12 Facts About Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Man Who Could Have Been King Charles III

Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Bonnie Prince Charlie. / Bonnie Prince Charlie. | Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain (Bonnie Prince Charlie); Gordie Broon Photography/Moment/Getty Images (Glenfinnan)

King Charles III ascended the British throne on September 8, 2022—but he wasn’t the first to claim the title of Charles III

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart was born just over 300 years ago, the eldest son of the eldest son of a monarch. According to paternalistic hereditary succession, he was directly in line to the throne. But he never gained his birthright. Here are 12 facts about the man who came to be known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

1. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s grandfather was the deposed King James II of England and James VII of Scotland.

James II of England VII of Scotland
James II and VII. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

King James II of England and VII of Scotland was the son of Charles I. He ruled from 1685–1688, and was an unpopular monarch due to his religious beliefs. Though he was born into the reigning Protestant Stuart dynasty, in 1669 he had converted to Roman Catholicism. To understand why this was of utmost concern to the citizens of the day, we have to go back to the reign of Elizabeth I.

In 1559, having inherited a country embroiled in religious intolerance and hatred, Elizabeth I had brokered a lasting peace that unified Protestants and Catholics. The 1559 Act of Supremacy stated that the queen, rather than the Roman Catholic Pope, would be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, while the Act of Uniformity enabled both the Catholic and Protestant interpretations of communion.  All subsequent monarchs were Protestant—until the succession of James II stoked fears that the country was once again going to tip into turmoil.

At first his presence as monarch was tolerated, helped possibly by the Protestantism of his two children, Mary and Anne. Mary, the next in line to the throne, was married to the Protestant William of Orange, himself a grandson of Charles I, so a Protestant succession seemed guaranteed. However, in 1688, James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son, James Frances Edward Stuart, who was promptly baptized a Catholic. This dealt the death knell to James II’s sovereignty; with the assured Protestant line of succession in tatters, a group of English noblemen wrote to William of Orange, inviting him to take the Crown. In 1688, William and Mary deposed James II in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. James II fled to France and the protection of his cousin, King Louis XIV

2. Bonnie Prince Charlie inherited the moniker “The Young Pretender” from his father.

Charles Edward Stuart
“The Young Pretender.” / Print Collector/GettyImages

The young James Frances Edward Stuart lived in exile in France under the protection of Louis XIV until James II’s death in 1701, whereupon the French King declared him to be James III of England and James VIII of Scotland, titles that were also recognized by Spain and the Pope. Seven years later, as a reaction to the Act of Union and with Louis’s backing, 19-year-old James led an attempt to invade Scotland but was thwarted by inclement weather and the British Navy.

As time passed, the British monarchy moved peacefully on. After the deaths of childless William III and Mary II, the Crown had passed to Anne, Mary’s sister and the last Stuart monarch, in 1702. The 1707 Succession to the Crown Act had legislated that the throne must be passed to the next Protestant in the line of succession. As Anne had no surviving children, on her death in 1714 it went to a distant cousin, George, Elector of Hanover, who became George I.  

However, the would-be James III’s supporters in Britain, known as Jacobites (from Jacobus, the Latin for James and first derived for supporters of James II) continued to plot his restoration. The passage of the throne to George I rather than to James himself prompted the first Jacobite uprising in 1715, in which James was again defeated and forced to return to France. A second uprising in 1719 was also unsuccessful. 

By this time, James’s hankering after the Stuart succession was considered an embarrassment in some quarters. He became known as “The Old Pretender” due to his continued pretense for the Crown, a claim further maligned by the stories that had abounded since his birth. His mother, Mary of Modena, suffered the loss of 10 children through miscarriages, stillbirths, and deaths in early infancy. When James was born four years after her last unsuccessful pregnancy, it was perhaps easy to spread a conspiracy theory that the child was actually an impostor, smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan. To some James was considered a “pretender” from birth, and his son inherited this condescending title, becoming known as “The Young Pretender.”

3. Bonnie Prince Charlie had a troubled childhood in Italy.

'The Young Chavalier', Prince Charles Edward Stuart, c1730s.Artist: A J Skrimshire
Prince Charles Edward Stuart, circa the 1730s. / Print Collector/GettyImages

After the failure of the uprisings, James Frances Edward Stuart spent much of his remaining life in the vicinity of Rome. He married Polish Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska, with whom he had two children. Charles Edward Stuart, later to become known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or “The Young Pretender,” was born in 1720 in the Palazzo del Re (or Palazzo Muti)—where the exiled Jacobites held court—in Rome. A little over four years later, Henry Benedict Stuart, later to become Cardinal Duke of York, was born. 

Infant Charles was in the care of a nurse, governess, and chambermaid in addition to his mother. When Henry was born, the boys’ father had Charles separated from his mother and moved to the tutelage of men, one being a governor whom Maria hated. She reacted by joining a convent; she returned after two years, but Charles’s parents’ relationship never recovered, continuing instead in a state of unhappiness until her untimely death when the prince was only 14.

4. Bonnie Prince Charlie fought for his—and his father’s—right to the succession

Prince Charles Edward
Bonnie Prince Charlie marching into Edinburgh. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Despite any antagonism Charles may have felt toward James for the breakdown in his parents’ marriage, when his father invested him as Prince Regent in 1743, he took it upon himself to restore the succession in his name.

His first attempt at invading was in 1744, with a well-armed French fleet that succumbed to bad weather before they could make landfall. Undeterred but now without French support, Charles took advantage of the British Army being engaged in war overseas and made a second attempt, embarking on a French frigate. He landed on July 23, 1745, with a small group of men on the Island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. His aim was to rally a Highland army and gather enough followers as he marched south to entice the English Jacobites and the French military to support the cause. 

The third and final Jacobite uprising began on August 19, 1745, when Charles and his army of Highlanders raised the standard at Glenfinnan. On September 17, they entered Edinburgh, setting up court at Holyrood Palace and proclaiming James to be King.

5. Support for Bonnie Prince Charlie spread far beyond the Scottish Highlands, but not all Highlanders supported him.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie
Supporters toasting the prince. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

The Jacobite Army is often assumed to have comprised mainly Highlanders, not least because of its alternative name of the Highland Army. The third uprising indeed commenced in the Highlands. But many locals that joined the cause would have done so at the behest of their clan chief, rather than due to their own calling, given the social structure in the Highlands at the time. 

Many other Scots joined from the lowlands and the East, likely under the influence of pro-Jacobite landowners. Once the army reached Edinburgh, more lowland Scots also joined the ranks, as did some English, like the Manchester regiment, after they had crossed the border. 

Loyalists to the Jacobite cause were also found among the Welsh, Irish, and French. Irish and French units were part of the Jacobite Army at Culloden. There was a history of Jacobitism in Ireland due to the English subjugation of the Irish; they hoped that restoring the throne to the Stuarts would rid them of their oppressors. The French were already engaged in war with the British, and by supporting the travails of the Jacobites they hoped to destabilize Britain for their own gains.

But not every Scot was loyal to the Jacobite cause. Glasgow was predominantly Hanoverian, and Edinburgh retained a government stronghold in its castle throughout the 1745 rising. Additionally, some Highland chiefs withheld their support, wary that without adequate French backing, there was insufficient power for victory to be assured.

6. Not all Catholics supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, nor were all of his supporters Catholic.

Charles Edward Stuart
Bonnie Prince Charlie, circa 1750. / Print Collector/GettyImages

It’s unsurprising that the Jacobites found support among the Catholic community. In addition to sharing the exiled house of Stuart’s faith, British Catholics had many grievances since the time of William III and Mary II, when they had been subject to a number of punitive acts of government

However, not all Jacobites were Catholic. Evidence suggests that many Highlanders were actually Protestant. Furthermore, many Jacobites believed that monarchs ruled under direct authority from God, otherwise known as the divine right of kings. The Stuart dynasty had ruled in Scotland since 1371, joining with the English Crown when James VI of Scotland inherited it in 1603, becoming James I of England. Many Scots, Catholic and Protestant alike, saw the Stuart male line as the rightful heirs to the throne. Some Jacobites, regardless of religion, wanted to regain the autonomy that Scotland had lost in the 1707 Act of Union

Despite the likelihood of receiving more religious freedom under a Catholic monarch, prominent British Catholics such as the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk remained staunch supporters of the Hanoverian king, although this was likely due to Norfolk’s previous pardoning as a Jacobite supporter. Others seemed content to practice their religion discreetly without challenging the Protestant monarch. 

7. Bonnie Prince Charlie got pretty close to succeeding in his quest. 

Battle of Culloden, April 1746.
The Battle of Culloden, April 1746. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Charles’s plan of invading while the British Army was involved in the War of the Austrian Succession in mainland Europe seemed to be paying off. After taking Edinburgh, he was victorious against the British at the Battle of Prestonpans on September 21, 1745. The Jacobites then marched south, crossing the border into England. They captured Carlisle after a short siege and followed a route that took them through regions that had supported the 1715 uprising. However, fewer English than expected joined the Jacobite cause, and the expected invasion by the French failed to materialize

On December 4, the Jacobite Army reached Derby, some 480 miles from Charles’s first landing on British soil at Eriskay and a mere 120 miles from London. By this time, the Duke of Cumberland had been recalled from commanding the British Army’s incursions in mainland Europe and was known to be advancing from London. To his dismay, Charles was outnumbered at a meeting of his council of war, who felt growing unease at being isolated from Scotland while gaining less support than expected; they advised turning back to await French support. Despite making remarkable gains and getting so close to his goal, the prince reluctantly returned to Scotland, where reinforcements once again swelled their ranks. They found victory at the Battle of Falkirk Muir and took Inverness

As winter turned to spring, the Jacobite Army was in need of money and food; Cumberland’s men, meanwhile, had received training in the Jacobites’ fighting techniques. The Royal Navy had intercepted a French ship carrying funds for the Jacobites, and Charles decided he could wait no longer. On April 16, 1746, the two sides met at the infamous and brutal Battle of Culloden—the last pitched battle (a planned fight at a pre-determined location) on British soil—with the Jacobite troops vastly outnumbered by the Hanoverians. It took about an hour to dash Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hopes of regaining the Crown. He fled, a fugitive with a price of £30,000 on his head.  

8. Bonnie Prince Charlie dressed as a woman to evade the British army.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald
Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald. / Print Collector/GettyImages

In the months after his defeat at Culloden, the Hanoverian forces relentlessly pursued Charles across the Highlands and islands; he narrowly avoided capture on several occasions. Many brave Scots risked their lives to give him provisions and shelter, smuggling him to safety. He arrived in the Western Isles on April 27, hotly pursued from place to place until June 28, when he escaped from South Uist with the help of a local heroine, Flora MacDonald

MacDonald suggested Charles dress as her Irish maid, Betty Burke, and they set sail with a group of five boatmen to the Isle of Skye, across the treacherous waters of the Minch, under cover of nightfall. Charles and his supporters made their way across Skye, parting company with MacDonald and eventually crossing to the mainland. They made their way to Loch nan Uamh, from where they boarded a French frigate on September 20, 1746. 

9. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escapades are immortalized in the “Skye Boat Song.”

Many consider Charles’s whole life story to be one of a tragic hero, perhaps no more so than during the months he spent evading capture after Culloden. The song that immortalizes his struggles is the “Skye Boat Song.” Its lyrics were actually written over 100 years after the event by an Englishman, Sir Harold Boulton. It has the form of a traditional Gaelic rowing song set to the tune of an older song that translates as “The Cuckoo in the Grove” (the general tune will be familiar to Outlander fans). The first verse is particularly rousing and evocative of the Jacobites’ wistful lament:

“Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward, the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that’s born to be
King Over the sea to Skye.”

10. Bonnie Prince Charlie was indeed bonnie.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart - portrait
A portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for royal portrait artists to paint their subjects in a more favorable light than that nature originally bestowed. A portrait was supposed to convey ideas about its subject as much as any truthful representation. In the words of Murray Pittock, a historian and professor at the University of Glasgow, “Charles was portrayed as a young, fair and feminine figure because Jacobite ideology wanted to show him as the renewer of Scotland: an image of youth, fertility, fecundity.” It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that Charles is so often pictured as a dashing young man. But what of the truth? 

He was given his popular “Bonnie” (meaning beautiful) moniker during his time in Edinburgh in the third Jacobite uprising, having many admirers among the local women. Reports from his adolescence suggest he was both physically attractive and had an engaging personality. Contemporary accounts from the time of the 1745 uprising confirmed his affability and handsome nature. 

A digital facial reconstruction made from his death mask by forensic artist Hew Morrison shows Bonnie Prince Charlie as an old man, but his features are symmetric and evenly placed along conventional standards of attractiveness; it’s not hard to imagine that as a young man he was indeed bonnie.

11. Bonnie Prince Charlie died alone and disillusioned in Italy.

Relics of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Relics of Bonnie Prince Charlie. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Accounts of Charles’s behavior later in life are far from bonnie. After escaping from Scotland in 1746, Charles initially returned to France thinking he would raise an army and return to his campaign but support was not forthcoming. In 1748, the French and British brokered the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, ending the War of the Austrian Succession. Charles’s removal from French territory was part of the treaty’s terms. He relocated to Papal lands, and after his father’s death in 1766, was granted permission from the Pope to inhabit the Palazzo Muti. When the exiled James died, Pope Clement XIII did not bestow upon him the title of Charles III. It was another bitter blow.

Charles was already a seasoned drinker as a young man and had turned to alcohol more as his disillusionment grew. In 1753, Charles had had a daughter, Charlotte, with his lover Clementina Walkinshaw; both mother and daughter left him due to his alcoholism and abusive behavior. In 1772, with his supporters concerned about his lack of legitimate issue, Charles married Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern. The couple did not have any children. Charles became increasingly unhappy and lonely, a continued purveyor of domestic abuse and a victim of his own hard-drinking that resulted in the breakdown of his marriage.  

He died after years of ill-health from a stroke on January 31, 1788, aged 67, in the same Palazzo in which he was born. 

12. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat led to the Highland Clearances.

Highland Soldier Monument, Glenfinnan, Scotland
The Highland Soldier Monument, Glenfinnan, Scotland. / Tim Graham/GettyImages

The third uprising was the final straw for the British government. Determined to quash any further rebellion, they set about brutally extinguishing the Highlanders’ way of life, destroying property and executing or transporting Jacobite sympathizers—including children, who were sent to the colonies to be sold into indentured servitude, despite the fact that many Highlanders had not participated in the uprising. 

Wearing traditional Highland tartans, teaching Gaelic, bearing arms, and playing bagpipes was banned. The clan chiefs were robbed of their power; no more would they command men in service to them. The government acted to facilitate the acquisition of land such that landlords began repurposing it for agriculture, mainly profitable sheep and cattle farming. In the process, they forcibly evicted local families to coastal areas, where they struggled to survive on land unsuitable for farming. Some were removed to other areas to farm crops as crofters—but without any legal claim to the land they worked. Many Highlanders subsequently emigrated, their way of life gone for good.