Heard of The Old Pretender? If you haven’t, think troubled political times, Jacobites, and James Francis Edward Stuart. Anyone who fought as a Jacobite back in the early Eighteenth Century was loyal to Catholic James and his line of successors. But what’s that got to do with the title of this piece? Simply that 10th June, 1688 (now celebrated as White Rose Day) was the day The Old Pretender – Prince James, Prince of Wales – was born. Every movement needs a figurehead. And boy oh boy were those busy, dizzy times of dichotomised religious thinking, multi-chotomised territorial battling… and there’s nothing like a floral symbol to pull people together.
But from whence came this pretence?
Warning: You’ll need to bear with us, the royal nomenclature here is confusing, but we’ll try to keep it simple.
In 1685, James II and VII became the Catholic king of England and Ireland (hence James II) and Scotland (hence James VII). He reigned until The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, when he was deposed. What prompted this? To be honest, many things. But after his son, James III, was born 10th June, 1688 – and at this point you could say he was a pretender in his infancy – it’s likely the threatened nature of the king’s situation must have prompted a fear within many powerful Protestants that the birth of a Catholic successor could ignite the religiously fervent fuel sloshing around.
Things got tense
The Glorious Revolution, beginning November 1688, was a relatively bloodless coup, which saw James II ousted and him fleeing into exile. Now, this fleeing (and not the ousting!) is of great historical significance. And here’s why…
Once he’d disappeared, things were extremely complicated. However, a simplified summary would be that the English Parliament argued that he’d abandoned the throne. And it was this abandonment that then facilitated them offering the monarchy to his Protestant daughter, Mary, and his nephew (and Mary’s husband) William of Orange. The Scottish Convention did something similar, though referred to his exile as forfeiting the throne, rather than abandoning it.
Now, the fact that this was a decision made by Parliament is the crux of it. This was significant. Up until this point, it was deemed that a monarch derived their legitimacy through God, not Parliament. If suddenly Parliament could decide the throne had been forfeited and would pass to another by their decision, the principle of the Divine Right of Kings was no longer in place. This was not something advocated by the Jacobites (though whether it was for religious or political reasons is not for consideration in this article, because believe us… the situation was as complex). But despite their objection, Mary and William took the throne.
When James II died, his son’s cousin, Louis XIV of France, declared James III and VIII to be the rightful heir to the English and Irish thrones (suggesting he would be James III) and the Scottish throne (suggesting he would be James VIII). But this mere declaration was nothing more than words, for Mary and William were the ones in situ, and so the term ‘Old Pretender’ came into being.
Being a Jacobite in these times was not necessarily something to publicise. Bearing in mind that the term ‘Jacobite’ stems from the Latin ‘Jacobus’, which in turn means ‘James’, the Jacobite movement was effectively a political crusade to restore the House of Stuart to the English, Irish, and Scottish thrones. Discovery risked accusations of treason and the penalty of death. What they needed, therefore, were hidden signals of camaraderie spottable only by those ‘in the know’. The white rose, or the white cockade (white ribbon shaped as a rose in a hat), became one of those symbols either during or soon after The Glorious Revolution. And it continued to represent the Jacobites through to Bonnie Prince Charlie until the collapse of the movement after the 1745 Rising.
What did it symbolise? The reason for its choice as a symbol is unclear. However, when one considers that it’s a hardy shrub that thrives in poor soil and can tolerate shade and drought, one gets a sense of its subliminal messages. Some also believe that the day of James III’s birth is the longest day of the year in which the white rose flowers, which again is suggestive of tough longevity. So, when one considers that it is something still worn today by many Scottish MPs at times… you can perhaps decide for yourself.