battles has the reverberation that the Boyne has today.

"It still lives for people in Ireland - you only need to see the Orange marches in Belfast to realise that - and we wanted to explain to people in Britain why this battle lives so vividly in the culture of Ireland and particularly Northern Ireland."

The clash between the two kings - William and James - is inescapable here. But Battlefield Britain aims to inform even those people in Northern Ireland who only have to look to the end of their street to see a depiction of the 314-year-old clash of arms.

"The battle has this great mythical quality - you know, King William on his white horse sort of seeing off King James - but, of course, it was much more complicated than that. It's a fascinating military story and fascinating political story.

"There's an idea that it was essentially Ireland versus England. It wasn't. It was James trying to get back the British throne, and it's also part of a much bigger chess game, a European clash of states that was part of a much bigger strategic and political conflict."

As well as the big picture, the series also examines the ground-level view of battles by looking at the experience of ordinary soldiers. To that end, Dan Snow fords the Boyne in the footsteps of William's troops.

"He had a very difficult time crossing the Boyne with a sandbag on his head, which he was trying to keep dry because they would have to have kept their powder dry," says his father.

"Dan's 6ft 6in and he had a very difficult time crossing. He made it, but if he had been a foot shorter, as was the average at the time, it would have been a close run thing.

"These men not only did that, but on the other side they had to fight their way up out of the Boyne and across the bank while fighting the Jacobite calvary who were extremely brave and extremely daring.

"It was utterly wretched for the ordinary soldier, particularly for the Irish troops who were poorly armed and equipped, poorly led, and faced a devastating line of attack along the Boyne."

Those points are more easily made because Peter Snow rates the Boyne as one of the best preserved battlefields in Britain or Ireland.

"It is wonderfully preserved in this most simply, naturally, beautiful luxuriant valley, with the magnificent New Grange looking down just hundreds of metres away," he says.

"Some of the battlefields in the UK are covered in buildings, but the Irish heritage people have done a tremendous job in preserving this battlefield. It's a wonderful place and you can see very graphically all the vital points of the battle.

"I hope the programme will encourage more people to visit the site."

Snow says the record shows that King William was clearly the better military commander of the monarchs who took the field that day (although he rates William the Conqueror as the best of those featured in the series).

"William (the third) was less of a charismatic hero than some would see him, but he was clearly very brave, very bright, and an experienced soldier. His decisions on the whole, while hardly Wellingtonian, were fairly judged to bring him success.

"His personal performance was a bit foolhardy, frankly. He was wounded while having a picnic the day before the battle and he led the final charge across old bridge. He was right up front at the decisive moment and at least once or twice was very nearly killed by his own troops by mistake.

"He was very anxious about the welfare of his troops, however, so he scores well for that.

"And James, well poor old James clearly made the most terrible mess of his strategy. It wouldn't be fair to call him a coward or someone who didn't have a clue, but his deployment at the Battle of the Boyne left a lot to be desired."

lBattlefield Britain, BBC2 tomorrow 9pm.


From Belfast Telegraph