In the late 17th century Roman Catholic King James II of England and VII of Scotland of the royal house of Stuart was very unpopular due to his tolerant views which helped the Catholic minority but alarmed the Protestant religious and political establishment. In 1688 by popular demand James was deposed and replaced by his daughter Mary, who ruled jointly with her husband, William of Orange, a Dutch protestant, and James fled to France and then Rome where he set up his court-in-exile. In 1715 James’s son, who would have been James III and VIII and who was known as the ‘Old Pretender’ led a half-hearted attempt to regain his throne which quickly fizzled out with the Pretender escaping back to the continent. However in 1745 the Pretender’s son, Prince Charles Edward Stuart or the ‘Young Pretender’ was determined to regain his family’s throne. He landed in the remote and desolate Highlands of north-west Scotland with only seven men and tried to persuade the local Catholic clan chiefs to join his cause. At first they refused and told him to go home until he could guarantee French support but eventually he talked them round. They raised their standard and several thousand men and the Jacobite army marched on Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland which quickly fell. They then routed a government army at Prestonpans just outside Edinburgh and continued their march south. Many of the Highlanders were nervous about marching into England but Charles was convinced that if they did so the English Jacobite families would rally to his cause and the French would send troops in his support.
The Jacobite army crossed the border and took Carlisle, then Manchester and eventually reached Derby, a hundred miles and just a few days march north of London. At this point London was in complete panic and being evacuated. There were no government forces between the Jacobites and London and Charles was strongly in favour of pressing on. There is little doubt that had he done so London would have fallen. However, not a single English Jacobite family had risen to join him, there was no sign of French support, and some of Charles’ advisers believed a government double agent who told them that there was indeed a large government army to the south. Charles and his advisers argued ferociously but eventually Charles reluctantly and bitterly agreed to return to Scotland and re-group for the winter. The Jacobite army turned round and began the long trudge north. They managed to avoid a battle by slipping between two government armies on the English/Scottish border, itself a significant military feat, then fought a successful rearguard action at Falkirk in the Scottish Lowlands, their last notable military success. They continued north but eventually the exhausted troops were forced to turn and face the enemy at Culloden Moor, just outside Inverness, Britain’s northernmost city.
Charles picked an utterly unsuitable site for the battle. The Jacobite battle tactic was the Highland charge, a full-blooded assault with broadsword and shield to break the enemy lines followed by murderous hand to hand fighting at which they excelled. Culloden Moor was boggy and uneven and completely the wrong terrain for such a charge. Also, the government troops had been trained in a new tactic to counter the charge. If you attack someone with a sword in your right hand and a shield in your left your right side is relatively unprotected. The government soldiers were therefore drilled not to attack the man in front of them but to bayonet the vulnerable side of the man to their right. Though of course this would have taken incredible discipline and I’m not sure how many of the government troops could have actually maintained this during the battle. Furthermore the Jacobites were short of food and many of them stood facing the enemy for two days in driving sleet and rain with only a single biscuit to sustain them. Furthermore, when the battle did eventually start Charles inexplicably made his men stand for half an hour being torn apart by government artillery before giving the order to charge. It’s not clear whether the order was ever given or the Highlanders took the decision themselves but eventually the charge started though it was ragged and unco-ordinated. Unknown to the Jacobites the government had hidden snipers behind a wall at the side of the battlefield and as they charged the snipers opened up with withering fire. Against all the odds one group of Highlanders did smash their way through the government’s first line but couldn’t get through the second. The first line then re-grouped and closed around them. The Highlanders were thus trapped between the government army’s first and second lines who poured their musket rounds into them. Seven hundred Highlanders were slaughtered in less than ten minutes. The battle was effectively over. It had lasted less than an hour with catastrophic Jacobite casualties and negligible government losses. The Prince’s bodyguard forced him from the field. About fifteen hundred stragglers re-grouped the next day at Ruthven to carry on the campaign but they received a message from Charles that it was all over and that it was every man for himself. The Jacobite cause was lost forever.
The consequences of the battle were devastating for the Highlands. The government forces had been led by the Duke of Cumberland who came to be known as “Butcher” Cumberland. After the battle many badly injured Highlanders were hiding in the heather in and around the battlefield. Cumberland faked an order from Charles saying that had the Jacobites won the battle they were to show no mercy to the government forces. He used this to support his own order that the battlefield be searched and all wounded Highlanders bayoneted. He then sent his forces throughout the Highlands burning the homes and taking prisoner all suspected Jacobite supporters. The speaking of Gaelic, the wearing of tartan and the possession of weapons were banned for decades. The Jacobite prisoners were taken to London but there were far too many to execute them all so they drew lots to decide their fates. The unlucky one-in-four were hung, drawn and quartered. This means they were hung by the neck until almost dead, then disembowelled while still alive with the guts thrown on to a fire, then cut into quarters. The lucky ones were transported to the colonies, though to be honest this probably played a significant role in the building of the British Empire. Meanwhile “Butcher” Cumberland was considered the saviour of the nation. The flower “Sweet William” was named after him and the music “See The Conquering Hero Comes” composed in his honour. In John Prebble’s seminal book “Culloden” he generally writes with sympathy for the rebels though he also argues that the Highland clan system was archaic and had to be destroyed if ever Britain was to become a truly United Kingdom and modern world power.
After Culloden Charles spent several months hiding around the Highlands trying to get back to France. He narrowly escaped capture on many occasions, once walking past government troops dressed as a woman, but despite the offer of an enormous £30,000 reward no-one ever gave him away. The French warship “L’Heureux” eventually managed to slip the British blockade and got him back to France where he was at first treated as a hero and became a major celebrity. However, shortly afterwards Britain and France made peace and he suddenly found himself an undesirable at the French court. The once charismatic young Prince was a broken man. He died in 1788, a bitter and bloated alcoholic. Culloden was the last battle ever fought on British soil.