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The War of the Two Kings: History as Mediated by the Victors
by Melissa Richard
The War of the Two Kings, waged between the years 1688 and 1691, was a memorable time in Ireland. How exactly it is remembered—with bitterness or pride—varies in the minds of the descendants of those who were involved. For some, the anniversary of the peace Treaty of Limerick is a day for the celebration of progressive politics and Protestantism’s triumph under the banner of two beloved monarchs, William of Orange and Mary II of England. But for others, the war which deposed King James II and subjected Roman Catholics to persecution across the United Kingdom hangs even now like a dark cloud, obscuring what might have been a brighter future for Ireland. The Williamite campaign to impress upon the nation an image of a saviour in spite of the blood at his feet began even before King William’s formal victory over Ireland, and the media resulting from that campaign holds weight centuries later.
In discussing this, I will be looking at one of the formal aspects of that campaign: a typical portrait of the monarch, which would have been hung to the awe of his admirers. Additionally, I will be considering an example of the media created for the consumption of the common people—a ballad to be sung in a jovial tune, downplaying its own potential to serve as political propaganda. The ultimate aim of these analyses will be to demonstrate how the cultural memory of the War of the Two Kings has been shaped by media intended to portray history from a highly particular angle favouring the politically victorious.
I would like to lead into media analysis with a brief consideration of the name given to this period of history: the War of the Two Kings, as translated from the Irish “Cogadh an Dá Rí.” The war is broadly referenced as the Williamite War in Ireland, the Jacobite War in Ireland, the Williamite-Jacobite War in Ireland, or at times, simply by the name of an iconic victory in the war: the Battle of the Boyne. This is significant for how it neatly demonstrates cultural memory and cultural amnesia at play. Whichever name may roll off the tongue, even in ignorance, it will make a statement—potentially favouring the victors or erasing the identity of the oppressed. It is not a stretch to imagine how this might be utilized by authorities to encourage cultural amnesia around certain events, and to promote a romanticized cultural memory.
Turning to the medium of art, I would like to analyze a painting by Jan Wyck (see Figure 1), titled “King William III (1650–1702) at the Battle of the Boyne” (ARTUK), but first, it will be necessary to contextualize the piece. This painting is recorded as being part of the National Army Museum’s collection in London (VADS), though a number of reproductions by the artist himself are recorded and have been collected at different locations throughout the United Kingdom. Additionally, this painting is one of several similar works, some of which are additional scenes from the Battle of the Boyne as painted by Wyck, who is regarded for his “marked lasting influence in England on the genre of battle scenes” (VADS). Though Wyck was a Dutch painter, he made a name for himself in London, and is rumoured to have enjoyed royal patronage throughout much of his life. Allegedly, it was King William himself who commissioned Wyck to paint his campaign, and contemporary art dealers are keen to emphasize the importance of that historical moment in courting collectors. Beneath the advertisement of a print of this work, it is stated: “Portraits such as this played a crucial role in maintaining support for William, who, along with wife Mary (daughter of James II), was invited to England to take the throne from James” (PhilipMould).
Wyck’s mediation is described by the National Inventory of Continental European Paintings as follows: “This scene depicts the Battle of Boyne at the Boyne River, near the town of Drogheda, fifty kilometres north of Dublin. It is here that King William III's army met King James II's Irish supporters. In the right foreground are shown William III and his officers whilst in the background his troops cross the river” (VADS). Interestingly, the river is painted as though it runs dry, making for the depiction of an effortless crossing for the Williamites on their way to victory. I have found no evidence to suggest the river habitually dries out, but that it is depicted as such seems symbolically significant, for cultural memory does hold (as evidenced by the art dealer’s comment above) that William was, in large part, invited to Ireland with open arms. This would be in keeping with the generally optimistic feeling of the painting, which also depicts a cloud-laden sky giving way to blue clarity above the battle. William is here positioned against the darkest clouds, yet his horse faces the clearing skies with vigor, as if ready to pursue that promise. Altogether, this presents the Battle of the Boyne as a turning point in the war.
Homing in on King William himself, there are many striking details about his presence in this painting. Firstly, his noble and heroic airs are stated by his proud posture astride a pure white stallion, his calm and self-assured countenance, and his finely embroidered garments bearing no evidence of blood or tears in the material despite his central position in the battle. Wyck renders the King in such a way that there is a distance between him and the common soldiers, who stir up dust in the distance. Interestingly, the closest subject to William is what appears to be a discarded pile of armour. I can only speculate as to the symbolic intent of this, as no expert analysis has confirmed my view, but I feel this may speak to the cultural memory around James II as a coward who fled his throne for France rather than stand to defend himself in his own territory, leaving Jacobite supporters to push back in vain against an overpowering Williamite force. Does this empty armour, showing no corpse or gore, subtly signify James II’s abandonment of his kingdom? It is easily read into as such, yet the viewer must ultimately decide for themselves.
Overarchingly, Wyck portrays King William in such a way that it benefits his image as a “saviour” of the United Kingdom. He is seen to be both pure and masculine—these two traits embodied by his white stallion, who only bears dirt and heavy shadow on his legs. This may be interpreted as suggesting the inevitability of struggle even in pursuit of a just cause, which Williamite supporters doubtless hailed the war as being. Regardless of political alliance, the painting is impressive, and that is perfectly intentional in so far as it served, in its time, as political propaganda dressed in the creative talents of Wyck. Today, centuries after the war, it serves to further the cultural memory of Williamite descendants, who have been granted—through media—every reason to take pride in their ancestry.
The second mediation I mean to analyze is no different in favouring the Williamite view of the war. This ballad, which circulated among the common peoples, also happens to comment sweepingly on the supporters of William and James, respectively, implicating them as bearing certain characteristics based on their political alignment. The ballad in question, published in 1692, is titled “The Female Duel (or, The Victorious Williamite Lady, Who was challeng'd to Fight a Duel by a Jacobite Lady).” Though this ballad came into the public in the year after the war was won, it will soon be evident in its content that tensions between the common people ran as high as those between soldiers on the battleground. From the title alone, especially with consideration to the time of publication, it can be seen what cultural memory is at play here: the Jacobites are portrayed as unable to accept their defeat, stirring up political trouble in a way that might justify—for the Williamites—the persecution and oppression of Irish Catholics.
As the story goes in the ballad, the trouble begins at a refined dinner when a Jacobite woman suggest “[drinking] a health to the King” (EBBA). In response, a Williamite woman speaks enthusiastically of “a monarch that's valiant and brave, / And does venture his life these three kingdoms to save” (EBBA), referring to England, Scotland, and Ireland. She goes on to name King William, urging her fellow guest to toast success to he and his “brave forces” (EBBA). At this, the Jacobite lady is said to “rise up in a fury,” regarding the Williamite woman as a “rebellious Heretick,” and barely suppressing the urge to attack her with a wine bottle (EBBA). This scene of the ballad leaves us with certain impressions of the causes these two women support. On the one hand, we have the Williamite woman, who is patriotic and loyal to her King—a saviour figure who is risking his life for the nation—yet also seeks to extend a hand of friendship and unify the nation. She will be seen, as the ballad progresses, to emulate the characteristics William is renowned for in the popular cultural memory surrounding him, such as bravery and rationality. On the other hand, the Jacobite woman, despite being equally patriotic—if only in her own mind—and deeply loyal to her deposed King, makes a terrible name for herself as hot-tempered and uncivil, impassioned and irrational, and most importantly, married to tradition at the expense of progress.
In the next scene of the ballad, the Williamite woman finds herself challenged to a duel by the Jacobite woman. Though victimized by this challenge—which is portrayed as being so contrary to a lady’s proper behaviour at the time that she must wear “a suit of her brother’s” (EBBA)—the Williamite woman is said to bravely rise to the occasion, seeking a fair fight. The specificity of this fairness begs attention, as it implies the Jacobite woman may be less concerned with the matter. This implication is not explored, for the ballad favours a mocking twist in which, no sooner has the duel begun, the Jacobite woman “was forc’d to give way” (EBBA) by the Williamite woman's surprising proficiency with the sword, causing the Jacobite woman to fall gracelessly into a bush, where she lays bleeding and crying until rescued by a passing gentleman. At this point, it is clear the ballad pokes fun at the general idea of women as soldiers, but it is clear that the Jacobite woman faces the most heavy criticism, which is in keeping with the oppression of Jacobite views in dominant cultural memory after the war.
It is evident from these two examples—selected from a wealth of similar mediations around the War of the Two Kings—that political propaganda was alive and well in both the fine and common arts of the 17th century, and through this media, cultural memory was being shaped in an impacting way. King William has ridden his equestrian portraits down through history, maintaining a lasting image of regality and saviour-like purity which, if one is not mindful to look beyond, may completely obscure the presence of Jacobites in the war, and the violent consequences of their ultimate loss for Irish Catholics in the century to follow. The image of the Jacobites as little more than hopeless traditionalists may be pervasive, but it is as flat a view as that of Williamites as spotless brave-hearts, called to save a nation from itself. Having said that, if only one thing is to be taken from the above analyses, it should be a heightened awareness of the symbolic messages woven into all mediations around culturally defining events. These symbols are a means by which we are shaped toward a political end, and though we are easily prey to charming images of noble, heroic victors, it is critical that we delve into cultural memory to prove how shallow the waters are where only the light touches. A deeper, more serviceable understanding can only be gained from a holistic view of history, for every war has at least two perspectives from which it may be viewed, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the case of the War of the Two Kings in Ireland.
“An Excellent new SONG Call'd, / The Female DUEL: / OR, / The Victorious Willamite Lady, / Who was challeng'd to Fight a Duel by a / JACOBITE Lady (EBBA ID: 22393).” 1692. English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA), 27 Nov. 2017, http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/22393/image
"King William III (1650–1702) at the Battle of the Boyne." ARTUK.org, 27 Nov. 2017, https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/king-william-iii-16501702-at-the-battle-of-the-boyne-29863
“King William III (1650–1702) at the Battle of the Boyne." Philipmould.com, 15 Oct. 2017, http://philipmould.com/
“The Battle of the Boyne, Ireland, 12 July 1690.” VADS: The Online Resource for Visual Arts, The National Inventory of Continental European Paintings, vads.ac.uk/large.php?uid=85934&sos=0