This was the main military event of William of Orange’s Dutch invasion.
Britain, we are often told, has never been successfully invaded in a thousand years. Napoleon and Hitler both gave it serious thought but apparently realised the futility of the idea. And since William’s Norman knights destroyed the Shield Wall of Harold’s Saxons at Hastings in 1066, it has never been successfully attempted.
This, like so many other notions handed down to schoolchildren over the years, is in fact false.
In the dying months of 1688, as James II, the last incumbent of the House of Stuart struggled to hold on to the legacy which had been faithfully handed down continuously over three centuries, a hostile Armada sailed from Holland, intent on removing said monarch from his throne and seizing the kingdom by naked force of arms.
Ever since James had ascended the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685, his calamitous and cack-handed rule had emphasised the divisions within his three kingdoms and given strength to the various bodies of self-interest who were opposed to his Catholicism on the grounds of their own narrow religious inclinations.
On 10th June 1688 James’ wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a male heir and the concerns of many of these bodies now crystallised and plotting for a military overthrow of the British Kingdom which had been on-going since April now burgeoned into action.
Chief amongst these holders of vested interest was the Dutch Parliament, the States-General. The smouldering embers of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78 now re-ignited as this august body, envisaging a formal Catholic Alliance between the British and French thrones with the consequent damage to Dutch interests, moved to direct military intervention.
William’s fleet of some 500 ships, probably four times greater than the legendary Spanish Armada of 1588, set sail after on 1st November and made landfall at Torbay in Devon 4 days later. 21, 000 hostile and, mostly foreign troops stepped ashore with the Dutch Parliament’s front man, prepared to conquer the kingdom by force of arms.
Amongst their number walked that intrepid military opportunist Hugh MacKay. Under whose generalship William’s now British Army would be destroyed at Killiecrankie the following summer.
Concern about the threat of a Dutch invasion had been clear for many months. In September King James had written to the Scots Privy Council with instructions that Scotland’s entire standing army, with the exception of the garrisons of Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton Castle should forthwith heads south, initially to Carlisle and thence to Chester.
It has been argued cogently that these forces could do nothing to stem the progress of William’s invasion force and that had they remained then Dundee would have had considerably greater resources to hand when the decisive Scottish encounter was fought at Killiecrankie ten months later. But this is to surrender to the vicissitudes of hindsight.
One week after William’s forces landed, James raised the faithful Claverhouse to the Scottish peerage, conferring upon him the title Viscount of Dundee.
Meantime William’s army sat inactive at Exeter. King James’ forces took up station at Salisbury to block the route to London. And on 17th November the King left the capitol to take up personal command of the army.
James’ timorous nature and clumsy handling of his regal responsibilities now began to bear fruit as many of his senior commanders, more mindful of their personal interests than of their proper, sworn loyalty to their rightful monarch, now began to melt away.
Given this encouragement, William began to advance from Exeter and as they reached Wincanton, the increasingly irresolute James withdrew the army to Reading.
The newly ennobled Bonnie Dundee had watched James’ futile efforts at warfare and the treachery which had done much to make it so, with increasing dismay. Maintaining the Scottish cavalry as a single coherent body he marched it to Reading.
At this point he then endeavoured to present to his monarch the three realistic options which he now believed to face him: to give battle to William, to meet with him personally and negotiate a position or to “make his way to Scotland, upon the coldness he observed in the English army and nation”.
The accounts of the battle itself are brief and depressingly similar with the suspicion of convenient re-interpretation inevitably hanging heavily in the air. A contingent of Dutch troops, some 250 in number, against the town. They engaged a portion of James’ army, mostly Irish, and within a short period of time had mastered them. Much is made of the apparent efforts of Reading citizens to our hostile fire from their windows into the ranks of the home army but it stretches credibility somewhat.
Nonetheless, the outcome is beyond dispute and any realistic military opposition in England to the hostile Dutch invasion had come to an end.
The dismal consequences of this require no repetition: William and his spouse were installed first as joint rulers of England then at a disastrous Convention in Edinburgh in March, the decision was taken to confer the Scottish Crown upon them. Dundee’s subsequent military campaign to restore King James to his throne effectively ended at the Battle if Killiecrankie where Dundee fell at the moment of victory.
The unhappy litany of disaster then continues with such notable events as the Massacre of Glencoe and the signing of the Act of Union in 1707.