Book review: The King Over The Water, by Desmond Seward

Should Charles Edward Stewart have marched on London? Seward believes it would have been a gamble worth taking.
Should Charles Edward Stewart have marched on London? Seward believes it would have been a gamble worth taking.
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In popular memory Jacobitism means the ’45, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the retreat from Derby, Culloden and the flight through the heather. Even the ’15 is barely remembered. There is also an assumption that Jacobitism was almost entirely Scottish, and that it was always an all-but-lost cause, hence the sadness of Jacobite songs.

The first great merit of Desmond Seward’s history is that he corrects this bias. We don’t reach the ’45 till Chapter 36, page 253. He also shows that if that rising came astonishingly close to success, the chance of a Stuart restoration was much better at earlier times, and that opposition to the Hanoverian dynasty, and resentment of it, persisted for a long time in England and Ireland as well as Scotland. Indeed, even after the ’45, Dr Johnson, a High Church of England Tory, remarked that if England was fairly polled the ruling dynasty would be sent packing, though he admitted, sadly, that no one would lift a finger to bring about this happy event.

Seward begins, of course, in 1688 with the last successful invasion of England by William of Orange with a 15,000 strong army of experienced Dutch, German and Swiss troops. His uncle (and father-in-law) James VII & II, a Catholic convert ruling a Protestant people, found himself deserted by the English elite, among them his favoured protégé John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. James suffered a nervous collapse, not surprisingly, and fled to France. In Scotland the Presbyterians supported the revolution. They were opposed by Loyalists, led by John Graham, Viscount Dundee. He defeated the revolution army at Killiecrankie, but was killed in the hour of victory. Dundee’s death is one of history’s “might-have-beens.” James’s attempt to regain his throne by invading Ireland with French support ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.He retired to France where he died in 1701. Seward is kinder to James than many historians have been, I think rightly.

His son, James VIII & III, took up the cause. In 1708 an attempted invasion of Scotland where the Union of 1707 was unpopular failed on account of the pusillanimity of the French admiral, but as the long drawn-out War of the Spanish Succession lost support in England and the Tories returned to power, the chance of a Stuart Restoration became much better. Two things prevented it. First, James refused to convert to the Protestant religion, though affirming his support for religious toleration. Second, his half-sister Queen Anne died before the Tories were ready. Nevertheless, the Hanoverian succession was unpopular; there were riots all over England. Prospects for a Rising in 1715 were good. But the Jacobites were ill co-ordinated. Military action in England was soon suppressed. The rising in Scotland also failed, principally owing to the incompetence of the commander, the Earl of Mar. The best chance of a restoration was lost.

Even so it was the quarter-century of peace between England and France which doomed the Jacobite cause, for it was generally recognised that military support from France was needed if the Hanoverian regime was to be defeated. But now James was expelled from France, retiring to Rome. He continued to maintain his cause and British visitors to Rome were almost all impressed by him. But James was a realist unwilling to encourage a rising that had no chance of success.

A new war with France gave the Jacobites hope; hence the bold adventure of the ’45. The young Charles Edward was an inspiring leader, at least until his prinicipal general Lord George Murray and the majority of his council refused to advance beyond Derby in the absence of the promised French invasion and of active support from English Jacobites. Seward, who thinks worse of Murray than many historians, believes that the gamble of a march to London, where there was certainly unease, even panic, was worth taking, a view also held by the late Fitzroy Maclean.

Still, the question remains: why did the numerous English Jacobites not rise in support of the prince? The answer was best given by John Buchan in his novel Midwinter; they were prosperous and had too much to lose.

Jacobite plots continued for ten years after the failure of the ’45, but the retreat from Derby and then Culloden doomed the cause. Seward treats Charles Edward’s long decline with suitable sympathy. The battles were over; only the songs of loyal regret were left. Allan Massie

The King Over The Water, by Desmond Seward, Birlinn, 405pp, £25