Bonnie Prince Charlie: Rebel prince

Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart. Painted by William Mosman around 1730 | Public Domain

Prince Charles Edward Stuart sought to regain the Great British throne for his exiled father James III (1688 – 1766) in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 when the young Italian born prince - who was also the grandson of England’s James II - secretly set foot on Scottish soil from France. His father, James Frances Edward Stuart was known as The Old Pretender was living in exile in Italy after his own father James II was deposed and forced to flee England after The Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Prince Charles, famously referred to as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ due to his boyish looks and alleged charm, was also known as ‘The Young Pretender’ during the final rebellion of 1745. This final rebellion for the Jacobite cause, otherwise known as as the '45 was the last of the uprisings in England and Scotland of the 1700s. Had Prince Charles succeeded in his quest to restore his father as King of England and Scotland, he would have eventually been crowned Charles III, and most likely England would have returned to Catholicism.

Jacobite origins

The term ‘Jacobite’ comes from the Latin for James, ‘Jacobus’, a Catholic fringe group that sought to restore James II and his heirs, James III and grandson Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), to the British and Irish thrones. Jacobites initiated rebellions and insurrections throughout Britain during the 1690s and fought a devastating civil war in Ireland. They weren’t all Roman Catholics or Scottish though, Bonnie Prince Charlie was himself Italian, having been born in Palazzo Muti, Rome but spoke English with a British accent.

The first Jacobite rebellion took place in 1689 in support of the exiled James II. Led by one John Graham, 1st Viscount Dundee, it mainly comprised of an army from Highland clans. Later, James II himself landed in Ireland with his army of French troops to oppose his son-in-law William III’s army but was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Insurrections continued as James II's grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie began his own quest to regain the throne for his father James III in 1745 when he landed in Scotland and rallied Highlanders for the Jacobite cause, one which proved to be the last such uprising.

Back-story: The Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution in 1688 covered momentous events leading to the deposition of King James II (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s grandfather) who was replaced by his own daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William III of Orange.

In what can only be described as a dysfunctional family in extremis, with William of Orange threatening to unseat his father-in-law from the English throne

Despite England being a Protestant country, Catholic James II was crowned king in 1685 after the death of his brother King Charles II. However James II's decision to proclaim his newly born son James Francis Edward as heir, under the principle of male primogeniture, created the threat of a Catholic dynasty. The country at the time was experiencing anti-Catholic riots and King James II had angered many by suspending the Scottish and English Parliaments. His decision to proclaim his son as heir was the final straw and so a coalition of politicians invited Mary’s Protestant husband, William III (King of Holland and Netherlands) to invade England and usurp the unpopular Catholic monarch. His objective was to secure his wife Mary’s succession, although some historians believe William was less interested in the Protestant cause and motivated more by the desire to invade England.

In what can only be described as a dysfunctional family in extremis, with William of Orange threatening to unseat his father-in-law from the English throne, events took a dramatic turn in 1688 when the Dutch king landed in England at Torbay with an army of 14,000 men. The Royal Army at twice the size of William’s, mainly deserted due to a conspiracy within the ranks and James II, fearing being executed by his enemies prepared to flee into exile. After William refused to guarantee James protection the deposed James made haste, unobstructed, to France following his wife and son the Prince of Wales. After much discussion and arguments between the Whigs and Tories, William and Mary were eventually made monarchs in 1689.

Stuart royals in exile

James II had only ruled as monarch for three years before being forced into exile in France. The Stuarts were a Scottish dynasty and James II was King of England and Ireland and as James VII King of Scotland yet there was little support by the Scottish populace for the return of the Stuart King. Few Scottish people supported James II when he was living abroad. James II’s tragedy was, therefore, rooted not so much in the loss of his power, hereditary rights and influence, but in the enormous human cost that resulted from his immense, misdirected self-belief. Among his supporters, there were few winners and a vast number of losers.

Most of the advisors of co-regents William and Mary were Scottish and anti-Catholic sentiment was palpable in Edinburgh and Glasgow. But James II had support on the fringes, mainly in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. After two years in exile, his determination to reclaim his crown led to the forming of the ‘Jacobite’ rebellion, with its first incursion taking place in Ireland with 6,000 French troops led by James II. It was the first of many defeats and Jacobite risings that were to continue until James II’s grandson Charles Edward Stuart, cheerfully nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie, was to embark on his own mission fifty-four years later.

The Stuart claim: From James II to Bonnie Prince Charlie

During his lifetime, Charles Edward Stuart was also known as ‘the Young Pretender’ and ‘the Young Chevalier’. In popular memory he is famously referred to as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. Prince Charles’ father James III (1688 – 1766) was given the moniker ‘The Old Pretender’. James Francis Edward Stuart had been taken as a baby by his mother across to France, later Italy, during the outset of the Glorious Revolution (1688) and raised in Continental Europe. His birth was controversial after rumours spread that he was an imposter, smuggled into the Royal birth bed in a warming pan after the legitimate baby of James II and his wife Mary of Modena was allegedly stillborn. When James II was deposed and ordered into exile, Mary disguised herself as a laundress and escaped London with her infant son to France. Young James III benefited from the hospitality of the French court as Louis XIV – a Catholic monarch – treated the deposed English royals as monarchs in exile.

Catholics excluded

By 1689 a new law, the Bill of Rights excluded Catholics from the English throne. Despite this bar to the exiled Stuarts, William III was not recognised as the rightful King of England by France, Spain and the Papal States. James III, decreed a traitor by English law, made several attempts to win back his crown in 1708, and by the second attempt, his half-sister Queen Anne was on the throne of England.

Anne entered into a secret agreement with James III that if he converted to Protestantism his claim to succession would be viewed as a possibility. James III, now exiled to the Duchy of Lorraine refused the offer. His devotion to the Catholic faith meant that by 1714 his second cousin the Elector of Hanover, George Louis (George I) who was Protestant, became King of England. It was the beginning of the German Hanoverian line ruling England, a house that Bonnie Prince Charlie was determined to overthrow in the name of his Stuart grandfather and father.

Privileged Prince Regent

As a young man Prince Charles was handsome, athletic and musical and could speak Italian, German and Spanish. As the grandson of the last Catholic Stuart king, James II and VII, and his deposed father James III, he believed that he must regain the British throne from the Protestant Hanoverians. He was therefore the focus of the Jacobite cause.

Born in Palazzo Muti, in Rome in 1720 to his father James III and mother Maria Clementina Sobieska, the young Charles Edward Stuart’s path to fame and Scottish ‘romantic hero’ began as his emotionally distant father no longer had the support and backing he had once enjoyed in the recent past on the continent. Once Louis XIV, his father’s loyal champion had died and France had made a treaty with England, James III was seen as a political embarrassment to the French. His subsequent invitation to Rome at the behest of Pope Clement XI was the reason why the deposed Stuarts now resided in splendour in the Papal States.

Charles Edward Stuart was brought up in Rome’s most prestigious neighbourhoods of grand palazzos and townhouses. He had a privileged upbringing, brought up as a Catholic and nurtured to believe in the divine right of kings. Since the exile of his grandfather James II, the ‘Jacobite Cause’ tried to return the Stuart monarchy to the English throne and now in the form of a handsome and some might say insolent young prince they had a new figurehead. Prince Charles’ first exposure to battle was with the French and Spanish siege of Gaeta in 1743, and shortly afterwards bearing the title of Prince Regent, Charles Stuart travelled to France with the sole purpose of commanding an army to invade England. After a ferocious storm, the planned invasion never happened but the event spurred the young prince on his quest to restore his father and the Stuarts to the English throne.

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s campaign

In 1745 George II was on the English throne when Bonnie Prince Charlie, now given authority by his father to act in his name, led a French-backed rebellion to take back the Stuart throne on Scottish soil. Sailing to Great Britain in an old man-of-war ship called Elizabeth that was equipped with 66 guns and a second 16 gun privateer called Doutelle, Prince Charles landed on the isle of Eriskay on 23 July 1745.

Many Highlanders still supported the Jacobite cause, both Catholic and Protestant and Prince Charles had to rely on the support of these clans loyal to the Stuarts when the French invasion fleet accompanying him was scattered by a storm.

Now nicknamed The Young Pretender, Charles Stuart made his way to Glenfinnan, where on 19 August, 1745, he raised his father’s standard officially beginning the Jacobite uprising. Declaring his father, James Edward Stuart, King James III of England (and King James VIII of Scotland), the prince’s army of Highland clans and European mercenaries marched on Edinburgh.

Jacobite Army

Recognised as the capital of Scotland since the 15th century, Edinburgh was controlled by Lord Provost Archibald Stewart who surrendered in Sept 1745 to Prince Charles’ advancing army. After defeating the British forces at the Battle of Prestonpans in East Lothian on 21 September, 1745, the emboldened but increasingly tired Jacobite army of 6,000 men made its way into England taking the town of Carlisle in November. At the beginning of December, Prince Charles’ Jacobite army reached Derbyshire, making it only a two day walk from London and with the victorious prospect of taking England’s capital. But one fateful decision was about to change the Jacobite army’s fortunes.

Instead of taking London, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s’ council persuaded him to wait for French support, prompting him to go back to Scotland and wait until the next summer. The Jacobite army retreated back north to Scotland and successfully fought the Battle of Falkirk Muir, finally settling over the Scottish border in Inverness where they stayed for two months.

The Jacobite army was by now exhausted and suffering from diminishing supplies. The youngest son of King George II, the Duke of Cumberland was also close on their tail, eventually catching up with them at Culloden near Inverness on 16 April, 1746. It was to be the last battle for the ill-equipped Jacobite army and all hopes of conquering England with a new Scottish King.

The Battle of Culloden

The Duke of Cumberland’s British forces possessed superior gunfire as well as being physically fit compared to the mentally and physically jaded Jacobite soldiers. Prince Charles also made the grave error of ignoring the advice of general Lord George Murray, and fatally chose to fight on flat, open marshy ground, exposing the Jacobite army to the British army’s artillery. Hoping that the Duke would attack first, Prince Charles, unable to see the battlefield properly behind his lines, decided to attack first.

The army’s young messenger was mercilessly shot before Prince Charles could deliver the order. Even though the Jacobites broke through the bayonets line of the British, they were shot down by a second line of the Duke’s soldiers. A combination of confusion and uncoordinated attacks by the Jacobite army, charging headlong into the musket fire of Cumberland’s forces, resulted in huge losses for Prince Charles' army, exacerbated by many of its survivors fleeing the carnage. The Duke’s soldiers were merciless to wounded Jacobite soldiers, killing them on the battlefield. Its relentless pursuit of those trying to escape and being hunted down and killed earned the Duke the grisly sobriquet of ‘the Butcher’. When Prince Charles escaped from the battlefield believing that he had been betrayed, he left almost all his personal possessions behind while many of his followers were captured and some executed.

Culloden Moor is the scene of one of the bloodiest and shortest battles in history, lasting less than an hour. The Jacobite army lost 20,00 men on the moor on the 16th April 1746, compared to few fatalities on the British side. Many highlanders were killed on this day which also included mercenaries from France, Ireland as well as Englishmen, who were loyal to the Jacobite cause. The battle was seen as the end of Highland Clan culture when the English government passed laws that banned the wearing and displaying Tartan colours as a uniform. The law was finally overturned at the end of the 18th Century.

Heroine Flora MacDonald

Perhaps the most memorable event relating to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s eventual escape from the Scottish mainland, that has inspired the imaginations of artists and storytellers throughout the world, was the intervention of one legendary Scottish woman, Flora MacDonald. Shortly after the Scottish defeat at Culloden, the now fugitive Prince Charles with a £30,000 reward on his head embarked on a five-month journey throughout Scotland, trying to evade being captured by the Duke of Cumberland and his soldiers.

The woman who played a major role in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mythical status was the 24-year-old MacDonald. Her dramatic appearance in the Prince’s story has been responsible for keeping his name alive in popular culture and continues to stir the imagination of schoolchildren in history lessons. In what must be one of the first documented cases of rebels using ‘cross-dressing’ to avoid capture, the wily MacDonald came up with a tenacious plan to hoodwink the Duke of Cumberland’s forces by disguising the prince in women’s clothes and assist his escape from the mainland as ‘Betty Burke’. This masterstroke of changing the sex of the most wanted man in the country was an audacious ploy, which, had it been uncovered, would certainly have meant death for MacDonald.

Together with Flora and two men, the royal fugitive was able to make his way by boat to the bay of Kilbride on the Isle of Skye. After three dangerous months avoiding capture Bonnie Prince Charlie finally departed for France on the 20th September 1746 and eventually back to his home in Italy.

Lost Cause

At one stage, accepting the fact that as a Catholic he was unlikely to ever be crowned King of England, Prince Charles indicated to his followers he was willing to become a Protestant in order to achieve his life-long ambition. In 1750 he visited London incognito, staying at a safe house near Holborn and converted to Protestantism by receiving Anglican Communion. But due to his increasingly brusque and argumentative manner he managed to alienate himself from the French foreign minister in 1759 who was planning an invasion of England in the midst of the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) between Britain and France. After Prince Charles’ father James III died in 1766, Pope Clement XIII recognised James as King of England, Scotland and Ireland but did not bestow the same title on his son Prince Charles.

Bonnie Prince Charlie was never to return to Scotland again although over the decades as he grew older and bitter about his lost cause he turned to alcohol as his dream for restoring his lineage on the English throne faded. He died in Italy of a stroke on 31 January 1788 aged 67 and was buried in Frascati Cathedral near Rome where his brother Henry Benedict Stuart was bishop. Following Henry’s death, Prince Charles’ heart was laid to rest with his brother’s in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, along with his father under the monument to the Royal Stuarts.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to History UK channel. Represented by MMB Creative agency.