Twilight of the Stewarts

On the 20th of September 1746 the French ship, L’Heureux, sailed into Loch nan Uamh on the west coast of Scotland; it’s intention to rescue the beleaguered Prince Charles Edward Stuart and take him home. We’re all familiar with the prince’s abortive rebellion of 1745, his attempt to put his father back on the throne and the catastrophe that followed at Culloden the following April. Romantic also are the tales of his summer in the heather dodging Redcoats and being aided by Flora MacDonald over the sea to Skye; but what is less well known is the story of what happened next; to Charles, the claim and the final collapse of the ancient Royal House of Stewart.

The Stewarts rose from relative obscurity to a place of importance in the Scottish Court through the 13th century, and during the Wars of Independence they sided with the Bruce faction; and Walter Stewart married Robert the Bruce’s daughter Marjorie. Eventually, in 1371 after a half-century wait for his uncle to die Robert Stewart became king ofScotland. It was the beginning of a dynastic rule that would last 343 years until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Throughout that time, the family – which employed mafia tactics – extended their control over Scotland, and finally reached the giddy heights of the throne of England.

As British kings their successes were less evident – one was executed and another deposed; and their increasing disengagement with the political momentum and religious intolerance of the times would see the great House permanently exiled. From James VII to his grandson Charles Edward the exiled Stuarts (French spelling) would set up counter-courts in France and Italy; where they’d be hocked from palace to palace maintaining a veneer of royalty and influence. It was back to this fantasy world that the L’Heureux would bring the young Pretender following the disaster of the ’45: but in reality it was to an alcohol fuelled life of obscurity.

Charles’ stay in France was short-lived, for within a couple of years of the rising the British and the French signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle’ effectively ending the War of the Austrian Succession, which the Jacobite rebellion was essentially part of; and with the deal the Pretender was expelled. He returned to Italy, where his father still held a degree of social influence. Shattered by the failure of the Cause, and haunted by ghosts of Culloden Charles began a string of affairs and sought solace in the bottom of a bottle. His principal mistress was the Scottish socialite, Clementina Walkinshaw, who in 1753 bore him a daughter, Charlotte.

Henry Stuart, Charles’ younger brother took a different route after 1746, perhaps armed with more realism, and entered the Catholic Church. His father was on good terms with the Pope, who still recognised him as the rightful king, and Henry made a meteoric rise through the ranks of the episcopacy, becoming Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati in 1761. While his brother became a Prince of the Church; Charles, drunk half the time, still entertained dreams of fantasy thrones.

In 1759, at the height of the Seven Years War, a conflict that for the first time took on a global perspective, the French drew up plans for a full-scale invasion of England. As part of the project he wanted to enlist the support of the still-loyal Jacobites; and Charles was summoned to Paris. Boorish and unrealistic, the French government were soon repelled by him, and sent him packing: he’d play no part in the operation. However, significant British victories overseas essentially put paid to the expedition and it was permanently shelved. This was Charles’ last true, albeit slim, chance to be king. His drinking worsened, his life increasingly nomadic and his treatment of Clementina increasingly abusive. In 1760 she left him, and took Charlotte with her. There is a strong suspicion that Prince James helped out, and gave her an allowance.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart in later life

As she grew up, Charlotte was bounced from convent to convent as her father refused to provide for her or her mother; and with James dead in 1766 that avenue dried up as well. James Francis Stuart, born in 1688 to James VII was the last prince of the House of Stewart to be born in Britain and to the reigning dynasty. As such the Pope and kings across Europe still either recognised his claim, or treated him on an equal footing. The world by 1766 had moved on, and neither the Papacy nor the crowned heads would give the increasingly distant, melancholic and unpopular Charles the same recognition. His downward spiral continued.

In 1772 he married Princess Louise of Stolberg-Geden; but, due to the nature of the man, now a broken alcoholic, it was doomed to failure: she left him eight years later. Now an old man in ill-health he reached out again to his family, and was reconciled with his daughter; who also engaged her uncle, the Cardinal Henry, to bring the once-Bonnie Prince back to Rome, where she would care for him until he died of a stroke in 1788. Chronically ill herself, she died three years later.

Charles Edward Stuart had lit up Scotland like a firework during the 1745 rebellion; but the rest of his life had been an unfulfilled damp-squib; and on his death the Jacobite claim fell to his brother: Cardinal Henry Stuart. As a successful and powerful clergyman (Henry was raised to the Dean of the College of Cardinals in 1803) he did not press his case. He died in 1807: last of the Royal Stewarts. Both he and Charles were buried within the Basilica of St Peter’s in the Vatican. He may have been the last of the dynasty; but not last of the bloodline.

In the years before she returned to her father, Charlotte Stuart had a long term affair with Ferdinand de Rohan, Archbishop of Bordeaux, which considering his position was a risky enterprise. She had three children by him: Marie Victoire, Charlotte and a boy, Charles Edward. Little is known about the two girls, or whether they married and had children – it is believed that Marie Victoire ended up in Poland (Charles’ mother was Polish) and that Charlotte was absorbed into polite society in England. Either way, they and any possible descendants vanished into anonymity.

The son, Charles became a distinguished soldier and something of a globetrotter; and while he never pressed his Jacobite claim, he did maintain links with leading Scots. Indeed, it was while returning from a meeting with the Duke of Atholl in 1854 he was killed in a coaching accident; and is buried in the grounds of Dunkeld Cathedral in Perthshire. With him, the last of the true direct bloodline ended. Meanwhile, fanatical Jacobites searched around for an heir to Henry Stuart; and with his death the ‘claim’ passed to King Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia; the senior living descendant of Charles I Stuart through his daughter Henrietta. In a parallel universe the line has passed down to Franz von Wittelsbach, Duke of Bavaria; although he declines ever to talk about his Stewart ancestry.

The bitter wars of the 17th and 18th centuries shaped the modern Britain that emerged, the nature of the monarchy, and indeed the dynastic future itself. The Royal Stewarts had their time; their crown slipped, fell and it was eventually buried in the setting sun amid the hallowed walls of Dunkeld. And few were there to mourn it.




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