It’s the 300th anniversary of his birth
Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie, if you insist) was born 300 years ago on 31 December, 1720 (New Style), in the Palazzo Muti complex in Rome. Why is this surprising? Because, although ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is one of the most recogisable names in UK history, featuring in the top Google search results for famous Scots, and Culloden Battlefield had 209,011 visitors in 2019 – numbers boosted by the TV series Outlander – and was struggling to cope with them all before lockdown began, there has been relatively little attention paid to the 300th anniversary of his birth.
It appears that Charles’s life before and after the Jacobite Rising of 1745–6 doesn’t attract the interest that the romantic story of the kilted Bonnie Prince and his ‘Highland army’, their defeat at Culloden and his escape though the Western Highlands and Isles does.
Though Charles wasn’t actually a Scot. His father was James Stuart, the English-born claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, known to his followers (Jacobites) as King James III and VIII and to his opponents as the Pretender.
In 1719 James married Maria Clementina Sobieska, a Polish princess, the granddaughter of Jan Sobieski III, the ‘hero king’ of Poland who defeated the Ottoman army at the siege of Vienna in 1683. Charles was born just over nine months later.
He was (at least) bilingual
Charles spoke English and Italian as his mother tongues. Italian is obvious; he grew up in Rome. His father and most of the exiled court were English speakers, and James employed English governesses (effectively nannies) for the little Prince from when he was six months old. Four years later, Charles was put under the governorship of the Scot James Murray of Stormont and Sir Thomas Sheridan, of Anglo-Irish descent.
Actors portraying the Prince, as in Peter Watkins’s film Culloden and, to some extent, in Outlander, have given him a ‘European’-style accent, presumably to underline his non-British birth. But it’s unrealistic to imagine that his father would have had his heir brought up sounding like anything but an Englishman. And this is borne out by an eye-witness account of his arrival in Edinburgh on 12 September, 1745, from Andrew Henderson, an admirer of the Duke of Cumberland and thus not inclined to flatter the Stuart Prince: “His Speech was sly [quiet, soft], but very intelligible; his Dialect was more upon the English than the Scottish Accent…”
Charles was fluent in French, too. It was, well, the lingua franca of Europe’s courts and a sign of elegance and breeding. And speaking French well was vital in his dealings with Louis XV of France and his ministers; Charles’s best hope of financial and military aid was from the French.
He also had a Gaelic tutor, the bard Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald), an ardent Jacobite whose songs had helped rally supporters for the Prince’s cause before Charles arrived on the Scottish mainland in August 1745. He was one of the first to meet Charles and joined his army as a captain in Clanranald’s regiment.
One of his mistresses was (probably) guillotined
In 1747 Charles was the darling of Paris, but emotionally he was shattered. His bid to restore his father’s throne had been defeated, he was estranged from his family and his attempts to get Louis XV’s support for another rising failed again and again. Late that summer he was made welcome by the noble Rohan family, old friends of the Stuarts.
Marie Louise de La Tour d’Auvergne was the young wife of Jules de Rohan, Prince de Guéméné, and, through her mother, Maria Karolina (Charlotte) Sobieska, Duchesse de Bouillon, she was Charles’s first cousin. At the time she was recovering from smallpox. Charming, attractive – but fragile – the cousins fell passionately in love.
With Jules away fighting in the War of the Austrian Sucession, it was fairly easy for the lovers to meet. By October Marie Louise was pregnant, to Charles’s delight. But in late January, 1748, her father and mother-in-law confronted her: they knew about the affair and forced her to end it.
Charles and Marie Louise’s son, Charles Godefroi, was born on 28 July, 1748, but died five months later. After her double loss, Marie Louise lived a quiet life, spending her later years doing charitable work. But fate hadn’t finished with her. It appears that she was guillotined in 1793 and was buried at the Couvent des Feuillants in Paris.
He visited London in 1750
London had been Charles’s goal in 1745 until, at Derby on 5 December, his war council refused to march any further south. But he did visit London in 1750.
Accompanied by an English Jacobite, John Holker, Charles arrived in London on 16 September. He’d made the journey from France disguised and in strict secrecy. So secret was his trip that his hostess, Lady Primrose, wasn’t expecting him at her house in Essex St. But Ann Primrose, who’d had Flora MacDonald stay with her after Flora’s parole from prison in 1747, was more than capable of gathering 50 of Charles’s supporters to a meeting at a safe house.
To the gathered Jacobites, who included the Duke of Beaufort, the Earl of Westmorland and Dr William King of St Mary Hall, Oxford, Charles explained his need of 4,000 men to start a new rising; he already had arms and ammunition prepared. But his audience proved no more enthusiastic about getting involved in actual fighting than most of them had been five years previously.
Still with the aim of winning the English Jacobites to his cause, Charles, who (unlike his father and brother) was never strongly attached to the Catholic faith, was received into the Church of England, possibly in a church near Lady Primrose’s house. Contrary to popular belief, he had more Protestant than Catholic supporters in 1745-6; it would have seemed a practical move to him.
There was little more to keep him in London. Charles and the Jacobite agent Colonel Brett went, as visitors to London do, to view the Tower of London; but Charles was there less for the sights than to judge how well it could be assaulted. After an evening with Dr King, during which King’s servant mentioned how much the incognito visitor looked like “the busts of Prince Charles” he’d seen on sale, Charles left London on 22 September.
He had a daughter – and three secret grandchildren
On 29 October, 1753, Charles’s mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw, gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte, the only child of his to survive infancy. Clementina left Charles, by then an abusive alcoholic, in 1760 and she and her child lived in France, supported by a pension from James. Attempts at a reconciliation failed; Charles couldn’t forgive Clementina for taking his daughter away.
In 1772, he married Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern but the marriage was unhappy and produced no children. However, as Charlotte was Charles’s only living child, though illegitimate, she was to some extent his heir – though his brother, Henry, was next in the Jacobite line of line of succession. Charles refused her permission to find a husband; perhaps he had some idea of her succeeding him, after all.
Unable to marry, Charlotte took a lover, Ferdinand de Rohan, who was Archbishop of Bordeaux – and the brother of Jules, Prince de Guéméné, Marie Louise’s husband. (The great families of Europe swam in a small, but active, gene pool.) Their doubly illicit relationship had to be kept secret. And so had their children, Marie Victoire Adelaide, Charlotte Maximilienne Amélie and Charles Edward. This was done so successfully – even Charles never knew about them – that all three disappeared from history until the 1950s, when two historians, the Taylers, found evidence of their existence.
After Charles’s marriage ended in 1784 she went to live with him in Florence. He legitimised Charlotte, creating her Duchess of Albany, the name by which Robert Burns referred to her in his song, The Bonie Lass of Albany. Charlotte nursed her father in his final years until his death in Rome on January 30, 1788. Charlotte died of liver cancer in 1789.
Frances Owen is editor of Historia. She has studied the Jacobite movement for a number of years and worked on a BBC Scotland series about Prince Charles Stuart’s escape after Culloden. She is the co-author of A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798.
Read about Charles’s arrival in Scotland and the raising of the standard at Glenfinnan.
Frank McLynn: Charles Edward Stuart (1988)
Murray Pittock: Jacobitism (1998), Culloden (2016)
Jacqueline Riding: Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion (2017)
Charles Edward Stuart in Highland costume: via Wikipedia
His father, James Francis Edward Stuart, in the year of his marriage, 1719, by Francesco Trevisani: via Wikimedia
His mother, Maria Clementina Sobieska, companion portrait of 1719 by Francesco Trevisani: via Wikimedia
Portrait presumed to be Marie Louise de La Tour d’Auvergne, Princesse de Guéméné by Jean-Marc Nattier (1746): via Wikimedia
Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay, 1745 (the ‘lost portrait’): via Wikimedia
Charlotte Stuart, Duchess of Albany by Hugh Douglas Hamilton: via Wikimedia