Bonnie Prince Charlie

Bonnie Prince Charlie in Derby

The last time that Derbyshire was invaded by a foreign army was exactly 260 years ago on December 4th 1745.On that day a six and a half thousand strong force of Jacobites led by the `Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart, known to history as `Bonnie Prince Charlie’ marched from Ashbourne into Derby on their way south to claim the English throne.

Two days later, on December 6th, the Bonnie Prince and his band of followers had turned tail and were retracing their steps northward, pursued at a distance by English troops.

Four months later the Jacobite Rebellion, as it came to be known, was over. The Bonnie Prince’s highland army made it back to Scotland, only to be completely routed by the Duke of Cumberland’s troops in the savage battle of Culloden Moor on April 16th 1746.

Two and a half centuries later in December 1995, a fabulous bronze statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie on horseback by sculptor Anthony Stones was unveiled on Cathedral Green in Derby to mark the 250th Anniversary of the Prince’s advance to the city – and each December, the Charles Edward Stuart Society hold a colourful pageant and re-enact a battle in the city centre which culminates in the laying of a wreath at the foot of the statue.

The spectacular annual parade draws crowds of visitors and supporters from all over the UK – including a contingent from the Royal Stuart Society – and has become a very popular event in the county’s social calendar, which abounds with stories and legends about Bonnie Prince Charlie:

The Bonnie Prince is said to have ridden triumphantly into Derby at the head of a nine thousand strong tartan army; he is rumoured to have fathered at least one child; to have stayed overnight at several different places – including a night in the famous `Bonnie Prince Charlie bedchamber’ at Hartington Hall; he is said to have put dozens to the sword – and his men are described in one account as `wild, barbarous, unwashed savages’.

So what is the truth? Was there a battle in Derby? What really happened in December 1745 – and just who was Bonnie Prince Charlie?

Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of the deposed King James 2nd of England and 7th of Scotland, and was born in Rome in 1720. Educated in the `Eternal City’ he became the focal point of Jacobite hopes and plans to restore a catholic king to the throne of England. However, like his catholic father, James Francis Stuart, known as the `Old Pretender’ (who would have become King James 3rd had he not been usurped by his protestant cousins, William and Mary), Charles would find his ambition to regain the throne he believed to be his by birthright unfulfilled.

Nevertheless he arrived in Scotland in July 1745 without either men or arms and raised his standard at the glen of Glenfinnan before 750 men of the clan Cameron and their chief, Lochiel. Without waiting for the other Scottish clans Charles declared open war against `The Elector of Hanover, George 2nd and all his adherents’ and within a month he had gathered together a force of around two thousand men, and his small army had taken the Scottish capital of Edinburgh without a fight.

After defeating an English force at Prestonpans on 21st September, Charles marched south through England in November, making sure news travelled ahead that he had a well-armed force of nine thousand men at his command! He arrived in Derbyshire at the beginning of December and was met by cheering crowds in Ashbourne, where in a speech to the assembled citizens in the Market Place, he proclaimed his father, James 3rd, to be King.

On December 3rd word reached Derby that a `nine or ten thousand strong’ army was about to arrive, and the newly formed Derbyshire Blues, under the command of the Duke of Devonshire, billeted at the George Inn on Irongate, decided to retreat fifty miles to Retford and left Derby to its fate!

The entry of the Jacobites on December 4th was carefully staged to give the impression that Charles did indeed have nine thousand men under his command – a number far in excess of the truth! At eleven o’clock in the morning, his vanguard, consisting of thirty horse entered the town and ordered quarters for nine thousand men.

About three o’clock in the afternoon the life-guards and some of the principal officers on horseback arrived, and these were followed during the course of the evening by the main body, which entered in detached parties to make the army appear as numerous as it had been represented. Amongst these `detached parties’ came Charles himself, who entered the town on foot at nightfall.

Local legend differs from historic account inasmuch as it claims that the Prince himself called at the George Inn – the Duke of Devonshire’s H.Q. – and demanded billets for his nine thousand troops! Fact or fiction, the event is re-enacted every year on the anniversary of the prince’s arrival, although nowadays the old inn is a pub called `Jorrocks’.

In the event about seventy highland men were sent to secure Swarkestone Bridge, reaching it four hours ahead of Government troops who had orders to destroy it to stop the prince’s army from crossing, as it was the only route south to London. They held the bridge whilst the prince and his generals held a council of war at Exeter House on Full Street, and some crossed over to Melbourne to prepare billets for the highland army’s advance. But Swarkestone Bridge was the farthest point south reached by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops, for against what the prince believed was his better judgement it was decided by the council, led by his commander Lord George Murray, that in the face of advancing government troops, they should retreat.

Charles’ own words tell of his disappointment and disillusionment:

“In future, I shall summon no councils since I am accountable to nobody for my actions but to God, and my father, therefore I shall no longer ask or accept advice.”

The highland army began its retreat from Derby before daybreak on the morning of December 6th. With the exception of the war council members, none of the officers or men were aware of the resolution to retreat, for it was believed that to have communicated such to the whole army would have led to mutiny. To keep the army in suspense about its destination, a quantity of powder and ball was distributed amongst the men as if they were going into action. At the prospect of meeting the enemy the Highlanders displayed the greatest cheerfulness, but as soon as they recognised by daylight that they were retracing their steps, nothing was to be heard but expressions of rage and complaint. It has been said that had it sustained a defeat, the grief of the army could not have been more acute.

Despondent and beset by melancholly, the prince stayed in his quarters until 11am when all his highlanders were well clear of Derby, before mounting his horse and riding directly to Ashbourne.Little did he know that just 126 miles away in London, the King had packed his belongings and was making hasty preparations to leave the country and take ship for Holland because he feared a resounding defeat!

Such are the vagaries of history – and the affairs of men. Following his crushing defeat at Culloden, Charles was hunted as a fugitive for five months, and eventually escaped to France in September 1746.

Two years later he was expelled from France and for a number of years wandered around Europe, secretly visiting London in 1750 and 1754 and trying on both occasions, but without success, to win support for his cause.

On the death of his father James in 1766, Charles Edward Stuart returned to Italy where in 1772 in Florence, he married Louisa, Countess of Albany. It is said that he became `Boozie’ Prince Charlie, drank heavily and treated his wife with great violence until she eventually left the marriage’.

He died an alcoholic in Rome in 1788.

Tom Bates