The Disposession Game - David Chambers

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THE DESCENT ON ENGLAND, 1688

This time the wind favoured us. Six hundred vessels, canvas spread to the breeze, Sailed out from Hellevoetsluis in evening light Bearing North West, Freighted with twenty thousand fighting men, Five thousand horses, field artillery, Bakers and gunsmiths, saddlers, engineers, A fortnight’s fodder and victuals.

At dawn, and the breeze freshening to near gale, The Prince’s flags signalled a change of course; And we landsmen Thrilled at the sight as six hundred vessels turned, Sails billowing as each helmsman found his bearing. Then we ran southward, wind abaft the beam, Bound for the British Channel;

And we thanked that Easterly gale For pinning King James’s warships in Thames’s mouth Not able to beat out to open sea.

Saturday, and a little before noon The great fleet formed in lines across the Strait Like parading troops, the right wing skirting England, The left in sight of France Close enough that the winds carried to shore Snatches of sound: trumpets, the roll of drums, And warships on either flank thundered cannon In ironic salute To Calais and Dover simultaneously.

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Sunday, and we were passing the Isle of Wight And could hear their church bells ringing. By Monday noon Sheltered by headlands, guarded by men of war, The transport fleet dropped anchor and our vessel Waited its turn to let us disembark.

For those four days at sea We were cooped up like birds in a wicker basket With men from Gouda, Amsterdam, Utrecht Who spoke of their Republic’s year of disaster As if it had ended only yesterday, When Louis’ army stormed across the Rhine Pillaging Gelderland, ravaging Overijssel; And the Dutch opened dikes and sluices, flooded farmland For a water-line, safeguarding Holland’s heartland, And when England’s King and grandees Hopeful to capture Holland’s seaborne trade Sent ships of line to harry the Dutch off Zeeland.

That time, fortune favoured the Dutch. The water-line held; De Ruyter Sent the English packing, tails between their legs; Louis’ allies melted away; his armies Were needed on other borders.

Sixteen years on, and the same predator On the prowl again, minded still to engorge On this prosperous Republic; Still execrating A State that tolerates more heretics

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And churches than any other; Still intent to unseat A government giving refuge to fugitives From his own despotic rule; And King Louis’ hireling A King of England, ready once more to lease him A British fleet.

During those four days, buffeted by gales, We French from Languedoc, Dauphiné, Cévennes Were like schoolboys let out on holiday, exuberant To have thrown in our lot with a Prince Well-primed to act as each piece fell in place: Louis’ armies far off in Rhineland, his main fleet At ease in the Mediterranean; His some-time allies in Amsterdam alarmed By embargoes, impoundings, tariffs; Vienna’s Most Christian Emperor persuaded That his borders were threatened; A Pope incensed at Louis’ provocations; An English people restive under their King;

And we marvelled at a Prince Capable of convincing his cautious Dutchmen, Burgomasters, Regents, Assemblymen From seven proud, independent Provinces That to save their Dutch Republic their best hope Lay in letting him lead them in an expedition To overthrow England’s government, reverse the allegiance Of its armies and fleet, And that with him they commit their country’s wealth,

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Its garrisons, its arsenals, its navies, To November seas In one glorious gamble.

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THE ENGAGEMENT AT THE BOYNE, 1690

I was close to Schomberg When he rose in his stirrups, called out: ‘Forward, Messieurs! There are your persecutors!’ But even in that frenzied moment I could not see these as my persecutors. We had marched through Ireland, southward

from Carrickfergus Past ravaged townlands, ruins, fields unploughed, Not any sign of livestock; skeletal children Silent by roadsides, women Grubbing for roots in ditches; And as we struggled forward towards these men, Hill-farmers, drovers, stonemasons, Carpenters, peddlers, turf-cutters, The dispossessed, It was as if I harried my own kin And words throbbed through my head as litany Fugitive preachers taught us in the Cévennes When our congregations came together for worship Secretly, between hedgerows:

Souvenez-vous de la longue marche Que le Seigneur votre Dieu Vous a imposé à travers le désert Pendant ces quarante ans.

French officers describe it as a skirmish Followed by an orderly retreat;

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And in truth, when William and Louis faced each other In subsequent battles Many more men fought at Mons,

The carnage was greater at Steinkirk, There were vastly more dead at Neerwinden; While if you judge by splendour, pride, éclat, No other battleground can match Namur Where Louis laid siege to the city and brought with him As retinue from Versailles Musicians, courtiers, cooks, confectioners, Princesses of the blood, the royal bastards, Gentlemen of the bedchamber, courtesans, The royal mistresses With tapestries, pavilions, silver plate, All to attest the glory of a King Claiming all earthly power, patron of arts, Courteous, devout, punctilious; his appointed churchmen Employed to assure the world that his every deed Carried divine endorsement.

But peering through the mists on this little river At the troops of Louis’ poor relation James We who had placed our hopes of a settled life In the hands of a small Republic’s stadtholder Knew that unless this battle went our way England’s great oligarchs would re-assess

Their interests, perceive advantage In office under an indecisive King Weakly defending royal prerogative Rather than service with a vigorous Prince For all that he’d renounced the sovereign right To amend or qualify laws of their Parliament

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But who owed them no favours; And they’d turn about, revert to the old allegiance And, at worst, if William perished in this engagement We would see his alliance fragment, Danes, Swedes, the German States go their own ways, The great venture fail, our own hopes come to nothing, Our persecutor triumph; And my belly hollowed as I saw this Prince Ride forward into gunfire, rally troops, Exult in hand-to-hand combat.

Prince, did you do such deeds At risk to your own life Because you believed that the very hour of your death Had been already determined?

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KING WILLIAM REMEMBERED, 1702

None of us would have wagered that this Prince Would reign full thirteen years and die in bed. That was a time when the most sagacious statesman Could not see with any clearness three months ahead.

With each month some new threat to the King’s life, Fresh plots revealed: this time a mounted troop Led by the pick of James’s bodyguard Form for an ambuscade at Turnham Green,

And a courier waiting Ready to carry news of William’s death To a French fleet poised at Calais.

Another time An assassin captured, officers impatient To rack the man till he name accomplices: ‘The perils to the State are so extreme As to justify extraordinary measures.’ The King would have none of it.

Always to pester him Tale-bearers, forgers, pupils of Titus Oates Fomenting rumour, fabricating scandals Framed to besmirch his closest ministers. William declared: ‘We hear too much of this’ And dismissed the whisperers with cold contempt Though he well knew That the Fleet’s commander Russell, the army’s Marlborough, Tested the wind each day, hedged every bet, Still sent reports to James at St Germains.

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He measured men against a Godly standard Few can match up to. He defended English liberties and despaired At how Englishmen use them.

Pity a Prince Condemned to observe the antics Of Parliamentary men, outdoing each other To unpick his treaties, Deny reward to veterans he campaigned with, Slander his every comrade Not designated true-born Englishman.

Prince, you had learned in Holland How to dam your anger, how to channel it.

Take heart from a Prince Pestered by Prelates, urged To punish dissenters, root out heretics, Who is bold to declare: ‘I will not lay myself under obligation To persecute, for his conscience, any man.’

Suffer a Prince To disrespect men whose Philosophy Enumerates inalienable rights Proper to Englishmen, yet condones for Ireland Despotic government, corrupted courts, Make-believe Parliaments.

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Recall that sardonic eye Discomfiting those vacillating Peers To whom he’d given what they please to term Their Glorious Revolution.

Some saw at unguarded moments Past the marble portrait to the passionate man, And they say that when Mary died The marble wept.

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Notes on ‘From the Journal of a Huguenot ... ’

Hellevoetsluis: The small seaport to the south of Rotterdam, at which William assembled his fleet for the invasion of England in Autumn 1688.

Schomberg: The Count of Schomberg, a German and a vigorous septuagenarian, had been chosen by William as his lieutenant to command the combined force of Dutchmen, Huguenots, Danes, Swedes, Hessians, Brandenburgers, Swiss, and Scots and English exiles, for the invasion. 

Schomberg, one of Europe’s most renowned and well-liked generals, had spent much of his career in the service of Louis, and had risen to the rank of a Marshal of France. When Louis’ revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 sanctioned the savage repression of Protestants in France, Schomberg resigned his commissions and forfeited his properties in support of his co- religionists, and retired to live in Berlin. 

Schomberg was killed at the Boyne while rallying the Huguenot regiments against a cavalry attack.

‘A skirmish’: It is a curious feature of this battle that Louis’ seven French battalions numbering 6,500 men took very little part in the fighting. It is not clear whether this was due to the inept generalship of their leader Lauzun, who marched and counter-marched his troops well away from the main action, or whether he was merely following instructions to keep French casualties to a minimum. 

The two explanations are not mutually exclusive. After the battle, Lauzun and his troops returned to France. From that point on Louis would send only munitions, provisions and some officers to Ireland. 

His seven battalions stayed thereafter on the continent, as did the Irish Brigade under Lord Mountcashell which had been sent from Ireland in early 1690 to serve in Louis’ armies, supposedly in exchange for Lauzun’s battalions.

‘Souvenez-vous...’: This text became a mantra among Huguenots in the 1680s as their churches were razed and their houses pillaged by Louis’ dragoons. It was adapted from Deuteronomy (8, v 2)

‘when Mary died’: Queen Mary died in 1694 at the age of 32. Her husband William died eight years later in his 52nd year.