Patricia Bernstein

"Bobbing John" was either unlucky or he was a traitor

"Bobbing John” raises the Jacobite flag.
“Bobbing John” raising the standard of James Francis Edward Stuart

He was called “Bobbing John” and it wasn’t a compliment. He was even immortalized as “Bobbing John” in the famous Scottish folk song, “Cam Ye O’er Frae France” because he changed sides so many times. He was John Erskine, Earl of Mar. He could have been the feckless and unfortunate follower of an exiled prince. Or he could have been a secret traitor who ruined the chances of that prince, James Francis Edward Stuart, ever becoming king of England.

In my novel A Noble Cunning, the Earl of Mar appears among a group of Catholics who are plotting a rebellion against the first German king George I. Whenever anyone in the group questions Mar’s loyalty, his eyelid starts twitching, betraying his discomfort with the accusation.

It’s undeniable that, long before Bobbing John became an adherent of the Stuart “king over the water,” he was on the other side of the political clashes of the early 1700s. Mar was one of the great supporters of the Union of England and Scotland in 1707, which ended Scotland’s existence as a separate country and abolished the Scottish Parliament.

A Parcel of Rogues

Scottish poet Robert Burns famously reviled the Scottish nobles who supported the union in the poem “Such a Parcel of Rogues,” which concludes: “We were bought and sold for English gold:/Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!” Burns believed that the Scottish nobles who approved the union, including Mar, had been bribed by England.

The argument for union was supported by some who believed that the union would give Scotland a much improved economy because the Scotts would be allowed to trade freely with the colonies as part of England. But most of the common people were proud of Scotland’s military history and distrusted the English whom they had fought for so many generations. They vigorously opposed the union with England to the point of recurrent rioting.

John Erskine, Earl of Mar
“Bobbing John” John Erskine, Earl of Mar

A few years after the union went into effect, Mar was already regretting the part he had played because he did not see increased prosperity in Scotland. Under Queen Anne, he was named Secretary for Scotland despite his growing reservations about the union.

“Glorious Revolution”

But all chance of advancement at court ended for Mar when Queen Anne died in 1714, and George I came to the throne. Mar lost his position and was rudely and openly snubbed by the new king at a reception. That was the last straw.

Mar switched his allegiance entirely to those who wanted to restore the Stuart dynasty that had been overthrown in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in 1688. By 1714, the deposed King James II was dead, but his son, James Francis Edward Stuart, taken to France as an infant, was still trying to reclaim the throne. The prince was also known as “the Chevalier,” “the king over the water” and sometimes the rightful “King James III.”

Those who supported the Chevalier were called Jacobites because they followed James. (Jacobus is Latin for James.) The German, George I, who spoke almost no English and was a loutish, unappealing character, had only been made king because new laws provided that never again could a Catholic sit on the throne of Great Britain. Over 50 closer relations to Queen Anne were passed over when she died simply because they were Catholics. George, head of a small principality in Germany, was only chosen because he was the closest Protestant relative to Anne.

Persecuted and Oppressed

Many Jacobites who supported “the king over the water” were British Catholics, who had been persecuted and oppressed in Britain for over 100 years. But some who supported him were not Catholic but preferred an English prince to a foreign-born monarch who knew almost nothing of Britain. The Earl of Mar quickly became the head of a Jacobite rebellion which was intended to remove George I and put James on the throne as the rightful heir to his half-sister Queen Anne.

Unfortunately, Bobbing John was not an effective military leader. Having won the advantage at the bloody battle of Sheriffmuir in the fall of 1715, he failed to follow up. His indecision was the beginning of the end for the Rebellion. Poor James, delayed by illness and storms, did not even arrive in Scotland until after the rebellion was effectively over. While other leaders were captured and carried off to London to be executed, Bobbing John took care of himself and escaped to France with the Stuart prince.

Betrayal and Exile

In exile, Mar, who could be very charming, became a favorite of “King James III.” He was named James’ “secretary of state” and made a duke. But he was always regarded with suspicion by the other Jacobite exiles. They thought he had not led the 1715 Rebellion with adequate enthusiasm and, of course, he had run away while others died.

There was another Jacobite plot against King George in 1722 and this time the secret Jacobite leader in England, Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, was betrayed and forced into exile. The furious Atterbury was quick to denounce Mar as a double agent who had exposed him to the British authorities.

For 300 years historians have argued over whether Mar was wrongly accused by Atterbury in a fit of pique, or whether Mar really was a double agent. It was a fact that Mar, desperate for income, had applied for, and was granted, a pension by the British government in 1721 for his prior service to the government under Queen Anne. But many other Jacobite exiles had done the same. James Francis Edward Stuart did not have the resources to support them all.

Suspicion Confirmed?

In 2021, however, a document in the National Archives came to light in which a British spy John Roberts confirms that the Earl of Mar, former leader of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, was the principal informant who was giving Jacobite secrets away as early as 1719, while he was petitioning London for a pardon and a pension.

In the end, however, Mar refused, out of pride, to publicly renounce the Jacobite cause. (It may be that pride had nothing to do with it. Perhaps he feared the Jacobites would do away with him if he denounced them. He had nowhere left to run.)

Mar was never pardoned and claimed he received very few payments of the promised pension. Bobbing John died penniless, stateless and alone in Aix-la-Chapelle in 1732, a fitting end for a man whose allegiance shifted with the prevailing winds.


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