Thursday 21 November 2019

The King Over the Water: Why were the Jacobites so hopeless?

History: The King Over the Water

Desmond Seward

Birlinn, hardback, 384 pages, €35

Convert: James II landed in Ireland, followed by a French army, a year after he was deposed
Convert: James II landed in Ireland, followed by a French army, a year after he was deposed
The King Over the Water by Desmond Seward

Lew is Jones

In The King over the Water, Desmond Seward offers a fresh look at the long struggle to restore the Stuart monarchy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the crowning of the Protestant Mary II and her husband William of Orange.

He begins traditionally, with Mary's father, Catholic-convert James II, creeping through a garden in Rochester and down to the Medway, where a boat was waiting to take him into exile in France. But his perspective is avowedly Jacobite, so instead of ending the story with Culloden in 1746, he carries it on to the death of James's grandson Henry in Italy in 1807. And he romantically writes of James III, Charles III and Henry IX, as their supporters would have called them, while George I is styled "Georg [sic] Ludwig, Elector of Hanover". Seward strongly doubts the gloriousness of 1688, which he views as squalidly anti-Catholic ("the nearest modern parallel is Islamophobia"), but try as he might, he finds little glory on the Jacobite side, beyond that of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In March 1689, James landed in Ireland - where the Irish Parliament declared that he remained king - and was later reinforced by 6,000 French infantry. But on July 1, 1690, facing William at the Boyne, his nerve failed him and he rode back to Dublin, where he complained to the Duchess of Tyrconnell that his army had run away: "I see your Majesty has won the race."

Three days later, he sailed for France, deserting his followers, who fought on at Athlone, Aughrim and Limerick, after which the Catholic ruling class was utterly destroyed. Also in 1689, Scotland's first Jacobite rising began, ending in 1691. When James died 10 years later, Louis XIV proclaimed his son 'James III'.

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In 1708, 'James III' attempted an invasion in 30 ships, led by the Comte de Forbin, who first missed the mouth of the Firth of Forth, then signalled to the wrong bank, missing the Jacobites on the opposite side, and finally fled the six ships of Admiral George Byng to return James to Dunkirk.

Seward writes that "at least one historian... believes the Fifteen very nearly succeeded", but it is hard to see how. On September 6, 1715, the Earl of Mar, followed by barely 100 men, raised the standard of James III, and the gold ball on top of it fell off. On September 19, a "well-conceived" attempt to take Edinburgh Castle failed. The battle of Sheriffmuir on November 13 was a fiasco. As a Lallans ballad had it:

We baith did fight, and baith were beat,

And baith did run awa...

On the same day at Preston in Lancashire, the Jacobite general Thomas Forster remained in bed with a bottle of sherry.

The Nineteen "was a small affair, over very quickly"; a rising was planned for the spring of 1722, but cancelled for want of funds; and in 1744, a French invasion was cancelled because of bad weather. On July 23, 1745, though, James III's son, the Bonnie Prince, landed with a small party on Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, and set about rallying the Scottish clans. A model of grace and courtesy, he wore Highland dress, leading his men on foot, eating the same rations, sleeping on straw, and wading with them across rivers.

On September 18, his army of 2,400 Highlanders entered Edinburgh, without a shot fired. Three days later, they won a famous victory at Prestonpans, and on October 31 he set out with about 5,000 infantry and 450 cavalry, at least a third of them Lowlanders, to conquer England.

On December 4, they reached Derby, four days' march from London. But the chiefs had had enough, arguing that they "had never thought of putting a King upon the English throne by themselves", and insisted on turning back, which they did on December 6.

"Rather than go back," said the Prince, "I would wish to be 20ft under ground."

At Culloden on April 16, 1746, he faced the Duke of Cumberland with 5,400 infantry and 150 cavalry. Hungry, and with the wind and rain against them, his army fled, and for two months 'Butcher' Cumberland remained in the Highlands, killing, raping, looting and burning.

Seward follows the Prince on the run that summer with Flora MacDonald, staying in verminous bothies, subsisting on porridge and blood pudding, dancing in the heather, and escaping to Skye as Flora's maid, his skirts hitched scandalously high; one lady called him "an odd muckle trallop".

By the end of September, he was back in France, where he was hailed as a hero by Voltaire. When the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle stipulated that he and his father must leave France, he remained in Paris, disguised, among other things, as "a one-eyed abbe with an eyepatch and a false nose".

In 1750, he spent five days in London, trying to plan another rising, and being received into the Church of England. But when the French fleet was destroyed by Admiral Hawke in Quiberon Bay in 1759, the Jacobite defeat was final.

Charles's later years were in sad contrast to his dashing youth. At the Palazzo del Re in Rome, where he took up residence after his father's death on New Year's Day 1766, he became a chronic drunk. In 1772, he married the 19-year-old Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, who said that a woman should have an intellectual friend by day and a carnal one by night. He was neither, and she was "reduced to breeding rabbits".

On his death in 1788, he was "succeeded" by his brother, the Cardinal Duke of York, Henry IX, who had spent his life in Italy and was, Seward concedes, "no more than the living ghost of the Honest Cause".

He concludes his bracingly revisionist history with the news that the Duke of Cambridge, through his mother, will be the first British monarch since Queen Anne to descend from James II, by way of his first wife Arabella Churchill, who had "exquisite" legs.

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