Taking Sides

John Mullan

  • The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Untold Story of the Jacobite Rising by Christopher Duffy
    Cassell, 639 pp, £20.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 304 35525 9
  • Samuel Johnson in Historical Context edited by J.C.D. Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill
    Palgrave, 336 pp, £55.00, December 2001, ISBN 0 333 80447 3

The Battle of Edmonton, which began early in the morning of 12 December 1745, appeared to the combatants to have decided the nation’s future. The military details will be familiar to many from school history lessons. Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, having overcome the doubts of some of his own commanders, marched south from Derby to confront the hastily mustered Hanoverian army under the direct command of George II. As in previous engagements, the numerical superiority of the Government forces was more than matched by the mobility of the Scottish irregulars and the imaginativeness of their leaders. When the Jacobites swung east from Barnet to approach London through Tottenham, the Hanoverians encamped at Finchley were forced into a hurried countermeasure, meeting their enemy in a disorganised state and without most of their artillery, which was still being dragged through Colney Hatch. Though many of the Hanoverian troops fought hard, they included a large number of raw recruits, unable to display the necessary discipline of moving in formation in response to changing orders. Their greater firepower was never properly exploited, and the rapid charges of the broadsword-wielding Highlanders broke their southern flank. Soon they were fleeing, many to be cut down as they tried to cross the Lea River marshes. This was a rare case in the period of a clear and complete victory.

So the Jacobite army entered London in triumph. The King escaped westwards, but with only a small kernel of his forces, and the Royal Family, which had been waiting at Portsmouth for news of the battle, sailed into an exile that seemed likely to be permanent. True, the Duke of Cumberland’s army, brilliantly circumvented by the rebels in a diversionary movement on the march south, remained intact, waiting outside Northampton for events to unfold. Yet, as we know from diaries and letters of the period, many of London’s propertied classes seem to have believed, however grudgingly, that power was passing back to the Stuart dynasty. The artificial legitimacy of the post-1688 monarchy had melted and even London’s Whig merchants and financiers accepted that the coronation of Charles III was imminent. Regime change was apparently confirmed by the long-delayed arrival ” of French forces, landing near Dungeness two weeks later, after a squadron of ships from Brest had scattered Vernon’s weak British force. At least Charles’s magnanimity towards leading Whigs, and his promises of religious toleration, indicated that he wanted a peaceful transition. Few seem to have foreseen that the Battle of Edmonton would not be decisive – just the start of what was to be a bloody civil war . . .

Well, it could have been like this. If Charles Edward’s council, meeting at Exeter House in Derby on 5 December 1745, had decided to press on southwards, who knows? In The March to Finchley Hogarth has preserved an image of mingled crisis and farce as the redcoats hurriedly gathered to defend the capital. How would this ill-prepared force have fared against the highly motivated Jacobites? Instead of finding out, and against the inclinations of their would-be monarch, the Jacobite leaders decided to march their army back to Scotland. Ever since, ‘counterfactuals’ have been irresistible to even the most sober historians. Perhaps here history was decided. The irreversible changes brought about by the Glorious Revolution might have been reversed after all. A Protestant nation with a monarch who exercised his power through grandees and politicians might have become a country with a Roman Catholic king whose right to rule was divinely ordained. The so-called Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 has fascinated historians precisely because it dramatises the sheer chanciness of history and undermines the retrospective sense of inevitability that invariably comes with our confident discovery in the past of patterns and developments.

Christopher Duffy even provides a map of the likely troop movements to the north of London, making graphically real the imaginary confrontation with which I began. He counts out all the groups of soldiers that would have been involved and tries to estimate the morale of the opposing forces. What would the tactics have been? How would individual units have fought? Government forces would probably have outnumbered Charles’s army, but Duffy implies that the result would have been close-run. Advance from Derby would have offered ‘a realistic, if incalculable chance of success, as against the near certainty of the destruction of the armed Jacobite cause’. His treatment here is characteristic, for it is the micro-detail of military manoeuvring that intrigues him. It is only in this sense that his book offers the ‘untold story’ announced in its subtitle. In many of its facets, the story is very well known and has often been told. Indeed, precisely because of what it might reveal about the nature of history, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 has been copiously described in academic as well as populist accounts. What is singular about Duffy’s version is its devotion to what he calls ‘military topography’.

So he starts not, as might be expected, with a sketch of political and religious history, of Jacobitism and the previous abortive attempts to restore the descendants of James II to the throne. Instead we go straight into a military encounter, the Battle of Prestonpans, on 21 September 1745. ‘Two armies were moving to contact in the country to the east of Edinburgh’ is the book’s first sentence: the armies are the Jacobite Highlanders and the Hanoverian forces under Lieutenant General Sir John Cope. Duffy is giving a fair signal of the minute military history to come and a display of what he does best: the careful explanation of tactics (and tactical errors); the arrangement of eyewitness accounts; the painstaking analysis of the effects of weather and terrain. He is also hot on lists of regiments and quantifications of munitions. The landscapes through which armies move are geologically described. At Prestonpans, the crucial manoeuvre was a Jacobite flanking movement across supposedly impassable marshes, via a track revealed by a local sympathiser. Duffy tells us this, but also patiently explains the disposition of the subterranean belt of impermeable quartz-dolerite that kept the marshes from draining.

His opening does have a certain dramatic logic, for it was only after Prestonpans that the Government came alive to the threat from the North. Five thousand British troops requested by the Duke of Newcastle, brother of the Prime Minister, Henry Pelham, had arrived in the Thames from Flanders the day before news of the defeat reached London. Newcastle wrote to the Duke of Cumberland that ‘had not that reinforcement providentially arrived the day before the news came of Sir John Cope’s defeat, the confusion in the City would not have been to be described, and the King’s crown (I venture to say) in the utmost danger.’ The regime’s precariousness suddenly become evident. ‘It is indeed a dreadful and amazing consideration,’ one aristocratic Whig noted, ‘to reflect . . . that a fabric of so much art and cost as the Revolution and its train of consequences, should be in danger of being overwhelmed by the bursting of a cloud, which seemed, at its first gathering, no bigger than a man’s hand.’

What does the progress of the rebellion tell us about the state of men’s and women’s loyalties in 1745? How widespread were Jacobite sympathies? Louis XV’s Master of Horse, James Butler, toured England in 1743, ostensibly to purchase bloodstock but in fact to gauge this. He reported back, according to Duffy, that ‘he had found a high level of latent support.’ So perhaps an even more important question is: how strong were those sympathies where they existed? Such inquiries do not much detain Duffy who, after a cursory sketch of 18th-century political history, is back where he is happiest, on the high road with Bonnie Prince Charlie. After first landing on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on 23 July 1745, he arrived two days later on the mainland in Arisaig. Joined by MacDonalds and Camerons, he raised his standard on 19 August at the head of Loch Shiel. The monument at Glenfinnan, erected a century later, marks the romantic spot and has ensured that the ‘45 remains in the minds of tourists. News of the landing had only just reached London. A bounty of £30,000 was put on the Pretender’s head and Sir John Cope set off into the Highlands with about 1400 men to fight the rebels.

Duffy minutely tracks the marches and counter-marches, following Charles and his men past Fort Augustus and down into the Lowlands. Often you will need Ordnance Survey maps to make any sense of the poetic sounding routes (‘They forded the Lochy at Moy, and crossed the Spean gorge at Highbridge . . . where the Prince learned that the redcoats were approaching the far side of the Monadhliath Mountains’). Sometimes it’s like watching television coverage of the Tour de France, where you find yourself enjoying the landscapes and forgetting the pain and risk of the endeavour.

Duffy’s narrative strangely combines certain topography and geology with uncertain politics and geopolitics. We hear nothing about the War of the Austrian Succession raging in continental Europe, sucking in British men and money. Yet its costs, and the commitment to this war of Britain’s Hanoverian monarch, were prime reasons for widespread discontent with the regime. Equally, the fumbling ministerial responses to the rising hardly make sense without an understanding of the conflicts taking place elsewhere. Was it really necessary to bring troops back from the Low Countries? How many? Nor will the actions or inaction of the French be explicable without the reader realising that their support for a Jacobite rebellion was only one aspect of their prosecution of a complicated European war. The French were happy to send Charles Edward off to divert the British from their continental war efforts, without necessarily committing themselves to supply full military backing. This long book has no space for such considerations.

The business of moving an army across the country is what excites Duffy’s attention. He is ever confident on such matters as how the Jacobites’ march was detained by ‘the great basalt tableland of the Gargunnock Hills’, whose ‘impassable near slopes had been worn into spectacular horizontal striations by the ice as it pushed down the Stirling Gap’. As he follows the march south, he describes the courses of rivers to be crossed and hills ascended with the enthusiasm of a geography teacher. What he cannot say is whether the crowds lining the streets of Perth when the Pretender led his troops into the town on 4 September 1745 were ‘joyful or merely curious’. Indeed it slowly becomes apparent that nothing much is being said about the support or hostility of the populace. Yet, unlike his neglect of the War of the Austrian Succession, this is not really Duffy’s fault. What did ordinary grumblers against the King or his Ministry think of their putative saviour? Even witnesses and participants seem to have been unclear about the public mood.

Edinburgh had fallen unopposed to the Jacobites, though the castle remained in Hanoverian hands. Meeting at Holyrood Palace, Charles Edward’s council decided to invade England. Though emboldened by Prestonpans and the first real signs of French support (four French privateers had just arrived with money and arms), the decision was reached by a majority of only a single vote. Militarily audacious as they might have been, Charles’s own commanders were hardly confident about the undertaking. Even after Carlisle surrendered on 15 November, some of the leading members of the council continued openly to doubt the wisdom of the invasion. Again, their doubts seem to have been about men’s allegiances as much as about military possibilities. The extent of Jacobite sympathies remained the great unknown. Charles’s assurances that he had letters of support from sympathisers in England are themselves evidence of anxiety. When the rebels arrived in Manchester, a centre of Jacobitism, on 28 November there were public celebrations among avowed Jacobites and a small Manchester regiment was raised. Yet there was continual evidence of reticence among even supposed supporters. As you follow closely the different detachments marching south, through every listed town and village, you begin (rather like some of the less venturesome Jacobite leaders) to notice that there is an absence of any details about displays of support.

The military story is the only clear one. Wade’s army, now of more than six thousand men, was marching down the eastern side of the Pennines, but Wade himself had begun to realise that he would not be able to catch up with the Jacobites. Forces under the Duke of Cumberland gathered near Lichfield, but Cumberland was tricked by a feint into believing that the Jacobites were marching towards Wales, and prepared for battle outside Stone in Staffordshire. The main Jacobite force slipped quickly past him to the east on its way towards Derby, where its advanced guard arrived on 4 December. French forces under the Duc de Richelieu were, meanwhile, being prepared to set out, mostly from Boulogne, for an invasion of the Kent coast. In London there had been an invasion scare, and there were widespread rumours that a French landing had actually taken place. Local militia were in a state of panic. London seemed at the mercy of the rebels and Londoners hearing the news appear to have been in shock. ‘Coffee houses in Town are now like Quakers’ meeting houses,’ one of them recorded.

Yet at Derby, two meetings of the Prince’s council decided on retreat. Strangely, Duffy passes over the well-documented debate in two brief paragraphs. If we want to know more, he says, we should look to existing biographies of the Prince and other books about the rebellion. It is the most peculiar consequence of the author’s determination to sever the military from the political – a separation that the unfolding, and especially the failure, of the rebellion belies. He does remind us that, in between the two council meetings, the Hanoverian agent Dudley Bradstreet arrived to announce that Cumberland was about to cut off any retreat, that the Jacobites’ right flank would be harried by forces under the Duke of Richmond, and that they would be frontally opposed by a third army at Northampton. In fact, with Cumberland circumvented there could be no more significant opposition until the Jacobites neared London. At least Bradstreet’s misinformation supplies Duffy with a military explanation for their failure to press on.

So, why did they turn back? I dimly recall that my Ladybird Bonnie Prince Charlie, while vaunting the leader’s personal qualities, offered a graphic explanation of this strategic decision to its youthful readers. A plate illustrating the rapid march through northern England depicted maddened, roaring Highlanders, eyes ablaze and red hair flowing, rampaging through the streets of some village. Claymores glitter in the dying light. Even Englishmen who had some sneaking sympathy for the Stuart cause, you were to understand, must have flinched from its wild embodiment. Yet Duffy, like previous historians, dismisses this image. Though scare stories abounded, especially in London, the Jacobites did not behave badly as they moved south. If there was no groundswell of support, it was for deeper reasons.

Estimating the extent of closet Jacobitism in England at different times in the 18th century is a tricky business and has become something of an academic cottage industry. In some ways it is vital. Duffy himself keeps telling us ‘how difficult it is to pin down allegiance in the England of the 1740s’. How secure was the Whig oligarchy that came to power at the death of Queen Anne in 1714? Had most people accepted the limited monarchy that was the creation of the 1688 Revolution? Are those who have seen 18th-century Britain as a self-consciously ‘modern’ nation merely projecting their own values back in time? Did the educated classes, outside the Court and the Government, yearn for old allegiances? Did the masses resent the German opportunists foisted on them as their kings? Yet there is a problem with the literature on Jacobitism. As Duffy himself observes, those who study the topic tend to be ‘sunk deeply in entrenched positions’. Historians have taken sides over Jacobitism in ways that can baffle outsiders.

When you sit down to write on the matter you become aware that the very naming of protagonists declares allegiance. Call the grandson of James II the ‘Young Pretender’ and you align yourself with Whig historians, happy to see the victory of the Hanoverian regime as a necessary triumph of progress and pragmatism. Call him ‘Prince Charles’ and you signal your recognition of his moral right, and of old loyalties that persisted in many – perhaps in the best of – hearts. (Oddly enough, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, a nickname coined by sympathisers, has become a quaint label, much easier to use with neutrality: witness Duffy’s subtitle.) Some studies of the period declare their purposes by featuring a personage – absent, I would guess, from all school wallcharts of the Kings and Queens of England – called James III (and sometimes a monarch called Charles III). Dub the son of James II the ‘Old Pretender’, and you are showing rather different ideological colours.

Just as Jacobite hunting was the preoccupation of the main combatants during and after the ‘45, so it has become the passion of some academic researchers. This is not a matter of disinterested estimation. Discovering or denying Jacobite sympathies, especially in notable cultural figures, is for some a way of affirming your ideological vision of the 18th century. Certain literary figures have attracted special scrutiny, in recent years none more so than Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson in Historical Context is a collection of essays pursuing a sometimes acrimonious debate which has taken place in academic books and journals over the last decade. To innocent student browsers of the library shelf, the title will be entirely misleading. It should really be ‘Samuel Johnson and Jacobitism’, although even this would not catch its sense of mission, which would translate into something like ‘Samuel Johnson the Jacobite’. It is, in essence, a polemical book, with contributors who are generally committed to the (much disputed) notion that Johnson was in sentiment a Jacobite and a nonjuror – someone who avoided swearing oaths of allegiance to the Hanoverian dynasty or of abjuration of the Stuarts. (There are also a couple of pieces that discuss Jacobite sympathies of the period without much involving Johnson.)

The longest piece by far is Jonathan Clark’s essay on ‘Samuel Johnson as a Nonjuror’, which pursues further some of the evidence for Johnson’s true allegiances used in his 1994 book on the Great Cham. The key claim here is that Johnson left Oxford University early not, as has traditionally been thought, because of poverty, but because he was in conscience unable to take the oaths necessary in order to graduate. The trouble is that historically intriguing material is lost to any disinterested or innocent reader because of the overwhelming desire to make a case. As Howard Erskine-Hill says in his introduction, ‘unfamiliarity with the subject of oaths’ is an impediment to any understanding of men’s loyalties in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. The taking of oaths was certainly deeply significant for many. Johnson, in fact, seems to have had a heightened sense of their almost magical power: ‘A vow is a horrible thing . . . a snare for sin.’ To consider the business of oath-taking in 18th-century Britain is indeed to get close to the nature of loyalty to a monarch or nation and to the feelings in men’s hearts.

Yet the rhetoric on offer makes the issues hard to mull over. Clark, in particular, talks of Jacobites as invariably men of principle and integrity and Whigs either as irredeemably self-interested, or, at best, as amoral pragmatists. The taking of sides is apparently as unavoidable now as it was then. For him, Whigs are not just some grouping in the distant past; ‘Whig historians’ are also his foes in the present. ‘Jacobite history’, as he calls it in the book’s conclusion, is not just the history of Jacobitism, it is also history written from his point of view. The single-mindedness with which the argument is pursued is likely to restrict its impact. Erskine-Hill hopes that out of the dispute about Johnson will grow ‘an enhanced appreciation of religion as central to the politics and literature of the time’. Yet this reasonable hope is unlikely to be fulfilled where the historical literature is so dauntingly partisan.

Perhaps Johnson was a nonjuror, or perhaps he was such only in his youth (the academic combatants can make much of how his views might have changed over half a century). However, even if he maintained Jacobite sympathies, what did this mean? Long after the failure of the ‘45, as recorded by Boswell, these sympathies became a matter for humour. In 1773 Johnson and Boswell, travelling in Skye, met Flora Macdonald, who had helped Charles Edward escape Hanoverian clutches all those years earlier. Johnson even slept in the same bed that the Pretender or Prince (take your pick) had occupied, and his comment on the fact was, fittingly, a joke (‘I have had no ambitious thoughts in it’). He did say that ‘if holding up his right hand would have secured victory at Culloden to Prince Charles’s army, he was not sure he would have held it up,’ and perhaps this is not a casual thought. For the ‘45 might have revealed to sympathisers that their sympathies were, after all, sentimental. There are sometimes ideals that are held most happily when not to be realised. As Linda Colley has bluntly pointed out, while little effective defence was mounted against the Jacobite cause in arms, ‘the vast majority of men and women remained stolidly at home.’

Duffy carefully describes, over some two hundred pages and with a horrible sense of inevitability, the retreat northwards. Once the Jacobites turned back, the opposition was emboldened. Charles Edward’s army was harassed by local militia and Cumberland’s forces caught up at Clifton, near Penrith, where a skirmish was fought (the last armed action on English soil). To the progress of this, Duffy gives minute attention, the details of terrain and deployment seizing him as politics never can. The Jacobite army escaped, leaving a garrison at Carlisle. Thanks to the arrival of heavy artillery, Cumberland soon captured the city. The Jacobite forces were still militarily capable: on 17 January 1746 a Hanoverian force under Lieutenant General Hawley, who had taken over from Wade, fought them outside Falkirk and was defeated. Instead of pursuing the fleeing enemy, Charles turned to the siege of Stirling. This made no progress and when Cumberland’s forces approached, Charles’s commanders told him that his army was not strong enough to risk another battle. They would retreat into the Highlands to recruit more men for a spring campaign.

The Jacobites captured Inverness and later Fort Augustus, though their siege of Fort William was futile. Duffy gives details of other small-scale operations in which they were often successful. However, £15,000 worth of gold and guineas sent from France was captured after a naval action, and Charles found himself unable to pay his troops. Some melted away. Painstakingly we follow Cumberland’s march from Aberdeen towards Inverness, Duffy’s insistence on marking each change of terrain and each forded river at least conveying the slow inexorability of the approach. Defeat at Culloden was made the more likely by an aborted night attack on the Hanoverian forces, abandoned when the troops became separated or lost in the darkness. The consequence was that the next day many of the Jacobite soldiers were exhausted. Annihilation was ensured. As before and since, all those arguments and tugs of loyalty and uncertainties about men’s heartfelt values were both decided and for ever obscured according to the laws of military action.