The Williamite War


This is the first in a series of seven blog posts highlighting and summarizing important events in Irish history, and Burns Library resources which aid in further study of the topic.   Burns Library holds many Irish history resources and is an invaluable resource for scholars in this field.

The Williamite War (1689-1691), or War of British Succession, was a political, social, and religious conflict between James II and William of Orange that spilled into Ireland.  Burns Library holds multiple 19th and 20th summaries of the Williamite War. It also holds many sources from the leaders of the Irish forces. Material is also available on the subsequent Treaty of Limerick, and the general topic of attempts to restore the Roman Catholic King James II and his heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland during the time period of the Williamite War.

William of Orange, a Dutchman married to James II’s eldest daughter, Mary, invaded England and took the English throne through a military conspiracy which was backed by Parliament. The English Parliament wanted to overthrow James II for two main reasons: James II was a Catholic convert and intended to make Roman Catholicism the dominant religion in England, and his strong connections to King Louis XIV of France.  France was not only a Catholic power, it was also the main threat England faced in terms of war and expansion on the European continent. England’s Parliament and the Anglican majority had tolerated James II’s religion, believing the monarchy would revert to Anglican control upon his death. However, in 1688, James II produced a male heir, James Francis Edward, and immediately baptized him as a Catholic, setting up a hereditary Catholic monarchy which was unacceptable to both groups.  

Parliament thus put their support behind William of Orange, a Dutchman who had led successful military campaigns against Spain, another Catholic power. The English Parliament and William’s Dutch connections both wanted a strong military leader who would help them join the Grand Alliance and lead England against French expansion. (Murtagh, 1993, 39-40)  William invaded England with 40,000 mercenary soldiers, and James II, not having the support of the local English army, fled to France,effectively abdicating his title. After a series of negotiations within the English Parliament, William of Orange was implemented as the new monarch.

James II vs William III

Profiles of King James II (left) and King William III (right). Supporters of James II were called “Jacobites,” and those who supported William “Williamites,” and later Orangemen. From The History of the Williamite and Jacobite Wars in Ireland: From Their Origins to Their Capture at Athlone by Robert Cane, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

James II then turned to Ireland where he found both sympathy and allies.  Ireland’s population was majority Catholic, and many Irish thought King James was the best chance at political reform for Catholic rights and privileges.  The Crown of Ireland Act of 1542 had established the King of England as the King of Ireland,, so Irish Catholics felt more secure with James II on the throne. James also maintained his connections in France, which provided him with both military aid and political support and also did not recognize William of Orange as the legitimate King of England.

The Williamite War took place in Ireland, the place where James II had found refuge and military support.  William landed in Northern Ireland with his army, and James II, backed by a less disciplined Irish army, moved to meet him.  This led to the Battle of the Boyne, in which the Irish were forced to retreat. James II fled to Dublin during this battle, then from there took a ship to France, effectively deserting the forces who had rallied behind him.  Demonstrating the long term influence of this conflict, King William’s Protestant victory at the Boyne is still celebrated annually in Northern Ireland by Orangemen and is referred to as “The Twelfth”.

KIC Image 14

A book about Patrick Sarsfield, presenting him as an Irish hero. From The Life of Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan: with a short narrative of the principal events of the Jacobite war in Ireland, by John Todhunter, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Patrick Sarsfield, an Irish Jacobite who had a strong military  reputation gained from service in the French Army, emerged as the new leader of the outnumbered and out matched Irish forces.  He intended to have the Irish forces hold out as long as possible to force a stalemate which would allow Ireland a more favorable position from which to negotiate an agreement with England.  The Irish Jacobites hoped that the terms would provide religious toleration and preserve their property. To that end, the Irish army retreated to Limerick, intending to hold their position as long as possible, hoping that William of Orange wanted a quick resolution in Ireland.  

Godert de Ginkell was put in command of the English forces so William could return to England and solidify his position as king.  The final battle of the Williamite War would ultimately be fought at Limerick, where the Irish would make their last stand. . The Irish position was further weakened after another major defeat in the Battle of Aughrim.  The English army besieged the Irish forces at Limerick, culminating in an all out assault on their position. This battle ended the Williamite War with an English victory and an Irish surrender on September 23, 1691.

Siege Warfare Diagram

Diagram of siege warfare, a tactic which occurred frequently during the Williamite War. From page 225 of The Williamite War in Ireland 1688-1691 by Richard Doherty, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The war officially ended with the Treaty of Limerick, which stated that Ireland would recognize William of Orange as monarch, but, despite the rebellion, would gain religious toleration and maintain their property. Irish army members would not be tried nor executed and would be given the options of retirement, joining the French army, or joining the British army.  The majority of the Irish forces chose to leave Ireland and join the French army, an event which is referred to as ‘the flight of the wild geese’, joining the Irish regiment which already existed in France and forming the Jacobite court at St. Germain. The Treaty of Limerick was not honored by the English, as discrimination

Land held by Catholics

Many Catholics left Ireland for France after the Williamite War, and land was confiscated from many who stayed. The proportion of Irish land held by Catholics was only at 14% in 1703, as compared to 22% in 1688, before the war occurred. From page 196 of The Williamite Confiscation in Ireland, 1690-1703, by J G. Simms, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

against Catholics continued, and many Catholic landowners had their land confiscated.  The Williamite Confiscation of Ireland 1690-1703 discusses the redistribution of Irish lands after the Williamite War.  This conflict also led to the creation of the penal laws against Catholics in Ireland, which would not be repealed until the late 18th century. These laws were intended to dismantle the established Irish Catholic elite by reducing their power in the military, and attempting to erase Irish culture in an effort to anglicize or civilize Ireland. More on the penal laws and Burns Library resources for their study in my next post!

  • Sadie Sunderland, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of History


Doherty, Richard. The Williamite War in Ireland 1688-1691. Dublin ; Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 1998.

Cane, Robert, Lenihan, Maurice, and Moody, T. W. , Former Owner. The History of the Williamite and Jacobite Wars in Ireland : From Their Origin to the Capture of Athlone. Dublin: Printed by J.M. O’Toole, 1859.

Simms, J. G. The Williamite Confiscation in Ireland, 1690-1703. Studies in Irish History ; v. 7. London: Faber and Faber, 1956.

Murtagh, Harman. “The Williamite War 1689-91.” History Ireland 1, no. 1 (1993): 39-42.

Todhunter, John. Life of Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan : With a Short Narrative of the Principal Events of the Jacobite War in Ireland. New Irish Library ; Vol. VII. London : Dublin: T. F. Unwin ; Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1895

This entry was posted in Irish Studies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s