THE CHILD of a broken home, whose parents separated when he was three, whose mother, suffering from depression and religious mania, died of anorexia nervosa when she was only 32. A child brought up in household without women, apparently for fear that maids would abuse him. It is hardly surprising that Prince Charles Edward Stewart (Stuart) could never form lasting relationships with the women in his life.
Impetuous, dashing, charming, distant, devoted to a dream, estranged from his family, an exile obsessed with the kingdom rightfully his: the prince’s glamour may have made him irresistible to women, but he was utterly insufferable to live with. Like his political affairs, Charlie’s love affairs would all founder on the gap between heroic aspiration and dismal reality.
The Jacobite Rising in 1745-46 was a failure, but it was a glorious and romantic failure. At one stroke Charles Edward was now the most famous celebrity in Europe. Making the most of it, he spent two hedonistic years in Paris, conducting a tempestuous affair with his cousin Louise, Princess de Rohan, while her husband was fighting the redcoats in Flanders. Louise’s redoubtable mother-in-law put an end to the liaison, but not before the prince had fathered his first child. The boy, named Charles, only lived five months, but the prince never set eyes on him. In a fit of picque, he had decided to snub his lover and her family. Yet this was not the last of the de Rohans in Charles’s life.
To keep the Stewart dream alive, Charles needed to produce a legitimate heir. His brother Henry was charming, intelligent, religious – and homosexual. It was Charles, then, who had to marry. However, he would not deign to accept minor European aristocracy, nor, while he was without a kingdom, would the great royal houses of Europe accept him.
After being expelled from France in 1748, Charles went undercover, plotting ceaselessly, one step ahead of his enemies. Four years later, he summoned a new mistress – or was she an old flame? It is suggested that towards the end of the Rising, the prince succumbed to the charms of a girl from a Catholic, Jacobite family, that he spent ten days dallying with her instead of rallying his troops after the Battle of Falkirk. Her name was Clementina Walkinshaw. In 1753, she became the mother of his daughter Charlotte, the future Duchess of Albany.
Yet the relationship ended in disaster. The stresses of life undercover were already driving the prince to despair and the bottle. Badly beaten by the prince in a drunken rage, Clementina fled with her daughter to a convent in Paris. As for Charles, he suffered a mental breakdown.
The impoverished Clementina and her daughter reappeared after the prince married Louise Stolberg in 1772, travelling to Rome to embarrass him into awarding them hush money. Charles was furious, forbidding his daughter either to marry or to take the veil. But Charlotte did take a lover - Ferdinand de Rohan, Archbishop of Bordeaux. Ferdinand was the youngest brother of the husband of that other Louise in Charlie’s life, Louise de Rohan, the prince’s erstwhile paramour after the Rising.
Charlotte would bear her lover three children - two daughters and a son, the last of the Stewarts, whose existence was so secret it could not even be revealed to the prince himself. Their story is as obscure, farcical, and heartbreaking as that of their grandfather.
Charlotte was reconciled to her father after the breakdown of his marriage with Louise. For whatever reasons, she did her best to make her ailing, senile father’s tragic end more bearable. Yet she survived him by barely a year, dying in 1789 of liver cancer, age 36. Her mother fared little better, ekeing out a miserable existence in Switzerland till her death in 1802.
But what of the grandchildren? Using Jacobite, banking and masonic contacts, the de Rohans hid them away, legitimising them as the children of Ferdinand’s eldest brother. Only their surname, Roehenstart – or “Rohan-Stewart” – hinted at their real origins. Daughter Charlotte died young in Paris after giving birth to a still-born child, whilst son Charles led a restless life after losing most of his inheritance. His requests to the Prince Regent for aid were rebuffed, and he was the victim of a clumsy smearing attempt by the British government. Seventy years after the last Jacobite attempt had failed, a Stewart heir was still a threat. Disillusioned, Charles spent the rest of his life travelling around Europe, lending his support to the quixotic cause of Scottish independence. He died in a coaching accident in 1854 near Dunkeld, and is buried in the cathedral.
Was Charles the last of the Stewart family? Not according to Polish aristocrat Peter Peniski. Having researched archives throughout Europe, he claims to be a descendant of the third grandchild of Prince Charlie, Marie-Victoire, and the first of her three husbands, the Galician aristocrat Paul, Chevalier de Nikorowicz. Their son’s daughter married Leonard Francis Xavier Peniski in 1853, and from that union are descended the Polish Peniskis.
However, it is no secret that the prince sowed other oats during his prime, all over Europe. Genetic testing might show many more unsuspecting fruits of the Stewart loins. Wha wad DNA, fecht for Charlie indeed?
From the Island of Lewis, Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stibhart is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh