- 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.
Second, as the Northern Irish Troubles and Scottish devolution became talking points in British politics, Jacobitism attracted new interest as a forerunner of Celtic nationalism. It proved irresistible to nationalist historians from Scotland and Ireland who were keenly aware that opposition to the English ascendancy in ‘these islands’ during the late 17th and 18th centuries had been hitched to the cause of the Stuarts. A growing awareness among English historians of the need for a ‘new British history’ which might explain the ambiguous relationships of Greater England with its subject peoples in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, further stimulated a reappraisal of Jacobitism.
Third, developments in social history – in particular, an appreciation of the alien features of past mental worlds – reinforced the plausibility of Jacobitism as an ideological commitment. Extrapolating from Keith Thomas’s investigation of popular belief, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), historians began to probe beneath the advertised rationality of the Age of Reason. If the people believed in witches and fairies, then why not also in the Stuarts as divine right monarchs? Paul Monod’s Jacobitism and the English People 1688-1788 (1989) established the importance of Jacobite allegiance within English political culture. It was no longer convincing to depict Jacobitism as an anachronism which, while capable of enchanting the ‘backward’ peoples of the Celtic fringe, had lacked any ideological purchase in an enlightened, commercial England.
Daniel Szechi belongs neither to the Peterhouse right nor to the ranks of Scottish nationalists, though he does dedicate his study of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion to the memory of his Scottish grandmother. His most obvious debts are to a pan-British historiography that transcends the border between Scotland and England, and to the recognition that there was nothing outlandish or irrational about the Jacobite movement. It was, Szechi insists, ‘a natural, unsurprising outgrowth of the institutions and mores of the era’. Nor does he have much time for the disciplinary separation between British and European history: it is impossible, he suggests, to write the history of Jacobitism without examining both its domestic support and the exploitation of the Stuart cause by European rulers – urged on by a diaspora of exiled Jacobite rebels – as a tool of statecraft. Szechi has demonstrated that in the century following the military revolution, diversionary tactics – such as encouraging a Jacobite uprising in Britain’s backyard – became an effective way of overcoming stalemate between well-drilled armies. Over the course of the half a century or so between the Glorious Revolution and the eventual demise of Jacobitism as a practical option, France, Spain, Sweden, Prussia and Russia variously supported Jacobite plots, whether out of direct rivalry with Britain or to put pressure on its ruling House of Hanover, which was implicated in the geopolitics of the Baltic region.
The Jacobite revolt of 1715, however – unlike the civil wars of 1689-91, and the risings of 1708, 1719 and 1745-46 – was uniquely not a theatre of European power politics. Under the terms of the Peace of Utrecht (1713) the French had been forced to withdraw their support for the Jacobites. The Stuart court in exile had removed itself from Saint Germain to Bar-Le-Duc in the autonomous Duchy of Lorraine. Besides, Louis XIV, Jacobitism’s sugar daddy, died in August 1715, leaving France under the control of the Duke of Orléans, the regent for Louis XIV’s great-grandson, Louis XV. Orléans favoured good relations with Britain and the maintenance of the terms of the Peace of Utrecht; not that this entirely precluded some discreet French help in 1715. To rise in support of the Stuarts was risky enough when backed up by a foreign army and navy; but to do so in the absence of overseas support seems reckless. Yet Szechi shows that the rising of 1715 drew in more supporters than the better known escapade of 1745. He reckons that the maximum strength of the Jacobite armies in 1715 was about fourteen thousand Scots and a thousand English, and that, allowing for turnover and attrition, not least during harvest time in September, the Jacobites probably raised about twenty thousand men. Why did they do it?
The political anxieties associated with the maintenance of public order in a multicultural society were as keenly felt in 1715 as they are now. Then, as today, religion was at the root of fundamental political differences. Although dominated by its overwhelming Anglican majority, England was divided between the Whigs, whose identity was stridently Protestant and anti-Catholic, but sympathetic to the interests of Protestant Dissent; and the Tories, who were more precisely the party of the Church of England, sharply opposed to the pretensions of Dissenters, but soft on Jacobitism. There were, besides, the Nonjurors, breakaway Anglicans who believed that the political theology of the Church of England committed it to upholding the indefeasible hereditary right of James II and his successors, and who regarded the revolution of 1688 as a sinful breach of faith with the Lord’s anointed. Such was the logic of the divine right of kings. Within the Church of England, there was plenty of Tory sympathy for the position of the Nonjurors and a concern that the Toleration Act of 1689 granted to Protestant Dissent had undermined the basic structures of Anglican society. There was also a substantial Roman Catholic presence in Lancashire. In Scotland, the country was polarised between a ruling Presbyterian Kirk, emphatically Whig, and an embattled Episcopalian ‘Dissent’, strong in the Highlands and north-eastern Lowlands and stubbornly loyal, for the most part, to the deposed Stuarts. In addition, a militant Presbyterian minority felt bound to the Covenants of 1638 and 1643, and wished to impose a Presbyterian theocracy on Scotland, before exporting it to England. In Ireland, an Anglican establishment held sway in a country where around 75 per cent of the population was Roman Catholic, not forgetting another troublesome Presbyterian minority.
The death of Queen Anne in August 1714 widened the fractures in British society. Anne had, at least, been a staunch Anglican and, as the daughter of James II, was of impeccable Stuart lineage, albeit not the heir by right. Her Hanoverian successor, George I, leapfrogged 58 people closer in kinship to Anne, and his Lutheran background aroused suspicion in many quarters. The Church of England, it appeared, was in greater danger than ever. As a result, there were anti-Whig riots in about forty English and Welsh towns in 1714-15, with a heavy concentration in southern Lancashire, Staffordshire and the west Midlands. News of these disorders spread to Scotland, which having been pressured, cajoled and bribed into a parliamentary union with England in 1707, remained brittle and uneasy. Szechi sets out a wealth of contemporary evidence that demonstrates the creation in Scotland of a ‘climate of expectation’: many believed a Jacobite revolution in England was imminent.
When it came, though, the rebellion consisted of a series of local risings which were only loosely concerted after the fact. The grand plan concocted by the Earl of Mar was that Jacobites should rise across the country on 15 September 1715. Instead, there was a ‘rolling process’ of rebellion, with the laggardly Jacobites of Caithness mobilising only in January 1716, long after the hopes of the rebels elsewhere had begun to curdle. Szechi identifies one main theatre of rebellion in central Scotland, and three secondary areas: in the north; the western Highlands; and the southern Lowlands and the North of England, which, Szechi notes, was ‘the only part of the great Anglo-Welsh Jacobite rebellion originally envisaged that actually materialised’. In southern England, the Jacobite leadership was placed under arrest, and the government sent garrisons to intimidate the Tory-Jacobite populations of Oxford, Bristol and Bath.
The rebellion took the form of a civil and polite ‘conversation in violence’, though one with the serious intent of bringing over the mass of the population to the Jacobite side by means of ‘a combination of example, persuasion and intimidation’. The early stages of the rebellion – or rather ensemble of rebellions – took the form of ‘petite guerre’, a phoney war of localised raids and skirmishes, rather than major confrontations. The outcome was decided in two near simultaneous battles in mid-November 1715, at Sherrifmuir near Stirling and at Preston. If the former was inconclusive, though marked by massive Jacobite desertion, the latter resulted in Jacobite surrender and the virtual collapse of the undertaking. Although the rebellion staggered on in Scotland for a few more months, it was effectively over by the time the Jacobite claimant, the Old Pretender, landed at Peterhead in late December 1715.
The rebellion’s aftermath, Szechi finds, yields a richer history than the deeds of 1715. Wisely perhaps, but at some distance from bureaucratic standards of fairness and due process, the British state exercised the full range of discretionary powers available to pre-modern governments: bloody retribution, stern punishments inefficiently implemented and ultra-liberal laxity. Around six hundred rebels were sentenced to be transported to the New World – some bribing their way off at Cork – but only forty faced execution. The Hanoverian regime opted for ‘exemplary punishment, but only on a small percentage of those involved’. But, although most of the lesser fry got off, many Jacobite gentlemen fled beyond the capricious reach of the law, joining the Continental Jacobite diaspora. Szechi does not downplay the boredom of exile. Surprisingly, given the historic connections between Scotland and France, many Scots Jacobite gentry did not possess even a smattering of French, and vegetated in the tedium of cheap provincial towns. Even life for high status refugees at the Jacobite court in exile lost its savour, ‘one day being as like the other as two eggs and these eaten without either pepper or salt’. As if such torpor were not bad enough, Episcopalian Jacobites also found themselves under pressure to convert to Roman Catholicism.
The pressing matter back home was the reknitting of Scotland’s social fabric. Szechi shows the way the Scottish elite remade civil society, using the country’s semi-autonomous institutions and a good measure of legal chicanery to frustrate the government’s punitive policy of forfeiting estates. Moderate Whigs helped out Jacobite neighbours in distress, some grandees interceding with the government to allow exiles to return home. The resultant web of obligations reinforced the bonds of ‘class unity’ and, ultimately, reintegrated Jacobite families peaceably back into the framework of Hanoverian society. Not only does Szechi significantly qualify prevailing assumptions about the character of ‘Whig oligarchy’, he also provides a compelling reinterpretation of the long-term decline of Jacobitism. As grateful clients of their Whig neighbours, former Jacobite rebels and their families were less likely to nurture anti-Whig grievances, and also became conscious that a code of honour and gratitude – which in some cases trumped their commitment to the Stuarts – meant they could never disturb the peace again. Several clans which had been active on the Jacobite side during the rebellion of 1715 turned out to be divided or neutral when the Young Pretender launched the final rising in 1745.
On the other hand, there was an element of calculation in Whiggish generosity. Kindness to one’s neighbours in their time of trouble was ‘credit in the social bank if the Jacobites one day triumphed’. However much the apparent tranquillity of Augustan society might deceive later generations of historians, contemporaries knew the topsy-turvy nature of politics in early modern Britain. A gentleman in his seventies looking back on his life from the perspective of 1716 would have lived through the revolutionary upheavals and civil wars of the 1640s, the dictatorship of Cromwell and his military junta, the Restoration, the reign of James II, the Glorious Revolution and a succession of Jacobite plots to unseat the usurpers who had displaced the rightful Jacobite line. Ideological rectitude was all very well for staunch Whigs and Jacobites; but prudent landowners saw the wisdom in putting political insurance before abstract principle. Szechi skilfully marries the rival interpretations of 18th-century history – the hitherto incompatible models of conflict and good order – to demonstrate the ways in which a weakened Jacobitism itself contributed to the making of Augustan stability.