Over the next five months as a fugitive, Charles showed himself at his very best once again. Sheltered by loyal Highlanders, he had to keep on the move constantly to elude the troops that were searching for him. He endured long walks in horrendous weather, stayed in caves, ruined bothies, and even out in the open, sleeping in the heather in torrential rain while being eaten alive by the dreaded midges. He stated happily that he preferred oatbread and whisky to the finest fare, stayed wet and often cold for days on end and was in constant danger of being apprehended. Yet throughout it all he remained optimistic and cheerful, raising the spirits of those who hid him at considerable risk to themselves. This behaviour, along with his renowned compassion and consideration for his men during the rising itself did much to endear him to the Highlanders eternally and helped lionise him, not only in the eyes of his followers, but of many of his adversaries too. From this time more than any other, the legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie was born.
On his return to France in October 1746 he was greeted as a hero and for a time was the most famous man in Europe. Up to this point in his career he had mainly shown only his positive side to his followers (with the exception of Lord George Murray), but soon his darker side would come to the fore, leading to his eventual destruction.
At first all went well. However an attempt to use his huge popularity to influence King Louis to support another expedition to Britain backfired, and led finally to a complete estrangement between Charles and the duplicitous French monarch. It was at this time when, given a choice between the loyal and sensible Lochiel, and the downright evil George Kelly to act as adviser, he disastrously chose Kelly. As well as promoting hostility between Charles and his brother, Kelly encouraged the prince to defy Louis openly, and to refuse anything but an invasion of England.
His popularity in France waning, Charles turned increasingly to drink. It has to be remembered that in the 18th Century even children drank alcohol, as water was usually contaminated; and a man was expected to be able to hold his drink. Even so, during his five months in hiding Charles had astonished the clansmen with his consumption of alcohol, and now back in France he began to show signs of the dependence on liquor that would contribute hugely to his decline.
A trip to Spain to drum up support for a rising having failed, Charles returned to France, and later that year was faced with a fait accompli which dealt the death blow to all hopes for a Stuart restoration, when Prince Henry, encouraged by his father, was made a Cardinal of Rome.
It is impossible to imagine what this utter betrayal of everything Charles had lived for must have done to him. He had been brought up from birth to believe he was the sole hope of a Stuart restoration, had devoted mind, soul and body to achieving that, in spite of his father’s constant criticisms, had achieved more than either his father or grandfather, had almost succeeded, and now was betrayed by the very man he had dedicated his life to restoring!
He sank into a deep depression, drinking even more than normal, and his friends, deeply concerned, arranged for him to stay at St Ouen. It was here he fell deeply in love for the first time, with his married cousin Louise. A tempestuous affair ensued, during which Louise became pregnant with Charles’ child. Once it started to become a public scandal, Louise’s father and mother-in-law forced her to write a letter to Charles ending the affair. Once he found out the story behind the letter, he was disgusted by her weakness in capitulating to her elders, and the relationship disintegrated. The child, a son, died at five months of age, by which time the affair was over.
Louise has been painted by many as a complete innocent who was seduced then abandoned by the heartless prince. Seduced she was, and his later abandonment of her and the total indifference he showed towards her was certainly cruel. But at the same time she was no innocent virgin, and was as headstrong as her lover. She certainly remained besotted with Charles long after he had forgotten all about her and moved on though, and the whole episode does not show him in a good light.
He then embarked on another affair, with the much older and more worldly Princess de Talmont, another stormy liaison, during which she encouraged him in all his worst excesses, in drinking and in his defiance of King Louis, who was on the brink of signing a peace treaty with Hanoverian Britain. For his part Charles was now becoming impossibly authoritarian, allowing no one to question him. The one exception to this may have been Lochiel, and the Cameron chief was in fact elected by his fellow exiled Jacobites to try to persuade the prince to abandon this suicidal clash of wills with Louis. Unfortunately, before Lochiel could do this he died, probably of meningitis.
The relationship between Charles and King Louis continued to deteriorate until, in December 1748 Louis finally had the prince arrested, imprisoned and thrown out of the country, to the horror not only of the Jacobites, but of the whole of Europe. This cavalier treatment of a still very popular prince of the blood royal backfired on Louis, attracting universal condemnation, and improving Charles’ reputation in England hugely, to the detriment of King George.
The prince, however, now seemed hell-bent on insulting all those who he judged to be responsible for his situation. He settled in Avignon, a papal state and one which he had agreed not to enter after his arrest. He demanded a festival be held in his honour, which would of course have to be paid for by the Pope, who Charles considered partly responsible for Henry becoming a cardinal. As Charles was still very popular with the people, the Pope had no choice but to acquiesce to this, which nearly bankrupted the Apostolic Chamber. After succeeding in insulting both the Pope and the French king, Charles then disappeared.
For the next nine years he travelled all over Europe, through a mixture of expert disguises and subterfuge managing to avoid detection, although rumours abounded as to his whereabouts (most of them false). Nevertheless he also continued his fiery relationship with the Princesse de Talmont. Unable to accept his failure to restore his family and descending into alcoholism, he became increasingly violent when thwarted in even the slightest way, and his mistress bore the brunt of this until he ended the affair in 1751.
The following year came Charles’ final attempt to take the throne, which became known as the Elibank Plot. Its failure was partly due to a spy named ‘Pickle’ who betrayed the whole plot to the Hanoverian authorities, resulting in the arrest and execution of Lochiel’s brother Archibald Cameron in 1753 – the last Jacobite to be executed.
He now sent for the woman he had had a brief fling with in 1746, Clementina Walkinshaw. Their long-term relationship had two main consequences; the birth of Charles’ only child to survive infancy, Charlotte; and his reputation as a violent and increasingly paranoid alcoholic. In 1760, fearful that the prince would kill her in one of his drunken rages, Clementina left him, taking their daughter with her and entering a convent. Charles ordered an intensive search to be made for them, to no avail. When he found out that his father James had colluded in their disappearance, Charles had a complete breakdown.
It has been said that he cared for neither his mistress or his child – certainly he was happy to let Clementina leave. But at this time he seemed to be genuinely fond of his daughter. He became a recluse, drinking himself into serious illness, and resolving to have nothing to do with the world until his daughter was returned to him. He broke off all contact with his father, although he was reconciled with his brother in 1765, when their father was on his deathbed.
James died early in 1766, and in spite of a strenuous campaign by Cardinal Henry, the Pope refused to acknowledge his brother as de jure King Charles III of Great Britain. Charles travelled to Rome, to a hostile welcome from the Pope and a lacklustre one from the citizens. He moved into the Piazzo Muti. His finances were now in a healthier state, but he was not, suffering from poor health and the effects of alcoholism, often threatening his servants with violence when in a drunken rage.
In 1772 at the age of fifty-one, Charles married the eighteen-year-old Louise of Stolberg. She was an eager bride; her younger sister was already married, and she was hoping to be named de jure Queen of Great Britain (this never happened). At first the prince seemed happier; he gave up drinking and paraded his wife around publicly. However, Louise having failed in her duty to conceive, and Charles having failed in his duty to have her officially declared Queen, the marriage soon foundered. His daughter was now attempting to reconcile with her father, but he would have none of it, treating her overtures with extreme coldness.
By now Charles was suffering from severe dropsy, his legs extremely swollen and painful, worsened by his refusal to give up drinking. In the meantime his wife engaged in a series of flirtations with other men, and finally a full-blown love affair with Count Alfieri. After a violent argument in which the prince tried to strangle her, Louise left him. Life with Charles must have been dreadful, and she cannot be blamed for leaving him, but she was not the innocent abused wife that some make her out to be. She had ruthlessly used the prince as much as he used her, conducted a series of liaisons openly, then, when Cardinal Henry assisted her in leaving Charles, she abused his generous nature appallingly.
Prince Charles’ deterioration continued and in 1783 he almost died. Having recovered, he was then reconciled with his daughter Charlotte, who had kept up a constant barrage of letters and petitions to him. Charles legitimised her, declaring her Duchess of Albany, and she moved in with him, nursing him through his final years of physical and mental decline until his death, following a stroke, in 1788.
To conclude with my personal view of the prince. I think I make it obvious in my portrayal of him in the Jacobite Chronicles that I have a good deal of sympathy for the prince. But I do not paint an unrealistic picture of him. At the time the books are set in he was at the very zenith of his abilities. The decline came later.
As many children are, he was damaged as a child by well-meaning but disastrous parents, inheriting their depressive traits, propensity for guilt and paranoia, which manifested in later life. The responsibilities laid upon his young shoulders were appallingly heavy, but to his credit he did his absolute utmost to live up to them, in spite of James’ constant criticism, only to have the ground cut from under him by the actions of his own father and brother.
His spelling was erratic, and this has often been cited as evidence of lack of intelligence – but in an age of notoriously erratic spelling and grammar this was not unusual, and in every other way the prince proved to have an exceptional intellect. He was kind, compassionate, good-humoured, courageous and daring, and had the capacity to see the bigger picture that many of his peers did not. He came closer to pushing the Hanoverians off the throne than either his father or grandfather had ever done; and he did it with style.
However, he was also incapable of dealing diplomatically with authoritarian figures such as Lord George Murray and King Louis XV, and, disastrously, of coming to terms with failure, seeking escape in alcohol, which exacerbated his depressive tendencies, leading to paranoia and fits of uncontrollable rage. In his relationships with women and in later life, he was a very unpleasant person indeed.
And yet, I cannot help but feel sympathy for him. At least he tried to fulfil his potential, which is more than many people do; and he cannot be held responsible for the horrific retribution visited on his followers following Culloden.
For one glorious year of his life he shone, and came within an inch of achieving glory. His fall was catastrophic, but for making the attempt he deserves the title of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. Long may his legend, and that of the brave men who followed him and lost everything, endure.