Was the failure of Jacobitism inevitable?

The threat of Jacobitism within Britain during the eighteenth-century was persistent. Despite, their invasion attempts, plots from within, support within Parliament, and among the people the chance of a restoration was remote. What made it difficult for the Jacobites was the difficulty in invading Britain, the limited support from Westminster and the people, but also the diaspora among the component members. Therefore, it was not impossible for the Jacobites, but it was highly unlikely. Pittock’s work highlighted the dilemma that faced the Jacobites in 1745. For them to prove successful the stars needed to align. Pittock saw essential variables to their success: the reaction of Londoners, French invaders and the morale of the British army.[1] Sadly, not all of these could complement each other, like the French alliance decreasing English support. Therefore, the failure was not inevitable, but to call it an uphill struggle was an understatement.

The inevitability of the Jacobites demise has been debated by, as Szechi argues, historians are in three camps. Optimists; who regarded the Jacobites as an actual threat, pessimists; who saw the Jacobites downfall because of the strength of the British state, and rejectionists; who consider the failure of Jacobitism as inevitable.[2] However, the definition of Jacobitism has also caused division. The major divide has emerged between Cruickshanks who believes that a Jacobite merely needs to wish for a restoration of the Stuarts, versus Hanham’s need for those to participate in an uprising. The middle ground adopted by Christie works, because it allows those who covertly engage in treasonable behaviour to be considered Jacobites.

Undoubtedly, the issue from within the Tory Party was integral to the failure of Jacobitism. The defamation of the Tories by Walpole and the lies perpetuated in amongst Tories themselves provided Jacobites with the false sense of support from the Commons, has created such a debate. In fact, Iberville even believed that the Tories “have become almost all Jacobites” in 1717.[3] Colley, a rejectionist, claims the Tories were a Hanoverian as a Tory parliamentarian seconded a motion to make correspondence with the Pretender’s son treason and the overwhelming majority of Tories supported him.[4] Colley argues French and Stuart accounts were too optimistic. She remained critical of Cruickshanks’ use of the sources that believed two-hundred-and-seventy Tory parliamentarians supported the restoration. The Butler sources used fail according to Colley, because all they show is correspondence among some senior politicians. These same sources believed that Roger Mosytn was a Jacobite. This is a preposterous claim because he was the only Tory appointed to Lord Lieutenant in the Walpole years and forced his county sheriff to endorse George II when he was previously a Jacobite. These sources that included critics of Hanover who were also critical of the Jacobites and this led to politicians like William Blackett of Newcastle being pursued by both houses.[5] Sadly, Colley fails to convince people that the Tories were Hanoverians, because of her black-and-white thesis. Just because somebody comes out publicly for the Hanoverians, does not mean that they do so in private, but also why would the Tories support the Hanoverians if they were consigned to the wilderness in the process?

Cruickshanks, an optimist, believes the Tories were overwhelmingly Jacobite. Her argument is dependent on the fact that a Tory government was all but impossible whilst the Hanoverians sat on the throne, this is why despite some hope that George II would be more supportive to the Tories, they would revert back to Jacobitism once he was clearly just as unsympathetic as his father was.[6] Unlike what Colley asserts, the Tories returned to favour the Stuarts after the realisation that George II, like his father had no time for the Tories. Nonetheless, Cruickshanks’ definition of Jacobitism rather overstates the numbers within Westminster. Her reliance on the French and Stuart sources were clearly too optimistic. These rather sanguine sources provide two suspicious examples. William Bromley was labelled as unequivocally a Jacobite because of a brief interaction during the Swedish plot,[7] but this is despite no financial support and instead a mere provisional, undisclosed favour. The following year he was openly removing Tories from Jacobitism. To have such minimal interaction surely defies Cruickshanks’ bizarre claims. Secondly, Richard Shuttleworth’s Jacobite tendencies were reliant on defaming claims from Lord Egmont. These proved to be hearsay, yet for Cruickshanks to use this as acceptable evidence leaves her account with a lot to be desired. The Tory Party was not a Jacobite party. So many of Cruickshanks so-called Jacobites were not in favour of a restoration, but nor were Colley’s Hanoverians, instead we need a middle-ground.

Fortunately, Hanham and Christie provide the clearest interpretation of the makeup of the Tories. The Tories were a broad-church that ultimately sided with Hanover, but with a large and somewhat powerful Jacobite minority. Because of this the Jacobites were doomed. They were doomed because without mass support from Westminster, they could not create a platform for a coup. The covert minority were restrained from making a significant impact, because they were fearsome of being tried for treason and therefore this impeded the progress of Jacobitism within Parliament. Cruickshanks takes exception to this thesis and accuses the pessimist definition of Jacobitism as being too constrained. However, Christie acknowledges that those funding in private whilst giving public loyalist addresses were indeed Jacobites, however, not enough did this for him. Christie too concluded that ‘a majority of tory MPs were loyal’.[8] Therefore, the Jacobites could not rely on the Tories, especially with only around one-quarter as Jacobites. The Tories were a weak opposition in Parliament and with fragmented and covert support for the restoration the Jacobites. They were almost fighting from the outside to get in.

Alongside a political threat, the Hanoverians had to contend with seven planned invasions. Jacosceptics argue that the invasion attempts themselves lacked seriousness but given that the 1744 Essex plot mirrors the Immortal Sevens invitation to William in 1688, this argument is weak. France sacrificed prioritising their own foreign endeavours in order to attempt to cripple their greatest rival. Louis XIV provided James II with six-hundred-thousand livres[9] and constant access to men or munitions, with some fifteen-thousand Frenchmen and the King’s favourite duke, de Richelieu ready for the 1744 invasion. Even the Swedes paid one-million livres of their own and the Spanish were to prove instrumental in invasion plots.[10] With continental sacrifices for the Jacobites, the likelihood of a Stuart restoration rose. Large payments and troops professionalised the Jacobite movement.

However, McLyn forgets how unlikely a successful invasion was. The superiority of Britain’s navy and the illusive seawall proved the greatest barriers to any seaborne, Jacobite insurgence. Britain’s standing army had grown across the eighteenth-century to around 70,000, the Jacobites were, as Colley states, forced to wait for the British to go to war so their British resources would diverge and even in this case, invasions were limited to the remote Highlands.[11] This was to happen in 1745 when only four-thousand government forces were left in Scotland to defend Edinburgh. Nonetheless, the distance from the invaders to London was astronomical. The repelled invasion of 1708 saw Byng prevent Admiral Forbin from even getting close to the Scottish coastline. Contemporaries, like Earl Sutherland, felt comfortable in the wake of invasion and mocked the enemy’s persistent attempts.[12] The fact that Britain had a powerful seawall and the sea was certainly a cruel mistress, also meant that a successful invasion decreased in likelihood. Therefore, we must concede that the Jacobites were well prepared both in arms and finances for an invasion, but Britain’s seawall and superior navy meant that, alongside invasions by the French in this century, they were far from likely to be successful.

The chances of Jacobite success were also hindered by pure arithmetic. The contemporary, Samuel Johnson, said that far-flung support and limited funds crippled any potential Jacobite threat.[13] However, Clark does not believe that this support was as far flung as Johnson. In his work English Society, he sees England produce several Jacobite strongholds. From Manchester, to Birmingham and even in the capital. Notably with the High Churchmen of the Hackney Phalanx, led by Joshua Watson and William Stevens, who worked to obtain support for a restoration.[14] Even within rural Wales, the local Society of the Sea Serjeants and the Cycle of the White Rose badgered the Commons to restrict home defences.[15] Primary sources of court cases in Somerset also support Clark’s claim. The cases see defendants refuse to toast to the health of the King and proclaim that ‘George was a Usurping King’ that should be ‘sent home into his own country to sow turnips’.[16] Rogers riposte is that this popular Jacobitism was ‘too local, too volatile, to engender a sustained and politically integrated challenge to the Hanoverian regime.’[17] This completely echoes Johnson’s claim. He takes exception because popular support, never meant that people were willing to fight. Only seven-hundred Englishmen took up arms in 1715. Indeed, anti-Jacobite sentiments were far more pronounced. In 1745 the Hanoverian supporters dispersed two-hundred Catholics in Ormskirk and celebrating the birthday of Lord Cumberland.  

Szechi’s work removes Clark’s optimism further. He divides the support between England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Ireland, as surprising at it is for an overwhelmingly Catholic and certainly non-British region of the United Kingdom was ‘the dog that did not bark’[18]. The memories of disaster in the Cromwellian years were not something that they sought to recreate. Despite a desire for change and Jacobitism, the fear of the repercussions, especially with the religious percussion of the eighteenth-century, made the Irish insignificant. In regard to Anglo-Welsh support there were two supportive groups, they were both small but the Catholics and the nonjurors were definitely in favour of a restoration. Within the Catholic community, which could not be more than two-percent, a majority did not engage and were armchair Jacobites because of the fear, alike to the Irish, of the religious repercussions.[19] The only other group was the even smaller nonjurors. The clear issue is that support from England and Wales was so small that it could not offer Scots suitable support. The problems got worse once Scottish Jacobites moved through England. Initially, small numbers of northern Jacobites would join the ranks, as up to a fifth of the north were Catholic, but the further south they marched, the less Englishmen were supportive.  Even within Scotland, the idea that they had a majority is not the case. Of course, having eight percent of adult men fighting for the Pretender in 1715 is substantial, but the Jacobites never controlled more than half of Scotland.[20] This size, did not mean that the Jacobites were inevitably going to fail. In 1715 they evaded the government forces and seized Edinburgh, and in 1745 they did even better and outmanoeuvred the government to reach Derby. Whilst it was clear that they could not put up with the almost infinite resources of the state, they were likely to fail. The reason why this lacks inevitability is because not only did invasion attempts take place against a depleted British army, but also history has shown an outmanned force succeed. Whether this be Agincourt or Rorke’s Drift, it is wrong to write off the Jacobites on numbers alone. Therefore, optimists do overstate the support for Jacobitism, but the small support did not mean that the Jacobites were inevitably to fail.

The Jacobites were aware of their dwindling numbers. However, to make matters worse their supporters were by no means coalesced. The Jacobite Manifesto highlights this as it calls for this King to represent ‘one mind, one heart and one interest.’ [21] The consequences of this are twofold. First of all, it allowed the numbers that would take up arms for the Pretender to grow to actually pose somewhat of a threat. But it also crippled the movement because the separate groups had different motives and different agendas. The divide ultimately fell on a national level as well between the Anglo-Welsh Jacobites, the Scots, the hapless Irish and even among their international comrades. Szechi describes this dissonant relationship as ‘the Scots accused the English of faintheartedness, the English lambasted the Scots for setting off the rebellion before they were ready, everyone blamed the French, or the Spanish, or the papacy, etc., for not having provided troops and money.’[22] The Anglo-Scottish altercation is illustrated no better than Joseph Enzer’s decorations at the House of Dun, it depicts the British lion reduced to humility, and a Jacobite trampling over the Union flag.[23] This Anglophobia did limit any support in England. For those in England who were critical of the Hanoverians could not support Scotsmen. So much so, that a Jacobite commander spoke of English citizens attacking Scotsmen who were injured and sick. This also saw the vilification of the Scots because of their relationship with France. Their friendship actually saw the French abandon any restoration in England and therefore saw the Scottish Solution emerge. By ignoring the English like in December 1744 once the French landed at Moidart, the French and Scots plot failed completely. Whether we look at the religious divide or the national divide the Jacobites were irrefutably worse off. If anything, they revolutionised support for the Hanoverians and made popular support dwindle. But, without it the small numbers would have been left to the edges of society.

To conclude, the rejectionist and optimist claims are outlandish. Rejectionist simply ignore the threat of the Jacobites: they ignore their relative success when they arrived in Derby, they ignore the well-funded invasion threats, they ignore the support within powerful corners of the Tory Party and they ignore the disapproval of many Britons to the Hanoverians. But the optimists are no better. With strong British defences, issues in the compatibility of Jacobites and a small Jacobite presence in Westminster and the nation their chances of success were limited. Instead, the Jacobite success was unlikely but not impossible. The seawall and navy proved strong but not impenetrable. The Tory Party proved to be an unreliable but infiltrated. British support was predominantly Hanoverian but with a skilful Jacobite base. Therefore, the Jacobites were not inevitably going to fail, but they were irrefutably up against it and success was improbable.


Bennett, GV,. English Jacobitism, 1710-1715: Myth and Reality, Transactions of the Royal History Society, (1982)

Christie, IR,. The Tory Party, Jacobitism and the ‘Forty-Five’: A Note, The Historical Journal, (1987)

Clark, JCD., English Society 1660-1832, (2000)

Colley, L., In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714-60, (1982)

Colley, L., Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, (1992)

Cruickshanks, E., Political Untouchables, (1979)

Cruickshanks, E., Jacobites, Tories and ‘James III’, Parliamentary History, (2002)

Hanham, A., ‘So Few Facts’: Jacobites, Tories and the Pretender, Parliamentary History, (2000)

McLynn, F., The Jacobites, (1985)

Pittock, M., Jacobitism, (1998)

Rogers, N., Seditious Words, Subversive Laughter: Popular Jacobitism in Hanoverian England, Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain, (1998)

Szechi, D., The Jacobites: Britain and Europe 1688-1788, (1994)

Szechi, D., The Jacobite Movement, A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain, (2003)

Zimmerman, D., The Jacobite Movement in Scotland and in Exile 1746-1759, (2003)

Primary Sources:

Earl of Sutherland, Letter to Earl of Leven, National Archives, 9 March 1708

Glastonbury, Somerset: Court Cases, National Archives, 26 July 1716

Jacobite Manifesto, National Archives, 10 September 1722

Wyatt, W., Catholic Threat in Warwickshire, National Archives, 2 November 1745

Letter to Henry Pelham: “List of persons who were usefull to the Government during the late Rebellion, and thereby intitled to their favour”, Nottingham University, 6 April 1747

James, G., Scott Sawney and John Bull, British Museum, 20 April 1792

[1] M Pittock, Jacobitism (1998), 104.

[2] D Szechi, ‘The Jacobite Movement’, A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain (2003), 2–5.

[3] E Cruickshanks, Political Untouchables (1979), 8.

[4] L Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714-60 (1982), 38.

[5] Ibid, 29–30.

[6] Cruickshanks, Political Untouchables, 10.

[7] Ibid, 8.

[8] Christie, ‘Tories, Jacobitism and ’45’, 931.

[9] F McLynn, The Jacobites (1985), 21.

[10] Ibid 41.

[11] L Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992), 73.

[12] Earl of Sutherland, ‘Letter to Earl of Leven’, (1708).

[13] Colley, Britons, 85.

[14] JCD Clark, English Society 1660-1832 (2000), 37.

[15] Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy, 925.

[16] ‘Glastonbury, Somerset: Court Cases’, (1716).

[17] N Rogers, ‘Seditious Words, Subversive Laughter: Popular Jacobitism in Hanoverian England’, Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain (1998), 1.

[18] Szechi, ‘The Jacobite Movement’, 91.

[19] Ibid, 86.

[20] Ibid, 83.

[21] ‘Jacobite Manifesto’, (1722).

[22] Szechi, Jacobites of Britain and Europe, 85.

[23] Colley, Britons, 74.

Published by Jack Walters

I am currently studying history at University College, London. I have also contributed to BrexitCentral and have conducted political research used by The Daily Telegraph.

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