In the spring and summer of 1745, Britain faced a growing crisis in Flanders. On 11 May, Saxe defeated Cumberland in the long, bloody duel of Fontenoy. Ghent and Bruges were lost in July, and Ostend capitulated on 23 August. This was very bad indeed and distracted British attention away from the plans of Charles Edward who appeared to be a very small player in the midst of such grand manoeuvres. However, on 22 June, the prince boarded the frigate Le du Teillay and sailed from St Nazaire. He was about to take centre stage. Nearly three weeks before his departure, the prince had written to Louis XV, whom he addressed as ‘uncle’ intimating that he had resolved single-handedly to make himself known by his deeds. To embark on an enterprise to which even a very moderate amount of help would ensure success, and being so bold as to think that the King of France would not refuse this:
I would certainly not have come to France if the expedition which was planned to take place last year  had not shewn me that your Majesty wished me well . . . and so I go to seek my destiny which, apart from being in the hands of God, is in those of your Majesty.
This would clearly seem to indicate Charles had confidence in the eventual certainty of French aid, once his expedition should be seen to stimulate results. What he had not taken into account was the fact that Fontenoy and the gains in Flanders had conferred the strategic initiative on France. There was no real need for any sideshow, other than it might sow further confusion. Certainly, the French could not pretend they were unaware of what was afoot. One of the vessels the Prince’s entrepreneurial friends had chartered was the 64-gun L’Elisabeth. It was quite customary for the French Navy to grant charters with letters of marque to enterprising merchant raiders, who might seek a profit from the wars. It appears unlikely that L’Elisabeth could have been hired for the expedition to Scotland without the direct authority of the minister concerned.
The ship carried a naval complement, and large stores of arms, accoutrement, powder and shot had been amassed, which required ministerial authorisation. From the French perspective, the expedition was a low cost extension to the war which had the potential to increase the pressure on Britain, with whom France was tentatively seeking to negotiate. Charles had, on 12 June, written to his father to explain the desperate venture on which, without James’s commission, he was about to embark:
I believe your Majesty little expected a courier at this time, and much less from me; to tell you a thing that will be a great surprise to you. I have been, above six months ago, invited by our friends to go to Scotland, and to carry what money and arms I could conveniently get; this being, they are fully persuaded, the only way of restoring you to the Crown, and them to their liberties . . . After such scandalous usage as I have received from the French Court, had I not given my word to do so, or got so many encouragements from time to time as I have had, I should have been obliged, in honour and for my own reputation, to have flung myself into the arms of my friends, and die with them, rather than live longer in such a miserable way here, or be obliged to return to Rome, which would be just giving up all hopes . . . Your Majesty cannot disapprove a son’s following the example of his father. You yourself did the like in the year ’15; but the circumstances now are indeed very different, by being much more encouraging, there being a certainty of succeeding with the least help. . . . I have tried all possible means and stratagems to get access to the King of France, or his Minister, without the least effect . . . Now I have been obliged to steal off, without letting the King of France so much as suspect it for which I make a proper excuse in my letter to him; by saying it was a great mortification to me never to have been able to speak and open my heart to him. Let what will happen, the stroke is struck, and I have taken a firm resolution to conquer or to die . . .
Brave words, appropriate in the romantic, if not the pragmatic, sense, Charles, in this apologia to his father, suggests he has been drawn to the Scottish venture by the assurance and entreaty of sympathisers there, but his initial reception in the Highlands would indicate otherwise. On the other hand, the expedition may be seen to represent the final throw of the despairing gambler, determined to risk all on a last roll of the dice. The fact that the fount of overt French support had dried up should have indicated to a wiser man how the land lay in that direction. Hubris is a poor reason for campaigning without some more substantive bedfellows. On 2 July, the sleek du Teillay was joined by the heavier and ageing L’Elisabeth off Belle Isle, and the pair sailed north-west until, with typical misfortune, they ran foul of HMS Lyon (58 guns). The English man-o’-war, if under-gunned, was faster, having just been refitted. Captain Dan of L’Elisabeth ran out his guns to make a fight of it. The French ship cleared for action, exchanged token shot and hoisted her colours. The Englishman gave chase and presently the two warships were exchanging broadsides. No subtlety here, but a grinding, yardarm to yardarm, attrition of screaming round shot.
At one point in the action, Lyon was able to rake her opponent, causing fearful loss, yet she certainly did not have matters all her own way, and the Frenchman shot away her rigging and partly dismasted her. The battle raged until darkness when L’Elisabeth limped back towards Brest with 57 dead, including her gallant skipper, and nearly twice as many wounded. Though she was neither sunk nor taken, her priceless cargo of supplies and quota of volunteers was lost to Charles Edward. Diminutive du Teillay, with the prince’s equally modest entourage on board, sailed on alone. Despite the continued vigilance of the Royal Navy, Captain Durbe steered his ship north and west, around the treacherous coast, past the bastion of Cape Wrath and, on 23 July, sighted the Outer Hebrides. The vessel made landfall off Barra, where the steep hills crowd down to the anchorage. The Highlander turned financier, Aeneas MacDonald, went ashore to establish contact with his brother-in-law and staunch Jacobite, Macneil of Barra: The Forty-Five had begun.
It did not begin particularly well for the prince. Macneil was away and it was feared the government had rumbled the whole affair. Undeterred, Charles was for pressing on. There was a further fright when what appeared to be a large man-o’-war was sighted and du Teillay took shelter among the necklace of islands. More alarums followed. Charles and his tiny band received a taste of the fury of a West Coast summer storm. The laird of Boisdale was the first man of consequence the prince spoke to on the barren strand of Eriskay. His advice was as harsh as the wind, but the Jacobite counsels were disturbed by the renewed attentions of supposed British warships.
On 25 July the swift French frigate nosed into Loch nan Uamh and the prince, with his tiny entourage, stepped ashore at Arisaig. Charles was now upon his native land, the arms and stores were unloaded and local gentlemen consulted. Having revictualled, du Teillay made ready to put out to sea. If Prince Charles Edward was having any second thoughts, now was definitely the time. If he lacked wisdom and judgement, he lacked for neither courage nor energy. Durbe and Walsh, who had accompanied the voyage, said their farewells, the latter departing with a letter of commendation from the prince in his pocket. It was time for Whether the prince possessed sufficient intellectual wherewithal to contemplate the wider, European picture, must remain doubtful. That he first allowed himself to be deceived before proceeding, in turn, to deceive others may be quite likely. The Forty-Five, therefore, was born out of false optimism and launched on pious hopes, presented as sure. In short, it was founded on an entirely false premise that the Highlands had but to show the white cockade and the French would be sufficiently enthused to intervene, as had been so tantalisingly close the previous year. None of those chiefs, seduced by the prince’s easy charm and charisma, which would hold only as long as he was seen to be winning, seriously envisaged that the clans must bear the weight of the whole campaign unaided.
Monday 19 August saw the prince with his following at Glenfinnan, where the high hills crowd the loch. Apart from a pair of local shepherds, the tranquillity was undisturbed by the tramp of marching feet. After what must have been an increasingly anxious wait, a small MacDonald contingent, no more than 150 broadswords, came in and, with them, James Mor MacGregor, son of the celebrated Rob Roy and as much a rogue. It was not until around four in the afternoon that Cameron of Lochiel finally made an appearance, bringing in perhaps 700 of his affinity, to be followed by Keppoch with, at best, half as many. It was scarcely an army, hardly sufficient for two weak battalions.
What followed was a formidable feat of arms. Charles’s ragged forces defeated Cope at Prestonpans. Despite the chiefs’ misgivings, the army was soon tramping in good order down the western spine of England. They took, firstly Carlisle, then, on 27 November, Preston. Despite a remarkable dearth of recruits, the clan regiments pressed on initially to Manchester and, finally, on 4 December attained Derby. Whether the decision forced upon Charles by his officers to withdraw was the correct one remains open to debate. But the prince, his brittle personality bruised by this reverse, took more and more counsel with his Irish cronies, and a widening chasm opened with his Highland commanders, particularly Lord George Murray. If Charles had significantly misrepresented the actual level of likely French support, his core belief that victories won by the Highland army might stimulate their enthusiasm to the point of significant military intervention was not so wide of the mark. Even as the rebel army was setting its face towards north and beginning a long retreat from the high-water mark of Derby, some modest French reinforcements succeeded in eluding the Royal Navy blockade and entering Montrose.
This was not an army; the Royal Ecossais was merely a weak composite battalion of companies drawn from the regiments in the Irish Brigade. Nonetheless, as far back as 13 October, Louis had taken a decision to support Charles with a force of several thousands. By mid November, the ubiquitous Walsh was instructed to assemble transports and the Irish were moved up to Dunkirk. Any chances of the expedition setting sail were hampered by adverse winds, while the RN waited in the Downs. A landing either on the south coast or further west seemed the likeliest option. So heightened was the tension in England that on 10 December a French descent was announced – somewhat prematurely – the supposed invaders were nothing more than local smugglers plying their illicit trade off Beachy Head! As ever, the RN took the fight to the enemy, the French shipping constantly subjected to enterprising cutting-out raids, which relieved the French of a score and more of vessels.
On land, the Duke of Cumberland and his officers were determined that this affair, which had seemed to shake the very roots of his family’s dynasty, should not peter out with the clans melting back, unscathed, into the heather. It was time for a final and decisive reckoning. On 17 January, a further battle was fought at Falkirk, a confused and untidy fight in which the government forces, led by General ‘Hangman’ Hawley, were again worsted. Almost three months later, on 16 April, the last great battle to be fought on British soil erupted at Culloden. The Jacobites, depleted, hungry, exhausted and footsore, confronted the larger Hanoverian army, well-formed, well-drilled and competently led. In the driving sleet, the clans charged for the last time, winnowed by round shot, grape and musketry. They fell by companies, by mid afternoon it was all over, and the Stuart cause was in ruins. Charles, who had commanded in person, fled the field, and his corpulent cousin, Cumberland, enjoyed the only victory of an otherwise failed military career.