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The Young Pretender

Frank McLynn

Bonnie Prince Charlie has not been portrayed correctly, as a new biography argues.

The Young Pretender

Frank McLynn

Bonnie Prince Charlie has not been portrayed correctly, as a new biography argues.

Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), aka Bonnie Prince Charlie is famous for a failed attempt, in 1745-46, to regain the English throne lost by his grandfather James II. He has traditionally received a bad press from historians and biographers, who have characterised him as a Polish blockhead, a rash adventurer, the knight of the quest forlorn, in sum as the Americans would say, a born loser. My book, Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart, attempts a rehabilitation, and is the only extant study based on full archival research, including 500 volumes of Stuart Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle and much other material, including the Secret Archives of the Vatican.

The Battle of Culloden

What has not been realised is that the Prince was a very modern figure in his approach to revolution. He intuited the force of willpower, the role of contingency in history and how so much depends on luck and chance and how, to use a modernism, you can’t win a lottery unless you’re in the game. The Prince’s father, James the Old Pretender, was like the early Marxists who stressed that objective circumstances had to be right before a revolution could succeed. James’s version of this was to wait for a ‘favourable conjuncture,’ of events, which in effect meant waiting until doomsday. His son was more like twentieth century Marxists who stressed ‘subjective conditions,’ in other words you had to make revolutions happen through willpower, unremitting revolutionary zeal and sheer attrition of the opposition. In this sense the Bonnie Prince anticipated modern figures like Mao and Castro, though through bad luck his eventual fate was more like that of Che Guevara. All the best historians now agree that if Charles and his army had pressed on from Derby in December 1745, they would have won the day. But his Scottish regimental commanders got cold feet simply because there had not been a mass flocking to his banner once he crossed the border into England. After the retreat from Derby all that beckoned was the long road to Culloden.

Yet the Prince caught the imagination such that his ‘rash adventure’ came to be seen as a saga worthy to rank with the story of King Arthur in England, with the added glamour that it actually happened. Scotland’s folksong anthology is at least half about Charlie and the happened. Scotland’s say the cult of Charlie is simply the English adoration of heroic failures such as Sir John Franklin, David Livingstone or Captain Scott. But he is undoubtedly a boon to the Scottish tourist industry and rightly Scott. But and the clan leaders who supported him, like Lochiel, Glengarry and Cluny Macpherson are the subject of innumerable songs and Lochiel, Glengarry, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots, Charlie has not fared well on the silver screen. The 1979 television series Kidnapped with David McCallum, an excellent rendering of R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona, portrays him as a fat buffoon, and even in Peter Watkins’s applauded Culloden (1964) the Prince is portrayed negatively. The nadir came in 1948 with Alexander Korda’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, universally decried as a disaster on all fronts.Most risible of all aspects was to cast David Niven as the Prince. One reviewer remarked that Niven as the Prince sumoned the clans in a voice scarcely loud enough to summon a head waiter. In short, the Prince has received grossly unfair treatment at all levels and it was one of the tasks of my book is to remedy this.

Frank McLynn is an author, biographer, historian and journalist. He has written critically acclaimed biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry Morton Stanley.