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The Siege of Londonderry

Outside of the Battle of the Boyne the event which arguably had the greatest influence on the struggle between William and James for the soul of Ireland was the Siege of Londonderry.

The refusal of the people of Londonderry to refuse admission to the Jacobite forces was not initially out of enthusiasm for the cause of William.

The real motive underlying that decision was the instinct of self-preservation. The citizens believed that a massacre of the British was imminent with the memory of horrific happenings of 1641 still vivid.

The fear and alarm was heightened by an anonymous letter (The Comber Letter) dated December 3, 1688 received by the Earl of Mount-Alexander warning him of a plan to massacre the Protestants of the North on December 9.

The defences of Londonderry seemed contemptible. Its position was far from impregnable, the stock of provisions was small and the population had swollen to eight times its usual number by refugees from the surrounding countryside.

Colonel Lundy, now the Governor, had no thought of a successful defence, for the task seemed impossible. He did not hide his feelings from the people.

When the news reached William that the city had declared for him he determined to send it much-needed help. Lt. Col. John Cunningham and Colonel Solomon Richards were ordered to proceed to Londonderry with two regiments of soldiers and reached the Foyle on April 14, where they anchored in the bay.

Cunningham, Richards, and their officers went ashore and consulted with Lundy. He dissuaded them from landing with their soldiers when he told them the position was so impossible that reinforcements could only make matters worse. He advised them to go back to England with ships and men, something he intended to do if he got the chance.

Lundy in his meeting with Cunningham had ensured that only those officers of the garrison who thought as he did were present. Others who felt differently were not invited or were prevented from attending. But one soldier uttered what those others believed, "To give up Londonderry is to give up Ireland."

When the rumour spread of what Lundy and Cunningham had agreed soldiers and citizens expressed their anger, and many army officers declared that they no longer considered themselves to be bound to obey the orders of the Governor. After dusk on April 17, Lundy's friends secretly fled the city one by one.

Next day at a special council meeting angry citizens abused Lundy for his treachery in sending the troops away that William had sent to defend them. While the meeting was in progress a sentry on the walls cried out that the vanguard of the enemy was in sight. When Lundy ordered that there was to be no firing of guns at them, Major Henry Baker and Captain Adam Murray countermanded it and called the people to arms. They were supported by the Rev. George Walker, Rector of Donaghmore in Co. Tyrone, who had taken refuge with his parishioners in the city.

All the able-bodied answered the call and the guns were manned. When James' Redshanks, under Alexander MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim, were only 60 yards from the gates of the city they were closed by the 13 apprentices. Expecting the quiet surrender as promised by Lundy after the Cunningham meeting, the Jacobites were greeted with loud cries of "No Surrender", and gunfire.

Lundy had hidden in his house and from there made his escape over the city wall. When he arrived in England he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and he, Cunningham and Richards, were summoned to appear before a parliamentary Commission. Richards was exonerated, and Lundy was ordered to be returned to Londonderry to stand trial for treason but this never happened. The conduct of Cunningham and Richards had so incensed William that he had dismissed them by newsletter on April 30.

Without the Governor's leadership or a proper administrative body the people were determined to withstand the siege at whatever cost. Adam Murray could have been Governor but he refused. At a meeting of 15 of the principal officers, Murray being present, Major Baker was chosen. When he complained that the military and administrative duties were too much for one man he was allowed to name an assistant. He chose the Rev. George Walker as Joint-Governor.

Eight regiments were constituted and each man was given his orders. In just 24 hours the defence of Londonderry, with the personnel and material available, was complete. When all had left the city who wanted to go, and these included the old, the very young and the sick, 20,000 remained within the walls; 7,020 men able to fight and 341 officers.

On April 19, a Jacobite trumpeter came to the southern gate of the city to ask if Governor Lundy's promise of an easy surrender would be kept. He had to take back the message that the city would be defended against attack for the defenders had only contempt for their former Governor who had made that treasonable promise.

Next day, Lord Strabane, a high-ranking Jacobite officer, was sent to offer terms to the city. It was an ultimatum, too, which would not be carried out if the citizens submitted to James, "their loyal sovereign". They would be pardoned and Adam Murray, who received the message, would be commissioned a colonel in the army and receive a gift of £1,000.

Murray's reply to the offer was: "The men of Londonderry have done nothing that requires a pardon, and own no sovereign but King William and Queen Mary".

When the encounter was reported to James he returned to Dublin, and left the Siege in the hands of General Maumont with Richard Hamilton second in command.

The Siege began on April 20 with a battering of the city. It was soon on fire in several places and many were crushed as their houses fell on them when the cannons found their targets. At first the people were shattered by new and horrifying experiences, but in the way of human kind they quickly adapted to their difficult and dangerous situation. Their spirit was so good that on April 21, Murray led an attack on the besiegers. A bloody battle ensued and Maumont at the head of a cavalry unit making for the scene was struck on the head by Murray's musket ball and killed.

Because of the obvious determination of the garrison to hold the city the besiegers, after suffering many casualties, decided to starve the city into surrender.

An expedition was sent from Liverpool under the command of Liet-General Percy Kirke for the relief of Londonderry. Kirke's troops sailed on May 22, but storms at sea forced a long stop, till June 13, at the Isle of Man, then the ships sheltered off Rathlin Island reaching the Foyle on June 14.

In the meantime the Londonderry people were defending themselves with stubborn courage against a numerically stronger and more experienced military force.

Distress had become acute. By June 8 horseflesh was about the only meat to be purchased and it was in very short supply. Tallow was a substitute food and even that was doled out parsimoniously.

When on June 14 the sails of Kirke's ships could be seen by the sentinels on the roof of the Cathedral hope returned. But hope was turned to despair when signals sent between the city and the ships were misread by both. To break the deadlock a messanger from the fleet managed to elude the Irish guards by diving under the boom to tell the garrison that Kirke had arrived with his troops, arms, ammunition, and provisions to relieve the city. But the joy of the message was followed by weeks of misery, for Kirke thought it imprudent to attack the besiegers, and he stayed inactive, at the entrance of Lough Foyle, for several weeks.

Famine was rampant in the city and pestilence had followed in the wake of the horrible hunger. Fifteen officers died of fever in one day and Governor Baker died days later. He was succeeded quickly by Colonel John Michelburne.

When Dublin Castle heard of Kirke's appearance at Lough Foyle it was decided that Richard Hamilton who had succeeded Maumont was not able enough for the command. Conrad de Rosen, Marshal-General of all His Majesty's Forces, a title conferred on him by King James on his leaving Dublin, was appointed to take control of the Siege at Londonderry. Rosen was regarded as a great soldier. He had been sent by Louis XIV to command the French in James' forces in 1689.

He arrived among the besiegers on June 19 quickly to be made aware that not even a Marshal of France could defeat what he thoughtlessly described as a mob of country gentlemen, farmers and shopkeepers protected only by a wall that no engineer would describe as impregnable.

Rosen soon found how stubborn Protestants could be.

The horrific story of the lengths to which the citizens went just to stay alive and the physical pain and mental anguish they endured is an example of what people will suffer for a cause in which they believe fervently.

Kirke's inactivity angered William and the Duke of Schomberg. About July 13, Kirke received orders from Schomberg, as Commander-in-Chief of the English forces in Ireland, to relieve Londonderry at once.

The Mountjoy, a merchant ship, whose Master was a Londonderry man, Micaiah Browning, had a large cargo of provisions. As his ship had been part of the convoy he had angrily attacked Kirke and the army for their inactivity. Now he volunteered to take the Mountjoy through to bring succour to his fellow citizens. He was joined by Andrew Douglas, from Coleraine, the Master of the Pheonix, which carried a large cargo of meal from Scotland. The Dartmouth, a frigate of 36 guns, under Commander John Leake, later to become a famous admiral, was ordered to accompany them to provide protection.

On July 28 th ships made their perilous journey up the Foyle. The Mountjoy was in the lead and when it reached the boom it went straight for it. The boom, intended to prevent ships from bringing relief to the city, was sited between Charles Fort and Grange Fort. The Mountjoy broke the boom on July 28, 1689.

There was no more prospect of starving the defenders into defeat. The failure of the siege was a disaster for James as it destroyed his hopes of conquering the North and gave William a firm base in Ulster.

The relieved city was bombarded for three days but on August 1 smoking ruins marked the camping places of the besiegers. They had retreated up the left bank of the Foyle towards Strabane. And the most memorable siege in British history had ended after days of fear, agony and loss. The garrison had been reduced from 7,000 to 3,000 men.

Lord Macauley, in his history of England, when writing of the Siege of Londonderry, said: "A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendents."

 

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