What if James had won the seige?

WHAT if the Jacobites had taken the city of Londonderry in 1689? Historian and author RICHARD DOHERTY examines the significance of the siege.

"In the whirl of publicity surrounding the official opening of the Battle of the Boyne site, much was made of the battle's significance.

Some commentators averred that it was the turning point of the Williamite/Jacobite war, the end of King James II's efforts to regain his thrones.

They're wrong on both counts. The turning point occurred a year earlier and with it ended James's best chance of being restored to his thrones.

That turning point had occurred along a river, but one in Ulster that flowed by that province's only city. The river was the Foyle. The city was Londonderry.

Jacobite domination of Ulster had been rapid. In March 1689 Richard Hamilton marched north with a force that defeated opposition at Dromore, sending the Williamites reeling out of east Ulster and across the Bann to fetch up at Coleraine.

The defence of Coleraine was short-lived. Soon the town's garrison was marching along the mountain road that would take them to Londonderry.

At much the same time another Jacobite force was heading north-west to deal with the rebel city of Londonderry. James II, who had arrived in Ireland in mid-March, was convinced that the citizens would come to their senses if he appeared at their city. He received a rude awakening when he rode up to Bishop's Gate on April 18.

Before that, however, the Jacobites had achieved yet another victory at the Battle of the Fords, between Clady and Porthall. Their foes were in turmoil and James's forces, now combined, had their best chance of taking the city. But they made no rapid advance.

Perhaps believing that two English regular regiments were already in the city, Hamilton made a cautious approach. Had he sent his cavalry and dragoons ahead, he could have taken an almost undefended city. He ignored the maxim that the fruits of victory are in the pursuit. As it was, he allowed the defenders enough time to regain their poise. With the walls to protect them, they defied James with the cry 'No Surrender!'.

Then began the 105-day siege described by Lord Macaulay as 'the greatest in English history'. And that statement says it all about the siege. Until the Jacobite army arrived at the walls in April 1689 all had been going its way. Had the city fallen, then James could have taken an army to Scotland and thence south to London. But that option was removed by the defiance of those within the walls.

History is full of 'what ifs'. This particular 'what if' – what if the Jacobites had taken the city? – is interesting in Irish, British and European terms.

Capturing Londonderry would have given James complete control of Ireland. It could have set him on his way to restoration in London. It would certainly have had a major influence on the war in Europe in which King Louis XIV of France was seeking to dominate the mainland. Its repercussions would have rippled out from the island city in the Foyle to Europe's far corners.

Furthermore, the Battle of the Boyne would never have been fought. True, James and William may have met in battle somewhere but that 'somewhere' could have been in Scotland or England, rather than north of Dublin. And, of course, the battles subsequent to the Boyne – Athlone, Aughrim, the siege of Limerick – would not have occurred either.

Sometimes it is by looking at the counterfactual – the 'what ifs' – that we can appreciate fully the significance of a historical event. So it is with the siege. True, it finds its place in that iconic quartet of Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne, but I doubt if its real significance is realised by many.

By tying a Jacobite army down to a siege, for which it was not prepared, the defenders of Derry granted a breathing space to their counterparts throughout Britain and Ireland. They allowed those in London, where near panic had reigned, to organise not one but two expeditionary forces to Ireland. The first of those was Major General Kirke's relief force for Londonderry and the second was the Duke of Schomberg's force which arrived after the relief.

While Kirke dallied before carrying out the relief, Schomberg's army was preparing to sail and it was this force that provided the foundation for William's army of 1690. But, had Londonderry fallen and the Jacobites triumphed, Schomberg would have been fighting in Britain rather than Ireland.

Jacobite fortunes had been on the flow in early 1689. But their tide had reached its highest point outside the walls of Londonderry in April. Thereafter they were on the ebb. The siege had been a hinge on which the history of Ireland, Britain and Europe swung.

As Leonidas and his Spartans had changed the world at Thermopylae so the defenders of Londonderry changed Europe in those 105 days in 1689."