A Moment in History. The Jacobite march south into England

4th December 2014
On this day in history 4th December 1745 the Jacobite Uprising against the English Crown reached Derby in the north of England. It was a long march under the leadership of Charles Edward Stuart - also known as 'The Young Pretender' or Bonnie Prince Charlie. The journey was part of their bid to reach London and overthrow the incumbent monarchy of George II. It is a subject I wrote about in my novel 'Wildish.' And a great excuse, therefore, to share with you a remarkable painting. For this, I am indebted to fellow blogger Kirsty Stonell Walker for featuring it in her recent blogpost.

The painting is by a gentleman named Tom Colley (1865–1902) and is housed in the Trafford Local Studies Centre in Sale. Another similar work can be found in the local library of Altrincham where the scene itself took place in the winter of 1745.
Painting shows Jacobite army, many on horseback, entering small town square. Snow, dark skies.
The Pretender's Troops Entering Altrincham at Dawn by Tom Colley.

The Jacobite Campaign

(Warning - spoiler alert for the novel 'Wildish')

Altrincham is a small town south of Manchester, and not too far north of Derby. This was about as far south as the Jacobites ever reached in their campaign. They eventually turned back. The event shown here occurred just a couple of days before they reached Derby. It is a scene that would have been repeated regularly during their campaign. A small town, receiving the relatively huge army of the rebels. And although it was painted over a century after the event itself, its maker would have known the locality well. And its history. It would not have been too dissimilar in his day to 1745, moreover. So authentic and highly evocative. I think it is not only a charming work, but also, therefore, a great historical record, too.

Did the Bonnie Prince really believe he could take his troops all the way from the Highlands to the heart of the English capital in the snow? Apparently yes. He was nothing if not ambitious. Moreover, Highland soldiers were used to snow and to harsh conditions. Derby was really not all that far off the mark in terms of distance from London, either.

Here, is a handy map from WILDISH showing you the relative distances between Scotland, Manchester, Derby and London.
Rudimentary map of England and Scotland with place names relevant to the Jacobite uprising.

The scene

We do not know for sure how many men the Jacobite army consisted of by this stage. But the Prince's vanguard, when they reached Derby, requested billets for 9000 troops. This must have seemed an enormous number for so small a town to sustain. Most of the local people in Altrincham or Derby, or any of the other towns along the way, would not have seen anything quite like it before. Nor ever would again.

I like the way the the people are gathering round in amazement. I like the way the Jacobite soldiers all seem somehow larger than life compared to their surroundings. This is how it would surely have felt to the inhabitants. Amazing - what with the sounds of so many horses and the sights of so much colour and commotion going on in the normally peaceful town square.

Though slightly 'primitive' in style (see the off-perspective clock tower on the central roof and the steps of the market cross) it is a highly evocative and atmospheric painting. It reminds me of the work of another artist from the same area of Engand, L.S. Lowry. He came along a little later, of course - 20th century. The colours are so very wintry. The curve of the horses' hooves in the snow is a delight. Contrast all this with the tall uprights of the buildings and the snow-laden rooftops.

So much going on. So much energy. It surely provides us with a very real connection that extraordinary period in English (and Scottish) history. It shows us a little bit of what the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 might have looked like. And, perhaps, also to have felt like. To be there.


Finally, here is an extract from the novel. It is a scene in Derby quite similar to that shown in the painting, though at dusk, in this instance, rather than dawn.
    The cold evening air revives him straight away as he accompanies the footman the short distance across the market place and into the road where Exeter House is located - a stylish three-story mansion, set within a rectangular park and courtyard - the most substantial building in the area, in fact, other than the church with its tall, almost cathedral-like tower nearby. The snow must have been falling heavily, he notices, for it has settled with ease upon the roofs and cornices of the buildings, and it is very noisy everywhere, with the entire town most evidently full of soldiers, including many Highlanders - unmistakable in their distinctive plaid dress, some busy clearing away undergrowth to make space, pitching their field tents in gardens, others chopping firewood, cooking at campfires or else, with whet-stones in their hands, sharpening and maintaining their weapons, their swords and axes - the sparks flying sometimes in the darkness as they work. It is the first time Matthew has seen anything like it - all these battle-hardened soldiers, many of whom would have been on the march from one skirmish to the next for almost half a year. A good few of them have long, unshorn hair, and beards to match. They seem so strong; so powerful; so full of purpose and intent. The momentum is with them, these blood-hardened fighting men, anticipating each new confrontation, no doubt, with all the ease and practised skill that familiarity of warfare brings. Some stare across at him in his fine clothes as he and his escort proceed along the long, straight driveway up to the house, his blatant and provocative Englishness clear for all to see.

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