- 1715: The Great Jacobite Rebellion by Daniel Szechi
Yale, 351 pp, £25.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 300 11100 2
Until the past two decades most historians tended to be dismissive of Jacobitism as a subject of little more than antiquarian interest. In particular, they questioned both the scale of the threat posed by the exiled Stuart dynasty to the new regime established at the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the extent of support for the cause (so called because ‘Jacobus’ was the Latin for James, and James II was the monarch overthrown at the revolution). If the Jacobite challenge had been serious and substantial, why had its impact on the course of British history been so limited? By the lights of the Whig interpretation of history, the new constitutional foundations laid at the Glorious Revolution had settled during the early 18th century, providing a secure platform for the Industrial Revolution. The smooth accession of the Hanoverians in 1714 appeared to reflect an era of ordered prosperity referred to in the song ‘The Vicar of Bray’ as ‘pudding time’.
The conventional wisdom of the Whigs was repackaged for a modern audience by J.H. Plumb during the 1960s. Plumb redirected attention towards the patronage systems that had secured political stability in the first third of the 18th century. For him, Jacobitism’s primary significance lay in giving Whig politicians a convenient smear: it enabled them to denounce their political rivals, the Tories, as unreliable crypto-Jacobites who could not be trusted with office under the Hanoverians. In so far as Jacobitism had any real existence beyond the projections of Whig propaganda, it was the creed of yesterday’s men: ‘the broken-down gentry of the North’, ‘the depressed peasantry of the South-West’, ‘the cantankerous clergy of Oxford and Cambridge’. It was no surprise to Plumb that the main strength of the Jacobite movement derived from ‘the tribal ferocity’ of the Scottish Highlands – confirmation that Jacobitism was not a historical topic of the first rank, but an anthropological curiosity remote from the real world of 18th-century capitalism.
Jacobitism remained a quaint irrelevance until the 1980s, when it began to assume a place at the centre of historical debate. The revival of interest had three very different sources. First, Jacobitism had an allure for a certain kind of reactionary. In particular, Peterhouse, Cambridge, became associated with a style of politics that was not so much to the right of Thatcherism as centuries behind it. This was exemplified most vividly by an embrace of high and authoritarian churchmanship – for some members of the Peterhouse right under the inspiration of genuine religious belief, for others out of a recognition of the utility of established religion as an instrument of social control. Erudite and eccentric, J.C.D. Clark’s English Society 1688-1832 (1985) celebrated 18th-century England as a confessional state, in which Jacobitism posed the major threat to the social and political order. Turning standard interpretations of the century inside out, Clark’s version of history treated commerce, urbanisation and the Industrial Revolution as off-stage irrelevances, phenomena that made scarcely any impact on the stately continuation of a traditional society which happily deferred to the values of monarchy, aristocracy and an established church. Nevertheless, 18th-century England fell some way short of a palaeo-conservative paradise, the overthrow of divine right monarchy in 1688 being as much a cause of regret as the Reform Act of 1832.