Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church


The cause of King James was lost for ever in England, but in Ireland it still prevailed. It was not that the Irish people had any particular liking for him. He was a foreigner, and they had always wished to be ruled by a prince of their own race. But then he was no longer King of England, and he was of their own way of thinking in religion. To have a Roman Catholic king, who would have no reason to prefer the interests of England to the interests of Ireland, was, they felt, the best thing that they were likely to get. But the north-east corner of Ireland was very differently situated from the rest of the island. The inhabitants were mostly Protestants, Englishmen and Scotchmen who had come over and settled on lands that had formerly belonged to the natives. Many of them were sons of Cromwell's soldiers; some of the old men among them had actually fought under him. They hated King James as much as did any one in England, probably hated him more, because they would be certain to lose more, if he should succeed.

The chief town in this portion of Ireland was Londonderry, and Londonderry refused to submit to King James. Thousands of Protestants from the country round, and from more distant parts of Ireland, flocked into it for shelter. It was only there and in Enniskillen that a Protestant's life and property were safe. Unfortunately, Londonderry itself was in danger. The walls by which it was defended had never been very strong, and they had been allowed to get out of repair. The supply of food was very small, while there were a great many more people than usual to be provided for. Worst of all, the governor, one Colonel Lundy, was bent on giving the place up to King James. We cannot say whether he was a traitor or a coward, but it is certain that he did his best to discourage the garrison and the inhabitants. The city, he said, could not possibly hold out, and the best thing that could be done was to make terms with the besiegers. On April 14 two regiments arrived. They had been sent from England to strengthen the garrison. Lundy told the colonel who commanded them that it would be useless for him to land his soldiers. The place could not be defended, and there was not food enough even for the garrison that it had already. He and his regiments had better go back to England at once. After speaking in this way to the colonel privately, Lundy called a council of war, from which, however, he took pains to shut out any officer that wished to resist. The council decided to surrender, and a messenger was sent to King James to say that Londonderry would be peaceably given up to him, as soon as it should be summoned.

[Illustration] from English History Stories - III by Alfred J. Church

This decision was not at all to the liking of the inhabitants. Even the soldiers refused to obey their commander. The gates were shut; the guns upon the walls were manned. When King James, who felt sure that the city would be surrendered to him, rode with his staff near one of the gates, a cannon-shot was fired at the party, and killed an officer by the King's side. Two governors were chosen by the principal inhabitants, one of them a soldier, Baker by name, who was to look after military affairs, the other, an old clergyman, the Rev. George Walker, Rector of Donaghmore, who was to manage matters in the city itself, and issue the allowances of food. King James still hoped to gain the town. He sent a trumpeter with a message to know when the agreement which Governor Lundy had made to surrender would be carried out. The man was told that the people of Londonderry had nothing to do with Governor Lundy's agreements, and that they were determined to resist to the last. Another envoy, an Irish noble, came the following day. Murray, the colonel of one of the regiments, rode out to meet him. "I am to offer," said the envoy, "a free pardon to all the citizens of Londonderry, and to you a colonel's commission and a thousand pounds." The answer was—"The citizens of Londonderry have done nothing that requires a pardon, and have no sovereign but King William and Queen Mary." The envoy was advised to depart at once and not to come again.

After this the siege was begun in earnest. The town was bombarded, with no little damage to the houses and some loss of life. At first this caused much dismay, but the inhabitants got used to it, as men will get used to anything. On April 21 the besieged made a sally, and a fierce fight followed, in which a French general, who had the command of King James' army, was killed. They made another about a fortnight later, in which another French officer of high rank received a wound, which, not many days after, for want of skill in the doctors, caused his death. For several weeks after this fighting went on, and, on the whole, the men of Londonderry had the best of it, taking both prisoners and flags from the enemy. Then Hamilton, who, after the Frenchman's death, had succeeded to the chief command of the army, ordered an assault to be made. The point to be attacked was a spot called Windmill Hill, near the southern gate. A forlorn hope, consisting of men who had taken an oath to make their way into the town or die in the attempt, was led by a certain Captain Butler to the attack. The besieged received them, drawn up in three lines, the men who stood behind loading the muskets of those who stood in front. The struggle was long and fierce. The Irish fought bravely, but they could not drive the defenders from their place. The women of Londonderry were busy serving out powder and shot to their husbands and relatives. A few of the attacking party managed to climb the wall where it was lowest, but they were all killed or taken prisoners. When the besiegers had lost four hundred men, they were ordered by their commanding officer to fall back.

As the town could not be taken by storm, there was nothing left but to blockade and starve it out. It was easy enough to do this by land, but there was the river, by which English ships could pass up to the town with food. True, there were forts and batteries, but these might be passed at night, or, indeed, with some risk at other times. The besiegers, therefore, proceeded to barricade the river. They sank boats loaded with stones, drove stakes into the bottom of the stream, and tied heavy logs of wood together with cables a foot thick. They thus made a boom or fence right across the river. Until this was broken, nothing could pass, and Londonderry was shut off from all help. The brave men who were holding Enniskillen would have been glad to help if it had been possible, but they were not strong enough to do more than harass the outside of the enemy's camp. Meanwhile, inside the walls, the famine grew worse and worse. There was no flesh but horseflesh, and very little of that; the wretched people were glad to have a little tallow doled out to them. At last, on June 15, when the siege had lasted nearly two months, there was some hope of relief. The sails of ships could be seen from the top of the Cathedral tower. These ships were in Lough Foyle, an arm of the sea, as it may be called, into which the Londonderry river runs; and they were, without doubt, the squadron that had come from England to relieve the town. Shortly after, a messenger, who had dived under the boom, brought the news. The ships were carrying men, ammunition, and, above all, food. Londonderry was to be relieved.

So men hoped, but it was long before the hope was fulfilled. The officer who commanded the squadron did not think it safe to approach. He had not men enough to attack the enemy's lines; he was afraid to charge the boom with his ships. For weeks he lay in lough Foyle doing nothing.

Famine, and the fever which always follows famine, were busy in the town. Many died, among them Governor Baker; those who survived were so weak that they could hardly bear arms. Yet the brave people of Londonderry held out. They even endured what must have been not less hard to bear than hunger and disease—the sight of their own countrymen dying of starvation under the walls of their town. The command of the siege had been handed over to Rosen, a Russian officer in the French service. This man drove a number of old men, women, and children from the country round up to the walls. The besieged, he thought, must either take them in, and so have more to feed, or must see them die before their eyes. The townsmen, by way of answer, put up gibbets on the wall, and declared that, unless these poor creatures were allowed to go away, they would hang the prisoners whom they had in their hands. Rosen held out for two days before he gave way; many had died during this time.

King James now took the chief command away from Rosen, and the siege went on more vigorously than ever. The cannons never ceased to fire; one of the gates was beaten in; a breach was made in the walls. Still the brave men of Londonderry repaired by night the damage that had been done by day, and this though they were so weak for want of food that they could hardly stand. For, of course, as the weeks went by, the famine grew worse and worse. Of proper food hardly any was left. There was a store of salted hides, meant to be made into leather; these the soldiers and others gnawed, and so were able to stay their hunger a little. Dogs and rats were greedily eaten when they could be caught; there was even talk of making a meal off human flesh. And all this time the people could see the ships in Lough Foyle, and knew that if they could come up the river there would be plenty of food for all.

Colonel Kirke, who was in command of the fleet, ought to have made the attempt to force the passage as soon as he came. He now received a command which he dared not disobey, that it must be made at all risks and without delay. The master of one of the merchantmen now went to Kirke, and offered to run his ship, the Mountjoy, against the boom, on the chance of breaking it down. His name was Micaiah Browning, and he was a native of Londonderry. The offer was accepted, as also another made by Andrew Douglas, master of the Phnix. The two ships sailed up the river from Lough Foyle, and with them was a frigate, carrying 36 guns, the Dartmouth, commanded by Captain John Leake. At sunset, on July 28, these three came up the river from Lough Foyle. The tide was flowing, but the water was still very low, and the channel by which they had to pass was close to the left bank of the river, where the besiegers had made batteries on which many guns were mounted. A sharp cannonade was kept up on the vessels from the shore, to which the Dartmouth did its best to reply. When they came to the boom, the Mountjoy  charged it. The ship had all its sails set, and was carried on by the force of the tide, and the boom could not stand the force of the blow, but broke. Still, the shock to the Mountjoy  was so great that she was driven back into the mud. The Irish soldiers on the bank raised a great shout, got into their boats, and prepared to board. But the frigate came to the rescue, pouring such a broadside on them that they were thrown into confusion. Meanwhile, the Phnix  dashed at the opening which the Mountjoy  had made, and passed safely through the boom. The Mountjoy  too was soon floated off by the rising tide, and followed her companion ship, without suffering much injury, though her brave captain was killed, struck by a shot from one of the batteries. By ten o'clock the two ships had reached the quay. As it was sunset when they came up to the boom, and the sun does not set so far north on July 28 till past nine o'clock, not much time had been lost. But short as it was, this time had been one of terrible suspense to the townsfolk. Now all their troubles were over; an ample supply of food was distributed to every one; nor did it trouble any one that the guns of the besiegers went on thundering throughout the night. They lit bonfires on the walls, and rang out a merry peal from the bells of the churches. For two days more the besiegers kept up the cannonade; on the night of July 31 they burnt their camp and marched away.