DEEP within the folds of the Lake District, in the south corner of a yard whose church chimes sweetly towards the softer fells, lies an unassuming grave of a ‘forgotten princess’.
Beneath a small, white stone cross, a little battered and lichen covered through the passage of years, if legend is to be believed, rest the earthly remains of a princess of the royal Stuart line, the daughter of an outcast prince, himself son of an outcast king.
Enigmatically, the epitaph which graces the simple cross of the young girl reads ‘Behold, Thy King Cometh’.
The haunting story of the girl, Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglass, alleged daughter of Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, has persisted in Cumbria for more than two hundred years, and has spawned rumour, counter-rumour and wild allegations, involving, at their most extreme, the supposed exhumation of the ‘princess’. In 1715, James Stuart, son of the deposed Catholic James II, attempted an abortive invasion of England via Scotland.
Ten years later, James married Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska, granddaughter of King John III, or Johannes, of Poland, and moved to Rome where the Pope recognised him as Britain’s rightful king. In 1745 his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie led an uprising against George II, taking Edinburgh in the September of that year. While staying at Bannockburn House, after retreating from defeat in Carlisle, he had the ’flu and was nursed back to health by Clementina Walkenshawe, the daughter of a prominent Jacobite – John Walkenshawe.
And it was then, according to legend, that the Prince had an affair with Clementina – long before Flora Macdonald; and Clementina bore him a child, the future ‘Princess of Finsthwaite’. Some years later, a little girl came to the village of Finsthwaite. Her name was Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglass.
The first name was that of her supposed mother, the second and third names those of the Prince’s Polish family connections, and Douglass was a frequent alias used by the Prince when in hiding.
What is known for certain is that on 28 April 1770, the young woman was a witness to the will of Edward Taylor, of Waterside, and she used the name Clementina Douglass. She died, at the age of twenty-four, and was buried in the southern side of Finsthwaite churchyard on 16 May 1771, beneath the enigmatic headstone. The grave was put up only ninety years ago and was inspired by nothing firmer than a belief about who she was.
However, according to a note dated 1959 by the Rev R W Pedder of Finsthwaite House, then vicar of the parish, the original grave of the princess was dug up when the old church was being demolished.
Historian Janet Martin, a Finsthwaite resident, in her exhaustive and excellent paper The Finsthwaite Princess: The Making of a Myth, recounts that the earliest written accounts of the princess seem to be those of Richard Pedder, of Finsthwaite House, who wrote in 1870: “Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglass lodged at Waterside house from time to time. She was quite ‘a grand lady’ according to a report, and who she was and where she came from nothing was ever known except she was intimate with the Backhouses with whom she lodged.”
In 1719, a medallion was struck to celebrate the marriage of ‘James III’, the Old Pretender, and Princess Maria Clementina Sobieski of Poland, and such a medal came into the possession of Canon Charles Gale Townley, of Staveley in Cartmel, in 1913. The medal is said to have come into the family at the bequest of the Finsthwaite princess herself, via a friend Jane Penny, who later inherited Jolliver Tree house.
Tom Cross, in his pamphlet A Lakeland Princess (1945) states that at Waterside, within a moulded overmantle, lay the initials CRA, which he thought ‘probably stood for Charles, Roi Angleterre’. Ms Martin, however, suggests the solution is more straightforward, and relates to a Christopher Robinson and his wife Agnes who lived at Waterside in the early 1700s.
Perhaps the most remarkable suggestion regarding the princess is the rumour that, in the 1970s, a story began to circulate the public houses in nearby Barrow that in the 1940s the Home Office sought the exhumation of her grave to stop possible Nazi relic hunters should an invasion occur.
Not surprisingly, today, the Home Office has no record of such an event.
Ms Martin says the truth about the princess, although never certain, is probably much more mundane. “It seems impossible that a daughter of the Pretender could have been hidden from the British Government in the eighteenth century. I can only surmise that her father was James Douglas who had been a soldier in the army of the Young Pretender, a committed Jacobite who had given his daughter her highly suggestive names.
“After the failure of the 1745 rebellion, such men were to a great extent an embarrassment to their country and a quiet life in Furness and the Lakes might have been attractive.
“That the ‘princess’ was witness to Edward Taylor’s will argues that she was then over twenty-one years of age and of sound mind. She signed her own name, Clementina Douglass, as did James Douglass who was probably her father, but possibly her brother, uncle or cousin, who left Finsthwaite after she died.”
To this day, a lone piper occasionally walks the churchyard at Finsthwaite, and a white cockade – a Jacobite symbol – is still left by devotees at the grave on significant anniversaries.
But while the Stuart line has passed into the history books, in one small corner of the home of the Lakeland Romantics, in the poetic imagination at least, a princess still lies at peace, waiting to be reunited with her long-lost father, and would-be king.