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The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 – a romantic non-event?

The ’45
Christopher Duffy
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2003

Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart
Frank McLynn
Routlledge 1988

Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s campaign to regain the British throne for his father is the most romantic episode in British history, retold many times. Landing in Moidart on the Scottish mainland with seven companions, and then persuading a number of clan chiefs to support him, he conducted a brilliant campaign that took him to 120 miles of London. Because of the passivity of the English Jacobites and the failure of any French help to arrive, the clan chiefs refused to proceed further and the army retreated back to Scotland and ultimate defeat. The five-month hunt for Charles through the Scottish Highlands and Islands until he escaped at last to France provides a coda just as romantic and more material to make him into a legend, which even turned the head of Frederick the Great.

Duffy’s massive 639 page account is primarily a military history, giving much information on the forces of the two sides, Stuart and Hanoverian, their movements, tactics and morale, but strangely lacking serious discussion of strategy. The political background, national and international is likewise missing; in 1743 Britain had got involved in the war of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), and was at war with France. It may be that the author is overconscious of going over well-trodden ground, but it seems perverse to opt out of giving an account, or even a summary of an account, of the council of war at Derby that decided that the Jacobite army should retreat, and though he dissents from that decision himself: “It is not the purpose of the present work to recapitulate the details of the sessions, which are recounted at length in every serious biography of the Prince and study of the ’45 (p. 301)”.

McLynn’s biography makes it clear that the Highland chiefs, whose clans had been the spearhead of the invasion simply refused to continue. They had been disappointed by the lack of French intervention, promised by Charles, together with the passivity of the English Jacobites. Duffy makes much of the fact that the scale may have been turned by the false information that the Duke of Cumberland’s army was about to block any possible retreat provided by the Hanoverian agent, Dudley Bradstreet, masquerading as Oliver Williams, an English, or more likely, a Welsh Jacobite volunteer. Bradstreet must have had nerves of steel, for he stayed with the Prince on the retreat, and was not slow to take the credit for it. Duffy does not say when he deserted – for that one would presumably have to read Bradstreet’s own account (1750; edited and republished, 1929). Needless to say, it is far from being accepted by everybody as gospel.

There is no doubt that until Derby, the rebels had won every move, mainly because of their greater mobility and their seizing of the initiative. Even the weather, usually bad, favoured them, despite or even because by the time the crisis came they were conducting a winter campaign, for which they were better suited than their opponents, not only because of the greater hardiness of the Highlanders, who made up their shock troops, but because of their logistics. They advanced from town to town in an orderly manner, usually collecting money already accumulated there for tax payments and sometimes clothing and equipment. What they did not get, especially after they had crossed the border, were many recruits. The impression given is that most of the population, both in England and Scotland, had decided to sit things out and see what happened. Although remote, the Highlands may well have been the most sensible place for Charles to start the campaign, since it was only there in the British Isles that the male population still consisted of and regarded itself as, should the occasion arise, natural fighting men, with arms for the purpose. To go with this, as Duffy makes very clear, was an extremely squalid lifestyle; the men did little other than indulge in cattle-raiding while, as in most primitive societies, the women did most of the work. The only alternative to, or reinforcement for the Highlanders would be a force of French regulars of about the same numbers – upwards of 5,000 – landed, with the help of smugglers disaffected to the government, in South East England, where, Duffy argues, the geography would help the formation of a bridgehead and an advance on London. Britain was at war with France (and had an army on the continent, from which the Duke of Cumberland was recalled) and the Duc de Richelieu, on Louis XV’s orders, organized an invasion attempt, but was (according to N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean) unready at the critical time, becoming aware of the retreat from Derby when he arrived to do the job. Rather pointlessly he planned an operation, then abandoned it: the important thing is that the French were not there when wanted, expected and needed.

Even a token attempt by them might have been sufficient to have swayed Prince Charles’s advisers to fall in with his wish to march on London – which was clearly also that of his army, as distinct from its leaders. Both the opposing forces, Wade’s and Cumberland’s, were poorly positioned to resist it, able to march at only about half its speed and, after much fruitless activity, in a poor state physically and psychologically. Foreign observers in London, in particular the Swedish Ambassador, noted how disorganized the government response was. Derby was only 120 miles from London and Highlanders could march 25 miles a day for five or six consecutive days.

By any judgement, surely, the whole project was a gamble and Duffy does not give the arguments, if any, as to how retreating at this stage would favourably increase the odds, while it decisively boosted the morale of the Hanoverian government. The reverse would be the case for the Stuart army and the effect was disastrous on the Prince, who fell seriously ill when back in Scotland. Certainly from then on, matters for the Jacobites seemed only to deteriorate. There was no attempt to turn and fight in England, a garrison was left in an inadequately defended Carlisle and then abandoned and captured, then the Scottish lowlands were evacuated. One reason for a retreat to Scotland was that much of the North East coast was held by the Jacobites with adequate forces, gathered since the Prince left for England, making communication with France feasible and reinforcements of men, munitions and money from there possible, though much was intercepted by the Royal Navy. Yet the ports there were also abandoned and resources frittered away in localised fighting. After a botched attempt at a night attack, the result next day of the battle of Culloden, with weary, half-starved rebels, pitted against rested, well-fed troops, now properly trained to resist a Highland onslaught, was inevitable.

Duffy emphasises more than once that Prince Charles saw no point in continuing the conflict as a sporadic guerilla war and after Culloden that there was nothing for him to do but to escape. He had determined to carry out his campaign in proper form, with a orderly, disciplined army, which is what he did, at all times leading it from the front, usually on foot, until the retreat, when he brought up the rear. There was little or no looting or misbehaviour by his soldiers, Highlanders or others. For a full character assessment of Charles, Duffy refers readers to Frank McLynn’s biography, which unsparingly depicts its terrible deterioration in his later life. Duffy’s own opinion of the Prince is: “I have to say I found him to be an extraordinarily impressive character,” and the narrative bears this out. His opponent Cumberland also comes out better than one might have expected, considerate of his troops’ welfare, and a competent commander in contrast to his subordinate Hawley. His harsh behaviour towards the rebels does not seem out of line with the times; the contrast of Charles in the treatment of prisoners might be put down to differences in policy from necessity of conciliation as opposed to repression.

Cumberland’s – and the government’s – measures following the rebellion can be seen to be justified since the comparative leniency shown after previous uprisings and disturbances had obviously not worked. The Highlanders were disarmed and their style of dress (rather different from the present one) banned; clans as potential armed units withered away. As superb fighters with other no source of employment, however, Highlanders as individuals were soon surprisingly willing to serve King George.

Duffy does not deal with the political fallout from the rebellion, or speculate on what might have happened had things turned out differently. It may be worth while to note, however, that the House of Hanover had now reigned for 30 years, that Whigs had been in government for the same length of time, for much of it under the control of Walpole, and that neither were popular, let alone charismatic. The mechanism of “regime change” through a parliamentary two-party system had not yet been properly established, though after 30 years the country was probably needing something of the sort. The ’45 therefore coincided with a situation which might have allowed “regime change” to take place.

McLynn plainly leans towards the possibility that Prince Charles might have succeeded, without quite saying so:

“With the recent revival in Jacobite studies, we are at last able to appreciate the deadly threat to the regime posed by the 1745 rising. Some of the finest young historians at work today now rate the mixed phenomenon of domestic rebellion and foreign invasion threat, as in 1779, 1798 and, most clearly, 1745 as more important threats to the social and economic order than the much trumpeted revolutions of the 1640s and 1688.”

This is a very odd statement because, if it means anything, it is that threats which didn’t come off should be “rated more important” than revolutions which did. Nor are the two examples given in any way convincing or impressive. In 1779 Spain joined the vultures gathering to take advantage of the American Revolution (not exactly a “domestic” rebellion), so that the combined French and Spanish fleets greatly outnumbered ours in the Channel. However, the French had badly bungled their preparations, rendering their fleet almost useless, had no charts or pilots or any idea, for lack of scouting, where the defending fleet was, which was under the command of a cool and competent admiral. The expedition withdrew to Brest and the crisis passed. In 1798 there was even more of a fiasco. Located in the west of Ireland, there was a “domestic” rebellion, but it was crushed before French assistance had even set out. The 1,000 French troops, uselessly landed, were rounded up and seven of the ten ships that arrived a month later were captured or sunk.

We must not be distracted by speculation of what might have been, though it is hard to believe that Charles could really have taken control of London with just over 5,000 men, not all Highlanders. The rebellion failed and its repercussions were suprisingly slight. The war with France continued and George II went on quarrelling with his ministers about the priority he wished to give to defending his vulnerable electorate of Hanover. Only in the Highlands was its aftermath important, where a long-overdue pacification started to bring the region under the rule of law.

The Stuarts in exile had been a marginal element internationally for decades; now they became a nuisance and, finally, an embarrassment. By the terms of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, Louis XV undertook to expel Charles from France which he did, though not without an enormous fuss and resistance by the Prince who finally had to be arrested, bound hand and foot and driven away from Paris. After a very expensive visit to Avignon, which was Papal territory, and which paid the bills, he settled in Venice.

There would be no replay; he would never return. His character, if nothing else, ensured that. The legend and the myth live on, deservedly so, but as myths and legends are, things of the past, not inspiration for the future. Even contemporaries must have noticed, as we can see now, that Parliament, representing the governing class, was becoming more important than the monarch. The rebellion had given it a fright, but it slipped easily into its old ways, as if nothing had happened. Perhaps nothing really had, and the ’45, noisy and frightening as a thunderstorm, was ultimately a Non-Event.

3 comments to The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 – a romantic non-event?

  • Paul Marks

    At the Derby conference the Jacobite council was informed that a large enemy army stood between them and London – this was one of the main reasons they decided to pull back.

    However, the information came from a British government spy who had been involved in Jacobite circles for years.

    Historians do not tend to like to talk about the above because many historians do not like the fact that a single individual (rather than “social forces” or other such) can influence history. Historians particularly tend to dislike the idea that intelligence operations can influence history (for example Lenin and his Marxist gang would not have come to power without support from the Imperial German government – which was prepared to do just about anything to knock Russia out of W.W.I.).

    I can not even remember the name of the spy involved in the 1745 Derby Council – partly my senile brain, partly the fact that mainstream history works on my bookshelves do not bother to talk about this incident.

    Of course even in the north of England the government forces were weak. The main army was in Newcastle (protecting, amongst other things, London’s coal supplies). The Newcastle army was a total mess (trouble over pay, loyality doubtful and badly trained).

    When Cumberland came over to England it took him many months to train up an army that he was confident would beat the Jacobites.

    As for the French: Louis XV had his faults – but he would have backed the Jacabites if they had marched on London. There would have been so much pressure on Cumberland in Europe that there would have been little he could do.

    Of course Chales had already dealt with the issue of religion (the real reason that James II had lost the Crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland), by converting to the Church of England.

  • Effra

    The make-or-break moment for the Jacobites was their failure to gain recruits in Lancashire, the centre of traditional English Catholicism. If they couldn’t raise masses of men in Preston or Manchester, they certainly wouldn’t pick any up in Derby and Leicester.

    The Hanoverians and the slack, easy-going, corrupt political regime their semi-German detachment had permitted to flourish under Walpole suited the English more than a belated return to the old religion. They did not fancy capitulating to a sissy Papist with a French accent, commanding a band of hairy primitives whose rep anong Londoners wwas like that of Gurkhas among Argie conscripts in the Falklands.

    Had the ’15 amounted to anything militarily, it might have succeeded. But 30 years later, embarked on the economic revolutions which would lift it to dazzling heights of wealth, power and admiration among European rivals, England said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the bonnie Prince.

    He might have stood a chance at Culloden if his Highlanders had spent the night before the battle discussing tactics, instead of quarrelling about which should have the honour of being in this or that place in the battle line. Their chivalric values were outmoded in the age of Marlburian warfare, but their sense of honour saved Charles during his escape.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Paul Marks

    I don’t want to accuse anyone of commenting on my review without having read it, but may I gently point out that I gave the name of the government spy who hoodwinked the Jacobite council of war at Derby, in paragraph 3, as Dudley Bradstreet aka Oliver Williams. I do agree with Paul’s point, though – I had never heard of him before.

    As for the French, I refer to the fact that, as N.A.M. Roger tells us, in his “Command of the Oceans, 1649-1815″ (a must read), the Duc de Richelieu only arrived to start on his invasion task on the day the Prince’s retreat began. If anything other than a cock-up had occurred, granted the problem of coordinating Charles’ invasion with a French one, it would have been a miracle.

    As for Prince Charles’ conversion (or apostasy) to Anglicanism, according to McLynn (p. 399), who gives a couple of references in his end-notes, this did not occur until his clandestine visit to London in 1750), so during the ’45 he was definitely officially a Catholic.

    Perhaps not enough has been made of the fact that the English and Lowland Scots had not been used to bearing arms, or had much effective in that line in their houses, for nearly a century, since the end of the Civil War. Fighting was for professionals, loading and firing a musket was still a complicated process, as was the wielding of the bayonet. As I have pointed out, only the Highlanders were fighting men, and were probably only able to let off one musket round before charging with the sword – a tactic which, time and again, was quite enough.