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3 Feb 2021

Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Polish ancestors

Written by Peter Pininski
A half-portrait of a young 18th-century prince. He wears a white wig and a rich red cape, lined with fur. He has golden armour on his arm.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart
Peter Pininski, a renowned historian and expert on the Stuarts, takes a look at Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s maternal ancestors, to see if they offer any clues to his character traits.

Charles’s father, James VIII & III, was born at St James’s Palace in London in June 1688 but brought up in exile in France. His birth resulted in a Catholic heir to the throne, and provoked King James VII & II’s Protestant nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, to invade England with 35,000 men to keep Britain in the European Protestant bloc by force. Although an experienced soldier in his youth, the old king lost his nerve and fled to France in December 1688.

His son also displayed bravery when young, fighting with the French army of his close relation King Louis XIV. However, the Jacobite Rising of 1715 to reclaim the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland failed, to which James VIII reacted with calm stoicism. Serious, patient yet controlling, he lacked flair and charisma. His heir Charles was the opposite – impatient, pro-active and lacking neither dash nor charm. Charles’s intuitive judgement may have been more in tune with the mood of the 1745 Rising than that of his commanders, but he lacked the age, military experience and reputation to convince them to follow his lead. So if the prince was dissimilar to his paternal forebears, then what of his maternal ones?

A black and white line drawing of an elaborately dressed, rich-looking 17th-century man. He wears a thick, fur-lined cape, and has a fur wrap around his head. He wears armour beneath his cloak.
King John III Sobieski

King John III Sobieski (1629–96)

Charles’s maternal great-grandfather was the legendary Polish warrior-king. He had commanded the allied armies of Catholic Europe that defeated the Turkish army at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 – a turning point in European history. His soldiers so believed in his leadership that they unquestioningly followed his every command. Highly educated and well-travelled throughout Western Europe, John studied at first hand the military organisation of the French, Swedish and Spanish armies as well as the sophisticated fortifications of the Netherlands. Physically strong, he was passionate – he especially loved his French wife Marie – but he was far less effective as a politician than a military commander and strategist.

A half-portrait of a young 17th-century man, with dark curly hair. He wears fitted armour with a red satin cape over the top. He also has a lacy neck tie.
Crown Prince James Sobieski

Crown Prince James Sobieski (1667–1737)

Charles’s maternal grandfather was the eldest son of King John III, with whom he fought at the Battle of Vienna. Born in Paris, he was the godson of Louis XIV of France and Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria. James was brought up by his ambitious French mother whilst his father was constantly defending Poland’s south-eastern borderlands from Turkish aggression. Despite his family’s enormous wealth and extensive royal connections, he failed in his bid to succeed his father as king of the elective throne of the vast (but over-extended) Polish-Lithuanian Republic, not least because he was imprisoned by his rival, the Elector of Saxony.

A half portrait of a young, very rich 18th-century woman. Her hair is neatly tied back and adorned with a pearl headband. She wears a low-cut silk dress with a fur-lined cape around her shoulders, attached to a blue sash.
Princess Clementina Sobieska

Princess Clementina Sobieska (1702–35)

Charles’s mother was her father’s favourite daughter and one of Europe’s richest heiresses. She was 17 when she married James Francis Edward (14 years younger than him), and was only 32 when she died. Devout in her religious practice, she loved music, was intelligent, strikingly beautiful, charismatic and brave, strong-willed yet stubborn. Resentful of her husband’s domination, she withdrew into religious obsession and developed anorexia, which caused her death.

A half-portrait of a young 18th-century prince. He wears a white wig and a rich red cape, lined with fur. He has golden armour on his arm.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart

Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720–88)

As a child, Charles was a poor pupil but a keen sportsman and a talented musician. Until the age of 16, he was spoilt, immature and rebellious. But when finally left on his own, during his 1737 tour of the Northern Italian courts, he proved himself capable of being charming, captivating, modest and mature, to the delight of his father. This marked the beginning of his heroic phase, which reached its zenith during the 1745 Rising, up to the retreat from Derby, which he bitterly opposed. However, this phase finished with his expulsion from France in 1748, after which he sank into repeated bouts of alcoholism. His passionate but stubborn and brittle character had been broken by his failure to persuade the Stuarts’ French allies to help rescue the disastrous situation after the catastrophe of Culloden.

A half-portrait of a young 18th-century man. He wears a white wig, with a long ponytail at the back tied with a dark ribbon. He also wears fitted armour, and a red cape arranged over one shoulder.
Prince Henry Benedict Stuart

Prince Henry Benedict Stuart (1725–1807)

Charles’s younger brother was diligent, scholarly and sincerely religious, character traits thoroughly approved of by his father. Like his father, Henry saw himself as English; Charles, from 1740, had identified with Scotland. Having been keen to sail with the French fleet and join his brother in 1745, when the Rising ended in disaster Henry and his father discreetly arranged for him to become a cardinal, not least to secure the Stuarts’ financial future. This commitment to Catholicism, unacceptable to most Jacobite supporters, constituted their capitulation with regard to the Stuart cause, which drove Charles to desperation, alienating him from both. Henry was fastidious, highly sensitive of his royal status, emotional though self-controlled, and a lover of the arts.


Peter Pininski was born in London in 1956 but since 1991 has lived in Warsaw. He is the chairman of the Liechtenstein-based academic charity, the Lanckoronski Foundation; a graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art; a member of the Advisory Board of the Ukrainian National Gallery of Art in L’viv; and the author of various publications on the exiled Stuarts, including The Stuarts’ Last Secret and Bonnie Prince Charlie – A Life as well as Dziedzic Sobieskich. Peter has lectured in Britain and internationally for institutions such as the National Trust for Scotland and has been a guest speaker at the Edinburgh Book Festival.