Recently, whilst traveling through Ireland, I passed over a small bridge. The river was easily crossed but I was conscious that the waters below were those of the River Boyne, and that upon its banks had been fought a battle that was to prove calamitous for the Catholic faith in these islands. And yet, for one of the chief protagonists of that fateful encounter there was to follow an unexpected coda, one that began shortly afterwards at a monastery in France, and that now caused me to view these events in an altogether different light.
The battle took place as part of a wider conflict that threatened to engulf the whole of Europe just as it had the whole of the British Isles. However, the genesis of these events was to start five years previously and many miles away in London, on a cold dank February day in 1685, as the then monarch, King Charles II, lay dying.
The Stuarts had, by then, been restored and the unpopular puritanism of the Commonwealth ended. From the start, this restoration had been popular, partly on account of the fact that its king had political skills of the first order—and was thus a man of little integrity. This lack of integrity extended to matters of religion. He had to be Anglican as head of the Church of England but he secretly despised the institution, drawing more and more toward Catholicism. Indeed a paradox, for this was the same man who looked the other way when the last Catholic martyr, the then Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn barely four years earlier. Nevertheless, when the end did come, and as his court stood and watched, his brother, the Duke of York (later King James II) leaned over the dying monarch and whispered if he should send for a priest. The reply was vigorous: “For God’s sake do!”