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Charles Edward Stuart lived from 31 December 1720 to 31 January 1788. He is better remembered as "Bonnie Prince Charlie" or "The Young Pretender". In a life of 67 years he spent just 14 months in Scotland and England in the fruitless pursuit of his family's claim to the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland. But during that brief visit he set in train a series of events that were to destroy the traditional Highland way of life forever. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
The story starts in 1688, when King James VII of Scotland and II of England was deposed in favour of William of Orange and Queen Mary by a Protestant nobility fearful James was starting a Catholic dynasty. Efforts by the Jacobites, as James' followers became known, to restore him to the throne subsequently led to conflict in 1689, 1708, 1715, and in 1719 when Spanish troops landed in Glen Shiel.
1744 saw the French planning to invade Britain to replace George II with James VII/II's son, also called James, known to history as the Old Pretender, who would become James III of England (and James VIII of Scotland) if the venture succeeded. It didn't: a storm wrecked the French invasion fleet and the French gave up both their plans for an attack on the south coast and a diversionary plan to land a smaller army in Scotland.
Charles Edward Stuart was the son of the Old Pretender, and was born in December 1720. If he had been just marginally less headstrong he would have been lost to history as an obscure member of the Stuart dynasty in their twilight European years.
Instead, he took it upon himself to succeed where the French government could not, and unseat George II from the throne in favour of James VIII/III. On 5 July 1745 he sailed from France for Scotland with two ships. En route one of them, the Elisabeth, carrying his military supplies and gold, was badly damaged in an encounter with a Royal Navy ship and had to turn back.
Charles landed on Eriskay in the Western Isles on 23 July 1745 and despite a discouraging reception sailed on to land at Loch nan Uamh on the mainland two days later with just eight supporters, no supplies, and no funds. Charles raised his standard at Glenfinnan on 19 August and an army began to accumulate around him. On 4 September they took Perth, and then on 16 September took Edinburgh without a fight. Two days later the Jacobite army defeated the Government forces in Scotland at the Battle of Prestonpans.
Charles' Highland advisers wanted him to remain in Edinburgh pending a hoped-for French invasion of England. But Charles saw his success in Scotland as just a stepping stone towards his real goal, London. He moved south on 31 October 1745.
The Jacobites reached Derby on 4 December 1745. It was becoming clear that support from English Jacobites was not emerging as Charles had hoped it would. And it was becoming equally clear that the French were not going to invade in a timescale that would be of any help to Charles' Jacobite army. Meanwhile Government armies were gathering and the military situation looked increasingly bleak.
Charles met with his key advisers, in what is today the upstairs room of a Derby pub, through most of 4 December. Charles was all for pressing on to London: the majority backed Lord George Murray's call for a retreat to Scotland. Charles finally angrily accepted the need to retreat as night fell. The Jacobites began their retreat from Derby on 6 December 1745. What none of them knew was that the Welsh Jacobites has risen in support and others in Oxfordshire were on the point of doing so. Neither did they know that London was in panic and that George II's court was packing his belongings onto ships on the Thames ready to flee to the Continent.
It has been said that had the Jacobites pressed on, George II would have fled; that the English and French would have avoided a further 70 years of conflict; that the English wouldn't have had to raise taxes in the colonies to pay for the French wars; and that the Americans would have had no cause to fight a war for their independence. And, arguably, the French revolution wouldn't have happened. The world might have been a very different place but for a closely argued decision taken in the upstairs room of a pub in Derby one dark winter's evening in December 1745.
Back in Scotland the Jacobites captured Stirling on 8 January 1746, and went on to defeat the Government forces at the Battle of Falkirk Muir on 17 January. Charles, who had been drinking increasingly heavily since Derby, failed to take advantage, and by 1 February much larger Government forces under the Duke of Cumberland were forcing the Jacobites further north.
The climax was reached on 16 April 1746 when the now badly weakened Jacobite army was defeated by the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden. For a full account of the final defeat of the Jacobites see our feature page on the battle.
After Culloden. up to 3,000 Jacobites regrouped at Ruthven Barracks, under Lord George Murray, ready to fight on. But Charles Edward Stuart had had enough and was now only interested in escape: he sent them a message that each man should save himself the best he could. Four days after Culloden. he arrived in Arisaig, where he spent a week waiting for a promised French ship, leaving just four days before it arrived.
Bonnie Prince Charlie spent the next five months evading capture across the Highlands and Western Isles, never betrayed despite the intensive search for him by the Duke of Cumberland's army as they systematically and ruthlessly set about suppressing any possibility of future dissent in the Highlands. And despite the vast price of £30,000 on his head.
This period provided much material for the romantic legends that have surround Charles, and Flora Macdonald, who helped him evade capture at great personal risk. During this time he popped up in various parts of the Western Highlands, in South Uist and Benbecula in the Western Isles, and in Skye, where, in Portree, he took his leave of Flora. Finally, on 20 September 1746 Charles found himself at Loch nan Uamh near Arisaig, very close to where he had landed on the mainland 14 months earlier. Here he boarded a French ship, still promising to return to Scotland. The spot is today marked by The Prince's Cairn.
He never did return. He was forced out of France with the rest of the Stuart family in 1748 under a clause in a treaty between France and England. And he secretly visited London twice during the 1750s in fruitless pursuit of the Stuart claim to the throne. On the death of his father, The Old Pretender, 1 January 1766, Charles inherited the claim to the throne, being seen by Jacobites as Charles III. He married, divorced, and finally died in Rome on 31 January 1788, his claim to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland passing to his brother, Henry Benedict Stuart.