King William III landed at Carrickfergus on 14 June 1690 with a fleet of around 300 vessels. Having mustered an army of 36,000 men, this was the largest troop that Ireland had ever seen and is likely to ever see. A witness to the landing observed, "the lough between this and Carrickfergus seems like a wood, there being no less than seven hundred sail of ships in it… I cannot think that any army of Christendom hath the like.". The Williamite army proceeded south in order to confront James II who by this stage was perched on a strategic position at the River Boyne near Drogheda. William’s journey took him to Belfast where he stayed at the old Belfast Castle before leaving again on 17 June 1690. It is reported that he stopped briefly at the site of the modern ‘King William’s Park’ (Lisburn Road, Belfast) before making another stop at Malone due to a rain storm.
36,000 troops and several hundred ships was a formidable force by any standards, it was sure to crush most enemies in its path, most, that is, except for one audacious Ulsterwoman…
Jean Watson was a widow with six small, dependent, children. She resided in the townland of Killaughey in the Parish of Donaghadee, Co. Down. Killaughey is likely to have been known as Killaghy or Ballekillaghy in the 17th century. Any trace of the family home was almost certainly destroyed during the construction of an airfield during World War Two. Local homes and farms were blown up, bar one which was the office being used by the construction company.
It is thought that Jean was of Scottish stock, her family having fled from Scotland to avoid religious persecution and thus seeking refuge in Ulster. Following decades of religious and monarchical upheaval Charles II, son of Charles I, was restored to the English throne in 1660. Little had changed for the persecuted Presbyterians. In the 1680′s Charles II dispersed their congregations and invalidated their marriages. Married couples were dragged before ecclesiastical courts and charged with fornication; their children were declared illegitimate. The Presbyterians lost all their property to the Church of England. Some chose to fight back for example at Bothwell Brig’, others like Jean Watson chose to flee to Ulster.
Born in 1657 Jean Watson was around 33 at the time of these events. Being at the peak of her working age she was principally dependant on her two beloved horses, they were vital for carrying out her daily working routine.
In the author’s possession is a transcript, it implies that King William himself landed at Ballyholme Bay, we of course know this to be untrue, at this point I believed the story may have related to General Schomberg but the dates and the length of time between these events make this unlikely also. With this in mind, the Jean Watson story has a definite shadow hanging over it, nonetheless it is a story which deserves to be told.
It is claimed that King William ordered a confiscation of horses in order to transport his equipment wherever he may have required it. All horses within a radius of several miles were seized, much to the bemusement of the locals. The local population would have had a healthy Scots settler presence, and many of Presbyterian religion. Ulster Presbyterians were largely supportive of the Williamite campaign, however their behaviour in some areas led some to view the Williamites as belligerent forces, moreover they were disgusted by the theft of their horses.
The Williamite army on the march.
The victims were left powerless in the situation which they were presented. For them, acceptance was the only way to deal with their loss, whether they agreed with the cause or not. Not so, however for Jean Watson whose grave I have found.
‘Her chagrin was great’ as she tried in vain to persuade her neighbours to pursue the aggressors who had pinched their horses. Her neighbours instead preferred to accept their losses and attempt to rebuild, rather than potentially risk their lives to recover the animals. Jean promised her ‘courtly budies’ that she would follow the horses by herself, ignorant of the ills she could face. Her neighbours looked on aghast as this ‘stout, tall woman of masculine features’ resolved to recover not only her horses, but the horses of the neighbours too.
Her children witnessed with terror her preparations for the journey ahead and they were under no illusions that their mother was ‘going to the wars’. Beef, butter and cheese were prepared in order to accompany the bannocks which had been baked in preparation for her departure the next morning. During her early rise the elder children were awakened, their cries of despair were contagious and soon all of her children had joined the chorus of grief. Though it was all in vain, as Ms Watson hurried off into the morning, leaving her half naked grieving children in her wake.
As she paced away from the visibly distraught children her thoughts reverted to determination and no doubt anxiety about the road which lay ahead. Some distance later Jean encountered a considerable river in which she had to negotiate her way across on a stick acting as a temporary bridge. Remarkably her children remained on her tail at this point until Ms Watson ruthlessly dispatched the stick into the water and thus leaving her screaming children in her wake as she proceeded on her perilous journey. Naturally with such a journey being completed on foot there were many more obstacles along the way, none more so than when she had arrived a few miles from Drogheda. It seemed that Ms Watson had finally caught up with the Williamites when she encountered a full blown military camp. Jean was immediately arrested by a guard belong to King William on suspicion of being an enemy Jacobite spy in female attire. She was taken to the camp headquarters and placed under heavy guard to await a court martial investigation.
In vain Jean pleaded her case, she was given the opportunity to tell her whole story to the court, who then unanimously considered it to be a fabrication. Amazingly, just before her sentence was to be passed the military drums suddenly beat ‘to arms’, at this point the court was abruptly adjourned as members of the tribunal were gripped by a panic. Jean was again imprisoned to await her, as yet unknown, fate.
Amidst the confusion and dismay Jean enjoyed probably the safest but certainly the quietest area in the whole camp. At this point it is likely that the famous Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690 between the Williamites and the Jacobites.
The Battle of the Boyne (click to enlarge)
Naturally Jean’s thoughts turned to her children and her home, she began to have regrets as now in the cold light of day the reality had set in, her fate was not her own. She was in the midst of the greatest and most important battle in British and Irish history and she knew nothing of it, her primary concern was her horses and her livelihood. She held vivid images of her children on the banks of the river when she had ruthlessly tumbled the stick into the water to halt their pursuit.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a nearby commotion, during which a regal figure was clearly visible. Amazingly Jean Watson was on the cusp of a chance encounter with King William himself. Jean pleaded to William to hear her case/story to which he reluctantly agreed. Jean was given the unique opportunity to lend the ear of the king, she chose to explain her audacious adventure and her disgust at having lost her two magnificent horses. The king was genuinely impressed by her remarkable story and ordered that she should be given not only her own two horses, but also those taken from her neighbours. He ordered that Jean be allowed to identify her horses which she did, she also selected six of her intimate neighbours’ horses before having them tied side by side. Meanwhile His Majesty was arranging protection for her journey away from the camp and towards County Down. At this point Jean once again mounted her favourite ‘bawsent naig’ and spoke quietly into the filly’s ear.
His Majesty King William then advanced to address Ms Watson:- “You are a brave and generous woman, and worthy of protection and here is a paper which will enable you to pass unmolested.” which he proceeded to read aloud: “Permit the bearer, Jean Watson, to pass to her residence in Killaughey near Donaghadee without stop or hindrance, William Rex“.
William of Orange
To which Ms Watson replied “Thank yer majesty, mony god thanks to ye sir.” “But stop“, said William, “show that paper to any who may cause you delay on your journey, and here is another, closely sealed, show it to none untill you are home, then have it read“. “Thank yer majesty” was the reply as her cavalcade began to head for the North. Jean duly arrived home without interruption or delay together with the horses.
News of her arrival had spread throughout the region including the inevitable exaggerations, one of which was that she had brought home ALL the horses that had been seized by the Williamites. Many from the area went to her seeking their trusty steeds, they were met with the following cold rebuff: “coortly budy, were ye no as able to gang to the wars as me? Ye kin every budy dis their ain errand best.”
But what of the sealed paper which King William had given her? Jean’s curiosity prompted her to look at the contents. She broke the seal and found a separate affair inside: “Gude guide us!” exclaimed Jean, “What can this writin’ mean, wi’ sic a plaister o’ wax at the end o’ it? Wi’ a’ thae whigmaleeries stamp it on it. Let me see, thats no’ paper, but some sort o’ skin dressed an’ written on. Davy, my man, rin as fast is ye can to the schuil an’ tell the master, Dominie Stone, worthy man, that I want him a minnit an’ he’ll tell me all about it.” When the schoolmaster arrived the document was produced to him and he read it as follows: “As a reward for perseverance and bravery, I hereby confirm, assign and make over unto Jean Watson, widow, and her heirs male for ever, free of rent, all that parcel of land she now holds in Killaughey, parish of Donaghadee, be the same more or less. Dated this 15th Day of July 1690, William Rex.”
Schoolmaster Dominie Stone had never been listened to so attentively in all his days, seldom had his fluent delivery generated such tangible happiness to an audience.
Grave of Jean Watson, Templepatrick graveyard, near Millisle, Co. Down
Jean Watson died on May 4th 1749, aged 92. “Generations have passed away since her death and the property has fallen into other hands unconnected with her.”
'Boyne's Red Shore' A song about the Battle of the Boyne