So, just what did happen to bring about the War of the Two Kings? We’ve covered some of the political developments in the inter-war period that affected both Britain and Ireland, but now is the time to go into greater detail about how the war itself actually came about.
Somewhat strangely, it has little to do with Ireland directly. In many respects, the War of the Two Kings was a British conflict that happened to be fought, by and large, in Ireland, with very limited fighting taking place in other arenas. There are many reasons for this, but it is important to keep in mind for the following. While this series is about Irish military history, this post will largely be about British political history.
Charles II’s reign was filled with Parliamentary disputes, financial crises, foreign wars and other problems, but his rule is still viewed positively by history. In the aftermath of the Civil Wars, Charles offered stability and a return to traditional rule, with his “merry monarch” nickname well-earned. But as the years of his reign went by, a very serious issue arose: the succession.
The problem was that despite two marriages Charles was unable to produce an heir to the throne himself. Sure, he fathered a boatload of children with an impressive variety of mistresses, but when it came to legitimate children, Charles was unable to produce anything. It became clear long before his death that the Kingdom would not find its future ruler through him.
That meant that Charles’ younger brother, James, was the designated heir. The Duke of York was a man who went through phases of popularity and unpopularity before his ascension to the throne, having some military glory to his name through the admiralty but disliked due to his dalliances with Catholicism. After the death of his first wife, who gave him two surviving daughters, James grew closer to the religion, confirming his conversion after the passing of the Test Act in 1673, a law that essentially guaranteed high ranking positions only to those who partook in Protestant services. James became a political pariah, a situation further inflamed when he married a Catholic Italian princess.
English legislators revolted as well as they could, their passions further inflamed by Titus Oates and the Popish Plot. On repeated occasions they attempted to pass laws that would have excluded James from the succession, and each time Charles stepped in and dissolved Parliament before they could. Parliament was divided between those who supported such a bill and those who opposed. Nicknames that stuck for century’s emerged to describe this divide, as the Whigs, after radical Scottish Covenanters, supported the law, and the Tories, after Irish rebels in the last war, opposed it.
Throughout this time, the late 1670’s and into the 1680’s, James was quietly removed from England, essentially in exile while he served in various positions in the Low Countries and Scotland. A foiled assassination plot (yes, another one) in 1683 boosted his popularity enough that Charles was comfortable bringing him back to England the following year, but serious tensions remained.
Charles died in February 1685, aged 54 and having converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. James became James II of England and James VII of Scotland. His accession was relatively smooth, helped by his own line of succession: his eldest child, Mary, had been married to the extremely Protestant William of Orange, James’ nephew. A Dutch Prince and Stadtholder, William was seen by many anti-Catholics as a future King in waiting, with the equally Protestant Mary at his side to legitimise such a move.
So, an openly Catholic King could be tolerated. There were two semi-serious revolts against James early in his rule, one led by the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles some had hoped to place into the line of succession. Both revolts were defeated easily enough, but hardened James against any of his political enemies.
It wasn’t long before James was starting to encourage more dissent. He insisted on the maintenance of a larger than normal standing army, with many regiments commanded by Catholics. He encouraged a reduction or abolition of the so called “Penal Laws” in favour of more persecution to be directed at Presbyterians. When Parliament refused to acquiesce to his wishes, he dissolved it and never called it again. More Catholics were appointed to high positions in the government, filled more places at court, and James even allowed the Papal States to send an envoy to London for the first time since Mary I’s reign.
As time went on, James became bolder and bolder in his attempts to lessen anti-Catholic activities, ordering the Anglican Church to read out his own proclamations on the subject from pulpits throughout the Kingdom. He prepared for the total repeal of the Test Act and similar legislation, to be carried out by a Parliament that he would stack with Catholics and his own supporters. But by then, in 1688, events were overtaking him.
In June of that year James’ wife gave birth to a healthy son, named after his father and baptized a Catholic. The Protestant hardliners could no longer tolerate the monarchy in its then form, with a Catholic dynasty created and liable to undo the Reformation. Rumours suddenly abounded that the younger James was illegitimate, while leading figures in the Kingdom now actively sought out other options to James II.
Seven of those – known to some as the “Immortal Seven”, rather grandly – approached William of Orange, inviting him to raise an army, land in England and overthrow James, a move they would support politically and militarily. William eventually agreed, and made arrangements for the crossing of troops.
The military build-up could not be hidden, and James was well warned of what was happening. Trusting in his standing army, he declined offers of assistance from the French monarchy. But, when William did arrive in England in early November, James’ planned military resistance fell to pieces quickly. Many Protestant officers either defected or refused to fight, and James’ cause was abandoned by a host of people, including his younger daughter Anne. James still had a numerical advantage in terms of troops, but seems to have lost his nerve and refused a full on engagement with the invading forces.
With William advancing, the English army failing in a number of skirmishes and amid anti-Catholic rioting in a number of cities (some of them inspired by vague rumours of a pro-James Irish Army about to attack the capital), James made the fateful decision to flee the country, leaving London on the 11th of December, allegedly flinging the Great Seal of the Realm into the Thames while doing so. Bereft of protection, he was quickly captured and returned to London, but was essentially allowed to leave the country unmolested by a victorious William, who had no desire to turn James into a martyr like Charles I had been, and perhaps believing that James would be left stranded in a French exile. There was also the matter of the succession, with it still unclear whether William would become King or if James would retain that title, the Parliament fearing a prolonged Civil War. William’s plans worked better with James absent, but alive. A regicide would probably not have taken the crown easily.
James was eventually declared to have abdicated his Kingdom by trying to flee it, with his daughter Mary now declared Queen, with William to serve as King alongside her in a hitherto unique (for England) dual monarchy. Mary still had affection for her father, but was a devoted wife as well, and was disgusted by James’ pro-Catholic tendencies. In this joint sovereignty, it was William that would hold the majority of the power, Mary willingly ceding it to her husband except when he would be absent. The so-called “Glorious Revolution” – because it was so bloodless – seemed to have settled political matters in England. But of course, there was always Ireland.
James’ policy in Ireland matched that in England, where greater and greater toleration was offered to Catholics, at the expense of the established Protestant ascendency. Catholics were given greater legal rights when it came to land disputes, and James eventually moved to have his armed forces in Ireland constituted as a largely Catholic military, led by Catholic officers, with the political administration headed by Catholics, all things that the Protestant classes felt were abhorrent.
James’ chief man in Ireland was Richard Talbot, the Earl of Tyrconnell, and brother of Peter Talbot, one of the men executed as part of the Popish Plot hysteria (the noble title had been granted by James, Talbot having no relation to the O’Donnell family that had held it the last time it was relevant to this series. It had gone extinct and been recreated a couple of times since then). Talbot was a veteran of the Confederation of Kilkenny, serving in Thomas Preston’s Leinster Army as a junior cavalry officer. He was present, 41 years earlier, at the disastrous Battle of Dungan’s Hill, where he was captured. He was later traded and served at the bloody Siege of Drogheda in 1649, escaping from the slaughter after Oliver Cromwell’s forces made it into the town. He had spent much of the rest of the war in exile, serving Charles II and his family during the Protectorate years, before being restored to favour after the Restoration.
James trusted Talbot a great deal, and made him both Lord Deputy and commander-in-chief of all Irish military forces in early 1687. Talbot went about making those armed forces as Catholic as possible, leading a program of promoting more Catholic officers and raising more Catholic militia. These moves, along with the appointment of Catholics to sheriff and judge positions, antagonised Protestants and even led to a small streak of emigration from Ireland during the reign of James.
The events of the Glorious Revolution were obviously felt in Ireland, where it is easily believed that James had his strongest rates of approval. The highest concentration of Protestants was in the north of the country, but nearly everywhere else, save for a few fortresses manned by Protestant militia, could be said to very pro-James – or Jacobite, to give them the term that I will soon be using more liberally – and were ready to stand by their King. Leinster, Munster, Connacht and most of their towns and castles, were places that were either already held by Catholic forces, were dependent on Catholics for supply and so easily taken over, or had Protestant or Protestant led garrisons that preferred to march north to the relative safety of Ulster than stay and fight a hopeless battle.
Not that Talbot had it all easy. In truth, his military takeover of Ireland in James’ name was a terribly untidy thing, where bands of Catholic militia were raised with very little arms or training to set them apart from some sort of lawless mob, of which there were plenty to be found. No bloodshed of the sort that occurred in 1641 took place, but Talbot was still barely in control of the military forces in Ireland.
In fact, many of the militia units that Talbot called to be formed disbanded shortly afterwards, for lack of proper weapons or orders. Others became a law unto themselves, stealing cattle and harassing whomever they could find, operating like the Tories and Kerns of yesteryear. This new breed would eventually gain the name “Raperees” from the Irish word “ropaire”, meaning a half-pike, a weapon the Raperees frequently wielded. They would eventually become a more recognisable part of the Jacobite war effort in Ireland, but in 1688 they were viewed more as criminal gangs terrorising the countryside and taking advantage of a breakdown in law and order.
As 1688 came to a close, this was the stage that was set, with the new regime of William and Mary in control of Britain and James retaining control, nominally through Talbot, of much of Ireland (or at least, its allegiance). A fight was inevitable, and so Ireland would be the location for a war that would settle this political question concerning the entirety of the Three Kingdoms. It would begin, as it probably had to, in Ulster.
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