Belfast Telegraph

The other side of King Billy - as Wednesday marks 327th anniversary of Battle of the Boyne, did you know he'd rather have gone racing at Newmarket?

Wednesday marks the 327th anniversary of King William's victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne. Alf McCreary reports

On Wednesday this week, tens of thousands of Orangemen and women will parade at many venues across Northern Ireland to pay tribute to their hero, the 17th-century King William III "of glorious, pious and immortal memory".

To them, he remains a vibrant figure who secured the "Glorious Revolution" and consolidated the Protestant succession to the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Scores of Orange banners will depict William astride a white charger as the victor at the Battle of the Boyne and the modern figurehead of those who want to protect Protestantism from its enemies, real or imaginary, on a Green island and in a secular world where religion itself is under threat.

How far does this vision of King William match the reality of a Dutch warrior nobleman from the House of Orange, who became entangled with the tortuous politics and military alliances of late-17th-century Europe?

William was undoubtedly a military hero, who secured his kingdom in the hardest way possible by going into battle directly with King James, who was intent on imposing and solidifying Roman Catholicism on Britain and Ireland.

This was a pivotal period in the struggle for the kingdom, though the Protestant succession was finally secured in the bloody battle of Aughrim, where the Jacobites were slaughtered and routed by an army led by William's generals. He was not there in person.

Today, there is a comprehensive account of that dreadful battle in the Aughrim Museum, just off the main road from Dublin to Galway, and it is well worth seeing.

William was a good soldier and undoubtedly a military hero, though whether or not he rode a white horse is open to question. It might have been a black, brown, or grey, horse, but historical heroes were usually painted astride a white charger.

For most Orangemen, the charger will be eternally white and in the world summarised (wrongly) by Donald Trump as swamped by "fake news", why let the facts spoil a good story?

King William had personal as well as military considerations on his mind during his Irish campaign at the Boyne and elsewhere.

There was the delicate matter that King James was his father-in-law and going into battle with your wife's father was hardly in the best interests of maintaining good family relations.

As a Stadholder of Holland, William was a leading European Protestant and his marriage to Mary in 1677 consolidated an alliance between two of the great powers which had been at war.

James's accession to the throne was a severe threat and the increasing concessions to Catholicism alarmed leading English Protestants, who invited William and Mary to take the throne. The rest, as they say, is history.

The marriage between William and Mary, who were cousins, was a political alliance, rather than a love match. Initially Mary, who was 12 years younger than William, disliked him, but she grew to love him deeply.

This was clear from the letters she wrote to him during his Irish campaign, which were literally "love" letters.

She wrote to him from London on June 17, 1690, shortly after he had landed with his troops in Carrickfergus.

"I cannot thank God enough for your being so well past the dangers of the sea. I beseech Him in His mercy still to preserve you so, and send us once more a happy meeting on earth.

"I long to hear from you how the air of Ireland agrees with you, for I must own, I am not without my fears for that, loving you so entirely as I do, and shall till death."

These letters are contained in a book entitled Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland by Sir John Dalrymple and published nearly a century later, in 1773.

In another letter, dated July 16, 1690, some days after the Battle of the Boyne, Queen Mary wrote in alarm to William, after she had heard that he had been struck by a stray musket ball during the fighting.

"I can never give God thanks enough as I live, for your preservation. I hope in His mercy that this is a sign He preserves you to finish the work He has begun by you, but I hope it may be a warning to you, to let you see you are exposed to as many accidents as others."

Queen Mary's letters reveal her deep Christian faith and her total support for the Protestant cause, as well as her devotion to her husband.

Unfortunately, King William, like many of his contemporary monarchs and presidents, was not faithful to his marriage vows and his long-term mistress, Elizabeth Villiers, was one of Mary's ladies-in-waiting.

There had been earlier and somewhat vicious accusations from his political opponents that William may have been gay, because of his close associations with a large number of male advisers, but these rumours were discounted by his later biographers.

William and Mary had a child who died in infancy. It is said that William remained somewhat aloof from Mary, but he also depended on her greatly for support. After her death in 1694 from smallpox, he grieved for her deeply.

William was obviously a complex human being and not just the uncomplicated warrior-hero of countless Orange banners and murals.

He was quite small in stature and asthmatic, but the pathetic little statue in Carrickfergus does him less than justice.

His Kingly bearing is captured much better in the statue outside Kensington Palace in London. There is no doubt that he was a leading figure in British and European affairs and deserves his major place in late-17th century history.

He was a man of many tastes and he was passionately fond of horses.

No doubt he would have attended the horse-racing at Newmarket, where the meetings at the local heath had also been attended by King Charles II and his brother, James II, William's father-in-law.

King William died in 1702, following complications after a riding incident.

One other of William and Mary's achievements in Ireland was to grant a new Royal Charter to the "King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland" in 1692.

This was the forerunner of the present Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, which is based in Dublin and which remains a pillar of Irish medicine.

Alf McCreary is the author of Healing Touch, the official history of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland

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