Friday, November 22, 2019

The Spy Who Changed the Course of British History

 By Nancy Bilyeau

The year: 1745. London? In a panic. The long-exiled Stuart family driven out in 1688 were threatening to retake the throne of England.

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, and his largely Scottish army of 6,000 men had made it to Derby, just over 120 miles from the capital.

Since landing at Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on July 23, 1745, with not even a dozen men, the charismatic prince, grandson of the deposed James II, had recruited influential Highlands leaders, easily taken Edinburgh, and defeated an army led by Hanoverian supporters of the present King at the battle of Prestonpans. Then he turned south, crossing into England.

Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted by Allan Ramsey in 1745. Source: Wikipedia

A horde of "crazed Highlands thieves" was on the move!  There was a run on the Bank of England! George II, who, like his father, had not troubled to hide the fact that he preferred living in Hanover to England, loaded up a ship with personal valuables, in case he needed to flee the vengeful Jacobites and turn the Continent into his permanent home. These were the sorts of wild rumors that swirled 'round the city.

Yet in Derby, the temporary headquarters of the invading army, the mood was far from confident. Prince Charles' advisers had taken note of the lack of English Jacobite support. Few were rallying to their cause. Neither was it at all certain that the French would show up to reinforce the Scottish invasion, a cornerstone of the Stuart strategy.

Most worryingly, a well-trained army, most likely led by King George II's son the Duke of Cumberland, must surely be coming to meet them. Who knew how large it would be?

Exeter House in Derby, where the prince and his men plotted strategy.
Picture taken in 1853. Source: Wikipedia.

As the advisers to the impetuous 25-year-old prince debated their next move, one of Charles's followers spoke up. It was Captain Oliver Williams, a trusted Irish supporter of the cause.

A Hanoverian force of 9,000 men had been sighted in Northampton, Captain Williams informed them. It was not much more than 50 miles away. And other units must be hurrying toward Derby.

That sealed it. Overruling Prince Charles' outrage and passionate protests that he wanted to march on London, military commanders of the Jacobite army said they must instead return to Scotland and consolidate their position. Four months after this retreat came the crushing defeat at Culloden, followed by Bonnie Prince Charlie's flight from Scotland.

Artist's rendition of Culloden. Some feel the depiction of the Highlanders relied on stereotypes. Source: wikipedia

Culloden, the last battle ever fought on the British mainland, has been studied and analyzed ever since those hours of fierce fighting, which killed some 2,000 men. Going beyond historians' domain, Culloden has moved into becoming a cornerstone of popular culture, such as being the center of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books and TV series. The tragedy and glamour of the lost cause, a royal family in embittered exile, even penetrated the Game of Thrones fantasy series, with the Targaryen family living far from the Seven Kingdoms believed to be modeled on the Stuarts who fled to France and then Italy.  "The people drink secret toasts to your health and cry out for their true king," an adviser whispers to the ambitious young Viserys Targaryen, the "king across the water," in the first episode of the series.

When proposing various "What if"s on the subject of Bonnie Prince Charlie, people often come back to the decision at Derby. Historians believe that the turning point was then and there, that he lost the strategic and psychological advantage by retreating. Many of the Scots who followed the prince's cause did so not so much as to prop up a Catholic Stuart monarch as to force through more independence for Scotland. As for the Irish, those followers did wish for a Catholic king, as it would presumably ease the religious discrimination they suffered. Failure brought agony. The punishment that the Hanoverian government exacted on the defeated enemy and their supporters was ghastly. The Duke of Cumberland earned the nickname "Butcher" with the slaughter of the injured and the prisoners, and ordered attacks on the helpless civilian population.

The defeat meant that Great Britain became more centralized; bolstered by its industrialized feats and banking policies, the British Empire became a force like no other. The fates of not just Scotland and Ireland but also America and India were arguably influenced by the smashing of Bonnie Prince Charlie's rising.

The impact of Culloden on the history of the world makes it all the more shocking that the information that the Stuart army based their decision on in Derby was a complete lie. There were no 9,000 men in Northampton. In fact, the road to London at that time was clear.

It turned out that Captain Oliver Williams, true name Dudley Bradstreet, was a spy, employed by the Duke of Cumberland to report on the Jacobites' movements and to spread disinformation. Which he most certainly did.

The craft of espionage was in a bit of a murky stage in the mid-1700s. Not a great deal is known about the policies and practicing of spying between the time of Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster of Elizabeth I, and the intense spying that took place later in the 18th century, during the American Revolution.

It does seem that those recruited for espionage were a far cry from Ian Fleming's James Bond or any of the Cambridge-educated manipulators from a John Le Carre novel. The Hanoverian government's assumption was that spying was immoral, so immoral men were used.

Dudley Bradstreet fit that requirement to a "T," a fact he cheerfully admitted himself in the book he wrote about his life, The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet. There's rarely been a more gleeful rogue than Bradstreet: fortune hunter, gambler, trickster, and spy.

He was Irish, that part was genuine. Bradstreet was born in Tipperary in 1711, the youngest son of landowner John Bradstreet, a man who received Cromwellian grants but nonetheless by the time Dudley came along had fortunes that were "continually declining."

Wrote Dudley in his memoir: "My education was neglected, he removed his whole family from the country to Dublin except for me whom he left in charge with a Foster-Father. Here I must observe, the injury my being thus abandoned did to my conduct and morals, that it may be a caution to parents whom they trust with the early habits and impressions their children may receive."

Bradstreet became addicted to card playing, and as a young man left for London with a mistress but returned to Ireland to join the army. He later married for love but she died; he had children by various women. He inherited nothing from his father and was arrested for debt, managing to marry a wealthy widow to stay afloat.

The Duke of Montagu, Bradstreet's friend, source: wikipedia

"A crony" of the Duke of Montagu, a peer notorious for his practical jokes, Bradstreet came to the notice of the British government in 1744 and was encouraged to infiltrate the Jacobites and report back what he learned. It was a shock to many when Bonnie Prince Charlie, defying the enormous odds against him, landed in Scotland in 1745. Unfortunately for the prince, it meant that Dudley Bradstreet was well positioned to learn much--and make a lot of mischief.

After "Captain Williams" successfully derailed Bonnie Prince Charlie's quest in Derby, Bradstreet melted away before the Jacobites returned to Scotland. He made his way to government officials and demanded money and a commission--he got neither. Incredibly, Bradstreet persisted with his haranguing, and eventually George II gave him a sum of 150 pounds.

His career then took a decided turn into the fantastical. Bradstreet became a "bottle conjurer," someone who told the gullible he could talk to the dead as well as restore lost youth. "Bradstreet knew how to touch the infirmity of man," wrote one chronicler. Bradstreet himself said without apology he owed it all to the "superstition" of his victims and their "credulity and faith in wondrous things."

Bradstreet made a lot of money from his conjurings, proceeded to lose nearly all, and then returned to Ireland for good, buying a house and writing his memoir.

The book sold well. "In the free narrative of his reckless adventures, some incidents have a breadth rather suspicious and and some a warmth rather indelicate," a critic wrote.

Dudley Bradstreet, the fateful spy in the Jacobite camp, died in Ireland at the age of 52.

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and historical novelist. Her 2018 novel, The Blue, is set among the art and porcelain worlds of 1750s England, with a Huguenot heroine and a plot revolving around espionage. Her next novel, Dreamland, takes place in Coney Island of 1911. To learn more, go to


  1. Great article! I’m also a fan of spies, and Sir Francis Walsingham is prominently featured in my WIP “The Shakespeares and the Crown”, which epitomizes the Shakespeare family as a typical Catholic family living during the Protestant transformation of England. Some of the Catholic spies are also detailed. You might want to read “Invisible Power” by Alan Haynes.

  2. Great article! I’m also a fan of spies, and Sir Francis Walsingham is prominently featured in my WIP “The Shakespeares and the Crown”, which epitomizes the Shakespeare family as a typical Catholic family living during the Protestant transformation of England. Some of the Catholic spies are also detailed. You might want to read “Invisible Power” by Alan Haynes.


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