31st December 1720 was the date of birth of Charles Edward Stuart, known to history as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, a man who spent his entire life regretting that things had not turned out differently.
He was born in Rome, where his father, James Edward Stuart, was living in exile as a guest of the pope. James Edward was the son of the former King James II of England and VII of Scotland, who had been deposed by William of Orange in 1688.
When the throne became vacant in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne, James Edward had been offered it on condition that he renounced his Catholicism, which he refused to do. The Hanoverians, beginning with King George I, thus became the new royal dynasty, which has continued to the present day. James Edward attempted a half-hearted invasion of Britain in 1715 but gave up when the expected support did not materialise.
However, Charles Edward was made of sterner stuff and was determined to place his father on the British throne and expel the Hanoverians. He was fully aware that this would be difficult to do, which was why he spent some considerable time trying to persuade the government of France, Britain’s traditional enemy, to support his cause. In 1744 he nearly succeeded, but the intended invasion fleet was scattered by a storm and the threat was averted.
However, in 1745 he tried again. He was landed by a French ship on the island of Eriskay, in the outer Hebrides, with seven companions. His aim was to recruit a powerful army from the Scottish clans that would then march south into England, with the expectation that a renewed attempt at invasion would be made by the French from the south.
At first, things went well for the “Young Pretender”. Many clan chiefs rallied to the “Jacobite” cause, including some who were Protestant but who resented being ruled by foreigners in the shape of Hanoverians. The Jacobite army swept south out of the Highlands and had no difficulty in capturing the city of Edinburgh and defeating a government army at Prestonpans on 21st September.
They continued into England, capturing Carlisle after a siege. However, the further south they got the more worried Charles’s supporters became, as they were in territory that was entirely strange to them. They were also concerned by the lack of support being shown by the English communities that they passed through. This was a country that was largely happy with Protestant rule and had no great desire to see another Catholic king on the throne.
When the army reached the River Trent at Swarkestone, south of Derby, a council was held of the army leaders who, outvoting Charles, decided that this was a campaign that was doomed to failure, especially given reports that the king’s army was gathering strength and that the French invasion had not materialised.
It has been said that these reports were misleading and that Charles could have won if he had proceeded because the government was in panic and its army had been spread round the country because they did not know where the Jacobites were. However, the evidence does seem to indicate that the clan chiefs were correct all along and that Charles was doomed to defeat.
The Jacobite army therefore returned the way it had come, pursued by an English army under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, the second son of King George II. Final defeat came at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, at which 1,000 highlanders were killed and Charles Edward was forced to flee.
The story then turned to one of pursuit and escape, with Charles relying on the support of brave individuals such as Flora MacDonald who took him “over the sea to Skye” at great personal risk. When captured she spent a year in the Tower of London, on a charge of treason, but was eventually pardoned.
Charles made his way back to France. He spent the rest of his life wandering about Europe, settling eventually in Rome where he lived out his days as an embittered, drunken has-been (or, more accurately, a “never-was”). He continued to live a fantasy existence as “King Charles III” after his father died in 1766, expecting everyone around him to treat him like royalty. He married a woman who was 33 years younger than himself, but she had few illusions about him – she described him as “the most insupportable man who ever lived” who got drunk twice a day.
Charles Edward Stuart died in Rome, in the house in which he had been born, in January 1788 at the age of 67. Despite the romance of the “lad born to be king”, there is every reason to believe that a Jacobite victory would have been disastrous for Great Britain, and that the country had a fortunate escape in that “James III” and “Charles III” never came to the throne.
© John Welford