Manuscripts and Special Collections

Background to the rebellion

In 1745 Britain was again at war with France, and on the 23rd July of that year, a young man of 24 landed from a French ship, the Doutelle, on an island in the Outer Hebrides. On the journey from France he had narrowly escaped capture by a British man-of-war. The man whose hopes centred upon seizing the British throne was Charles Edward Stuart, better known to history as either 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' or the ' Young Pretender'.

He hoped to raise an army in the Scottish Highlands, and march south into England before the main British forces could be recalled from the continent where they were fighting the French. There were very few troops in Britain, only about 6,000 in all, of which over half were in Scotland. These soldiers were ill-equipped and badly trained, as subsequent events were to show only too clearly.

Statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie located at Cathedral Green in Derby

Statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie located at Cathedral Green in Derby

Source: Chris Harris

Charles Edward reached the mainland of Scotland with only seven companions on the 25th July. He landed at Moidart, and a row of trees has since been planted to commemorate the place where the 'Eight Men of Moidart' came ashore. Even allowing for the fact that the British were in the middle of a war with France, and that there was some political uncertainty in London following the fall of Sir Robert Walpole in 1742, who had been chief minister for over 20 years, Charles was taking a tremendous gamble. How could just eight men overthrow the established government of Britain? Who was Charles Edward Stuart and what did he represent?

Prince Charles' grandfather had been the last Stuart King of Britain - James VII of Scotland and II of England (reigned 1685-1688). The Stuarts had been Kings of the United Kingdoms of England and Scotland since 1603. James was a stubborn man who was deposed by Parliament because he attempted to revive the cause of the Roman Catholic Religion in Britain. More successfully he revived the ancient fears and memories of Englishmen about the fate of Protestants at the hands of England's last Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor. This fear was powerfully reinforced by the treatment which Protestants were actually receiving from Roman Catholic Monarchs in Europe at that time. The purges and persecutions of the French Huguenots by Louis XIV were not a good omen for the future of Protestants under a Catholic King.

Two events sparked the rebellion against James II. The first of these was the Declaration of Indulgence, which allowed Catholics full political and religious rights, not a very sinister move in itself, but which when combined with a purge of army officers and their replacement by Catholics, seemed to threaten the liberties of England. The second event was the birth of a son to James in the summer of 1688, a son who was to be brought up as a Catholic - and therefore the second in a line of Catholic Kings. A group of protestant politicians and nobles decided to ask a protestant leader for help against James II.

They turned to William of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands, who was married to Mary the daughter of James II. They needed William's army since James possessed an army which could have crushed any internal revolt in Britain. William's fleet, blown by the 'Protestant Wind', sailed towards England, and actually landed in Torbay. Most of James II's army deserted, and James himself fled to France. For a detailed account of the invasion, see Theme 1 in this website, The Invasion of England in 1688.

In 1689 James II attempted a 'come-back' by invading Ireland with French support. However he failed to capture Londonderry and in the next year William (now William III) defeated him at the Battle of the Boyne. This was the end of the first attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne; the '45 was the last attempt.

James II died in 1701. His son, also called James, claimed to be James III of England and VIII of Scotland. This claim was not a serious threat to William III, but James' cause did have supporters in both England and Scotland. These supporters were called ' Jacobites', because Jacobus was the Latin for James. In England these supporters were mostly Catholics, and in Scotland were mostly drawn from the Highlands, an area where a traditional and pastoral way of life was beginning to change.

In 1708 James made a second attempt when he sailed to Scotland with an army of 6,000 to join his Scottish supporters. The British navy successfully prevented the army from landing, and James returned to France. The most serious uprising was that of 1715, which was a direct result of Queen Anne's death. The new King, George I, came from Hanover, was a German Protestant, and knew little about the English language or customs of the country. James felt that many Britons would prefer a truly British King, even if he had been brought up in France. He landed in Scotland to support a rebellion which had already broken out. However he was too late. An English rising was defeated at Preston, and the Scottish Jacobites failed to win at Sheriffmuir. James returned to France, with a few of the nobles who had been involved in the rebellions.

In 1719 there was another Highland rising, and a Jacobite plot was discovered in 1722, but neither were a serious threat to the government in London. There was little trouble after this, and even the 'Highland Problem' seemed well on the way to a solution as the British army under General Wade built military roads, bridges, and forts in areas that had previously been inaccessible. Walpole's government also maintained a series of spies and informers in Scotland and on the continent, to watch the activities of James' court in France. Finally in Scotland itself the government could count on the support of most of the lowland gentry, and the great influence in both Highlands and Lowlands of the Duke of Argyll.

One man hoped to upset this state of affairs. Charles Edward Stuart was the son of the ' Old Pretender', James III and VIII. He was determined that his father should be King of the United Kingdom, and hoped to achieve this with French and Scottish help.

In 1744 Charles Edward persuaded the French to invade Scotland as part of their war effort against Britain. The fleet was first delayed and then wrecked by a storm, so the French project was abandoned. But, Charles decided to carry on alone, with just seven followers.


Next page:  The people involved


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