The Jacobite rebellions: how close were they to returning the Stuarts to power?

William III and Mary II may have ousted James VII and II in the so-called Glorious Revolution, but support for the House of Stuart was to linger for years to come. Why and when did the Jacobite risings happen, and did any of them come close to placing a Stuart back on the throne? Cultural historian Murray Pittock of the Univeristy of Glasgow charts the history of the Jacobite rebellions, which inspired the hit television drama Outlander

Though the Jacobites broke the British line at Culloden, they faltered under heavy fire (Photo by Alamy)

At dawn on 21 September 1745, General Sir John Cope awaited battle. His forces, deployed on open land a few miles east of Edinburgh, were disciplined and well-organised professional soldiers. By contrast, his foes he considered to be little better than savages, a rabble that had rallied to the Jacobite cause
of Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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But Cope had miscalculated. When the Jacobites attacked, they were fierce and focused. Opening fire on Cope’s cavalry as they advanced, they then smashed into his infantry. It was an overwhelming and dynamic attack. The Battle of Prestonpans, the first significant engagement of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, was essentially over inside 15 minutes.

“Every Front Man covered his Fellowes… though their Motion was very quick, it was Uniform and Orderly,” wrote a British officer of his Jacobite foes. Somewhere between 300 and 500 British troops lost their lives that day, Cope’s career as a general lay in tatters and the British Army learnt a bitter lesson: that the way it deployed its musket-bearing infantrymen was utterly inadequate.

But how and why did Charles, a man born in exile in Rome, come to be fighting on Scottish soil? The answer lies in a dynastic struggle that lasted from 1688 to 1759, and began with the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Charles’s grandfather, King James VII of Scotland and II of England and Ireland (1633-1701), was driven from power, to be succeeded by his son-in-law, William III of Orange (1650-1702), and his own daughter, Mary II (1662-94).

What did the Jacobites want?

One of the key weaknesses of the Jacobite cause lay in its divisions. English Jacobitism was built on conservative attitudes and an assortment of grievances.

These included the breach of hereditary right and the fear that changing the succession could be extended to other areas of rights of inheritance (as it was in the case of Catholics, who could be disinherited in certain circumstances); a dislike of foreigners (Dutch and Germans); a dislike of unnecessary foreign wars and the need to defend Hanover; the growth of the national debt after 1690; the exclusion of the Tory Party from power between 1714 and 1760; and the replacement of High Anglicanism by a more moderate Protestantism.

For Scottish Jacobites, the return of the native dynasty was linked to the end of the Union and the return of a looser confederal Britain ruled by a single sovereign, unified by an Episcopal/Anglican church structure and an end to Presbyterianism. Irish Jacobites wanted a confederal kingdom, a Catholic king, the restoration of Irish Catholic rights and relief from sectarian laws and Catholic toleration, backed by the continental powers, notably France and Spain.

Scottish and Irish Jacobitism were simpler in their motivations and in key aspects compatible. By contrast, the complexities of English Jacobitism could not be easily reconciled to Scottish and Irish Jacobitism – and yet it was in so many ways the most necessary for success.

While few now remember the precise details of the bitter contest, its iconography – the idea of a Stuart royals crossing the sea to reclaim the throne amidst splendid Highlands scenery – has proven irresistible. Outlander, the timeslip TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling novels, is hardly the first drama to make merry with this imagery. More profoundly, echoes of the Jacobite struggle can still be detected in contemporary Britain – in the way, for example, that the Orange Order in Northern Ireland and Scotland celebrates the victory of William of Orange’s Anglo-Dutch forces over James’s Irish army at the Boyne in 1690.

Why did the Jacobite rebellions begin?

Just five years previously, the idea of such a clash would have seemed fantastical. When James succeeded to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1685 on the death of his brother – Charles II, who had no legitimate children – he was largely accepted in the three kingdoms. And while his Catholicism made him a figure of suspicion to Protestants, it wasn’t until the birth of his son, also named James, that the threat of a Catholic dynasty led the so-called ‘Immortal Seven’ (three earls, a viscount, a bishop and two other noblemen) to invite the Protestant William to land with an army – which he did.

James, deeply affected by betrayals from his own officers and the memory of the fate of his executed father, Charles I, capitulated and fled. William’s ‘Glorious Revolution’, so-called because in England at least it was bloodless, ushered in a new political settlement. A multi-kingdom monarchy, with parliaments in Scotland and Ireland, became far more centralised.

Other changes occurred too. James’s rapprochement with France was replaced by hostility. In 1689, the Council of Wales and the Marches (a regional administrative body based in Ludlow Castle) was abolished. In 1701, Catholic heirs were excluded from the throne in the Act of Settlement. In 1707, Scotland’s refusal to recognise this act, and its ambition to have its own colonies, was ended by Union with England. As English writer Daniel Defoe put it in celebration of parliamentary sovereignty’s extension over Great Britain as a whole, “In this Union are Lands and People added to the English Empire.”

Who’s who in the Jacobite rebellions

James VII of Scotland and II of England

Stuart king of England, Scotland and Ireland until 1688, when
he was overthrown by William of Orange.

William III (of Orange) and Mary II

Joint monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1689, following the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Queen Anne

The last Stuart monarch and, after 1707, the first queen of the ‘united kingdoms’.

George I

After Anne dies childless, George (elector of Hanover, a state centred on a city in north Germany) becomes the first Hanoverian king of Great Britain
and Ireland.

George II

Second Hanoverian king of Great Britain and Ireland.

Prince William Augustus,Duke of Cumberland

Third son of George II. Commander of the British troops at the Battle of Culloden.

James Francis Edward Stuart (James ‘VIII and III’)

Son of the deposed James VII and II and first focus of the Jacobite cause to restore the Stuart dynasty to the throne.

Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie)

Grandson of King James VII and II, he returned to Britain in 1745 to try and overthrow George II. Defeated at Culloden and fled into exile.

John Graham, Viscount Dundee

Scottish nobleman, best known for leading the Jacobite cause in the first uprising of 1689.

John Erskine, Earl of Mar

Scottish noble and key figure in unifying Scotland and England in 1707, but was exiled to France after leading the doomed Jacobite Rising of 1715. Nicknamed ‘Bobbing John’ for his frequently shifting political allegiances.

Lord George Murray

One of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s commanders during the ill-fated 1745 uprising. Tried to reorganise the remnants of the Jacobite army after Culloden but was forced to flee Scotland.

This burgeoning new political system didn’t come into being without opposition, especially in Scotland and Ireland, nations losing autonomy through these developments. In Scotland, second-in-command of the Scottish army, John Graham, Viscount Dundee launched an armed rising in support of James. Dundee’s men defeated the Scottish forces loyal to William at Killiecrankie on 27 July 1689, but Dundee was killed in the action. The Jacobites continued to fight until 1691, and on and off till 1694, when their last stronghold, the Bass Rock, surrendered. The notorious Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 was an attempt, authorised by William’s Presbyterian supporters in Scotland, to demoralise a key Jacobite-supporting area.

James Hamilton's 1880s painting 'The Massacre of Glencoe'.
James Hamilton’s 1880s painting ‘The Massacre of Glencoe’. The atrocity triggered widespread revulsion and seriously undermined William III & II’s claims to be a champion of freedom. (Image by Alamy)

In Ireland, Richard Talbot, the Earl of Tyrconnell and James’s loyal lord deputy, had an army of 30,000 men. When James landed in Ireland from France in March 1689, he received Tyrconnell’s full support. Full-scale war erupted across the island, and it took William’s victories at the Boyne in 1690, and at Aughrim and Limerick (both in 1691) to end the conflict, with huge loss of life on both sides. Indeed, so strong were the Jacobite forces in defeat that 12,000 were allowed to leave Limerick for France, where they formed the nucleus of the Irish Brigade, which endured as a distinct part of the French Royal Army – and one committed to restoring the Stuart monarchy and native Irish rights – until 1791.

In Scotland, ancestral home of the Stuarts, opposition to William and Mary, and then Anne (Mary’s sister, who reigned from 1702-14), proved even more stubborn, in part because the 1707 Acts of Union was so unpopular with Scots. When Anne died childless and George I (1660-1727, the Hanover-born great-grandson of James VI and I) became King of Great Britain, matters came to a head with the Jacobite Rising of 1715.

Mar’s lament and the rising of 1715

Unlike 1708, when James ‘VIII’, the son of James VII and II, was brought within sight of Scotland but didn’t land, this was a rebellion on a huge scale. More than 20,000 Scots (about 70 per cent of the country’s potential military strength) took up arms under John Erskine, Earl of Mar. In addition, 1,100 northern English Catholics under Thomas Foster MP and the Earl of Derwentwater also rebelled.

Whether James ‘VIII and III’ (whose father died in 1701) landed or not, Mar intended to march south and break the Union. The fact that Mar had himself been instrumental in getting the Union passed, which he publicly admitted and regretted, show how this was a rebellion that was about more than support for the Stuart pretender, but about Scotland’s relationship with England.

Poor leadership and lack of strategic direction led to the failure of this most dangerous of British Jacobite risings as the indecisive battle of Sheriffmuir, fought by the northern Jacobite army, was followed by the southern Jacobite force’s capitulation at Preston in late 1715. A subsequent rising in 1719 (which landed 400 Spanish troops in Scotland) and a plot in 1722-23 were snuffed out, and as the years wore on, it looked less and less likely that a Jacobite Rising would succeed, or even gather any real momentum.

That changed in part because of instability caused by the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48, rooted in a dispute over the Hapsburg succession, which pitted Europe’s powers against each other in shifting alliances, and in which Britain moved to protect Hanover by deploying troops. It also changed because of the adventurous and daring personality of the eldest son of James ‘VIII and III’, Charles Edward Stuart – a young man in a hurry.

Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives

By December 1743, France was poised to invade Britain. On 23 December, James declared Charles to be Prince Regent and stated with regard to Scotland: “We see a Nation always famous for valour, and highly esteemed… reduced to the Condition of a Province, under the specious Pretence of an Union with a more powerful Neighbour.” While bad weather led to the French calling off their attack and allowed the British authorities to make preparations to resist, Charles remained impatient for action.

Jacobite rebellions timeline: a potted history

The key dates in the Jacobite movement…

1685 – Charles II dies, to be succeeded by James VII of Scotland, and 
II of England and Ireland.

1688 – The birth of James’s son and Protestant fears over a Catholic dynasty lead to the so-called Glorious Revolution. William of Orange and Mary, James’s daughter, 
take power the followng year.

1689 – James lands in Ireland, the beginning of military action to reclaim the throne, but is defeated at the Boyne in 1690.

1701 – James II dies. His claim to three thrones is taken up by his son James ‘VIII’ of Scotland, and ‘III’ of England and Ireland.

1702 – Anne, Mary’s sister, becomes Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.

1707 – The Acts of Union combine England and Scotland into “One Kingdom 
by the Name of Great Britain”.

1714 – George I becomes King of Great Britain. He is the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.

1715 – With French support, James tries to seize the throne, but by early 1716 he was defeated. He would try again in 1719.

1740 – The War of the Austrian Succession breaks out, destabilising the geopolitical situation in Europe.

1745 – After the French postpone invasion plans, Bonnie Prince Charlie (son of James ‘VIII and III’) lands and rallies Jacobite forces.

1746 –The Jacobites are decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden. Many Jacobite leaders are executed and Charles goes into exile once more.

1759 – Jacobites support a planned French invasion of Britain, during the Seven Years’ War, but the invasion is never launched.

1766 – James ‘VIII and III’ dies in Rome.

1788 – Bonnie Prince Charlie dies in Rome. His brother Henry, a cardinal, becomes the final Jacobite heir, but never presses his claim.

Likely with the tacit consent of France in a deniable special operation, Charles raised finance to take two ships to Scotland together with money, guns and some hundreds of Irish Brigade troops. On 23 July 1745, despite the Royal Navy seeing off one of his ships, which had been carrying guns and troops, Charles made landfall on Eriskay with a handful of men. In France, George Keith, last Earl Marischal of Scotland, appealed urgently for 10,000 men and arms for 30,000. But in Scotland, Charles met with almost no support, for he brought none.

Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie with two Jacobites
Born in exile, Bonnie Prince Charlie was the last Stuart heir to press his claims (Photo by Bridgeman)

Then young Ranald of Kinlochmoidart, whose father had been a Jacobite major in 1715, shamed his seniors by declaring, “Though no other man in the Highlands should draw a sword, I am ready to die for you.” The charismatic Charles also managed to enlist the support of Donald, chief of the Camerons. On 19 August, 1,300 men stood beneath the red and white banner of the Royal House of Stuart at Glenfinnan, now arguably more famed for its viaduct, over which the ‘Hogwarts Express’, aka The Jacobite, steams in the Harry Potter films. The Jacobite Rising of 1745 was underway.

Initially, progress was rapid. By 17 September, following a series of small victories, Charles was able to enter Edinburgh unopposed, although the castle remained in government hands. He took up residence at Holyroodhouse, where his grandfather James VII and II had held court before him. Four days later came the victory at Prestonpans.

Many Jacobite commanders wanted to stay in Scotland, reconvene the Scottish Parliament and raise an army that could resist invasion. But Charles, who carried the day by a single vote, wanted to invade England

At this point, many Jacobite commanders wanted to stay in Scotland, reconvene the Scottish Parliament and raise an army that could resist invasion. But Charles, who carried the day by a single vote, wanted to invade England, in part because he feared the resources that George II, who had ascended the throne in 1727, might bring to bear against Scotland once Great Britain was under less pressure in the War of the Austrian Succession. As it was, Yorkshire alone raised enough in loyal subscriptions to George to have paid the Jacobite army for four months.

Charles issued a fresh declaration against the Union in October and, after training and recruiting, marched south in early November with 5,000 men and some 2,000 camp followers. Carlisle fell by mid-November. In late November, Charles reached Manchester. On 3 December, the Duke of Devonshire withdrew from the defence of Derbyshire when the Jacobites entered Ashbourne. Just 1,000-1,500 regular soldiers and local militias lay between the ‘Highland Army’ and London.

Against Charles’s fervent wishes, the Jacobite army turned back at Derby; just 1,000 men had joined the Jacobite cause in England, far fewer than expected. Moreover, the French hadn’t sent forces to England, whereas Franco-Scots forces had landed in Scotland under Lieutenant-General Lord John Drummond, and Charles’s commanders saw it as prudent to link up with them to consolidate the Jacobite position north of the border. Charles’s commanders also seem to have found it hard to believe they were poised to enter London without fighting a major battle, though they were.

The Jacobite army retreated, yet even that December, the Jacobites defeated the British advance guard at Clifton and, in Scotland, were victorious at the Battle of Inverurie. In January came another victory at Falkirk. By this time, there were nearly 14,000 Jacobites in arms.

Why the 1945 Jacobite rebellion failed

But the psychology of retreat without defeat is exceptionally difficult to manage. Under pressure from Lord George Murray and other Jacobite commanders – who saw no hope of final victory – Charles retreated north. In late February, the Jacobites lost access to the east coast ports through which France could supply Irish Brigade troops.

The end was now near. On the morning of 16 April, a failed night attack on the Duke of Cumberland’s camp left the Jacobites outnumbered and disorganised as the British Army advanced, the death-rattle of its almost 250 kettledrums (a relatively new innovation) matching the skirl of the pipes and announcing its threat from afar. The Battle of Culloden had begun. Outnumbering the Jacobites almost two to one, Cumberland ruthlessly pressed his advantage and, learning the lessons of Prestonpans, employed new tactics so that even when the Jacobites broke the British line, the attack faltered under heavy fire. The British cavalry, held back rather than being deployed too early as at earlier battles, destroyed the Jacobite flanks.

Whole Jacobite regiments withdrew in good order when they saw the day was lost and were not pursued. But instead, women, children and stragglers on the road to Inverness were cut down all the way into the town. Around 1,000 Jacobites died on the field, and 2,000 more people in the days that followed.

“I tremble for fear that this vile spot [Scotland] may still be the ruin of this island,” Cumberland said, but his actions, for all they were born of fear and anger, were atrocious, war crimes in modern parlance. Charles escaped Culloden but, although he visited London incognito in 1750, he died in exile in 1788. His brother and successor as Jacobite claimant, Henry, never pressed his claims and became a cardinal

The world had changed and the Jacobite threat, while it flared into life briefly with support for a potential French invasion in 1759, was over. Ironically, though, the military tradition associated with the uprisings of 1715 and 1745 would play powerfully into the future of Britain as the Scottish martial tradition became central to the story of empire. In 1757, the men of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, formed by clan chief Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Fraser of Lovat, embarked for Canada, where they fought with distinction against the French in Quebec during the Seven Years’ War, perhaps facing men they had fought alongside back in 1745.

Murray Pittock is Bradley Professor at the University of Glasgow, Pro Vice-Principal and Honorary Scottish History Advisor to the National Trust for Scotland

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This content first appeared in the February 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed