By Desmond Seward

Birlinn Limited. 406 pages. £25.  ISBN 978-1-78027-606-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I suppose for many people the saga of the Jacobites is largely focused around Bonnie Prince Charlie and the invasion of England in 1745, the retreat back to Scotland, and the disaster at Culloden in 1746.  But there is a bigger story that spans many years, and is much more complex.

When James II abandoned his throne after William of Orange was “invited” to bring an army and ensure that Protestantism and not Catholicism was the official religion in Britain, he fled to the Continent following the defeat of his supporters at the battles of the Boyne and Aughrim in Ireland. Desmond Seward puts it succinctly: “For many, the moment when the Henrietta sailed for France with King James on board marked the end of Britain’s rule by her ancient, natural and rightful line of sovereigns. It was also the beginning of Jacobitism”. And he adds: “For all the talk of ‘revolution principles,’ the real reason why James lost his throne was England’s neurotic terror of Catholicism, a terror exploited by ambitious politicians”.

It was a fact that not everyone welcomed William and Mary when they arrived in England. Some people had only wanted James’s powers limited. And there were plenty of Catholics who were sympathetic to his situation. As early as 1789 James’s standard was raised in Scotland by Viscount Dundee and attempts were made to arouse the clans. But it might give an indication of the problems that arose later when we learn that the forces pursuing Dundee were led by General Hugh Mackay, a Highlander. Despite some Jacobite victories, notably at Killiecrankie, the rising quickly collapsed.

The 1707 Act of Union, which brought Scotland into the United Kingdom, was disliked by many Scots: “But if all classes are taken into account, especially the less privileged, then the majority saw the Union as a shabby conspiracy to deny the Scottish people control of their own destiny”. And when Queen Anne died in 1714, and an Act of Settlement called for George, Elector of Hanover, to inherit the throne, the fat was in the fire. In Scotland there was dissatisfaction with changes to taxation and other matters that the Act of Union had brought, and sentiment was increasingly inclined towards a revival of the rights of the “Old Pretender”, James, and the Stuart dynasty. James fretted and plotted with his French sympathisers and exiles from Ireland and Britain. It would not be long before anger turned into action.

There were pro-Jacobite riots in some parts of England, and the threat of an armed uprising in the West Country. Swift action on the part of the authorities took the sting out of that. But things were different in Scotland and parts of Northern England. The Earl of Mar was busy raising an army that began by seizing Perth and other towns; “Soon after, Mar’s troops overran the entire Kingdom of Fife”. Across the border, in Northumberland, Jacobite forces gathered and waited for the expected arrival of James with French troops.  There was a problem, however, described by Seward as “England’s fear of Popery”, Catholic Jacobites rallied to the Cause, but Protestant Jacobites held back, wary of lending their support to a would-be King who might impose the Catholic faith on England.

“Whig Britain’s saviour” was, according to Seward, “John Campbell, Duke of Argyll, whose family had been sworn enemies of the Stuarts for generations”. He had assembled a relatively small force of around 3,000 men and met Mar’s much-superior army (in terms of numbers) at Sheriffmuir, north of Sterling. Argyll did have one advantage. He had experience of warfare, having fought at Malplaquet during the War of the Spanish Succession. In the end the battle petered out, Mar failing to follow up on earlier achievements by his men, and Argyll having to withdraw, though in good order, because his troops had been badly mauled when charged by the Jacobites. Both sides claimed a victory.

Other Jacobites under General Thomas Forster had moved into England and reached Preston in Lancashire, a county known as the most Catholic in England. They had encountered little resistance as they moved down through Carlisle, Kendal, and Lancaster, and they picked up recruits from among the local Catholic population. Seward says that locals almost doubled the Jacobite forces to about 2,500. The difficulty was that they were untrained and poorly armed. When faced with regular troops under Major-General Charles Wills they soon gave way, though the Highlanders put up a stiff resistance. But reinforcements arrived to bolster the Government forces, and Forster, who seems to have lost his nerve when the fighting started, contacted Wills to negotiate a surrender. Many of the Highlanders wanted to battle their way out of the town but were persuaded to lay down their arms. Had they been allowed to fight as they wished to, it’s more than probable they could have defeated Wills, who appears to have been an incompetent commander issuing orders that led to heavy casualties among his men.

James had landed in Scotland, but the French troops he had promised to bring with him never materialised. The Jacobite army had shrunk in size, and it didn’t endear itself to the local people when it burned down houses, barns, stables, etc., in a “scorched earth” policy designed to deny any kind of succour to advancing Government forces. Houses were looted and animals stolen, while the local were left to survive as best they could in the bleak, winter landscape. It was the beginning of the end for James and he was soon spirited away on a ship bound for France. As for his army, it disintegrated as men slipped into the hills, or found ways of getting to the Continent. Seward says: “The Fifteen ended in disaster; aborted in the West Country, crushed in Lancashire, broken in Scotland”. 

It was to be another thirty years before a determined armed attempt to re-establish a Stuart on the throne took place. That isn’t to say that there weren’t earlier plots and plans to invade, using French, Swedish, and Spanish soldiers to back up the Jacobites in Scotland, Ireland, and England. James established a court in Avignon, which soon grew to “500 people, counting servants, ragged refugees, English, Scots and Irish, who included peers and clan chieftains”.  In 1719 three hundred Spanish troops landed at Lewis and were billeted in Stornoway. More were supposed to be on the way, but storms had dispersed the fleet carrying them. When a call went out for the clans to gather in support of the Spanish, only 1500 men responded. News then came that Major-General Wightman was marching to confront the Jacobites. After a short fight the clansmen retreated into the mountains and headed for home. The Spanish soldiers remained on the battlefield, but were eventually persuaded to surrender. It was yet another somewhat chaotic end to a scheme designed to promote the Stuart cause.

It’s impossible for me to go into detail about all the various Jacobite plots and how they were betrayed, or came to nothing because assured military support never arrived. Seward does a good job of telling the stories in a readable fashion. George continued to be unpopular, and not only in Scotland and Ireland. Seward perhaps betrays his partiality for the Stuarts in his description of him arriving at a theatre: “a line of carriages drew up outside, from the first of which alighted a tubby little man of about sixty, with two remarkably ugly women in late middle-age, one tall and thin, and the other enormously fat. It was George with his concubines”.

That George and his supporters continued to be wary of the Jacobites at home and abroad was obvious. They had need to. In 1744 it was reported that 10,000 French troops had assembled and were due to embark for a landing in England which would be accompanied by a rising among the British Jacobites. James’s son, Charles, was to leave for  London once the invasion was successful, and would be appointed Regent until his father arrived to be crowned King.  Unfortunately, the elements intervened once again, and a violent storm damaged many of the ships in the fleet, with the result that the French government called off the invasion. It was, perhaps, not a complete failure, Seward being of the opinion that “it helped to inspire the Forty-Five”.

Another event which possibly contributed to instilling a belief that a rising could succeed was the French victory over a combined force of British, Hanoverian and Austrian troops at Fontenoy. The commander of the British soldiers was the Duke of Cumberland, George II’s youngest son. Serving on the French side were the men of the Irish Brigade, exiles from their own land who had enlisted with the French. It was their gallantry that won the day at Fontenoy, and it acted as a catalyst, “inspiring Irishmen abroad to make every effort to help the Prince of Wales regain his father’s throne”. 

Charles landed in Scotland on the 23rd July, 1745. There was an initial reluctance on the part of the clans to rally to his flag. The reason was that, as had happened in the past, he had arrived minus the French troops that everyone expected him to bring. But he entered Edinburgh without opposition in September, and soon the Jacobites had a stunning victory to their credit when they decimated a Government army under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir John Cope at Prestonpans. He escaped with some of his cavalry but left the majority of his men either dead (300) or as prisoners (1,500). Seward refers to the popular song, “Hey, Johnny Cope, are ye wauking yet?” which mocked the leader of the Government forces. The Jacobites suffered only thirty killed. 

“Prestonpans was the spectacular victory the Cause needed. Recruits flooded in”, says Seward. The army soon reached around 13,500, made up of 6,750 Highlanders, 5,400 Lowlanders, 830 Irish, and 300 English. This looks like a healthy figure, but Seward says that the proportion of Scots who came out was less than it was in 1715. Morale among the Jacobites was raised when several French ships turned up with arms and money. A decision was then taken, though not without some argument, to move into England through Carlisle. It was expected that, as the Jacobites came into Carlisle and down through Lancaster, Preston, and Manchester, local sympathisers would join them. But few did. There were expressions of support, but not many volunteers for the Prince’s army. People were wary of being seen to be committed to a Cause that might not carry the day. The harsh punishments meted out after the failure of the ’15 still lingered in their minds.

The Jacobites reached Derby on the 4th December, 1745, but with their lines of supply and communication over-extended, and the Duke of Cumberland organising forces to move against them, a decision was taken to return to Scotland. Charles wanted to carry on advancing towards London. But some of the clan chiefs were worried about the prospects of having to fight Cumberland and, even if they defeated him, then facing up to the troops defending the English capital. It has always been debated whether or not the Jacobites could have taken London had they carried on.

Once back in Scotland the Jacobites could still function efficiently enough to defeat government forces at Falkirk, but desertions from the ranks, and disagreements among the officers, weakened the army. By the time they faced Cumberland at Culloden they were disorganised, and in bad shape (the troops hadn’t been fed properly for several days, and were wet and in generally poor condition). Many of them fought bravely, despite their dismal situation and lack of any sort of inspired leadership, but defeat was inevitable. Seward gives a harrowing account of how the Jacobite wounded were bayoneted and bludgeoned to death as they lay on the battlefield. Later, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, and for months after, there was to be little pity shown to the “rebels” as they were hunted down, their property seized, houses burned, and their owners often driven into exile. I think it’s worth noting that Cumberland’s army included Scottish regiments. Things were never clearcut in Scotland, nor was it ever a simple case of Highlanders versus Lowlanders.

Charles escaped after adventures that have become the stuff of legend. I grew up knowing stories about Flora MacDonald and the way she helped him get away.  But his Cause never again prospered, though various people still attempted to come up with schemes to launch an invasion or foment a rising. Jacobites still gathered in secret and toasted the King over the Water. There is an interesting proposition by Seward that it was not Culloden that finally put aid to hopes of a Stuart revival, but the naval battle of Quiberon Bay when a French fleet that was sailing to provide escorts for an invasion force was soundly beaten by the Royal Navy.

As for Charles, his later years were sad ones. A chronic and abusive alcoholic he drifted around the Continent, looked after by those who could tolerate him. Seward describes him as “the wreck who had once been Europe’s hero”. He died in 1788.

The King Over the Water tells a fascinating story full of heroes and villains, and colourful characters and spirited ladies.  It is “popular history” at its best, which means that it is clearly written and avoids academic jargon. There are ample notes and a useful bibliography. Seward also provides a short guide to novels about Jacobitism by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, and a few others.