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The Jacobites, led by Charles Edward Stuart, known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” tried to regain the throne in Scotland in the 1700s. They didn’t, but their story still shapes political dynamics in the country today. Writer Jonny Sweet explains.
Text: Jonny Sweet
Country: Scotland

fter more than 250 years, it may be tempting to consign the plight of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite followers to the mists of time. However, the resurgence of the debate surrounding Scottish independence—and the international popularity of the TV series “Outlander”—has raised questions about the relevance of the Jacobite cause in a modern world. Professor Murray Pittock, a historian who teaches Literature at the University of Glasgow and has been studying the subject for 30 years, helps to shed some light on this controversial topic.

Troubled times

The name “Jacobite” comes from the Latin ‘Jacobus’, meaning James. The movement was named after King James II of England and VII of Scotland, who ruled both kingdoms from 1685 to 1688 when he was deposed during the so-called Glorious Revolution. The English Parliament were unhappy with James’ Catholicism and upon the birth of a male heir, they acted to prevent the ascension of another Catholic to the throne by inviting William of Orange, the son of James’ sister Mary and husband of his daughter Mary, to invade and take the crown. Though James was forced into exile, many thousands of inhabitants of both Scotland and England remained loyal to his cause and became known as Jacobites.

The first failed uprising took place in both Scotland and Ireland in 1689, and was followed by three more in 1708, 1715 and 1719. Meanwhile, the death of William III ended the reign of the House of Orange. He was succeeded by his sister in law and daughter of James II, Queen Anne, who died childless in 1714. She was succeeded by her second cousin, George I, thus beginning the reign of the House of Hanover. George I ruled from 1714 to 1727 and was succeeded by his son, George II, and the passing of the baton from father to son seemed to lend a legitimacy to the royal family’s reign—which the Stuarts were determined to upend.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ‘45

While James II and his son James III had failed in their attempts to regain the crown, his grandson Charles Edward Stuart swore he would not. Handsome and charismatic, Charles, nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie, grew impatient with a lack of support from French allies and resolved to launch his own rebellion in 1745. His campaign enjoyed an encouraging start. Amassing Highland support, the Prince easily took Edinburgh, Carlisle and Manchester, before proceeding on to Derby in the middle of England. However, the lack of willing recruits in England, coupled with the army’s fatigue and undernourishment, led his chief counsellors to order a retreat to Scotland. Charles was devastated. He complied with their wishes but never fully forgave Lord George Murray, one of the leading proponents of the retreat. Only 120 miles from London, would the Jacobites have prevailed had they pressed on?

“There was very little between them and London; there were not much more than 1,000 men actually blocking the route to the capital, so they would’ve reached London first, no question,” Pittock says. “The question is: what would’ve happened then? It’s really difficult to tell, because if the government had collapsed, if credit had collapsed in the Bank of England, if George II had left the capital, well, a lot of things could have happened. They had more chance marching on from Derby than they did turning back, that’s for sure.”

The last battle on British soil

Despite winning other battles on the way back to Scotland, the Jacobites were finally caught by the opposing army, led by George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland. Suffering from a lack of funds and provisions, Charles decided to face Cumberland on the battlefield against the advice of his commanders. Knowing that the Duke would be celebrating his 25th birthday, Charles ordered a surprise night attack. Unfortunately for him, his forces lost their way in the dark and did not locate the enemy camp before sunrise.

In addition to this setback, Pittock believes, it was also the cavalry that won the day for the British. “That’s usually the missing element in the story, because there was a great superiority in the British Army in terms of cavalry, which meant that unless the Jacobites won straight out with their first attack, then they couldn’t win, because they had virtually no reserves and they would be enveloped by cavalry.” With this advantage in horses and weaponry, the battle turned out to be a massacre lasting less than an hour; the Jacobites were decisively defeated, once and for all.

Over the sea to Skye

With the British army now monitoring all ports and with a £30,000 bounty on his head, Charles still managed to escape Scotland— disguised as a woman. Acting as Betty Burke, the mute and deaf spinning maid to local woman Flora MacDonald, he boarded a small vessel bound for the Isle of Skye. This daring escapade earned him immediate prestige in mainland Europe. Though he became a romantic figure, he remains controversial, with many Scots blaming him for leading hundreds of men to an early grave. Pittock believes such a view is harsh.

“To say Charles Edward is responsible for many futile deaths is to say that anybody who ever goes to war is responsible for many futile deaths,” he says. “He was doing what he was expected to do to gain his father’s throne, and you have to remember that it was hardly a democracy. The Tories, who contained almost all of his natural supporters, were deliberately kept out of office by the British crown between 1714 and 1760, so basically the whole political and parliamentary system was a fix of some kind or another. You can’t revisit it from the perspective of the 21st century that there were alternative political routes open, because there weren’t.”

Jacobite relevance in a modern world

The immediate ramifications of the fifth failed uprising manifested themselves in an attempted whitewash of the Highlands by the government, amounting to nothing short of cultural genocide. Laws made it illegal for Highlanders to wear the kilt or clan colours, or carry arms, while a prosecution was mounted against bagpipes as an instrument of war. The Gaelic language was also heavily marginalised in favour of English. These laws were fortunately repealed before the end of the 18th century and the Scottish sense of identity has flourished since.

The failed uprising had serious consequences outside Scotland, too. Pittock hypothesises that Charles’s good relations with France would have meant that the Seven Years War (1756-63) would have never taken place, and that the British government wouldn’t have engaged in conflict with the French in either Canada or India. Significantly, this would have meant that “France would have still been in North America in the 1770s, which meant the American colonies may not have rebelled in 1776, and because France would have spent much less money trying to keep up with the British Empire in the 1760s and 70s, France would not have suffered the financial crisis that helped to lead to the Revolution of 1789. So you can make a case—and this is speculative stuff, of course—that actually if the Stuarts had been restored, there would have been no United States and no French Revolution.”

The question of independence

Clearly, the Jacobite movement has had far-reaching consequences all over the globe, helping to shape modern politics even through its failure. But what of the recent resurgence in Scottish nationalism? In 2014, a referendum to decide whether Scotland would separate from the UK and become its own country was defeated in a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%. Surely the Jacobites’ own struggle for identity and independence is too far removed from today’s issues to draw direct parallels?

“Although the Jacobites are not absolutely central to the debate as it stands, I think the way in which we respond to Jacobite history has got a lot to do with the kind of inability to get past a certain view of the creation of Britain,” Pittock says. A staunch supporter of Scottish independence, the professor remains unsure of what will happen in the coming years, largely due to the uncertainty created by Brexit. However, he’s in no doubt of the relevance of the Jacobite issue today. “There’s no question that the Jacobites are the thing that stands between the 17th century and modern Britain and therefore they are still a constitutional, controversial movement.”

Jacobites factfile

- The Jacobites supported the royal house of Stuart, who had ruled Scotland since 1371 and were exiled in 1688 with the invited invasion of the Protestant prince William of Orange.

- Though the Jacobites did support a Catholic dynasty, they counted many Protestants among their numbers as well, including Episcopalians and Anglicans.

- There were five Jacobite uprisings in total, in 1689, 1708, 1715, 1719 and 1745. The ’45, featuring Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie), is the most famous.

- Bonnie Prince Charlie suffered his final defeat at Culloden near Inverness on 16th April 1746. It is the last battle to have been fought on British soil.

- The Jacobite army was largely but not solely composed of Scottish Highlanders and Lowlanders; there were also Irishmen, Frenchmen and Englishmen fighting against the crown.

- The two armies were mismatched in size (roughly 5000 Jacobites against almost 9000 British forces), and the British were far better equipped and had the crucial advantage of cavalry.

- The head of the British forces was the son of King George II, the Duke of Cumberland. His lack of mercy after the battle earned him the nickname “the butcher”.

- Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped back to France disguised as a mute and deaf serving woman named Betty Burke. His flight soon became the stuff of legends.

- After the failed rebellion, the Prince never saw his father again. Consumed by guilt for the 1745 rebellion and a need to claim his crown, he fell into alcoholism and depression.

- He died in 1788 and is now buried alongside his father and brother inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.


The Rebellions that Shaped Scottish History

The Jacobite rebellion seems like ancient history, but the current debate about Scottish independence indicates that it still has some relevance in the modern world.

The name "Jacobite" comes from the Latin 'Jacobus', meaning James. The movement gets its name from King James II of England and VII of Scotland. He ruled both kingdoms from 1685 to 1688 but then was deposed during the Glorious Revolution. The English Parliament did not want another Catholic on the throne, so they placed William of Orange on the throne. William was the nephew and son in law of James II.

Many inhabitants of Scotland and England remained loyal to King James II and they are known as the Jacobites. James II and his son James III failed to regain the crown, but Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II swore to regain the throne. He was known as Bonnie Prince Charlie because he was handsome and charismatic.

With the support of Highlanders he led a rebellion in 1745. His army took many towns in England, but retreated before they reached London. They won some battles on their way back to Scotland, but were finally defeated by the Duke of Cumberland. Charles escaped Scotland disguised as a deaf and mute serving woman. He died in 1788 after many years of alcoholism and depression.

Professor Pittock of the University of Glasgow believes the way we view the Jacobite uprising has implications in modern Scotland. The Scottish sense of identity is growing stronger every day. In 2014, 44.7% of Scots voted for Scottish independence. And with Brexit there is growing uncertainty about the future of Scotland.



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The Rebellions that Shaped Scottish History



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Jacobite Rebellion

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