The Jacobite Rebellion: Who Was Jacob?

Let’s talk about the Jacobite Rebellion. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart tried to grab the British throne back for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart. In other words, the Jacobite Rebellion revolved around two men with a whole string of names, but Jacob is nowhere on the list.

Unless, of course, you switch to Latin, in which case you can call James Jacobus. Or Jake if you’re a close enough friend. 

He didn’t have friends who were that close, so you might want to give it some thought before you call him that. 

Irrelevant photo: This is orange. And a flower. You’re welcome.

The Jacobite uproar started when Elizabeth the virgin queen of England died without an heir. Sorry, you don’t get a prize for guessing that business about her not having an heir. The Stuarts–a line of Scottish kings who were vaguely related to her–became the kings of England as well as Scotland, and England being larger and richer than Scotland, they made it their base. That lasted until one of them, James, outed himself as a (gasp) Catholic and was replaced with his Protestant daughter and her husband, an equally Protestant European prince. 

These two were supposed to create a line of reliably Protestant monarchs, but bringing in replacements had set a precedent: If an individual in the new line died childless, Britain could always borrow another vaguely related Protestant from Europe. Think of Europe as a lending library for vaguely related Protestant monarchs. 

If any genuine historians are reading this, you have my deepest apologies. I’ll be happy to dodge anything you want to throw at me,

But the Stuarts didn’t disappear just because they’d been booted off the throne. They sat in Europe like the last, heavily thumbed book on the library shelves–the one nobody wanted to borrow. 

You can see trouble coming, right? 

Starting in 1708, a couple of bungled rebellions tried and failed to bring James back. Sometimes foreign powers were involved. France is the country to keep your eye on here. Britain (or England if we’re talking about an earlier period–it’s confusing and we’ll get to that in a minute) and France hadn’t gotten along for centuries. 

In 1744, France sent ships to launch a Jacobite invasion of England. France didn’t take the Stuarts seriously, but what the hell, if it lobbed them onto British soil, it could hope to tie to government in knots for a while. But winter storms sank some of the French ships and drove the rest back to port, after which France called off the plan. 

Sorry, Stuarts. 

So Charles–remember him? Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart who wasn’t named Jacob and was going to grab the throne for his dad, who also wasn’t called Jacob? Without asking France if it was okay, Charles consulted his Scottish contacts about a landing in Scotland. 

Why Scotland? It had been bundled into a union with England in 1707, and a lot of Scots weren’t happy about it. Before that, Scotland and England had been two countries that shared a king but not a government. Now they were one united country, dominated by England. Scottish landowners got a few nice presents out of the union, but what most people got were heavy taxes along with forts and soldiers planted by a government that they felt had been imposed on them. So the Jacobites could count on the backing of a Scottish clan leader or three, which would give them a good base in a land full of grievance.

In one of history’s nice little ironies, these clans were largely Protestant. 

Sit down and get comfortable for a minute, because we’re going to take a detour into Scottish (and English, not to mention Irish) religious history. 

When the Church of England was formed, the central issue was that the monarch was going to replace the pope as the head of the church, . All members of the clergy had to swear an oath to him or her. So when James became the king, they swore.

Then James was replaced with William and Mary, leaving a number of clergy members wondering what to do next. James was still alive. So what did their oath mean? Some shrugged their shoulders and swore an oath to the replacement parts that had been fitted into the royal machine. Others, out of principle, refused. They felt that their first oath still held. 

In England, this was largely a matter of religious (as opposed to political) principle, but in Scotland refusing to swear an oath to the replacement parts was highly political, a statement that the country was ruled by the Stuart king, even if he was sitting in France (or Rome) and ruling nothing more than what time lunch was on the table. Cue lots of political and churchly infighting that we won’t get into.  

What matters for us is that this strange bit of history, where elements of a Protestant Church held out for a Catholic king, provided a reservoir of Jacobite support and a bit of religious and intellectual backing for the cause.

The Jacobites also had support in Ireland, where the Stuarts’ Catholicism was crucial. England (which had by now become Britain) had confiscated Catholic-owned land on a massive scale there. The Irish Jacobites wanted their land back in an independent, Catholic Ireland. 

Zip over to England and a fair bit of Jacobite support was Protestant again. It came from people who were against Britain’s involvement in European wars. They wanted that money for the navy, which could protect British trade. Many of them were strongly anti-Catholic and pro-Church of England. English Catholics? Some were Jacobite and some supported the Hanoverians–the replacement parts in the royal machine. 

In other words, the only thing Jacobites agreed on was being Jacobites. The Stuarts were a handy basket into which you could toss any disagreement with the existing government. Think of them as populist politicians running against the government. Try that strategy and you’ll find it can work until you become the government. After that, unless you’re a genuine revolutionary–and few of populist politicians are–it’s a tough act to maintain. You’ll need to find a new enemy, and in the time of the Stuarts, Remainers and the liberal elite hadn’t been invented yet. Immigrants had but–.

Never mind. I’m wandering off topic. The point is that if James had managed to seat his butt on the British throne, he’d have had serious trouble keeping his supporters behind him. 

Lucky him, he never had to face that.

What did the Stuarts themselves stand for? They believed in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. They were Catholic. Since a fair number of their supporters opposed arbitrary rule, the union, and Catholicism–well, yeah, you can see why they were all drawn together.

Now let’s go back to Bonnie Charlie consulting his Scottish contacts. They said, “Look, guy, nothing personal, but without French support this doesn’t look promising.”

But Charlie, remember, believed in absolute monarchy, and even if he wasn’t an alleged king, only an alleged prince, he still knew best. He set sail, rallied support in the Scottish highlands, and marched on Edinburgh, helped along by the roads and bridges the British government had built after those earlier Jacobite risings in order to make Scotland easier for the military to control. 

History has a bitter sense of humor.

The Jacobites didn’t manage to take Edinburgh castle, just the city, but even so it was all going well. Charlie declared the union of Scotland and England to be over, along with the Act of Settlement, which barred Catholics from the throne. The French–as he’d gambled they would once he’d set himself on Scottish soil–sent money, supplies, and weapons. Everything looked rosy.

Except that Charlie’s autocratic style and Irish advisers had started to worry some of the Scots, and they imposed a council of advisers on him. Everyone argued about whether to invade England or consolidate their position. 

Charlie wanted to invade, though, and invade they did, getting as far as Derby, a couple of hundred miles from the Scottish-English border on the A1, which if it existed wasn’t called that and hadn’t been paved. Then they turned and headed north again for fear of getting cut off by English forces. They had the advantage of speed but that was about it. They were lightly armed and the English Jacobite support they’d counted on turned out to be minimal. As did French support.

We’ll skip over a siege and a battle or two back in Scotland. Winter came and both sides settled down to wait for better weather, which given what both the Scottish and the English think of Scottish weather could easily have meant waiting for decades. 

The Jacobites were also waiting for French supplies, but the British navy was out there waiting for French ships. A few got through, but by spring the Jacobites were short of food, money, and weapons. 

What do you do in that situation? You give the dice a good hard shake, kiss the hand that’s shaking them, and spill those dice on the table. 

They didn’t land the way the Jacobites needed them to. The final battle of the rebellion was at Culloden and it was over in about an hour. Some 1,500 Jacobites were killed and 500 were taken prisoner. Compare that to 50 British soldiers killed and around 250 wounded. 

Charlie ordered his surviving troops to disperse and he fled for France, leaving British troops to search out rebels, confiscate cattle, and burn the meeting houses of religious groups who pissed them off. Of the 3,500 Jacobites who were indicted for treason, 120 were executed, 650 died before trial, 900 were pardoned, and the rest were transported.

Culloden marked the end of the Scottish clan lords’ power–not because of the defeat itself, but because the government set out to break them. Estates were confiscated. Laws were designed to undermine them. By way of making the point symbolically, highland dress was outlawed unless it was worn in the (need I say, British) military and the bagpipes were declared an instrument of war, so playing them was banned, although they continued to be played in secret. 

If anyone knows how to play the bagpipes in secret, do let me know. They’re not a subtle instrument. And yes, I do understand that the highlands weren’t densely settled and that even though the sound carries a long way it can’t circumnavigate the globe. Still. In secret?

The government set about mapping the highlands and building more forts, roads, and bridges to help the military control them. The Jacobite Rebellion was over.

Irish Jacobitism continued but it was focused on independence, not on the Stuarts, and it was eventually absorbed into the Republican movement.

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My thanks to Sheila Morris for suggesting the topic. I’m always open to suggestions but I don’t promise to follow all of them. Some of them work and some don’t, and I can’t predict what will fall into which category.