Musings On Culloden

16 Apr

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.

14 Responses to “Musings On Culloden”

  1. David K Matthewson April 16, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Interesting. You say “.. Charles loosing ….laid the groundwork for what would become the British Empire” – which is undoubtedly true. Perhaps those of the Left might feel if Charles had won & and there was no Empire, it would have been a Good Thing. [They are wrong of course ;} ]

    • Bob McBuilder April 17, 2016 at 12:08 am #

      As soon as we leave the decaying EUSSR we can begin to reconstruct a new glorious empire.

  2. John Hunter April 18, 2016 at 5:21 pm #

    The Army at Derby was in relatively good shape with a host of victories at its back. The Army at Culloden was smaller, less well provisioned and had been effectively in a long retreat. Was morale and self belief in the troops and their commanders crucial? Was the fact that there were as many Scotts in the ‘English Army’ as in the Jacobites also a sign that even in the supposed Jacobite heartland a cold wind of doubt and civil disagreement surrounded the ’cause’?
    What we can say is that much of the ill will of the clearances and venom was exported to the Americas where it sat festered and grew.
    We might also suggest that following the end of the Jacobites a new confidence and forward looking narative was released wthin the minds of the monied merchant and middle classes – isnt that exactly what we need now too.

    • chrishanger April 19, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

      Probably. The Falklands did the UK a lot of good. But Iraq certainly didn’t.


      • John Hunter April 20, 2016 at 12:16 pm #

        Although Id have to say Afghan and Iraq improved the kit and tactics now deployable. It also demonstrated the exposure and fragility of a very small armed forces punching way above their weight.

      • chrishanger April 20, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

        And it was for a very murky political cause, which didn’t help.


  3. Mike Strong April 19, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    I don’t know if I agree that the battle of Midway didn’t affect the outcome of WWII. If the Japs found the American carriers and destroyed them rather than vice versa Hawaii might have been in danger of being invaded. At the very least this might have caused the US to concentrate more effort on the war in the Pacific as opposed to assisting the allies in the African and European theaters. Hitler then would have been able to solidify Festung Europa and make a D Day invasion far more difficult if not impossible. Hitler delayed the implementation of the ME 262 as a defensive fighter because of the Allied airstrikes; he wanted the 262 to become a bomber. Try to imagine what D Day would have been like with squadrons of ME 262s maintaining air superiority over the European coast. .

    • chrishanger April 19, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

      The point regarding Midway is … total Japanese victory, so what?

      The Japanese almost certainly cannot overwhelm Pearl Harbour; striking Pearl again might be possible, but landing enough troops to have a reasonable chance of victory is probably well beyond their available shipping. They definitely cannot invade and occupy the United States – forcing the US out of the war is therefore impossible. Even if the US loses everything at Midway, they would have parity in 1943 and still be vastly superior in 1944-46. Japan still gets ground into powder.

      Come 1945, the US has nukes. That’s bad news for Berlin, etc.

      I could do a scenario based on this, if anyone is interested.


      • Stephen Yates April 19, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

        It is very difficult to gauge the effect a Japanese victory at Midway would have had on the course of the war. Assuming the complete destruction of the American Fleet, Midway island would have been taken (another Island that would probably need to be retaken at high cost) and it would have allowed the Japanese to seriously threaten Hawaii. Whether or not they could have taken Hawaii is impossible for me to gauge, however they would have been able to further damage the infrastructure there and hamper any build up of US forces as well as possibly forcing the US into a risky relief operation and another major naval battle, which they would have been still ill prepared for in 1942/early 1943.

        While the Japanese couldn’t hope to match the US manufacturing advantage, the disparity of forces (both in terms of numbers and quality) seen at the battle of the Philippine Sea would also have been avoided as the Japanese struggled to ever replace the four lost carriers and their aircrews.

        Another possible effect on the course of the war could well have been to force the US to divert to divert greater resources to the Pacific in order to protect it’s Western seaboard/Hawaii, rather than using them to help win the battle in the Atlantic. Instead the US, after Midway, had two years to build up an overwhelming superiority of ships in the Pacific.

        While it is probable that the eventual outcome of the war would not have changed (the US manufacturing advantage was simply too great) it seems likely that the US victory would have been significantly delayed (by one or two years probably). Yes the atomic bomb would still have been built but without the airbases in the Marianas the B-29s would not have had the range to reach Japan, which also would not have suffered the conventional bomber attacks that also devastated much of the country.

        The final possible effect of a delay in the Pacific War is that it may well have been Russia (assuming the European theatre still ended in May 1945) that defeated Japan before the US was ready (Russian forces were already being transferred for an Invasion of the Japanese islands before the dropping of the atomic bombs and the subsequent surrender).

  4. Mike Strong April 19, 2016 at 10:44 pm #

    @Stephen Yates – You made many of the same points I did but articulated them better than I did. If the US concentrated more in the Pacific and didn’t invade Europe in 1944 the Germans would have probably gotten their version of the Atomic bomb shortly after the Americans did. They were close to us as I understand. This would have certainly made it more difficult if not impossible for the Allies to win WWII.

  5. randallberger April 23, 2016 at 8:43 am #

    Hey, I’m watching OUTLANDER, and I’m pretty sure that Claire and Jamie are going to change history and the outcome will be different! Paradox will ensue …

  6. randallberger April 23, 2016 at 8:53 am #

    With regards to the Battles of Midway and The Coral Sea, I think everyone misread the Japanese … Pearl Harbour in December ’41 and Darwin in February ’42 … (using the same fleet and twice the bombers, BTW) … were simply “hands off” actions … stay out of our business and sphere of influence. Not a prelude to invasion or dominance.

    I think the Japanese were quite surprised at what they saw was an over reaction by the Americans, British and Australians … The whole Japanese mindset was quite different from the West … totally alien. They also didn’t see the things that we found the most abhorrent … the death marches, the beheadings, the forced labour, sex slaves … as crimes. These soldiers and civilians had surrendered … they were worthless.

  7. Technomad August 10, 2016 at 11:58 pm #

    A lot of the things about Prince Charles in later life can be traced to disappointment and guilt-feelings; I’ve read that he was horrified by the measures the Hanoverians took against his quondam followers. He might have avoided a lot of that had he won.

    That said, two things he could have done would have been to:

    First: publicly, and loudly, convert to Protestantism (“Westminster is worth the Book of Common Prayer,”) reminding his relatives that, as a royal person, he had to do things that he often didn’t want to do.

    Second: Get married. If he’s not just an adventurer, but a dynasty-in-the-making, he looks a lot better, particularly since the Hanoverians were so unlovable.

    • chrishanger August 14, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

      That’s probably true, but the former would come at the price of losing contact with the Vatican and the latter would be hard without a proper dowry (and he was a wife-beater in later life too).


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