Poking Fun at Rebels | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

In 1715 the newly-united Kingdom of Great Britain had a new monarch: George I of Hanover. He had inherited the throne the year before because Queen Anne’s closest Protestant relation (there were about 50 other people in line to the throne before him, but none of them were Protestant and therefore they couldn’t inherit the throne). The new German monarch could barely speak English, however, and seemed to be uninterested in the business of government—so much so that it fell to his favourite minister, Robert Walpole, to direct a lot of what the executive should have been doing, and Walpole became the United Kingdom’s first de facto Prime Minister (his official title being First Lord of the Treasury) partially because of George’s disinterest in politics.

Portrait of Anne II Stuart (London, 1665-1714), Queen of England, daughter of James II, wife of William of Orange.

Queen Anne

In some ways George was the perfect king; not only was he a Protestant but he did not interfere in politics and largely accepted parliament’s supremacy. Yet some in the country were unhappy; many people in various parts of the country still recognised the legitimacy of James Francis Edward Stuart’s claim to the British throne. James Stuart, or, ‘the Old Pretender’, was the son of James II, the last Catholic monarch of England and Scotland, who had been ousted from the throne during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


James II

With the accession of George I to the British throne, the Earl of Mar who was supporter of the Pretender (who was then living in exile in France), decided it would be a good idea to raise the standard of James III and reclaim the true monarch’s stolen kingdom. The Earl of Mar and his initially small army were successful in capturing many towns in the north of Scotland and England, before being defeated by the Duke of Cumberland.


George I

The British government responded to the rebellion by suspending habeas corpus. In August 1715 also the Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual Punishing the Rioters, or, ‘the Riot Act’, first came into force.[1]

The rebellion, as might be imagined, caused a lot of chatter in the press.

18thc magazines

A selection of  early 18th-century periodicals

At this time, the periodical world had two giants: Joseph Addison (1672–1719) and Richard Steele (1672–1729). Between them these two men created the most important periodicals of the eighteenth century, entitled Tatler and Spectator. Each issue was printed on one sheet of paper, and numbered approximately 2,000 words. The content of these was mainly satirical – not ‘satirical’ in the way that a modern magazine like Private Eye is satirical – rather, it was a more subtle satire, which aimed to represent to its readers aspects of eighteenth-century life through the eyes of fictional characters, or correspondents and gently mock them.[2] In Tatler and Spectator, however, Addison and Steele aimed to be politically neutral and favoured neither of the two main parties of the day.


Joseph Addison (1672-1719)

After the success of the above two periodicals Addison struck out on his own and launched another, less famous, periodical titled The Freeholder.

Addison did not observe political neutrality in this third periodical—it was an unashamed cheerleader for the Whig government of the day and a staunch supporter of the Hanoverian dynasty, as revealed in the first issue:

How can we sufficiently extol the goodness of His present Majesty, who is not willing to have a single slave in his dominions![3]

The Freeholder regularly excoriated Tory Jacobites who were disloyal to the new and, in Addison’s eyes, wholly legitimate Hanoverian monarchy.


Title page to collected edition of Addison’s Freeholder.

As we have seen, Addison was excellent at making up fictional correspondents who offered a moral commentary on what they saw. In the third issue of The Freeholder, dated 30 December 1715, Addison gives us the supposed memoirs of one of the Jacobite Rebels who had taken part in the Battle of Preston:

A friend of mine who had the pillage of [a Jacobite Rebel from Preston] pockets, has made me a present of the following memoirs.[4]

Addison made sure to present the rebels as mindless and, indeed, a bit stupid. Was it not stupid, after all, to rebel against so enlightened a king as George I? As the memoirs stated:

Having concerted measures for the rising, we had a general meeting over a bowl of punch. It was here proposed by one of the wisest amongst us, to draw up a manifesto, setting forth the grounds and motives of our taking arms: for, as he observed, there had never yet been an insurrection in England, where the leaders had not thought themselves obliged to give some reasons for it. To this end we laid our heads together to consider what grievances the nation had suffered under King George. After having spent some hours on this subject, without being able to discover any, we unanimously agreed to rebel first, and to find out reasons for it afterwards.[5]

Addison of course caricatured the rebels’ motives here, but there is always a kernel of truth in exaggerated satire and it was no different in Addison’s contrived memoir. The only motive underlying the Earl of Mar’s rebellion was simply a desire to restore the Stuart monarchy. Apart from that, they had no manifesto; they could not tell people how their lives would be improved if there were a Stuart restoration. Had the Jacobites been savvier, they would have sought to ride the wave of popular discontent over ‘union economics’. Several parts of the 1707 Act of Union were economically favourable to Scottish landowners but the Scottish poor—as well as the poor from the north of England—failed to see any improvement in their own situation in terms of bread prices and enclosures still continued apace. But they did not. Thus, discontent with the new union of England and Scotland did not translate into popular support for the Jacobites.[6]


19th-century engraving of the battle of Preston

The later Jacobite Rising of 1745, led by a gallant and heroic youth, Bonnie Prince Charlie, was heavily romanticised by later fiction writers like Walter Scott, the author of Waverley (1814). The Rebellion of 1715, however, never really received the same treatment in popular culture. It was never achieved the status of a ‘heroic’ or ‘epic’ rebellion.[7] We see this in Addison’s account. While they begin as a bit motley and mindless crew, and, according to Addison, a little bit dim, we find the rebels acting very un-heroically. As they progress through one English town, the only people they manage to actually scare are pregnant women while the men look at them in a slightly bemused fashion. They do have some cheerleaders, however, for the rebel tells us that several harlots—he did not know the meaning of the word—came to their balconies to greet them!

The rebels then began to argue over who among them would get various government positions when the rebellion was won. The fictional rebel continues:

During our first day’s march I amused myself with considering what post I should accept under James the Third, when we had put him in possession of the British dominions. Being a great lover of country sports, I absolutely determined not to be a minister of state, nor to be fobbed off with a garter; till at length, passing by a noble country seat which belongs to a Whig, I resolved to beg of it; and pleased myself the remainder of the day with several alterations I intended to make in it … We were so confident of success that I found most of my fellow soldiers were taken up with imaginations of the same nature.[8]


Neoclassical civic virtue exemplified: Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii

This would have sat uneasily with Addison’s cosmopolitan, primarily London-based readers.[9] During the eighteenth century, the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome was held in high esteem by writers, artists, and intellectuals. The best political and social institutions were those, so it was thought, that emulated those of antiquity.[10] And connected to this, one ideal which was highly prized was that of civic virtue:

Neoclassical [artists, writers, intellectuals] portrayed themes of civic duty and allegiance to the state rather than to church (or family). Paintings showed virtues glorified by the Romans and Greeks, like fighting for one’s country, bravery and loyalty. They promoted ideals such as patriotism, courage and sacrifice.[11]

Although later in the century, Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of Horatii illustrates these ideals nicely: in the painting we see the male members of the Roman Horatius family, who are about to participate in a ritual duel against the Curiatii family from Alba Longa, willing to lay down their lives for their country out of patriotic duty. Personal and family concerns in the picture are secondary, and the grieving women, who know that their husbands must depart, occupy a marginal place in the painting. Thus, Addison’s point in showing this scene was that this rebellion was not driven by any high ideals of patriotism, bravery, or loyalty to the country. No — this was all about the rebels’ self-aggrandisement.

The rebels in Addison’s account were certainly not brave. The moment that they see the Duke of Cumberland’s army ready to do battle with them they flee like cowards. They have no other option but to practice ‘passive obedience’, says Addison, who then mocks the rebellion by saying

Such was the end of this rebellion; which, in all probability, will … only tend to the safety of our constitution.[12]

While Addison made light of the rebellion, Jacobitism was a serious threat. ‘Satire,’ as John Tosh says, ‘is a potent but difficult source for historians’ and

It is also easy to fall in to the trap of assuming that satirists’ views were universally held.[13]


Refusing to toast ‘The King Over the Water’

The truth is that the rebellion was no laughing matter. Many families in England and Scotland were only too content to toast ‘The King over the Water’ at meal times. Whether this sentimental support for the Jacobite cause would ever translate into meaningful support could not be known by contemporary supporters of the Hanoverian regime who did not, as we do, have the benefit of hindsight. One official in London feared that the counties of Northumberland and Durham were dens of ‘Popery and Jacobitism’ and that

Half of the population is of the papist faith and the other half are well-disposed towards it.[14]

Addison’s little jokey satire, therefore, was actually the product of his own fears. Although the rebellion had been largely crushed by the time he wrote his piece in December 1715, to him Jacobitism could at any moment rear its head. And it did rear its head again in 1745…


[1] An Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual Punishing the Rioters, 1 Geo.1 St.2 c.5 (London: HMSO, 1715).

[2] Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, ‘Number 1’, The Spectator, 1 March 1711, 1 and Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, ‘Number 2’, The Spectator, 2 March 1711, 1: Addison and Steele introduce us to Mr Spectator and several eminent fictional characters like Sir Roger de Coverley, a lawyer, a clergyman, a tradesman, and a libertine named Will Honeycomb who will report back to Mr Spectator the talk of the town.

[3] Joseph Addison, The Freeholder (London: J. and R. Tonson, 1751), pp. 3–4.

[4] Addison, Freeholder, p. 11.

[5] Addison, Freeholder, p. 12.

[6] Anon. [online], ‘Jacobites and the Union’, BBC History, 19 September 2014, accessed 29 April 2020. Available at: www.bbc.co.uk.

[7] Dr Gabriel Glickman [online], ‘review of 1715: The Great Jacobite Rebellion (review no. 560)’, accessed 29 April 2020. Available at: https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/560

[8] Addison, Freeholder, p. 14.

[9] Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee (New Haven: Yale, 2005), p. 11.

[10] See Joseph M. Levine, ‘Why Neoclassicism? Politics and Culture in Eighteenth‐Century England’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 25: 1 (2002), 75–101.

[11] Anon. [online], ‘Neoclassical Art Movement’, accessed 1 May 2020. Available at: https://www.identifythisart.com/art-movements-styles/pre-modern-art/neoclassical-art-movement/

[12] Addison, Freeholder, p. 16.

[13] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 2nd edn (Harlow: Pearson, 2006), p. 84.

[14] Northumbrian Jacobite Society [Online], ‘Jacobite Support in the North-East’, cited 24 August 2019. Available at northumbrianjacobites.org.uk.

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