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.