‘Over the Sea to Skye’: The Jacobite Movement

Article by Marie Stirling. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.

King James II and VII

Britain had a new enemy after 1688. The replacement of the Stuart James II by William III in the Glorious Revolution was seen by many as having undermined the hierarchical monarchy. This group became known as the Jacobites, whose main aim was to reinstate the successors of James II. To the British monarchy and the Whigs, the dominant party in the early eighteenth century, James and his heirs, or the Pretenders and their supporters, represented a threat to both the constitution and the Protestant succession. This article will give a brief overview of what is arguably one of the most legendary yet controversial movements in British history.

So who were the Jacobites? The supporters of the group encompassed a wide range of the demographic; from the landowning and pro-monarchy Tory, Oxford dons to the Highland chief irate over the Act of Union to the ordinary man on the street. Contemporary thought highlighted the popish element, indeed the 1745 uprising resulted in severe demonization of Catholics. This was particularly evident in Bonfire Night celebrations of that year which, through a combination of mocking processions, bonfires and bells, would make any Catholic fear for their lives. It is probable that a large proportion of Catholics did support the Jacobities, either actively or passively.

However, it is hard to judge how much of the disturbances and professions of loyalty to the Jacobites actually constituted a genuine commitment to the Stuarts. Jacobitism could both be an insult, an equivalent to calling your religious enemy popish, or Catholic, in the seventeenth century, and a mark of defiance against an unpopular state. Tory mobs often disrupted Whig celebrations with overly ‘flamboyant’ Jacobite slogans. As Louise Yoeman wrote Jacobitism became a magnet for almost anyone with a grudge against the government. For example, James Owen a Bristol gentlemen, supported the Pretender in the hope of being released from the burdens of customs and exercises, while hatred towards the Dutch led to an innkeeper of London to curse William as the ‘Dutch Dog and Usurper’. Reversely disruptions of Bonfire Night celebrations were often blamed in the newspapers as the results of seditious actions by ‘cowardly’ Jacobites. Still there was enough support, whether produced by loyalty to the Stuarts or personal reasons, to warrant periods of severe unrest and to even threaten victory.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

Though there were discontented grumblings under William and Mary and their successor Anne, the continuance of the Stuart bloodline held the Jacobites’ ire mainly at bay. It was, however, under the Hanoverians that popular Jacobitism reared its seditious head. Their claim to the throne was mainly due to the fact that they were Protestant, which was not enough for people to overlook their German nationality, George I’s level of English was somewhere near in the scale to abysmal. Further, the Act of Union had won the government little friends due to its increase of taxation, particularly in Scotland. Thus when the Earl of Mar decided to stand for the Stuarts, he could not only gain confidence from the extensive unrest in various cities and in the Midlands and the North but he could call on thousands of supporters, not only from the Highlands but across the British isles. We do not know just how close the Union was to collapsing but it was enough to send panic in Whitehall. Fortunately for the new King, a series of bad tactics led to Mar losing his momentum and fleeing to Catholic France.

The Jacobite cause was not yet defeated and after several unsuccessful attempts they conceived, they tried again in 1745. The expedition was under the command of Bonnie Prince Charlie, with the promise of help from Louis XV of France. Charles landed in July in the Highlands and was able to recruit resident Catholics to his army, expanding from a mere 700 to near 5,000. After a military victory at Battle of Prestonpans, twelve miles from Edinburgh, Charles marched into England. However the English Catholics were not so accommodating and Louis failed to send extra soldiers, leading to a quick retreat into Scotland. This time there was clear hostility shown to the Jacobites, even reports of injured soldiers being slaughtered by angry villagers. Charles’ expedition went quickly from bad to disastrous as the Jacobites were slaughtered at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, though Charles himself managed to successfully flee the battlefield. This attempt resulted in the ‘pacification’ of the Highlands, in which the Government banned cultural practises such as wearing tartan and playing bagpipes.

The Battle of Culloden (1746) by David Morier.

After that defeat the Jacobites’ cause began to slowly peter out, which according to historians such as Colin Haydon resulted in the more tolerant attitudes towards Catholics, and the Union grew more stable. Yet the legacy of the Jacobites remained, though what survived bore little resemblance to the truth. Writers such as Walter Scott in his novel Waverly promulgated a romantic vision of tartan clad Scots, the ‘consoling legend of Jacobitism’ as Christopher Hill aptly put it. The title of this article is taken from a Scottish fold song recounting the famous legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 escaping in a boat dressed as a maid after Culloden, and remains a popular tune to this day.

In my opinion Jacobitism is more significant as a myth than a movement. Certainly there were serious uprisings by dedicated loyalists, which may have even suceeded if it had not been for a combination of bad planning and lack of support. However I would focus on Jacobitism as a myth; be it a Whig made ‘monster’ waiting to overthrow civilisation, a rebellious icon which by supporting was an easy way for the discounted population to give the proverbial finger to the Government or a nineteenth century romantic tartan clad Scot fighting for his King. It was those ideas which defined Jacobitism, both then and now, and will probably continue to do so.

  • James II inherited the throne from his father, Charles II who had been restored as King of England in 1660 following a political crisis left in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s death. Charles II’s father, Charles I, had been executed in 1649 following the English Civil War and, from his father’s death up until his restoration, Charles II lived in exile in France and Spanish Netherlands. England was by now, a decidedly Protestant nation, and anti-Catholic feeling was rife throughout the nation. In 1670 Charles promised the French King Louis XIV he would convert to Catholicism, in return for Louis’ support in the Anglo-Dutch War.
  • Charles’ secret conversion was revealed in 1679 with the discovery of the Popish Plot- a fictitious conspiracy which suggested Catholics were plotting to overthrow the King. Both Charles and his brother James were exposed as Catholics.
  • Charles died in 1685, leaving no legitimate children, and was succeeded by his brother, who became James II- the last Catholic monarch to rule England. During his reign James sought to create toleration for Catholics and non-conformists Protestants, but was vehemently opposed by Parliament. When Queen Mary gave birth to a son, James in 1688, the situation was only exacerbated. Seven protestant nobles invited the protest William III of Orange, James’ son-in-law and nephew, to reign.
  • William invaded. Realising his lack of strength James attempted to flee, but was caught. Parliament declared that James had abdicated the throne, passing the throne onto his daughter Mary, who would rule with her husband William. It was this act that sparked the beginning of Jacobitism, and the struggle to reclaim the throne to the rightful King and his successors.

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