Irish Jacobitism and the Three Kingdoms: Charles Leslie (1650-1722)

Irish Jacobitism and the Three Kingdoms: Charles Leslie (1650-1722)

Ralph Stevens (University College Dublin) looks at the career of Charles Leslie, whose Jacobitism is best studied through a three, rather than four, nations framework

The regime change of 1688-91 in England, Scotland and Ireland highlighted the complex relationships between the three Stuart kingdoms at the end of the seventeenth century. Those ‘Jacobites’ who resisted the displacement of James II by William of Orange acted both in distinct national contexts and at the same time as part of a transnational movement to restore James II and his descendants to their multiple lost thrones. Studies of early eighteenth-century Jacobitism can illuminate questions of national identity at around the time that the Union of 1707 forged England and Scotland into the new political entity of Great Britain.

The historiography on Jacobitism has been dominated by studies of its English and especially Scottish manifestations. The study of Irish Jacobitism from the Williamite military victory of 1691 onwards is comparatively underdeveloped. The field is further complicated by historiographical division. Over the past decades Irish scholars have disagreed profoundly over whether Irish Jacobitism should be considered as ‘British’ in nature, an element in ‘restoring a Scottish dynasty to the combined thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland’, or whether it is best understood within its distinct domestic context.[1]

However, these disagreements have rested largely on different assessments of the allegiances and motivations of Ireland’s Catholic majority population. In contrast, there is comparative agreement that Protestant Irish had little share in aspirations or endeavours to restore the male line of the Stuart dynasty. Even the sympathetic recent view of Éamonn Ó Cíardha concedes that Protestant Irish Jacobitism was ‘more significant for its quality than its quantity’ and in any case suffered a ‘sharp decline’ after 1714.[2]

An interesting case that problematises assumptions about Irish Jacobitism is that of Charles Leslie, one of the few Irish Protestants and even fewer Church of Ireland clergy unwilling to at least acquiesce to regime change in the Three Kingdoms in 1688-91. Leslie forfeited his position as Chancellor of Connor Cathedral for ‘nonjuring’, the refusal to swear allegiance to the new joint monarchs William and Mary.

Charles Leslie by George White, after unknown artist,1714-1732. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Leslie was far from marginal in the overall Jacobite movement. He settled in London and emerged during the 1690s as a leading Jacobite polemicist, evading arrest for his clandestine interventions in an emerging literary public sphere. His prolific output – 81 publications from 1691 onwards, not counting 397 issues of his periodical The Rehearsal (1704-9) – represented one of the most significant ideological challenges to the post-Revolution establishment. Not for nothing would he be remembered by Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, as the ‘violentest Jacobite’ active in England during these years.

Leslie’s publications presented Tory ideology with a Jacobite edge, pricking the consciences of conservative English gentry and clergy by reminding them of political and religious certainties bent or broken by the revolutionary events of 1688-91. Facing prosecution for his subversive journalism, Leslie fled in 1711 to the Jacobite court in exile at Paris. He would accompany the ‘Pretender’ James Francis Edward Stuart across Europe to Lorraine, Avignon, and Rome. Aware of his declining health, however, in 1721 Leslie obtained permission from George I’s government to return to Ireland, where he died the following year.

Should Leslie be characterised as an ‘Irish’ Jacobite? Thomas Doyle explicitly dismissed Leslie from his analysis of Protestant Irish Jacobitism in the early eighteenth century: Leslie moved to England and ‘had little further involvement in Irish affairs’.[3] David Hayton similarly noted both that Jacobitism was almost non-existent among Church of Ireland clergy and also that Leslie ‘went on to pursue a career in England’.[4]

However, to dismiss Leslie because of his move to England seems almost to evade the question of how Protestant Irish identity and Jacobite ideology might interact. In contrast, Ó Cíardha contends that Leslie, in spite of his geographical location, ‘typified’ a residual Irish Protestant Jacobite presence which was ‘small, but influential and vocal’ until at least 1714.[5] With a few exceptions, however, Leslie’s writings were addressed to an English audience. He integrated easily into English dissident clerical circles and participated in religious debates about the status and authority of the Church of England. Neither approach seems to do full justice to Leslie’s background, mobility, or significance.

Leslie’s career is best studied through a three nations framework. His writings demonstrate how his Jacobite identity was intimately linked to his view of the proper relationships between England, Scotland, and Ireland. Understandably for a clergyman, he understood the link to be not only the person of a shared Stuart monarch, but also a shared ecclesiastical settlement, a family of Protestant churches governed by bishops.

Throughout his works Leslie conjured up a lost world of supposed harmony and alignment between the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the Church of Ireland, shattered by the the detested regime change of 1688-91. A three nations approach also allows consideration of how Leslie’s ‘Irish’ background was in fact strongly Scottish, since both his father and maternal grandfather were Scottish clergymen who had settled in Ulster in the early seventeenth century.

Leslie’s Jacobitism may provide a way to complicate commonplace assumptions that equate Ulster-Scots Protestants with dissenting Presbyterianism and stauch anti-Jacobitism. Historians may be divided over whether Catholic Irish Jacobitsm is best understood within a domestic context, but it seems clear that fitting Leslie into a single national context, either Irish or English, is counter-productive.

[1] Sean Connolly, Divided Kingdom: Ireland 1630-1800 (Oxford, 2008). Cf. Eamonn Ó Cíardha, Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, 1685-1766: A Fatal Attachment (Dublin, 2002); Vincent Morley, ‘The Continuity of Disaffection in Eighteenth-Century Ireland’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland 22 (2007).

[2] Ó Cíardha, Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, p. 3.

[3] Thomas Doyle, ‘Jacobitism, Catholicism and the Irish Protestant Elite, 1700-1710’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland 12 (1997), p. 30.

[4] David Hayton, ‘High churchmen in the Irish Convocation’, in idem, Ruling Ireland, 1685-1742: Politics, Politicians and Parties (Woodbridge, 2004), p. 145.

[5] Ó Cíardha, Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, p. 108.

Dr Ralph Stevens completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2015. His thesis addressed religious toleration in England in the decades after the passage of the 1689 Toleration Act. He currently teaches early modern history at University College Dublin and is engaged in research on issues of national and religious identity in early-eighteenth century Ireland. His wider interests include the relationships between religious communities across early modern Europe and the Atlantic World.

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