When King James VII & II was driven from the British throne in 1688, one of Europe’s oldest ruling dynasties was forced into exile. Their supporters, known as the Jacobites, refused to give up and a series of armed uprisings took place over three generations. The final military attempt to restore the Stuarts began in the summer of 1745, when the charismatic young prince Charles Edward Stuart landed unexpectedly in the Highlands. Within weeks of his arrival he had raised an army, outmarched his opponents, and captured Edinburgh.
The British Army remained loyal to the government of King George II. Commanded by the experienced and decorated officer Lt-General Sir John Cope, the redcoats were confident they could disperse the untrained Highlanders. The rival armies were roughly even in number, with around 2,500 men in each. The armies arrived near Prestonpans on the afternoon of 20th September, but boggy ground prevented them from fighting until a local Jacobite sympathiser revealed a route through the marshes.
The Jacobites marched in the early hours of the morning, forcing the weary redcoats to face a new direction. They then launched a sudden and ferocious charge into the teeth of cannon and musket fire, shattering the redcoat line. Hundreds were killed and hundreds more wounded; over a thousand prisoners were taken. The Prince had defied his critics to achieve a battlefield victory few thought possible. Victory gave the Jacobites the confidence and the means to contemplate invading England. It was the high point of their campaign.
The Jacobite success sent shockwaves around the nation, turning a local disturbance into an existential threat to the Hanoverian regime. Although the Jacobites were eventually defeated at Culloden, the Battle of Prestonpans had raised the stakes and changed the nature of the conflict. With a wealth of eye-witness reports from both sides, including memoirs, correspondence, newspaper reports and a formal inquiry, the Battle of Prestonpans is one of Scotland’s best documented battles.