The Franco-Spanish fleet commanded by Don Juan José Navarro drove off the British fleet under Thomas Mathews near Toulon in 1744.
The expedition was to be commanded by no lesser general than Marshall de Saxe, who would lead just over 10,000 bayonets. This invasion force would target the south coast (Maldon was the preferred landing) and then march directly on London. Initially, the English Jacobites requested a second, lesser expedition to bolster the Tory clans, who would rise simultaneously. This element did not proceed, but Saxe’s 10,000, should they succeed in crossing the Channel, would almost have parity of numbers with the troops the Hanoverians could muster in the south of England. The Scottish military establishment, fewer than 3,000 strong, was minuscule. There was a suggestion that the invaders rely on small boats, but the Marshal wanted men-o’-war as ushers for his vulnerable transports.
The naval aspect would involve the Brest squadron taking station by the Isle of Wight to block the inevitable British riposte. Sir John Norris commanded the home fleet, at anchor in Spithead. If he got past their blockade, the French were to engage while a handful of warships shepherded transports towards the Thames Estuary. Winter weather delayed the fleet’s embarkation during January 1744, and it was not until early the next month that the ships raised anchor. By now, British intelligence had divined that Charles Edward had slipped out of Italy and was believed to be in France. The threat of imminent invasion hung in the air and yet the government was clearly confident the Royal Navy could see off any attempt. Nonetheless, a further 6,000 Dutch troops were to be put on standby. Some confusion now arose as to the destination of the supposed invasion fleet. Was there to be an attempt on Ireland? Charles Edward had arrived safely, despite the Navy’s best efforts, in Paris by 8 February. His intermeddling was, at this stage, in fact unsolicited, perhaps even unwelcome. The French were aware that his presence would only serve as a banner advertisement for any forthcoming attempt.
British agents had meanwhile disbursed a hefty bribe to gain sight of French plans; additional army units from Holland were now requested. The upshot of this security leak was that the French blamed the failure, unfairly, upon Charles Edward, on account of his precipitate action, which served to ensure they would think twice before involving him too deeply in their future counsels. Parliament was quick to affirm the members’ undying loyalty to George – the old spectre of Popish Plot and rising was paraded. Despite this, there was no vast outpouring of pro-Hanoverian sentiment in the country.
By late February, the two fleets were in sight of each other off Dungeness, but strong winds scattered both before battle could be joined and the French tacked back towards Brest. More bad weather struck at Dunkirk, damaging transports and ruining supplies. Saxe began to fret, as he had neither warships nor pilots (the latter promised by the English sympathisers). Once again, the weather showed a strongly Hanoverian shift: early in March a further great storm did yet more damage to the transports riding at Dunkirk. Saxe now wrote to Charles advising the invasion had been cancelled. The Forty-Four was over before it began, and the government in Britain scented deliverance. Largely forgotten by his French hosts after the abandonment of the expedition, Charles had resided for a while in Gravelines, maintained if ignored by Louis XV, who would not grant him an audience. In the spring, he moved to the outskirts of Paris, from where he wrote to his father:
The situation I am in is very particular, for nobody nose where I am or what is become of me, so that I am entirely burried as to the publick, and can’t but say that it is a very great constrent upon me, for I am obliged very often not to stur out of my room for fier of some bodys noing my face. I very often think that you would laugh very hartily if you saw me going about with a single servant bying fish and other things and squabling for a peney more or less. I hope your Majesty will be thoroughly persuaded, that no constrent or trouble whatsoever either of minde or body, wil ever stoppe me in going on with my duty, in doing any thing that I think can tend to your service or your Glory.
It is only natural that such a frustrating relegation to pensioner status on the sidelines would jibe with a young man of dash and fire, especially when he has been keyed up for great events. Charles certainly had charm and charisma, physical courage and stamina. He lacked experience, any real knowledge of the military art and the ability to cope with adversity. If the projected invasion had proved a fiasco, this did not diminish its value to France in terms of diverting British attention from the European theatre and in creating a scare that might promote a redistribution of resources. In the bigger game the Forty-Four thereby served a purpose. This was of no value to the Jacobites, though a definite gain for France and her allies. Robert Trevor, British ambassador at The Hague felt that:
. . . perhaps this uneasiness is all that France at present aims at; and that if she could augment it enough to make us weaken Flanders, she would strike a home blow on that side . . . I have no idea of an invasion, though the news from Dunkirk and all along that coast are suspicious.
For the French, it could be argued that their success in diverting British attention allowed them to seize, and thereafter to retain, the strategic initiative in Flanders. This they did not relinquish for the remainder of the war, and their gains placed them in a strong position when the time came to negotiate peace terms. Most eighteenth-century military operations tended to be relatively limited in their objectives. France was not at home with the hazards of amphibious operations. As the century progressed it would be the British who became masters of the combined operation. France’s involvement with the Jacobites, therefore, could be viewed as both cynical and opportunistic. However, the shades of Jacobite hopes for an actual landing would inform thinking during the Forty-Five, would influence the decisions of men of large estate in throwing in their lot with Charles Edward and would lead to their utter ruin in his cause.
Louis was certainly not overly impressed by his royal guest. Prince Charles Edward’s request for 3,000 foot to support a bid for Scotland, lodged in October 1744, produced no response. Undeterred, he went ahead seeking to finance his war chest from private sources. In this he enjoyed some success. He was able to tap into the web of finance and banking contacts managed by a band of Scottish and Irish expatriate entrepreneurs. Some of these had shipping interests in Nantes and St Malo. Their willingness was not entirely philanthropic. Obviously if the great gamble now being planned came off, rewards would be substantial. Probably the most influential of this affluent clique of émigrés was Antoine Walsh of Nantes. A former officer in the French service, grown wealthy on the proceeds of slavery, he had been introduced to the prince by Lord Clare, commanding the Irish Brigade. The French administration was, outwardly, keeping its distance from Charles Edward while, at the same time, opening doors and greasing wheels.