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The Fifteen

As well as the bicentenary of Waterloo and the sexcentenary of Agincourt, 2015 also marks the tricentenary of the Jacobite Uprising – not the famous 1745 one, but the 1715 one. It’s not hard to see why the ‘Fifteen’ (as it is sometimes referred to, with the other one known as the ‘Forty-Five’) is rather low down on the list of military things to be commemorated this year; victories overseas tend to get better coverage in the history books than failed rebellions at home.

There has, though, been a two-part documentary on BBC4 called The Stuarts in Exile, presented by an historian called Clare Jackson, which I watched with interest; this is partly because I like historical documentaries but also because I happen to think that James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), alias the Old Pretender, is one of those curiously fascinating people who history has largely overlooked. He was the son of James II by that King’s second wife, and the circumstances surrounding his birth (he was the ‘bedpan’ baby) helped spark the Glorious Revolution. As a result, he grew up in exile, and after James II’s death in 1701 he was acknowledged as King by Louis XIV of France even though his Catholicism meant he was barred under the terms of the Act of Settlement. He made several attempts to regain his kingdoms and eventually became the longest-serving pretender to the throne – his 65-year ‘reign’ has not (yet) been surpassed by any actual British monarch.

His supporters were known as Jacobites (this derives from Jacobus, the Latin for James), and support for the exiled dynasty could be expressed in covert ways such as doing the Loyal Toast while holding one’s drink over a bowl of water (to symbolise the King over the water) and the wearing of a symbol – the white rose. That last bit is why SNP MPs like to wear white roses on their lapels – while the Jacobites weren’t fighting for an independent Scotland (they wanted to rule England and Ireland as well as Scotland), the gesture is at least suitably subversive for a party that wants to break up the British state.

Of all the Jacobite attempts to regain the throne, the Fifteen was probably the closest they got. The Forty-Five is better remembered, probably due to the romantic appeal of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but by 1745 the Hannoverian dynasty and the resulting Whig ascendancy were secure and the country was doing well (England and Lowland Scotland were, at any rate). In 1715, however, the Hannoverians had only just come to the throne and the political system was in turmoil, with the Tories – the faction which back in the day had supported James II – having been unceremoniously removed from office and therefore looking to the exiled Stuarts as a means of returning to power.

However, James had over-estimated his support and the whole thing went off half-cocked when the Earl of Mar raised James’s standard and started to assemble a rebel army in Scotland before being instructed to do so. Things initially went well in Scotland – less so in England where it was easier for the government to have suspected Jacobites arrested – but in November government forces inflicted key defeats on the rebels in the more-or-less simultaneous battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston, and this was before James actually landed in Scotland. International circumstances didn’t help either. James had been expelled from France the previous year under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, and combined with the death of Louis XIV this meant that French support was not forthcoming.

(James made two other attempts, in 1708 and 1719, but on neither occasion did he actually manage to land in any of his father’s former kingdoms.)

During the first episode of The Stuarts in Exile, I found the continued emphasis on the Duke of Marlborough surprising – yes, he does pop up at various points in the story and his defection from James II to William of Orange was a turning-point of the Glorious Revolution, but he was not alone in switching sides. Stranger still, given this emphasis, was what was left out in terms of the connections between him and the various members of the Stuart dynasty. What of his wife’s close friendship with Queen Anne? His sister was the mother of James II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Berwick – who became a successful military commander under Louis XIV and who later fell out with his half-brother after declining to get involved in the Fifteen. Wasn’t that worth mentioning? While we’re on the subject of family connections, why was there no mention of the fact that William of Orange was James II’s nephew as well as his son-in-law? Or that James II and Louis XIV were cousins? Back then, these connections mattered.

There was also surprisingly little about James’s attitude towards Protestantism. Jacobitism was by no means limited to Catholics, and while in exile in Rome James had special permission to hold Protestant services at his court – which was popular with British visitors to Rome regardless of their religious or political affiliation. James must have been aware that had he converted to Protestantism his chances of regaining the throne would have increased immeasurably (and there was definitely a family history of converting to suit circumstances), but he chose not to. I’d’ve liked to have heard a bit more about this. In the second episode we got a reference to James stating that he would be tolerant towards Protestants in the event of his coming to the throne, but that was it.

For much of the second episode, James’s son Charles – Bonnie Prince Charlie – took centre-stage as Dr Jackson took us through the little-known stories of English Jacobitism and Scottish support for the Hannoverian government before a somewhat brief look at the Forty-Five and an account of Charles’s later years which brought up the interesting story of his secret visit to London in 1750 and his apparent conversion to Protestantism.

Despite what I’ve said, I enjoyed watching this documentary and I did like Dr Jackson’s style (although in terms of TV historians she’s not quite on a par with the likes of Mary Beard and Lucy Worsley). Funny, though, that a study of a somewhat marginalised branch of British royalty that tends to get dismissed from the main story managed to miss some important parts from its narrative.

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