The War of the Two Kings pivots around the city of Londonderry, which in 1689 was one of the main urban centres of Ulster, having grown substantially from the small settlement that it had been when it was first taken over by English settlers in 1600, at the height of a very different war. Now, it had a bigger port, a much larger population, substantial walls and artillery defences.
When the trouble in England developed, and the Earl of Tyrconnell was told to secure Ireland for James II, he was mostly successful, save for a few very key points. Two of the most important holdouts were Enniskillin, in Fermanagh, and Londonderry, Protestant dominated centres who refused to allow their garrisoning to be turned over to Catholic militia (or, at least, did not form one themselves). There are actually suggestions that Talbot may have taken loyal troops from Londonderry to be part of the force of Irish soldiers sent to England to support James II, in that aborted operation, thus leaving the town dangerously undefended from Williamite sentiment.
Having realised this very late in November of 1688, Talbot ordered an ally, Alexander MacDonnell, the Earl of Antrim, to assemble a force of men quickly and re-garrison Londonderry as soon as possible. Aside from being a walled town of note, Londonderry was also a very important port on the north coast of Ireland, and at this point Talbot was probably becoming more and more sensitive to the potential future problem of invasion from hostile forces. Londonderry could be an ideal landing point, if unsecured.
So, Antrim was sent to secure. But the elderly MacDonnell – 74 at the time- dithered, spending several weeks in assembling the force required, allegedly being very particular about the kind of men he wanted to employ: one source suggesting that he mandated that all of his soldier be at least six foot tall. By the start of December, Antrim had been able to get around 1200 men together, of a Scottish Catholic background, and commenced marching towards Londonderry, located near the modern day border of Counties Donegal and Derry.
The situation in the town itself was fractious. Its government was piecemeal and divided, little more than a few Protestant gentry who had been thrust into the position and were now racked with indecision about what to do. There was no all out support for either the Jacobite or Williamite cause: many Protestants still saw James, despite his Catholicism, as the rightful King, and were wary of declaring openly against him in favour of any challenger. Added into this turbulent mix of political anxiety, were fears that the Protestant settlers might be about to face a massacre on a par with the bloodshed of 1641, with rumours of large scale murder and roving bands of murderous Catholics commonplace. The news that a largely Catholic force of soldiers was approaching the town to act as its new garrison did not help things, and only fanned the flames of rumour and disquiet. Intense debates took place amid the Londonderry citizenry as to whether the approaching garrison should be allowed inside the walls at all, and before the issue even came to a head, the Catholic population of the town was being expelled.
Antrim was near the walls on December 7th. The town leadership remained paralyzed, with no firm indication from sources as to whether they had decided to fully welcome or reject the coming troops. But then, in a moment that has resonated throughout history down to the present day, the decision was taken out of their hands.
What exactly happened at that moment, as Antrim’s troops might have been literal minutes from marching through the town gates, has been distorted by romantic myth and dodgy sources ever since. The traditional tale will be well known to most: that 13 young “apprentice boys” of the town took it upon themselves to seize and shut the gates against the approaching army, before doing the same to all of the other entrances and gaining control of the artillery defences, with a nice cry of “No surrender!” usually thrown in with the telling.
The likely truth is much more complex, as is almost inevitable for such an important moment. The sources closest to the actual time and place, the histories published just a year or so after, make no mention of “apprentice boys”, and neither do the records of the correspondence sent from the town in the aftermath. There are references to “our rabble”, made up of young people “of the meaner sort” seizing and closing the gate against the orders of the town leadership. Second hand sources name the 13, but do not actually call them apprentice boys, and the descriptions of them – wearing swords and with the “Mr (Master) honorific – do not indicate that they were trainee tradespeople.
More likely that a larger group of people – call them the “crowd” or the “mob” or the “rabble” as you like – hearing of the approach of the soldiers and with no one to really stop them, decided to talk matters into their own hands in a spur of the moment way, with the 13 named men possibly fulfilling something approaching a leadership role. It suited the town leadership really, so divided as they were about what to do: they may have willingly done nothing to stop a group of people seizing control of the gates to stop the soldiers gaining entrance, just so they could later claim that the action had nothing to do with them if they were put into a position where they would have to condemn it.
The actual “Apprentice Boys” moniker is likely an 18th century invention, one meant to imbue the entire affair with a greater amount of romanticism and underdog-style storytelling, giving its remembrance a very specific focus to rally support for the unionist cause around: the modern Apprentice Boys are one of the largest Protestant fraternal societies around. Irish history is full of such exaggerations and myths, on all sides of the nationalist/unionists divide. It can well be argued that it is largely meaningless anyway: the gate was closed, this is not in doubt, and the identity of the people who actually did it is a minor detail. But, still worth talking about.
The troops now left outside the walls were confused and uncertain about how to proceed. Thier leader wasn’t even with them, having dallied behind, and this force of men has been given no instructions on what to do if this level of resistance was shown. Certainly, an attack on Londonderry at this point was not something even remotely to be contemplated. Under threat from the guns now controlled by the “young rabble”, they were obligated to retire.
Londonderry remained locked for the rest of the day and that night, as an impromptu militia was formed with guns and powder taken from the town’s armoury. When Antrim finally did meet up with his force, he was at a loss on how to proceed as well, having neither the means nor the inclination to attempt on assault on the walls of the town. It was a dicey situation, and his diplomatic efforts at gaining entrance came to nought, much of the town’s population now dead set against admitting any troops, be it from fear of Catholic butchery or, now, a fear of reprisal because of the initial resistance. With no options to be contemplated directly in front of him, Antrim decided to hold back and seek new instructions from Dublin.
Other people sending communications to Talbot were the leaders of Londonderry, both distancing themselves from the actions of those who has closed the gates and seeking some new kind of settlement. No red flag of rebellion had been raised yet, but the situation in Ulster was liable to spark up and become a conflagration with the smallest misstep.
When Talbot finally did hear the news of what had happened, he was furious, and determined to stamp out this act of potential revolution in Ireland. To that end, he ordered Sir William Stewert, the Viscount Mountjoy, to assemble a force and occupy the town, by strength of arms if necessary. Mountjoy, a Protestant, was not trusted highly by Talbot, but may have been preferred for the task exactly because of his religion – or maybe Talbot was just testing him, one of the last important Protestant officers of the King’s forces in Ireland. Mountjoy was wary of the task handed to him, and was more determined to seek a peaceful solution, putting himself in communication with the town even as he started marching towards it.
In the back and forth, a deal was reached. A proportion of Mountjoy’s army, to be made up entirely of Protestants, would be permitted entry to garrison Londonderry, with all involved in the sealing of the gates to be granted pardons and exemption from accusations of rebellion. The rest of the army could be quartered in the immediate area, especially around Strabane.
Thus agreed, with Talbot’s apparent approval, Mountjoy marched his forces into the town and effected a garrison. No blood was shed. Despite what some might want to obfuscate and deny today, the Siege of Londonderry did not begin in December of 1688, and the defiant act of closing the gates on the forces loyal to James II was followed soon after by allowing more of them inside, only a few weeks after the first act of resistance took place. Historical moments of significance are nearly always more complicated than they initially appear.
But the resistance of Londonderry was far more important than it might have initially seemed as well. To the casual viewer, a moderately important town in the north of Ireland had resisted central authority for a short time, but had been bloodlessly persuaded to get with the program. No big deal. But the closing of the gates was a very firm signal of Protestant resistance to the newly Catholic administration in Dublin, and the Jacobite cause in general, and it was a moment that served as a rallying cry to large parts of the rest of Ulster as well. Towns could take matters into their own hands, civilians could resist, and it could work too. With the situation in England deteriorating by the day, the example of Londonderry showed that what would become the Williamite movement was not some flash in the pan pushover.
Talbot was unhappy with Mountjoy’s terms with Londonderry, and his more general suggestions for how to govern the country – which amounted to, more or less, a request that the raising of troops be ceased – and soon dispatched Mountjoy on business to the exiled James in France, nominally to report to him about the situation in Ireland, but really just to get Mountjoy out of the way. Things were coming to a head in Ireland, and fighting was soon to break out.
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