On 21st September 1745 the Battle of Prestonpans took place between the Jacobite and Government armies. This battle is one of the most well know of the battles of the ’45 Uprising and yet it is estimated to have lasted less than ten minutes. So, how did this battle come to be and why was all the action over in ten minutes?
We begin on 17th September 1745 when the Jacobite army captured Edinburgh. The city gate at Netherbow Port was opened to let a coach through and seizing the opportunity Jacobites rushed the sentries and gained control of the city. The next day Prince Charles’ father was proclaimed King James VIII at the Mercat Cross and Charles entered the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Whilst at Edinburgh Prince Charles encouraged the city’s churches to remain open on Sundays and for normal Presbyterian services to continue as a show of the religious tolerance he had promised. His pleas however fell on deaf ears and all but a handful of churches remained closed throughout the Jacobite occupation of Edinburgh.
With the Jacobites in the city the Government army began its advance determined to take back Edinburgh. The long column with its train of artillery and baggage wagons extended for several miles and attracted many country people to the unusual spectacle. On the 19th September they camped at Haddington where they went in search of a meal, but, before they sat down the drums beat to arms and the men hurried back to their regiments ready to face the enemy. However, this was soon discovered to be a false alarm which, it was alleged, had followed the coach of Hon. Francis Charteris and his newly-wedded wife to their home. This rumour may have been true as the bride was a daughter of the Duchess of Gordon who had Jacobite sympathies; the husbands elder brother, Lord Elcho, was with the Prince and indeed the husband himself had subscribed to the cause.
The nexy day the Government army were surprised to learn the Jacobite army were heading out of the city to meet them. General Sir John Cope commander of the Government forces decided to wait for them at Preston where the flat unobstructed ground would hopefully suit his troops, in particular the dragoons and the Forth estuary at their back prevented any flanking manoevers by the Jacobites. That night the Jacobites moved forward under the cover of the dark and mist.
Finally on the 21st September 1745 the two armies met. Lord George Murray commanded the left wing of the Jacobites making a significant contribution to the victory by suggesting the army make use of a little known path through the marshland to surprise the Government army by coming up on their left flank. The men set out at about 4am and silently moved through the marshlands to the east of the Government men. As dawn broke the Jacobites 2,000 men charged. The Government army wheeled around to face them but the men only manage to fire one shot before the Jacobties were upon them. As the Jacobties charged the Government fled overwhelmed by the attack.
General Cope tried to rally his men but they turned and fled without ever putting up a strong resistance. Cope then fled to Berwick leaving 500 men dead and over 1,000 men as prisoners. Meanwhile the Jacobites had less than a hundred men dead or wounded. When Cope reached Berwick he was supposedly ridiculed for being the only General who had ever brought first news of his own defeat.
After the battle Prince Charles would not allow any bonfires to be lit or church bells to be rung to mark the victory. Nobody was to be seen exalting in the suffering of those who had died or been wounded at the battle. Indeed Prince Charles delayed his leave of the battlefield to visit the injured and instructed that the dead received a proper burial. On the Government side, Lt General Henry Hawley replaced Cope as Commander in Chief of Scotland and it is said that Cope made a large amount of money by betting £10,000 Hawley would be defeated by the clans just as he had been.
The Battle of Prestonpans was the first major conflict of the 1745 Uprising and was an important victory for the Jacobties, giving them a boost in morale as they turned their thoughts to the South.
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All the best, K & D