Like his great, great, great, great grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, Charles Edward Stuart sailed to Scotland from France in an effort to restore the British crown for their family. Both Mary and Charles were young (she 19, he 24) when they landed in Scotland and began their unlikely campaigns to put a Stuart back on the thrones of England and Scotland. Both would fail, although Mary’s son, James I/VI, would eventually become King.
But before the last fighting Stuart even touched Scottish soil, Charles faced a fierce battle at sea and would have to decide where his true destiny lay.
9 July 1745 - Off the south-west coast of England
There was nothing Charles could do but watch in horror. Or perhaps pray for divine intervention. The sleek English man of War, the HMS Lion, its 64 guns at the ready, was now within pistol shot of the slower L’elisabeth, loaded with troops and supplies destined for an invasion of Scotland.
L’elisabeth and the 16 gun privateer, Le Dutillet had hoped to avoid the British navy as they skirted the coast of England around the Lizard peninsula. The two ships had sailed undetected up until now, navigating towards the Western Isles of Scotland. Prince Charles had spent almost a year putting this convoy together to restore the British crown for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart.
The Lion fired first. One of its heavy 33 pounders blasted across the deck of L’elisabeth, decapitating an unlucky soldier. L’elisabeth, while an older vessel, had even more guns and responded by firing a shot that narrowly missed the Lion’s topmast.
The prince, on board Le Dutillet, disguised with a full bushy beard, needed to draw the English war ship away if he was to have any hope of saving L’elisabeth, loaded with 700 volunteers from the Irish Regiment de Clare along with 2,000 broadswords, 10 kegs of gunpowder and 20 cannons. The soldiers and munitions had been secured to launch a rising in Scotland, one he had planned for over a year with the support of his uncle, Louis XIV, King of France.
“We have to help!” the prince shouted to Aeneas MacDonald, one of only a handful of men on Le Dutillet. The ship sat just a hundred yards away from the two battling man of wars. “We need to draw them away!”
The captain of le Dutillet responded by maneuvering his ship around so that its rear gun pointed directly at the Lion. But before it could be loaded, the Lion fired three rounds of grapeshot through the masts of le Dutillet, badly piercing its sails.
“Hurry!” Charles urged the gunner, trying desperately to load powder into the rear cannon of Le Dutillet. Before he could finish, there was another blast from the Lion. A ball ripped through the upper deck of the Le Dutillet, opening a wide gash.
Charles was undeterred. “Return fire!” he screamed. The gunner finished ramming the lead ball in place. Another gunner adjusted the angle of the cannon, calculating the distance to the Lion.
“Fire” the gunner yelled, stepping back and fixing his gaze on the enemy ship. The cannon fired and the sea behind the stern of the Lion exploded. The Lion’s guns fired again, grazing the bow of Le Dutillet.
The captain had seen enough. “Retraite!” he ordered. Le Dutillet slowly turned toward the open sea.
“No!” The Prince yelled. But the the captain knew he was no match for a heavily armed British man of War with skilled gunners manning each gun.
As Le Dutillet sailed out of range, Charles watched the battle between the L'elisabeth and the Lion unfold. They pounded each other relentlessly. After hours of fighting, casualties were mounting on both ships, with each sustaining heavy damage. The Lion’s mizzen top and topmast had both been shot away, Captain Brett and all his lieutenants were wounded, his sailing master’s right arm shot off.
As the sun began to sink low in the sea the guns went quiet. Crews on both ships were dousing flames. “We must turn back,” Aeneas whispered to Charles. L’elizabeth listed low in the dark waters. As a banker, the prince wondered if Aeneas was concerned more about finances than taking the crown of Britain.
“Wait,” the Prince said.
The Lion pulled away, setting its rudder towards Plymouth. It was badly damaged, and had lost nearly sixty men. Another one hundred were wounded, and with broken masts and damage to the hull, it would need to be refitted before it could fight again.
The prince ordered Le Dutillet to pull up beside L’elizabeth, now a smouldering death ship. Fifty-seven men lay dead, including the commander, Captain Dau. One hundred and seventy-five were wounded, many severely. The ship was low in the water and it would be a challenge just to navigate it back to France without sinking.
“Our mission has failed,” George Kelly told the Prince. The other seven men on board le Dutillet nodded in agreement. “We must return. Our mission has failed.”
The prince surveyed the carnage on board the faltering L’elizabeth. The wounded and the dead, lay everywhere, strewn about like bloody rag dolls. The once proud man of War had been reduced to broken shell, lucky to be still floating. Without a captain, and in danger of sinking, it would have to return to France.
“We shall proceed without her,” the prince announced, stepping back on board Le Dutillet.
We have not taken a single step on British soil, and already we’ve lost all our men. And all our weapons.
“Impossible!” shouted Aeneas. “There are only eight of us!”
“Indeed,” Charles replied. “Myself and the best seven men any prince could hope to lead.”
The older men were quiet as they listened to Charles. To restore his father to the throne of Scotland and England, after seeing the destruction just one British man of War could wreak on them, seemed like a fantasy only a young fool would propose.
“Why?” Kelly asked, reading the faces of the men surrounding Charles. “Why would you even consider continuing? We have not taken a single step on British soil, and already we’ve lost all our men. And all our weapons.”
Charles considered his response. These men were older and more experienced than him. Some had military training, others knew politics and finance. None however, could understand that as the Jacobite Prince of Wales and the true heir to the British crown, his existence would be meaningless if he did not try every means at his disposal to restore the Stuarts to the throne.
“That our task would be easy, was not to be expected,” he began. “That you would waver in your belief that the elector of Hanover who now sits on the throne is an imposter with no legitimate claim, is also not what I expected from men of your stature.”
His words were falling flat on the dispirited group, as they listened to the cries of agony from the wounded men on their sister ship only a few away. The choppy waters of the English channel bobbed against the two ships with persistence.
“That our task would be easy, was not to be expected,”
Charles raised his voice. “You will form the council of the new King, James the Third of England, the Eighth of Scotland. You will be powerful men. Your children will inherit your privilege,” he said, his voicing rising. “We have Highland clan chiefs waiting for us with over 5,000 men ready to fight the moment we touch the soil of Scotland. This is no time for timidity.”
The group of seven shuffled uneasily. Finally, one of them, John William O’Sullivan, spoke up in support of the prince.
“If we turn back now, we will all be labelled cowards and mocked as ridiculous - as failures,” O’Sullivan shouted above the cries of the wounded men nearby. “Is that how you would like to be remembered?”
Charles was quiet. He knew he was the last hope of the Stuart dynasty. Leading the rising in Scotland was his destiny. It was certainly his only choice, but his doubts were growing. If he could not convince this small group of men to follow him, how could he hope to inpsire an army of thousands against one of the most powerful armies in the world?
If he could not fulfill his destiny, his life would cease to have meaning. He awaited the group's verdict with trepidation.
One hundred miles from the crown
Prince Charles won the group over and they continued on to Scotland. He and the 'Seven Men of Moidart,' (named after their landing in Scotland at Kinlochmoidart) were greeted by Highland chiefs and soon began their struggle to put Charles’s father on the throne as James III/VIII.
Despite the odds against him, his inexperience and young age, Charles and his Jacobite followers came within 100 miles of London in late 1745. Some historians believe he could have seized the crown with a final push, catching the English off-guard, their defenses scattered across Europe and the colonies.
But it was not to be. Charles’s war council, older men with control over the Highland battalions that fought for him, voted not to proceed on London, but to return and hold Scotland. He reluctantly complied, and after some limited successes, the Jacobite cause, and the Stuart quest for the throne was permanently extinguished with the Battle of Culloden in April, 1746.
Charles escaped back to France, and died bitter and defeated at the age of 67 in Rome, the city of his birth. His brother, had become a cardinal, forsaking any chance of producing a legitimate Stuart heir.
The Prince was buried in Italy and his remains set in a crypt at St. Peter's Basillica in the Vatican, far from the island he coveted and where he is still best remembered.