In 1715, the Jacobites had made the largest concerted effort to retake the British throne since the initial War of the Two Kings. The effort had proven a failure, with James Francis Stuart chased out of Scotland, what soldiers his cause had in the land dealt with easily enough shortly afterwards. After the failure of the grandiose Spanish plan of 1719, the Stuarts were left as political pariahs in Europe, King’s without a Kingdom, with their cause falling more and more as time went on.
The War of the Austrian Succession and the success of the inherently Jacobite Irish Bridge of France at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, suddenly threw the Stuart cause back into the limelight once more. James, the “Old Pretender”, was by then 44, living in Rome but no longer really considered the prime moving force of the movement surrounding his family. That honour has passed to his eldest son, Charles, the “Young Pretender”, born in 1720 and named “Prince-Regent” by his father by age 23. He had spent almost his entirely life in Italy, but had grander ambitions of fulfilling his dream of putting the family back into power in Britain.
France, at war with Britain, was certainly not blind to the potential benefits of again backing the Stuarts, in an effort to undermine the Hanoverian regime in Britain, or overthrow it entirely, but the usual concerns remained. Louis XV was not interested in an enterprise where France would have to take the greatest risk, be it in ships to transport troops across the British dominate channel, or soldiers to do the actual fighting in England. It took some convincing and secret tours of Britain for the idea that there was strong Jacobite support in the islands to take root. There were indeed many Jacobites in Britain, but while they were happy to voice their approval for any potential effort to get James or Charles on the throne, they were careful to add the caveat of desired French assistance: men, guns, supplies. With much of Britain’s fighting strength engaged on the continent, the time did seem ripe to make an effort to land troops across the channel.
The first effort of this war, in 1744, came to nought, delayed for various reasons and then impossible to carry out after a storm scattered the waiting transports. Charles had hoped to lead at least 1500 soldiers of the Irish Brigade to Scotland, but this was not to be. Deflated, the French cancelled any plans for an invasion, much to Charles’ chagrin. He thought that Britain could be taken without the need for any fighting, such was the strength of Jacobinism – as he saw it anyway. Angered, Charles pushed forward with his own plans, deciding to test the true strength of French resolve to back him and attack Britain, by organising his own invasion and rebellion himself.
Charles, now basing himself in France, borrowed a large amount of money from members of the exiled Jacobite community (many of them Irish) and bankers, and set about purchasing equipment and transports. In this, he was advised by Lord Clare, the commander of the French Irish Brigade, its numbers full of volunteers who were eager to join the Pretender in his mission.
Charles was eventually able to purchase the services of two ships, and was accompanied by several hundred volunteers from the Irish Brigade, along with several key Irish advisors. One was Colonel Sir John O’Sullivan, of the Kerry O’Sullivan-Beares, who had left Ireland to seek education and position in France, fighting in several Italian campaigns, becoming close friends with Charles in the process. Setting sail in June of 1745, the aim was for Scotland, still the hotbed of Jacobite support in Britain. Royal Navy patrols and some brief combat immediately put a dent in Charles’ plans, and only his own personal ship, and around 500 of his Irish Volunteers, actually made it to Scotland, the rest turning around and sailing back to France.
The British were not entirely ignorant of Charles’ design – it was impossible to completely hide the planning of such an ambitious operation – but did pay it very little heed, especially in terms of any possible uprising in the Scottish Highlands. The Duke of Cumberland, who we have already encountered as the leader of Allied armies at Fontenoy, was more cautious, and was prepared to move himself and his army back over the water in the event of any rebellion breaking out. Cumberland was worried, as Britain’s defence was largely dependent at this point on promised soldiers from Dutch allies.
Charles arrived in Scotland, on the Outer Hebrides, on the 23rd of June, travelling on to the mainland a few days later. The first Highland leaders he met with had little hope of a rebellion succeeding, and advised Charles to leave: he refused, insistent that the Highland clans would rally to support him. He spent the next while sailing up the west coast of Scotland, having further meetings with Highland leaders, before disembarking at Glenuig Bay and travelling inland to the small village of Glenfinnan, for a larger meeting with the important clans of the Clanranald MacDonalds and the Camerons. There, he raised his standard, read out a proclamation from his father – “King James” – and rallied support for the cause. The response was apparently enthusiastic: Highland detestation for the Hanoverians and the Act of Union had never really cooled. Moreover, Charles had the charm, charisma and personality that his father has so notably lacked in 1715, well earning the nickname “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, handing out his supply of guns in person and adopting Highland dress and language.
The following weeks were a hive of activity, as forces were raised, by both sides, though what combat that was occurring in August remained very small scale. The Irish unit, dubbed “Irish pickets” by many sources, after the small military unit that is usually responsible for guarding a larger camp or force, had initially been seen as the primary group that would form the vanguard of Charles’ army, but they were overshadowed more and more as time went on by the Highlanders, with officers on either side of that divide coming to detest each other. Much of the Irish involvement in the subsequent fighting was downplayed or ignored entirely because of this, but it is clear that Charles’ ambition were wrapped up with those of many Irish. The British, for their part, put a huge bounty on Charles’ head and called for Cumberland to come home with a large portion of his army, while additional forces were withdrawn from garrison duty in Ireland.
Charles cobbled together an army of at least 3’000 men by mid-September, and captured Edinburgh without fighting, the city gates left open to him, one taken by O’Sullivan, now appointed an adjutant General of the Jacobites. The Jacobites were met by a gigantic cheering crowd, though the castle of the city held out. Charles’ father was proclaimed King James VIII of Scotland, with Charles as his regent. The British were simply in no position, holding out in small Scottish forts with meagre amounts of soldiers, to do anything about it. The French were impressed enough by Charles’ initial gains to send gold, muskets and artillery pieces to aid him, but no substantial amounts of troops. More small units of the Irish Brigade, and Scottish units in French service, did manage to break through the Royal Navy patrols and land in Scotland over the next while, carrying word that the French were prepared to send a huge invasion force of 10’000 men across the Channel, but these reports were optimistic exaggerations.
The first proper battle of what became known as “the ‘45” took place at Prestonpans, east of Edinburgh, on the 21st of September. Sir John Cope, then commander of British forces in Scotland, decided to try and stem the retreats by engaging what he was led to believe to be a numerically inferior, badly armed Jacobite army, led by Charles himself. A surprise early morning charge by Jacobite Highlanders broke the British lines and sent them routing, with most of Cope’s army killed, injured or captured. Though a relatively minor engagement in retrospect, with only around 6’000 men engaged in total, the result of the clash sent shockwaves throughout Britain, as Charles’ rebellion suddenly appeared far more dangerous and credible.
In the aftermath, Charles and the Jacobites were left with a choice. They could consolidate their position in Scotland, focus on what forts remained in British possession and await French reinforcements they were sure would be provided eventually, a plan many of the Highland chiefs preferred. But Charles disliked this plan, perhaps deeming it too passive, and instead proposed an invasion of northern England, before the Hanoverians could organise a suitable response to his initial gains. With the possible aid of French landings in Wales or western England, Charles hoped that his army would swell with volunteers as it moved south, and that a substantial march would deliver the rest of Britain, and the crown, into Stuart hands.
A council of Charles’ chief supporters and advisors just about agreed with the regents plan – the Irish officers especially were eager to march south – and on the 8th of November, Charles and his army, including many Irish, crossed into England. By then, money was getting tight and a lack of support in the border region was making things difficult, but Charles’ plan was not foolhardy: if he could get his army marching deep into England, before the government could react properly, there was every chance that a reversal of the Glorious Revolution could take place. For the time being, the way south was open. But the government was not going to just roll over, and were already mustering their response. As the winter of 1745 overtook the land, the cause of the Wild Geese hung in the balance.
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