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“Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.” —Job 4:8

The Siege of Derry Begins, April 18, 1689

Nations of the world often have some great battle or last stand or heroic deeds that everyone learns about in popular culture and family lore. Sometimes the event achieves a mythological status, the symbolism and power over the imagination becoming more important than the details, although the details are known by all. For the United States in general and Texas in particular, the Battle of the Alamo serves that purpose. For the English, it was Roark’s Drift and Waterloo; for South Africa, Blood River. To the Ulstermen of Northern Ireland, the Siege of Londonderry has no peer.

King Charles II of England (1630-1685)

King James II of England (1633-1701)

On February 6, 1685, Charles Stuart, King of England, died in agony after collapsing four days earlier. He was baptized a Roman Catholic on his deathbed, and his brother James was crowned as James II—Charles having been an unrepentant voluptuary with no legitimate heirs, but twelve children by seven mistresses. James had converted to Romanism in 1668 but kept it quiet for ten years. When James’s abandonment of the Anglican Church became clear, Charles arranged for James’s daughter Mary to marry Prince William III of Orange in the Netherlands, a Protestant monarch who was also the son of the sister of both Charles and James. Thus, the stage was set for a struggle for the throne of England between the Protestant nobility of Parliament and the newly crowned Roman Catholic King James II.

William III of England (1650-1702)

Mary II of England (1662-1694)

James II appointed known Catholics to positions of authority in the Kingdom, and issued several decrees allowing religious toleration for Catholics among the general population. He also took steps to rid England of the Test Act which required office-holders and army officers to adhere to the Anglican Church, prohibiting all others. In June of 1688 the Protestant nobility opened negotiations with Prince William of Orange and his wife Mary to consider taking the throne of England away from their uncle and father, to insure a Protestant succession, and rid the realm of the Roman Catholic influences associated with James II. After raising an army to oppose the coming invasion by William of Orange, James decided not to oppose William, but threw the Royal Seal in the Thames and fled to France, where he received a nice pension and a mansion from his cousin, King Louis XIV. The Parliament called by William declared that James had abdicated the throne, and they officially enthroned William and Mary as co-rulers of England, an event known as “The Glorious Revolution.”

King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) who, like his English cousins, persecuted the Protestants in his own country as well

In April of 1689, James landed in Ireland with a French army to begin his comeback to the throne of England. The Irish Parliament declared James II the legitimate King of England and Ireland and raised an army to punish all who resisted James’s authority as King. The new Catholic armies had “ancient wrongs and deep humiliations to avenge.” The people in the walled city in Ulster would become the rock upon which James’s hopes would be dashed.

The walls of Derry today

Derry became re-chartered as Londonderry in 1613, after the holder of the patents for its settlement and rebuilding, the City of London, continued its walled construction, begun two years earlier. The patentee welcomed Scotsmen, city guilds, English tenants, and other Protestants into the Ulster Plantation. In 1641, the second generation of Londonderry faced and barely survived a rebellion by the Catholic Irish that lasted for twelve years and resulted in the murder of thousands of Protestants across Ireland, and the total suppression of the rebels by English armies. By 1689 the Irish were again ready for a rising, this time following their English Catholic King, backed by French mercenaries. Having lost most of their land to their English overlords over the century, the chief Catholic clans lusted for revenge and retribution. “The Catholics would soon be on top, and the [Protestant] heretics pay for it all.”

The leader of the Irish, Tyrconnell, boasted of a 40-1 advantage of Catholics over Protestants in Dublin and 200-1 in the province of Connaught. But Ulster would be more difficult; the percentages of inhabitants were numerically about even between the Irish and the Scots/English. It was a time of fighting clergy and the Presbyterian pastors of the Ulstermen were quite uncompromising.

Twelve hundred mercenaries, Scottish Catholic highlanders, were the first enemies to arrive at the walls of Londonderry on December 7, 1688. A public debate on whether to open the gates to his majesty’s forces ensued with the politicians in favor of doing so and the militia captains and many of the Protestant townsfolk opposed, fearing a massacre. Thirteen apprentice boys, mostly young teenagers, seized the gate keys and the initiative at the last minute, and shut and locked the gates of the city to the enemy forces outside. The captains of the four hundred or so military men inside the walls prepared for attack or siege. When the deputy mayor and the Anglican bishop argued for opening the gates to allow in the king’s men, as a local diarist recounted:

Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell (1630-1691)

“…the closing of the gates had acted like magic and aroused an unanimous spirit of defense; now with one voice we determined to maintain the city at all hazards, and each age and sex conjoined in the important cause.”

The Apprentice Boys Memorial or Heroes Mound in Derry

Nothing much happened for the next five months while the King himself arrived in Ireland and gathered more forces for the inevitable war with William and Mary. The forces loyal to James II continued to gather outside Londonderry until they numbered more than 12,000. On April 18, the city was summoned to surrender. On April 20 the King himself approached the gates and was met with a canon shot and shouts of “No Surrender!” The city endured 105 days of bombardment and siege before English relief forces lifted the siege. Half of the 8,000 inhabitants died in the siege, most by disease. The gallant defense of the city is the stuff of legend, and the rebuff of King James eventually resulted in the Battle of the Boyne, which settled the matter. James fled Ireland with his entourage and his allies were left to the English armies for retribution, which they got.

Cannons in line on the walls of Derry, overlooking Guildhall Square, dating back to the 1600s

It was not the last rising in Ireland, and the bloodshed that always accompanied them, but the heroic stand of a beleaguered force of mostly civilians in the City of Londonderry, and the prevention of a Catholic monarch in England, has never been forgotten in the United Kingdom.

Resources for Further Study

  • The Siege of Derry, by Patrick Macrory (1980)

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