Jacobites in Wales

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The summer of 1715. The Old Pretender is about to land with his army in Scotland, rallying supporters of the Stuart cause to his flag. George I and the whole Hanoverian dynasty appear to be resting on the edge of disaster. Discontent is rife everywhere and in the north Wales town of Wrexham, as the summer progresses, more and more signs of anti-Hanoverian anger are to be seen.

Rioters break windows in the 'dissenting chapels' (dissenters being fervent supporters of the new regime) and crack open more than a few heads as they roam, unchecked and unhindered, through the streets of the town. Jacobite songs are roared out and for several weeks the place is almost besieged by mob violence.

For most of us, when we think about the Jacobite rebellions we think of that 1715 landing of James and, usually, of the more famous rebellion of 1745 when, for several months, James' son, Bonnie Prince Charlie, held the whole country in the palm of his hand. However, thanks to the romantic novels of people like Sir Walter Scott we tend to associate Jacobitism only with Scotland. Not so. In these difficult and dangerous years, Wales, too, was a hotbed of Jacobite fever.

Jacobitism had its origins in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Catholic King James II fled before an invasion by William of Orange. Desperately unpopular, James had seemed secure enough while he had no heir but after a visit to the Catholic shrine at Holywell in north Wales, where he supposedly prayed for a son, his wife suddenly conceived. The thought of another Catholic monarch was too much for a now staunchly protestant Britain and James had to go.

James had his supporters, however, and once the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, died in 1714 many expected there to be something of a restoration with Anne's half brother James, the Old Pretender, returning to take the throne. Instead, his claims were ignored and George, the German speaking Elector of Hanover, became king. Jacobite supporters immediately began to plot, plan and prey for a restoration of the Stuart monarchy.

The riots in Wrexham were probably orchestrated by Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the most powerful and prestigious of all Welsh landowners and squires. He was a member of a secret political club known as the Cycle of the White Rose, an organisation that had been founded on the birthday of the Old Pretender in 1710.

It was called The Cycle Club because, quite simply, its members met in turn at each others houses. They would dine, sing Jacobite songs, toast 'The King Across the Water' and probably engage in secret rituals that, ultimately, meant very little - just a group of 'boys' having a good time.

The amazing thing about the members of Cycle Club is that, despite its potentially treasonable purpose, they kept minutes of their meetings and even had special glasses made from which they would drink their toasts - the National Museum in Cardiff actually owns several examples!

The club might sound like a vehicle or an excuse for romantic, landowning gentry to eat, drink and be safely treasonable but, potentially at least, it was a very powerful base for men such as Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Every significant landowner within a ten mile radius of Wrexham was a member of the Cycle Club.

The difference between the Jacobites of Wales and Scotland, however, was that when the Old Pretender did finally arrive, those north of the border quickly took up arms in support. Welsh Jacobites sat silently by, meeting to drink and talk treason but not to actually to perform it - which was probably just as well, for them, as both rebellions ended in utter disaster.

Outbreaks of violence like the Wrexham riots were a rare occurrence. Despite the fact that the disturbances went on well into 1716, Sir Watkin never revealed his hand and, as a result, he was never caught up in the aftermath of the failed rebellion. And the Cycle Club? It continued to meet, usually in the Eagles Hotel in the middle of Wrexham, for the next 150 years, a more than merry dining club - but one spiced with a fair degree of treason.

The Cycle Club was not the only secret Jacobite organisation to exist in Wales. In Montgomeryshire there was a group known as 'The 27' while at Talgarth in 1727 a meeting of local Jacobite sympathisers actually ended up with members having to appear before a local magistrate to explain their actions.

In Pembrokeshire a Jacobite group known as The Sea Sergeants continued to meet until 1762. There were 24 sergeants in this group which may well have had connections with freemasonry and with smuggling - always a popular pastime in the far west of Wales. Their symbol was a dolphin set within a star but as they advertised their meetings in the local paper their commitment to the revolutionary cause has to be questioned.

When Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, landed in Scotland in 1745 (without the expected French army to back him up) Sir Watkin Williams Wynn and his friends were cautious not to commit themselves. They would rise, they decided, but only if there was a strong French army to ensure success. Bonnie Prince Charlie expected the Welsh Jacobites to come out in support but, in the end, Sir Watkin and his cronies did what they did best: they added another verse to their favourite drinking song.

One Welshman was made of sterner stuff. This was David Morgan from Penygraig outside Quakers Yard. Passionate about the Jacobite cause, he obtained a captain's commission in the army of the Young Pretender but was captured and executed for treason. It was a grisly death, hanging, drawing and quartering, and then his head displayed on Temple Bar in London.

Given the possibility of an end like that it's hardly surprising that most Welsh Jacobites covered their tracks most effectively. They never tired of ceremony and symbolism, as shown in their secret societies with their special rituals and toasting glasses. But solid deeds? They had only to think of the terrible end of David Morgan to put them off that. Much safer to keep their sympathies to themselves and enjoy a few glasses of wine with convivial companions.

Find out more about Welsh Jacobites on The Past Master, the BBC Wales history programme, broadcast on Sunday 9 January 2011 at 5.30pm.

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