The Story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Britain’s Young Pretender

This article will explore Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6, raised to reclaim the British throne.

Oct 12, 2021By Sarah Moxey, MSc by Research in Scottish History, MA (Hons) History
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Prince Charles Edward Stuart 1720-1788, eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, by Allan Ramsay, 1745, via Scottish National Portrait Gallery; with The March of the Guard to Finchley, by William Hogarth, 1750, via the Foundling Museum


On July 23, 1745, on the Island of Eriskay in Scotland, a young man named Prince Charles Edward Stewart landed a ship armed with just seven men. Better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, he would lead a Jacobite rebellion against the British government. His aim was simple, he wanted to restore his claim to the throne. He wanted to be more than Bonnie Prince Charlie; he wanted to be King.


Who was Bonnie Prince Charlie?

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Prince James Francis Edward Stewart (1688-1766), father of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Coloured Portrait of Prince James as a young man, Artist unknown,  via the National Library of Scotland


Bonnie Prince Charlie was the grandson of the Catholic King James II (1685-1688) who was deposed from the British throne in favor of his protestant daughter Mary II, and his son-in-law William III. He fled to France and spent the remainder of his life in exile. When both of James’s daughters died without an heir, the throne passed to the closest protestant male, George I of Hanover.


James’s supporters, known as the Jacobites, fought several rebellions to restore the family to the throne. Charles’ father Prince James (the ‘Old Pretender’) was involved in a failed rebellion in 1715. By 1745, George II of Hanover was king, and Britain was embroiled in the War of the Austrian Succession on the continent. While British forces were distracted, Bonnie Prince Charlie believed the time was ripe to launch another rebellion.


A Problematic Arrival

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The monument at Glenfinnan marking the place where the Jacobite rebellion began, via National Trust for Scotland 


Bonnie Prince Charlie spent his first few weeks in Scotland persuading the highland clans to rally to his cause. Several clan chiefs tried to persuade Charles to abandon the rebellion until French military support arrived. But Charlie was not dissuaded, he believed that if he could rally enough Scottish Jacobites, the English Jacobites, and French support, would follow. He was fortunate that enough clan chiefs offered their support for the rebellion to continue. Charles mustered his troops on 19 August near Glenfinnan, where his hastily made standard was raised. The Jacobite Rebellion had officially begun. A statue of a lone highlander now stands tall over the magnificent Loch Sheil in Glenfinnan village to commemorate this fateful day.

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The Rebellion Begins

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Bonnie Prince Charlie Entering the Ballroom at Holyrood House, by John Pettie, c.1892, via Royal Collections Trust


News of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Scotland soon spread to London and he found himself with a bounty of £30000 on his head (around £5 million in today’s value). Bonnie Prince Charlie was unfazed and he began his campaign by marching south, arriving in Edinburgh on the morning of 11 September. He captured the city without any resistance and was welcomed by cheering crowds. Edinburgh Castle was held by the government troops stationed there, so he took over Holyrood Palace as his headquarters. It was during his time in Edinburgh that his nickname “Bonnie Prince Charlie” was coined, due to the reaction of Edinburgh’s female population, who had gathered to admire him.


The Battle of Prestonpans

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Order of the Battle at Prestonpans 1745, by William Eyers, c.1745, via the Royal Collections Trust


The Jacobite army would face their first test in battle on 21 September in Prestonpans some 12 miles east of Edinburgh. Government forces were around double that of the Jacobites, but they were poorly trained, inexperienced troops. This was due to a majority of the British army being engaged in battles abroad.


Their inexperience showed when they were easily scattered by the infamous highland charge. This was a tactical move during which the Scots would run at full speed towards the enemy, causing them to disperse through a combination of brute force and sword work. The government troops were terrified and easily overcome. The battle lasted less than an hour and was a great boost to the Jacobite cause.


A Clash of Ideas

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Contemporary cartoon displaying Bonnie Prince Charlie and his generals racing for the English border. A Race from Preston Pans to Berwick, artist unknown, via National Library of Scotland


Bonnie Prince Charlie returned to Edinburgh in triumph to plan his next move. Charles and his council soon disagreed over their next stage. He wanted to invade England to secure the British throne for his family whereas his council believed they should consolidate their campaign in Scotland, allow the English forces to come to them, and await French aid. It shows the force of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s personality that his council agreed with his plans regardless of their overwhelming objections. This reluctance to follow his scheme of invasion would soon cause major problems for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ambitions.


The 6 weeks of indecision after Prestonpans exposed divisions within the Jacobites over their plans and it allowed the government forces to prepare. Undeterred, Charles began his march south with an army of around 5000. He crossed the border, triumphantly entering England on 8 November. His army quickly secured the city of Carlisle but his commanders were still worried. They tried to persuade Charles to wait in Carlisle for the English Jacobites to rise. Bonnie Prince Charlie believed they should continue; his desire to reach London overruled all other opinions.


The March South

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Painting depicting the government army marching towards London to protect the city from the Jacobites, The March of the Guard to Finchley, by William Hogarth, 1750 via the Foundling Museum


The Jacobites hoped to recruit more supporters as they marched south towards London, but found they were not as popular as they had hoped. They looted supplies from the towns unfortunate enough to be in their path, which did not help their recruitment drive. The Jacobites made it all the way to Derby, just over 100 miles from London. This proved to be the crucial turning point of the whole adventure.


Charles’ war council had never truly supported the march to London and continued to advise retreat. The decision was secured in Derby when an English spy reported that the road to London was blocked by a large army. This was actually not true, leading to much speculation among historians that if the Jacobites had marched on, the whole outcome may have been very different.


Bonnie Prince Charlie’s repeated claims that French support would come if they invaded England suddenly came crashing down. Not one member of his council would support marching any further and the prince, mortified and humiliated, was forced to order a retreat to Scotland. Relations between the Prince and his council never fully recovered with both sides becoming mistrustful and secretive.


A Hasty Retreat

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A contemporary cartoon depicting the government army led by the Duke of Cumberland chasing the Jacobites back to Scotland, Highland Chace, or Pursuit of the Rebels, artist unknown, via the National Library of Scotland


The Jacobite army retreated with government forces in hot pursuit. The army marched with dwindling supplies through an extremely cold winter. In January 1746, the retreating army joined forces with more Scots, recruited in the prince’s absence, and headed for Stirling. The Jacobites managed to defeat the government army at the Battle of Falkirk but it was to be their last success.


The failed attempt to take Stirling Castle from the government wasted several months and allowed the bulk of the government forces led by the fearsome Duke of Cumberland to make their way north. The Jacobites retreated further into the highlands, taking Inverness, but sickness, desertion, and dwindling supplies meant they were running out of ideas. The government army was closing in on Inverness, the day of reckoning was approaching.


The Battle of Culloden

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A visual depiction of the failure of the highland charge at Culloden,  An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier, date unknown, via the Royal Collections Trust


Bonnie Prince Charlie revealed his inexperience while planning his military campaign during the events of Culloden. He ordered his army to lead a surprise attack on government troops the night before the battle. But there were delays during the march and they did not make it before daylight. This left the Jacobites exhausted, starved, and ill-equipped against opposing forces. Several hundred Jacobites got lost in the dark and missed the battle as they were unable to find their way back in time.


The Battle of Culloden was fought on 16 April 1746 and was a complete disaster for the Jacobite army. The government army outnumbered and outgunned the Jacobites. Snow fell that morning, leaving the battlefield wet and boggy. It was an open exposed field, with nowhere for the Jacobites to hide from the enemy’s gunfire. The famous highland charge employed by Scottish clans was hopeless in such conditions. Their opposition had also learned from previous encounters, attacking their opponent on the right, instead of straight on. This bypassed the highlanders’ targes, or shields. Because of this, the Jacobites were slaughtered, losing around 2000 men.


Over the Sea to Skye

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Flora McDonald’s Farewell to Bonnie Prince Charlie, by George W. Joy, 1891, via Wikimedia Commons


Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the battlefield with his life in grave danger. He escaped to the Western Isles, helped by the kindness of local clans and ordinary Scots. No castles or palaces awaited him; he slept in huts, fields, and caves. On the Isle of South Uist when the government was closing in, he sought the assistance of a lady named Flora McDonald.


She agreed to help, dressing Bonnie Prince Charlie up as a maid. They eventually escaped on a boat to the Isle of Skye, only narrowly avoiding capture when troops fired on their boat. The story of his escape from Scotland was immortalized in the Skye Boat Song, with the famous line, “Carry the lad who was born to be king, over the sea to Skye.”


Charles hid on Skye for almost three months in a cave near Loch Nan Uamh, before he was eventually carried over the sea to France. Bonnie Prince Charlie would never return to Scotland and never came to terms with his failure to regain the crown. He descended into violent alcoholism and died aged 67 in Rome.


Bonnie Prince Charlie: Britain’s Young Pretender

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Prince Charles Edward Stuart 1720-1788, eldest son of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, by Allan Ramsay, 1745, via the Scottish National Portrait Gallery


The Jacobite cause ended in disaster, led by an inexperienced yet power-hungry young man, against the might of the British government. His many errors in judgment made throughout the campaign were due to his desire to do too much at once. He did not help his own cause by coming with no arms or military back-up.


Had he focused on securing Scotland he may have been more successful. But his legacy as a doomed romantic figure has lived on, becoming as infamous as Robert the Bruce or William Wallace. Bonnie Prince Charlie would forever remain a prince, but he was the man who would never be a real king.

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By Sarah MoxeyMSc by Research in Scottish History, MA (Hons) HistorySarah is in the final stages of completing her PhD in Scottish History and works part-time as a Special Collections Librarian at a national institution. She has diverse interests across British and Scottish history from 1600-1960, but her areas of expertise are politics, identity, and monarchy. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, and Irish dancing.