Ever since the decision was taken by Prince Charles’ council on 5th December 1745 to turn back at Derby instead of continuing on to London, a decision that ultimately led to the catastrophic defeat at Culloden, historians have debated whether or not the Stuarts could have taken the throne back had they continued.
In Book Four of the Jacobite Chronicles, my hero Alex MacGregor is wholeheartedly in favour of continuing to London, and on the decision going against him, states that everything he’s fought his whole life for was for nothing. I don’t always agree with my characters’ opinions, but in this instance Alex speaks for me.
Those who argue that the council made the right decision state that Lord George Murray and the clan chiefs were only acting through common sense, and there is truth in this. The prince had assured his leaders time and time again that the French would send assistance, and that once the army crossed the border, the English Jacobites would rise to join them. But neither of these things had happened, which makes the council’s pessimism understandable. With the exception of Manchester, where about 300 men joined the Jacobite army, the English had demonstrated no active support. It’s true that, in spite of loud protests of allegiance to Hanover, and of militias being raised to resist the ‘Young Pretender’s’ incursion into England, when the Jacobites actually arrived, the militias melted away and Charles’ army marched through the country unopposed.
But this was not enough to convince Lord George and the chiefs that victory could be theirs should they continue. This is partly Prince Charles’ fault. The council declared their misgivings as to the wisdom of an English invasion even before they’d crossed the border, but had reluctantly accepted Charles’ assurances that help was at hand. Charles seems to have assumed that he could carry his council all the way to London by sheer optimism and force of personality, and in this he was proved wrong. When it came down to it, he had no proof at all that the French or the English would rise for him, and when he was forced to admit that, the die was cast for retreat.
Lord George’s argument was that he had 5,000 men. Behind them were two much larger armies, Wade’s and Cumberland’s, and ahead of them the militia at Finchley and the London mob – an unpredictable force. Dudley Bradstreet’s assertion that there were 9,000 men waiting for them at Northampton was a complete fabrication, but Lord George didn’t know whether it was true or not. This shows the lack of a decent Jacobite intelliegence and communication system. (Incidentally, this was also a factor in the failure of the Welsh Jacobites to rise –attempts to contact their leader, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn were intercepted, leaving him unprepared when the Jacobites crossed into England). Lord George’s argument was that even if they did succeed in taking London, the lack of any sign of support from the English meant that at some point in the very near future, 5,000 Jacobites would have to fight the combined armies of the Hanoverians.
Lord George’s brilliance as a military commander cannot be disputed. He had considerable military experience, and his expertise had played a big part in getting them to Derby. His viewpoint was based on a sober, if somewhat pessimistic, logical assessment of the facts as he knew them.
By contrast, Prince Charles had almost no previous military experience, was unerringly optimistic, and supremely confident of his abilities to win against the odds. And in fairness, up to this moment, his confidence had been well-placed. Within five months of landing in Eriskay with seven men, he had conquered Scotland, succeeded in keeping the notoriously prickly tribal Highlanders together, and was within five days’ march of winning the crown. It was an extraordinary feat, unmatched by any of his predecessors.
His argument was that all they needed was one final push, and all would be theirs. All the previous militias had disappeared before the Jacobites had got anywhere near them – the militia at Finchley were raw, untrained recruits. In the extremely unlikely event that they were to stand and fight, the battle-hardened Highlanders would have cut through them like a knife through butter. George II was not a popular king with his people; and Charles knew, had proved time and time again, what a magnetic personality he had. They had a huge psychological advantage; if they retreated that would all be lost. And so in fact it proved.
For the rest of his life, Charles believed that the retreat from Derby had robbed him of his destiny and his father of the crown. I believe that in this Charles was right. Here’s my evidence for that.
Clan morale was very high. Cumberland and Wade were a long way behind, and could not have overtaken the Jacobites before they reached London. It’s highly unlikely the militia at Finchley would have stayed to fight, and if they had, they would have been slaughtered.
So there’s little doubt that the Jacobites could have entered London. Let’s look at the situation in the capital. London was in a panic. The index of Bank of England stock fell from 141 in October to 127 in December 1745. The Lord Mayor of London later told Aeneas MacDonald that if the Jacobites had entered London, not more than 500 Londoners would have volunteered to fight for George. This is borne out by the complete lack of resistance the Jacobites had faced so far.
It has been said that King George was already packing to flee, and alternatively, that he was preparing to fight for his crown. But had he stood his ground, he had no troops to back him up; he would almost certainly have fled to his beloved Hanover, at least in the short term. Although later the Hanoverians dismissed the Jacobite army as a rabble, at the time they took the Jacobite threat extremely seriously; the duke of Richmond stated to Newcastle that the cavalry couldn’t be there before February and that the Pretender could be crowned by then. Once the army began to retreat, the state of panic was played down by the Whigs, but at the time it was real, and should not be underestimated.
The immediate success or failure of an entry into London would have lain with the ordinary people, or the ‘mob’ as they were known, who were notoriously fickle. George was not popular with the people and was thought by many to think of England as a source of money and men to support his true love, Hanover. He was boorish and reclusive. The sight of a young, handsome, charismatic prince entering the city with all the pomp and display that the people expected from royalty, coupled by a well-worded declaration allaying their fears of a Catholic monarch, could very well have won them over. And there was no better person to do that than the Bonnie Prince himself.
Having come so far so successfully, it was definitely worth the gamble to carry on.
It was also distinctly possible that, on seeing the Jacobites actually take the capital, the so far dormant English Stuart supporters would have nailed their colours to the mast. Had they done so, then the Stuarts’ position would have been very promising.
The final factor to look at is the fact that King Louis XV had finally committed to an invasion of England. 15,000 men were assembled at the Picardy ports and the duc de Richelieu was put in command. It was as the duc arrived in Boulogne to take command that he heard of the retreat from Derby, which threw away the psychological advantage. The invasion was later abandoned.
Many would argue against me, but I firmly believe that a combination of a panicked population, the lack of resistance so far, and lack of military force between Derby and London, along with a prince who knew exactly how to win a crowd to him, and a French force arriving to cement that, would have ensured, at least in the short term, a return of the Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain.
Whether they would have retained the crown or not is another matter, and one which would have depended on a number of factors, which are not for this post to contemplate.
When I wrote the chapter containing the Council of Derby in The Storm Breaks, I have never wanted to rewrite history as much as I did then. It broke my heart to stick to the facts. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have done to Prince Charles Edward Stuart. For that alone, I will always have a soft spot for him, and will feel grievefor what became, not just of him, but of all the men and women who followed him, at such enormous cost.
The 5th December was later named Black Friday by Jacobites. Rarely has a day been more appropriately named.