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2 Feb 2021

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s early years

Written by Edward Corp
Close up of portrait of a young Bonnie Prince Charlie
Bonnie Prince Charlie has captured people’s imaginations throughout the centuries. Here we take a look at his childhood.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was born in Rome on 31 December 1720. His mother was Clementina Sobieska, granddaughter of the King of Poland, and his father was the exiled Stuart, James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Charles and his brother Henry were brought up in the Jacobite court at the Muti Palace in Rome.

Charles had a difficult upbringing. Until he was 4 years old he was looked after by three women – his governess, a chambermaid and his Italian nurse Francesca – and, of course, also by his mother Clementina. Then he was suddenly taken away from the women and entrusted to a team of three men – a governor, an under-governor and a valet. Two of the women were put in charge of his baby brother Henry. For another year he still had Francesca with him, because his brother had his own nurse, but then she too was removed, and he was gradually given a staff of more and more men.

It must have been difficult for him at that age to understand why this happened, especially when he was only allowed to see his mother in the presence of his governor. But he would quickly have understood that his mother hated his governor, as well as two other people at the court who seemed to be his father’s favourites and whom his mother blamed for what had happened. When he was still only 4 his parents separated. His mother left the Stuart royal palace to live elsewhere, saying she would not return so long as the governor (James Murray, Lord Dunbar) and the two favourites (John and Marjory Hay, Lord and Lady Inverness) remained at court.

Eventually, when Charles was 6, a compromise was reached. The two favourites left and Clementina returned, but Dunbar remained. Charles’s parents rarely spoke and tended to avoid each other. He saw relatively little of his mother and he, in turn, hated Dunbar, who continued to control him until he was 18 years old. Charles gradually became a rebellious and badly behaved teenager, not helped because he was pandered to and spoilt by those members of the court – in fact the majority – who shared his dislike of Dunbar.

The prince’s relations with his father James were strained, partly because their personalities were very different, and partly because he blamed his father for the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. This feeling was reinforced when his mother died shortly after his 14th birthday.

We’re lucky to have a series of portraits showing what Bonnie Prince Charlie looked like during these years, because he was painted in Rome roughly every three years from the age of 2 in 1723 to the age of 17 in 1738. These portraits, by Antonio David, Jean-Etienne Liotard and Louis-Gabriel Blanchet, are very good. Some of them are very well known, and several can be seen in Edinburgh. But they don’t show the rebellious and spoilt boy that has just been described. They were all commissioned by his father and painted to his specifications, and what they show is a handsome, well brought up and fashionable young prince. They certainly show us what Charles looked like, but they lack depth as a portrayal of his impulsive personality and rebellious character.

This is the background to understanding what happened in the summer of 1737. By then James was well aware that his immature son felt frustrated living at the Jacobite court, and he began to despair of Charles ever beginning to act his age. So James arranged for him to go on a tour of the northern Italian states, to see if this experience would make him grow up. And it did! Wherever he went, Charles was greeted with great interest and mounting enthusiasm, and he rose to the occasion. Feeling liberated from the constraints of living at the Jacobite court in Rome, he suddenly began to act with a maturity that amazed the people with him. By the time he reached Venice he was being fêted as a popular hero, or superstar, winning praise from everyone who met him.

It was while he was in Venice that Charles had his portrait painted in pastel by the great artist Rosalba Carriera. Unlike the painters in Rome she had never met or even seen him before, and was not given any instructions by James about how he wanted his son to be represented. The result is a masterpiece of portraiture which shows Charles as he really was at this moment of triumph, this turning point when he finally grew up and, although only 16 years old, began to behave like a young man. The portrait captures the new confidence of the young prince, and provides us with arguably the finest portrait of him that was ever produced.

Portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart as a young man, with a blue sash over his clothes.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Rosalba Carriera

Until very recently this portrait was believed to have been lost, and was only known from some inferior copies which don’t capture Bonnie Prince Charlie’s new self-confidence. By great good fortune, Peter Pininski and I were able to rediscover it, and it now belongs to the Pininski Foundation in Liechtenstein. It had never been previously seen publicly until it was unveiled at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in April 2019.

Edward Corp was Professor of British History at the University of Toulouse. He has curated two major exhibitions on the Stuart court in exile, at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1992 and at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2001. His history of the exiled Stuart court in France and Italy (16891766) was published between 2004 and 2011. His most recent book, Sir David Nairne: a Scottish Jacobite at the Court of the Exiled Stuarts, was published in 2018.

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