Prince Charlie – Scottish icon and a tragic hero
The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his midnight flit from the shores of his beloved Scotland is almost a thing of myth, and certainly legend, nowadays – after centuries of romantic embellishment by his friends and enemies alike! Today we’ll look at the historic events leading to the famous exile of the Bonnie Prince, and the effects of his actions which have reverberated through time to still be remembered among all Scots today.
The Young Pretender captured the imaginations of the Scottish people when he attempted to lead them in rebellion against the English, to gain what he saw as his own rightful place upon the British throne. Despite being born and raised in Rome, spending only one full year in Scotland during which he led thousands of men to their deaths, and then escaping once again to Europe, where he lived out the rest of his life in exile, Bonnie Prince Charlie has gone in history as a Scottish icon – so much so that even the ubiquitous formal kilt jacket is named for him, the Prince Charlie!
Born in 1720, the son of James Francis Edward Stuart and grandson of James II of England, Charles Edward Stuart was a very charismatic and handsome young man, who fervently believed (as did his father and grandfather before him) that his rightful place was as the ruler of Britain. In 1744, under the guidance of his father – who had obtained the support of the French government for a planned invasion of Britain – Charles Edward went to France to assume command of their forces. However, poor weather conditions, and the mustering of a powerful British fleet to oppose the invaders, led to cancellation of the plan by the French.
The Jacobite cause was still supported by many Highland clans, and Charles hoped for a warm welcome from these clans to start a rebellion by Jacobites throughout Britain, but there was no immediate response. Undaunted, Charles raised his father’s standard at Glenfinnan and attracted pledges of support from many of the Jacobite Highland clans, though others stayed loyal to the Hanoverian crown. With his new found allies, Charles marched on the city of Edinburgh, which quickly surrendered to his forces. On 21 September 1745 he fought and won the Battle of Prestonpans, defeating the only “official” army in Scotland, and by November was
marching south for London as the leader of around 6,000 men. Having secured the border town of Carlisle, Charles’ army progressed as far as Derby, in the Midlands of England. Here, despite the Prince’s strong objections, the decision was taken by his council to return the army to Scotland, in part due to the lack of the support from English Jacobites that Charles had expected, but also due to growing rumours of a massive English force being sent to smash the rebellion. By now Charles Edward was being pursued by King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, who finally caught him at the Battle of Culloden, the last hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil, on 16 April 1746.At Culloden the Jacobite forces were almost entirely massacred. Charles had no military
experience, and ignored the advice of his commander, choosing to fight on open marshy land. With the Jacobite soldiers charging directly into the muskets and cannon of Cumberland’s army, and Cumberland pursuing and hunting down the fleeing survivors, the result was a catastrophe for the Highlanders which ultimately led to the banning of the wearing of kilts and eventually the highland clearances and scattering of the clans. This massive defeat has sent echoes down through the ages; “The ‘45” is still referred to in Scotland to this very day, and the battlefield has been preserved with memorial stones for all the clans who lost men during the battle.
Charles disbanded his surviving troops and went into hiding. Hunted as a fugitive for more than five months this time was fraught with danger for him, but the Highlanders never betrayed him, and he escaped to France in September 1746. This flight to safety has been immortalised in songs and stories, such as ‘The Skye Boat Song’, and is the most famous part of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s legacy to many Scots today. With the Hanoverian loyalists keeping a keen eye out for the rebel prince, he was forced to allow himself to be smuggled out of Scotland on a humble fishing boat, disguised as the Irish maid of Flora MacDonald. The plot was discovered too late and Charles Edward escaped safely, Flora however was punished with imprisonment in the Tower of London for her part in helping him, but bore up stoically, and always stated that she acted from a sense of Christian charity and would have helped him in his defeat regardless of her own political leanings.
Two years later Charles Edward was expelled from France as part of an agreement with the English to drive all Stuarts from the country as a show of f faith in the recent French-English peace brokering, and that this point his effects on Scottish history recede once more. For a number of years Charles Edward drifted around Europe, still hoping to win support for his cause, even visiting London secretly in 1750 and 1754. After the death of his father in 1766, The Young Pretender finally returned to Italy, where he spent his final years, dying in Rome on 31 January 1788. But for a year, as a young man, he captured the heart of a rebel nation and became a tragic hero; his struggles and failures romanticised and carried down through the generations, leaving a legacy no Scot can forget!