Biography of Charles Edward Stuart, Scotland’s Bonnie Prince

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender.

Robert Alexander / Getty Images 

Charles Edward Stuart, also known as the Young Pretender and the Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the claimant and heir apparent to the throne of Great Britain in the 18th century. He led the Jacobites, supporters of a Catholic monarch, in a series of victories across Scotland and England in 1745 in an attempt to recapture the crown, though he is chiefly remembered for his defeat at Culloden Moor on April 16, 1746. The bloody battle and subsequent repercussions against suspected Jacobites in Scotland permanently ended the Jacobite cause.

Fast Facts: Charles Edward Stuart

  • Known For: Claimant to the throne of Great Britain
  • Also Known As: The Young Pretender; Bonnie Prince Charlie 
  • Born: December 31, 1720 in Palazzo Muti, Rome, Papal Estates 
  • Died: January 31, 1788 in Palazzo Muti, Rome, Papal Estates 
  • Parents: James Francis Edward Stuart; Maria Clementina Sobieska  
  • Spouse: Princess Louise of Stolberg
  • Children: Charlotte Stuart (illegitimate)

Charles’ escape from Scotland after the battle at Culloden helped to romanticize the Jacobite cause and the plight of Scottish Highlanders during the 18th century. 

Birth and Early Life 

The Bonnie Prince was born in Rome on December 31, 1720, and christened Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Silvester Severino Maria. His father, James Francis Edward Stuart, had been brought to Rome as an infant when his deposed father, James VII, received Papal support after fleeing London in 1689. James Francis married Maria Clementina, a Polish princess with a large inheritance, in 1719. After the failures of the second and third Jacobite Risings in Scotland at the beginning of the 18th century, the birth of a Stuart heir was heartening to the Jacobite cause.

Charles was charismatic and sociable from a young age, characteristics that would later compensate for his lack of skill in battle. As a royal heir, he was privileged and well educated, particularly in the arts. He spoke several languages, including enough Gaelic to be understood in Scotland, and he is said to have played the bagpipes. He was fair-faced and likely bisexual, characteristics that earned him the nickname “Bonnie Prince.”

Introduction to the Jacobite Cause

As the son of the claimant and heir apparent to the throne of Great Britain, Charles was raised to believe in his divine right to an absolute monarchy. It was his life’s purpose to ascend to the throne of Scotland, Ireland, and England, and it was this belief that ultimately lead to the so-called Young Pretender’s defeat, as his desire to capture London after securing Edinburgh exhausted his dwindling troops and supplies in the winter of 1745.

In order to reclaim the throne, James and Charles needed support from a powerful ally. After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, France revoked its support of the Jacobite cause, but in 1744, with the War of Austrian Succession waging across the continent, James managed to secure financing, soldiers, and ships from the French to advance into Scotland. At the same time, the aging James named 23-year-old Charles Prince Regent, tasking him with taking back the crown.

Defeat of the Forty-Five 

In February 1744, Charles and his French company sailed for Dunkirk, but the fleet was destroyed in a storm shortly after departure. Louis XV refused to redirect any more effort from the ongoing War of Austrian Succession to the Jacobite cause, so the Young Pretender pawned the famed Sobieska Rubies to finance two manned ships, one of which was immediately decommissioned by a waiting British warship. Undeterred, Charles pressed on, stepping foot in Scotland for the first time in July 1745.

The standard was raised for the Bonnie Prince in August at Glenfinnan, comprised mostly of destitute Scots and Irish farmers, a mix of Protestants and Catholics. The army marched south through the autumn, taking Edinburgh in early September. It would have been wise for Charles to wait out the ongoing war on the continent in Edinburgh, a move that would have exhausted the Hanoverian troops. Instead, motivated by a desire to claim the throne in London, Charles marched his army into England, getting as close as Derby before being forced to retreat. The Jacobites retreated north, up to the highland capital, Inverness, Charles’ most important holding.

Government troops were not far behind, and a bloody battle was fast approaching. On the night of April 15, 1746, the Jacobites attempted a surprise attack, but they got lost in the marsh and darkness, rendering the attempt a dismal failure. As the sun rose the next morning, Charles ordered his Jacobite army, sleep-deprived and starving, to prepare for battle on the flat, muddy Culloden Moor.

In less than an hour, the Hanoverian army obliterated the Jacobites, and Charles was nowhere to be found. In tears, the Young Pretender had fled the battlefield.

Escape from Scotland

Charles spent the subsequent months in hiding. He became acquainted with Flora MacDonald, who disguised him as her maid, “Betty Burke” and smuggled him safely to the Isle of Skye. He eventually crossed the mainland once more to catch French ships en route to the continent. In September 1746, Charles Edward Stuart left Scotland for the last time. 

Death and Legacy

After a few years searching for Jacobite support, Charles returned to Rome, blaming his senior commanders for the loss at Culloden. He fell into drunkenness, and in 1772 married Princess Louise of Stolberg, a girl 30 years his junior. The pair had no children, leaving Charles without an heir, though he did have one illegitimate daughter, Charlotte. Charles died in Charlotte’s arms in 1788.

In the aftermath of Culloden, Jacobitism became shrouded in myth, and over the years, the Bonnie Prince became the symbol of a valiant but doomed cause rather than a privileged, unskilled prince that abandoned his army. In reality, it was, at least in part, the impatience and impudence of the Young Pretender that simultaneously cost him his throne and permanently ended the Jacobite cause. 

Sources

  • Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, UK. 
  • Highland and Jacobite Collection. Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Inverness, UK. 
  • “Jacobites.” A History of Scotland, by Neil Oliver, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009, pp. 288–322.
  • Sinclair, Charles. A Wee Guide to the Jacobites. Goblinshead, 1998.
  • “The Jacobite Risings and the Highlands.” A Short History of Scotland, by R.L. Mackie, Oliver and Boyd, 1962, pp. 233–256.
  • The Jacobites. West Highland Museum, Fort William, UK. 
  • Visitor’s Centre Museum. Culloden Battlefield, Inverness, UK.