The “Twelfth”

It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.

It’s the “Twelfth” today, July 12, and the day on which Orangemen parade to commemorate and celebrate the victory of King William over King James at the Battle of the Boyne on that day in 1690, and their part in the engagement; bands play such favourites as “The Sash”.

There certainly was a Battle of the Boyne, but it wasn’t on 12 July; if William won, it wasn’t a decisive victory—that came a year later; the battle was a minor, peripheral event in the overall picture in Europe. And there weren’t any Orangemen present; and they don’t wear sashes today.

If that’s confusing, let’s try to clear things up; it’s all very complicated and confusing, and a full explanation would take a very thick academic textbook. So, no apologies for the simplification.

King Charles II died in 1685 without legitimate offspring, though he had thirteen natural ones(1). His brother succeeded to the throne as James II. Charles was a protestant, James a catholic—such a mixture of belief among siblings was common enough then. If James was tolerant(2) of protestants(3) (though this may have been designed to improve the position of catholics), it does seem that he nurtured a desire to return England to the ‘old religion’. James’s daughter Mary was a protestant, and was married to his nephew, the Dutch(4) Prince William of Orange(5) William was a grandson of Charles I. At the time of James’s succession, his heir was Mary, and for many it seemed as if a protestant succession was assured. However, James then had a son, also James (the old pretender)(6) in June 1688, raising fears that England could indeed revert to catholicism, or at the very least the supremacy of the established, protestant Church of England would be seriously challenged. Charles I was, or at least thought he was, an absolute ruler, King by “Divine Right”; parliamentarians disagreed with this, engaged him in the Civil War, and executed him on 30 January 1649. There were fears that James II wanted to be an absolute ruler; his friendship with the King of France was likewise unsettling.

Meanwhile, on the European continent, King Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, an absolute monarch, was making trouble. His aim was to strengthen his borders, which meant expansion into the territory of others. He had already revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685; this had tolerated the protestant population of France. After this, they were obliged to leave, as Huguenots, finding refuge in more friendly countries, such as Switzerland, England and the low countries, where they spread tales of Louis’s anti-protestant atrocities. Louis also gave tacit support to the Ottoman Turks, who were attacking Europe from the east.

Prince William was the prime mover in a protestant coalition against Louis, the League of Augsburg, or Grand Alliance. Even the Pope was concerned with Louis’s activities, and at times supported the League. The League fought against Louis in the Nine Years’ War(7) between 1688 and 1697; the Battle of the Boyne was just a part of this War.

William was a canny political operator. He realised that England’s help would be valuable in the fight against Louis; his acceptance of an offer of the English crown (jointly with Mary) wasn’t made out of religious sentimentality, but from cunning pragmatism. His marriage to Mary was engineered to improve his claim to the English crown.

William sailed on 11 November for England, landing on 5 November. That’s not a mistake, nor was William a time traveller. Rather, the low countries had adopted the Gregorian or New Style calendar, even if it was a Popish invention, while England remained on the Julian(8) or Old Style calendar. At that time, there were 10 days difference, with the New Style (NS) being ahead of the Old Style (OS). Britain didn’t convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, when there were 11 days difference. To clarify; William sailed on 1/11 November, landing of 5/15 November.

James soon left England, ultimately reaching Ireland where he could rely on the support of the native population; rather surprisingly, there were elements of the protestant elite who also supported him. Even more surprisingly, it is said that the Pope sent forces to fight on William’s side.

The Battle of the Boyne was fought on 1 July 1690 (OS), though some sources suggest it was 30 June; very little in Ireland is straightforward. William ‘won’, but the engagement wasn’t decisive. It wasn’t until the Battle of Aughrim, which was fought on 12 July 1691, that James’s forces were fully defeated. On that occasion the Jacobite(9) forces were commanded by a French general.

The original “Twelfth” actually celebrated and commemorated this final victory in Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne was on 1 July (OS), or 11 July (NS), close enough to the twelfth for the two to be amalgamated.

Fast forward a century; there were land disputes between protestant “Peep-o-Day” boys and catholic “Defenders” which resulted in a skirmish in September 1795, at which about 30 catholics were killed in the Battle of the Diamond. The Orange Order was formed later that day in nearby Loughgall, co Armagh. It was a protestant and trinitarian(10) order, with a similar structure to Masonic lodges. Depending on your sensibilities, it either upholds protestant civic and religious freedoms, or is sectarian, triumphalist and supremacist.

Orangemen today don’t wear a sash, rather they wear a “collarette” around their necks. Their uniform is completed, at least in posher lodges, by a sober suit, white gloves, a bowler hat(11) and an umbrella.

The song “The Sash” began as “Molly-o”, apparently in America; it was originally about the love of a man for his girl. Her father forbade it, he lamented it:


Tell me who is that poor stranger that lately came to town

And like a pilgrim all alone, he wanders up and down

He’s a poor forlorn Glasgow lad and if you would like to know

His heart is breaking all in vain for Irish Molly-o


She is young and she is beautiful and her likes I’ve never known

The lily of old Ireland and the primrose of Tyrone

She’s the lily of old Ireland and no matter where I go

My heart will always hunger for my Irish Molly-o


Oh but when her father heard of this a solemn vow he swore

That if she wed a foreigner, he would never see her more

He called for young MacDonald and he plainly told him so

I’ll never give to such as you my Irish Molly-o


MacDonald heard the heavy news and sadly he did say

Farewell my lovely Molly, I am banished far away

Till death shall come to comfort me and to the grave I go

My heart will always hunger for my Irish Molly-o

So, William, of “glorious, pious and immortal memory” was more concerned with opposing Louis and consolidating his position on the throne; the Battle was more political that religious; Orange isn’t in Holland, the Battle of the Boyne wasn’t on 12 July, and the celebrations were originally for another battle; Orangemen weren’t present at the Boyne, and they don’t wear sashes today.

Just don’t let the facts get in the way of mythologies.

The Lodge members (Brethren) meet in a Hall such as this one. The Parish Church is in the background, beside the modern Church Hall.



1 One son, the Duke of Monmouth was a claimant to the throne after Charles’s death. Monmouth’s rebellion of 1685 was crushed, many of the participants were executed at Judge Jeffrey’s Bloody Assize. Through two other lines, the present Duke of Cambridge is a descendant.

2 Through the Declaration of Indulgence which granted religious freedom; it was vigorously resisted by Anglicans.

3 James gave the pension promised to Nell Gwynn by his brother Charles on his deathbed—“let not poor Nelly starve”. Nell was once mistaken for another of the King’s mistresses, the frenchwoman and catholic Louise de Kérouaille, by an angry mob. She responded: “Good people”, she said, smiling, “you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore.”  One of her sons by Charles was created Duke of St Albans.

4 France, Holland etc are names used for convenience; they were not coterminous or politically identical to the countries as we know them today.

5 Orange was actually located in Provence in France; William was a prince of the house of Orange-Nassau, and principal Stadtholder of the United Provinces or Dutch Republic. The territory was seized by Louis XIV, ceasing to exist as a sovereign entity.

6 James I’s grandson was Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young pretender.

7 Not to be confused with another Nine Years’ War, or Tyrone’s Rebellion a century before. This rebellion was against the English rule, and was supported by the Spanish. Its defeat resulted in the Flight of the Earls in 1607, and the Plantation of Ulster.

8 The Julian calendar is named after Julius Caesar who introduced it. It was calculated by Sosigenes, Cleopatra’s scientific adviser. It was accurate to 10 days in 1500 years. In the Gregorian calendar, the new year began on 1 January, rather than 25 March.

9 James is from an anglicisation of the French variation of the Latin Iacobus or Jacob. Hence, James’s supporters were called Jacobites, as were James’s successors.

10 The Order is more tolerant of protestant variation today.

11 The bowler hat was originally protective headwear for servants, only later being adopted by the upper echelons.


One thought on “The “Twelfth”

  1. Pingback: Just when is the 12th? | The Empiricst

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