King Billy, the Pope,
and a changing view
Malcolm starts from the facts, only the facts, ma’am.
Try finding “Peter Mills” with very few clues to go on. Now try with his near-namesake Pieter van der Meulen, whom the BBC Northern Ireland website assures us was William III‘s court painter.
There was an Adam-Frans van der Meulen, who worked at the court of Louis XIV. He produced Baroque battle scenes of the kind that clutter the walls of public galleries and palaces, which Malcolm, for one, walks past in ignorance: any relation? Does it matter?
Well, perhaps, if our Pieter’s recent appearance on the radar is anything to go by.
Here’s what Malcolm knows:
In March 1933 the Northern Ireland Government paid £209 4s 0d for a painting by said Pieter van der Meulen, showing William III landing at Carrickfergus. Do not expect this to represent 14 June 1690 or Carrickfergus with any authenticity: that’s not the point with these works. Expect, instead a heroic monarch, surrounded by other worthies, all presumably represented with some nod at actuality, against an all-purpose stage-set. It is history being written (or, in this case, painted) for the victors. Right.
Here’s an earlier BBC description:
Unionist MPs cheered when they heard of its acquisition. But those cheers gave way to bewilderment when the canvas was unveiled.
There in the foreground is a figure which looks like King Billy on his white charger.
But floating above him on a cloud is someone who appears to be Pope Innocent XI, apparently blessing his ally as he makes his way towards the Battle of the Boyne.
The cruelty of critics
Two months later:
In May 1933 a group of visitors from the Scottish Protestant League were touring Parliament Buildings when they came face to face with King Billy and the Pope
An enraged Glasgow councillor, Charles Forester, threw red paint over Innocent XI.
His companion Mary Ratcliffe slashed the canvas with a knife. Both were arrested and fined £65 when they appeared in court in Downpatrick.
The painting was restored for a cost of £32 and 10 shillings.
Another version of the same story is even more sinister:
In 1934, a former RUC Inspector and “extreme right-wing bigot”, Unionist MP John Nixon (1880 – 1949) led a gang of Loyalists into Stormont where they slashed the painting with a knife and threw crimson paint over the image of the Pope.
The “monumental”, but (by the 1930s, in James Craig’s Stormont) politically-incorrect painting went into store, until, in 1975, it went to the Belfast Public Record Office. By 1983 it was back at Stormont, where it had remained stacked in the Speaker’s Office. It had a brief mention last year:
Damian McCarney, who writes for Daily Ireland and the Andersonstown News recently had a private viewing.
In his opinion, “a reproduction of it doesn’t do it justice”.
“Whenever you first encounter the painting you are awe struck by the size of this epic tale unfolding in front of you,” he said…
“Here’s a painting which attracted controversy and was attacked for no justifiable reason.
“I think a lot of people can respond to that. It has echoes of the sectarian past and now we’re coming to a more tolerant period in history now is the time for it to be restored to its rightful place in the southern corridors of the Stormont assembly.”
Now we have more voices suggesting it is time for the work to be put back into public view:
The SDLP’s John Dallat said a prominent place in Stormont should be found.
He said it would “intrigue visitors and certainly put another slant on our previous beleaguered history”…
Alliance Party Assembly member Sean Neeson said that during the summer a request had been made for the painting to go on loan.
“Clearly it is quite a significant painting,” said Mr Neeson.
Notice nobody has expressed any opinion on the thing as a piece of art.
And that is appropriate, for it was conceived as a propaganda piece, which is what it has remained.
Only in Northern Ireland could such things happen. Even last year, the Beeb felt the need to tread lightly: the central character “looks like king Billy”, the figure on the cloud “appears to be Pope Innocent XI” who is shown “apparently blessing his ally”. Curiously, identification seems to have firmed up now: why could that be?
William imported 6,000 additional troops from England, hired 7,000 Danish mercenaries, with Scots, Germans, Swiss and (of course) Dutch in the 37,000 total strength. James’s army of 25,000 included 6,000 from France, half of them Germans and Wallooons, but 5,387 Irish went to France, cancelling out the addition. Here’s James Lydon, with the view from Coláiste na Tríonóide:
In Europe news of the [Williamite] victory was celebrated as an important success for the Grand Alliance by Catholics in Spain and Austria, where Te Deums were sung in thanksgiving in the cathedrals. The battle of the Boyne deserved the notoriety it received. Not only had two kings joined battle to see who would rule in England, but troops from many parts of Europe had fought in remote Ireland for a cause which would determine whether France would be dominant.
But the battle of the Boyne was less significant in the history of the struggle within Ireland itself. Despite the huge forces involved, only about 1,000 Jacobites and 500 Williamites were killed; most of the Jacobite army escaped to fight another day.
What was more significant, in Irish terms, was Aughrim, the following year. Lydon again:
It was the worst disaster in Irish miltary history and made a Williamite victory in the Irish war inevitable. If the Boyne passed into Protestant folklore, then Aughrim became part of the Catholic Irish folk memory, kept alive by poets and story-tellers as ‘Aughrim of the slaughter’.
Well, Malcolm thinks, two really.
One is that not all art is good. Too many miles of canvas went to produce over-inflated ego-massaging, that the great might feel better about themselves, impress their subjects, and somehow convey to posterity an over-inflated reputation. Which is why these flummeries should not greatly matter, and why the modern study of history was born, to prick that bubble.
Second, and more salient, we must see things from a broader perspective.
Malcolm has frequently found himself in arguments where he has wished he was as certain of anything as his opponent seemed of everything. Charles Forester, with his (doubtless premeditated) red paint and Mary Ratcliffe with her (conveniently-available) knife were objecting because the image before them offended their assumptions and prejudices. The truth is not always as clear-cut as we might wish. Lydon for the last time:
When Derry closed its gates against the Catholic Duke of Antrim on 17 December 1688, it was not because of any rooted objection to James II, but rather because of a panic created by the revelation of a supposed plot to massacre Protestants. The citizens, in fact, behind the closed gates proclaimed their loyalty to King James and swore ‘to persevere in our duty and loyalty to our sovereign lord the king’.
Malcolm, however, will not be rushing to tell that out to his in-laws in the RBP.