Just who were the Jacobites, and how did they threaten the power structure of Britain during the 17th and 18th Centuries? Answering this question means delving into a turbulent age of rival royal houses, Highland warriors and doomed dreamers.
The Glorious Revolution
The story begins in 1688. This was the year when James II – the Stuart king of England, Ireland and (as James VII) of Scotland – was deposed in what would become known as the 'Glorious Revolution'. The backstory to this was complex, but much of it came down to religious tensions that had long troubled the country. James, who became monarch following the death of his brother Charles II, was a Catholic who was regarded with hostility by many Protestants (including his own nephew, the Duke of Monmouth, who attempted to overthrow James and was beheaded for his trouble).
Despite James’ pro-Catholic policies, many in England were reassured by the fact that the next in line to the throne was the king’s safely Protestant daughter, Mary. But everything changed in June 1688, when James’ second wife gave birth to a male heir, James Edward Stuart. Suddenly, Britain had a Catholic dynasty on its hands.
Protestant aristocrats hatched an audacious plan to remove James from power and replace him with his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. A group of nobles, the 'Immortal Seven', sent a letter to William, literally inviting him to invade. Accompanied by forces much larger than the Spanish Armada of a century before, William did exactly that, landing in Devon in November of that year.
The Jacobite Rising of 1689
Knowing his situation was hopeless, James fled to France, where he was taken in by his ally Louis XIV. William and Mary were crowned as co-monarchs in 1689, but right from the start there were many of James’ supporters refused to take this lying down. They became known as the Jacobites, with the word deriving from Jacobus, the Latin for James. Different factors motivated the Jacobites – some were Catholics, of course, but there were also the Scottish Episcopalians who believed in the divine right of James to rule as king. Many Scottish Jacobites would also have felt an instinctive fidelity towards the House of Stuart, which had originated in Scotland.
The Jacobites first rose up in 1689, soon after William and Mary’s coronation. The primary instigator was a senior Scottish soldier, John Graham, Viscount Dundee. Fiercely loyal to the Stuarts, Dundee rallied a rebel army largely made up of Highlanders. They faced off against William’s troops at the Battle of Killiekrankie on 27 July 1689.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the new king’s men, the Jacobites pulled off a famous victory. While hundreds of them were felled by musket fire, the Highlanders charged at the enemy with swords and axes, slaughtering William’s troops. However, Dundee himself was killed, dealing a massive blow to the rebellion. Further battles in 1689 and 1690 ended in defeats, effectively ending this era in Jacobite history.
James II, whose attempt to regain his crown had been crushed by William at the Battle of Boyne in Ireland in 1690, lived out his latter years in exile, dying in 1701. William, by that point a widower, died in 1702, and was succeeded by his sister-in-law Anne. When she herself died in 1714, the crown went to her closest living Protestant relative, George I of Hanover.
But the Jacobite cause was still going strong, with the union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1707 angering many Scots and increasing support for the current Stuart claimant, James II’s son John Edward Stuart. The next major uprising came in 1715, when the Scottish Jacobite John Erskine, Earl of Mar, raised a rebellion involving thousands of Highlanders. After taking key locations in northern Scotland, the rebels headed south to clash with government forces in the Battle of Sheriffmuir on 13 November 1715.
This turned out to be inconclusive battle, with Mar proving an ineffectual commander. Despite other rebel actions in England, and the arrival in Scotland of James Edward Stuart himself in December, the momentum of the 'Fifteen' (as this rising would become known) had been lost. James Edward Stuart eventually returned to exile in France.
Bonnie Prince Charlie
The most famous and romanticised of all the Jacobite uprisings came decades later, in 1745. This was when James Edward Stuart’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, attempted to take the throne for his father. More familiar to us today as Bonnie Prince Charlie, he arrived on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in July of that year, accompanied by a tiny contingent of followers, and about to forge his own legend.
By September, the charismatic 'Young Pretender' had raised enough support among Highlanders to triumphantly march into Edinburgh. That same month, Stuart led Jacobite forces to victory against government troops at the Battle of Prestonpans in East Lothian. The Jacobite army eventually crossed into England, getting as far as Debry. But the lack of widespread support from the English, and the lack of assistance from France, forced Stuart to very reluctantly make his way back to Scotland.
The Young Pretender’s dream of restoring the throne came to an end at the Battle of Culloden, which took place on 16 April 1746. Here, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army took on the ruthless Duke of Cumberland and his government troops, and it turned out to be a bloodbath for the Jacobites. After the hour-long battle, wounded Jacobites were killed in cold blood, and there was a brutal crackdown on communities across Scotland, with many executed for treason and houses burnt to the ground.
As for Charles Edward Stuart – he lived as a desperate fugitive in the dark months after Culloden, before finally escaping back to mainland Europe where he would live on for many more years.
His father, the 'Old Pretender' James Edward Stuart, died in 1766. Charles passed away in 1788. After the Jacobite cause ceased to be a serious political threat, it became increasingly mythologised, especially by Victorian writers. Bonnie Prince Charlie is still popularly regarded as the tragic hero of a deposed dynasty, whose rebel rising of 1745/6 has become a part of Scottish folklore.