What was Culloden really about?

Charles Edward, Britain’s number one enemy? Not really. NMS.

The crisis of 1745 is often thought of as the greatest threat to the union of Britain before present times. But that rather assumes that the objective of the Jacobite rebellion was to return the nation back to what it had been in 1640.

Although if you were to ask people at the time you’d be hard pressed to find a unified answer to the question “what is this war about?” with a bit of investigation the motive becomes clearer. Any three people, depending on their political loyalties they would likely give you separate opinions. One would say it was a war of Scottish aggression or of civil war. Another would tell you it was a Catholic plot to overthrow the constitution of 1688. And the other would say it was an attempt by France to win the war (of the Austrian Succession) and unseat the Elector of Hanover. King George.

For the houses of Stuart and Hanover and the government the matter was clearer. In hindsight we can or should be able to see that in fact the rebellion of 1745 marked the testing of the British State of 1707, and was the last attempt to alter the course that had been taken in the Glorious Revolution.

So was it really just about religion? It is true that tied up in the question of succession was the question of the beliefs of the successor. England’s staunchly Protestant system of government felt threatened by a head of state that was too powerful, and indeed a head of the church that was not an Anglican. Laws for the suppression of Catholics in England, who were barred from most forms of public life, were no secret. Charles II had failed to relieve the burden on people of differing faith and James II had lost his throne because as a Catholic he was going to try again.

If the Stuart’s returned to power it is logical that “Catholic emancipation” as it was called a century later, would undoubtedly be first on the mandate of the returned King James III. Not least because he would have owed it to the King of France. Make no mistake, had the Jacobites taken London, they could only have held it with the support of French troops and ships. For King Louis the Jacobite adventure was a trump card in the latest Habsburg, Bourbon conflict, and he was quite prepared to invade if the opportunity was created.

Unsurprisingly the idea of white coated Bourbon troops and plaid swathed highlanders guarding the streets, while the guns of the French navy were trained on the city docks was a thought too dreadful to be considered.  The Raid on the Medway was still comparatively recent history. And a repeat of such an event threatened the stability which had been achieved since the reign of William and Mary. Yet as can be seen, within this catholic-Protestant feud was the fate of the constitution and the right of the King.

Under the constitutional model the years between 1688 and 1725 had seen Royal power under the shrink by revolutionary degrees. William had been a champion of this conservative constitutional monarchy and the exercise of limited Royal power with the consent of Parliament. But the Stuart’s were not only more liberal in terms of religion but they were also more totalitarian than the Dutchman, who after all came from a staunchly Protestant republic, while the Stuart’s had spent their time either as guests of the most powerful monarchy in Europe or the Pope. If they were to return, an undoubtedly more tolerant outlook would have come with them, yet at the same time it would weaken parliament to a state not seen since the return of Charles II.

Yet even in that case Charles had understood that his power was assured only so long as he worked with Parliament. But there was no doubt that his less politically talented descendants had strong leanings to the sort of regime enjoyed by Louis XV in France, one of absolutism and divine right to do as they wished without the consent of an elected body. Tories and Whigs, Catholics and Protestants, and the differing sects of the latter all had a different view of how Britain should continue, yet all wished it to continue.

However in Scotland, especially in the highlands, the act of union was still a raw wound. Resentment had festered as the years went on and as the union strengthened rather than waned there was a desperation and indeed a nostalgic longing for a return to sovereignty. It should be remembered that many Highland commanders in the Prince’s army felt betrayed when Charles made his intention clear to advance on London after taking Edinburgh.

Recall that there were many Scottish flags at Culloden, but no English ones. King’s Colour of Barrel’s 4th Foot (The King’s Own). National Museums of Scotland.

Was it then a British civil war? Realistically yes, but in a limited way. Every rebellion begins politically as a sort of civil war, yet because there was so little help from England this became a clear fallacy by the end of 1745. So in practice it becomes a Scottish Civil War, but even though the Highlanders and other Jacobite Scots might well have only wished to throw off the rule of the house of Hanover and preserve a sovreign Scotland, that was the farthest thing from Charles’ mind.

Charles marched as the Prince of Wales with his own hidden agenda. Letting his followers think as they pleased about how much of Britain he would be able to claim for his father. The idea of duel kingship was not the real issue for the Scots, for the crowns had been unified since James I. What many resented was the union of 1707, which removed the sovereignty of the Scottish government to Westminster. It was always therefore Charles’ intention to take London and proclaim his father King of three kingdoms once more.

Thus rather than physically menacing the entire union. The ’45 Rising actually menaced only the current version of it, the conservative Protestant union that was birthed in 1688 and which forms the bedrock of the present state of the United Kingdom. It was an attempted hostile takeover, an attempt at forcible rebranding. So much for the politics of kings and princes for as we all know it didn’t end up with a triumphant entry into London, with a French fleet training its guns on the tower while their soldiers stood guard at Whitehall and Kensington as highlanders patrolled the city gates.

As has been said, the high tone of the leaders and the quickly changing political situation left many having to play catchup. While the failure of the revolt actually did greater damage to the harmony of the United Kingdom than if it had succeeded, and certainly more than any piece of Hanoverian legislation before it. What failed at so flatly at Derby and then so tragically in mud, gore and terror on Culloden Moor created gaping wounds in the fabric of Britain that some might argue have yet to heal.

These wounds manifest themselves in the resentment many in England and Scotland felt and feel to this day. Consider how rife the allusions were in 2014, with caricatures showing the Pro union party dressed as redcoats facing charging highlanders drawn with SNP faces. Let alone the glee when it turned out 45 percent of Scotland had voted Yes. In 2010 English comedienne Jo Brand told how she once nearly provoked a mob by asking a heckling Glasgow audience “Well who the **** won at Culloden?”. Actually this demonstrates both mutual understanding and ignorance. Both knowing about the significance of Culloden as a watershed of Scottish history but missing the point. For if either side had cared to look into it, this taunt is in itself is moot. In 1746 an English Speaker and a lowland Scottish crowd would have understood that both won at Culloden.

The shift towards the old tired story of English vs Scots began at Derby. The people of England having by their silence rejected the Stuart claim, and the Jacobite Army being composed principally of Scottish Clans, the rebellion for the crown was reduced to a war of Scottish or Highland aggression, and then by the time of Culloden it had been simmered down still further to a fight for the survival of the ancient Gaelic culture of the clans. Yet in reality what had happened was that a British civil war had misfired and become a war between the Britain Protestant state and old Scotland.

The fight that occurred at Culloden could well have rescued Charles’ greater cause, but in the main there was no longer a grand scheme at hand and it wasn’t the same War that had had begun at Glenfinnan the year before. Now it was personal. The Clans had supported every Jacobite rebellion since the reign of William of Orange, and as a danger to the state, their destruction was assured. Wether anyone thought of this at the time is doubtful, but hindsight has a strange way of revealing wider truths.

Bonnie Prince Charlie had little conception of this undeclared war on the highland way of life that had suddenly pushed its way to the fore. His mind was still full of fantasies, and was single minded in his determination to escape and fight another day. But the Clans had nowhere to run, they had been tracked to their lair and with the breaking of their ancient system there too went the last hope for another Jacobite rising. In the century and a half after Culloden, chiefs who could still in 1745 call out hundreds of men to fight were to be instead lords of lucrative herds of sheep. No longer Kings in their own glens but exalted Flockmasters.

This then was the ’45. Not one war but many. In exalted terms it was a war of kings and princes, partly tied up in the fight for European supremacy. A war of British religion and constitution. A Scottish civil war to be true and also the last gasp of the final remaining independent Celtic society in Britain.

More importantly those who would try to paint the rising and rebellion of 1745 as a threat to the Union of Britain and declare Charles Edward Stuart a kind of secessionist, or brand him as such, miss the fact that for the Jacobites, politically, a 2nd Stuart Restoration bought at the cost of dissolution would be tantamount to failure.


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