sock of the week no.5: Jacobite garters

Socks and stockings are private, intimate things: they are the personal objects with which we protect and care for our legs and feet. They are worn next to the skin, beneath the clothes. But what do socks reveal, and what might they conceal? Today’s sock of the week is a stocking that would have been regarded as treacherous in eighteenth-century Britain: a stocking encoding a secret message that proclaimed one’s sympathy with the outlawed Jacobite cause.

A pair of 18th century Jacobite garters, unworn (as revealed by their uncut join), and sold at Bonhams in 2005.

But who were the Jacobites and why might they need secret garters to hold up their eighteenth-century stockings?

Emerging as a political movement after the exile of the Stuart king, James, and his forfeit of the Scottish throne following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which established the Protestant Hanoverian succession), Jacobitism had a range of aims: the restoration of the House of Stuart; tolerance for Catholics (who could not worship, vote, or hold public office in the UK); the autonomy of Ireland; and the reversal of the land-grab, which had been effected by the 1652 act of settlement (through which the property of Irish Catholics had been seized to repay British parliamentary loans). After the 1707 Act of Union, Britain was, despite appearances, not a terribly stable place, politically: the Scottish Highlands were full of supporters of the exiled Stuarts, and the Jacobite cause was also popular in Ireland, and some English counties such as Lancashire, where large number of Catholics resided.

18th century Highland dress

There were Jacobite rebellions – known as risings – in 1715 and 19, but the ’45 was the most significant: for this was year that Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) landed on Scottish shores and attempted to seize the throne for his exiled father, James. The Jacobite rebels achieved success at Prestonpans, and marched over the border, invading England. Despite reaching as far south as Derby, the Jacobites were forced back by the British army and defeated at the bloody battle of Culloden. After the ’45, the British government implemented a range of measures intended to prevent another rising: this included the construction of a network of military roads (which still define the landscape of the Scottish Highlands today); the establishment of garrisons like Fort William (just down the road from Glenfinnan, where the ’45 rising began) and the parliamentary acts of Heritable Jurisdictions and Proscription (which prevented clans from raising armies, and outlawed the wearing of highland dress outside British military regiments).

Highland regimental dress

The Jacobites had been defeated, but they weren’t giving up their cause. One way that Jacobite sympathisers continued to express their allegiance to a movement which the British Government had effectively outlawed was through stocking garters such as these.

Jacobite garter c. 1746. British Museum.

Jacobite garters were woven in a plaid pattern – which recalled colourful Highland tartans – and proclaimed rude messages about the British government and the whigs who ran it. One pair reads:

God bless the prince and save the king . . . (the prince and king in question being Charles Edward Stuart, and the exiled James)

Jacobite garter. Victoria and Albert Museum.

. . . while whiggs and rumps in halters swing (rump being the derogatory name associated with the minority parliament which briefly governed England after the execution of Charles I). Thus with their garters, Jacobite sympathisers rudely declared that the British government were a bunch of arses who deserved to be hanged.

Detail of Jacobite Garter. British Museum.

In 1746, the Gentleman’s Magazine and Manchester Magazine printed rumours of such garters being produced in the weaving town of Manchester (which like the surrounding county of Lancashire, boasted large numbers of Catholics): “Several looms have lately been employed to furnish watch strings and garters with this elegant motto ”God preserve P.C and down with the rump'”

And there were further rumours that the wearing of stockings supported by garters into which ones Jacobite sympathies had been indelibly woven was an act first encouraged by “female aides de camp”: that is, women who had actively assisted the Jacobite cause, like the famous Flora MacDonald.

Alan Ramsay’s portrait of Flora Macdonald (1749)

Entering a world of secret gatherings (and secret garters) in the second half of the eighteenth century, the cause of Jacobitism rapidly declined, only to be contained and consigned by its Romantic revival in the later novels of Sir Walter Scott. Today, when one might buy a pair of socks emblazoned with anything from the red rose of Lancashire, to the Gettysburg Address, we are familiar with the idea that items of intimate apparel might encode ideas of allegiance, but perhaps are unaware that such political encodings have their precedent in this lost eighteenth-century highland cause.