The Jacobite Risings

Jeremy Black analyses the military and political significance of the Jacobite Risings that punctuated British history between 1689 and 1746.


Jacobitism was an important aspect of Britain during a formative part of its development. The risings had their origin in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when James II of England, who was also James VII of Scotland, was overthrown in an invasion mounted by his nephew and son-in-law, William III of Orange.

Followed the defeat of the Jacobites in Scotland and Ireland in 1689-1691, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, if they were to reverse the coup, would have to mount an invasion. During wars between Britain and France, they prepared to do so with the benefit of French support, notably in 1692 and 1708.

But peace between the two powers in 1713 created a new situation. Moreover, the accession, in 1714, of the House of Hanover in the person of George I brought to power a monarch and a Whig ministry who were determined to deny the Tories patronage and opportunities.

The clash of Highland column and Hanoverian line on the battlefield of Culloden in 1746. Jeremy Black argues there was nothing anachronistic about the Jacobite way of war, and that in fact they could have won.

During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), it had been possible for Jacobites to hope and scheme for a peaceful Stuart succession, but George’s accession made it clear that such a possibility no longer existed, and that violent action should be immediate, for there was nothing to be gained from delay. Many commentators, including some hostile ones, agreed that sympathy for the Stuarts was widespread.

Three risings were planned in 1715. James was to follow William III’s model by landing in the West Country, where there was to be a major rebellion preceding a march on London. There were also to be risings in the Highlands and the Border counties.

The Fifteen

The risings in the West Country were nipped in the bud in September 1715 as a result of Jacobite indecision and prompt government action on the basis of intelligence. However, on 6 September, the Earl of Mar, who appreciated that he would not receive from George I the favour he had obtained under Anne, raised the Stuart standard at Braemar.

Perth was seized, and the royal forces, under John, 2nd Duke of Argyll, were heavily outnumbered initially. Nevertheless, indecision on Mar’s part allowed valuable campaigning time to be lost. Mar did not march on Edinburgh until November, but on 13 November he had to fight Argyll at Sheriffmuir, north of Stirling.

This indecisive battle was in practice a victory for Argyll, as Mar needed a triumph in order both to hold his army together and to help the Jacobites in the Borders. However, on the same day as Sheriffmuir, the rising in the Borders was coming to an end, as the officers of the outnumbered Jacobite army surrounded in Preston were negotiating its surrender.

‘James III and VIII’ arrived in Scotland from France in December 1716, but Argyll now had a far larger army. As it advanced, James retreated, fled back to France, and the Jacobite army dispersed.

The Forty-five

Spanish intervention on behalf of the Jacobites in 1719 was unsuccessful, with most of the invasion army dispersed by a storm, while the supporting Jacobite force was defeated at Glenshiel. In 1744, a French invasion force was also dispersed by a storm.

However, in 1745, James’s eldest son, Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, successfully evaded British warships and reached the Western Isles. In a brilliant campaign, culminating with his victory, using a Highland charge, at Prestonpans outside Edinburgh, Charles overran most of Scotland.

A contemporary image of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the son of the Old Pretender, and the leader of the Forty-five.

He then pressed on to invade England. The Hanoverian army under Field Marshal George Wade blocked his path at Newcastle, but the Jacobites invaded west of the Pennines. Carlisle fell rapidly after a siege, and Wade’s effort to march to its relief via Hexham was too slow.

The Jacobites then pressed on via Preston and Manchester, without meeting any resistance. By feinting towards north Wales, the Jacobites bypassed another Hanoverian army under William, Duke of Cumberland, and reached Derby on 4 December 1745. There was panic in southern England.

However, the Jacobite council was dismayed by the absence of support, either in the shape of French invasion or English rebellion. Charles Edward wished to press on, but he was overruled on 5 December and the retreat began next day. It would have been wiser to have pressed on.

Jacobite warfare was not – as is often argued – anachronistic, and the Jacobites came near to success in 1745. As a result, an entire set of assumptions underlying the supposed context and chronology of military modernity can be queried, at least insofar as Britain is concerned.

Later in the 18th century, there was to be a major breach in the rules pertaining to linear tactics with the formation of columns. Thus, far from being a reactionary anachronism, the Jacobites, ironically, can be seen as anticipating the kinds of warfare that were to become more prominent towards the end of the 18th century, and would play a major role in the tactical success of French Revolutionary forces from 1792 onwards.

Unfortified Britain

The Jacobites were also helped by the unfortified nature of most of Britain. The major fortified British positions were in Ireland, or at naval dockyards, or overseas bases, such as Gibraltar and Fort St Philip on Minorca. Berwick, a prominent exception, was not part of a defensive network, and there was no system of citadels in England protecting major domestic centres of government.

Not only did this ensure that the Jacobites did not have to fight their way through a series of positions, losing time and manpower as they did so, but it also meant that the British Army lacked a network of bases that could provide shelter and replenish supplies.

After Charles Edward captured poorly fortified Carlisle, he faced no fortified positions on his chosen route to London. Had he, instead, chosen to invade north Wales, as was feared for a while, he would have been able to bypass Chester.

The Jacobites were, of course, different from the British military in several major respects, each of which invites counterfactuals. They lacked a navy and were, therefore, unable to challenge the maritime strength of the British state. This strength was crucial in a number of respects during the Forty-five, especially because it covered the movement of British troops back from opposing the French in the Low Countries in 1745, as well as the supply of advancing British forces on the eastern seaboard of Scotland in 1746. It was also a factor that affected French preparations for invasion.

Another difference was that the Jacobite army was a volunteer and non-regular force, with non-bureaucratic supply and recruitment systems, and this situation necessarily affected its modus operandi, not least in matters of logistics and of command and control.

Two ways of war: that of the Highland clans, based on musket, broadsword, and fierce frontal charge, and that of the British line [below], represented here by a soldier of Cholmondley’s Regiment, one of those that fought at Culloden. But the Hanoverian firing line was not necessarily more ‘modern’ – it was simply different.

Catholics and Celts

Government action against Catholics and suspected Jacobites in England limited the popular support the rising might otherwise have received in England, as did widespread anti-Catholicism. There was no Jacobite rising in England, but then there had been no decisive popular rebellion when William III had invaded in 1688.

A measure of English support was shown by a marked lack of resistance, especially at Carlisle, where the aldermen presented the keys to the city to Charles Edward on bended knee. The stance of the English Jacobites demonstrates not that there was scant possibility of establishing a new political settlement. They seemed congenitally timorous – or sensibly prudent – on each occasion when opportunity presented itself.

The Jacobite forces, indeed Celtic warfare in general, was recognisably different in type to contemporary and subsequent concepts of military modernity. But the Forty-five raises a question mark against the thesis about social change and military effectiveness that Edward Gibbon was to propound three decades later.

The more ‘advanced’ society (in conventional terms) was nearly overthrown, and its eventual victory was far from inevitable. The Jacobites won two of the three battles they fought in 1745-1746, and the projected night attack on Cumberland’s forces at Culloden might also have been successful.

Indeed, to propose a counterfactual, it is arguable that the Jacobites should have pressed on in their night attack at Culloden, even when their advance had become disordered and they had lost the element of surprise. Poor visibility would certainly have affected British fire discipline and morale. In 1685, Monmouth’s night attack with irregular forces at Sedgemoor had been defeated, but that does not provide a reliable predictor for what might have happened in 1746.

The Jacobite military model

The Jacobites not only won at Prestonpans and Falkirk, but they also managed to advance through Scotland and into the heart of England, creating a military crisis that, for example, was greater than any faced by France during the century. The nearest comparison is probably the Prussian advance on Paris in 1792.

However, at Valmy, the Revolutionary French were able to field a substantial (indeed larger) undefeated force to block this advance and, after applying limited pressure without success, the Prussians pulled back.

The Jacobite challenge in Britain in 1745 was more serious. Possibly the nearest equivalent was the Franco-Bavarian advance towards Vienna in 1741, an advance that, in the event, was diverted by its commanders to Prague.

The Jacobites had another advantage in 1745. Unlike in 1715, when it had been neutral, France was at war with Britain and planned to assist the Jacobites. Indeed, it had indeed already attempted an invasion in 1744.

The Jacobite vanguard passes through Manchester – spreading panic right across southern England.

France offered much that the Jacobites lacked militarily. It was the second leading naval power in the world after Britain and, in 1745, the French Navy was still undefeated. It was thus a potent force, a situation that lasted until the two defeats it suffered at Britain’s hands off Cape Finisterre in 1747. This poses the question of what an earlier French naval defeat would have meant for Jacobite chances in 1745. Until 1747, the British lacked a clear margin of naval superiority, and the French fleet in Brest retained the strategic initiative because the port could not be blockaded effectively.

The role of France

Indeed, in the summer of 1746, the Duc d’Anville’s Brest fleet was able to sail in an attempt to regain Cape Breton. As more generally, when confronted with French (and other) fleets – notably so in 1798 and 1805 – the British were unsure of the French destination. They had feared that the fleet would mount a landing on the west coast of Scotland.

D’Anville’s fleet, moreover, was thwarted by disease and the weather, suffering many casualties as a consequence. The fleet was not defeated by the Royal Navy in 1746. Again, this throws light on the extent to which British naval strength should not be used as a reason to close down counterfactuals about possible French invasion chances.

The French also had an effective army, much of which was stationed near a series of ports from which they could sail to Britain: Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, and, once it was captured from an Anglo-Dutch-Austrian garrison in the summer of 1745, Ostend.

Charles Edward asked the Duc de Richelieu, commander of the projected French invasion in 1745-1746, to make a junction with him near London. Richelieu was himself to mount a successful amphibious attack on British-held Minorca in 1756, which was an important display of French capability.

French battlefield superiority over British and allied forces was shown in the Low Countries at Fontenoy (1745), Roucoux (1746), and Lawfeldt (1747). Cumberland, the victor at Culloden in 1746, was the defeated commander at the first and the last, and was, at the head of Hanoverian and allied forces, to be defeated again by the French, this time under Richelieu, at Hastenbeck in 1757.

That battle was followed by the overrunning of the Electorate of Hanover and the capitulation of Cumberland’s army at Klosterzeven. This campaign provided an interesting indication of the possibility of achieving total victory, overthrowing a state, and forcing a Hanoverian capitulation. This point again has to be taken into account when considering a counterfactual about the chance of French success in 1745.

In 1745, the French had the advantage of making the British government believe that preparations for the expedition were being made at Dunkirk, as they had been in 1708 and 1744, whereas, in fact, they were at Calais and Boulogne. This was important from the perspective of the British blockade.

In 1744, however, the French abandoned the projected smaller expedition to Scotland, much to the anger of Lord Marischal and the Scots, and, in 1745, they tried initially to help with some forces and money in Scotland, but were not prepared to send substantial forces under their best general, Marshal Saxe, the victor at Fontenoy. In the event, their invasion plans for southern England came too late and were seriously compromised by the winter weather.

Jacobite defeat

A contemporary image of the Battle of Culloden, the final defeat of the Jacobite cause – a defeat that has left the Jacobites looking like a romantic failure, crushed by modern musketry.

The Jacobites successfully evaded interception on their return to Scotland in 1745, although there was an engagement at Clifton on 18 December, in which a successful Highland charge allowed the Jacobite rearguard to disengage. This was to be the last battle fought on English soil. Cumberland had to console himself with battering Carlisle Castle into surrender. Back in Scotland, Charles Edward defeated an Hanoverian army under Wade’s replacement, Lieutenant-General Henry Hawley, at Falkirk on 17 January. The Hanoverian army was poorly led and lacked fighting quality.

However, Charles Edward failed to exploit his victory, mounting an unsuccessful siege on Stirling Castle. Instead, with Cumberland advancing, the clan chiefs pushed Charles Edward into retreating into the Highlands.

They were successful at first, notably capturing Inverness, but Cumberland advanced remorselessly. He benefited from an impressive logistical system and from a lack of effective resistance. Short of funds and with indifferent command, the Jacobites allowed Cumberland to take and hold the initiative. He crossed the River Spey on 12 April en route to Inverness.

Charles Edward planned a dawn attack early on 16 April, but the plan was mishandled and then abandoned. Instead, at Culloden later that day, Cumberland’s larger army used its overwhelming superiority in firepower to smash the Highland charge launched by Charles Edward.

In the subsequent harrying of the Highlands, the new order was brutally driven home. Jacobitism was crushed. The last attempted invasion, of 1759, depended entirely on the French, but British naval victories off Lagos, in Portugal, and at Quiberon Bay ended the plan.

Jeremy Black is a leading military historian and author of more than a hundred books. His latest include Air Power, Naval Warfare, and Fortifications and Siegecraft.
All images: WIPL.