In the 17th century, the birth of a male heir to the throne would have been celebrated across the Kingdoms to which he was heir to, but on 10th June, 1688 when James Francis Edward Stuart was born instead of celebrations, the final nails in the Stuart dynasty were hammered in. His birth signalled the start of what has become known as the Honest Cause.
The Honest Cause would inspire half a century of plots and warfare within Britain and across Europe, as the Jacobites (adherents of James II and his son and grandsons) tried in vain to restore the Stuarts to the throne.
From a modern-day perspective, it can be somewhat curious as to why so many were willing to dedicate their lives to a dynasty of people who perhaps would never know their names. To really understand why the Stuarts meant so much to their followers you have to understand the history of what led to their movement and what followed.
James Francis birth was a calamity for his dynasty because his father James II of England and VII of Scotland was a Catholic ruling over majority Protestant Kingdoms, and his birth was seen as heralding the start of a Catholic dynasty over the British Isles. Something that was completely unpalatable to many within the isles at the time and something that didn’t help his father King James, who was already under intense pressure due to his actions.
The King had spent the past three years of his reign chipping away at whatever support had existed for him upon his ascension. He went against the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 which forbade Catholics from holding high office in government or the military, and appointed Catholics to command regiments within the army and to high posts in civilian government. He issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 that was meant to give Catholics and other Non-Conformists the chance to worship freely, and when he faced resistance from several high ranking Bishops he had them imprisoned and tried. Consequently, the disquiet these actions caused combined with the birth of a son who was sure to be raised Catholic caused many within the three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland to want a solution. That solution was found in the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution of 1688, which saw James II’s nephew William of Orange invited over to take the thrones of the Three Kingdoms, whilst James fled.
The result of James fleeing however, did not stop the tensions there and then. In 1689, James landed in Ireland which had a majority Catholic population and army under the command of a Stuart loyalist, gave him a very good chance of reclaiming his throne. An uprising in Scotland helped divide the Williamite loyalists’ attention, and for a time it seemed as though things might go the King’s way. But unfortunately defeat at Killiecrankie and at the Boyne ended James’ aspirations and he was forced to retreat back to France, leaving those who had risen for him to face the consequences.
Though James had been defeated that didn’t stop his supporters from trying to restore him to his throne. Some even went as far as to try assassinating William of Orange. When James II died in 1701, James Francis became James III and took up the mantle. Thus began the true period of the Honest Cause.
Whilst some may have been willing to accept the fiction of William as King for he had removed the isles of a tyrant, James III was no such thing. Indeed, James III appeared to be far more tolerant than his father and in Declarations issued in 1708 and 1715 promised to uphold the rights and liberties of his subjects and to call free and fair parliaments that would grant pardons to those who had turned against him. That James was young, handsome and a man would have played a part in shaping attitudes towards him, for he was a contrast to both the old and asthmatic William and the fat and half-drunk Queen Anne. He was also under every natural law of the land the rightful King of the British Isles.
Only his Catholicism stood between his return to the Isles and his coronation. A barrier that his sister Anne took full advantage of to ascend the throne in 1702 without bloodshed. Her reign saw the War of Spanish Succession and high taxation, but it also saw the Act of Union between England and Scotland, in which the two nations became one and the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. The Union was seen as a betrayal by many Scots, and they feared they would fall under the yoke of English tyranny. James’ 1708 declaration promising to remove any ‘illegal union’ between the two Kingdoms should he be restored would no doubt have won him many supporters. The failed rising of 1708, and the subsequent Hanoverian ascension would have only strengthened many Scots in their resolve to see James restored.
George of Hanover was 58th in line to the throne of Britain when he ascended the throne in 1714. He was a King made by Parliament not by God, to make matters worse for many of his subjects he was a Lutheran and seemed far more interested in Hanover than Britain. He also spoke barely a word of English and left the government in the hands of the Whigs (the party that had initiated the Revolution of 1688). What followed was an orgy of corruption, repression and foreign entanglements which seemed to go against the spirit of the revolution and the constitution of the nation. Whilst some in Britain grew rich due to the policies pursued by the Whigs, many were excluded from that wealth and from the halls of power.
For these reasons alongside a genuine belief that James III should truly regain his throne as God’s chosen, many who had remained neutral in the struggles before, became Jacobites and supported attempts to restore James to his throne in 1715, 1719, 1720-21 and then in 1745. However, fortune did not favour the Stuarts or their supporters and following defeat in Culloden and the ascension of George III-the first English born Hanoverian- the Stuarts were cast into obscurity.
The Jacobites were men and women who believed in a multitude of things, but at the centre of their belief system was the view that the Stuart Kings: James II, James III, Charles III and Henry IX, were God’s chosen and they were the rightful rulers of the British Isles. In these men, they invested their hopes and desires for a better life, a life that was free from persecution, from corruption and from investment in foreign wars that brought little benefit to them.
They were encouraged by the aforementioned declarations and by the declarations that James III issued in his old age. Despite the years of exile, James promised to defend the Protestant faith of his subjects, whilst also ensuring that their liberties were protected and that Parliaments under his rule would be free and fair, with none of the corruption that blighted the institution under the Hanoverians. That he had also raised his sons with both Catholic and Protestant tutors and encouraged them to learn as much as they could about their homeland would have contrasted quite starkly to the Hanoverians who still seemed more German than British in 1745.
That James was a man of principle and was willing to forgive, where the Hanoverians could not, must have won him a great many supporters amongst those who were being persecuted for their beliefs by the Hanoverian regime.
It is this belief in principle and toleration that makes James and the Jacobites such an object of fascination in the modern day. Tolerance and the protection of liberty are things that are under threat in today’s highly divisive world, that there existed rulers who might have tried to nurture it and protect it is naturally going to hold appeal for those who admire such qualities.
That the Stuarts are also viewed as underdogs in their fight to reclaim the throne also helps. They often came up against the might of the Hanoverian establishment, with the redcoats and all, and they came close, so very close to succeeding. Even their failures did not stop them, and that surely must appeal to anyone with a heart, especially within Britain and our love of the underdog.
The appeal of a lost cause, in this case the Stuart cause lies in the way the Stuarts carried themselves, and how they never stopped trying. It also lies in the tantalising what-ifs that history presents to the modern historian.