The Jacobite Threat

The Pretender, James Stuart, was the son of the exiled James II and his second wife, Mary of Modena. He was without question Queen Anne’s closest relative, her half-brother, but as a Catholic he was excluded from the succession. Prince George of Hanover’s claim on the crown may have been more convoluted but was equally legitimate. A great-grandson of James I, George was James Stuart’s second cousin. George’s father was Ernst Augustus, Prince Elector of Hanover, and his mother, Sophia of Hanover, the daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, the James I’s eldest daughter. It is a Jacobite myth that there were between thirty and fifty Catholic contenders who had more direct links to Queen Anne than Prince George. There were six, and all were foreign. But the Jacobite fable of un-entitlement was underlined by George being born in Hanover with German as his first language.

George I’s supporters may have argued that his succession was justified by law and hereditary right but the reality was that he was crowned as a function of parliamentary edict. And this was not without opposition. The riots that marked the coronation in October 1714 were instigated and supported both by James Stuart’s Jacobite followers and by Tories and High Church Anglicans. The revelries of Hanoverian loyalists were disrupted by protests in more than twenty towns and cities across England from Canterbury to Shrewsbury and Taunton to Norwich. Many Tory magistrates were acquiescent and failed to disperse the tumults and violence. Their inaction was noted and the disturbances led within days to a declaration suppressing riots and assemblies and the passage of a Riot Act.

Protests in London were initially restrained. Many leading Tories had given up on a Stuart restoration and self-interestedly recognised George I. Even the Tory Lords Oxford and Bolingbroke were in attendance when the new king’s reign was proclaimed formally, with Oxford organising a public bonfire to celebrate the event. But the concord would be brief. Later the same month pro-Jacobite protesters obstructed the king’s return from the Lord Mayor’s banquet and rioting broke out at Whitechapel on the eastern fringe of the City of London.

Public disturbances continued into 1715 and grew in scope after the parliamentary elections in March in which the Whigs obtained a crushing majority in the House of Commons. A purge of Tories in central government was replicated on a lesser scale at county and city level. The exodus triggered further anti-government demonstrations that swept across England. But worse was to come. Taking advantage of the discontent and building on an existing support base, the Earl of Mar raised James Stuart’s standard at Braemar that September to foment rebellion in Scotland. He met with initial success and a swathe of Scotland went over to the Pretender within the month, as did Durham, Northumberland and Cumberland. At the same time, Mar’s revolt was emulated on a lesser scale with riots in the Tory-dominated West of England.

London reacted promptly. Troops were despatched to Bristol, Plymouth and Southampton to curtail the insurgency, and intelligence exploited to arrest the ringleaders in the West and Wales. Acts of Attainder were passed against the principal leaders of the opposition. Habeas corpus was suspended. And detachments of the army were hurried north to reinforce the military garrisons in Scotland and protect the North of England.

Hanoverian and Jacobite forces engaged in battles at Sherrifmuir and Inverness, but they were indecisive. They also clashed at Preston, Lancashire, which had fallen to the Jacobites. Loyalist troops surrounded the town and prevailed when reinforcements arrived and forced the Jacobites to agree an unconditional surrender. In December 1715, James Stuart finally landed in Perth to stake his claim personally. He was too late. The Jacobite army had been reduced to less than 5,000 men when Mar led them the following month. He was defeated and the rebel army fell back to Perth and retreated, demoralised, to Dundee and Montrose. In early February James Stuart abandoned his supporters and sailed from Scotland to return to exile. He was joined by Mar other leading figureheads. Deserted by its leadership, the Jacobite Rising collapsed and its army scattered.

Although the Rising had been unsuccessful, the Indemnity Act passed by Parliament in 1717 recognised a need for reconciliation. Many of those captured were pardoned or reprieved, and large numbers of prisoners held in gaols in Newgate, Carlisle, Edinburgh and Stirling were freed, as were some 200 rebels captured at Preston. But this was not the only story. Two Jacobite leaders, Lords Derwentwater and Kenmure, were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Others suffered the same fate, with hundreds more exiled to the American colonies.

The Jacobite threat endured nonetheless. Although described variously as real, imagined, and a contrivance wheeled out by Whig politicians to maintain political power, the reality was a mix of all three. The hazard may have waxed and waned but protecting Britain and Ireland against another Rising coupled to a French or Spanish-backed invasion remained at the core of government policy until the 1750s. (For an Irish perspective see Irish Jacobitism and Freemasonry.)

The danger posed by the ‘king over the water’ was not exclusively military; there was also a philosophical and religious element. James Stuart’s claim to the throne was considered valid by a large minority, and not only Jacobites. Two rival constitutional arguments competed for dominance. The ascendant view held that England was governed by a constitution rooted in established custom that could be traced back to Anglo Saxon times. From this perspective, constitutional governance was the product of a balance between the legislature – the King, the Lords and the Commons – and the subjects of the realm, who enjoyed an implicit right to resist autocracy and tyranny. John Locke extended this thesis.

A contrarian argument was advanced by James Stuart’s supporters. The Jacobite starting point was that there was only one legitimate basis for a constitution: the divine right of kings. The authority to govern was derived solely from God and a king ruled his nation by virtue of God’s direct command. Hereditary succession was the only means by which a king could and should be replaced, and it had thus been unlawful for the Convention Parliament to have interfered with the inalienable right of succession. The result of such an analysis was that George I’s coronation was not legally binding nor morally valid.

Such thinking had been a central plank of conventional Catholic teaching for centuries. It was expressed by Dante in Inferno where the Ninth Circle of Hell was reserved for those who had committed regicide, the ultimate sin of treachery against God being the slaughter of one he had anointed. It was for precisely this reason that Brutus and Cassius were condemned to the Ninth Circle alongside Judas Iscariot.

But support for the Pretender’s entitlement to the crown was not restricted to Catholics. It included non-jurors, other sections of the Protestant clergy, and Tory landowners forced from power by George I. France, Spain and Sweden also favoured the Stuart cause. Consecutive Whig governments believed that Jacobite insurgence posed a serious threat to Hanoverian Britain. If successful it would sever the Hanoverian line and dial the political clock back to the early 1680s. Whig concerns were justified and continental European support for the Jacobites was real, not imagined. Faced with such risks, governments from Stanhope to Walpole followed the axiom that ‘ministerial idleness where Jacobites were concerned was an unaffordable luxury’.