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The Siege of Derry

A brief history of the Siege of Derry 1688-1689

It was the last great siege in British history. For 105 days in 1689 untrained soldiers, citizens, farmers tradesmen and various refugees held a tiny town in Northwest Ulster against vastly superior forces led by some of the most experienced commanders of the age.

Cut off from supplies and out of contact with the outside world, the defenders were in turn threatened and cajoled, bombarded and blackmailed.

They watched in disbelief as the expeditionary force sent to save them lay off the coast for six weeks making no attempt to intervene and disillusion turned to desperation as starvation and disease took an appalling death toll on soldiers and civilians alike.

Yet these simple country-folk and small traders, led by minor officers and local gentry, preferred to eat cats, dogs, rats, vermin, candle grease and animal hides rather than betray an ideal, that a nation should be governed by the rule of law which even the Lord’s annointed had no right to subvert.

Their heroic defence frustrated a counter-revolution and ushered in a new era in which no king of England would ever reign again with arbitrary powers, or without the consent of a free parliament.

This is the story of the Siege of Derry.

In the winter of 1688 King James II fled to France during a bloodless coup that placed his daughter Mary and son-in law William of Orange on the throne. In Ireland however Lord Deputy Tyrconnell, one of his closest friends, was rapidly raising an army of 50,000 men destined to head the counter-revolution. When that army invaded Ulster in March 1689 it drove all before it and it seemed only a matter of weeks before the old King would carry the war into the very heart of mainland Britain.

As Tyrconnell’s host burned and plundered its way northwards all those who could, including the Williamite aristocracy, fled to the safety of England or Scotland. The less fortunate abandoned their homes and struggled through driving snow and sleet towards the only walled city that might offer some protection: Londonderry.

As leaderless militia men and simple farming folk crowded into the town the Williamite military governor seemed to do everything he could to betray them. When the king himself appeared before the gates, in contravention of an agreement negotiated with the Jacobite high command, the reaction of the people was spontaneous. He was met with an unflattering hail of shot and a disrespectful shout of ‘No surrender!’

Within hours the junior officers had taken control, ousted the governor and elected their own commanders. Before they ran out of horse fodder they organized two daring attacks on the enemy in the open field, killing the French General Maumont and Brigadier Ramsay and several other high-ranking officers. After that they could only free their horses and hold their position by small-scale, commando-style actions which earned them a reputation for fearless daring.

Both within and without the walled city it was a race against time. As soon as Derry fell James would be free to invade Scotland and England. Time alone would allow William to rally his defences and reform the army which had disintegrated during the revolution.

The walls of Derry at their highest point were no more than 20 feet and considered easy to scale. Over 25.000 people were now crowded into a space about 1 mile square normally inhabited by a couple of thousand and the main water supplies lay beyond the walls under heavy enemy fire. Only a few companies of the 9000 men regimented had any experience and those who manned the guns – old gifts of the London Guilds who had founded the city – were local smiths and labourers. Yet they learned their gunnery trade rapidly and to devastating effect.

Within weeks the Franco-Irish army had baptized Derry “King James’s slaughterhouse” for the accuracy of the defenders aim and the awfulness of the weather which spread sickness and death. The Jacobite commander Hamilton offered lavish surrender conditions but the ruthless killing of Williamite officers after quarter had been granted sapped any trust the defenders might have had in the enemy’s promises.

When General Kirke,s relief force of over 50 ships was sighted in Lough Foyle  the defenders thought their ordeal was over but as they looked on helpless, the fleet merely anchored and made no attempt at landing. Unable to get messages out, they heard rumours, inflated by the enemy, that Scotland had risen and that Kirke was about to change sides. In Dublin bets were placed not on “if” but on “when” the man who had quelled the Monmouth Rebellion would do a deal with his old master.

Meanwhile John Michelburne, a former Lieutenant now elevated to military governor of Derry, proved so inventive in organizing patrols and involving the citizen population in the defence that the Jacobites began to lose hope of scaling the walls or mining them. This left open the strategies of persuasion and starvation. Michelburne was offered the enormous sum of £10,000 and politely but steadfastly refused, saying that such a generous offer merely confirmed that Derry was the key to mainland Britain.

Anxious to see a rapid capitulation, James posted north a man with a terrifying reputation: Marshal Rozen, a Franco-Lithuanian who had distinguished himself for his merciless persecution of the French Huguenots. Contrary to the conventions of 17th century warfare, he ordered all Protestants in the north - including those with Royal protections - to be round-up, stripped and driven before the walls where the defenders could either feed them or let them die.

The sight of friends and family, including old people, pregnant women and tiny children, ashamed of their nakedness, marched without food, forced to spend the night in pig-sties and then herded in their hundreds under the walls, only stiffened the resistance of the garrison. Michelburn decided it was time for him to play dirty too and he erected a huge gallows on which he threatened to hang aristocratic enemy prisoners, including the Lord Deputy’s nephew and brother-in-law. Aware of the value of espionage, he also stimulated a near mutiny in the Irish camp where many officers were horrified by the “bloody Russian’s” methods. Within 3 days Rozen’s project had failed and the people were allowed to return home.

Over the next three weeks the defenders sought desperately to inform the relief force that supplies were completely exhausted and surrender almost inevitable. One hapless man who tried to swim out to the ships, drowned and was strung up for all to see, but a courageous little boy managed to get in with a message in hidden in a button and out with another concealed in a suppository. Precious time was bought by merchant James Roe Cunningham who discovered he could make pancakes with starch and tallow and turned over the contents of his warehouse to the garrison.

As news of the desperation within the town filtered out Kirke’s stalling tactics were overcome by the near mutiny of his own relief force, peremptory orders from London and the bravery of a few individuals. Lt. John Leake offered to take a frigate up the River Foyle to withstand the enemy battery at Culmore Fort while cargo ships attempted breaking the boom drawn across the river. When the ship Mountjoy rebounded and her captain Micah Browning was shot dead, Boatswain Wordsworth in a navy longboat braved a hail of constant musket fire from each bank to cut through the massive boom by hand with an axe.

For seven agonizing hours the tiny relief ships struggled against wind, tide and enemy fire to cover the two miles that separated them from the Derry Quay - and the Derry defenders from salvation.

Two days later King James’s army, now beaten and decimated, left his “slaughterhouse”, burning and destroying the countryside as they went. Upwards of 10,000  men,women and children had died in the siege of Derry,of whom only about 165 were killed by enemy fire. With their homes in rubble and ashes many more would die in the ensuing winter from hunger and exposure.

The courage of these ordinary people consolidated the rights and freedoms of British citizens and averted an internecine war on mainland Britain however of the Presbyterian defenders, treated so shabbily by the Crown after the Williamite Wars of 1690,  many of their grandsons were to  be instrumental in  defeating the British at the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain in the American War of Independence


David Laird

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