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Thursday, October 23, 2014

“Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Biography”, by Carolly Erickson


331 pages, William Morrow & Co., ISBN-13: 978-0688060879

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (or, if you prefer, “The Young Pretender”; or, if you instead prefer, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) was the eldest son of James Francis Edward Stuart (once-time Prince of Wales and the eldest son of King James II, the Chevalier de St George, “The King Over the Water”, “The Old Pretender”, or “The Old Chevalier”) and was raised to believe that the throne of England and Scotland was his destiny. Born in Italy and used as a pawn of Louis XV against George II, Charles was seen as a promising young man. In his early twenties he sailed to Scotland and was able to convince several Highland chiefs to support his cause, with numerous victories coming swiftly because the English were unprepared for the various attacks. However, once the English determined that the threat was real, Prince Charles and his troops were quickly overrun and he returned to France – whence he was asked to leave and again settled in Italy. With no ambitions left to him, he quickly dissipated into an alcoholic daze, fathered one child by a Scottish woman and later married a German princess which quickly soured. His later years were redeemed somewhat as his daughter Charlotte came to his aid. He died, leaving his youngest brother Henry (or Henry Benedict Thomas Edward Maria Clement Francis Xavier Stuart, the “Cardinal Duke of York”) as the last Stuart pretender to the throne – but as he was a Cardinal in the Catholic Church and fathered no children, with his death the Stuart dynasty came to an end.

What a life! One has to look at the vicissitudes of life in the great tragic figures of history – Cortes, Columbus, Napoleon, etc. – to find precedents in the relatively obscure life of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Although towards the latter part of his life he came to stoop very low, he had, as a young man decades earlier, reached out very high unto the stars with unwavering courage and determination in his conquest of Scotland and England. His defeat at Culloden in 1746 precipitated tragically what can only be described as the genocide of the Scottish Highlanders. The life of Bonnie Prince Charlie is a study of human nature at its extreme. Belatedly, devastatingly, he found out the cruel fact that despite his forceful, determined personality, he was not the master of his own destiny. Be that as it may, he came to be vindicated. Carolly Erickson wrote what was a good summary of this man, utilizing a lot of secondary source material to form a condensed and fairly short biography. It’s an enjoyable and leisurely read, but don’t look for depth, great detail, or anything like original thought about Prince Charlie and what he meant in the context of Scottish, English, European, or Catholic history in the 18th Century. This is not a good text for anyone already familiar with the Jacobite and looking for any new scholarship on the subject (also, the author’s evident unfamiliarity with even basic military and naval terminology leads one to wonder about the accuracy of other elements; a ship-of-the-line is a “gunboat”? In whose navy, pray tell?) For all that I enjoyed the book and found it useful for someone with limited knowledge of this time period.

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