Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The War Of The Two Kings

So, another review of another conflict has come to an end, this one exceedingly shorter than the last, but no less fascinating. As has become my habit, I’d like to take the time to write up a quick summary of the War of the Two Kings on a few different headings, before I move on to pastures new.

As a prologue, I’d like to repeat my thoughts on the names of this conflict. The “Williamite War” is the more common name, but I’ve never liked that as a title, any more than the idea of calling it the “Jacobite War”. There were two sides, and just because the Williamites won doesn’t mean that they should just get to have their title plastered over it. The “Williamite/Jacobite War” is a bit clunky. “Two Years War” is a bit superfluous. Instead, I’ve gone with a more neutral title that I know is favoured by some academics, that captures the opposing forces and separates this Irish frontier of a larger European struggle nicely.

So, let’s press on.

Phases Of The War

As the war was relatively short –around two and a half years, if dated from March 1689 to October 1691 – the different phases are correspondingly few.

-Jacobite Supremacy – Late 1688 To July 1689

A period marked by Jacobite domination of Ireland in terms of territory controlled and troops employed. Includes the Glorious Revolution itself, the initial attempt to secure Londonderrythe First Jacobite Campaign, the Break of Dromore, James’ arrival in Ireland, Robert Lundy’s disastrous command, the Siege of Londonderry and its eventual relief.

-Gradual Williamite Onslaught – August 1689 To August 1690

A period marked by creeping superiority for the Williamites, as they invested more troops in Ireland and eventually broke out of Ulster. Includes the activities of the “Enniskilliners” and the Battle of Newtownbutler, the Battle of Bantry BaySchomburg’s Campaign, the efforts around Sligo, campaigns around Cavan and CharlemontWilliam’s arrival in Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne, James’ flight from Ireland, the 1690 Siege of Athlone, the Williamite takeover of LeinsterSarsfield’s Ride and the 1690 Siege of Limerick.

-In The Balance – Late 1690 To July 1691

A period marked by a greater parity between the two sides, before the decisive fighting of the war. Includes Marlborough’s efforts to take Cork and Kinsale, limited winter operations by both sidesGinkel’s attack on Athlone, its eventual capture, and the Battle of Aughrim.

-Williamite Victory – August 1691 To October 1691

A period marked by the disintegration of the Jacobite position and the final success of the Williamites. Includes the Siege of Galway, the 1691 Siege of Limerick and the Treaty of Limerick.

Jacobite Strengths

-Early territory control

In the early stages of the conflict, before there really was a conflict, what would become the Jacobite faction was able to do a stellar job is simply securing as much of Ireland as it could without resort to bloodshed or massacres. If nothing else can be said about Richard Talbot’s time in charge of Ireland, he was able to insure that a struggle actually took place there, by securing the allegiance of as many garrisons and existing regiments as possible, before a titanic effort at raising and arming local militia. The whole thing was a bit haphazard on the ground, but the Jacobites very nearly controlled the entirety of Ireland before a shot was really fired in anger.

-Securing French support

The war would never have lasted as long as it did without the support of Louis XIV, and securing that support was a diplomatic coup to be proud of. To be clear, I’m not talking about the support of soldiers, which would turn out to be not all that much in practise, but in terms of money, arms, supplies and a naval dimension, the alliance with France got the Jacobites a lot for very little in exchange.


Whether it was because the Irish breeds were just superior, because the cavalry commanders tended to be just a little bit better than their counterparts, or just proper utilisation, a common thread throughout the conflict is the sterling performance of the Jacobite horse, be it in battle or in raiding. Patrick Sarsfield and the Duke of Berwick are perhaps the best examples of Jacobite cavalry commanders performing near miracles on horseback, and consistently performing better than the Williamite cavalry that opposed them, perhaps no better example of which was the aftermath of the Boyne, when Jacobite cavalry prevented a terrible rout.

-Withstanding the first Williamite offensive

The Duke of Schomburg had the means, with troops, material and everything else, to crush the Jacobite cause in the latter half of 1689. But through the careful placement of troops, an emphasis on reactive defence and the hesitancy of the Williamite commander, the Jacobites were able to survive, and to see their enemy suffer substantial non-battlefield casualties. Meanwhile, they pressed ahead with offensives in Connacht, proving that they were no pushovers.

-Reorganising after the second Williamite offensive

The defeat at the Boyne and the desperate retreat to Limerick should have seen the end of the war in 1690. But the Jacobites were able to gather the troops necessary and the guile required to withstand another brutal assault, and hold in the face of severe Williamite advantages in nearly all areas. With Limerick saved, what was left the Jacobite administration, in conjunction with French officership, was able to effectively reorganise and prepare for the following years campaigns.


The end result of that was Aughrim, which was the best battle the Irish Jacobites fought in the war, somewhat ironically given the result. The infantry and cavalry sections of St Ruth’s armies performed very well that day, showing that they had learned much in just a few months, and were probably only a few moments from achieving what would have been a remarkable victory.


As ever with the Irish, effective use was made of guerrilla fighters, now known as rapparees, to harry Williamite troop moments and supply lines, harass isolated garrisons, and leave the enemy with a large amount of land that needed to be secured, stretching William’s effort to the limit.

Jacobite Weaknesses


Throughout the war, more evidently in its first half, the scattered nature of the Jacobite military was a serious deficiency, as too many troops, militia or no, were left in garrisons far from the fighting, when their presence was desperately needed elsewhere. These small garrisons were easy prey for the Williamite onslaught after the Boyne, and the failure to have a more cohesive troop deployment nationally was a serious one for the Jacobites.


If the Jacobite cavalry was consistently good, the infantry was consistently poor. Throughout the war, the Jacobite ground soldier was often left undersupplied and undertrained, without the experience necessary to stand his ground or rally when disaster struck. Time and again, Williamite forces would send Jacobite soldiers running, and not until the last stages of the war was this alleviated.

-Consistent command failures

While James II is the pre-eminent example, the Jacobites often suffered from leaders who were ill-placed in their positions, whether it was de Rosen at Londonderry, Mountcashel at Newtownbutler or the French officers who commanded most of the second siege of Limerick. There were exceptions of course, but for the most part the higher Jacobite ranks were a mess. Added to this was the often ill-natured relationship between officers, be it between Irish and French, or radical and conservative elements.

-French soldiers

While much vaunted, what actual French troops that were sent to Ireland were never able to really justify their presence, failing to fight on a number of occasions

Williamite Strengths

-Initial resistance

While confined mostly to Ulster, the initial resistance to the Jacobite moves to secure Ireland, carried out by hastily assembled Protestant militia for the most part, was crucial in determining the resulting make-up of the war. Characterised by the resistance at Londonderry, it showed that the Jacobites were not as strong as they appeared, and that a popular will to resist existed for William to tap into.

-Coalition building

By the end of the war, the Williamite army consisted of a huge number of nationalities and traditions, from Ulster militia to Danish mercenaries. That William and his commanders were able to make a functioning military out of their multi-national force, in comparisons with the constant squabbling of the Jacobites, is to be noted.

-Ever advancing

After the success at Londonderry, it is fair to say that the Williamites controlled the tempo of the entire war, ever advancing at varying speeds, halted only by major sieges, and sometimes not even for long at those. Such a reality, in terms of its morale effect on both sides, is not to be underestimated.

-Good command

The Williamites, from their figurehead to Ginkel, enjoyed consistently good commanders. With the exception perhaps of the Duke of Schomburg, every major Williamite commander could claim some credible success, with the experience of fighting on the continent a common link.


It is as good a word as I can come up with, to describe some aspects of the Williamite military in the latter half of the war. Choosing to attack at the Boyne, maintaining a seemingly hopeless siege at Athlone, executing a risky cross-river assault, pressing on in the face of possible defeat at Aughrim, and choosing to encircle Limerick, are all examples of moments when discretion could have been the better part of valour, bur wasn’t.

Williamite Weakness

-Lack of killer instinct?

In the first half of the war anyway, the Schomburg campaign being the moment that springs to mind, and also the way that the first Siege of Limerick fell out. At times, especially in the first half of the conflict, the Williamites failed to make good of their superiority in numerous areas.


Linked to that are issues of overreach. Just as the Jacobites did with their garrison policy, after the Boyne it can be argued that the Williamites grabbed too much land, far too fast, and left themselves open to the pinpricks of the rapparees and the necessity of spreading their combined military force far about, preventing a concentration of soldiers that could have ended the war quicker.


While much was often made, then and since, of Williamite artillery superiority, it amounted to little in practise. Even beyond the spectacular Jacobite success at Ballyneety, Williamite guns failed to really force the issue at Athlone twice and Limerick twice, every time proving to just be a very costly show of bangs and flashes, good enough to level buildings, but not to actually take walls.


Listed in alphabetical order, and with the usual apologies for minor figures who are absent.

-Duke of Berwick

James FitzJames would find his greatest fame fighting elsewhere in his career, but he left his mark in Ireland all the same, fighting well at Londonderry, the Boyne and later in Munster before his eventual departure to join his father on the continent. A fine cavalry commander, men like him prevented disasters from occurring with numerous rearguard actions.

-Godert de Ginkel

An iffy choice at the time, when he was appointed to command the Williamite forces in Ireland, perhaps lacking the kind of experience that others could have offered. But Ginkel proved himself, leading a huge multi-national force to repeated triumphs, often in very trying circumstances. Another commander would have abandoned the attempt to take Athlone. Another commander would have retreated from Aughrim. Another commander would have given up on Limerick. But Ginkel, through some daring manoeuvres at just the right moments, won them all. While not a spectacular military leader by any stretch, his steadfastness and determination served William well.

-Richard Hamilton

Falling into obscurity after the early stages of the war, at one point Hamilton seemed set for greater fame. Leading the first Jacobite campaign that harried so much of the north, he came undone at Londonderry, when he was completely unable to tackle the huge problems in front of him.

-Gustavus Hamilton/William Wolseley

Both men took leading roles in the creation and leadership of the famed Enniskilliner militia, which caused such havoc with Jacobite supply lines and troop movements around the time of the Siege of Londonderry and after. While not well noted after that point, both men showed aptitude for the formation of infantry units, rapid movement of military assets and aggressive battlefield tactics, culminating in the substantial victory at Newtownbutler.

-James II

In purely military terms, James’ time on Ireland was a near total failure. His limited command at Londonderry achieved nothing, and the next time he really took the field in earnest, at the Boyne, his lack of will almost destroyed his entire movement, as his flight made a minor defeat in to a much larger one. In-between, he displayed a poor understanding of how to raise, train and maintain an armed force. In exile, he proved to be just a distant figurehead.

-Percy Kirke

The admiral who saved Londonderry, though he took his sweet time about it, not wanting to risk a frontal attack on the water defences until he absolutely had to. But eventually he did, and his actions swung the entire conflict to the favour of the Williamites.

-Robert Lundy

Endlessly controversial and viciously reviled even to this day, I stand by my assertion that Lundy’s total failure as a commander in Ulster was more due to incompetence and inexperience than active attempts at sabotage. Blundering through the early campaign and nearly dooming the Protestant militia cause before William could help them, Lundy can be rightly condemned as militarily inept, albeit probably not treasonous.

-Duke of Marlborough

Churchill would achieve much greater things in years to come, not least a huge amount of notoriety, but his southern coast campaign, with the capture of the vital ports at Cork and Kinsale, was crucial in tightening the noose around the Jacobites and making easy supply and communication with France difficult. Struggling to get along with other officers and, perhaps, out for his own glory more than he should have been, Marlborough still succeeded brilliantly.

Viscount Mountcashel

Justin McCarthy had little role to play in the war, and is mostly remembered for his failed attempt to take on the Enniskilliners. His leadership at Newtownbutler was poor, and his retreat into obscurity afterwards, in this war anyway, was merited.

Conrad de Rosen

The first major French general to command in Ireland, de Rosen attempted to settle the issue at Londonderry in brutal style, but succeeded mostly in firming up the resistance of its defenders. Unhappy in Ireland, with the army and with the King he had to serve, his own performance was hardly stellar.

Patrick Sarsfield

Perhaps the most well regarded Irish soldier of the war, Sarsfield certainly did not deserve the apparent disdain that James II had for him. Throughout the fighting, and in various different areas, Sarsfield proved himself a daring and capable cavalry commander, an icon for troops to rally around, and committed to the cause. Aside from his heroic “Ride”, he served admirably in campaigns around Sligo, and later again in Limerick. It is easy to see why his reputation had grown so much by the end of the war that he was essentially commanding the entire movement in its final days.

Duke of Schomburg

Arriving in Ireland with much purpose, and given a very large force with which to crush the enemy, much was expected of Schomburg. But, through his own hesitancy, bad conditions, and a certain stalemate on the Leinster frontier, his main role in the war was to be the man who oversaw one of the greatest Williamite disasters, as his army was eaten away by disease and desertion. Partially redeemed by the manner of his death at the Boyne, his son followed in his place and performed admirably.

Marquis de St Ruth

While he only got a limited time in Ireland, St Ruth demonstrated some exceptional command abilities, helping to reorganise and lead an army that had grown greatly in stature and threat since it had last taken the field. While he could, perhaps, have done more to defend Athlone, he fought a skilful battle at Aughrim, on ground of his choosing and with the correct use of his various troops. Perhaps only a short time from winning a famous victory, his death was the mortal blow for the larger Jacobite cause.

Earl of Tyrconnell

Richard Talbot did as much as anyone else, or more, in making sure that Ireland even got to the point of having a war to resist the takeover of William. Leading James’ government in Ireland for most of the war, he was an able administrator, but must take his share of the blame for the poor quality of Jacobite troops, the failure of the Jacobite garrison system, and the sometimes fractious relationships between various officers. His death was still a bad blow for the cause, and with his passing Ireland lost a man who had lived through some terrible conflicts.

George Walker/Henry Baker/Adam Murray/ John Mitchelburn

These four were among the chief leaders of the Londonderry resistance, after the departure of Robert Lundy, in that famous siege. Taking on different aspects of the defence, from civil administration to military operations, they formed the core of an extraordinary group of men who faced down superior Jacobite numbers and held out in increasingly desperate conditions, until relieved in late July 1689. Without their stubborn opposition, it is possible that the Jacobites could have controlled all of Ireland before William had a chance to land troops there.

William III

The head of the Williamite movement himself had only a brief, but very noteworthy, time in Ireland. Effectively commanding a huge army, his famous victory over James at the Boyne was less than it was later made out to be, but proof that only one King in the War of the Two Kings was worth anything in a battle. His forces subsequently ran riot over much of Ireland, but his time there was ended by the frustrating failure outside Limerick, when William was unable to overcome the stubbornness of the defenders. From then, he left the fighting to others, leaving his Irish military legacy somewhat pockmarked.

Crucial Moments

Looking at the four phases I have marked out above, there are certain crucial or decisive moments in this war that are obvious.

The first is, of course, the relief of Londonderry. If Kirke’s attempt had been turned back and if the siege had continued for just a bit longer, it is possible that the town would have had to capitulate, which would have been a terrible blow to the early Williamite movement. It would not have ended the war, but the entire dynamic of the fighting in Ulster afterwards would have been different, from the combat at Newtownbutler to any attempted march on the last Protestant holdouts in eastern Ulster. Londonderry’s survival gave William a source of manpower, a base in the north, and a springboard for attacks into Connacht and the midlands.

The second is not the Boyne, which remains an exaggerated moment, though it had its significant consequences. In terms of defining that period of the war, it was the Siege of Limerick in 1690 that we must look to. Here was the Jacobite movement apparently on the brink of collapse, chased down to a last stronghold and facing the might of the victorious Williamite army. Starting with the strike back at Ballyneety, the Jacobites held out, eventually inflicting a bruising defeat on their enemy for the first time in months, and doing enough to insure the war continued into the new year. The Williamites could have won the war on the momentum that followed the Boyne, but didn’t. At Limerick, the Jacobites blunted that advance, in an epic the equal of Londonderry in Irish military history.

From there, you only have to look as far as Aughrim. The point can be made again: the Jacobites were achingly close to winning that battle. All it would have taken was the deployment of reserve cavalry to negate that last flanking manoeuvre, and Ginkel would have been out of options. Now, it is important to note that a reversal of result at Aughrim would not have meant a Jacobite victory in the war. But, it would have meant the war continuing into 1692, and with that extra time a myriad of possibilities could have come into being. More continental support. A Williamite collapse to mirror that of the Jacobites in 1690. A bloody stalemate in the style of portions of the Eleven Year Wars. And, through the commitment of Williamite resources there, a larger effect on the growing continental war. The cannon fire that killed St Ruth may have killed or saved many others.

Lastly, one can only look to Limerick and the disaster on Thomond Bridge. The city could have held out, but to what end? Who knows what the extension of the war into 1692, at that low ebb, might have accomplished. Probably not all that much. The crucialness of that moment is in a larger Irish historical context, through the submission of the Treaty of Limerick.

Final Thoughts

It seems that the big watershed moments in Irish history are consistently accompanied by major political violence, and the 17th century, Ireland’s bloodiest, is typical. At its beginning, the old Gaelic system of chieftains, tanistry and independent political entities was swept away by the Elizabethan victory in the Nine Years War. 50 years later, the Old English aristocracy’s political power and privilege was reduced and nearly extinguished in the fires of the Eleven Year Wars and the brutality of its Cromwellian Conquest.

Forty years after that, the War of the Two Kings erupted, a different kind of war, but one with no less significant consequences. In war after war, the powers and rights of the Irish population – the majority of it anyway – were reduced. In this war, it was Catholic Ireland, its lower class peasantry, who lost the most. Three times in the previous century, Catholic peasantry had joined a struggle against primarily British interference and domination of their land. Three times they were on the losing side. Now, came the true Protestant Ascendency, that had been in construction for decades already. After the Treaty of Limerick, and the dismantling of that document, it would start heading towards its zenith. Out of the will to resist militarily, and for many other reasons besides, that Catholic population were now locked into a system that viewed them as inferior. It was a system that would last a long time, and the embedded sectarian animosity it promoted would never be killed off.

The war had been fought, to an extent, over the rights of Catholics under British control. But it had also been fought for James, and his claim over the British throne. He would never get it back. But his successors, pretenders old and young, would keep trying. With some notable exceptions, that I will get to in time, the Irish were not there to help them.

Today, the banks of the Boyne River, the crumbling remnants of Limerick’s ancient walls and the sloping hills of Aughrim are quiet places, little hinting at the momentous events that they played host to. They witnessed the end of Ireland’s bloody century, and the start of a double-edged period of history: a long peace, and a long tyranny.

Ireland’s Wars will take a brief break next week as I consider where to go next. Obviously, there is that long peace to talk about, and I feel it would be appropriate to perhaps spend some time discussing the fate of some of those “Wild Geese” and their service in various Europeans armies, before the inevitable approach to 1798.  But there is also a temptation to jump backwards, as I did a while ago for the Norman Conquest, and perhaps greater explore some aspects of Irish military history that I have previously been lax with. We’ll see. As ever, I remain grateful and appreciative for every view, subscribe, comment and share.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The War Of The Two Kings

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The United Irishmen | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The 1798 Rebellion | Never Felt Better

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