The King Over the Water: A Complete History of the Jacobites

Desmond Seward

Birlinn £25

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE dirty brown signposts point to a largely forgotten history. The sites of Killiekrankie, Eilean Donan, Prestonpans and Culloden are easily found from modern highways.

Minimal history can thus be digested with a scone and a pot of tea. The story of the Jacobite rebellions and how those places once ran with blood has largely remained the preserve of the short audio-visual presentation, the terse poster or the plaque on a stone.

Crucial episodes in Scots history – and, yes, that of England and Ireland – have been left to the serious historian or portrayed in gaudy colours by TV and film. The former is a forbidding route to tread for many, the latter is often wrapped in the sort of myth that bends and even breaks the truth.

Yet the Jacobite turbulence, that largely existed form 1688 to 1824, remains of stark, contemporary importance. It is the story of neurotic fear of a religion (in this case Catholicism rather than Islam), it teems with people who took power “bent on enriching themselves”, and is concerned with how politicians used and abused royalty in pursuit of their aims.

As if all that is not enough to produce a nod of recognition in the 21 century reader, there is also reminders of the Battle of Boyne, still celebrated on the streets of Scotland some 300 years later, and calls to ban Catholic schools that still echo down the ages.

Desmond Seward, educated at Ampleforth and Cambridge, has been labelled a “popular historian”. This designation is sometimes construed as a slight. It should not be in the case of Seward who has already written a provocative comparative biography of Napoleon and Hitler and, amongst others, a sweeping, powerful chronicle of the Tudors.

The King over the Water, though, is his best work because it plays to his gifts of being largely persuasive and consistently employing a briskness in pace, a clarity of style and a genius for capturing the character of those long dead, long-forgotten and, perhaps, never remembered.

Seward is a master of the introduction. The Comte de Lauzan was “a clever, unkempt dwarf with a sharp tongue”. Teague O’Regan? “A bibulous hunchback who wore a fur muff”. Captain George Potter was “an ex-cavalry officer, murderer, suspected highwayman and debauched man of pleasure”.

And dear Queen Anne? “Obese, purple-faced, rheumy eyed. A martyr to gout, Anne was unjustly nicknamed Brandy Anne because of a supposed fondness for spirits”.

My favourite, though, is Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel who “was admired by clansmen for having bitten the throat out of a Roundhead officer and killed the last wolf in Scotland”. He remains lost in the mists of history but many modern-day Scots will insist he accompanied them on a stag trip to Amsterdam sometime in the recent past.

Seward’s most pressing task, though, is to race through more than 150 years of plots, battles, usurpations, executions and European geopolitics in a little more than 300 pages plus notes, index, bibliography and a generous section on what novels to read to enhance one’s appreciation of the period.

His purpose is simply put. Seward writes: “The Jacobites were men and women who refused to accept the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which William of Orange deposed James II (VII of Scotland)… To understand them better, I have written from a Jacobite perspective.’’ The complete nature of the work is geographical in that it covers event in England, Ireland and Scotland.

It is a not a comprehensive history but a rollickingly splendidly chronological one. It largely concerns the lives of James III, Charles III and Henry IX, as their supporters would have called them. James III comes to life as a pious, principled and faithful man. It is the way of the word that these traits were less than useful in pursuit of the restoration of the Crown. Charles III, perhaps better recalled as Bonnie Prince Charlie, escapes the clutches of those who depict him as fey and feckless. Seward does not spare Charles in his depiction of him as a drunken beater of women but also firmly states that the Pretender was genuinely brave in battle and failed by those he entrusted.

The Stuarts were the kings over the water, finding refuge in France, Italy and in the Vatican while never ruling in England, Scotland or Wales. The dynasty did, of course, come near to restoring their birth right. One more charge at Sheriffmuir in 1715? A determined push towards London in the ’45? Both may have changed the course of history.

But the Stuarts stuttered and stumbled. The Hanoverians persevered and prospered. The latter regime had obvious long-term implications for Scotland. The battles were awful and the Duke of Cumberland post Culloden was singularly brutal but the union of 1707 has had the most profound effect. It dominates modern politics in the nation. Similarly, the Irish "problem” has never been solved though the Hanoverians, with just cause, can state that it pre-existed their rule.

The most striking after effect of The King over the Water, though, is not that consideration of history or even an imagination of an alternative story if near victories had become unalloyed triumphs. It is its examination of the persistence of ideas and beliefs to the exclusion of thoughts of acceptance and in defiance of perceived reality.

The fear of Catholicism, for example, was such that the Elector of Hanover was made king in 1714 despite being 58th in line for the thrown. The 57 men and women with stronger claims through blood were disbarred because they were Catholic.

This, of course, owed little to disputes over the theological validity of the transubstantiation. It owed something to a distaste for Popery, the belief that a king would take orders from a temporal, human form in Rome. (This concern, incidentally, had to be tackled head on by John F Kennedy in the presidential race of 1960 so it has a lasting power).

But it owes much more to the fear of the other that has proved so enduring in the history of mankind. It is somewhat perverse that a large swathe of the populace embraced the foreign in William of Orange and then in the dynasty from Hanover if “fear of the other” was the primary force. Yet many wanted to cling to Protestantism, others championed it unreservedly, others moved en masse, at once suspicious of the elite yet completely under its thrall.

On the Jacobite side, the faith was just as tenacious, also regularly impervious to reason and often having little or nothing to do with theology. Many Jacobites were Protestants or, at least, non-Catholics.

There could be no compromise. It was, indeed, shunned by many of the principals. The Jacobite case was fated to fail but still lives on, though in much reduced terms. The cause has been overtaken by other political and regal disputes down the years but it shares so much with what concerns the nation now. There was a binary “then and us” then. There was a lacked of shared ground. There was pointless malice and violence. There were also appearances on the stage by such as France, Sweden, what has become known as Germany, and Russia.

There is also a 18th century leader – hated by many, feted by others – who pursues his political will with a mixture of charm and ruthlessness. The aforesaid Duke of Argyll was educated at Eton.

History does have to repeat itself when it never truly changes.