1745: The Jacobite rebellion

Part fifteen in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores explores 1700–1749. The uprising of 1745 enjoyed spectacular early successes yet, as Daniel Szechi reports, it only succeeded in breathing new life into the very regime it aimed to bring to its knees

Part fifteen in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores explores 1700–1749. (Image by Getty Images)

The most significant watershed in the first half of the 18th century came between July 1745 and April 1746, when the Jacobites launched their last attempt to overthrow Whig control of the British Isles. When the uprising failed, the Jacobite cause was irretrievably damaged and slipped into rapid decline. And with its internal enemy at last vanquished, the Whig regime could turn all its energies to imperial aggrandisement. Out of the Jacobites’ defeat came the epic victories of the Seven Years War, the conquest of the first British Empire and the consolidation of a political order that was to last until the middle of the Victorian era.

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Yet things hadn’t always looked so rosy for the Whig administration. In fact, it was a British defeat at Fontenoy in modern Belgium on 11 May 1745 that precipitated the rebellion. Prince Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonny Prince Charley”), grandson of James II and VII, had been summoned to France in December 1743 to head a French invasion of southern England scheduled to take place in early 1744. Bad weather, the Royal Navy and English Tory faintheartedness eventually brought that attempt to naught, and the Prince frustratedly idled away his time for the next year. Or so it appeared. In fact, with the help of a syndicate of Irish merchants resident in France, he was secretly preparing a surprise attack on the British Isles. And the news of Fontenoy provided exactly the opening he needed. On 5 July Charles Edward sailed from Nantes with two ships. His plan was to force the Jacobites of the British Isles to live up to their promises by throwing himself into their midst. If enough Jacobites responded and he could expose the weakness, as he believed, of the Whig regime he was sure the French would invade and victory would be his.

It was either a bold gambit or a foolhardy gamble, and certainly the odds against success were greatly increased when the Prince encountered a Royal Navy patrol on the way to Scotland and one of his ships was damaged and forced to turn back (with most of his painfully accumulated arms, ammunition and a body of Irish soldiers aboard). Charles Edward thus arrived at Arisaig in Scotland on 25 July accompanied by few more than the famous “Seven men of Moidart”.

Once ashore, however, Charles Edward worked wonders. Bluntly told to go home by one appalled Highland chieftain, Charles smoothly countered, “I am come home”. Within three weeks his legendary charm had persuaded two senior clan chieftains to support the rising and other Jacobites were stirring throughout Scotland. As his little army of about 1,500 marched south from Glenfinnan on 19 August it steadily accumulated men. Many were doubtless forced out by their landlords and feudal superiors, but others certainly joined to support the cause Charles Edward represented.

1745 in context

The Jacobite rebellion was triggered by grievances at Whig religious indifference, discrimination in Ireland and Scottish economic woes

The British Isles on the eve of this momentous struggle was apparently politically stable and in no danger of violent upheaval. But beneath the facade of union and the increasingly visible integration of the Scottish and English economies there was a deep and enduring hostility to the prevailing order. England, Scotland and Ireland had for 30 years been ruled by the Whig party (the party primarily responsible for the revolution of 1688), while their old rivals, the Tories, sourly did what they could to oppose them through conventional politics. A radical element within the Tories’ ranks (the Jacobites), however, went much further and plotted and dreamed of restoring the heirs of James II and VII, the Stuart, Catholic king driven out by the revolution.

The Tory party’s first loyalty was to the Church of England, and the Jacobites among them inclined to the exiled Stuart dynasty because they feared the Hanoverian dynasty’s apparent religious indifference was undermining the Anglican hold on society and hence the three kingdoms’ special relationship with God.

In Scotland, where the Union had as yet failed to deliver the economic uplift that had been promised in 1707, ongoing political and economic fusion with England remained a bitter source of division and resentment. So, when the Jacobites emerged as the champions of national independence, a wide swathe of Scottish society was immediately drawn to them.

In Ireland the Catholic majority was systematically discriminated against economically, socially and legally by the Whig regime, and for two generations thousands of young Irish Catholic men had been slipping away to the continent to serve in the armies of France and Spain. There they openly maintained their allegiance to the Stuarts and did what they could to further the Jacobite cause, while those in Ireland secretly yearned for news of the Stuart “attempt” they hoped would liberate them from Whig oppression.

The Jacobite uprising that began in July 1745 came, too, in the midst of Britain’s first major conflict in nearly 20 years. The War of Austrian Succession began in 1740 when Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded Silesia and Britain threw in its lot with the beleaguered empress Maria-Theresa against Frederick’s principal ally: France. And though Britain had done tolerably well in the opening stages of the conflict, by 1745 things had taken a turn for the worse. Maria-Theresa’s armies were hard-pressed by Prussian, French and Spanish attacks, and Britain’s ally, the Netherlands, was flagging and war-weary. Worse still, Britain’s main army, led by George II’s son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was defeated at the battle of Fontenoy. This, in many respects, acted as the trigger for the Jacobite rebellion.

Marching hard and fast

Hard marching and adept manoeuvring soon put the government’s army in Scotland, commanded by Sir John Cope, at a disadvantage it could only retrieve by retreating. Luck and judgement then combined to allow the now 2,500-strong Jacobite army to seize Edinburgh on 17 September and defeat Cope at the battle of Prestonpans on 21 September. In little more than a month the Jacobites had virtually won control of Scotland. The only question was what to do next. Charles Edward had no doubts: he passionately advocated a march on London as hard and fast as the march on Edinburgh. His Scottish senior officers were not so sure, and only agreed when the Prince assured them he had firm pledges of an English Jacobite rising if they would only march into England.

The 4,500-man Jacobite army accordingly crossed the border on 8 November and rapidly progressed southwards, as far as Derby by 4 December, capturing Carlisle and Manchester en route and outmanoeuvring two more government armies to put itself in a position where it could strike unmolested at London. But by the time they reached Derby, Charles Edward’s officers were questioning the whole enterprise. Bar a handful of militants recruited in Manchester, the English Jacobites had conspicuously failed to materialise. And Charles Edward’s only solution to the predicament was to urge that the army press on and attack London, a city of approximately 500,000 people. At a council of the senior officers on 5 December the Prince was outvoted by a coterie of officers centred on his most able commander, Lord George Murray. Instead the Jacobite army was to retreat. Ironically, unbeknown to any of those involved, this decision was taken just as financial panic paralysed the City of London and the French army and navy were in the final stages of throwing together the invasion the Jacobites so desperately needed.

A hollow victory

Regardless, the retreat was conducted with great skill. Murray dodged and feinted his way past the pursuing government armies, and by Christmas 1745 the rebels were back in Scotland, resting and re-equipping in Glasgow. Government pressure on the Jacobites now, however, became relentless. William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, George II’s youngest son and commander in chief of the British army, had been called back from the Netherlands with the best British regiments. All across England and Wales Whig loyalists were raising money, forming volunteer units and enlisting in the army to fight in defence of Protestantism and liberty (as they saw it). The Royal Navy was doing its best to isolate Scotland from the continent, and Scottish Whigs led by the Earl of Loudon were gathering an army of their own in northern Scotland.

Even so, the first government attempt to challenge the Jacobites’ control of central Scotland, led by General Henry (“Hangman”) Hawley, was handily defeated by a revitalised, 8,000-strong Jacobite army at Falkirk on 17 January 1746. The victory was, though, a hollow one. The threat to their homes and families posed by Loudon’s army in northern Scotland united a majority of Charles Edward’s officers in demanding a further retreat northwards, which only ended when the tired army reached Inverness on 18 February.

The struggle was, however, far from over. For the next two months the Jacobites raided and probed south from Inverness, and Cumberland’s army raided and probed north from Aberdeen. Both sides were gathering their strength for the final crisis. This came when, for the first time, Cumberland succeeded in surprising the Jacobites by marching north in early April while nearly half their army was away from Inverness raiding and recruiting. He consequently caught the Jacobites at a severe disadvantage when he confronted them on Drummossie moor near Culloden house on 16 April.

The ensuing battle did not take long. The Jacobites attacked in traditional Highland style (though many of the men in their ranks were in fact Lowlanders), but over ground that did not favour the headlong charge that was its culmination. Cumberland’s carefully deployed infantry and artillery were thus able to use their superior firepower to maximum effect. Within little more than an hour over a third of the 4,000 or so Jacobites on the field were dead or wounded and the rest in flight. Charles Edward was hustled away in tears before the government cavalry could capture him. According to tradition, as he did so, one of his senior officers Lord Elcho, overwhelmed by the death of his friends and the ruin of the Scottish Jacobite cause, shouted after him, “run, you cowardly Italian!” Hardly fair, but a token of what was to come.

Charles Edward fled into the Highlands, where he refused to sanction further resistance despite the regrouping of the greater part of his army at Ruthven between 17 and 20 April. Forced to disperse, the Jacobite soldiers went their separate ways, many of them shedding their weapons, uniforms and cause as they journeyed home to face the consequences of defeat. These were dire. For the next few months Cumberland and his subordinates had their men rape, murder and burn their way through the Highlands and Lowland areas believed sympathetic to Jacobitism. This may have been standard military practice for contemporary armies when dealing with rebels, yet it left a legacy of bitterness that was not soon to fade.

Harnessed to Westminster’s dream

This dark aftermath was the beginning of a new trajectory for the British Isles. With the Jacobites beaten, Britain’s government could turn all three nations’ military energies outwards, and from the mid-1750s onwards Scotland was harnessed to achieving Westminster’s dreams of global empire. Scotland was, too, internally transformed by the events of 1745. The old ties between Highland chieftain and common clansman, and Lowland heritor and tenant farmer, that had been the basis of society for centuries were in decline before the rising. After 1746 that decline became precipitous. Scotland was on track to becoming a class-based society.

Ireland, despite its apparent quiescence during the rebellion, was also far from untouched. Many expatriate Irishmen were involved in the French government’s efforts hurriedly to put together an invasion of England. Others slipped through the Royal Navy’s blockade and fought alongside the Scottish Jacobites at Culloden. When it was all over they were left with nowhere to go. As Charles Edward, haunted by bitterness and loss, drank himself to death in exile, the Jacobite cause withered and died with him. Where could Catholic Ireland now look for succour? Ultimately it turned to radical nationalism, something that would have been unthinkable before 1746. Like all the turning points in this series, 1745 irretrievably changed the scope of what was possible in the British Isles, and ultimately left no future generation untouched.

History facts: 1700–1749

Just 62 per cent of children survived to the age of 14 in 1745

The average daily consumption of beer, ale, cider and perry per person was 3–5 pints. This accounted for 19-31 per cent of the average daily calorie intake

Around 13,000 Scots were in the Jacobite army at some point during the rebellion. That’s 5.2 per cent of the country’s adult male population

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 18th century

1707 – The Act of Union. It may have been touted as an alliance of equals but, in reality, the creation of the kingdom of Great Britain saw a small Scots representation grafted onto existing political structures at Westminster and Scottish interests subordinated to English politics. The constitutional fusion was also championed as being certain to deliver an immediate and substantial boost to Scotland’s allegedly ailing economy (its problems may have been more apparent than real), which it singularly failed to do for nearly 50 years.

1713 – War of Succession. The Peace of Utrecht brought the War of Spanish Succession (1702–13) to a close. This was a highly successful war for Britain in which France was defeated and forced to sue for peace. During the negotiations, however, French diplomats exploited British differences with their allies to extract relatively favourable terms. Britain nonetheless gained substantial imperial possessions and commercial concessions, though it alienated many of its wartime partners in the process.

1714 – The death of Anne. Queen Anne, the last of the Protestant Stuarts in the main line of descent from James VI and I, died on 1 August and was succeeded by Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, the nearest (ostensible) Protestant by collateral descent. The transition from the Stuart to the Guelph dynasty was initially peaceful, and only marred by many Tories’ coolness towards George I, whom they regarded with suspicion because of his religious indifference and the fact he was foreign.

1715 – Jacobite uprising. Inspired by messianic visions of their own righteousness (not to mention consequent likelihood of success) and political hysteria, Jacobite forces rebelled in Scotland, subsequently provoking a rising in northern England. Though much larger in numbers than the 1745 uprising, the rebellion was poorly directed and relatively easily defeated by government forces. The Jacobite army disintegrated in February 1716 in a storm of mutual recrimination that hindered further Jacobite risings for the next 30 years.

1716 – Anglo-French pact. The British and French negotiated an alliance, so revolutionising international relations in Europe. Born of a pragmatic need for international stability on the part of Philippe, Duke of Orléans and Regent of France, and George I at a time when their authority was being challenged by domestic enemies, the alliance was highly successful. For nearly 20 years Britain and France successfully cooperated in maintaining relative peace across the continent.

1720 – Stocks crash. Stimulated by excitement over the rise of French stocks and seduced by fanciful reports of great returns, investors poured huge amounts of money into the South Sea Company in Britain. The bursting of this bubble ruined a few speculators and caused serious losses to many more. As a result, British economic expansion was retarded for over a decade, and the Whig regime was nearly fatally compromised.

1721 – Walpole to the rescue. Sir Robert Walpole saved the Whig party and its hold on power by deflecting public outrage and Parliamentary investigation of the South Sea Bubble away from malefactors within the Whig party and the royal household towards the Jacobite “Atterbury Plot”. As a result, he was able to elevate himself to premier minister and fasten an iron grip on the Whig party.

1736 – Scots lynch army captain. Troops under the command of Captain John Porteous fired on an Edinburgh crowd protesting about the execution of a smuggler. Porteous was convicted of murder, but then reprieved by Government order. Fearing he would be pardoned, a mob broke into the city gaol and lynched him, for which the city was heavily fined by Parliament. Anger in Scotland at this punishment resulted in a crisis in the Scottish Whig party and a surge in support for the Jacobites.

1739 – Mass starvation in Ireland. The bliain an áir (great frost) struck Ireland in December, killing thousands and destroying stored winter food supplies. This was followed by a cold drought and the failure of the harvest in 1740, precipitating mass starvation. It is estimated that, by the time the crisis came to an end in 1741, a higher proportion of the population had died or fled overseas than as a result of the potato famine of the 1840s.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1776: The Year of American Independence

Go back: 1662: Restoration tragedy

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Daniel Szechi is a graduate of the University of Sheffield and St Antony’s College, Oxford and is now professor of Early Modern British history at the University of Manchester. His most recent book is 1715. The Great Jacobite Rebellion (Yale University Press, 2006)

Further reading: Culloden and the ‘45 by Jeremy Black (Sutton Publishing, 2000); Charles Edward Stuart. A Tragedy in Many Acts by Frank McLynn (Routledge, 1988); The Jacobites. Britain and Europe 1688–1788 by Daniel Szechi (Manchester University Press, 1994)
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This article was first published in the June 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine