James Stuart: The Man Who Would Never Be King

Born a prince but never crowned, find out more about James Stuart, aka the “Old Pretender”, and his role in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

Nov 6, 2021By Sarah Moxey, MSc by Research in Scottish History, MA (Hons) History

portraits prince james francis edward stuart


James Stuart had, within a few hours of his birth, already attained the dubious achievement of being controversial. Son of King James II of Great Britain and Queen Mary of Modena, he was born into an unenviable political and religious storm. His father was a Catholic king in a Protestant country who had exhausted the patience of parliament and the clergy. Parliament had invited James II’s daughter and son-in-law to take the throne. Rumors circulated that James Stuart was smuggled into the birth chamber in a bedpan and was not the true heir to the throne. This claim would follow him through his whole life and he was nicknamed “the old pretender”. James Stuart would only spend his first few months in Britain before the events of the Glorious Revolution would force his father to flee the country.


Read on for more about James Stuart and the Jacobite rising.


James Stuart: Early Life in Exile

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Portrait of a Young Prince James in Colour, artist unknown,  via the National Library of Scotland; with Queen Anne (1665-1714) in the House of Lords, by Peter Tillemans, c.1708-1714, via Royal Collections Trust


James Stuart was raised in France at the Palace of St. Germain. After his father was forced to flee, the French king, Louis XIV, offered sanctuary to the exiled royal family. This was not merely a goodwill gesture. The Stuart family were used by the French as pawns in the political and military intrigue engulfing Europe, with wars being fought over the royal succession and territory.


The family settled into their new life. In 1692 James’s sister Louisa Maria was born, and the two became very close. He was also devoted to his mother. His father established a household for James when he was just 8 years old, with strict rules governing his education. James Stuart was considered to be intelligent, but quiet and reserved. He was raised a staunch Catholic and never considered renouncing his religion even for the sake of reclaiming his kingdom. James’s father died in 1701 when he was only 13, leaving him the unofficial heir to a throne that his religious beliefs precluded him from claiming.

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Act of Settlement

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Treaty of Union, 1707, via the National Records of Scotland; with Queen Anne (1665-1714) when Princess of Denmark, by Willem Wissing, c.1683, via the Royal Collections Trust


In 1700 Westminster Parliament passed the Act of Settlement as neither William III nor Princess Anne (his heir to the throne) had any surviving children. The act offered the throne to the Electors of Hanover, the nearest protestant heirs. James Stuart’s claims were considered treasonous and all titles granted to him by his late father were forfeited. In 1702 William III died leaving Anne to become Queen. In Scotland, the Act of Settlement was not well received. The Stuarts had been the Scottish royal family for centuries, they did not want an interloper.


In 1704, the Scottish parliament passed the Act of Security declaring they would decide on the next monarch themselves. It opened the possibility that James Stuart would be restored. The bill was refused Royal assent and England retaliated with the 1705 Alien Act which imposed border tariffs on Scottish goods. Scotland was already in deep trouble financially after a disastrous attempt to set up a trading colony in Darien. The Alien Act could have bankrupted the country. Backed into a corner, the Scottish parliament gave up on the Act of Security and agreed to a parliamentary union with England.


The Abortive Rebellion of 1708

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Entry of George I and Prince of Wales into London, by Abraham Allard, 1714, via the Royal Collections Trust


The approval of the 1707 Act of Union seemed to be the end of James Stuart’s chances of ever becoming king. While Scotland had maintained its parliamentary independence, the chance of a Stuart restoration was possible. After union, the only way James would regain the throne was by force. Britain and France were embroiled at this point in the Wars of the Spanish Succession. In order to divert British forces, the French enacted a plan named the Entreprise d’ Ecosse (Enterprise of Scotland). They aimed to land French troops in Scotland to facilitate a Jacobite uprising. However, landing on the Scottish coast in poor weather proved to be impossible. They attracted the Royal Navy’s attention and the French ships had to abandon the attempt. James Stuart also contracted measles adding another calamity to the invasion attempt.


French support died away after this abortive rebellion as they were distracted by war. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht securing peace between Britain and France contained a condition that the Jacobite court be expelled from France. They were offered sanctuary in Rome by Pope Clement XI. James Stuart was crushed by the loss of his home and longstanding French support.


The Hanoverian Takeover

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John Erskine, Earl of Mar (1675-1732), via the National Library of Scotland


After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the throne passed to George I, Elector of Hanover. He was not a popular choice in certain parts of Britain. A series of riots, known as the coronation riots, broke out in October 1714 when George was crowned. Hoping to capitalize on public discontent in Britain, the Jacobites began to plan a rebellion.


James Stuart declared it was “now or never,” and begged the Pope for assistance, but in August a huge blow befell James’s cause when his long-term ally King Louis XIV died, leaving him without French support. More shocking news reached James Stuart weeks later — the Jacobite rebellion had already begun.


The Jacobite Rebellion of 1715

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Jacobite Troops Surrendering Their Arms to General Wills in Preston Market Place, 1715, by Richard Holmes, date unknown, via the Harris Museum


In 1715, the Jacobite rebellion was not initiated by James Stuart. It was the Earl of Mar (known as “Bobbing John” due to his tendency to change allegiance) who started it rather unexpectedly. Because government spies were onto the Jacobite rebellion’s plans, Mar raised his standard at Braemar in Aberdeenshire, declaring James Stuart as King of the Scots. James Stuart sent a commission offering Mar command of the Jacobite forces on his behalf. Mar quickly assembled an army from the clans. They secured Aberdeen, Inverness, and Dundee, but after a month-long siege, they were unable to capture Stirling Castle. The lack of planning for the rebellion quickly showed as Mar had no idea how to proceed and was a poor leader. James Stuart did not rush to lead the rebellion from the front. He traveled across France, disguised as a bishop, and waited weeks on the Brittany coast for news of the outcome. For a rebellion raised on his behalf, James Stuart seemed reluctant to commit to it.


The Battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston

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James Stuart, the Old Pretender, sets foot on Scottish Soil at Peterhead, 22 Dec.1715, via Wikimedia Commons


There was only one major battle in Scotland, the Battle of Sheriffmuir, located near Dunblane. Mar’s indecisiveness allowed government forces led by the far more competent Duke of Argyll to build their strength. They intercepted the Jacobites on their march towards England at Sheriffmuir on 13 November 1715. The Jacobite army far outnumbered government forces, but they were less experienced soldiers. The battle proved to be inconclusive as the fighting on both sides was ill-disciplined and they chased each other from the battlefield. Mar did not capitalize on his advantage of larger numbers to finish off government troops. Some historians have suggested they were difficult to track down, or that his men were simply too exhausted. Either way, nobody truly won the battle. At the same time as Sheriffmuir, the English Jacobites fought their own battle through the streets of Preston. They lost and surrendered on the same day.


Stuart’s Late Arrival to Scotland

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Battle of Glensheil 1719, by Peter Tillemans, 1719, via the National Galleries of Scotland


James Stuart did not arrive in Scotland until 22 December when the rebellion was virtually over. He was met at Peterhead on the north coast of Scotland by Mar who took him to Perth where the remainder of his troops were stationed. It was recorded by a Jacobite soldier that James Stuart was not an impressive figure. Tall, thin, and melancholy, he barely engaged with his soldiers and did nothing to rally them to his cause. By all accounts, he already knew the fifteen was an abject failure. He departed Scotland just over six weeks after he arrived. His disinterest in the rebellion and sudden departure permanently scarred his reputation in Scotland.


The Aftermath of the Rebellion

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Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, by Louis Gabriel Blanchett, 1741, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


James returned briefly to France to visit his mother before traveling to his new residence in Rome. The loss of French support hugely damaged the Jacobite cause. Another rebellion attempt was planned in 1719 with Spanish aid. James traveled to Madrid but once again he stayed behind as Spanish ships sailed to Scotland. Only three ships made it, and on arrival, they found that only 1,000 clansmen rallied to the Jacobite cause. They were defeated at the Battle of Glenshiel and once again the Jacobite cause seemed lost.


James Stuart: Never A King

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Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, from the studio of Alexis Simon Belle, c.1712, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


James Stuart would live the rest of his life in Rome. In 1719 he married Princess Maria of Sobieska and had two children, Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie), and Henry Benedict. His marriage was plagued with problems as the couple argued over hiring protestant tutors for Charles, leaving them estranged for several years. James was close with his sons until Charles led the doomed 1745 Jacobite rebellion on his father’s behalf. When James helped secure the promotion of Henry Benedict to Cardinal, Charles was deeply offended and became estranged from his father for the rest of his life. James was very unwell during his final decade and died aged 77 on 1 January 1768.


James Stuart was born to be king but would never fulfill this role. His life lacked a purpose and this was reflected in his personality which was described as “melancholic”. He was very much his father’s son, believing in the divine right of kings, and he was deeply committed to his catholic faith. He was not an inspiring figure, and never led any of the rebellions carried out to restore him. He damaged the Jacobite cause by being neither the man nor the king-in-waiting his supporters wanted him to be.

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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.