When Jacobite enthusiast Michael Nevin successfully bid for a handwritten letter and memorandum by Bonnie Prince Charlie at an auction, little did he realise he had come into possession of material that would change our view of history. As the 300th anniversary of the Young Pretender’s birth on 31st December 1720 approaches, read the extract below from Michael’s newly published book Reminiscences of A Jacobite to learn more about this fascinating story.
From Reminiscences of a Jacobite by Michael Nevin
In May 2002, my eye was caught by an article reporting that a letter written by Prince Charles Edward Stuart to King Louis XV of France in November 1746 was shortly to be sold by auction in London. The letter included a memorandum by the Prince to the French King, appealing for his support to go back to Scotland and finish what he saw as the
unfinished business of the Rising of 1745.
This struck me as odd. The way I understood it, the Prince had completely abandoned Scotland after the failure of the Rising, never to return. The Battle of Culloden in April 1746 marked the end of his hopes of a Stuart Restoration and the total destruction of his cause. That was what the history books said. So what was the Prince doing, writing to King
Louis as if he still had every expectation of going back to continue his campaign?
Intrigued, I contacted the auction house and arranged to bid by phone. Anticipating that the lot would come up at around two o’clock in the afternoon, one o’clock found me enjoying one of Masons’ excellent meat pies for my lunch in Newhaven on Edinburgh’s seafront. At that moment my mobile rang. On the line was the auctioneer with news that the letter was now up for sale. Caught unawares, I found myself, meat pie in one hand, mobile phone in the other, bidding sight unseen for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s own account of his campaign, written in his own hand. As I put in my top bid, the signal cut out. So it was only five minutes later, when the auctioneer rang back, that I learned that my final bid had been successful.
And so I became the proud possessor of a letter and memorandum that had lain, ignored and forgotten, in the archives of the Marquis d’Argenson, King Louis’ Minister of War, for almost three centuries. A letter that gave Prince Charlie’s own account of the turbulent year during which he had led the most audacious attempt in history to win the British throne.
According to Prince Charles, far from being doomed from the outset, the Rising had been, as Wellington was to say of Waterloo, ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw’. Indeed, the Prince asserts his cause would surely have triumphed, if only he had secured a little more support from France at three critical moments during the campaign: at the battles of Prestonpans, Falkirk Muir and Culloden. If only . . .
Never mind, he continues, it is still not too late. If King Louis can see his way to conferring on him a corps of 20,000 professional soldiers, he will go back and finish the job, with the support of his partisans in Scotland, who will surely rise once again.
When I mentioned my acquisition to Siân Johnson, a friend and colleague from my days in the City, she told me of an historical association founded many years before to study the Jacobite period, whose members would be most interested to see the Prince’s memorandum. So I got in touch with these latter-day keepers of the Jacobite flame. As Siân had intimated, they were indeed interested in the Prince’s own account of his campaign. I wrote an article translating it from the original French for The Jacobite magazine, beginning a long involvement with the 1745 Association. Over the years, friends and colleagues in the Association helped me to piece together a complex story of the Rising.
During annual gatherings of the Association, usually held over the first weekend in September, I was able to discuss different aspects of the campaign with these authorities, who were willing to share their knowledge and expertise generously and freely, and with other experts on different aspects of Jacobite history. They included Stephen Lord, who
had written a book describing how he had retraced the Prince’s journeys during 1745 and 1746 only to discover that many of them were extremely arduous and gruelling, and could only be undertaken by an extremely strong and fit individual – certainly not by the effete weakling portrayed by Hanoverian propaganda. I began to see that the Prince was a far more
charismatic and courageous – and enigmatic – figure than is portrayed in popular fiction.
A further source of information was The Jacobite. In 2018, I put together a catalogue of 157 editions of the journal, going back to 1954. They provided first-hand accounts in the form of letters, diaries and memoranda written by those caught up in the Rising, many never previously published and never cited in any histories of the period.
All these sources offered invaluable evidence about what really happened, undistorted by anti-Jacobite propaganda or the prism of academic histories written long after the Rising was over. This evidence enabled me to solve a series of mysteries paradoxes about the Rising: how Prince Charles Edward Stuart had succeeded in persuading the Highland clans to support his campaign in the face of overwhelming odds against its success, and why experienced and intelligent men with much
to lose, such as Lord George Murray and the Duke of Perth, threw in their lot with the Prince. What had convinced them to back the Prince? Likewise, where did he get the money for his campaign, which cost many millions of pounds in today’s values?
The Jacobites, with victory seemingly within their grasp, decided to turn back at Derby, but why? And why is it that today the defeated Jacobites are still remembered with respect, while none of the victorious Government regiments include Culloden among their battle honours?
The Prince’s own account of his campaign became the start of my quest. History, as Churchill once observed, is the version of events written by the winners. By contrast, this was the version of events written by the loser in the immediate aftermath of his defeat.
And so began my journey through the mists of time, from a pie shop in Newhaven in the early twenty-first century to the mountains and glens of the Highlands in the Year of our Lord 1745.