Defeat of the “Old Pretender”

James Edward—the “Old Pretender” and son of James II—sailed to Scotland with an invasion force, but the French fleet assisting him was thwarted, and he returned to France, ending his bid to reclaim the English throne for the Stuarts.

Summary of Event

The short-lived Stuart Dynasty in England began in 1603, when Elizabeth I (1533-1603) died and James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as James I (1566-1625). His son, the unfortunate Charles I (1600-1649) was beheaded in 1649 during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651), but the dynasty was restored in 1660, when Charles’s son, Charles II (1630-1685), became king. Charles II arranged for his brother to succeed him as James II (1633-1701). Unlike his genial father, however, the rigid and Catholic James II oppressed English Protestants. Protestant-Catholic conflicts[Protestant Catholic conflicts]
Catholic-Protestant conflicts[Catholic Protestant conflicts] His rule was tolerated so long is it was seen as an isolated event, but when James’s son James Edward was born, Parliament Parliament;British feared his eventual succession and the establishment of a Catholic dynasty in England. Unwilling to allow the country to become Catholic again, Parliament arranged for James II’s Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William III of Orange, to assume the throne of England in the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689). Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) When William arrived with an invasion force, James II fled London, was captured and released, and went to reside with his whole entourage at Saint-Germain, France, with the benevolent support of his cousin, Louis XIV. [kw]Defeat of the “Old Pretender” (Mar. 23-26, 1708)
[kw]Pretender”, Defeat of the “Old (Mar. 23-26, 1708)
[kw]”Old Pretender”, Defeat of the (Mar. 23-26, 1708)[Old Pretender, Def]
Pretenders to the throne
Stuart Dynasty
[g]Scotland;Mar. 23-26, 1708: Defeat of the “Old Pretender”[0240]
[g]France;Mar. 23-26, 1708: Defeat of the “Old Pretender”[0240]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 23-26, 1708: Defeat of the “Old Pretender”[0240]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 23-26, 1708: Defeat of the “Old Pretender”[0240]
James Edward
Forbin, Claude de
Byng, George

Louis XIV eventually realized that he could make no peace with England and its allies without abandoning his support for the Stuarts’ claim to the throne. He pledged his allegiance to Queen Anne, who had succeeded William III in 1702. Realizing their position had changed for the worse, the English court at Saint-Germain, centered around James Edward after his father’s death in 1701, began to plan for an invasion of Scotland Scotland;Old Pretender in 1708.

The French court’s view of this desperate strategy is not certain, but they may have hoped for James Edward’s eventual success, or they may have thought that a war in Scotland would strengthen their position in a peace settlement by forcing the English to withdraw troops from the Netherlands. Whatever the French position may have been, plans for an invasion began on February 29, 1708, when James sent a messenger to northern Scotland to alert the Jacobites to the invasion. British spies had already calculated that a large uprising in Scotland would supplement an anticipated French force of ten thousand, a large overestimate since Louis had promised but six thousand troops, of whom only a few more than five thousand actually were mustered.

Unfortunately for James, Louis had sent the duke of Berwick campaigning in Spain, thereby depriving James of the man who would have been his wisest counselor. James went ahead with his plan anyway, putting together a French invasion fleet of two transport carriers, five men-of-war, and twenty-one privateers. Twelve thousand arms were collected for the volunteers of the anticipated uprising. James assured the Scots that the Scottish parliament would be responsible for the affairs of the Kirk (church) of Scotland, and he promised back pay to all soldiers who deserted to join him. James’s staff went to Dunkirk a week ahead of him, and on March 7, Louis came to Saint-Germain to give James a good-bye present, a beautiful sword with a diamond-studded hilt. That same evening, James left for the coast accompanied by several of his closest advisers—the duke of Perth, Lord Middleton, Dominic Sheldon, Lord Galmoy, Anthony Hamilton, and Captain Gaydon. They arrived at Dunkirk on March 9.

The weather turned against James at this point. The English admiral John Leake, sailing for Spain, was blown back to Torbay by a powerful storm, and when he was then told to check on events along the French coast, he dropped anchor off Dunkirk with the result that James’s ships were blockaded. James got to Dunkirk only to be frustrated by this unexpected development; moreover, he was completely exhausted and feverish, having caught the measles from his sister, Louise Marie. Commodore Claude de Forbin, commander of the French fleet, refused to challenge the harbor blockade, especially when another English squadron under Rear Admiral George Byng arrived off Gravelines. James bickered with Forbin until March 17, when the wind shifted, the English ships were blown back toward Brittany, and the French ships were able to slip away. James was ill and feverish but determined that his convoy should proceed.

Another shift in the wind delayed the French ships for several days, by which time Byng had been ordered to pursue them. In preparation for a major battle, England ordered ten battalions of exhausted troops transferred from Flanders, plus a squadron of horse grenadiers, two regiments of dragoons, several regiments of foot soldiers, and troops from the duke of Northumberland’s regiment of horse. James’s resources included ten battalions of troops and four hundred noncommissioned officers to lead the reinforcements they anticipated in Scotland.

The original plan was to take Edinburgh in three days, but the delays worked against James again, for when the French fleet finally arrived at the mouth of the Forth on March 23, the Scots had given them up and had left no pilots to guide the French ships. Faced with twenty-eight English ships, Forbin’s vessels scattered in disarray, and although an attempt was made to reach Inverness, a strong gale convinced Forbin to head for home despite James’s pleas that he be put ashore to act on his own. The only hostile action of the discouraging day was an extended exchange of fire between the British ship August and Forbin’s Salisbury, but in the next three days the Salisbury was captured and the surviving French ships suffered heavy damage from winds and tide as they fled the English.


The humiliating defeat of his attempted invasion before he could even set foot on Scottish soil was a major event in the life of the nineteen-year-old James Edward, but it apparently strengthened his self-control. Had Forbin cooperated and put the pretender ashore, it is just possible that he could have earned the Scots’ support, but Forbin was under orders from Louis not to put James’s life at risk. The duke of Berwick blamed the fiasco on Louis’s incompetent ministers and Forbin’s timidity. Berwick agreed that had the French beached in the river, the English would have burned the ships and their supplies, but by then, he believed, the troops would have been ashore and the campaign under way. Berwick thought that James’s half sister, Queen Anne, might have reconciled with him out of fear of a devastating civil war.

Brief as it was, James Edward’s expedition panicked London’s investors, who briefly withdrew their money from the Royal Bank. The main Jacobite leaders were arrested and imprisoned in Edinburgh but eventually released, probably in part because some of the prisoners had Whig friends whom Anne did not want to alienate before the approaching elections. James asked Spain for money to help the Scottish Catholics in the rural areas, as they had suffered the most, and he sent a secret messenger to Scotland with assurances that he could provide arms and ammunition.

James’s resolve came to naught, however, when in December, 1715, a Jacobite uprising led by John Erskine, sixth earl of Mar, Mar, sixth earl of was foiled in deep snow and confusion. (Byng was instrumental in this defeat of James as well, for which he was created a baronet.) Finally in this uprising, twenty-seven years after the Glorious Revolution, James made it to British soil when one of his officers carried him on his back to the shore of Peterhead harbor, but this minor triumph was not to last, and James was never again to see Scotland after he left in early February, 1716. In 1745, James’s son Charles (known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) led a heroic campaign that reached England but was driven back to Culloden, where in April, 1746, it was crushed, and Charles had to run for his life through the Highlands. Culloden proved the Jacobites’ last gasp, as England enforced punitive measures that crippled any further aspirations by Scottish Catholics.

Further Reading

  • Bevan, Bryan. King James the Third of England: A Study of Kingship in Exile. London: Robert Hale, 1967. A fluent survey of its topic but sketchy on the events of 1708.
  • Corp, Edward. A Court in Exile: The Stuarts in France, 1689-1718. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. A chapter by Edward Gregg, “France, Rome, and the Exiled Stuarts, 1689-1713,” provides excellent background on the failed invasion of 1708. The chapters “The Stuarts and the Court of France” and “The Education of James III” are also informative.
  • Gibson, J. Playing the Scottish Card: The Franco-Jacobite Invasion of 1708. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989. The only extended account of the failed invasion.
  • Haile, Martin. James Francis Edward, the Old Pretender. London: J. M. Dent, 1907. Superseded by Miller’s book but still useful.
  • Miller, Peggy. James. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971. Superb account of James’s life and aspirations. The place to begin.
  • Petrie, Sir Charles. The Jacobite Movement: The First Phase, 1688-1716. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948. Broad study by one of the leading authorities on the Jacobites.

War of the Spanish Succession

Battle of Blenheim

Battle of Malplaquet

Jacobite Rising in Scotland

Jacobite Rebellion

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