Unraveling Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Army: Why They Retreated at Derby | History Hit

Unraveling Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Army: Why They Retreated at Derby

Celeste Neill

29 Apr 2023
Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie
Image Credit: John Pettie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 29 November 1745, the rebel army of Scots, led by Charles Stuart, famously known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, reached the English city of Derby. Their ambitious campaign aimed to restore Stuart rule in Britain but ultimately proved futile.

Charles Stuart, the last significant figure from his ancient family of Scottish Kings, spearheaded Scotland’s final military push for independence in the war of 1745. The Stuart dynasty had long ruled over Scotland, and the accession of James VI to the English crown upon Elizabeth I’s death marked a significant milestone in British Isles history, combining the kingdoms under one monarch.

Tensions between the Scottish Stuarts, staunch believers in the divine right of kings, and the London Parliament had persistently strained their relationship, even during James’ rule. Charles I, defeated and beheaded during the English Civil War, and his son Charles II, known for his controversial personal life, were prominent Stuart kings who shaped the dynasty’s history.

Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, where James II was ousted and replaced by William of Orange, the Stuarts faced further challenges. James II’s son, James Francis Stuart, known as the ‘Old Pretender’, inherited the claim to the British throne but struggled to gain practical support, despite his legitimate rights and backing from the King of France.

Early 17th century portrait of King James I. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Pretender

The Stuart cause faced a setback when the ‘Old Pretender,’ James Francis Stuart, landed in Scotland in 1715 to press his claim to the throne. Despite his triumphant arrival, the rebellion led by the Stuart pretender proved unsuccessful, quickly leading to ridicule even among his own supporters. Disheartened by the lack of progress, he abandoned the endeavour and fled Scotland within a few months.

Kelsey explains how Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart and his supporters were hampered by difficult terrain, an exhausted army and division among the ranks, and how the Jacobite conflicts may not be cut along the national lines that they are often thought to have been.
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In order to revive the Stuart cause, a fresh and dynamic candidate for the throne was necessary. Fortunately, James’ son, Charles Stuart, emerged as the ideal figure.

Born in 1720, Charles possessed a charismatic and polished demeanour, cultivated during his upbringing at the Pope’s Court in Rome. Unlike his despondent father, Charles was more likely to garner support within Britain. In 1743, James bestowed upon his son the title of “Prince Regent” and granted him the authority to act on his behalf. With greater ambition and dynamism, the young Prince Charlie immediately set his sights on claiming his rightful inheritance.

The geopolitical climate in Europe also favoured the Stuart cause. Britain and France were engaged in a conflict over the Austrian succession, and King Louis XV of France leaned towards a Jacobite restoration in Britain. Meanwhile, the British armies were preoccupied with continental affairs. Seizing this opportune moment, Bonnie Prince Charlie deemed it suitable to land in the Hebrides in July 1745, capitalising on his candidacy and the simmering discontent with Georgian rule in Scotland.

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.

A 1907 illustration of Bonnie Prince Charlie seen on the battlefield. Image credit: Marshall, H. E. (Henrietta Elizabeth), b. 1876, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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.

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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.

End of the Stuart Dynasty

Culloden was an era-ending event in many ways. It was the last battle fought on British soil, and the last time a charismatic royal would wield enough power to bring armies to fight for his right to rule. 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.

‘Lochaber No More – Prince Charlie leaving Scotland’, an 1863 painting by the artist John Blake MacDonald. Image credit: Coldupnorth, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The romantic tale of the young Prince’s march into England continues to captivate Scotland, where the Jacobite rebellion, as it is now referred to, is revered as a significant milestone in Scottish history.

Following his daring escape, Charles’s journey has become the stuff of legends, immortalised in numerous folk songs. He sought refuge in the Scottish moors, evading capture by government forces who relentlessly pursued him. Despite close encounters, Charles eluded capture, a testament to the loyalty of the Highlanders who encountered him. Despite a substantial £30,000 bounty on his head, none of them betrayed him.

One of the most renowned figures in Charles’s escape was Flora MacDonald, who played a pivotal role in his evasion. Disguised as her Irish maid, Charles assumed the identity of ‘Betty Burke’ as they embarked on a perilous journey by boat to the Isle of Skye.

Eventually, Charles would return to the continent, leading a life of obscurity and engaging in several affairs before passing away in 1788.

Celeste Neill