Book Review: Jacobites by Jacqueline Riding.

Hardcover: 608 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (7 April 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408819120

It was a romance to equal fiction said Sir Walter Scott. This account of the great ’45 rebellion by Jacqueline Riding proves that. It was indeed a legendary concept, and in fiction the impossibility of the scheme would have almost assured his success, but history has a way of disregarding romantic ideas. That the record actually supports these tales of high adventure is notable enough to make us keep returning to the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, not least for the great effects it had on the creation of British identity.
The 270th anniversary of the rising has produced several important new books on the major aspects of the event. A new book focusing on the Battle of Culloden by Trevor Royle takes a close look at the dramatic final battle and the noted expert on the rising, Christopher Duffy has written a book that promises to reconsider the rebellion in a fresh light.

In the spirit of fresh looks, on the front cover of this well made book you will see a portrait of the prince, painted in Edinburgh in 1745, this is the lost portrait by Ramsay recovered by Dr. Bendor Grosvenor showing the actual likeness of the Prince in the year of the rising. Above it we find praise from no less than Tom Holland, who calls the rebellion the greatest eighteenth century crisis to menace the Union of Great Britain. Yet while his praise for the book is more than merited, this end phrase got me thinking, why was it a threat to the union?
In Scotland at the time it was seen as a civil war, to some in England is was a war of Scottish aggression, yet to another bulk of English people it was again a civil war. Why? Because the rebellion aimed not to destroy the union but preserve it as it where under another name, it was after all James I and later Queen Anne (Ancestors of Bonnie Prince Charlie) who where respectively the architect and overseer of the said union. It could be said that the ’45 was an attempted hostile takeover, a try at forcible rebranding.

Rather than menacing the union of Great Britain, the deposed King James, in whose name Charlie marched, wished to preserve and rule it. And it is precisely for this reason that the rebellion ended as it did. In mud, gore and confusion at Culloden Moor in 1746. So much for the politics of kings and princes. The high tone of leaders bears little resemblance to the confusion many found themselves in during this time. And indeed instead of bringing together a better Union under the Stuart banner, the fallout thereafter created even more distance between England and Scotland, that still resonates today.

So it is a tale of the House of Stuart and Hanover and the struggle for the future of Britain that you are about to read. Not quite a tale of English versus Scots, yet by a quirk of fate the ’45 would not have been possible without the support of the Highland clans and as such the repercussions would be severe for Scotland. Nor as you will find when reading Jacobites is it the same old story of the romantic but doomed cause so beloved of the Victorians, they themselves a product of the result of the success of the Hanoverian dynasty. The heroes in this story come from different places.
Written objectively, with a serene, measured pace and often with surprisingly short chapters but a fairly long page count at 503 reading pages, it is also dotted with black and white contemporary images. It flows from place to place, and event to event, switching points of view, with great detail. From its origins to its proper start in 1743 to the finish in 1748, and it avoids referring to the British forces as “Hanoverian troops” (unless inside quotation marks) or as “Government troops”, which I think is good.
The true importance of the ’45 is that it was the last obstacle to block the path Britain had taken in 1688, the last to try to reverse the effects of the Glorious Revolution. The Jacobite threat had been the sword of Damocles to successive non Stuart monarchs ever since, and with it looming overhead no meaningful progress could be made. More often than not this sword took the form of a claymore.

It is no coincidence that Culloden was the last Battle to be fought on British soil. It was the last great internecine war as well, with the failure of the last Jacobite rebellion never again would armies of such size be required to control her political destiny. Jacobites ably puts the rebellion in its historical place, inside the War of the Austrian Succession and inside the frame of wider European affairs, but at the same time highlights the personal aspect of the conflict. In Scotland this was especially marked, where a division was already clear
between Highlander and Lowlander. The return of the Stewart’s heralded tough decisions for the clans themselves. Indeed it is striking how many of Charlie’s closest clan supporters urged him to go home, yet were determined to follow him if he ignored their sensible advice.

The character of the Jacobite prince of Wales is central to any retelling of this story. And here we get a very clear picture of a young and brave man endowed with great charisma, but virtually nil experience with managing men or adversity and seemed to act a part through much of the adventure. Though he could easily impress old or young supporters, he had a harder job winning over enemies or worse, the indifferent.
Jacqueline Riding has managed to present him with light and shade through the words of those around him. From the dashing hero prince to a very juvenile and flawed young man, in well over his head with no firm basis from which do judge the advice given to him. His youth and vitality presents a pretty picture on a Walkers shortbread tin, but as we discover that painting does not reveal the real Charles Edward.

Scenes that illustrate these and many more important aspects of the rebellion are portrayed through the many first hand accounts. From the officers of the opposing armies, to the letters between France and the Jacobite court, to ordinary civilians in Edinburgh, Carlisle, Manchester and London. Through writings of the actual people involved we are able to get a much better understanding of the intricacies facing both sides and how the rebellion affected people on a day to day basis. Even where the record splits opinion, very little attempt is made to make up people’s minds here, rather somehow the author as managed to be able to present both sides without acrimony and leaves it up to the reader to reach a conclusion.

From a military point of view it must be said that I was inclined to disagree on the wording or description of certain matters. After double checking, I feel I must mention them. Thankfully they are few but blithe readers should know that Dragoons are identified as mounted infantry by way of explanation, yet this designation no longer accurately described their purpose at this time. Even though this is strictly correct, their role as mounted infantry was by 1745 a traditional identification alone, they had served as regular cavalry certainly since the wars of the Duke of Marlborough and for some time before. It is also a little odd that the Battalions of Athollmen, raised mostly from Perthshire, in one place are highlighted as being separate from highlanders, though to my mind they cannot rightly be said to be anything but highlanders. In the chapter about the Battle of Falkirk, General Hawley is described as an experienced cavalry officer, this is true, but goes on to say he led a successful charge of Dragoons at Sheriffmuir, whereas I discovered recently, that though he did indeed charge (and was wounded), his regiment was repulsed at the battle, the decisive charge being lead by Colonel Portman of the Scots Greys.

That out of the way we may continue. In terms of places, characters and socio/political matters, and indeed most other military matters, I cannot fault the book. Just as Prince Charles drives the story, the actions of his great antagonist, his cousin the Duke of Cumberland have coloured the story of the rebellion just as much as the Prince. Charlie has been cast as the hero to Cumberland’s villain. And the author here shows us how easy this was to achieve. While in recent years the Duke’s reputation has recovered somewhat from the hammering it justly took at the time, and indeed in the 19th century, there is no denying the contemporary infamy of his actions or indeed the lasting resentment for him in Scotland.
Yet he did not jump into the mantle of the “Butcher” fully formed. He began as a popular, if indifferent general as far as military talent went. He was as brave and charismatic as Charles, especially amongst the soldiers of the British army. In this sense he was not unlike a modern royal regimental patron who are generally well liked by the armed forces for their genuine interest in their affairs, and to his credit had more of a backbone than Charlie had, for he was a stern disciplinarian and coldly blunt in his actions. Yet after taking command of the army we see a shadow of personal vendetta appearing in his tone, and a hardening towards mercy becomes quickly apparent, that would bring dire results after Culloden.

As Lord George Murray wrote; a battle is a hard thing to describe. For such a short action that nevertheless bears such weight Culloden defies a simple explanation. Yet based on eyewitnesses and I suspect a great deal on the Duke of Cumberland’s post battle report, the description of the climactic engagement that is the source of so much acrimony is well told, as are the other two main actions of the rising, Prestonpans and Falkirk. All of which serve to describe not only the decisive moments of the ’45 but how small decisions in the heat of battle, alongside unforeseen developments can direct the course of warfare.

Riding has managed to observe the story here. The majority of her source material is pleasingly corroborated which strengthens every passage and assertion. By and large this is a true and encompassing history of the rebellion seen from many points of view. It is entertaining, compulsive, and witty to be sure. Every strand of story becomes admirably tied together as the end draws near. Especially how early rivalries would be fateful for the choosing of the battle site.
It is fresh, honest and enlightening. The subject is so torn by controversy and bias that indeed it brings to light new, or rather little told aspects of the rebellion which is always greatly refreshing in any work that has “New History” on the cover.

This was a national crisis that was key to the development of the United Kingdom, the repercussions of which still affects Anglo-Scottish relations and memory to this day. In this book the subject has found an excellent, sympathetic and adroit chronicler.
Despite the fact that Jacobites strips much of the legend from the story, it nonetheless remains a compelling tale of espionage, daring, warfare, treason and the ambition of Kings.

If anyone reading this would like a chance to get one of 2 free copies provided by the publisher, please follow this link.


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