Under the Stuarts the British Isles enjoyed a century-long respite from serious threats of invasion. This was largely because the foreign policy of the Stuarts aimed at making friends of France and Spain, the only possible serious invaders of the time. On only one occasion during the reign of the first two Stuart kings was this pattern in danger of being broken. In 1625 England was deep in a dispute with Spain over the Palatinate, and there were continued reports of great activity in Dunkirk (then a Spanish port) which seemed to portend another invasion attempt. The false alarm did, however, lead to a proposed reorganisation of coastal defences by Viscount Wimbledon, the commander-in-chief, in case an enemy should make a descent while the navy was engaged far from home.

The Stuart calm began to be threatened when it became clear that the Parliamentary army would win the Civil War with Charles I. In 1643 some French transports evaded the English squadron in the North Sea and reached Bridlington, only to be destroyed in the harbour. But, despite the reversal of foreign policy by the victorious Paliamentarians and the ideological distaste of foreign monarchs for English republicanism, Cromwell’s Commonwealth was not seriously disturbed by invasion threats.

The reason is not hard to find. By the late 1640s, with the ending of the Thirty Years’ War that had so absorbed Spanish energies, and with the Fronde in France, the revolt of the Catalans in Spain, and Europe in the grip of ‘general crisis’, there was no nation-state with the resources or surplus energy to menace England. Significantly, once the Stuarts were restored and traditional alliances mended, the only foreign interloper was the Dutch, now Britain’s chief commercial rival. Their ascent of the Medway in 1667, when they appeared before Sheerness and Gravesend and could have proceeded to bombard London itself if the Dutch admiral had had more nerve, created a sensation. But though it exposed the weakness of the Royal Navy, this incursion never could have been, nor was it meant to be, anything but a raid in force.

The great turning point was 1688. In foreign affairs the ‘Glorious Revolution’ allied British and Dutch interests and put England on a collision course with France. From 1689 to 1815 these two powers engaged in a great worldwide struggle for colonies, raw materials and markets. There were occasional breathing spaces in this struggle for mastery, but this global conflict was the underlying geopolitical reality of the eighteenth century. The monumental battle for economic preponderance was conducted on a vast scale, in North America and the Caribbean, in India and (later in the period) in South America and Africa too. By far the most important cockpit of conflict was the Americas, demonstrating once again the intimate connection of the American factor with the invasion of England.

It was only to be expected that one variable in the complex of worldwide military struggle would be the invasion of England, or Scotland and Ireland, and so it proved. Just as Spain in the sixteenth century had hoped to conquer England by a combination of external force and internal subversion by the English Catholics, so in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century the key with which the French hoped to unlock the British Isles was the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled James II and his lineal descendants in the House of Stuart. An internal rising in support of a French landing was an integral part of invasion thinking in Versailles in this period, and accounts for the much smaller numbers of troops earmarked for descents on Britain by France in the Jacobite period.

The successful landing of William of Orange in 1688 is itself very much ad rem, for it seems to refute both the proposition that there has been no successful invasion of the British Isles since 1066 and the principle that an invasion over an uncommanded sea is impossible. But a closer examination of the events of 1688 shows this example to be indeed the exception that proves the rule. By late 1688 England can be said to have been in a Civil War posture, all bar the fighting. William came over from Holland only when dozens of luminaries among the English aristocracy had given signatures, pledging themselves to him. The allegiance of the army and the navy to James II was uncertain. The Catholic Sir Roger Strickland had been replaced as Admiral of the Fleet in September 1688 by Lord Dartmouth, as a sop to Protestant susceptibilities, but this move in effect delivered James’s fleet to William. Once Dartmouth realised that he had under him commanders who did not want to fight the Prince of Orange, he sought the earliest possible accommodation with William.

Either incompetence or defeatism must be invoked to explain Dartmouth’s stationing his defending fleet at the Gunfleet, off the Thames estuary; for although this made him well placed to intercept any force landing in Essex or Suffolk, he was in no position to guard the entrance to the English Channel. The correct defensive location was the time-honoured one, in the Downs. By leaving a gaping hole in his defences Dartmouth virtually invited William to venture into the Channel and along the south coast. Once the mistake – whether genuine error or treachery – was discovered, it proved impossible to redress. The same winds that blew William into the Channel kept Dartmouth bottled up in the Gunfleet. This was yet another appearance in history of the hardy perennial, ‘the Protestant wind’.

When Dartmouth was at last able to pursue the Dutch, who had landed William at Brixham on 5 November, he came as far as Spithead before concluding that the game was up. Had James II shown more resolution, it might have been a different story, but by now Dartmouth’s own future hung in the balance. He quickly decided that William held all the cards and brought over the fleet to the Prince of Orange. By the end of December James II and his family had fled into exile in France.

Naval affairs were in disarray during the transfer of power in 1689. Louis XIV was able to land an army in Ireland unopposed. French communications with the homeland were intact. Yet the English still controlled the Irish sea, and it was over this water that the Protestant army came that was to defeat James at the Boyne in 1690.

But 1690 was also to bring near-disaster to the new Williamite regime. If English communications between Ireland and England over the Irish Sea could be cut, the Anglo-Dutch army would be stranded in a hostile land. To secure this end a large French fleet of around one hundred ships under Admiral Tourville came into the Channel in June. Their target was the Royal Navy and its Dutch allies. If they could destroy this allied fleet, England would have no resources with which to contest the blockade of the Irish Sea.

On 30 June, having passed the Lizard, Plymouth, and the Isle of Wight without sighting the enemy, Tourville encountered the allied fleet under Admiral Torrington off Beachy Head. The Dutch ships were in the van. An eight-hour battle resulted in defeat for the allies. They had casualties of some four hundred dead and five hundred wounded, and were forced to abandon station in the Downs and move into the Thames estuary. Significantly, once again no ships had been lost in the battle through gunfire. Little had changed since the days of the Armada. The wooden ships were still virtually unsinkable by cannon shot. Fireships, of which Tourville had eighteen in his fleet, were still the decisive weapon.

In London there was near-panic at the news of Tourville’s victory. With the Channel in French hands, invasion seemed certain. But William of Orange, who won his victory at the Boyne the day after Beachy Head, was better informed. He knew the French had made no preparations to embark troops. Moreover, even if they now tried to assemble an army of invasion at great speed, they did not have the absolute mastery of the Channel that would make this a risk-free venture. Torrington had been mauled but was by no means annihilated. At the first threat of a French landing he would simply come out into the Channel again to give battle. In other words, the overwhelming superiority at sea needed to provide the margin for successful convoying of transports had not been achieved by Tourville. That this margin is very wide was universally recognised. The Dutch admiral van der Tromp had put it in a nutshell years before: ‘I would wish to be so fortunate as to have only one of the two duties, to seek out the enemy or to give convoy; for to do both is attended by great difficulties.’

So William kept his head and continued with the conquest of Ireland. Torrington was arrested, relieved of his command and court-martialled (later found not guilty) for his failure, but meanwhile the French had failed to follow up their advantage. Instead of proceeding to the Irish Sea to cut William’s communications, they launched a raid on Teignmouth. After some looting and burning the French re-embarked after five hours ashore. The raid was an exercise in utter futility. As with the strategic bombing programme in World War Two, this act of terrorism against a civilian population served only to stiffen its war morale. On the other hand, the Teignmouth landing did have long-term consequences, since it proved to the French that it was not impossible to make landfall on English soil. The 1692 French invasion attempt had its fons et origo in this otherwise pointless piece of plundering.

At the time the French could see only the futility. Louis XIV was so angry at Tourville’s failure to press home his victory that he relieved him of his command. This prompted Torrington’s remark that it was exceedingly odd for the French admiral to be dismissed for not destroying the English fleet, while the English admiral was dismissed for not permitting the said destruction.

Before 1690 was out it brought two more significant naval developments. In England Edward Russell was made Admiral of the Fleet. Meanwhile on the other side of the Channel France came close to abandoning altogether her challenge to English supremacy on the high seas. A new Minister of Marine, Pontchartrain, was appointed on the sudden death of his predecessor. Pontchartrain initially advocated disbanding the French regular navy as an unnecessary expense, concentrating instead on the guerre de course, the war of privateers against English merchantmen.

Wiser counsels prevailed at Versailles when it was pointed out that without warships troops could not be transported by sea, nor could maritime commerce be protected nor coastal towns given security. Nevertheless, when the new English fleet under Russell came out in 1691, it had a clear numerical superiority over the enemy. Throughout the year Russell tried to bring the French to battle, but Tourville eluded him. When Russell swept the western approaches in a front thirty miles wide, Tourville simply moved out into the vast expanse of the Atlantic. The French aim in 1691 was to keep their land armies in Ireland supplied and victualled, but not to be tempted into sea battles. Russell, for his part, spent too much time trying to bring the French to a test of strength on the ocean and not enough in trying to interdict communications between France and Ireland.

But in July there was fought in Ireland the decisive battle of Aughrim. The Dutch general proceeded to the siege of Limerick, which surrendered in October. This was the end of the Jacobite war in Ireland. The French departed; the Irish troops (the ‘Wild Geese’) went with them. With Ireland pacified, the English could now hope to bring the French fleet to battle by raiding the coast of France.

Even while this raid was being planned in London, Louis XIV had decided to make an all-out attempt at the invasion of England. By this time he was sufficiently impressed by the level of unrest in England to think he could count on a powerful Jacobite fifth column if he could land his troops. At the end of 1691 it emerged that a powerful anti-Dutch Protestant faction in England had toyed with the idea of expelling William and Mary and placing James’s daughter Anne on the throne. The heart of this conspiracy was thought to be the duke of Marlborough and his formidable wife, Sarah, Anne’s confidante. When the Williamites got wind of the plot, they stripped Marlborough of all his offices. Now that Anne herself had sent James II an assurance of loyalty, there seemed to be a powerful internal combination of Jacobites proper and anti-Dutch Anneites ready to throw off the Orange yoke as soon as Louis XIV could get his men ashore. On the most optimistic projection Anne could conciliate the Church of England for James, Marlborough the army, and Russell the fleet. It was fantasies of this kind, assiduously cultivated by the Jacobites in France, that propelled Louis XIV into his great invasion scheme of 1692. Moreover, the atmosphere at Versailles was propitious on other counts. The Minister of War, the marquis de Louvois, who had adamantly opposed all plans for a descent on England, was dead, and both army and navy ministers were now keen to back Louis.

The basic strategy for the year 1692 was to land an army in England before the English and Dutch made their customary late rendezvous. Twenty-four thousand infantry were assembled in Normandy’s Cotentin peninsula. These infantrymen, largely the 'Wild Geese’ who had quit Ireland under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick, would be embarked at La Hogue under the command of James II’s bastard son, the duke of Berwick, and of Patrick Sarsfield, earl of Lucan. The cavalry would be embarked separately at Le Havre.

An all-out effort was made. The necessary transports were assembled; the Toulon fleet under Admiral d’Estrées was ordered up from the Mediterranean to assist Tourville. The plan was for Tourville’s Brest fleet to bring the transports to a symbolic landfall at Torbay (where William had landed in 1688) before the English and Dutch fleets had combined for the summer campaigning season. Tourville would then return to Brest, where he would link up with d’Estrées’s squadron. The combined French naval forces should then be able to keep the communication lines of the army of invasion open. The element of surprise was to be combined with William’s unreadiness – thought to be a natural consequence of the two allied fleets’ having been laid up all winter in their respective ports.

Speed and secrecy were the essence of the plan. Neither was attained. The true destination of Tourville’s fleet was known by English intelligence as early as April 1692. This put an end to William’s earlier doubts about the feasibility of a French invasion and alerted him to the necessity of getting the Dutch fleet out to sea. Coastal defences in England were strengthened, and manpower switched from the proposed raids on the French coast. Trained bands of armed men and the militia were called out. Regular troops were cantoned between Portsmouth and Petersfield. Instructions were issued that all cattle must be driven fifteen miles inland from any point on the coast where the French were sighted. Invasion rumours were rife. The diarist Evelyn wrote on 5 May about the universal consternation: ‘the reports of an invasion, being now so hot, alerted the city, court and people exceedingly.’

While the Dutch fleet was being hurriedly got out to sea to join the English squadron, the preconditions for disaster were already manifesting themselves in France. By the beginning of May d’Estrées’s squadron, battered by storms, had still not joined Tourville at Brest. To make matters worse, Pontchartrain sent Tourville orders to sortie from Brest at the earliest opportunity and engage the enemy whatever his strength. Louis XIV unwittingly sealed Tourville’s doom by adding at the foot of Pontchartrain’s instructions, in his own hand, that these orders represented his personal wishes and that they were to be obeyed unquestioningly.

Finally Tourville could wait for d’Estrées no longer and cleared from Brest at the beginning of May. Linking up with Admiral Villette’s Rochefort squadron, he began to advance up the Channel. Without d’Estrées he was far inferior to the allied fleet. He had forty-four ships of the line, eleven of them with more than eighty guns, and almost as many fireships and auxiliaries, but this time he was outnumbered two to one by Russell. In 1691 Tourville had avoided engaging Russell with roughly equal numbers. In 1692 he was under strict orders to give battle to the English admiral, whatever the enemy superiority.

Realising that the two allied fleets had, after all, effected a junction, the French Ministry of Marine acted too late. Fresh orders, countermanding Louis’s initial command that the enemy be fought whatever their strength, were issued on 9 May. But by this time Tourville was already in the Channel.

Russell weighed anchor and sailed to meet him. On 19 May he was off the Isle of Wight while the French were at Portland. Both fleets stood away to the south. On the 20th they came upon each other about twenty-one miles north of Cap Barfleur, at the eastern tip of the Cotentin peninsula. When Tourville saw that the two fleets had already united, he realised that the invasion scheme had aborted. Prudence dictated a retreat in the presence of such overwhelming numbers, but there was no getting around Louis XIV’s explicit orders. Pinning his hopes on desertions among the English ships, as predicted by James II, Tourville gave the signal to clear for action. Russell and the Dutch admiral watched in astonishment as the fleet of forty-four warships made course straight for the allies with their eighty men o’ war.

With the weather gauge, Tourville was able to come as close in as he dared. An eight-hour inferno of smoke and fire ensued. The French took heavy casualties but, as with the Spanish Armada, not a single ship was lost through gunfire. Barfleur was Gravelines in reverse. When the French withdrew in the foggy evening, the English launched their fireships against them. This time the enemy was able to deal successfully with them. The first casualty to shipping came from an exploding English fireship.

Barfleur had shown Tourville at his very best. But the overwhelming superiority of the allies showed that all talk of an invasion of England was now chimerical, even if d’Estrées (who, ironically, finally arrived in Brest on the very day of the battle) linked up with Tourville. And the danger to the French fleet had not passed. Several of Tourville’s ships could scarcely sail or were no longer weatherly, and the English were bound to pursue them implacably. So it transpired. The heaviest French losses were taken in the aftermath of the set-piece battle, as the French vainly tried to get home in the teeth of adverse weather. Tourville tried to take his fleet through the treacherous Alderney race, fifteen miles of violent currents, in the hope that Russell would not follow him. But so powerful was the race that thirteen French ships began to drag their anchors. They were forced to cut their cables and run before the wind.

Tourville, realising he could no longer control his fleet, signalled a general sauve qui peut. On 21 May three of the French ships ran aground at Cherbourg and were finished off by fireships. At La Hogue, on the 23rd, six further French ships foundered and were destroyed by fireships. Another six vessels were destroyed the next day. Yet another warship limped into Le Havre and could not be repaired. Altogether in the running fight at La Hogue, following the set-piece off Barfleur, the French had lost sixteen ships of the line.

Though little noted since, the battle of Barfleur–La Hogue was the greatest naval victory in England’s history up to that time. Although it was an exaggeration to describe it as a greater action than Lepanto – as some euphoric English balladeers did – a comparison with 1588 is not fanciful. Many of the same elements were present: an invasion flotilla that could not be got across the Channel: an eight-hour close-order naval battle: the devastating use of fireships; the inability of cannon to sink warships in full combat. Above all, the supreme difficulty of invading the British Isles, and England especially, was once more underlined.

England went wild with joy at the victory. Church bells tolled, bonfires blazed, prayers and rewards were ordained. The heavy casualties sustained by the French rankers contrasted oddly with the gentlemen’s code of warfare: Tourville and Russell wrote each other letters of congratulation and commiseration respectively once the fighting was over. Only Russell’s tactlessness prevented him from acquiring the reputation of a Hawke or a Rodney. At the beginning of the campaign Queen Mary had ordered him to divide his forces, sending one fleet to Normandy to guard against invasion while he sought out Tourville with the other. Russell, though, realised that Tourville had appeared off the English coast only because driven there by the weather, not as a prelude to invasion. But by his ill-disguised contempt for the queen and her armchair strategists, he fell into bad odour with the Williamite court.

1692 marked a significant turning point for the ‘Glorious Revolution’, as important in a military way as the introduction of the National Debt was in the economic sphere. Not for fifty years was England again seriously threatened with invasion. Not until the Seven Years’ War would the Royal Navy win a greater victory. Although there were plots to assassinate William, both in London and in the Netherlands, and an invasion scare in 1696, the Jacobites had for the moment shot their bolt. Yet 1692 was a closer-run thing than historians have usually been willing to admit. If the allied fleet had been but a fortnight later in combining, Tourville would certainly have landed the Franco-Irish army on the English coast. A quick victory and an internal rising might have regained James II his throne, provided the invaders did not bog down in a long campaign (in which case the severing of their communications with France might have been the decisive factor). As it was, the defeat of James Stuart's armada was a disaster for the Jacobites and had a crushing psychological effect on James II, who took it as divine judgment and thereafter withdrew more and more from the world into the seclusion of the monastery at La Trappe.

In terms of long-term consequences, arguably France was the least affected. Here again the comparison with 1588 is instructive. While English indecisiveness meant they failed to follow up their crushing victory, Louis XIV’s counterattack in the Netherlands left him by the time of the Peace of Ryswick (1697) in as secure a position as Spain’s at the conclusion of the war with Elizabeth. In addition, English merchant shipping felt the pinch as France switched tactics and unleashed the guerre de course.

Since the armies of Louis XIV were at full stretch on the continent during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-13) and the French navy was now geared to corsair tactics, it is not surprising that no major attempt to invade the British Isles took place during the reign of Queen Anne. What did take place was the first of many foreign attempts to foment a Jacobite rising. For in the first half of the eighteenth century we are in an era when invasions or threats thereof could be legitimated by foreign powers as attempts to restore the exiled Stuarts. For this reason, too, we confront problems of typology. The grand attempts at invasion of Britain, those of the Armada, Napoleon and Hitler, were all clear-cut instances of a would-be assault from a rival foreign power. With the Jacobite risings, however, we are dealing with a mixed phenomenon, part foreign invasion, part civil war. If the rising of 1715, undertaken without foreign assistance by the Jacobites, can be seen as a genuine civil war in both England and Scotland, the rebellions of 1708 and 1719 look more like abortive invasions. Finally, in the '45, we have to deal with the ultimate nuance in a complex situation: a melange of civil war in Scotland, the invasion of England by a Scottish Jacobite army and an attempted French descent on the south coast of England.

The other interesting thing about the Jacobite risings is that in terms of foreign assistance there is a steady progression in the seriousness of the threat posed to the post-1688 regime in England. In 1708 the Stuart pretender gets as far as the coast of Scotland. In 1715 he lands in Scotland without foreign aid. In 1719 a Spanish army actually makes landfall in Scotland. Finally, in 1745, there are French troops in Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s army, while another French army lies in the Picardy ports, ready to strike across the Channel.

It is interesting too to note that in all four risings Scotland is the base of operations and the focus for foreign aid. This immediately poses greater logistical problems for the Jacobites’ backers and lessens the seriousness of the threat to England itself (while not making it negligible). To employ an inchoate typology, we can say that, except in the ’45, such elements of foreign invasion as were present in the complex of the Jacobite risings were of the 1779 or 1798 kind (that is to say, the foreign incursions had limited aims) rather than the 1588 or 1805 variety.

Louis XIV had been in active correspondence with Jacobite leaders in Britain since 1705. In 1708, after a string of defeats by Marlborough, Louis tried to take Britain out of the War of Spanish Succession by sending James II’s son, the twenty-year old James Francis (the ‘Old Pretender’), to Scotland with 6,000 troops. Landfall would be made at Edinburgh, where it was hoped the de jure monarch (James III to the Jacobites) would recruit thousands of Scots, disaffected after the unpopular 1707 Act of Union, plus the loyal clans of the Highlands.

To this end twenty-three fast privateers and an escort of seven frigates were made ready in Dunkirk. But the secret of the invasion fleet and its destination leaked out (after Flushing, Cadiz, Portsmouth and the West Indies had all been considered and rejected as possible targets by British intelligence). Admiral Byng was sent to blockade Dunkirk. However, unfavourable winds kept him at bay. The French admiral Forbin slipped out into the Channel and set a course for Edinburgh. He reached the Firth of Forth in the teeth of North Sea gales only to find Byng snapping at his heels. After some inconclusive skirmishing with the Royal Navy, and with no sign of the Jacobite force that was expected to welcome its rightful king, Forbin put about for Dunkirk, despite James’s tearful pleas. He completed the round trip with the loss of just one warship and half a dozen transports.

France was not involved in the 1715 rising, a true civil war where the Jacobites held all the cards but threw them away through incompetent leadership. But in 1719 foreign troops did finally get ashore in Scotland. Unfortunately, as in 1759, it was merely a diversionary force that got through.

After more than one hundred years Spain now reappeared as the invading protagonist. Baulked of his Italian designs by British sea power, Spain’s first minister Cardinal Alberoni decided to play the Jacobite card. A Spanish army was assembled at Corunna under the command of the Jacobite duke of Ormonde. In conventional invasion terms it was a small force, strong, but it was to convey 15,000 arms for the Jacobites expected to ‘come out’ once Ormonde landed in the west of England. A tiny diversionary force of six companies of Spanish troops, to be commanded by Scotland’s hereditary Earl Marischal, George Keith, would meanwhile proceed to Scotland and raise the clans.

The '19 proved to be one of the Jacobites’ most signal failures. Ormonde's fleet was caught in mountainous seas off Cape Finisterre which sank or damaged most of his ships. He himself was glad to get back to Corunna. Meanwhile the diversionary force cleared from San Sebastian and fetched Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis without mishap. When Marischal crossed to the mainland, his exiguous army did not encourage the clansmen to flock to the Jacobite standard. With only 1,000 men, Marischal was in desperate case. The inevitable end came at Glenshiel when the Spanish were crushed by a Hanoverian force under General Wightman.

The failure of Alberoni’s policies and his subsequent disgrace closed a chapter in the story of the Jacobites. With both Bourbon powers now committed to peace with England at almost any price, the Jacobites had to look elsewhere for foreign allies intrepid enough to risk a descent on British shores. There were hopes from Charles XII of Sweden, who at one time intended to seize Norway as a springboard for an invasion of Scotland. And the Jacobites spent a lot of time and effort trying to persuade the Austrian court to launch an invasion project from the Austrian Netherlands. Neither project materialised.

The Jacobites were on sounder ground in encouraging the Russians to take up the Swedish mantle and lead an invasion fleet from the Baltic to a descent on Scotland. Peter the Great hated George I and was keen to see James Stuart back on the throne of the three kingdoms, but he died before a proper enterprise against England could be constructed. When his successor, the Czarina Catherine, seemed disposed to follow him on the invasion path, the British promptly sent a fleet to bottle up the Russians in the Baltic. Nevertheless, Peter the Great’s admirals had not lost every trick in their duel with the Royal Navy. Light Russian galleys had carried out heavy raids on the Swedish coast in 1720-21 in spite of the presence of a full fleet of British ships of the line. This suggested that the potential of small craft, whether galleys, sloops or gunboats, for invasion purposes had been overlooked. The lesson was remembered in Sweden and it was a Swede, Muskeyn, who in the 1790s suggested to the French Revolutionary general Hoche that it was by light galleys that the British naval flank might be turned. In 1798 Swedes were involved in the projected French invasion of England as inventors and entrepreneurs (see p. 90).

The combination of Sir Robert Walpole in England and Cardinal Fleury in France kept the peace in Europe (with a slight hiccough in 1734 with the Polish Succession War) for twenty years. But finally English rivalry with the Bourbon powers in the Americas precipitated, and became subsumed in, a general continental war.

French armies performed badly in the first three years of the War of Austrian Succession. Louis XV’s incursion into Germany led to near-disaster. After Belle-Isle’s fighting retreat from Bohemia the invasion of France itself began to loom as a possibility. Louis’s only obvious counterstroke was the seizure of the Austrian Netherlands, but this was bound to bring on an open war with George II (from 1739 to 1744 hostilities between England and France were undeclared). Identifying England as the prime mover among his enemies, Louis decided to sweep this key piece off the diplomatic chessboard by a secret and surprise invasion of England. In late 1743 when the invasion plan matured France and England were still not officially at war with each other, though each was manipulating its principal ally-Prussia (France) and Austria (England).

The French intended to take the English completely by surprise. Their descent was to be the Pearl Harbor of its time. Unlike the hastily improvised scheme at the end of 1745, the French attempt of 1743-44 was a thoroughly professional effort. Considerable thought and energies were devoted to the problem of avoiding the notorious obstacles to an invasion of England. The idea of a fleet convoying military transports was rejected. Instead, the warships of the Brest squadron were to be used to lure away the Royal Navy from the crossing places. While the battle fleets of France and England duelled in the Channel, the French invasion flotilla would slip across to the Thames estuary from Dunkirk.

Ten thousand men were considered adequate for the job. It was estimated that there were no more than 19,000 troops in the whole of England as a result of George II’s continental commitments; and these were so scattered that not more than 5,000 could be assembled in one place at short notice. Besides, it was expected that the secret Jacobites among the English gentry would rise and come with their levies to meet their French deliverers. In the Jacobite period the numbers calculated to be necessary for a successful invasion of England by a foreign power were far less than in a later era. It was assumed that foreign armies would have an exponential or ‘multiplier’ effect on the Jacobite ‘enemy within’.

Louis XV’s plan was that the invasion force should cross the Channel in January 1744, to take advantage of the prevailing easterly winds. By February they could expect the advent of adverse westerlies, which might prejudice the entire project. At the last moment it was put to Louis that resistance in England might be stiffened by irregulars and militiamen if Hanoverian propaganda could present the project as an invasion by a foreign conqueror. The edge of this propaganda weapon could be blunted if the Stuarts were seen to be actively involved. Otherwise, despite Louis’s intended proclamation that the French troops had come solely to restore the Stuart king, their protestations might lack credibility.

Louis pondered the problem. If the obvious choice of Stuart, the twenty-three-year-old Prince Charles Edward at present in Rome, was summoned to join the invading force, secrecy might be lost, as the prince’s every movement was tracked by British spies. On the other hand, his presence in England would be a valuable propaganda ploy. With characteristic indecisiveness Louis sent a courier to Rome not with a direct invitation but with a carefully worded indirect suggestion. It seems that he imagined his troops would in any case be ashore in England by the time Charles Edward arrived in Paris. The prince could then be taken across the Channel to legitimate the entire affair.

The final plans were laid in December. Admiral Roquefeuil, a veteran of La Hogue, was to cruise off the Isle of Wight, if possible to prevent Sir John Norris coming out of Spithead. If not, he was to draw him away to the west and engage him in combat. While the Downs were unprotected, the 10,000 French troops under Louis’s crack commander, the comte de Saxe, would clear from Dunkirk and make landfall at Maldon in Essex, where they would be joined by the English Jacobites. To assuage the army’s fears about crossing the Channel unescorted in January, five ships were to slip away from Roquefeuil’s fleet once he had dealt with Norris, sail back to Dunkirk and act as an escort.

The elaborate and ingenious plan began to go wrong as early as the end of December 1743. Some of the Jacobite grandees in England began to back off once they saw that the French were in earnest. Sir John Hynde Cotton, their unofficial leader, who had been informed of French intentions, sent a message that it would be too dangerous for the English Jacobites to assemble at Maldon while Parliament was still dealing with important business. If the Tories left Parliament in the middle of business in which they normally played a leading role, the Whig government would become suspicious and immediately suspend the Habeas Corpus Act.

Other Jacobites complained of having to turn out to campaign in the depths of winter. Angry at the delay, the French had yet no choice but to comply. But their anger and frustration with the Jacobites increased when yet another change of plan was requested in January. Instead of landing at Maldon, the French were asked to repeat the 1667 Dutch experiment, but this time on the Thames rather than the Medway. It was proposed that they sail up the Thames as far as the Hope. There they would be met by English pilots and guided to a final rendezvous point at Blackwall, two miles from London. To show their good faith the English Jacobites declared they would send pilots to France to guide Saxe’s troops into the Thames as far as the Hope.

Alarmed at yet another change of plan, the French decided to hedge their bets. They started making arrangements to send a subsidiary force of 3,000 men to Scotland under the Earl Marischal. These changes of plan meant that the French were still in port at Dunkirk and Gravelines when Prince Charles Edward arrived to join them. By this time the English were alerted to the fact that something big was afoot. When the Brest fleet was sighted at sea, it was surmised that the intention was to blockade Norris at Spithead. Norris was ordered to put to sea with all speed. Two days before Roquefeuil came up to the Isle of Wight, Norris had cleared from Spithead. To secure free passage for Saxe, Roquefeuil would now have to give battle at sea.

At this point all hope for a surprise attack was lost when the French diplomat and double agent the comte de Bussy revealed the entire invasion plan to the duke of Newcastle in London. On all fronts the pendulum had now swung back decisively in England’s favour. Reinforcements were summoned from Holland and Ireland. Norris was ordered to search out and destroy Roquefeuil’s fleet. Orders were sent to the coastguards that if the French came near the mouth of the Thames or the Medway, all lights were to be extinguished and all buoys cut adrift.

Meanwhile in Dunkirk Saxe was chafing at the delays. By mid-February the promised five warships from Roquefeuil’s squadron had not arrived, nor had the English pilots, nor their agent and go-between ‘Mr Red’. Despite all these disappointments France’s greatest general pressed on, for, as he said, ‘since the wine is drawn we must drink it’.

On 22 February OS (5 March NS) the embarkation began. In the meantime Roquefeuil, who had failed either to bottle Norris up or to lure him down to the western end of the Channel, had followed the English as far as Dungeness. Norris lay at anchor at Hythe, in sight of him. Sightseers thronged the clifftops to view the imminent battle. Just as it seemed that a second Barfleur was about to be joined, a violent rainstorm came on, followed by a fearsome gale. The storm rampaged all that night and the following day. Of the battle fleets Norris’s was far worse hit. Roquefeuil weighed anchor and ran before the wind to Brest, with several vessels dismasted but no losses. Norris, on the other hand, took heavy casualties. Eighteen of his ships were damaged, five disabled and one sunk with all hands. Thus far the winds might have seemed to favour the French. But the selfsame tempest roared into Dunkirk, wreaking dreadful havoc. Six of the transports were wrecked, another eleven driven underground. Much more serious was the loss of materiel. Six months’ supplies of stores, provisions, tents and ammunition were destroyed, as well as sloops, anchors and tackle. A second storm five days later delivered the coup de grâce. To Charles Edward’s fury and consternation, Saxe declared that it was impossible to proceed with the invasion. On 28 February OS (11 March NS) these orders were officially confirmed by Louis XV.

The French invasion scheme of 1743-44 was well thought out and ingeniously conceived, but its failure was almost a textbook classic, illustrating in one ‘grand slam’ all the things that can go wrong with the very best paper schemes. First it was poorly executed, principally because Roquefeuil took too long to get to sea. Second, secrecy was not maintained and espionage scored a great triumph. Bussy’s treachery could not have been foreseen, but Louis XV’s bungling of the Charles Edward factor meant that it was unlikely anyhow that the invasion secret could have been maintained to the very end. Third, the poor quality of the English Jacobites as putative allies was evinced. Their half-heartedness and procrastination were almost comic, and they botched their side of the bargain involving the pilots and ‘Mr Red’. Yet the real stroke of ill fortune for the French was the weather. Even though Norris’s squadron was badly battered by the great storm that began on 24 February, by the chaos it wrought at Dunkirk the gale showed itself a true ‘Protestant wind'. Once again the greatest ally of the 1688 Revolution proved to be the weather.

The very next year the French were propelled into a fresh invasion attempt when nothing had been further from their minds. But the projected expedition of late 1745 was a hastily improvised affair, unlike the carefully planned project of 1743-44. This element of improvisation has lured many historians into asserting that the preparations on the Picardy coast in the winter of 1745-46 were a mere feint. But it cannot be said too often that lack of adequate preparations and even incompetence is not the same thing as lack of serious intention. Louis XV was deeply in earnest in his wish to aid the exiled Stuarts, but he committed himself to the ’45 only in the eleventh hour. The story then became one of too little too late.

In many ways the invasion threat of 1745 was potentially the most serious ever, since it posed a threat to the regime in London from two directions, the Jacobite army invading England from Scotland while the French were poised to come in on the south coast. French assistance to Charles Edward was two-pronged. On the one hand they sent money and small forces to Scotland to enable the inchoate Jacobite rising to sustain itself and to assist in an invasion of England from the north. On the other, they aimed to land a major French army in the south of England to take out their major global economic competitor. A treaty of alliance with the restored Stuarts would certainly have included some (at least temporary) concessions in the Americas. Worldwide trade and dominion was always a factor in French minds when they aided the Jacobites.

The story of Prince Charles Edward’s high adventure in the ‘45 is too well known to require detailed repetition. Despairing of getting support from France, the prince sailed to Scotland with the ‘Seven Men of Moidart’ to attempt the subversion of the Flanoverian regime with his own resources. The rising of 1745 was distinguished by a lightning-swift turn of events that wrongfooted French statesmen used to the leisurely pace of continental warfare. This partly explains the inadequate French reaction. As soon as it was known that Charles Edward had secured a foothold in Scotland, Louis XV sent the marquis d’Eguilles to make an on-the-spot report on the feasibility of the rebellion’s success. But the prince’s Jacobite army moved so fast that it defeated the Hanoverian general Cope at Prestonpans before d’Eguilles’s first report reached Versailles. After Prestonpans Louis XV persuaded his Ministers of State, who were divided on the issue, to launch a full-scale invasion project of England so as to catch George II between two fires. Shipping was assembled in the northern ports, an army of 15,000 men (largely the regiments of the Irish Brigade) made ready, and the royal favourite the due de Richelieu given the command of the enterprise. An excellent invasion plan was devised. Since total secrecy was admitted to be impossible, an ingenious strategy of bluff was to be exercised. Preparations would be made openly at Dunkirk, as if for a landfall at Maldon or in the Thames estuary, just as in 1744. Meanwhile the real invasion army was to gather at Boulogne and Calais. While the Royal Navy stationed itself so as to intercept the expected threat to the east coast, the French transport fleet would clear from Dunkirk, sail down the coast, embark the army at Boulogne and deposit it on the south coast of England, most probably at Rye.

This stratagem should have had an excellent chance of success. The Royal Navy was already fully stretched, trying to guard the east coast and prevent reinforcements reaching the Scottish east coast from France. The path to the south coast of England lay open. The government in London, meanwhile, assuming collusion between Charles Edward and the French, was at its wits’ end, not knowing which of the two threats to concentrate on first.

Suddenly there began a chain of circumstances that was ultimately to reduce the French plan to total fiasco. In the first place, Charles Edward invaded England with a small army of men without concerting this action with the French. The result was that he was deep in the heart of England while French preparations at Dunkirk and Boulogne were still far from completion. By the time the Jacobite army reached Derby, Richelieu had not even got as far as his command post but was still dallying in Paris. With no sign of the promised French second front, the Jacobite commanders forced the decision to retreat on a reluctant and despairing Charles Edward.

The retreat from Derby was a cardinal event. Once the London government realised there was no effective cooperation between the French and the Stuart prince and that they would not have to fight on two fronts, Hanoverian morale soared. Richelieu reached the Channel ports to learn of the Jacobite withdrawal back to Scotland. While he pondered the implications of this, the French received an even more crushing blow. One of the transports cruising between Dunkirk and Boulogne was captured by Admiral Vernon’s squadron. From the prisoners Vernon learned the details of the true French plan and the intended last-minute switch. Immediately he blockaded Boulogne.

But there was worse to come. When Richelieu decided to make a bold do-or-die breakout from Boulogne with his army once the weather forced Vernon to lift his blockade, the true poverty of French staffwork was revealed. It turned out that the tides would not permit the operation he proposed. The army would have to exit piecemeal and would thus run the risk of being defeated in separate detachments even if it got ashore in England. After a frustrating January 1746 spent vainly waiting for a miracle, and some acrimonious councils of war, Richelieu abandoned the expedition, pleading ill-health, and returned to Paris.

Richelieu was never the greatest commander of the ancien régime but the failure of the enterprise was only to a small degree due to him. The poor staffwork was a symptom of a deeper malaise in French administration. Because the Ministers of State were not united on the priority to be given to the invasion attempt, French resources were dissipated. Instead of a total concentration on the English enterprise, two rival projects were begun at the same time: a thrust by Marshal Saxe into the Netherlands with the aim of taking Brussels: and an expedition to Acadia to recapture the colony of Louisbourg (surrendered to the English in 1745). It was particularly reprehensible for the French to set this Acadia expedition on foot at the same time as the invasion of England, since it required the use of the Brest fleet. With Vernon fully occupied at the eastern end of the Channel, the scope for operations by the French squadron in the western approaches was virtually limitless. There could have been landings in Cornwall, Dorset, Wales or Ireland. Instead, the very fleet held in 1743-44 to have been crucial to the success of the invasion of England by Saxe was, in 1746 and in similar circumstances, sent to the Americas!

With Richelieu’s abandonment of an English landing, the French switched their resources to supplying and reinforcing Charles Edward in Scotland. But the time for that sort of pump-priming assistance had gone. The loss of the treasure ship Le Prince Charles in March 1746 brought the Jacobite army to the brink of penury and starvation and was instrumental in forcing the Highland leaders to agree to give battle on the disastrous field of Culloden.

The failure of the most serious Jacobite rebellion virtually ended the menace of Jacobitism to the Hanoverian regime. It also seemed to mark the point at which the French lost their stomach for the War of Austrian Succession. The terms agreed to by Louis XV at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 were those appropriate to a defeated nation, not one that had held its enemies to a sternly contested draw.

Yet all parties to the European conflict realised that Aix-la-Chapelle marked a mere breathing-space. Open hostilities from 1755 between England and France were subsumed in a general war in 1756 when the system of European alliances was reversed. This time Prussia was England’s ally and Austria was aligned with France.

The short interval between the two wars provides a useful interlude in which the nature and problems of eighteenth-century naval warfare can be recapitulated. The skill of commanders was only one piece, and sometimes not even the major one, in the mosaic of factors governing naval and amphibious operations – the essential context in which all invasion attempts on the British Isles took place. At the political level the slowness and prickliness of allies compounded party and personal rivalries and inter-service jealousies. Diplomatic considerations and changes of plan complicated the picture. All this was at the pre-military level. At that level the paramount problem was always that of providing the fleets and invading armies with adequate food and water.

All these were man-made problems and in theory could be overcome by political and military geniuses of the stature of Alexander, Caesar, Chingiz Khan or Napoleon – of whom the century was in short supply. But in the eighteenth century, when communications were slow and ships driven by sail, technology itself posed a barrier to invasion attempts on island nation-states. The lack of adequate information or intelligence, the time lag between event A and its causally contiguous event B, plus the ineluctable factor of contrary winds and sudden, unforeseeable gales – all these meant that military operations of any scope were always more or less a gamble. Small wonder that so much was heard in the eighteenth century about the workings of Providence. As one observer accurately recorded in relation to the naval operations of this era: ‘I think we have more reason to trust in Providence than in our admirals.’


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