Voltaire and the Jacobites

Battle of Culloden

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (The Battle of Culloden), by David Morier, 1746, image Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire had long-running and complicated relationships with the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, the Catholic dynasty which was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange in 1688. Towards the largest Jacobite émigré community in France, the Irish, he showed the same lack of sympathy that he extended to Ireland in general.  He was much better disposed towards the Scots Jacobites, as shown in the description of the ’45 rebellion included in his Précis du Siècle de Louis XV.  In the course of that famous uprising, Voltaire had gone so far as to write a manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed James II), although his motives had more to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the French government than with affection for the Stuarts.  He later befriended the Scottish Jacobite exile Field Marshall Keith, whose eulogy he wrote in 1758.  He was less positive towards the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scots convert to Catholicism and follower of Fénelon who once tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’).  Voltaire sniffed at Ramsay as a plagiarist.

Whatever his reactions to individual Jacobite exiles, Voltaire never dismissed Jacobitism as backward or despotic.  His positive attitude may have been shaped by his early friendships with Viscount Bolingbroke, an exiled Tory minister who was attracted to Jacobitism at various phases of his long career, and bishop Atterbury of Rochester.  Bolingbroke welcomed Voltaire to his house at La Source near Orléans in December 1722.  The Viscount admired the young French poet, but warned him to restrain the influence of his imagination.  Bolingbroke also consulted Alexander Pope on the merits of Voltaire’s pirated epic, La Ligue, the first version of La Henriade.  The image of King Henry IV of France presented in that poem may have appealed to Bolingbroke, who had tried in vain to persuade the Stuart claimant, James III, to change his religion in order to gain a throne.

Voltaire may not have met Atterbury before 1728, but he knew of him through his close correspondent Thieriot, who was friendly with the exiled Tory bishop and Jacobite conspirator.  In spite of his orthodox Anglican piety Atterbury was fascinated by Voltaire.  Two of Atterbury’s French literary associates, the abbé Granet and the abbé Desfontaines, translated into French works that Voltaire wrote while living in England.  Desfontaines included a brief tribute to Atterbury in his translation.

Henry St John (1678–1751), 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, by Jonathan Richardson the elder, image Lydiard House.

Voltaire’s English friends did him little good during his sojourn in England from 1726 to 1728.  Bolingbroke had already returned to his homeland, and to opposition politics.  Through the newspaper The Craftsman he became the chief critic of ‘ministerial despotism’.  For his part, Pope was about to publish the Dunciad, a stinging attack on the Walpole administration.  Although Voltaire tried to work his way into governing Whig circles, and received a grant of £200 from George II’s personal revenues in 1727, he kept making the wrong political connections.  Much of his last year in England was spent in the houses of the Tory Earl Bathurst, an associate of Atterbury, and the Earl of Peterborough, a retired general who was disdained by the Whig establishment. Peterborough introduced Voltaire to Dr John Freind, a Jacobite physician who had participated in the Atterbury Plot of 1722.  These were not men who could do Voltaire much good with the government.  Although he was able to publish La Henriade by subscription, Voltaire had little success in finding wider patronage in England.  Tellingly, although he met the Duke of Richmond, a leading Whig Freemason, he was not initiated into the Masonic brotherhood, unlike Montesquieu and the Chevalier Ramsay.

After his return to France in 1728 Voltaire’s friendship with Atterbury became closer.  In 1731 he placed a glowing reference to ‘the learned bishop of Rochester’ into his play Brutus, which was dedicated to Bolingbroke.  Atterbury’s former secretary, the Nonjuror Thomas Carte, smuggled copies of La Henriade into France in 1728-1729, which he distributed through Desfontaines.  Carte, a friend of Ramsay and admirer of the abbé de St Pierre, was engaged on a Latin edition of Jacques Auguste de Thou’s history of the French religious wars.  Voltaire idolized de Thou.  Jacobites like Carte and Atterbury, and ex-Jacobites like Bolingbroke, were beginning to see themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty against the rule of tyrannical ministers and greedy ‘moneyed men’.  Voltaire may have appealed to them as a champion of free expression and an enemy of despotism.

Voltaire’s own account of England in his Lettres sur les Anglais (later known as Lettres Philosophiques), published in English in 1733 as Letters concerning the English Nation, rejects the anger of his Tory and Jacobite friends by praising the freedom, tolerance and prosperity of the Whig regime.  Doubtless Voltaire was trying to gain the favour of the pro-Whig administration of Cardinal Fleury.  He may also have been encouraging his disgruntled English acquaintances to accept the changes that had happened in their own country.  Yet he also gave the only truly political voice in the book to a Jacobite Member of Parliament, William Shippen.  In evoking a speech by Shippen praising ‘the Majesty of the English People’, Voltaire may have rendered a small gesture of respect to the principles of those alienated Tories and Jacobites from whom he would never entirely disassociate himself.

– Paul Monod, Middlebury College

 

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