The battle of Prestonpans is enshrined in Jacobite memories as the battle of Gladsmuir.
Continuing Battle of Culloden,
our selection from History of the Four Georges by Justin McCarthy published in 1901. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Battle of Culloden.
Place: Culloden, Scotland
On the top of all this came a summons from the Prince demanding the immediate surrender of the city. A deputation was at once dispatched to Gray’s Mill, where the Prince had halted, to confer with him. Scarcely had the deputation gone when rumor spread abroad in the town that Cope — Cope the long expected, the almost given up–was actually close at hand, and the weather-cock emotions of the town veered to a new quarter. Perhaps they might be able to hold out after all. The great thing was to gain time. The deputation came back to say that Prince Charles must have a distinct answer to his summons before two o’clock in the morning, and it was now ten at night. Still spurred by the hope of gaining time, and allowing Cope to arrive, if, indeed, he were arriving, the deputation was sent back again. But the Prince refused to see them, and the deputation returned to the city and all unconsciously decided the fate of Edinburgh. Lochiel and Murray, with some five hundred Camerons, had crept close to the walls under the cover of the darkness of the night, in the hope of finding some means of surprising the city. Hidden close by the Netherbow port they saw the coach which had carried the deputation home drive up and demand admittance. The admittance, which was readily granted to the coach, could not well be refused to the Highlanders, who leaped up the moment the doors were opened, overpowered the guard, and entered the town. Edinburgh awoke in the morning to find its doubts at an end. It was in the hands of the Highlanders.
Jacobite Edinburgh went wild with delight over its hero Prince. He entered Holyrood with the white rose in his bonnet and the star of St. Andrew on his breast, through enthusiastic crowds that fought eagerly for a nearer sight of his face or the privilege of touching his hand. The young Prince looked his best; the hereditary melancholy which cast its shadow over the faces of all the Stuarts was for the moment dissipated. Flushed with easy triumph, popular applause, and growing hope, the young Prince entered the palace of his ancestors like a king returning to his own. James Hepburn, of Keith, with drawn sword, led the way; beautiful women distributed white cockades to enraptured Jacobites; the stateliest chivalry of Scotland made obeisance to its rightful Prince. The intoxicating day ended with a great ball at the palace, at which the youthful grace of Charles Stuart confirmed the charm that already belonged to the adventurous and victorious Prince of Wales. September 17, 1745, was one of the brightest days in the Stuart calendar.
The conquest of Edinburgh was but the prelude to greater glories. Cope was rallying his forces at Dunbar — was marching to the relief of Edinburgh. Charles, acting on the advice of his generals, marched out to meet him. Cope’s capacity for blundering was by no means exhausted. He affected a contemptuous disregard for his foes, delayed attack in defiance of his wisest generals, was taken unawares in the gray morning of the 21st, at Prestonpans, and routed completely and ignominiously in five minutes.
Seldom has it been the misfortune of an English general to experience so thorough, so humiliating a defeat. The wild charges of the Highlandmen broke up the ordered ranks of the English troops in hopeless confusion; almost all the infantry was cut to pieces, and the cavalry escaped only by desperate flight. Cope’s Dragoons were accustomed to flight by this time; the clatter of their horses’ hoofs as they cantered from Coltbrigg was still in their ears, and as they once again tore in shameless flight up the Edinburgh High Street they might well have reflected upon the rapidity with which such experiences repeated themselves. General Preston, of the castle, refused to admit the cowards within his gate, so there was nothing for them but to turn their horses’ heads again, and spur off into the west country. As for Cope, he managed to collect some ragged remnant of his ruined army about him, and to make off with all speed to Berwick, where he was received by Lord Mark Ker with the scornful assurance that he was the first commander-in-chief in Europe who had brought with him the news of his own defeat.
The victorious Highlanders were unable, if they had wished, to follow up the flight, owing to their lack of cavalry. They remained on the field to ascertain their own losses and to count their spoil. The losses were trifling, the gain was great. Only thirty Highlanders were killed, only seventy wounded, in that astonishing battle. As for the gain, not merely were the honorable trophies of victory, the colors and the standards, left in Highland hands, but the artillery and the supplies, with some two thousand pounds in money, offered the Prince’s troops a solid reward for their daring. It is to the credit of Charles that after the fury of attack was over he insisted upon the wounded enemy and the prisoners being treated with all humanity. An incident is told of him which brings into relief the better qualities of his race. One of his officers, pointing to the ghastly field all strewn with dead bodies, with severed limbs and mutilated trunks, said to the Prince, “Sir, behold your enemies at your feet.” The Prince sighed. “They are my father’s subjects,” he said sadly, as he turned away.
The battle of Prestonpans is enshrined in Jacobite memories as the battle of Gladsmuir, for a reason very characteristic of the Stuarts and their followers. Some queer old book of prophecies had foretold, more than a century earlier, that there should be a battle at Gladsmuir. The battle of Prestonpans was not fought really on Gladsmuir at all. Gladsmuir lies a good mile away from the scene of Charles’ easy triumph and Cope’s inglorious rout; but for enthusiastic Jacobite purposes it was near enough to seem an absolute fulfillment of the venerable prediction. A battle was to be fought at Gladsmuir; go to, then — a battle was fought at Gladsmuir, or near Gladsmuir, which is very much the same thing: anyhow, not very far away from Gladsmuir. And so the Jacobites were contented, and more than ever convinced of the advantages of prophecy in the affairs of practical politics.