A Brief History
On September 21, 1745, the Battle of Prestonpans was fought in the East Lothian council area of Scotland between a British army under the command of Sir John Cope and an upstart rebel army of Jacobites under the command of Charles Edward Stuart, the grandson of King James II and VII of England and Scotland, respectively. Also known as “The Young Pretender” and even “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” Charles sought to put his father on the throne of Britain in a conflict known as The Jacobite Uprising, or even the just simply “The ’45.” Although Charles won a resounding victory at Prestonpans, his movement failed to wrest the throne from King George II in a bid to restore the Stuarts to the throne of Britain.
King James II and VII had ascended to the combined thrones of Scotland and England (making him the King of Britain, which included Ireland and Wales) and his reign had been a short 3 year affair marred by religious strife and his forced exile to the Continent. Parliament ruled in 1689 that James had “vacated” the throne by fleeing, and installed William of Orange as King William III and II along with co-monarch Queen Mary II. The state of monarchies in Europe in the 18th Century was tumultuous, as it often had been in preceding centuries, and the Jacobite Uprising was just one more part of the larger titanic struggle for thrones and power in Europe at the time, part of the backdrop of the War of Austrian Succession.
While the British, predominantly the English, were off fighting in mainland Europe over the ongoing “game of thrones,” notably the Austrian throne, Charles saw an opportunity to have his Scottish supporters, known as Jacobites, rise up and usurp the British throne, with the goal of reinstalling the House of Stuart to the monarchy vacated by James II and VII. Prestopans would be the first major test of the uprising, and the Jacobites faced a British force of about 2200 men under the leadership of Sir John Cope, a not very proficient military man despite his status in the Army. With a rank of Lieutenant General, Cope was the officer in charge of the British Army in Scotland. He had apparently ridden the coattails of more capable officers that had achieved victories in Europe, eventually being promoted beyond his capabilities. Available to Cope were as many as 4000 British soldiers, most of whom did not have combat experience. Prince Charles met this British force with a similar sized army of his own, about 2500 men under arms, having returned to Scotland from fighting in France against the British.
The inexperienced British were routed in an amazing 10 minutes of combat that saw only about 105 to 120 Jacobites killed or wounded, but leaving as many as 500 British soldiers killed or wounded with another 500 to 600 captured. Thus, the opening battle of the Jacobite Uprising was a crushing defeat for the British and a legendary victory for the Scots/Jacobites, though the celebration was not to last. By 1746, the Jacobite Uprising had been defeated and there would be no restoration of the Stuarts on the thrones of Britain. The Jacobites had been poorly armed and trained by European professional standards but were healthy and hardy men capable of putting up a fierce fight. Cope was undermined by his own subordinate officers’ lack of courage and ability, notably his cavalry. Many of the British soldiers fled when the Scots charged, especially the aforementioned Dragoons (cavalry) and artillerymen. Cope personally managed to escape with perhaps 500 or so of his men and was later tried by court martial along with a couple of his subordinate commanders. All 3 of the British officers were exonerated at court martial for the fiasco, and the British managed to subsequently put down the rebellion within less than a year.
The Battle of Prestopans, sometimes referred to as The Battle of Gladsmuir, has gone down in Scottish legend as one of their great victories over the English. Today, the ballot box instead of the battlefield will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes an independent nation.
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For more information, please see…
Forbes, George. Rebellion: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the 1745 Jacobite uprising. Lang Syne Publishers, 1995.
Reid, Stuart. 1745: A Military History Of The Last Jacobite Uprising. Da Capo Press, 1996.
The featured image in this article, the Jacobite Highlanders advancing at the Battle of Prestonpans, from p. 33 of the 1873 book British Battles on Land and Sea, volume 2, uploaded by the British library to Flickr here, cropped and rotated, is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.