Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:37 am
18 December 1745, and a rebel Jacobite army arrives at the tiny village of Clifton, right at the top of the old county of Westmoreland in the north-west of England. Maybe four and a half thousand armed men, trudging back to Scotland along rutted, wintry, roads with horses, artillery and baggage. In November, Bonnie Prince Charlie had marched his troops south all the way from Edinburgh to force the Stuart claim to the throne. They reached Derby on 4 December, but there had taken the momentous decision to turn back. So, on 6 December, they retraced their steps. In grim pursuit was a Hanoverian Government army under the command of Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and the youngest son of King George II. The rebel retreat was not as painless as their advance had been; there was trouble with local populations. In Macclesfield, one Jacobite was shot dead; in Manchester, where sympathetic recruits had joined the Prince’s cause on his way down the country, his soldiers were this time pelted with clods of earth. When the rebel vanguard reached Kendal on the 14 December, a fight broke out with the townsfolk. Another Jacobite was killed, and so was a Kendal farmer (or cobbler). The tired and frustrated insurgents pressed on, up what is now the A6 to Shap, where progress was slowed by the road being broken up by locals, intent on slowing the rebels down to help the pursuing Duke of Cumberland. It can be a treacherous route in modern times, and it doesn’t take much to imagine what it must have been like for men in a British December three centuries ago, on the retreat, marching cold and tired, coaxing heavy guns over steep hills along unmade and damaged tracks.
Even now, Clifton is a small place, straggling along the north-south road. It’s less than two miles on to Eamont Bridge, at one time on England’s northern border with Scotland, and just a little farther is the market town of Penrith. There can’t have been much to Clifton in the 18th century, though it has an ancient feel. There’s a 12th century church dedicated to St Cuthbert, whose remains reputedly lay for awhile in an earlier chapel on the same site; and there is the remains of Clifton Hall, a 15th century fortified tower, often incorrectly described as a pele tower, which is the only surviving part of the proud manor house of the Wybergh family. There are also some handsome houses in the village, which look to be from the 17th or 18th centuries.
The Hanoverian army had been gaining ground on the rebels all the way north. They were so close behind that there’s a story that the owners of the house where Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in Kendal didn’t have time to change the sheets before the Duke of Cumberland slept in the same bed on the following night. The house is still there, by the way; it was built in 1690 and is now a café, Charlie’s Café Bar.
The main Jacobite force crossed the River Lowther north of Clifton and was well on its way to Penrith when the advance guard of Cumberland’s cavalry came into view at the other end of the village. It was late in the day and light was fading. Lord George Murray, the competent Jacobite commander, sent for reinforcements. Government troops crested Brackenber Hill to the south of the village and the rebel rearguard took up positions in woods close to Town End Farm, just west of the road. Their reinforcements lined up along the top of Scalebarrs Hill, on the opposite, east, side of the road and less than a mile north-east of the Government troops. Some 500 of these, dismounted dragoons, moved forward, off Brackenber toward the Jacobites. As they did so, the rebel reinforcements positioned themselves behind hedges at the foot of Scalebarrs Hill. At the same time, the rebel rearguard moved from the woods to line hedges on the left flank of Cumberland’s advancing troopers, and opened fire on them. By this time, night had fallen. The Jacobites, all Highlanders – the Stewarts of Appin, MacPhersons of Cluny and MacDonnells of Glengarry – charged the Government soldiers head-on, and on their left flank, breaking the force, which retreated to Brackenber Hill. This fierce engagement checked Cumberland’s pursuit; the following day, the rebel army was already in Carlisle and Cumberland was only in Penrith, having stayed the night in Clifton’s Townend Cottage. Locals scoured the area for fleeing Jacobite rebels, capturing at least 80.
Some 10 Hanoverian troopers were killed at what became known as the Battle of Clifton Moor. They were buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. In 2004, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, successors to Bland’s Regiment, in which the troopers served, placed a memorial there. The stone resembles a standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. Between 12 and 15 Highlanders perished too and, according to tradition, were buried close to the action under a tree. This became known as the Rebels’ Tree – but was also the local hanging tree.
Until relatively recently, Rebels’ Tree stood next to a lane surrounded by fields. At one time, it was in the garden of the adjacent George & Dragon pub. Now, it is in the middle of a smart little housing development called Jacobite Gardens. Understandably, objections were raised before the houses were constructed, but an archaeological dig beforehand failed to uncover any human remains. Battle artefacts were found, but a protection order forbad excavation any closer than 20 metres from the tree. So it is not proven that anyone is buried there at all, but the tradition came from somewhere and I can report that the ground thereabouts is decidedly lumpy. Odd to think of the violence that might have taken place there. Do the residents of Jacobite Gardens play football under the tree, or experience any ghostly visitors just after sundown annually on 18 December? Underneath the tree’s spreading branches is a plain stone slab, with a very weathered brass plaque on it that reads, “Here lie buried the men of the army of Prince Charles who fell at Clifton Moor, 18 December 1745”. The developers have erected a nice little information panel, but you might think that a possible war grave deserves a little better. That said, designated war graves are a relatively recent practice and one has to be practical; if all the likely burial sites on every battlefield in Britain were sensitively and appropriately commemorated, there would be an awful lot more memorials than there are already. It is a sign of the period in which these events took place that neither burial site seems to have been properly marked at the time and that the names of the dead, on both sides, appear to be forgotten.
There is one, simple, memorial to ‘the battle’, though I know nothing of its provenance. It is set in the rear of the wall surrounding the Kelter Well, on the west side of the main road, opposite the pub. The well is clearly an ancient village facility, a spring; at some time in its long history, steps were built to make it easier to reach the water, though it is now generally inaccessible beneath a wrought-iron grate.
St Cuthbert’s Church is lovely – particularly when caught in sunlight late on a winter’s afternoon. The tower of Clifton Hall, which was plundered by the Jacobites, is opposite the church, in the middle of a working farm. You can see where other parts of the building once joined the tower. There are no upper floors, but a spiral staircase leads to a gallery so that you can see the construction.
So, there’s a claim that the engagement at Clifton, or Clifton Moor, was the last battle on English soil. Whether the claim is true depends how ‘battle’ is defined. The engagement at Clifton, really, was little more than a skirmish – though of course that does not detract from its fascination, or the part it played in Britain’s story. Other contenders for the high honour of being the last battle on English soil include the Battle of Preston, fought during the earlier Jacobite rising, between 9 and 14 November 1715. Pedants say this was a siege, not a battle. Then there’s the Battle of Reading of 9 December 1688, when a small force loyal to James II encountered a portion of William of Orange’s Dutch army marching on London. But that is normally discounted as being little more than a street brawl. Which would mean that the last pitched battle on English soil was the Battle of Sedgemoor fought on 6 July 1685, the decisive battle in the Monmouth Rebellion. Other suggestions include the so-called ‘Battle of Graveney Marsh’ in 1940, when the crew of a German bomber, shot down over Kent, pointlessly and briefly took on a group of British soldiers. Some might make a case for the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ on 18 June 1984, a national disgrace, when civil violence broke out between police and union pickets at a coking plant at Orgreave, Rotherham, during the miners’ strike of 1984 – 85. This was not a battle in the traditional sense, but we should bear in mind the observation attributed to von Clausewitz that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Rather more convincing in terms of a defined battle is the Battle of Britain of 1940, though technically most of that took place in the skies and it was not fought exclusively over England.
Frankly, if the good people of Clifton want to advertise their village as the last battlefield in England, it should neither upset any reasonable person, nor fool them. The armies that skirmished there, of course, moved on to engage in the generally undisputed last pitched battle on British soil at Culloden four months later.