Monday, January 8, 2018

The Forty-Five, or, Jacobites and Madmen

John Petite, The Jacobites of 1745, 1873

In the realm of human behavior that needs explaining, I offer you the case of Lord George Murray. On September 3, 1745, Lord George wrote to his brother, the Duke of Atholl, to declare his intention of joining Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, despite having accepted lucrative positions from the government:
I never did say to any person in Life that I would not ingage in the cause I always in my heart thought just and right, as well as for the Interest, Good, and Liberty of my country . . . though what I do may and will be reccon'd desperate . . .  and may very probably end in my utter ruin. My Life, my Fortune, my expectations, the Happyness of my wife and children, are all at stake, and the chances are against me, yet a principle of (what seems to me) Honour, and my Duty to King and Country, outweighs every thing.
Murray was not hungry, or desperate, or oppressed; indeed he had pretty much everything his century could offer. Yet he threw it all away to follow a prince who had never before set foot in Britain.

There is a famous Gaelic song about these events, Mo Ghile Mear, "My Gallant Darling", written around 1750 by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill; Sting's version isn't on Youtube but you can hear Mary Black's here. The first stanza, spoken by a sort of goddess who represents the Irish people, translates as:
Once I was a maiden fair
Now it’s widow’s weeds I wear
My husband lies not in the grave
But far from me he ploughs the waves
I have a wonderful book about the folklore of the Island of Skye, and mixed in with all the water horses and selkies are dozens of items about Bonnie Prince Charlie, who passed through the island when he was fleeing after his defeat and seems to have been sheltered by every other family on the island. People treasure these memories and have passed them on for generations.

I've just finished reading a quite good book about the Forty-Five, as Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion is generally known, and what lingers in my mind is a puzzle. What is all this about? What explains the enduring appeal of this half-wit royal adventurer and his doomed rebellion, brushed away in an hour at Culloden Moor by a single division of the government's army? Why so many songs about these rebels, and none about the men who in defeating them saved Parliamentary rule and paved the way for British democracy?

This is going to be a long essay, because there is a lot here to unpack.

There is, first of all, the weird human fascination with royal blood. Many Jacobites touched on this in their personal justifications: as far as they were concerned, the 1688 rebellion was a crime and the Stuarts remained the real kings of Britain. Here is Dr. Archibald Cameron to his wife, from the prison where he awaited execution, 8 June 1753:
I thank kind Providence I had the happiness to be early educated in the principles of Christian loyalty, which as I grew in years inspired me with an utter abhorrence of rebellion and usurpation, tho’ ever so successful. And when I arrived at man's estate I had the testimony both of religion and reason to confirm me in the truth of my first principles. Thus my attachment to the ROYAL FAMILY is more the result of examination and conviction than of prepossession and prejudice. And as I am now, so was I then, ready to seal my loyalty with my blood. As soon, therefore, as the royal youth had set up the king his father's standard, I immediately, as in duty bound, repaired to it. . . .
I could go on, but I think you all know what I mean. And I have to say that of all the political principles ever articulated by humankind, none makes less sense to me than the divine right of kings. What possible difference could it make to me who your father was? or your great-great-grandfather? If you go back far enough, all kings are descended from usurpers or conquerors; why is being descended from a grasping thug more noble than being one? You expect me to do what you say because your great-grandfather killed somebody else's great grandfather and took his crown? Really? James II was overthrown in 1688 because he sought to limit the powers of Parliament and impose French-style absolutism on Britain, besides promoting Catholicism in a way that offended many of his mostly Protestant subjects. When his subjects got sick of him, they tossed him out and brought in a king more to their liking. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Yet to millions of humans, past and present, loyalty to the true king has been one of the deepest moral touchstones, something more to be treasured than marriage or family or friendship, second only to devotion to God.

And then there is our fascination with the doomed gesture, the forlorn hope, the men who fight and die because that is what they feel called on to do: the 300 Spartans, the Saxons at Maldon – courage must be harder, our hearts bolder, our minds keener, as our numbers dwindle – the Forty-Seven Ronin, the defenders of the Alamo, the Irish rebels of 1916. Mostly we bend to fate, but sometimes instead people choose to defy it. Instead of surrendering to that which is, they go down fighting against it, and something about that touches us deeply. As Gimli puts it in the movie version of The Return of the King:
Small chance of success — certainty of death — what are we waiting for?
It's a joke, but it sums up one piece of the hero's creed: where the danger is greatest, there is the greatest chance for eternal glory. It impresses me that although the actual Spartan warriors at Thermopylae were sent with a strategic mission, to delay the Persians until the Greeks could fortify the Isthmus of Corinth, the movie version casts all that aside and makes their stand a completely pointless gesture of courage. That is, to some, more noble and more pure.

Some Jacobites had been raised on stories of earlier rebellions – 1689, 1708, 1715, 1719. When they joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, they stepped out of ordinary life and into story. This is another way of explaining the heroic impulse; to live as characters in a legend, not as mortal humans, thinking not of today but of how we will be remembered in a century.

But I think a deeper level of explanation is needed.

Many people feel keenly the sordid, messy, compromising ordinariness of life. Shouldn't there be more to existence than a struggle to survive, or to get ahead; than squabbles with relatives we love but can't get along with; than a string of insults from strangers and dismissals from superiors; than churches full of hypocrites; than sadness and loss and regret? There is in all of us a longing to break free from earthbound life and soar. I see this longing all around me: in fantasies of the apocalypse, in the hope of lottery riches, in the dream of a perfect love that transforms, in the unchained rage of killers.

I see this longing among British Jacobites. They were not united by any particular social or economic grievance, or any single vision of life after the Stuarts had been restored. Some were Catholics, but others were Protestants who assumed the new Stuart king would convert to Protestantism, as Henry IV had converted to Catholicism to become King of France. Some wanted to undo the Act of Union that ended Scottish independence, while others wanted greater and closer union. Some wanted to give up the colonies, others to expand them. What united them was a dream of a different world. Especially among the writers and poets – John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott – Jacobism was part of a disaffection with the existing order of things. They felt a loathing for the money-grubbing, power-grubbing, self-promoting culture of getting ahead and stomping on whoever got in the way, and they associated this order with scheming Whig politicians and their fat Hanoverian kings. They wanted something else, and the King Over the Water provided a focus for these dreams.

Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay, 1745

Some people are especially put off by the sordid ordinariness of political life. Shouldn't a people's leader be something more than the most talented vote grubber, the most skillful pledger of false promises? Why should getting the most votes matter more than being the best man? There is, it has to be said, a dearth of purity and high-mindedness in democratic politics. Personally I think that is true of all politics, but anyway democracy is just not that inspiring to many people. They want something pure and true, and the one example that comes up most often is to give their loyalty to someone they believe in. In this loyalty they see something noble and clean that transcends mere political intrigue. Combine this with faith in divine kingship, and politics is transformed, in imagination anyway, from something material and grubby into something sanctified. There is a recurring literary image to describe such people and such times: a falling away, a casting off, a shedding of clothes and even skin, leaving behind something noble and pure. As Yeats wrote of a different rebellion:
You that Mitchel's prayer have heard
`Send war in our time, O Lord!'
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace
I see all these longings in the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Dissatisfied with the increasingly commercial, increasingly impersonal, increasingly technical world around them, dissatisfied with politics as trading votes for preferment, they sought to cut through all of it with a pure act of sacrifice. In loyalty and courage they sought redemption from the world of compromise and care.

So there is my explanation. It has many parts as, I think, all explanations of human behavior should. There was boredom, restlessness, longing for adventure. There was the fascination of the hero's path, blazing through life on the way to a fiery end that might be long remembered. There was the dissatisfaction of the everyday and the longing to soar above it; there was the longing for pure and noble feeling. There was the desire to shed the skin of an ordinary, compromised, muddled life and to stand for a moment revealed as pure spirit, strong in decision, certain in action, powerful in faith.

What was completing missing from Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, if you ask me, was any kind of politics that made sense. The Jacobites had not a single idea about how to make Britain a better place for the people who lived there. Charles did not proclaim a single policy; he did not question anything about the government he sought to overthrow except the hereditary right of its king to lead it. It is not just modern cynics who find the whole thing ridiculous, but many at the time. The reaction of people who did not feel the attraction of the Stuart cause was generally not anger but eye-rolling. You want what? The savage brutality meted out by the royal army after their victory was motivated by bafflement; if the clansmen were so far beyond reason that they would sacrifice themselves on such mad adventures, then they had to be eliminated for civilization to proceed.

Yet in the Britain of 2018 the people care not a fig for the government's victory, which is seen as oppressive in Scotland and forgotten elsewhere. No, it is Bonnie Prince Charlie and his quixotic rebellion that seized and still holds our imagination.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I think about this and similar incidents all the time, and they make me wonder about the politics of my own time. My sort of politics is based on rational self-interest plus empathy. I support governments that defend the rights of the people and do their best to care for them and help them get along. I support democracy because although it is sordid and petty and corrupt, it does people the honor of allowing them to choose their own leaders. None of which is legend; none of which is heroic story; none of which inspires the kind of irrational fervor that Bonnie Prince Charlie did.

We rational liberals are often mystified by human behavior. The enthusiasm of millions for dictators like Mussolini or Saddam Hussein leaves us scratching our heads. We don't understand why poor people vote for conservatives who have promised to cut health spending. We can't imagine why people vote without even bothering to find out what positions their candidate holds. But we should not be surprised by any of these things. We humans are irrational, in love with stories, devoted to phantoms. We live only half our lives in the material world. The rest we spend in the Dreamtime, with gods and heroes. If you expect your fellow humans to live sensibly, you are making a grievous error. When you catch yourself in this mistake, think about Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Highlanders: fools, who marched dreaming to the field of their destiny and charged dreaming at the guns that killed them, remembered forever for their folly.


Unknown said...

Fascinating post about a fascinating topic. What was the book about the Forty-Five you read?

I would agree that human events, especially large human events involving thousands of people, require large, complex, and multifarious explanations. When the individual human mind is itself complex and infinitely changeable and divided in its motives, how much more a numerous group of them?

Here's another element to add. It strikes me that the considerations you cite apply largely to Charlie's English and Lowland supporters. Surely for the clansmen themselves the explanations would be somewhat different, at least in emphasis. For one thing, based on my by no means exhaustive knowledge of the Jacobite Wars, the clansmen largely followed, not the descendants of James II, but their own chiefs. And here, surely, the whole issue of lineage right makes more sense. When the patriarch-leader is somewhat intimately known, a personal figure watched in youth and obeyed in maturity, when there is some idea that his ancestors are also your own, and when one lives in a relatively disordered, institutionless world where kin is about all you can trust, then surely the emotional pull of lineage loyalty would seem less featherbrained. I think it would be a profound combination of lifelong training, habit, conformity, group identity, and good sense.

Likewise for dreams of glory. In the clansmen's culture, celebration of martial heroism was a fairly organic component of a person's upbringing and life. Last stands, great vengeances, cattle raids--stories of these things were a large part of their way of passing time. And martial glory must take on a somewhat more immediate meaning when you set off to raid cattle with your friends, and can expect your nears and dears to cheer you if you return.

Of course, this culture was in decline. I imagine that, by the mid-18th century, the scope for cattle raiding was much reduced from what it had been in the 17th, which is an era I know better. And, famously, chiefs' sons now spent years away in Paris and elsewhere, learning to drink from crystal and to prate in French, so the putative original intimacy of chief and clansmen was somewhat attenuated by 1745. So perhaps even for the MacDonalds clan loyalty was self-destructive nostalgia by the time of the '45, if less-so during the '89.

But there is another, darker element. John Prebble--whose book Glencoe I think is near poetry--cites the role in these wars of Mi-run mor nan Gall, the Lowlanders' Great Hatred. After decades of Highland descents and reavings, the clansmen perceived, no doubt correctly, that the Lowlanders hated them and would take any opportunity for vengeance. Further, the reification of this perceived hatred as a thing--Mi-run mor nan Gall--no doubt reflects also the Highlanders' own hatred, after decades of restrictions on their freedom by officious Lowland lawyers and bureaucrats, manipulations of interclan rivalry by the Edinburgh Council's issue of Letters of Fire and Sword now to one chief, now to another, and so on, not to mention the Lowlanders' urban-bureaucratic and Calvinist mood of superiority over these poor, violent, half-pagan (and often Catholic) hill people.

So, amidst all the poetry and quixotism, there's a good deal of ethnic hatred, not unlike the Serbs and the Albanians, or the Israelis and Palestinians.

And we haven't yet looked at the rage against the whole world that must have seethed in the breasts of many of the Thomas Lobsters who made up the British Army.

szopen said...

LOng and nice essay, but I am puzzled that you are puzzled. Honour and the loyalty means more than anything else on this earth. My ancestors kept on fighting for the lost causes since the partitions till the regaining of the independence and they lost everything after each lost uprising. Choosing material over the loyalty and honour seems to me the most despicable thing...

szopen said...

Actually I hope my previous comment have not sounded too harsh. The emotions rarely translate well across the language.

However, you have to also remember that actually the emotions like that evolved for a reason: a honest signal must be costly. Why people are ashamed and sometimes cannot live with a guilt, killing themselves over the things they did years ago? The favourite example is about the taxi driver who would get from his car and chase after a guy who cheated him for few cents; utterly irrational behaviour, right? Why fight over few cents, losing potential clients and risking someone would rob your unguarded taxi? Yet this actually makes sense, when you think about it long enough.

John said...

Szopen: what do you suppose separates a people that re-emerges from conquest, like the Poles, from one that disappears like the Wends or the Prussians? Do you feel that all loyalty to one's people is noble and justified, or is there a point at which it becomes merely self-destruction? You surely know that many Poles accommodated themselves to the Russian Empire and worked within its structures to help their people. How do you feel about them?

For me, allegiance to a people is more appealing than allegiance to a king. As David says, loyalty to a clan chief makes more sense: these were people who knew each other and counted on each other in a world where they could count on little else. But hardly any of the Jacobites had ever set eyes on their king, who lived in Rome, and their identity as a people was hardly in question. Charles' rebellion did get mixed up a little bit with the question of Scottish independence, and some of his supporters wanted him to become king of a separate Scotland and let England go. But that wasn't his aim; he wanted the whole shebang or nothing. In Scotland he made various noises about restoring their old independence and spending half the year in Edinburgh, but wise men took this with a grain of salt.

So to me the Jacobite cause is a sort of distillation of loyalty and honor as a cause in themselves, stripped of any practical implications, largely separate from questions of identity. Except for the Highlanders -- who were, it is true, his most belligerent supporters, but were numerically a small minority -- his followers could look forward to no change in their own situations at all. The historical hatred between Highlanders and Lowlanders was real, but the Jacobites had strong support in both areas, as also did the government. Jacobism cut across all the ethnic, social, economic, and every other sort of division we can think of.

John said...

The book I read is Jacqueline Riding, "Jacobites: a New History of the '45 Rebellion." It's all events, lots of detail at the level of who said what to whom, not just around the Prince but in London, in Rome, at Versailles. It does a good job of explaining what the Prince actually did and why; I learned a lot from it about his actions and how people saw them. I actually don't recommend it for people who don't know much about the 18th century, because I found myself supplying a lot of background knowledge. As my essay indicates, I also found myself wondering about bigger picture stuff, like why some people were Jacobites and others were not. It ran in some families, but others were divided, like the Murrays I started with.

Unknown said...


I get your point--for you, the Jacobite movement is about honor and loyalty in themselves, without reward, without even much hope of success. The word quixotic--which has both pejorative and admiring, or at least wonderstruck, aspects--comes to mind, although you don't use it.

That said, I can't help but think that your contention that the Highlanders were "numerically a small minority" of Charles' supporters, while it may be true in terms of all the people who ever wished him well, is a bit tendentious and conceals more than it reveals. The Highlanders were not simply "belligerent"--itself a freighted and possibly belittling word choice--they were his most (some have said his only, though I don't know enough to say whether I would agree) effective fighters, and without fighting, Jacobitism wasn't going to get very far.

Granted, his most numerous potential supporters were the Irish--and there you get into a motive more like Szopen's Poles. But in the event, though there were some bands of Irish who made it to Britain for the Forty-Five, Charles and his French sponsors never really managed to tap that well of manpower (nor, of course, is it certain that they would have succeeded; my impression is the London-allied gentry had pretty tight control at that point).

Just to add another wrinkle to the Highlanders' motives, it's worth pointing out that the largest single clan, the Campbells, supported the government--and that the MacDonalds' Jacobitism was essentially anti-Campbell.

You still haven't answered my original question--what book did you read? Is its argument that we should see Jacobitism as mainly a non-Highland movement? Which would, to a point, be a salutary historical corrective, both about the Forty-Five itself and about how we should understand mid-18th-century Anglo-Lowland culture (i. e., not so unified and happily commercial-rational as we thought). But in the Forty-Five itself, the Highlanders weren't some adjunct off to the side. Without them, I just don't see Jacobitism threatening the State.

Unknown said...

Ah, while I was writing my post, you answered some of my questions. I'd stick with my point about the Highlanders, though. No Highlanders, no Forty-Five.

Unknown said...

Murray himself is an interesting figure--one foot in the modern world, and one in a sort of para-clan, para-border world that had little in common with Bristol or Edinburgh, let alone London. He was also both a lifelong Jacobite and one who hesitated to join Charles when he actually arrived.

Lovat is a similar figure. Hogarth's famous engraving of him is one of my favorite works of art ever. Not quite a Highlander of the bannocks-in-the-bothy type, but still an aristo schemer (and a lifelong Jacobite, for all of his legendary cynicism) more redolent of the 17th century than of the age of Walpole and Pitt.

szopen said...

"Do you feel that all loyalty to one's people is noble and justified, or is there a point at which it becomes merely self-destruction? "
I do not understand the question. I mean, whether the cause is self-destruction has no relevance for the question whether it is noble and justified.

As for the Poles- well, some of the were traitors. Some had no choice. You cannot expect everyone would be a hero. Frankly, I am quite sure I would fail to live up to the high standards set by some of my ancestors. But there are still the question of what ideal we should strive for.