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The Woman Who Took On King Billy, And Won

Updated: Oct 7, 2019


“Here lieth ye body of Jean Watson who died May ye 4th 1749 aged 92 years. Also the body of Robert McKee of Sloanstown who departed this life Jan 31st 1782 aged 88 years.”

As I stood in Templepatrick Graveyard the obscurity of my location did not pass me by. One can hear the gently lapping of the water and the excited gulls, a reminder that I am situated immediately by the sea. This burial ground is located one mile from Millisle and on the main coastal road to Donaghadee, it suffers from, amongst other things, a fair degree of neglect. Following a search lasting around half an hour I managed to find what I had come for, the headstone of a woman about whom I have heard so much of but yet still seem to know very little…


After joining King William III in his expedition to England in 1688 General Schomberg led an army of Williamites to Ireland. Much controversy surrounds the actual landing place of Schomberg in Ireland. The general debate seems to be whether he and his men landed at Ballyholme Bay near Bangor, or if they landed at Groomsport.

George Walker's 'A True Account of the Siege of Londonderry'suggests that Schomberg was welcomed with a thirty-eight gun salute and was escorted past the treacherous Briggs Rocks off Groomsport before anchoring at 16:00 in Bangor Bay. Meanwhile, the London Gazetteof 22 August 1689 reported: 'From Bangor in the County of Downe in Ireland, August 13, His Grace the Duke of Schomberg arrived this afternoon in this Bay. The forces are now landing...'


Several reports exist to support the claim that Schomberg landed in Groomsport, but whether he and his army both landed at Groomsport remains uncertain. However, it does seem practical for an army of 10,000 men to land on the more accommodating beaches of Ballyholme and Bangor.

Regardless of where Schomberg did actually land, his journey to Ireland lasted a gruelling 31½ hours. Despatches were sent to Whitehall immediately upon their arrival dated; 'Bangor 13th August' describing the success of the expedition. On 14 August he ordered his troops to march on Belfast, they did so via the Craigantlet hills in order to avoid Crawfordsburn and Kinnegar. After crossing the Lagan flood plain they carefully negotiated the Long Bridge and in the process damaged its old masonry with the sheer weight of their artillery. Belfast and Carrickfergus were successfully captured. Following the capture of Carrickfergus, Schomberg hurried in some much needed reinforcements including weapons, powder and most essentially horses. The Williamites' demand for horses would soon bring them into a conflict which they had not bargained for...


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.' After landing at Carrickfergus, the Williamite army proceeded south to confront James who, by this stage, was perched on a strategic position at the River Boyne. 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) 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 children, she resided in the townland of Killaughey, near Millisle. Killaughey is likely to have been known as Killaghy or Ballekillaghy in the 17thcentury. 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 Scotland to avoid religious persecution and consequently sought refuge in Ulster. Born in 1657 Jean Watson was aged 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.

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 had a healthy Scots settler presence, and many were of Presbyterian religion. Ulster Presbyterians would have been generally supportive of the Williamite campaign, however their behaviour led some Presbyterians to view the Williamites as a belligerent force. The victims were left powerless in the situation with 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 for Jean Watson.


'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 to accompany the bannocks which had been baked for her departure the next morning. During her early rise the elder children were awakened, their cries of despair were like a chorus of grief. Though it was all in vain as Ms Watson hurried off into the morning, leaving the children in her wake.

As she paced away from the distraught children her thoughts switched to determination and, no doubt, anxiety about the road 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. Ms Watson finally caught up with the Williamites when she encountered a military camp. Jean was immediately arrested by a guard belonging to King William on suspicion of being an enemy Jacobite spy in female attire before being taken to the camp headquarters and placed under heavy guard to await a court martial.


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 fate. Amidst the confusion and dismay Jean Watson enjoyed probably the safest but certainly the quietest area in the whole camp. It is likely that the famous Battle of the Boyne took place at this point.


She then noticed a commotion, during which a regal figure became visible. Jean Watson was on the cusp of a chance encounter with King William himself. She pleaded with William to hear her case 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, and selected six of her 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". 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 north. Jean 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 note 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."


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