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Charles was the eldest son of 'The Old Pretender', the titular James III, and grandson of the deposed King James II. 'Pretender' in this context means 'claimant', to the thrones of England and Scotland which his grandfather had fled in 1688. He was born and brought up in Rome.
In 1744 he joined an ill-fated French attempted invasion of England. Determined to go to Scotland, Charles went ahead with his own invasion plans despite a lack of French support.
In 1745 he landed on the Scottish mainland at Moidart, with seven companions. Charles won the backing of the clan chief Donald Cameron of Lochiel, and raised his standard at Glenfinnan on 19 August 1745.
Gathering support among the Highlanders, he raised an army, claimed the throne on behalf of his father, and took Edinburgh. He defeated the army of General Cope at the battle of Prestonpans on 21 September 1745 and marched south to England. The Jacobite army reached Derby, but turned back on 6 December, pursued by a number of British army regiments. Charles's army won the battle of Falkirk on 17 January 1746, but was crushed at the battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746.
Charles spent the following six months as a fugitive in the Highlands. He was helped to escape to the Isle of Skye by loyal supporters including Flora Macdonald, and reached France in September 1746.
Charles's defeat effectively ended Jacobite hopes for the restoration of the throne. He spent the remainder of his life in exile on the Continent, and died in Rome.