Two battles and a siege: Sheriffmuir and Preston, 12-14 November 1715

300 years ago the battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston signalled the effective end of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, tells us more…

The 1745 rebellion, replete with romantic tales of derring-do, may be the most famous of the various Jacobite insurrections but it was far from being the most likely to succeed. In the late summer of 1715, almost exactly a year since the death of Queen Anne and the succession to the throne of Great Britain of George Ludwig of Hanover, the discontented Scots magnate, John Erskine, 22nd earl of Mar, raised the standard of the exiled Stuarts at Braemar, thereby sparking what was to prove to be the Jacobites’ last best chance at overturning the revolutionary settlement. Although George I had assumed the throne peacefully, by the middle of 1715 the steady alienation of Tories from the administration and the judicial proceedings against three former ministers (Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and James Butler, 2nd duke of Ormond) added to the impression that the new regime was not one safe for any associated with the last years of Anne. Mar, who had been a staunch backer of Union, and had until the dissolution of Anne’s last Parliament sat in the Lords as a representative peer, felt snubbed by the new king and retreated to his estates in Scotland to overturn the settlement he had been so closely involved with devising.

Initially, Mar was very successful. At one point he may have had under arms as many as 20,000 men and was in control of significant tracts of the country. At the same time there were risings in the north and west of England, which added to the sense that the Hanoverian regime was genuinely in trouble. The government was, however, quick to respond. John Campbell, duke of Argyll, was hurried north to deal with Mar, several other Jacobite noblemen were taken up and the city of Oxford was threatened with martial law as a regiment of dragoons attempted to track down 13 suspected rebels hiding there. Twelve were arrested, but the thirteenth made good his escape over the walls of Magdalen.

At the same time that Mar was successfully rallying a number of clans to the Stuarts’ colours in Scotland, a small cadre of English gentlemen tried with far less aplomb to emulate him in Northumberland. On 9 October the Pretender was proclaimed king at Warkworth, after which the rebels, led by a local MP, Thomas Forster, and by James Radclyffe, 3rd earl of Derwentwater, attempted to persuade the city of Newcastle to open its gates to them. They were rebuffed. Thwarted there, they linked up with a neighbouring rebellion in the Scottish borders led by a handful of Scots nobles, among them William Gordon, 6th Viscount Kenmure, and proceeded to make their way across country into Lancashire, arriving eventually at Preston in November, where they prepared themselves for assault.

In Scotland, Argyll had established himself at Stirling Castle, thereby effectively blocking Mar’s route south. Mar dithered before finally being convinced to march down and confront Argyll. The duke, although outnumbered, responded to the challenge and sallied out to cut off the Jacobite army. A seasoned commander, Argyll selected favourable ground at Sheriffmuir near Dunblane, and prepared to beat the Jacobites back. By 13th November the two armies were in sight of each other and ready for battle.

By the time Mar and Argyll were preparing to fight, the Jacobite army in Preston had already been forced to beat off a besieging government army led by General Charles Wills. Even though they enjoyed some initial success, inflicting heavy casualties on Wills’s troops in the first day’s fighting, by the morning of the 13th, the Jacobites in Preston had fallen prey to mutual recrimination and violent disagreements about how best to proceed. Believing their case to be hopeless, Forster was the foremost among them in arguing for negotiating for terms, while the more headstrong Derwentwater argued for making a stand. Another peer, William Widdrington, 4th Baron Widdrington, who had spent most of the time bed-ridden, also backed Forster in arguing for surrender. On the morning of the 14th the government forces advanced into Preston and took almost 1,500 rebels prisoner, among them Derwentwater and Kenmure. Their capitulation brought to the end the English phase of the rebellion, and the action at Preston proved to be the last battle fought on English soil.

The day before the English Jacobites were compelled to lay down their arms, the Scots rebellion had effectively been brought to a halt by an otherwise inconclusive battle fought at Sheriffmuir. In spite of his numerical disadvantage, Argyll was able to turn one of Mar’s flanks before one of his own was overwhelmed by the Jacobites’ greater numbers. And yet, Mar proved as hesitant on the field as he had been previously, and failed to make the most of his advantage. Argyll’s forces were able to retreat in good order, but rather than follow Mar too wheeled around and marched back the way he had come. In effect, he had been denied the road south and by the time the Pretender finally arrived in Scotland the following month, the rebellion had all but fizzled out.

Though somewhat inglorious, the battles of Perth and Sheriffmuir, fought consecutively during a few days in mid-November 1715, contained a roll call of over 20 MPs, peers and Scots noblemen ranged on either side of the battlefield. One of Mar’s commanders was another former representative peer, James Livingston, 5th earl of Linlithgow; Hon. John Sinclair, previously a member of the Commons, was also present in Mar’s ranks – and later criticized for his conduct on the day – while George Hamilton had served as one of Mar’s advisers. On the government side, the left wing had been commanded by Thomas Whetham, later member for Barnstaple, and James Stuart, future member for Ayr Burghs had acted as Argyll’s aide-de-camp. The heir to the earldom of Haddington, Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning, future member for St Germans, had also served with Argyll as a volunteer, while Edward Montagu, later member for Northampton, commanded the 11th Regiment of Foot. Robert Urquhart, the former MP for Elginshire, proved both the viciousness of the encounter and his own resilience. He was wounded in the stomach, ‘so as his puddings hang out’, but survived both that and being taken prisoner by the rebel army. He lived on until within a few years of the next major uprising.


Further reading:

  •  Bruce Lenman, The Jacobite Cause (1986)
  • Daniel Szechi, 1715: the great Jacobite rebellion (2006)
  • Jonathan Oates, The Last Battle on English Soil, Preston 1715 (2015).


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