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August 23, 2006

Rebellion in Britain: 1715: The Great Jacobite Rebellion - Daniel Szechi

Posted by Jeremy Black

1715: The Great Jacobite Rebellion
by Daniel Szechi
Pp. 367. Yale University Press, 2006
Hardback, 25

Dynastic conflict is part of the past that is very distant indeed. Accounts of Jacobitism have been so dominated by the story of the '45, by the march to Derby, Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie, that the rest of the struggle has been thrust into the shadows. This is a pity as the challenge posed by Jacobitism was not only a fundamental aspect of British history from 1689 to the defeat of the French invasion fleet in 1759 but is also a fascinating story. A key moment was the '15 and Szechi rescues this from relative neglect, showing that the rebellion posed a serious challenge to the newly-established Hanoverian regime and was also a major episode in the transformation of Scotland.

Szechi ably shows that, although the plotting for the rebellion was wideranging, it came to focus on Scotland. As he correctly argues, the northern English rising, the only part of the rebellion in England and Wales that actually materialised, was weak, and poorly-led and overly dependent on a degree of Catholic support, which weakened its appeal. Indeed, this rising was dependent for its energy on large-scale Scottish Jacobite intervention.

If Scotland became the unintended cockpit of the rebellion, this was a serious military problem for the government, in part because of the difficulty of the terrain and the distance from the centre of governmental power in southern England.

Jacobite impetus was lost, however, when their major army under the Earl of Mar failed to destroy the Duke of Argyll's government force at Sheriffmuir, and impetus was crucial given the difficulties of sustaining volunteer troops in a very poor society whose economy was seriously damaged by the rising. Szechi is very good on the latter, and suggests indeed that it acted as a medium-term economic drag.

On the other hand, failure helped ensure that, alongside exiles, there was a measure of rapprochement between the Scottish elite and the new regime. Indeed, Szechi argues that when rebellion broke out in 1745 the effective neutralisation of many Jacobites active in the '15 denied the movement the public support from influential members of the elite it so badly needed.

The major flaw in this first-rate book is the all-too-common failure to discuss parallels in other European states, which is a pity as these are pertinent and instructive.

Nevertheless, the book has much to commend it. It rests on a fine appreciation of the circumstances and tensions of Scottish society, and skilfully interleaves the politics with military developments. They were closely involved as it was necessary for both sides to recruit and sustain forces and their ability to do so in large part reflected the play of local circumstances.

As Szechi points out for example, neither side had time or opportunity to import very much outside military talent. Instead, they had to go with what was locally available. He points out that, despite its intrinsic strength, the advantage of the British fiscal-military state did not immediately translate into tangible results for the government's forces in Scotland, largely owing to the slowness with which the bureaucratic machine moved into action. An angry Argyll indeed offered to resign on several occasions and suspected that Marlborough was trying to starve him of resources so that he would fail against the Jacobites.

As on later occasions in the century, the government was pushed back onto the resources of the aristocracy. Lord-Lieutenants had to extend their own credit to keep their militia embodied. This was particularly an issue in Scotland where the government's administrative system was weaker. The Jacobites faced greater problems, so that organised pillage was the common mode of supply for some of their troops, although more in northern than in southern Scotland.

The margin between government and rebellious resources and troops was considerable, but far less so than it was to become. Mar was able to create a viable and functioning army, while regular forces were unable to scatter their opponents rapidly. This is an instructive comment on claims that have been made on behalf of the modernity of the fiscal-military state. The government was fortunate that Cadogan turned out to be a very good logistician.

Szechi continues his story to consider Westminster's thirst for revenge. George I and the Whig ministry wanted to make frightening examples of the former rebels, the better to deter future uprisings. Szechi finds the regime's vengeance distinctly brutal in northern England. Thirty-three of the forty executions related to the fighting there and all the prisoners transported to what the king and probably many of his ministers envisaged as an early death in the colonies had surrendered at Preston.

In the perspective, however, of the Russian treatment of Ukraine, the aftermath of the '15 was relatively placid, in part because of the myriad links within the elite and in part due to the culture of law. In many respects, the '15 was the Jacobites best chance. The Hanoverian dynasty was at a higher patch than during the '45. However, the '15 indicated that rebellion could only achieve limited success without good leadership and foreign support.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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