The beauty of historical fiction is the plethora of unbelievable situations and figures ripe for the picking when it comes to telling a great story with adventure and drama. After all, history doesn’t remember Joe Schmoe from down the road; no, it remembers the kings and queens, the pretenders and pot-stirrers, the movers and shakers. So it only made sense when Diana Gabaldon decided to write her “practice novel” that she picked a setting in British history rife with political intrigue and every day struggle. And if she was going to put her story in 18th century Scotland, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rising of 1745 were bound to make an appearance at some point in her thoroughly researched books. So, who was Charles Edward Stuart? Who were the Jacobites? And why was their cause one that would divide the nation?
To understand Charles Edward Stuart and his cause, we must first understand the events prior to his birth. The Church of England was famously created in the 1530s during the reign of Henry VIII. The Cliff Notes version of the situation is as follows: Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Bolyn. The problem? He was already married to Catherine of Aragon and had a daughter — Mary. Since the Catholic church did not condone divorce and the protestant faith did, Henry broke with Rome, converted to Protestantism, and founded The Church of England where he would be the Supreme Governor, thereby ensuring his divorce. As the British Monarch is also the head of The Church of England, the monarch must also be protestant which ultimately led to the displacement of James VII, despite his royal birthright.
James VII, Charlie’s grandfather, came to the throne in 1685 after the death of his brother, Charles II. James was widely known as a Catholic which caused issues with his subjects who were largely Protestant. When James advocated for religious tolerance and converted the Chapel Royal at Holyrood Palace to Catholicism, it was the last straw, and in 1689 James was forced to flee to the safety of the Papal Estates in Rome with his wife and infant son (Charlie’s father, James). The British Crown was transferred to Mary Stuart, James’s protestant daughter, and her husband William of Orange. They would rule together as William III and Mary II until Mary’s death at Kensington Palace in 1694.
Until the 21st century, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the British Monarchy was based on the idea of primogeniture meaning all male heirs would be in line to inherit the throne before female descendants. A prime example of this is the succession upon King Henry VIII’s death. He had three children: Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward. Despite the fact that Edward was the youngest of the three heirs, he was the eldest male, so he inherited the throne prior to his sisters. When Mary II and her husband ascended to the throne and ignored primogeniture, British subjects were naturally divided. Even some Protestants opposed the idea of William and Mary taking over the monarchy.
Because of this complex situation, we now have two potential lines of succession–the one that supports primogeniture and religious tolerance (James VII) and the one that supports the ideas put forth by The Church of England (William and Mary).
Supporters of James VII and his line of heirs became known as Jacobites, based on the word Jacobus — Latin for James. Over the course of the 50 years after James VII was exiled, the Jacobites rebelled against their reigning monarch on 5 separate occasions. Raised to believe he was the heir apparent to the British throne, James VII’s son, James VIII threw his weight and support behind the risings of 1709 and 1715 with a failed attempt to claim the throne for himself. In 1719, James VIII married Maria Clementina Sobieska of Poland and together they had two children, Charles and Henry.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart was born on December 31, 1720, and like his father before him was raised as a prince. Charismatic and handsome, young Charlie was extremely well-educated and had talents for music, sport, and language. He was fluent in Italian, French, English, German, and had knowledge of Gaelic making it easy for him to circulate around the courts of Europe as he grew older. All of these qualities made him quite the ladies man and his dalliances with women such as Marie Louise de La Tour d’Auvergne and Clementina Walkinshaw weren’t surprising to anyone.
Charles relied heavily on his wit and charm to get through life, and never was this more apparent than the Jacobite Rising of 1745. After a failed attempt to land on English soil with a French Fleet in 1744, Charlie was unable to sweet talk the French into supporting another try. So, in July of 1745, Charles and nine other men decided to fund their own rebellion, and landed in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In two months time, Charlie’s supporters had grown from a dinner party of nine people to a small army of 2,400, and they took the city of Edinburgh without a single shot fired. The Battle of Prestonpans was another early battle Charles won, which many historians argue was a stroke of luck rather than a strategic victory.
After their victory at Prestonpans, the Jacobite army swelled to 5,500 soldiers as they marched toward England and in invaded in November 1745. Unfortunately, Charlie did not gain the English and French support he hoped for, and was urged by his officers and advisors to retreat to Scotland for the winter where they could regroup and attack England again in the spring. This strategy didn’t work as planned. A winter without food, money, or adequate shelter did no favors for the Jacobite soldiers, and many of them deserted and returned home. The few that were left when spring arrived were exhausted and undernourished which led to the disastrous Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746.
Charlie fled from Culloden unharmed and took refuge among the Highlands and Scottish Isles for the next six months. With a price of £30,000 on his head, it wasn’t easy for Charlie to maneuver throughout Scotland, but with the help of some loyal followers, including the famous Flora McDonald, who smuggled him from South Uist to the Isle of Skye, Charlie was finally able to take ship from Lochan nan Uamh and sail to France in September of 1746. His refuge in France was short lived, and after a treaty was reached between France and England in 1748, Charlie was exiled from French territory, and he returned to Rome.
Charlie’s aforementioned affairs with Marie Louise de La Tour d’Auvergne and Clementina Walkinshaw during the years following the failed rebellion both resulted in children — a son and a daughter, but only the daughter, Charlotte (born in 1753), lived to adulthood. The last Stuart prince never gave up on the idea of a restoration, but as more and more time passed after Culloden, the cause had less and less support. It surely didn’t help matters that Charlie spent the remainder of his life as a degenerate drunk who forever blamed others for his loss at Culloden, and by the time Charlie reached the age of 45, he was so despised, he was even excluded form his father’s will. Luckily, his younger brother Henry took pity on Charles and afforded him enough capitol to live out the rest of his days in comfort.
In 1772, 52-year-old Prince Charles Edward Stuart married 19-year-old Princess Louise of Stolberg, in the hopes of creating a Stuart heir. When it was clear there would be no children from his marriage to Louise, Charlie became abusive towards her, and she left him — legally separating from her husband and taking a lover of her own, Count Vittorio Alfieri. In the final years of Prince Charles’s life he was in very poor health and was nursed by his daughter Charlotte until he passed on January 31, 1788, from a stroke.
Bonnie Prince Charlie was born into the tumultuous world of politics and monarchy, and his mostly misguided adventures have often been romanticized in Scottish History as a heroic attempt to unite the Scottish people in a fight for independence from the tyrannical rule of the English.
However, if we take a step back, we can see how woefully unprepared Charlie was for the fight that lay before him when he landed in Scotland in 1745. He was charming and educated, making him a man people gravitated towards, but in the end, his actions led to disaster for Scotland and for himself.