On the south bank of the River Arno in Florence, on a quiet corner of the Via Mazetta in the Piazza Santo Spirito stands the Palazzo Guadagni. This sixteenth century building is lost amongst Florence's incredible Renaissance architecture and most tourists generally pass it by. If like me you're fascinated by Scots history, it's worth paying attention to. Behind these thick walls and huge wooden doors far from home the Jacobite dream finally ended. Here, Charles Edward Stuart fought and lost his last battles to be recognised as King of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Here too took place a squalid, violent and chaotic marriage with his beautiful and vivacious young wife, Louise de Stolberg.
The marriage of Charles Stuart and Louise was a disaster right from the start. He married for a male heir she never produced; she for a kingdom he would never deliver. He was arrogant and authoritarian with an unshakeable belief in his right to the throne of Britain: she was vivacious, restless and sociable. Demoralised by failure, exile and constant diplomatic and social snubs over the years Charles became embroiled in alcoholism, his health failed and he wallowed in increasing self-pity. Louise would come to despise and then punish him by taking a string of lovers, one of whom – the well-known poet Vittorio Alfieri – she eloped with.
An incredibly romantic and heroic figure in popular Scots history, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ as Charles Edward Stuart is perhaps best known, is best remembered for his ‘so near and yet so far’ exploits during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and particularly his flight across the Highlands and Islands after the Battle of Culloden; the tale of Flora MacDonald and the loyalty of the Jacobite clansmen who fought for him. History books often lead us to believe that the story ends there but he still had another 42 years to live. History also forgets he was incredibly right wing, highly conservative and with a staunch belief in his right to absolute rule and it's also conveniently forgotten he was sponsored and manipulated by tyrants for their own political agenda.
The end of his life was far from romantic, sentimental or heroic.
Louise de Stolberg
In those 42 years though, he never stopped plotting and scheming. He never stopped lobbying European powers to return the house of Stuart to the British throne from which his grandfather, James VII of Scotland and II of England had been driven into exile in 1688.
Loyal followers of King James were known as ‘Jacobites’ from the Latin for James and after 1745, while his father continued to remain in Rome under the protection of the Pope, Charles stayed in France because the King Louis was his most likely ally. During this time Europe was involved in a struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism that placed France and Britain on opposing sides. The Jacobites therefore were initially highly influential and potentially very useful to France, although the failure of the 1745 Rebellion – mainly due to France's lack of support and Charles’ headstrong naïveté – had significantly reduced their influence with King Louis. By 1749 though Louis finally lost patience with Charles and the Jacobites and had him move out of the city to Avignon where eventually the local archbishop also lost patience with this impulsive, headstrong ‘Prince of Scotland’. The political worth of the Stuarts had waned and they were now more of a tool in levering advantage in the politics of the day rather than a weapon to attack the throne of Britain.
For more than a decade Charles wandered around Europe plotting and scheming, taking time to father - by his mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw - a girl, Charlotte, his only known child – in October 1753. Always a heavy drinker, he became more and more reliant on alcohol to buoy his mood and perspective on the world.
Then, at the beginning of January 1766, Charles's father, James Stewart, the Old Pretender, died.
Charles declared himself King Charles III of England, Scotland and Ireland while equally swiftly the British royal house of Hanover acted to make sure that nobody else in Europe called him that. The situation in Europe had changed in the intervening years, the Jacobite cause had few advocates and with the exception of Spain and France, no European country wanted anything to do with the defeated and discredited Stuarts while the House of Hanover had ascended in its importance and influence. Charles though was undeterred and found himself rejuvenated. He moved to Rome hoping for recognition from the Vatican, where his brother Henry was a cardinal. Unsurprisingly considering the new political landscape, although the Pope had recognised Charles's father as King, the Vatican refused to recognise Charles in his place. Charles would never forgive the Pope or his cardinals and railed against them for the rest s life.
Charles was determined to play the King in exile, but was thwarted at every turn. He moved into his father's Palazzo in Rome but the Pope ordered the royal coat of arms above the gates removed. When some Jacobites amongst the Scots, Irish and English colleges in Rome began addressing Charles as the monarch they were banished from Rome. Rome and society treated Charles like he was just another aristocrat among many, and a minor one at that. They recognised him as the Count of Albany - never as King Charles III.
Even a pretend, or an unrecognised dynasty, needs heirs and Charles had dynastic ambitions but Clementina Walkinshaw was a commoner and therefore unsuitable to provide the next generation of Stuart royalty. In the early 1770's Charles began to search the European aristocracy for a suitable wife. He eventually he found one. Louise de Stolberg – Gedern, was the 19-year-old daughter of a minor German Princeling killed fighting for the Austrians in 1757. Suitably, she was even distantly related to the Bruce's through her mother's line. Reports came back that blonde, blue-eyed Louise had "a good figure, pretty face and excellent teeth and all the qualities which your Majesty can desire". Who could resist such a recommendation?
Cardinal Henry Stuart
As the diplomatic and social snubs continued, Charles grew more depressed and morose and sought refuge in alcohol. By 1773, the Hanoverian spy Sir Horace Mann was reporting that Charles was ‘seldom sober and frequently commits the greatest disorders and his family’, reporting that Charles was drinking a dozen bottles of wine a day.. In those circumstances it is hardly surprising that an attractive, intelligent woman who had eye of many would eventually turn away from husband. Many young aristocrats of the day, doing the fashionable European tour, with pay court to Louise over the next several years, attracted by the glamour and notoriety of the Jacobites and the personality of the woman who had become named "Queen of hearts".
Charles in old age
By the start of 1774 Charles could suffer Rome and its insults no more so he moved his "court" to Florence. The reason for this is not clear because the Duke of Tuscany was just as hostile to Charles and the Stuarts as the Pope and had no intention of upsetting the British by welcoming The Pretender. Also, the British government's chief spy in Italy, Sir Horace Mann, lived only a few streets away from the Palazzo Gaudagni where Charles and his young wife set up residence and he ensured that the "Royal" household was well manned with spies who reported on all the comings and goings and the day to day machinations of the house.
If anything isolation of the family in Florence was even greater than in Rome. The Duke of Tuscany annoyed and embarrassed Charles by having his Royal coat of arms removed from above the box he used at the theatre. Only Jacobite exiles and beggars on the street gave Charles the recognition he felt he deserved. He led a strange existence becoming gradually more and more isolated and more and more demoralised which led to even greater depths of drunkenness and, as a result, even greater disapproval from the authorities in Florence and the Duke in particular. The strong physique of Charles's youth and disappeared as age and years of bad living took its toll. Now he was fat, breathless, his stomach was troubled and he could not control his belching and farting which became a constant source of embarrassment. His legs swelled until he had to be carried everywhere. Dropsy added to his already ample girth and he began to suffer from epileptic fits. Reports from this time describe Charles as vomiting in the corridors of the theatre and opera in plain sight of the general public. By now Louise had come to despise him and their communication deteriorated into bad tempered notes to each other. Their physical relationship seems to have stopped by this time and Louise pointedly threatened to advertise the fact. Despite Charles’s isolation and depression, Louise in contrast was still very much in favour and receiving numerous visitors. Charles was overcome by insecurity and jealousy and would not let her out of his sight. All routes to her rooms, except those that went through his own, were barricaded. It was at this point that Alfieri appeared in Louise's life and soon became her lover.
The downward spiral of isolation of alcohol continued unabated and increasingly the Duke of Tuscany regarded him with horror and embarrassment. Eventually, he forbade members of Florentine aristocracy to visit Charles, which piled even more isolation onto him and fed his feelings of despair and bitterness. He had lost grip of his political life and his personal one too. It may be that this was the reason for the public disaster that was about to happen. The mounting tension between Charles and Louise exploded into violence on the thirtieth of November 1780. Charles had been drinking heavily and telling his often repeated stories about his escapades during the rebellion. A row developed which escalated beyond the usual raised voices into physical violence. Some say he attacked her, some say he was trying to rape her. Whatever was the literal truth, her screams brought dozens of servants rushing into her bedroom. All of them saw Charles assaulting his wife. The marriage was over.
Helped by Alfieri, Louise fled to a convent nearby. When Charles tried to gain access the Abbess refused to let him in and he stood screaming abuse from the street. Sometime later, supported by an armed guard provided by Cardinal Henry her brother-in-law, Louise left the convent for Rome and the protection of her brother-in-law. Charles and Louise never met again. Louise would spend the rest of her life with her lover until he died in 1803.
Charles tried to restore some dignity and respectability to the household in Palazzo Gaudagni by recognising and legitimising his daughter, Charlotte, by his mistress Clementina Walkinshaw and by inviting her to live with him in Florence. For some time her father was satisfied that she took her Royal duty seriously, insisting that servants and visitors address Charles as "Majesty" and herself as "Highness". She also treated the ailing pretender with a care and affection that his wife had never shown. Charles died, aged 67, in Rome in the early hours of the thirtieth of January 1788. His body was carried to the cathedral at Frascati to lie in state, bedecked in royal robes and with a replica of the English Crown on his head, the sceptre in one hand and the sword of state in the other. His brother the Cardinal said a requiem mass over him and then declared himself to be Henry IX, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. This would never be recognised officially by the pope or any sovereign state.
Charles was buried in the cathedral at Frascati and later reinterred in St Peter's basilica in Rome beside his father and his brother.
His daughter, Charlotte, his only offspring, died of cancer of the liver a year after her father.
Louise Stuart nee de Stolberg died in 1824. She continued acting the part of Queen of England until she died.
Like the fortunes of the Jacobites, the Pallazzo Gaudagni faded over the years until it was a shadow of its former self. Now it has been restored and is a three star hotel. Its link with Scotland and the Royal House of Stuart is not mentioned on its website.
See you later.