On the 29 November 1745, a rebel army of Scots, led by the ‘young pretender’ Charles Stuart, reached the English city of Derby. This would be the furthest that they would reach on their campaign south, in a doomed attempt to restore Stuart rule in Britain.
Their leader, known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” was the last major figure in his ancient family of Scottish Kings, and his war of 1745 is often seen as Scotland’s last military push for independence.
The Stuart dynasty had ruled Scotland for many years prior to the James VI’s accession to the English crown on the death of Elizabeth I. With his rule the kingdoms were combined for the first time under the same monarch, an important event in the history of the British Isles.
Relations between the Scottish Stuarts, who had maintained a strong faith in the divine right of Kings, and the Parliament in London had always been strained, even under James’ rule.
His son Charles had gone to war with his parliament, lost, and then been beheaded for his trouble, and though the monarchy was restored after an eleven year hiatus that did not ease the trouble between King and Parliament.
Things came to a head in 1688, when Charles I’s Catholic son James II was forced into exile by Parliament, who had then invited the Protestant Dutchman William of Orange to take the throne himself in what is known as “the glorious revolution.”
James languished in exile, and his legitimate claim and support from the King of France did his cause little practical benefit, and when he died in 1701 the duty of trying to regain the British throne fell to his son James Francis Stuart, who would be known as the ‘Old Pretender.’
The Old Pretender
The ‘Old Pretender’ had landed triumphantly in Scotland in 1715 to press his claim to the throne, but the Stuart pretender’s rebellion was unsuccessful and he was quickly ridiculed, even amongst his supporters. He abandoned the attempt and fled Scotland after a few months.
If the Stuart cause was to make any headway then a new and more dynamic candidate for the throne would be needed. Luckily, James’ son Charles was just such a man.
Born in 1720, he was charming and polished following a childhood at the Pope’s Court in Rome, and was far more likely to gather support in Britain than his ageing and morose father.
In 1743, James named his son “Prince Regent” and gave him the authority to act in his name. Far more ambitious and dynamic than his father, the young Prince “Charlie” set his sights on what he saw as his rightful inheritance almost immediately.
Events in Europe were favourable. Britain and France were at war over the Austrian succession, and King Louis XV of France favoured a Jacobite (the Latin form of Jamesian) restoration across the Channel while the British armies were bogged down on the continent.
With Bonnie Prince Charlie a suitable candidate and some rumbles of discontent with Georgian rule in Scotland, the time seemed right for the Prince to land in the Hebrides in July 1745.
Assembling an army
He came with only a small band of companions and without the French army which had been promised, and at first his prospects seemed little better than his father’s had been thirty years earlier.
Gradually however, Charlie began to win over the support of the Highland Chieftains, who slowly rallied around him.
Charlie’s charm won over other important Scots as he marched south in full highland dress, claiming that he was a direct descendant of King Robert the Bruce, a 14th-century King of Scotland famous for hammering the English in battle.
By mid-September, the ragged army of highlanders had marched into the Scottish capital Edinburgh.
This important symbolic move greatly alarmed the Georgian government in London, and redcoat troops began to assemble near Edinburgh.
There however, they were surprised and defeated at the Battle of Prestonpans by the Scottish army and forced into a headlong retreat. The road to England, and quite possibly the crown, lay open for Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The young Prince was eager to press onwards, wanting to capitalise on the momentum he had gathered since landing, and though it took five weeks to persuade the other Scots they eventually agreed and marched south across the border with a small army.
They met with little resistance from government forces as they marched south, but the promised support from the English people did not come.
When the cold and tired highlanders reached Derby, which was 120 miles from London, they had to make an important decision.
Charlie wanted to press on despite the presence of a sizeable army under King George I’s son the Duke of Cumberland in the area, and meet the enemy in the field.
The Scottish Lords, however, advised retreat, and after overriding Charlie’s protests the army began to slink back north. Little did the Lords know the the King in London was expecting the invading army any day and was preparing to flee.
Had the Scots known this and pressed on, it seems very likely that King Charles III would have been crowned in Westminster abbey, but it was not to be.
The retreat north in freezing winter weather was hard, but the tough highlanders managed to keep ahead of their red-coated pursuers all the way back north.
On Christmas Day the tired army reached Glasgow, and they were sufficiently far ahead of their foes for Charlie to meet his famous mistress Clementina Wilkinshaw.
The retreat had to go on, however, and the strategy of luring Cumberland’s forces into Scotland’s wild north seemed vindicated when Charlie’s General Lord Murray won another notable surprise victory at Falkirk.
Only the short days of winter prevented this victory from becoming a war-winning rout, but in the confusion of the freezing darkness Cumberland’s army were able to regroup and fight another day.
Charlie again wanted to use this new momentum and head south, but once again the Lords refused and brought the now shrinking army even further north back into the Highlands.
Finally, outside the highland capital of Inverness the decisive battle was fought.
The Battle of Culloden was a disaster for the rebels. Charlie left his men exposed to cannon fire, and they were decimated. Realising his mistake, he tried to order an attack, but his messenger was killed before the order could be delivered.
The charge did go ahead eventually, but saw the Scots cut down by musket fire. For the first time the old fighting ways of the highlands had met with modern warfare in an open battle.
“Butcher” Cumberland ordered no quarter and thousands of highlanders were slaughtered.
End of the Stuart Dynasty
Culloden was an era-ending event in many ways. It was the last battle fought on British soil, the last time a charismatic royal would wield enough power to bring armies to fight for his right to rule.
With Charlie’s defeat the new model of Monarchy imported from abroad and dominated by parliament would remain, as it does to this day.
In Scotland the highland clans were subdued and their culture repressed, meaning the end of hundreds of years of their history, and Charlie’s aristocratic supporters were similarly purged.
The romance of the young Prince’s march into England still lives on in Scotland, where the Jacobite rebellion, as it is now known, is celebrated as an important milestone in Scottish history.
Charles’s subsequent escape has become legendary, and is commemorated in several folk songs.
He hid in the moors of Scotland, and while government forces came close to capturing him several times, none succeeded. Many Highlanders saw Charles, and despite a £30,000 bounty, none betrayed him.
Charles was most famously assisted by Flora MacDonald, who took Charles, disguised as her Irish maid, “Betty Burke”, in a small boat to the Isle of Skye.
Charles would eventually return to the continent and conducted several affairs whilst living out the rest of his life in obscurity and dying in 1788.
Header image credit: Bonnie Prince Charlie, as painted by John Pettie. Credit: Commons.