WHEN BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE ALMOST TOOK ENGLAND
On this day, 18th November, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops occupied Carlisle. The ‘Young Pretender’ had crossed the border into England a week earlier and his victorious Jacobite army was surging southwards. By 4th December the Jacobites had reached Derby. The ‘Young Pretender’ was within 114 miles of London and the fulfillment of his dream. But news had arrived that the Duke of Cumberland, youngest son of King George II, had been recalled from Flanders and was now in England, having brought with him 25 battalions of infantry, 23 squadrons of cavalry, and four companies of artillery.
Meanwhile, Major-General Wade’s Hanoverian Army was ensconced in Scotland and there were strong rumours that a third, large government force was defending London. In fact, this was untrue and had Charles forged on to the capital it is quite possible the Stuarts could have reclaimed the British crown. However, Lord George Murray, one of the prince’s senior commanders, argued in favour of a retreat to Scotland and won the support of the majority of the officers. Bonnie Prince Charlie was outraged and told them they were about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, denying the Stuart restoration. Nevertheless, he reluctantly agreed to the War Council’s decision to retreat.
The demoralised Jacobite army was exhausted, cold and hungry. Their retreat to Scotland, short of food, ammunition and other vital supplies, is well charted in Scottish history. The final disastrous confrontation between the Duke of Cumberland’s Hanoverian troops and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites, took place on Drumossie Moor on 16th April 1746. The battle lasted only 45 minutes. Cumberland lost just 50 men, while the kilted, bloodstained bodies of more than 1,200 Jacobites were scattered on the boggy moor. The Jacobite dream lay dead in the mud and with it a Royal Stuart era that had lasted for more than 400 years. The defeat must have been twice as crushing for the prince, because only two nights previously, at a lavish dinner for his officers in nearby Culloden House, he had toasted his loyal commanders in Bordeaux wine as they talked of their coming victory. They feasted on lamb, cheese and cream crowdie while Prince Charles Edward Stuart boasted that his very presence would strike fear into the hearts of Cumberland’s soldiers.
The eve of battle feast may well have been his undoing. Bonnie Prince Charlie had requisitioned Culloden House as his headquarters and it was here on the evening of Monday 14 April that he invited his officers to join him for the fateful banquet. This was the home of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session. Forbes was a devout Protestant and Hanoverian loyalist who had fled to Skye as the Jacobites approached, abandoning his beloved home to the prince. The ‘Young Pretender’ had chosen his billet well. Culloden House was renowned for its hospitality. The Lord President was known to keep casks of claret in the main hall from which guests could literally help themselves by the ‘pailful‘. The chairs surrounding the large oak table in the main dining hall at Culloden House had been specially designed with grooves into which poles could be inserted, so that servants could carry drunken guests more easily to bed!
While the Young Pretender was presiding over what proved to be the last gathering of his loyal officers, the Duke of Cumberland – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s cousin – camped only 8 miles away in Dalcross Castle, had settled down to a more modest dinner to celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday. Lord George Murray, aware of the fact that the Hanoverian army would be joining in the birthday celebrations of the Duke of Cumberland, suggested to Prince Charles that they should mount a night attack on the Hanoverian encampment at Nairn, believing he’d catch the Redcoats drunkenly napping.
Buoyed by this inspired idea and convinced that the planned night attack would lead to his ultimate victory, Prince Charles was in great spirits as he took his seat at the head of Duncan Forbes’ table in the main dining hall at Culloden House. Nothing was allowed to dent his optimism. As the night wore on and the prince’s confidence soared in line with his consumption of claret, he became more and more garrulous. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sumptuous banquet contrasted sharply with the meagre fare dished out to his soldiers. Provisions and money were running dangerously low and the Jacobite soldiers were starving and despondent as they had been given neither adequate food nor pay for weeks.
A false alarm on the morning of 15th April led to the disgruntled Jacobites being mustered in full battle order on Drumossie Moor. They stood there all day and by the time it became clear that the Hanoverian troops were still in their camp, it was dusk and the orders were given to begin the ill-fated night march to Nairn. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and a cold, rising wind was driving rain and sleet in their faces as they trudged wearily across the heavy ground overnight. When finally, they were within 2 miles of the Hanoverian camp, it was already almost dawn and there were signs of Cumberland’s army beginning to stir. It was too late to mount a surprise attack. The exhausted troops were told to wheel around and begin the long march back to Drumossie Moor.
It was around 8 a.m. when Prince Charles finally threw himself on a bed in Culloden House, fully clothed, with his boots still on. He fell instantly into a deep sleep. He had barely been asleep for twenty minutes when a guard rushed in to waken him, stating that Cumberland’s army were heading towards Culloden. The bewildered Prince lurched outside to a scene of bedlam. Men, suffering from lack of sleep and unappeased hunger were standing shivering in groups, wondering what to do. Others lay sleeping where they had fallen to the ground in exhaustion. Officers were shouting orders and trying to rouse their slumbering troops. It was a bad start to what would become one of the unhappiest days in Scottish history.