Bonnie Prince Charlie convened a council of war on 5 December 1745 with no doubt in his mind of its purpose: to plan the next advance in his magnificent invasion of England. He had reason to be brimming with such confidence. His army marched across the border from Scotland less than a month earlier and, still undefeated, had already reached Derby – some 110 miles from London and from Charles’s birthright, the throne of the United Kingdom.


So what he did not expect at the meeting in Exeter House was his military advisers’ recommendation for a full retreat. The advisers – led by commander of the Jacobite forces Lord George Murray, no less – argued that with two Redcoat armies behind them and another in front, a single engagement risked crippling their ranks and cutting off an escape.

Charles couldn’t hide his astonishment and dismay. True, promises of assistance by the French or English Jacobites had not materialised, but his warriors had high morale and were well positioned. As he saw the whole rebellion as a leap of faith from the beginning, he did not understand why they should stop now. Charles adjourned the council to rally and cajole men to his cause. This proved fruitless and, after a final, unsuccessful plea that evening – “You ruin, abandon and betray me if you do not march on” – he grudgingly acquiesced. This was treachery and cowardice. To advance meant possible glory, while withdrawal only led to defeat. The next morning, a furious Charles and his army turned back the way they came, back to Scotland and, as it turned out, their ultimate doom.

Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie
Prince Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II of England and VII of Scotland. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

To die or conquer

Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie, or the ‘Young Pretender’) grew up believing he should be king one day. Since his grandfather James II of England and VII of Scotland had been deposed in 1688, a group known as the Jacobites aimed to restore the Stuart dynasty. While several risings in the late 17th and early 18th centuries failed to bring James and his son James Francis Edward, the ‘Old Pretender’, back from exile, Charles remained zealous in his claim. In 1744, he intended to lead an invasion organised by Britain’s old enemy, the French, only for a vicious storm to scatter the fleet.

More like this
Did you know?

Multilingual Charles could speak Italian, French, English and Latin – but not Gaelic.

Frustrated that the invasion had to be cancelled – especially at a time when much of the British Army were fighting on the continent – Charles decided to launch his own. With only two ships and a small store of broadswords and muskets, the 24-year-old set sail for the west coast of Scotland, where he anticipated gathering enough Jacobite followers to build an army.

Charles set foot on Scotland for the first time in his life, leading a rebellion of just a dozen men

Things got off to a less-than-auspicious start. By the time he landed at Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in late July 1745, the ship carrying the bulk of the men and supplies had turned back to France after being damaged during an attack from a Royal Navy warship. Charles set foot on Scotland, for the first time in his life, leading a rebellion of a just dozen men. Potentially just as disheartening, he discovered that he may not find the level of support he desperately needed when a Highlander told him to go home. An undeterred Charles replied: “I am come home, sir”.

In a nutshell

Who were the Jacobites?

Their name taken from the Latin word for ‘James’, the Jacobites spent decades attempting to restore King James II of England and Ireland and VII of Scotland, along with his Stuart descendants.

After reigning for three years, the unpopular Roman Catholic king – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s grandfather – had been deposed and sent into exile during the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. His Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (the most powerful man in the Netherlands) took power.

The passing of the 1701 Act of Settlement then forbade Catholics from succeeding, meaning the stronger claim of James’s son (James Francis Edward, the Old Pretender) was overlooked and, in 1714, the Elector of Hanover, George, became king.

Not all Jacobites were Roman Catholics – support derived from a belief in the divine right of kings, hope for greater religious toleration or a desire to break the new Union between England and Scotland, while others used the movement to settle scores. They launched several campaigns from strongholds in Scotland and Ireland, but with no success. The closest Jacobites got proved to be Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion.

Charles – young, charismatic and headstrong – used his powers of persuasion to band together enough Highlanders to convince other clan chiefs to come and pledge loyalty. It required an anxious two-hour wait before anyone showed up at the gathering at Glenfinnan on 19 August, but the sound of bagpipes across the glen late in the day eventually let him know the arrival of the Camerons and MacDonalds. His rebellion – the Forty-Five – officially began with the raising of the Jacobite standard (a red flag with a white square in the middle).

Culloden, the last pitched battle on British soil, turned into a rout in less than an hour

Having assembled around 1,200 men, Charles made his way towards Edinburgh as more continued to join the march. In Perth, he wrote to his father: “It has pleased God to prosper me hitherto even beyond my expectation, I have got together about 1,300 (and am promised more) brave and determined men who are resolved to die or conquer with me.” Along the way, he met Lord George Murray and appointed the able military commander as lieutenant-general of the army, which actually numbered closer to 2,400 by the time they approached the Scottish capital.

Rabble and brutes

Edinburgh surrendered without bloodshed on 17 September. Although the castle never fell to the Jacobites, vast multitudes cheered as Charles, dressed in plaid tartan, paraded through the city streets on his way to take up residence at Holyroodhouse. There, he proclaimed his father as James VIII of Scotland.

The Bonnie backstory

The Young Pretender's early years

With the exception of the Forty-Five, Charles Edward Stuart lived in exile. Born 31 December 1720, he spent a privileged youth with his mother and father James, the Old Pretender, in Rome, courtesy of the Pope. On top of a thorough education, Charles would have been relentlessly told that the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland were his birth right and the usurpation of his grandfather was an ungodly wrong for him to put right.

To that end, he received training in the art of war, first witnessing battle at the age of 13. The handsome and headstrong Young Pretender became a Jacobite figurehead – his portraits being used as a propaganda tool – who could inspire or cajole people to support him, which he used to great effect in Scotland initially.

Anyone questioning Charles’s strength on the basis that he had yet to face substantial opposition were instantly silenced four days after he entered Edinburgh, when Murray routed the British army encamped nearby. Before the Battle of Prestonpans on 21 September, General Sir John Cope announced to his Redcoats: “Gentlemen, you are just now to engage with a parcel of rabble, a parcel of brutes. Being a small number of Scots Highlands, you can expect no booty from such a poor despicable pack.” By circling around the enemy under cover of darkness and attacking from the rear, however, Murray won the day in under 15 minutes.

Painting: 'A Lost Cause'
'A Lost Cause: The Flight of James II after the Battle of the Boyne, 1690'. The battle formed part of the Williamite War in Ireland, in which James II tried to win back the Three Kingdoms from his nephew and son in law, William III. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Key to the victory was the Highland Charge. Jacobites fired their muskets once (dropping them to the ground), hurtled towards the enemy, slashing with claymores and using their targe (shield) to protect them from bayonets. It was quick, frightening and devastatingly effective.

Charles became the most powerful man in Scotland – but he knew that to seize the crown, he must seize England. As many advisers wanted to stay put and consolidate their position, while waiting for the French assistance Charles promised, the decision to invade came down to a single vote. “You our Countrymen and Fellow-Subjects… will cheerfully join Issue with us, and share in the Glory of restoring our King, and in setting our Country free,” declared an ever-optimistic Charles in a widely distributed letter on the eve of invasion.

Charlie's legacy

Scotland's romantic hero

To this day, Bonnie Prince Charlie enjoys national icon status in Scotland, despite spending just a year there in a rebellion that caused the deaths of many Highlanders and Lowlanders alike. What certainly improved his legacy (much like with William Wallace) would have been the brutality that fell on Scotland after 1746 – as attention turned from his failings to the oppressiveness of those from south of the border.

So while romanticised poems and folksongs, particularly of his cross-dressing escape, made him a tragic hero, his youthful and handsome image became a symbol for those seeking freedom from British tyranny, as well as Catholics and Jacobites, who continued to toast the ‘king over the water’.

The Victorian era witnessed a resurgence in interest for Bonnie Prince Charlie, establishing him as a romantic legend. Even now, he makes headlines. A few years ago his most famous portrait (as seen on all kinds of tourist knickknacks) was revealed to be of his brother Henry, which led to the discovery of another portrait, painted by prominent Scottish artist Allan Ramsay.

On 8 November, Charles crossed the border with 5,000 men and 500 cavalry and headed west. Carlisle surrendered after an almost bloodless short siege, bolstering supplies of muskets, gunpowder and horses, then the Jacobites continued south, easily taking Preston and Manchester. Their speed kept them ahead of the larger force of Field Marshal George Wade.

Apart from the 300-strong Manchester Regiment, though, Charles struggled to gain mass support from English Jacobites. With no sign of the French either, Charles’s chiefs began to lose optimism until it became a problem they could no longer ignore at the council of war in Derby.

Did you know?

Henry Benedict Stuart – Charles’s brother – ended up receiving a £4,000 annual pension from the Hanoverian King George III.

If the decision had gone Charles’s way, his army would have faced their sternest test, as not only Wade pursued them. Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (and son of George II) had been recalled from the continent to put down this rebellion. To face just one Redcoat force in battle, regardless of the result, may have severely hindered any other action, let alone an attack on London. Further progress required assistance from France or a rising of Jacobites, which Charles could not guarantee. Retreat may have allowed the Jacobites to regroup. Charles only saw it as a betrayal. From then on, he distanced himself from military minds in his army, with disastrous consequences.

Rapid retreat

As with the advance, the retreat wasted no time; the army had reached Glasgow by 26 December. The only presence Charles left in England was a token garrison of 400 men at Carlisle, which Cumberland overpowered almost immediately. Back in Scotland, it looked as though Murray’s caution paid off when, on 17 January 1746, a re-provisioned force of 8,000 thumped General Henry Hawley’s British army at the Battle of Falkirk Muir. They killed an estimated 350 soldiers and captured 300 more, losing just 50 of their own.

Dismantling the clans

After Culloden

With the battle won – leaving Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion in tatters – what remained for the Duke of Cumberland was the eradication of possible future uprisings. He wasted no time and showed no mercy.

His dragoons went on the rampage straight from the battlefield, indiscriminately cutting down the wounded or fleeing Jacobites and murdering innocent men, women and children they encountered on the road. Homes were burned, property and livestock plundered, and Jacobite supporters imprisoned. Those not executed (the majority without trial) faced transportation or the humiliation of being drafted into the ranks of the Redcoats. For the bloodshed of these atrocities (which some historians have regarded as ethnic cleansing) Cumberland earned the sobriquet ‘The Butcher’.

Attempts to pacify the population intensified with attacks on Scottish culture, especially in the wilder Highlands, in order to integrate the land with the rest of the kingdom. Carrying weapons and the wearing of traditional dress, such as tartan plaid, were banned. With another law, the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act of 1746, the government aimed to dismantle the clan system itself by abolishing the judicial rights of landowners. This significantly weakened the authority of the clan chiefs. With social and military structures broken down, the Jacobites could not organise another rebellion – yet that did not stop some from hoping Bonnie Prince Charlie would return one day.

In truth, the clan system had been in decline before 1746, but the emphatic victory at Culloden had given the British government the opportunity to speed up its destruction and boost military presence. The suppression of Scotland would also later lead to the ‘Highland Clearances’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people were forcibly evicted from the homes, by any means, to clear the land for sheep farming, leading to mass depopulation.

Yet if this victory could have reignited the rebellion, the Jacobites failed to take advantage. They continued their march north, halting for a futile and draining siege of Stirling Castle. Cumberland then took over command from Hawley, preparing for one last decisive battle.

Painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his followers
April 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his followers, including Flora MacDonald in a cave after defeat at the battle of Culloden. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Although Irish and Scottish troops in the employ of France finally arrived, Charles’s ranks thinned as Highlanders abandoned the cause. Supplies similarly became an issue – especially after the Royal Navy captured a French ship carrying money intended for the Jacobites. As Charles’s army of fewer than 5,000 men diminished in Inverness, Cumberland spent six weeks in Aberdeen training a force of nearly 9,000 men, including many Lowlanders. Ignoring counsel to adopt guerrilla tactics and avoid this well-equipped, well-rested army, Charles took personal command for the first time and marched out to confront Cumberland on a desolate moorland at Culloden.

Did you know?

After the Duke of Cumberland captured the Jacobite garrison at Carlisle, he imprisoned them with no food or water. They licked the walls of the cells for moisture.

On the day before battle, Murray persuaded Charles to attempt a night attack on the Redcoats’ camp. Cumberland’s soldiers had been given brandy to celebrate his 25th birthday, making them a soft target. The attack never happened, though. The trek took so long that the Jacobites had not reached the camp as dawn neared, forcing them to turn around and trudge all the way back. On the morning of 16 April, they were exhausted, hungry and thoroughly demoralised.

Secret weapon

Rain and sleet hammered down into the remaining Jacobite faces as they stood on an open battlefield that suited the enemy’s artillery far better than their Highland Charge. At around 1pm, three-pounder guns began battering their lines. Yet Charles, waiting for Cumberland to make the first move, kept his men standing still for perhaps as long as 20 minutes before ordering the charge.

Over the sea to Skye

Charlie's flight

Bonnie Prince Charlie fled Culloden Moor on 16 April 1746, knowing it marked the end of his rebellion. He later wrote to his chiefs: “I can at present do little for you on this side of the water… the only thing that can now be done is to defend yourselves”. However, it would take a dangerous (and now legendary) five months on the run across the Highlands to reach the safety of France.

Ceaselessly hunted and narrowly escaping the clutches of the militia, he relied on people to feed, clothe and hide him and his small band of supporters, sometimes in caves. No-one betrayed him for the gigantic £30,000 reward for his capture. By the end of June, he had taken refuge in the Outer Hebrides but, with soldiers everywhere, he needed to reach Skye. A young woman named Flora MacDonald sailed there, with Charles in a blue and white dress disguised as her Irish spinning maid, Betty Burke. The voyage has been immortalised by the folk ditty The Skye Boat Song and Flora, who spent a few months in the Tower of London, became a Jacobite heroine.

Charles eventually escaped aboard a French ship sent to rescue him and never returned to Scotland. A drunk, bitter man by the time of his death in 1788, his Forty-Five and fabled flight nonetheless ensured the legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie would live on forever.

Even when the attack came, it proved ineffective. The Highlanders in the centre had to veer right around a patch of marshy ground, causing them to squeeze against their own flank and break into one small section of Cumberland’s front line. The left flank became bogged down, slowing their advance to a mere crawl.

Charlie knew that to seize the crown, he must seize England

The Redcoats had been instructed in a tactic to cope with claymore-wielding Highlanders. Rather than thrust bayonets at the man directly in front, they instead aimed for the exposed chest of the man to the right and trusted their comrade to protect them. At the very least, this was a psychological boost. In their minds, they had been given the secret weapon to quell the feared Highlanders.

Did you know?

Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to Skye, moved to North Carolina, where her husband fought in the American Revolutionary War – for the British.

The Jacobites were forced back by relentless musket fire and ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. Then, when Cumberland’s dragoons broke through walls on the right flank, Charles’s army became broken and routed. Culloden, the last pitched battle on British soil, turned into a rout in less than an hour, claiming between 1,500-2,000 Jacobite lives and sparking a brutal period of suppression for the people of Scotland.

By then, Bonnie Prince Charlie had already fled the battlefield, fully aware that the Forty-Five was over and left asking what could have been if he had not turned back at Derby.


Jacobites: A New History of the '45 Rebellion by Jacqueline Riding (Bloomsbury, 2016)


This article was first published in the August 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed