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Why Did the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715-45 Fail? Essay

The Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745-46 were the two most serious threats to the Hanoverian crown in 18th Century Britain. Although there were numerous smaller attempts at returning the Stuarts to the throne the ’15 and ’45 remain the closest to succeeding. This essay will look at several of the contributing factors to the failures of these risings.

Foreign support was vital to the Jacobites in both the rebellions of 1715 and 1745-46. Many British Jacobites based their participation in the rebellions on the arrival of foreign assistance. The French support for the rebellion of 1715 was hampered by the death of Louis XIV in 1714. The Duke of Orleans succeeded Louis XIV and with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht still standing and his own designs on becoming heir-apparent the Duke needed peace and an understanding with Britain.1 France, in both the ‘15 and the ‘45 was always faced with more demands on its strengths than it could possibly meet. Only if the French strategists could see the exiled house of Stuart as a priority would support be forthcoming. James ordered his followers and sympathizers to do all they could to involve France and England, hoping for an intervention.2

The Spanish participated and aided the Jacobites during the latter stages of the 1715 rising. In late December a shipment of £15,000 of Spanish gold was despatched, but with luck not on the rebels side it was wrecked on the beach at St Andrews Bay.3 Similarly in the 1745-46 rising the French ship “Le Prince Charles” carrying funds was intercepted by the Royal Navy forcing Charles Edward into an early and fateful battle in April 1746.4 The lack of financial aid sounded the death knell to both rebellions. In the ‘45 it is thought that Louis XV had left his decision to commit himself to the cause far too late, holding back to find out how serious the rebellion in Scotland was.5 This unfortunate lack of foreign assistance was a key factor in the failure of the rebellions.

Both the 1715 and the 1745-46 rebellions suffered from poor military leadership and strategy. John Erskine, Lord Mar had become the Jacobite leader in the 1715 through the loss of his access to patronage alone.6 Mar was a poor, indecisive leader and although supported by some of the great military minds of the time his hesitance cost the Jacobites dearly. Bruce Lenman states that during the battle of Sherrifmuir when Argyll was outnumbered and unable to replace casualties Mar “…..did nothing when the situation cried out for immediate offensive”7 Prior to this battle the Jacobites had failed to make use of some of their more effective troops. The Croats and Pandours who were deployed by the Habsburgs were trained and experienced in the type of warfare that was played out prior to Sherrifmuir. The limited use of these troops showed a lack of vision from senior officers.8 Mar also failed to utilise those around him.

He later said of Lieutenant – Colonel Clephane, “he did some very good service, and it was a misfortoun to our affairs that some times for humoring of some for whom I was obliged to have regard, I could not follow his advice”9 Mar’s Fabian tactics spelled disaster for the rebellion.10 The 1745 suffered a similar fate in the hands of Charles Edward Stuart. Like Mar, Charles had a lack of military experience. His decision to land in Scotland with no support appalled British Jacobites.11 Lord George Murray, the 45’s most competent and experienced officer was said to be irritated by Charles’ presence.12 Charles’ decision to push on to London could have mustered foreign support but his withdrawal and retreat from Derby proved fatal. In the winter conditions and with only Inverness left as a potential stronghold the Jacobites were forced into battle. These poor tactical moves had left the Jacobites in a vulnerable and dangerous position.

Charles took the advice of General John O’Sullivan to face Cumberland at Culloden. Lord George Murray could not support this decision. Culloden was in his eyes a “shooting range” During the battle Charles proved his incompetence in his military command believing the Highland charge would solve all. His soldiers, weak and half starved, were exhausted from a poorly judged night attack the evening prior and within half an hour the Jacobites faced defeat. Murray believed that the correct strategy would have been a guerrilla campaign in the central Highlands. 13 The lack of faith and the unwillingness to acknowledge the views of those with greater experience contributed to the failures of the rebellions of ’15 and ’45.

The lack of support from English Jacobites also ensured the risings of 1715 and 1745-46 were destined to fail. In the ’15 rebellion the English Jacobites approached their participation half heartedly and the Anglican clergy were said to embarrassed when it was found to be supporting a rebellion of Roman Catholic origin.14 On the 6th October 1715 Thomas Foster started a small but ultimately flawed rising in Greenrig. On riding to Warkworth he proclaimed James III in disguise. After plans to take Newcastle Sir William Blackett, a local Jacobite supporter backed out and turned himself in to the crown The arrival of Whig magistrates and local militia forced the Jacobites to retreat and return to Hexham.15

Bruce Lenman speaks of the English Jacobites as “fox hunters armed with dress swords”16 By the ’45 rebellion English treason laws were redressed to ensure that rebellion was considered by only the most loyal of Jacobites.17 Charles Edward knew that if the English Jacobites were not pushed or persuaded into action that most would find a reason to avoid any form of fighting or rebellion.18 The Jacobites needed support from within the British Isles as much as they needed that of foreign sympathizers. Yet another contributing factor to the failed rebellions.

In Scotland the Jacobite leaders failed to convince all the native population to participate. In 1715 George of Seton, the Earl of Winton gathered two to three thousand tenants at Pinkie Park dyke to bare them with arms and ammunition. After dithering on his course of action and with Argyll sending two troops of dragoons armed with canon to deal with the situation the small uprising collapsed.19 Similarly Sir Thomas Bruce of Hope and Lord Balfour took a small party of Fife Jacobites to Kinross in view of proclaiming James III. As the weather worsened the group turned back to Bruce’s home to socialize.20 Events such as these illustrate the problems facing a successful Jacobite rebellion in 1715.

Some supporters involvement in the ’15 rebellion was so fleeting that certain gentry were allowed to continue their family successions, such as Alexander the Marquis of Huntly who was later to become 2nd Duke of Gordon in 1716.21 The ’45 also saw some Scots wary of involvement. Even on landing at Eriskay Alexander MacDonald of Boisdale told the invaders to go home. In Bruce Lenmans words “he (Charles) had nothing to lose; they (the Scottish nobles) everything”22 As well as the nobles and gentry being reluctant to participate in the ’45 bad harvests in 1741 led to the majority of the highland population being half starved and in rent arrears. These were far from ideal conditions for a successful uprising to be held.23

In conclusion the Jacobites were doomed to failure by a lack of consistent and well timed support. Such a small fighting force required the volume of troops, finance and arms afforded only by nations as large and wealthy as France and Spain. Aside from the limited foreign support the Jacobites also suffered from poor leadership and strategy. With limited resources available they were consistently hampered by the decisions of those placed in positions of authority who failed to acknowledge their more experienced peers. In addition the failure to convince Hanoverian opposition in Scotland and England spelt a fateful end to the rebellions.


Michael Lynch: Scotland – A New History. Pimlico. 1992 London. F J Mclynn: The Jacobite Army In England 1745. 1983 Edinburgh. F J McLynn: The Jacobites. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1985 London Daniel Szechi: 1715 The Jacobite Rebellion. Yale University Press. 2006 Bruce Lenman: The Jacobite Cause. Richard Drew Publishing. 1986 Glasgow. Bruce Lenman: The Jacobite Risings In Britain 1689-1746. Eyre Methuen Ltd. 1980 Glasgow. T M Devine: The Scottish Nation 1700-2007. Penguin Group. 2006 London

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