The last battle

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:16 pm

James Francis Edward Stuart - 'the Old Pretender', Jacobite, rebellion

Failed attempts to restore a Catholic Stuart to the British throne

The Jacobites, those loyal to the deposed James II and his successors, just wouldn’t go away.  When James died in 1701, support switched to his son, James Francis Edward Stuart, ‘the Pretender’ (not to be confused with ‘The Great Pretender’, which was a hit for the Platters in the 1950s and later covered by Freddie Mercury in 1987.  Oh yes!).  Notwithstanding the Act of Settlement which put George I on the throne, many hoped that James, exiled in France, could somehow become king after Anne died in 1714. Indeed, in Jacobite eyes, James was the rightful king and anyone else was a usurper.

It is a common mistake to view the Jacobite rebellions as a conflict between Scotland and England; as usual, things are rarely that simple.  There was a Jacobite minority throughout Britain, which created a certain climate of conspiracy.  Supporters of the Jacobite cause in England could be found amongst those who simply didn’t like the idea of a Hanoverian king, as well as Catholics.  And though the Union of England and Scotland was unpopular with many, the Catholic Stuarts were viewed with suspicion by many north, as well as south, of the border; and Scottish Presbyterians would certainly not have welcomed a return to Catholicism. Equally, many Scottish Episcopalians – Protestants – were Jacobites.

In the summer of 1715, there was actually some potential for a Jacobite rebellion in south-west England and Wales.  But support for the Stuarts ever gravitated toward Scotland, their original homeland, and it is here that the Jacobite story still resonates – particularly in the Highlands.  This might be considered a little ironic given that the Scottish monarchy, which had been a Stuart monarchy since the 14th century, had often been at odds with the Highland chiefs.  However, John Erskine, the 6th Earl of Mar, raised the standard for revolt in Braemar during the autumn of 1715, declaring James Francis Edward Stuart King James VIII of Scotland and III of England.  Mar was able to raise a substantial military force, estimated to be in the region of 16,000 men, quite quickly.  Rebel opinion was divided, however, as to the best course of action thereafter – and some considered the timing of the rebellion premature.  Be that as it may, a small rebel army of 3,000 headed into northern England, expecting to gather sympathisers as it marched through Brampton, Appleby, Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale and Lancaster.  However, by the time it arrived in Preston in November, it had only recruited about 1,000 additional men and a government force stood in its path.  The resulting Battle of Preston between 12 and 14 November saw fierce fighting in the streets but, despite numerical superiority, Jacobite recruits gradually drifted away and the remainder eventually surrendered unconditionally to the Government.  At the same time, the Battle of Sheriffmuir on 13 November near Dunblane, between Mar’s rebels and a government force under the Duke of Argyll, halted the northern Jacobite army – though the battle itself was pretty much a draw.  The ’15 Rebellion – often known simply as ‘the Fifteen’ – petered out largely due to the incompetence or lack of purpose of its commanders.  Its leaders were sentenced to death (though some staged spectacular escapes) and other supporters were deported to America – though many were also pardoned.

The focus of all the fuss, James ‘the Pretender’, only landed at Peterhead on 22 December, but by then there was no realistic prospect of success – and by February, he was back in France.

Many believed the Fifteen had been a close-run thing.  One consequence was the Government’s decision to build a network of roads and bridges throughout Scotland, to make it easier to move troops around.  Much of this infrastructure, constructed under the command of General George Wade, is still there. And some of it was used to good purpose by later Jacobites.

A smaller rising in 1719, this time sponsored by Spain, resulted in the Battle of Glenshiel – and defeat for the combined Spanish-Jacobite force.

Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender', Jacobite, rebellion

Of more significance than “the ’15” was “the ’45” – which, yes, you’ve guessed, was a rising that took place in 1745.  This serious insurrection has to be seen in the wider international context of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), in which an alliance that included Austria and Britain was pitched against an alliance that included Prussia, Spain and France.  The King of France, Louis XV, had proposed an invasion of Britain in 1744, led by Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Maria Stuart, son of James Francis Edward Stuart and grandson of James II (VII of Scotland).  Charles has become known to history, rather sweetly, as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, or “the Young Pretender” – to distinguish him from his dad, “the Old Pretender”. Louis’ aim was to at the very least cause some irritation to the House of Hanover – though, if the invasion was successful, a restored Catholic Stuart monarchy would be even better, and would take Britain out of the war.  However, his plans had to be abandoned because much of the French fleet was wrecked in bad weather.  But by this time, Charlie’s blood was up.  Frustrated, he obtained some modest private backing and set sail anyway with a small force on board two ships, L’Elisabeth, a 64-gun man-of-war, and La Doutelle (or Le du Teillay), a 16-gun frigate.  Things did not get off to a good start for the rebels; they were confronted by the British man-of-war, HMS Lion, off the coast of Cornwall.  In the ensuing exchange of fire, both Lion and L’Elisabeth were so badly damaged they had to return to their respective ports. This cost Charles some 700 troops and most of his arms, which had been on board L’Elisabeth. Still, he carried on regardless and in due course, on 23 July 1745, La Doutelle anchored off the Island of Eriskay on the west coast of Scotland.  However, the loss of L’Elisabeth meant that Charlie landed with a just handful of companions – later known as ‘the Seven Men of Moidart’.  Messages went out to the Highland clans to rendezvous at Glenfinnan on 19 August, but this initially met with little success.  Eventually, a force of about 1200 men, including MacDonalds and Camerons, gathered; the Stuart banner was raised and Prince Charles proclaimed his father as James VIII and III – the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland.  The rebellion was underway. Avoiding the government troops sent against him, Bonnie Prince Charlie entered Edinburgh on 17 September and installed himself at the Palace of Holyrood – with a loyal government garrison in the castle at the other end of town.

In the early hours of 21 September, the Jacobite army fell upon a government force at Prestonpans.  The redcoats, many inexperienced and most barely awake, were overwhelmed by the Highlanders in about fifteen minutes.  It was an emphatic rebel victory.  The Government in London recalled regiments from fighting in France and dispatched 10,000 more troops to the north.  Meanwhile, the Jacobite camp argued over what to do next.  Charles was keen to swiftly exploit his victory, invade England, topple what he viewed as the illegitimate Hanoverians and secure his Stuart birthright; others had no interest in England or its crown.  But, in the end, a Jacobite army of about 5,500 set off south in early November, taking Carlisle on 14th and reaching Manchester on 28th.  Like his father’s army 30 years before, Charlie hoped to attract more recruits from the English; once again, whilst there was little resistance to the invading army, the number of Jacobite recruits was disappointing – apart from about 300 volunteers who joined in Manchester.

Last battle on British soil, Battle of Culloden, Jacobite, rebellion

On 4 December, Charles reached Derby – just 130 miles from London.  Legend has it that the government was in a bit of a state and that King George II considered packing his bags to return to Germany.  But BPC’s army did not enjoy unified command.  The Prince, confident of French support, was keen to carry on; others, less certain, wanted to retreat.  Then news was received that 9,000 regular troops blocked the road to London at Northampton, and that clinched it; the Jacobite troops turned round and went back the way they had come.  There were no troops at Northampton – this was misinformation fed to the Jacobites by a spy, Dudley Bradstreet. Maybe the French would have invaded, had the rebels not retreated.

The Prince’s army was pursued north by a redcoat army commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, second son of George II.  Lord George Murray, the most skilful Jacobite commander, did well to manage the retreat in good order.  However, Cumberland’s vanguard caught the Jacobite rearguard at Clifton Moor near Penrith and a fierce skirmish, in which the Jacobites came off the best, slowed the Duke down.  By 19 December, though, Carlisle had been retaken for the government.

On 17 January, near Falkirk, the Jacobites once again beat a Hanoverian army.  But, once again, the command was divided over what to do next.  Forces were split to undertake minor tasks until, on 16 April 1746, the whole sorry tale ended with the final and decisive defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness.  The rebels were tired, hungry and both technically and tactically inferior to the better trained and disciplined Government troops.  It was all over in about an hour.  Afterwards, Cumberland’s soldiers massacred surviving Jacobites, including the wounded; the carnage was appalling, and indiscriminate.  These days, Cumberland would have been tried as a war criminal. But it didn’t end there.  In the months that followed, government troops ruthlessly terrorised the Highlands, killing raping, plundering, burning, destroying the means by which people lived.  No one knows who many perished in this disgusting 18th century barbarism and attempted ethnic cleansing.  Hundreds were sentenced to slavery and deported. Cumberland is rightly known to history as ‘Butcher’.  As part of its counter-insurgency tactics, the government dismantled the Highland clan system and outlawed tartans, the possession of arms – and bagpipes.  Many clan chiefs lost their lands, some lost their heads and some went into exile.

As for Charlie, with a price on his head, he spent six months on the run before making a romantic escape on a French ship. He never saw Scotland again and died an alcoholic in Rome forty years’ later. Jacobitism would live on as an idealistic notion with some, and a source of heroic tales for many, but would not challenge the British government again. The Stuarts were obsolete.

Highland dress, Edinburgh Tatoo

Authentic Highland culture is said to have perished on the desolate field of Culloden – the last pitched battle on British soil.  In fact, the old clan system was already on its way, doomed in a changing world; but Culloden accelerated the revolution.  One consequence of this probably inevitable process was the Highland Clearances – an emotive topic, even today, and a complex one. The Highland Clearances is a term that describes the mass emigration of people from their traditional Highland lands and way of life, to the growing urban areas of Britain – like Glasgow – or further afield, to Britain’s colonies. The majority of Highlanders had no land rights so when landlords, including clan chiefs, began investing in sheep farming their tenants were easily dispossessed; entire communities that had existed for hundreds of years simply disappeared.  Comparisons have been made with the enclosure of land (consolidating land for more profitable, or efficient, use, often removing ancient common rights in the process) and emparking (creating an estate park, often for hunting by a rich landowner, sometimes involving the eviction of entire villages) that had been happening for centuries south of the border.  In the Highlands, some folk were resettled in coastal areas where subsistence farming needed to be supplemented by income from fishing, or kelp smelting.  And some Highlanders chose to leave Scotland altogether – Scots had been emigrating to the New World for years to seek a better life. However, others were forcibly evicted from their homes and had nowhere to go. There are tales of people being physically herded onto ships taking them to North America or, later, Australia.  Some landowners – and the most frequent example given is the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, Lord Stafford – employed brutal, ruthless, methods to clear land.  When the kelp industry declined, and when a potato blight hit the Highlands in the 1840s, migration increased. The clearances lasted from the mid-late 18th century until the late 19th century and have left depopulated areas as well as bitterness.  No one knows exactly how many left the Highlands in this period, but the impact their arrival had on the new countries of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has been profound and many of their descendants have retained an acute sense of their heritage.

The Government also pursued a policy of recruiting Highlanders into the army – initially because they were seen as expendable.  At least 40,000 Highlanders – perhaps as many as 75,000 – joined the British Army between 1756 and 1815, fighting against the French in North America and Europe, and against American rebels during the American War of Independence.  Highland regiments would become fighting elites; one way or another, the descendents of many of those that fought the last battle would help forge an empire.

Scroll to Top