The Jacobites had survived a bitter autumn, and had inflicted a defeat on the Williamite army at Limerick that was considerable. There was now no danger that the Jacobites would be totally defeated in 1690, but the campaigning season had not yet reached its culmination. William had departed, but his army remained in play, only partially disbanded into winter quarters throughout Leinster and Williamite controlled Munster.
William had initially given command of the army over to Count Solmes, one of his Dutch generals, but it wasn’t long before he was called back to England for service elsewhere. In his place, Godert de Ginkel was placed in overall command. Ginkel had not done anything in the war so far to really grab much attention , save for his aborted left flank movement at the Boyne, but that would change in the coming year. For now, he had an army to reorganise and a land to maintain: there were plenty of hardships in Williamite controlled territory, just as there were for the Jacobites.
William placed great trust in his Dutch officers, having little time for their British equivalent, of whom he had little knowledge, and sometimes open dislike. One of these was John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill had been an ardent supporter of James earlier in his reign, playing a pivotal role in the defeat of the Monmouth rebellion. However, he turned on James following his increased toleration and promotion of Catholics, joining the “Glorious Seven” in their aim of getting William to take the throne, deserting James’ army at a crucial moment in the “Glorious Revolution”. Churchill justified his betrayal as an act of conscience, but it was convenient that it dove-tailed with his own self-promotion.
Churchill was showered with titles, not least the Dukedom that he has become better known by. But William actually had little time for Marlborough, whom he distrusted for his easy back turning on James. Marlborough’s wife didn’t get on well with many at court, and Marlborough himself was kept at home for the most part, reorganising British militia, not counting a brief period in 1689 when he was engaged in the Low Countries. Dissatisfied with a largely symbolic role as a military advisor to Queen Mary while William fought in Ireland, Marlborough pressed for an independent command, and got it.
His task would be to take the two key southern ports on Ireland’s coastline: the city of Cork and the town of Kinsale. Lifelines for the Jacobite war effort, they provided a link with the continent and a gateway for supplies, money and reinforcements to come from that origin point. And they were no easy targets either: both places had garrisons and defences, providing a threat and a distraction to any future Williamite efforts in the area. With the larger Jacobite military fled beyond the Shannon and in no mood to march out and face the Williamites in open battle, it was a prescient time to take the offensive against the two points, but it remained to be seen whether Marlborough would have the ability to actually take them. He pushed hard for the appointment, arguing that Cork and Kinsale could not be left in Irish hands into the New Year, lest they become easy avenues for the French to send more troops to Ireland.
William was unhappy with the way elements of his government at home turned to Marlborough, but reluctantly assented to his command appointment. In September, Churchill sailed from England, with a mid-sized fleet carrying 5’000 soldiers. His initial task was no easier than the overall one: the passage to Cork City up the Lee was well-guarded on either side of the river.
Marlborough’s fleet was in the area on the 21st of September, his opponents well notified of his movements. Cannon mounted on the west and east banks opened fire, around the modern day areas of Rushbrooke and Monkstown; Marlborough pressed ahead with some of his smaller boats, was able to land troops, and then took the batteries from behind, eliminating them as a threat. It was quick, decisive action, and Marlborough was only just getting started.
Within a few days his entire force was landed, and marched towards the south of Cork City, there to be joined by 4’000 Danish soldiers under the Duke of Wurttemberg, one of the foreign contingents that had suffered badly at Limerick, but now swung south to try and gain a victory. The combined armies came close to 10’000 men, but suffered arguments of command, both Duke’s arguing for their right to leadership, eventually agreeing to a haphazard alternating arrangement. Issues of jealousy and ambition were rife, and Marlborough, a British general commanding a mostly British army, had a point to make.
Cork, while no pushover, was no Limerick either. It had the unfortunate position of being lower than many of the hills surrounding it, hills that only had simple fortifications upon them to ward off attack. The Lee’s course provided some natural defence, but it would not be a hard task for an attacking army to gain favourable position, which is exactly what Marlborough was able to achieve. Combined to that was the scarcity of men for the city’s defence, and the paucity of provisions for its inhabitants, who had not been expecting to have to fight any more campaigns until 1691 had come.
The Williamites were not long clearing the outskirts of the city, setting up positions at Red Abbey, Friar’s Walk and Shandon Castle, most of which were actively abandoned by the Jacobite defenders, who preferred to retreat inside the city walls rather than fight for the outposts. Marlborough and Wurttemberg commenced a bombardment of both the city and its walls, suffering little in the form of retaliation. It wasn’t long before Marlborough had created a breach that might have been actionable, but he still had to reckon with the defence offered by the Lee and its associated marshes.
But in truth Marlborough could have easily dealt with the problem by being less obstinate. The garrison of Cork, lacking men, arms, the realistic possibility of relief and the will to hold out in the same manner as Limerick, wanted no part of the army outside the walls. As soon as a breach had been created, and pressed by the citizenry who wanted to avoid a bloodbath, they sought a parley for the purpose of gaining suitable surrender terms.
Those terms were standard: being allowed to march freely out of the city with arms and flags, and from there being allowed to head north to Jacobite territory. Many other generals would have accepted such terms in return for the bloodless seizure of a city like Cork, with all of its worth.
But Marlbourgh did not accept. William had done so at other points in the war, and maybe it was this reality that made Churchill do what he did. He wanted to make both a point and a name for himself, and he couldn’t do that with a walkover. Wurttemberg was aghast, and fresh arguments erupted between the two commanders.
Eventually Marlborough won out, and the two sides of the Williamite army combined for an attempted storming. On the 27th of September, only a few days after the siege had been enacted, they went forward. The difficulties and dangers were no smaller than what they had been at Limerick and, with the added obstacle of the Lee, perhaps they were even worse. The Danes and the British slogged forward through mire and the river, taking fire from the walls at all times.
But the garrison at Cork was not the garrison of Limerick, in size or commitment to the fight. As soon as the Williamites reached the breach, the white flag was raised and another parley called. Now the garrison of the town agreed to Marlborough’s demands, making themselves prisoners of war, surrendering their arms and handing the city over. In exchange they received surety of their lives and possessions.
The terms were not faithfully held, or at least not by the rank-and-file of the Williamites who, upon entering Cork itself, proceeded to plunder and wreck as much as they could, Marlborough and Wurttemberg being largely unable to get them in check for some time. The incident reflected badly on both men, and on the perception of Williamite faithfulness: but there would be worse examples before the war was finished.
As it was, Marlborough, with the help, and sometimes hindrance, of Wurttemberg, had won a significant victory for little cost. Cork was in Williamite hands, after a brief siege, though it could potentially have been even shorter than it turned out to be. The defenders had been of little worth, and the only real question surrounding the outcome is whether it was truly necessary for Churchill to move forward with plans for storming at all. His own ego was certainly playing a part.
With the fall of Cork, one half of Marlborough’s objectives had been achieved. The second, to the west, now awaited him.
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