Over the Sea to Skye with no place to go: why the Jacobite Kings were never going to reclaim the Throne of England

We cannot but heartily wish, as it will easily be believed, that all the people of our dominions were members of the Catholic Church. Yet we humbly thank Almighty God, it is and has of long time been our constant sense and opinion (which upon divers occasions we have declared) that conscience ought not to be constrained nor people forced in matters of mere religion; it has ever been directly contrary to our inclination, as we think it is to the interest of government, which it destroys by spoiling trade, depopulating countries, and discouraging strangers, and finally, that it never obtained the end for which it was employed. And in this we are the more confirmed by the reflections we have made upon the conduct of the four last reigns. For after all the frequent and pressing endeavours that were used in each of them to reduce this kingdom to an exact conformity in religion, it is visible the success has not answered the design, and that the difficulty is invincible.

We therefore, out of our princely care and affection unto all our loving subjects that they may live at ease and quiet, and for the increase of trade and encouragement of strangers, have thought fit by virtue of our royal prerogative to issue forth this our declaration of indulgence…

On the 4th of April, 1687, a King proclaimed these words to the royal court at Whitehall, and it was these words that lost that King his realm.

That monarch was James II Stuart, who lost the support of his parliament, his clergy, and, to an extent, his people when he declared that the Catholics of England, Scotland and Ireland would have the freedom to practice their religion without fear of arrest or persecution. James himself was a devout Catholic, descended from a long line of Scottish kings and queens who had inherited the Throne of England when Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, beginning a torrid eighty years of Stuart rule, which saw three civil wars break out and monarchs deposed, executed and reinstated.

Although freedom of religious expression sounds like a nice idea, proclaiming the Declaration of Indulgence proved to be a very, very bad idea for James II. He made the grave mistake of promoting Catholicism in an England that was overwhelmingly Protestant. As a result of this political blunder, he was deposed by the Parliament on the 11th of December 1688 and replaced by his daughter’s Dutch husband, William of Orange.

What followed was a series of rebellions known as the Jacobite Risings (after the Latin form of James, ‘Jacobus’). For fourth time in less than a hundred years, a Stuart was fighting against his subjects, only this time he was the Rebel.

The Jacobite quest to reclaim the Throne of England for the James II and his heirs was characterised by two significant stumbling blocks which prevented the cause from ever having any chance of success. On the one hand, the fact that the Jacobites were fighting to reinstate a Catholic Absolutist monarchy was never going to win over the hearts and minds of the predominately Protestant English populace and Parliament. And on the other, they simply lacked quality leadership on the battlefield – where the rebellion would either win a glorious victory or be cast down by the British Government’s armies (nicknamed the Redcoats).

When the Jacobite Risings first began in 1690, the Catholic population of the Kingdom of Britain was estimated to be between thirty and forty percent, an average given a significant boost by the overwhelmingly Catholic population of Ireland. In England alone, the figure was no more than fifteen percent. On that statistical evidence alone, it is clear that the ideological battle for the English Throne was never going to be won by the Jacobites. With the ideological battle lost, the Jacobites needed to succeed where it really mattered…on the field of battle.

The Battle of the Boyne, by Jan Wyck (circa 1693)

Although dozens of battles were fought between the Jacobites and British Government during the sixty years of the Rebellion, there were four key confrontations that decide the fate of each of the Jacobites’ three Risings. They were the Battles of the Boyne (1690), Preston and Sheriffmuir (both 1715), and Culloden (1745). Of these four, all but one ended in a decisive victory for the Government forces. Sheriffmuir is the only exception, and although the victory was inconclusive, it was a strategic win for the Redcoats.

Each battle was decided not by strength of arms, but by the quality of the leadership, which left the Jacobites at a significant disadvantage. While the Redcoats were well-drilled and disciplined with decorated generals at the helm, the Jacobites were predominately led by a combination of politicians and landowners, as well as the Stuart heirs themselves. And while the Redcoat generals knew their trade and knew it well, the Jacobite commanders frequently found themselves caught out by a bad tactical decision, or even bickering amongst each other!

One telling example of the Jacobites’ poor leadership was in the prelude to the Battle of Preston. Two of the Rebel army’s commanders had a disagreement over the deployment of troops, which resulted in the withdrawal of troops from Ribble Bridge, the most easily defensible position outside of Preston itself. Having removed the Jacobite presence from the crossing, the Rebels allowed the Government forces, under decorated General Charles Wills, far easier passage to the streets of Preston. Overwhelmed, the Jacobite generals had no choice but to surrender. Had the Rebel leadership not bickered amongst themselves, chances are the outcome could have been quite different.

The Jacobite Risings effectively came to an end in 1746, with the defeat of the romantic folk hero Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in the moors of Scotland. Thus the inevitable happened, after sixty long years of futile rebellion the Jacobite cause was finally put to rest. There was never a realistic chance that James II and his heirs would succeed, as the odds were firmly stacked against them from the moment the last true Stuart monarch was deposed in 1688, right up until the last shot was fired at Culloden in 1746. The fact is that once England – where the real power in Britain was – had expelled Catholic Absolutist Monarchism from the corridors of power, they were never going to let it come back, and they succeeded with flying colours.

I’ll leave you now with the Skye Boat Song, a popular Jacobite tune and the namesake of this blog post. Enjoy.



6 comments on “Over the Sea to Skye with no place to go: why the Jacobite Kings were never going to reclaim the Throne of England

  1. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Sam,
    Very true, the Jacobites were outgunned and (at Culloden at least) outmanoeuvred. What do you make of the initial successes of the ’45? They advanced as far as Derby before Bradstreet (a government spy) managed to convince the in-fighting Jacobite leaders that a massed Government force of 9000 or so awaited them at Northampton. Bradstreet was, of course, exaggerating, and a French force was apparently ready to provide assistence if the Jacobites reached the Home Counties. From that meeting came the retreat to Inverness and Cumberland finishing off the Jacobites in 46. One may argue that if the Jacobite leaders decided Bradstreet was talking rubbish the Stuarts may have retaken the throne. Or given the benefits Bonnie Prince Charlie offered the Scots who were beaten down by the Act of Union, that if they had stopped at the Scottish border Scotland would have regained independence.
    Any thoughts?

    • samdavidspence says:

      Cheers for the comment Alfred.

      My research was mostly centred on the Stuart push to regain the throne of England, rather than to regain Scottish independence. However, with reference to Culloden, I can say this about their chances. One of the major factors I pinpointed in my essay (which didn’t get a mention here due to the constraints of the word limit) was that the disorganisation and traditional rivalries of the clans that made up the Jacobite front ranks on that particular battlefield. I think that any momentum the Jacobites could have gained at Culloden was lost when the clansmen kicked off their haphazard, ragtag charge at the Redcoat lines. While that charge did make an impact, there was no tactical reasoning behind it, and it was easily dealt with by the Redcoat reinforcements.
      As for the initial successes of the ’45, they were well deserved victories and they did do well to make it as far as Derby. However, as they had in 1690 and 1715, the Jacobites didn’t have it in them to produce the goods when it came to the crunch. I can’t see how there was any chance of the Jacobite Kings reclaiming the throne (or Scottish independence, for that matter), when you have leaders that make such ridiculous tactical blunders. My favourite example of this (aside from that which I included in the blog post) was James’ decision to split his forces at the Boyne. Faced with 10 000 Williamites at the Rosnaree ford (facing off against less than 1000 Jacobites), James elected to move the bulk of his 29 000 men to face that threat, leaving only 6000 to take on 25 000 at Oldbridge ford, where he had initially deployed his forces. Naturally, the reinforcements James sent to Rosnaree were only halfway there when William attacked at both fords, overwhelming the Jacobites.
      So yeah, I realise I’ve gone a bit tangential, but essentially what I would argue is that for the Scottish Independence component of the Jacobite Rebellion to have succeeded, they needed quality leadership that they did not have.

  2. Joanna Irving says:

    Dear Sam,

    I went to Culloden last year as it is near a family home. It is an interesting topic and a key point in British history especially in the Highlands of Scotland. When I went there it was seen that there was little chance of success especially when considering the material that the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie had against the Red Coats as well as the actual landscape of the area is quite rough and hilly which shows that there were little chances of any smaller army winning against the Red Coats. My question is whether people rallied for Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland because they were so much against English rule or because they saw promise in him as a leader? I know that Bonnie Prince Charlie is partially considered a Scottish national hero to an extent, but I suspect it was because he represented a rallying point against the English rule in England rather than because he was a competent leader. I agree with you though that those who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie would have been likely to succeed.
    I found your post very interesting. However, be careful with your editing because I believe it was Elizabeth I not II who died in 1603.
    Your post was insightful and it made me want to read more about the Jacobite Risings and what was their impact on the history of Great Britain.

    • samdavidspence says:

      Cheers Joanna, typo duly noted. One always creeps in. It certainly is an interesting topic! I find that just about every royal house of England has some fascinating stories to tell.

  3. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Just a note for Joanna’s comment…
    Jacobitism in Scotland took hold partly because of the failings of the Act of Union. The Stuarts were a Scottish house in name though not particularly immediate ancestry. Although Bonnie Prince Charlie was reared in France and Rome and his mother was Polish, his parents reared him as being British. He reportedly said “I am come home” when he arrived in Scotland during 1745. Scots rallied to him because he represented freedom from the taxes of the Hanoverians (despite the Act of Union promising Scotland would not be taxed at the English rate) and other such impositions. That said, Bonnie Prince Charlie probably should never be seen as a “Scottish” national hero. The Jacobite army at Culloden was not entirely Scottish. More Scots fought against the Jacobites, and the division was over royal claims and religion rather than nationalism. Still, the English added an extra verse to the national anthem with reference to crushing “rebellious Scots” and after Culloden banned the wearing of Highland dress.
    The two documentaries from my article (https://makinghistoryatmacquarie.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/documentaries-who-tells-the-history/) also explore the ’45, with Neil Oliver notably taking a pro-Jacobite stance.

  4. sianlimberg says:

    Dear Sam,

    I think the topic you have chosen is very interesting. I don’t know many of the facts surrounding uprising. I read about it in a fiction novel in which the facts from the fiction are difficult to distinguish. i therefore found it interesting to read your post about the event which was based on historical research and evidence. I thought you wrote it very well, it was interesting, easy to read, clear and concise. It must have been hard to take the most interesting aspects of your essay and condense it to 800 words but i think you have done a great job! Also the you tube link was a nice touch! Well done!


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