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Exploring British History: The Jacobites' Last Stand

By Kristin Masters. Aug 21, 2014. 2:54 PM.

Topics: History

On August 22, 1746, three men were executed for high treason at Kennington Common. They wore Highland costume. The government showed some mercy, allowing the bodies to hang for fifteen minutes (instead of the usual three) before they were desecrated. The execution of Donald MacDonald, Jack Nicholson, and Walter Ogilvie in many ways represented the demise of the Jacobite movement, which had begun many decades earlier. 

James_IIIn 1688, King James II found himself deposed. The Catholic king had tried to supplant Protestantism as Britain's official religion with a series of edicts promoting religious tolerance. But his subjects' intense animosity toward the Catholic Church all but ensured the monarch's failure. And when King James' son was born, people feared the start of a Catholic dynasty. They enlisted King James' Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, who invaded England and claimed the throne.

James fled to Scotland. He tried--with little tact--to whip up support there, but the Scottish National Convention responded by declaring its support for William. Only Viscount Dundee stood with the deposed monarch. Dundee led the first Jacobite uprising with little support from the Scottish nobility, who preferred to wait out the conflict and see what happened before declaring any allegiances. They were right to wait; though Dundee's troops fought well at Killiecrankie (1689), Dundee himself was killed in battle. The movement was left without a decisive leader and support for the Jacobite cause began to wane. 

But in subsequent years, William showed himself to be an inept leader. He clumsily led the government, resulting in a series of economic disasters. The worst of these was the infamous Darian Scheme: William planned to establish a Scottish colony in Panama. The scheme failed spectacularly, and most of the would-be colonists perished. The public rightfully pinned the blame on William. By this time, the Jacobite cause was again gaining steam. Virtually anyone with a grudge against the government threw his support behind the Jacobites.


The Union of 1707 brought England and Scotland together as the United Kingdom. Incredibly unpopular among Scots, the Union reignited pro-Jacobite sentiments. At the time, Britain was also at war with France, complicating the political landscape. France had been harboring James III and saw an excellent opportunity to spark a rebellion by returning the "Pretender" to England. But the French would arrive in England later than they expected... and the Royal Navy was waiting. The French commander refused to put James III ashore. Thus the uprising of 1708 was thwarted, though Jacobitism still posed a considerable threat to the British crown. 

Perhaps the Jacobites would eventually have given up, were it not for fresh antagonism from the throne in 1715. After George I succeeded the throne, he immediately sacked James Erskine, Earl of Mar, one of the most influential politicians in Scotland. Mar responded by raising the standard of the Stuarts, effectively announcing his alliance with the Jacobites. Soon most of northern Scotland stood behind Mar, and he hadn't even bothered alerting the Jacobite court. Britain sent the Duke of Argyll to quell the rebellion, but with far too few troops. Mar had Argyll vastly outnumbered, and his forces attacked with typical Highland ferocity. Yet just when Mar was on the cusp of victory, he inexplicably lost his nerve and withdrew. Mar fled to France a failure. This 1715 rebellion was notable because it was the first to be "homegrown," and it also led to rebellion in England, most notably in the heavily Catholic Lancashire. However it did little to further the Jacobite cause, and the Stuarts were little more than pawns in European power plays thereafter. For example, Spain planned an abortive invasion of Scotland in 1719, only to be soundly beaten at the Battle of Glen Shiel. 


In 1744, the French planned a major invasion, only to watch it spectacularly collapse. Stuart prince Charles Edward, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie (pictured at right), insisted on staging his own invasion. The prince landed in Scotland with insufficient funds, too few weapons, and not enough soldiers. All he really had was his own inflated ego. Charles guaranteed the Chief of Clan Cameron that he would be compensated if he supported Charles and the rebellion failed, and the chief helped him raise enough support among the western clans to stage the rebellion on 1745. 

Luckily for Charles, a significant number of British troops had been diverted to fight in overseas conflicts. Meanwhile, few Scottish citizens saw fit to martyr themselves for King George II. Thus Charles occupied Edinburgh with little opposition. And when the British government finally sent General Cope with a few men, Jacobite forces destroyed their opponents in less than ten minutes. Bonnie Prince Charlie now had Scotland and decided to march on England. 


The Battle of Culloden

Charles managed to convince himself and others that plenty of English subjects would rise to defend his cause, and that the French would send military reinforcements. Neither of these conditions came to fruition, and the Jacobite army risked almost certain massacre. Charles' military council insisted on retreat, a move that caused a rift between Charles and his best commander, Lord George Murray. Though Murray managed to lead a successful retreat to Scotland, Charles doubted Murray's competence.

After a failed surprise night raid, Charles assumed control of his troops. The prince soon showed his own incompetence, choosing the most unsuitable terrain possible for the next offensive. At the Battle of Culloden, Jacobite forces were absolutely slaughtered, while Charles himself ignominiously fled. Bonnie Prince Charlie found his way to Italy, where he would eventually die a sad drunkard in 1788. He left his troops to their own devices, and most found little mercy at the hands of the British crown. 

Account_Behaviour_Confession_Scots_RebelsEager to put the Jacobite cause to rest for good, the British government struck swiftly with a series of violent executions and unnecessarily repressive laws. London Magazine reported on the trials and execution of the Jacobites, including Jack Nicholson, Walter Ogilvie, and Donald MacDonald, all three of whom pleaded guilty for their role in the rebellion. At the men's sentencing, Lord Chief Justice Willes reportedly made quite a moving speech, noting that "their wicked scheme was not only to dethrone his mot sacred Majesty King George, but to murder him, if thought necessary, to introduce a Popish Pretender, & c, who was bred in Bigotry and who must always be subservient to France, the inveterate Enemy of these Kingdoms, &c." 

Grisly executions followed their convictions, and they certainly weren't alone. However, before they died Nicholson commissioned the publication of a pamphlet, "A General Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of the Three Scots Rebels." Now relatively rare, the pamphlet is a sterling example of confession and true-crime literature so popular during the eighteenth century. 

Though eighteenth-century Britons would have been relatively inured to the grotesqueness of public executions, the sheer number and violence of the Jacobite executions seemed to produce the desired effect. Between 1745 and Charles' death in 1788, only a few half-baked Jacobite uprisings occurred. And eventually the Hanoverians themselves even adopted the Jacobite tartan as an homage to a general sense of nostalgia.

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Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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