The Battle of Culloden is, like Midway, often considered a decisive battle. And, like Midway, the outcome of the battle is essentially immaterial. Just as a Japanese victory at Midway would not have altered the outcome of the Second World War to any great extent, a Jacobite victory at Culloden would not have kept the Jacobites from being ruthlessly destroyed by the Hanoverian Government. The balance of power was just too strongly against the Jacobites. It is for this reason, I suspect, that alternate historians have rarely paid much attention to Culloden.
Indeed, if we are looking for plausible points of divergence that have a lasting effect, we are forced to peer back at the Council of Derby, when the Jacobite Army made the decision to withdraw from England. It was a disaster that ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ brought upon himself; he’d made promises, to the highlanders, that he was simply unable to keep. There had been no mass uprising of English Jacobites, nor had the French landed in sufficient force to support the highlanders as they marched on London. Their leaders – excepting the Prince – believed that they had done all they could and so they decided to retreat, with or without their nominal leader.
Were they right? It is a decision that has been hotly debated. The Jacobites had been largely undefeated in the field, but could that last if they marched on London? Taking an entire city would be a nightmare, particularly given their shortage of heavy guns. And yet, panic had already started to settle into London. Would King George flee if challenged? Would Parliament offer to welcome Prince Charles to save the city? There are simply too many imponderables, but – as one historian noted – continuing the advance gave Charles the only real hope he had of survival and eventual victory. Retreating merely gave his enemies a chance to gather their strength and launch a counterattack.
But what does Culloden itself offer for alternate histories?
A Jacobite victory would certainly upset Cumberland – assuming he survived the battle – but I doubt it would stop the slow collapse of the Jacobite cause. Certainly, it might win time for the French to send help, yet I feel it is unlikely that such help could arrive in enough force to save the Jacobites from destruction. It’s much more likely that the Hanoverians would merely keep building up their forces and eventually crush the Jacobites by sheer weight of numbers.
A negotiated surrender is another possibility, although Charles was highly unlikely to consent to surrendering anything. (Not, at this point, that he was the most popular man amongst the Jacobites.) It’s possible that his commanders would seize him and take him prisoner (particularly if they realise just how poorly Culloden is likely to go for them) and then try to open talks with Cumberland. It’s impossible to say just how Cumberland would react, if the Jacobites offered to hand over the Prince, but he might just agree to quietly let a number of prominent Jacobites slip into exile. Charles himself would end his days at the gallows, I imagine. The French would have no reason to bargain for his life.
Not fighting the battle at all might give Charles a chance to pick a fight under far more favourable conditions. (Culloden itself was so poorly suited to the Jacobites that anti-Charles writers suggested he deliberately sent his army into a trap.) Yet where could this hypothetical battle be fought – and what effect would it have? An alternate outcome might just include a scattering into the heather, allowing a guerrilla war to be mounted against the Hanoverians, but it is unlikely to last long. There were just too many highland clans who supported the government for a small-scale war to last indefinitely. The Highland Clearances would be just more brutal in this timeline.
Indeed, the most interesting outcome is Charles himself being killed during the fighting and his body found after the battle was over. Charles, in his later life, was a pig-headed wife-beating drunkard whose descent into near-madness (prompted, at least in part, by betrayal from his father, his brother and his wife) did untold harm to the Jacobite Cause. His brother might have outlasted Charles by several years, but the Cause itself effectively died with Charles. What if Charles had died earlier, at the peak of his achievements?
Prince Henry would probably assume the title, for what little it was worth. Henry was a more careful person than Charles, but he had his problems. He would become ordained after the Jacobite Rising, something that badly undermined the Jacobites. (For once, Charles’s fury at his brother was not unjustified.) It is strongly suspected he was also homosexual, although there is no solid proof either way. It is quite possible that he was asexual, as he was reluctant to marry (even though quite a few homosexuals were happy to marry women at the time).
He did not cut the dashing figure of his elder brother, but could he have revitalised the Jacobite Cause? There, we must speculate. Would he have been better at getting help out of the French? Could he have avoided Charles’s mistake of believing that everyone was either with him or against him? Or would he have retreated in horror from the title and hurried to hide in the Vatican?
Culloden is significant, historically speaking, because it was the end of the last significant armed challenge to the British Government. A tradition that included such luminaries as Wat Tyler and Oliver Cromwell died with Prince Charles. If this is good or bad depends, I suspect, on your point of view. Political stability is often a good thing – our banking sector relies on our stability – yet the threat of revolution tends to keep the government from growing overconfident.
And yet we should probably be grateful that ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie failed in his bid for the throne. A victorious Charles, as I have noted before, might not have been a better monarch than George II and III. Certainly, both kings had their problems – there was a profound streak of instability in George III – but neither of them was as petty and self-centred as Charles in his later years. It is quite likely that Charles would have eventually been packed off the throne and back into exile, after reminding everyone why his grandfather was forced to flee for his life.
Nor was the destruction of the highland way of life entirely a bad thing, although it has often been called a genocide. The romanticised vision of the clans bears very little resemblance to reality. Many of the ‘chiefs’ were really little more than thugs, looting and bullying their clansmen mercilessly (quite a few of the soldiers who fought for Charles were effectively conscripts). One may argue, as many have done, that the Highland Clearances were nowhere near as bad as they’re painted. And, at the end, there were no large-scale reprisals after previous Jacobite rebellions. One must wonder at the sanity of those who expected the government not to take brutal revenge after a rebellion that came far too close to London.
In winning the war, in securing its grip on Britain, the Hanoverian Government laid the groundwork for what would become the British Empire. It is hard – indeed impossible – to believe that a Jacobite victory would have been anything like as effective – or that a Jacobite victory at Culloden would have made much difference in the long run.