REVIEW – The King over the Water: a complete history of the Jacobites

6 mins read
Desmond Seward 
Birlinn £25 (hbk)
Desmond Seward
Birlinn £25 (hbk)

By Desmond Seward
Published by Birlinn

Few today can recall much about the Jacobites, other than Bonnie Prince Charlie, ‘the Young Chevalier’, and his noble defeat at Culloden in 1746. The better read might be able to talk about the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the arrival in 1688 of King William III.

But few could describe the complete story of over a century of struggle, punctuated by numerous uprisings, in which three generations of a usurped royal family tried desperately to restore their lost throne.

Desmond Seward, a popular historian of the Plantagenets and the Tudors, has attempted to tell this story in a complete and accessible form. He takes as his point of departure the Revolution of 1688, when the English evicted James II because of his Catholicism, his absolutist tendencies, and his threat to the property and power of an essentially Protestant ruling class.

The concept of ‘the divine right of kings’ was shattered again – as it had been before on the battlefield of Naseby in 1645, and on a scaffold in Whitehall in 1649. The English wanted no more of kings who claimed otherworldly authority for their diktats.

James’s initial attempts at restoration did not go well. His humiliating defeat at the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July 1690, celebrated to this day by Protestants in Northern Ireland, was an early omen for the entire enterprise. So complete was the trouncing that James fled to France, which became the sanctuary of the Stuart pretenders. It also became their launch-pad.

Fortune seemed to turn in favour of the Jacobites (from the Latin Jacobus, meaning James) with the accession of George I to the throne in 1714. Portly, lugubrious, and unable to speak a word of English, he was compared negatively to the relatively youthful and stylish James III, son of the exiled king, who had now taken up the cause.

Although not present during the unsuccessful revolt of 1715, the young James gave the Hanoverians enough of a fright to present them with what we would today call a ‘national security’ issue. A fierce campaign of suppression was subsequently launched by the Georgian state – though many of the Jacobites developed wily ways of slipping through the net.

Particularly lucky was William Maxwell, the 5th Earl of Nithsdale, a Catholic captured at Preston. The night before he was due to be executed, his wife, visiting him in the Tower, ‘framed his face with false curls, rouged and powdered it, dressed him in a cloak and hood, and then led him out, pretending he was her maid’. The onward journey to Paris was otherwise uneventful.


Seward argues convincingly that Jacobitism quickly became about far more than merely restoring a claimant to the throne. The ‘Honest Cause’, as it was known, became a vessel into which different groups could pour their desires. For the Irish, it was Catholic emancipation; for the Scots, it was an end to the new, but widely hated, union with England.

And, for the English themselves, it was political reform. William III had risked the wrath of his people with high taxation in order to fund his many
wars, while George I was renowned for sticking his fat fingers into a great many pies.

The collapse of the South Sea Company, established in an absurd attempt to trade with countries with whom England was also at war – an early example of a speculative bubble – also damaged the king’s reputation.

Restoration, therefore, was not merely about rectifying a defect in the pageantry. It was also a chance to find an alternative to a government that was not working for its people in the days before widespread suffrage. ‘Since no electoral remedy existed,’ Seward writes, ‘the only solution was bringing back the Stuarts.’

It may well have been naïve to think of this as a solution, but it certainly gave the cause additional energy and seriousness of purpose.

Yet hiding in plain sight throughout this history is a reminder of the principal constraint on Jacobite initiative. As well as providing a haven for the exiled royal court, France was also patron and sponsor of any attempted rebellion. Because of this, uprisings were permitted only when they were in the French interest. In the 30 years between the two largest risings – the Fifteen and the Forty-Five – repeated Jacobite pleas for further action were politely but firmly turned down.

It was only in 1744 that France, now embroiled against Britain in the War of the Austrian Succession, finally decided that a Stuart restoration was a ‘sound investment’. Much like the German Empire smuggling Lenin into Russia to provoke instability behind enemy lines in 1917, the French hoped to use the Stuart threat to destabilise their British antagonist. Highland clansmen were now involved in the myriad complexities of international realpolitik.


Yet French support was at best halfhearted, with the Jacobites left largely to themselves once they returned to Scotland in 1745. Now under the banner of James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, the ‘Bonnie Prince’, they initially achieved an astonishing victory against the Whig Government’s forces at Prestonpans.

They stalled at Derby, however, not quite possessing the courage to march on London. Yet they had still given the Hanoverians another horrendous fright.

The Duke of Cumberland, the son of George II, never forgot this, making it a personal ambition to put an end for good to what he saw as a truly cancerous problem. Cumberland chased the Jacobites up to the Highlands and faced them down at Culloden in early 1746.

The Duke earned his reputation as a ‘butcher’ in those desolate fields east of Inverness, reportedly gathering up piles of dying Jacobite troops only to fire cannon into them.

Seward is blunt. ‘Over 30 prisoners were burned alive in a bothy,’ he writes, ‘and 19 captured officers were clubbed to death with musket butts.’ You really do get the sense that the British state was rattled by the rebellion, and that fear of the Jacobites lingered long after the Forty-Five.

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier.
An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier.

For Seward, the final end of Jacobitism came not at Culloden but in 1759, when the French were decisively beaten by the British at Quiberon Bay during the Seven Years War.

Around this time, fortune shift ed back in favour of the Whigs. George III came to the throne the following year – a sharp contrast to the ageing Charles, now a drunkard, who had conspicuously failed to produce an heir.

Lacking a future, the cause lost much of its urgency. The original dispute had long been forgotten by most of the British king’s subjects, who had since come to terms with the Hanoverian usurpers. As the author rather stylishly puts it: ‘the magic of divine right may have gone, but squatters’ rights have been transformed by the alchemy of long tenure.’


Given that the Jacobites were half-forgotten even in their own time, Seward has plenty of fascinating detail with which to remind us of their long history of subversion. Much of it veers between ugly and preposterous.

I had not known, for instance, that, following 1776, Charles was touted as a potential ruler of the newly independent American colonies – though this was no more than a fantasy of some of the more-enthusiastic Boston Jacobites. In any case, he was by then too much of a wreck to have been anyone’s king. There are many other fascinating titbits in Seward’s book.

It would have been helpful to have some more context on the English Civil War and its legacy of anti-Catholicism, especially seeing, as he claims, that it was from this paranoia that the whole saga originated.

Otherwise, The King over the Water is highly readable, with brilliantly rendered characters, and thrilling tales of deceit and espionage. The key battles are succinctly described, with some clear diagrams. There are also generous doses of ballads to give us a taste of the era. My personal favourite is ‘When the King Enjoys His Own Again’.

Seward, a conservative Roman Catholic, writes of the Jacobites from a sympathetic point of view. In his mind, James II was a reasonable king forced out by a Whig aristocracy that hated not just his Catholicism, but also his attempts to temper the country’s religious intolerance towards his co-religionists.

Yet the author does not shy away from the fact that, aside from a few flashpoints, the Jacobites were never seriously in with a chance of restoring their rule. After all, they were defeated on their home ground, surrounded by supporters, and were never strong enough to act independently of France.

The Jacobites may have had many followers, and their cause may well have been ‘Honest’. Yet up against the power of the Hanoverian state, it still did them no good. Never again would ‘the king enjoy his own’.

This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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