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Flora Macdonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the Battle of Culloden, was nothing if not a practical woman

Pat MurphyA previous column took a look at the life and times of Flora Macdonald, the Scottish woman who went from 1740s rebel to 1770s loyalist. But it left some loose ends and questions unanswered. We’re going to tackle three of them here.

First, though, a word to the wise. If you haven’t read the previous column, I suggest you do so before embarking on this one. Otherwise, you’ll be a bit lost.

Did Flora really switch loyalties from the House of Stuart to the House of Hanover?

I suspect the answer is a resounding No.

When Flora died in 1790, her funeral shroud was the bedsheet on which Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) had slept while on the run and under her protection in June 1746. It was something she’d “religiously and faithfully preserved” over the intervening 40-plus years. You don’t do that if you’ve shifted loyalties.

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And according to a granddaughter, she was privately contemptuous of the Hanoverian sovereign George III. In Flora’s company, impugning the prince or acknowledging Hanoverian legitimacy was likely to leave you at the sharp end of her temper.

But how does that fit with the way she assiduously worked to advance the prospects of her sons in the Hanoverian army and navy? Or the fact that while in America during the revolution, she and her husband vigorously supported the Crown?

The answer is simple: Flora Macdonald was a practical woman.

Accommodating yourself to reality doesn’t necessarily mean that your private views and preferences have changed. Nor does it particularly make you a hypocrite. Rather it makes you someone who lives in the world as it is.

Flora wanted her children to do well. And the army and the navy were prime career paths for young 18th-century men. So using whatever contacts she could bring to bear was a natural course of action for an ambitious parent.

As for America, the Macdonalds were immigrants in a new and turbulent world. Looking to the established authority for safety and order was an instinctive thing to do.

What subsequently happened to Bonnie Prince Charlie?

The years 1745-46 were the highlight of the prince’s career and the closest he ever came to reclaiming what he considered to be the rightful inheritance of the Stuarts – the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland. Still, he held on to the dream for a long time, even going so far as to express a willingness to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism in order to make himself more palatable.

But he faced two problems – unreliable allies and his own alcoholism.

Realistically, Charles wasn’t going to expel the House of Hanover without the help of a French army. And the French had indicated a willingness to assist, partly out of religious sympathy and partly as a means of sticking it to the English.

Sympathy, however, only goes so far, and foreign policy interests are subject to change. So there came a time when the Stuarts’ erstwhile allies dropped them. They were no longer useful.

And Charles didn’t help his cause with his own behaviour. For instance, on February 5, 1759, he turned up “very late and very drunk” for a meeting with the French about plans for a possible invasion. It wasn’t exactly a confidence-building performance. By the time Charles died in 1788, he was an alcoholic wreck.

Although in no sense hagiography, Frank McLynn’s biography of the prince – Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart – is often sympathetic. But, in the end, McLynn notes that “Bonnie Prince Charlie is a creature of myth in more ways than one … the archetypal hero suffused in a golden halo, swathed in the nimbus of the imperishable memory of the ’45.”

Why did the Hanoverian Prince of Wales grant Flora a pension?

At one level, the pension could be described as an act of generosity towards an admirable woman who’d fallen on hard times in her old age. Unlike many others who’d aided and assisted the prince in 1745-46, Flora had somehow avoided the aura of “traitor.” Misguided and naïve perhaps, but motivated by feminine compassion rather than politics.

But there’s an alternative, maybe complementary, explanation.

By the 1780s, the Stuart threat had been effectively neutralized, and the Hanoverian Crown could start to safely absorb elements of their story into its own. Appropriating your vanquished foe’s myths and symbols is a well-established ploy. The early Norman invaders of England and Ireland were adept at it.

Cynical, yes. But also smart.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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