Home » 19th century military history » The name’s James, Charles James: A Napoleonic Enigma (Part 1)

The name’s James, Charles James: A Napoleonic Enigma (Part 1)

A few months ago, while I was researching something completely different, Major Charles James exploded into my life.

James portrait from Poems vol 1 1811

Charles James (frontispiece to the 1808 edition of his poems)

James was what one might delicately label ‘a right piece of work’. I have started using the hashtag #shady to refer to him in my notes. He was many things in his relatively short life (c1758–1821), many contradictory. While he would have described himself as a poet and an author, he was also a soldier and military encyclopaedist; a man of business; an army agent; a revolutionary sympathiser; a political jobber; a ‘fixer’; and a spy.

He was a chameleon who constantly reinvented his identity to suit the circumstances, and haunts the sources like a fabulously interesting and often rather sordid shadow. [1] I’ve become maybe a little bit obsessed with finding more about him over the past few weeks. Here, in a nutshell, is why.

Who Was Charles James?

Charles James was probably born in 1758 (give or take a year or two), possibly in Warwickshire. The only other things I know for certain are that he was the eldest son, he had a sister named Mary, and his father was a merchant (possibly a wine merchant) operating between Dover and Flanders.

The contradictions surrounding James’s life were evident to me right from the start. Even his name is disputed. In April 1780, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn to study law (he switched to Lincoln’s Inn in 1796) under the name Charles Simpson. Five years later, he petitioned Gray’s Inn to have his name changed to James, on the pretext that he had given his uncle’s name by accident. [2]

james or simpson grays inn

Joseph Foster, Register of Admissions to Gray’s Inn, 1521–1889 … (London: Hansard, 1889) p. 390, from here

I find it hard to believe Charles had entered a wrong surname for himself by mistake, particularly as it took him five years to rectify the error, but whatever the explanation, he was already an identity chameleon in his mid-20s.

James was almost certainly Catholic, and he was educated at the Jesuit College at Bruges and Liège. This ‘Papist’ background brought his trustworthiness (and even his patriotism) into question on more than one occasion. He was fluent in Latin and French and spent much of his life abroad; many of his early poems were inspired by experiences in Flanders and France.

liege

The Collège en Isle of Liège (engraving of 1740), public domain from here

His early inclinations were, indeed, towards literary pursuits. He published a translation of Beaumarchais’ Tarare in 1787, another translation of Petrarch’s Laura in 1789, and his first volume of Poems in the same year (republishing and expanding them frequently until 1817).

‘Jacobin’ James

James was on the continent when the French Revolution broke out. He found the whole experience profoundly inspiring and made absolutely no attempt to conceal which side he was on. Clue: it wasn’t the side of Louis XVI.

He returned frequently to Liège and to France between 1789 and 1790 and claimed to have taken a piece of the Bastille as a keepsake. He chronicled his experiences and his thoughts on the revolution itself in a publication entitled Audi Alteram Partem, or an extenuation of the conduct of the French Revolutionists (1792; reissued 1793), in which he defended the aims of the revolution and suggested facts had been twisted for political purposes.

audialterampartem

This was probably enough to put his name on the Pitt government’s very long list of troublemakers. Nor did James ever change his political opinions, despite his later activities (and more on those shortly). He remained convinced the French Revolution would have been a harmless domestic uprising had foreign governments not interfered. Although he benefited from Britain’s system of corruption and political jobbery, he was never comfortable with it, and in darker moments suspected he was being blocked and blacklisted by a vengeful government with a very long memory.

He may have had a point. Although government members clearly found him useful, his requests for preferment, promotion, or reward were generally met with a po-faced rebuff. James was, after all, the son of a merchant (and a Catholic one at that); although he was happy to swallow his political opinions when required, he was publicly connected with oppositionists and outcasts. James named one of his sons after Sir Francis Burdett, and his library contained a number of personally-dedicated volumes written by John Horne Tooke, who had been tried for treason in 1794 and was a close friend.

James was so outspoken in private circles that his friends nicknamed him ‘Jacobin James’.

The Moira Connection

In April 1788, having given up on a legal career, James joined the West Middlesex Militia as a lieutenant. A year later he was promoted to captain.

NYPL Moira

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Right Honble. Francis Rawdon Hastings Earl of Moira from here

At around this time he became acquainted with Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord Rawdon and, later, Earl of Moira (later still Marquess of Hastings). Moira was a military man and an oppositionist, most closely associated with the Prince of Wales’s reversionary circle. Moira’s comparatively liberal opinions (he supported religious freedom and the abolition of slavery) appealed to James, whose intelligence and discretion in turn appealed to Moira.

Moira became James’s military and political patron. In 1789, James received permission, possibly through Moira, to dedicate his first book of poems to the Prince of Wales. In 1791, James dedicated a pamphlet to Moira on the reform of the militia. In the same year, James published the first edition of his famous Regimental Companion with the approval of the Commander-in-Chief. It’s hard to imagine Horse Guards taking a punt on an unknown captain of a militia regiment had James not had a highly influential sponsor like Moira to speak for him.

James’s Military Career (… such as it was)

Although best known as a military theorist, James never saw active service. In 1793, Moira did try to bring James (still a militia captain) with him to Flanders, but the request was refused by the commander-in-chief Lord Amherst on the grounds that officers of the militia could not serve abroad. [3]

Two years later, Moira managed to get James appointed to the pleasingly alliterative post of Deputy Muster-Master General on the expedition of French royalists to Quiberon in the summer of 1795.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Letter addressed to Capt. Charles James in his capacity of Deputy Muster-Master General, British Library Add MS 32694

Even now, however, Captain James was not permitted to serve overseas as a militia officer: he had to do all his work from the expedition’s British base in Southampton. James’s language skills must have been an absolute boon, although presumably his ‘Jacobin’ credentials were something of a down side. James seems, however, to have been well-regarded by the Royalist officers with whom he liaised, and he impressed Moira with his grasp of detail in his financial and logistical duties (and his other, less overt, assignments).

James transferred from the West Middlesex militia to the North York Militia in 1795, but his career took a hit in 1797 when he resigned over what he thought of as the political promotion of a junior captain over his head. Due to a misunderstanding, which James was convinced was due to prejudice at the highest levels against his personal opinions, he tried to transfer into the Line and was refused. Subsequent schemes, including a proposal to raise and captain a mulatto regiment in Demerara, were also turned down by the War Office.

With Moira’s assistance, James managed to purchase an ensigncy in the 60th in November 1798, but sold out in 1799 – the same year he brought out his celebrated Military Dictionary. This, along with the Regimental Companion and his collection of court-martial sentences, cemented his reputation as a military theorist, so it’s ironic that he was a civilian when it first came out.

James did not re-enter the army until 1804, when Moira’s political barometer seemed to be rising: his connection with the Prince of Wales and the political mess following Pitt the Younger’s resignation in 1801 made him a likely prime minister. James ‘was presented’ (his words, not mine) with an ensigncy in the 55th Foot, which he rapidly swapped for a half-pay lieutenancy in the 62nd.

The Austen Connection

James later claimed he had served Moira ‘to the known destruction of all my professional views and prospects’, [4] but the connection was bearing quiet fruit. With such aristocratic patronage behind him, James dabbled as an army agent – essentially an individual or firm handling the financial business and pay of a regiment, and also brokering the sale of commissions (sometimes for sums far higher than the official price, with the agent pocketing the difference). [5]

Moira also employed James as his ‘confidential agent’ and man of business. In this capacity, James managed Moira’s financial affairs, arranging loans and raising funds for his patron.

James’s legal background and connections to business and trade (his father and brother-in-law were both wine merchants; his youngest son also later became one) fitted him for this role. It wasn’t exactly a sinecure. Moira had lent a great deal of money to the Prince of Wales, which was roughly equivalent to throwing thousands of pounds out of a window. He had also possibly invested funds in the British-sponsored French Royalist risings of the 1790s. By March 1804, Moira may have owed a whopping £100,000. [6]

James’s main task, therefore, was to keep Moira’s affairs either afloat, or at least out of the newspapers. This brought hm into contact with Jane Austen’s brother Henry, of the bank Austen and Maunde.

James may have known Henry Austen since the late 1790s, when they had both served in the militia at Colchester. [7] In 1801, Henry Austen, Henry Maunde, and Charles James signed a secret agreement to operate as an army agency for a number of militia regiments. James asked to keep his part in the arrangement secret, but took a third of the profits and retained the right to inspect all the accounts. Lord Moira’s name did not appear, but the main purpose of James’s connection with Austen and Maunde seems to have been to use the bank to raise loans for his patron.

Getting involved in Moira’s tangled finances was a fatal business. In 1813, Austen and Maunde lent Moira £6,000 (a loan brokered, or perhaps extorted, by James). When Moira inevitably failed to pay, the bank took him to court for damages, but lost because the courts felt they had demanded an illegally high rate of interest. The bank folded, and Henry Austen became bankrupt. [8]

It wasn’t all bad for the Austens. Henry did persuade James to put pressure on Moira to obtain commissions for Francis and Charles Austen, both naval officers; he was successful for Charles Austen at least. [9] And Henry’s sister Jane may have got her first break as an author through James, whose own publisher – Thomas Egerton – broke away from his usual military stock to publish her first novels. [10]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Letter addressed to Charles James at Thomas Egerton’s Military Library, Whitehall, British Library Add MS 32694

This probably didn’t really make up for what James did, and Henry Austen must have been delighted to know that James himself eventually got steam-rollered by Moira’s debts. James claimed never to have received any pay for his work for Moira; even if he was lying, he certainly didn’t benefit much from it in the long term. A friend later heard that James had lent Moira £8,000 on his own account, which Moira never repaid, and which contributed to James’s own financial insolvency. [11]

 

TO BE CONTINUED

Part 2 of my mini-biography of Charles James can be read here.

 

Acknowledgements

I owe huge thanks to Rory Muir, Lynn Dawson, Sarah Murden, Charlie Stevenson, and Stephen Lark, whose time and resources I have totally monopolised in trying to track down the elusive Major James.

 

References

[1] His papers were sold at auction in 1986, but I have no idea where they are now. If anyone does know, could they tell me? Pretty please? Thank you.

[2] Joseph Foster, Register of Admissions to Gray’s Inn, 1521–1889 … (London: Hansard, 1889) p. 390; many thanks to Sarah Murden for flagging this up to me.

[3] Papers on Charles James read to the Grand Jury for Westminster in the cause James versus George Francis Stuart, alias Count Stuarton, 12 Feb 1808 (London: C. Roworth, 1808), p. 1.

[4] Will, TNA PROB 11/1647/77.

[5] Clive Caplan, ‘Jane Austen’s Banker Brother: Henry Thomas Austen of Austen & Co, 1801­–16’, Persuasions (20)  1998, pp. 69–90, p. 70.

[6] Stuart Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, Persuasions 35 (2013), pp. 129–52, p. 134.

[7] E.J. Clery, Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister (London: Biteback Publishing, 2017, ebook edition).

[8] Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, pp. 142-3; Clery, Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister; Annual Register for 1816 (London: J. Dodsley, 1817), p. 287.

[9] Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, p. 130.

[10] Bennett, ‘Lord Moira and the Austens’, p. 141.

[11] John Taylor, Records of my Life, vol 2 (London: Edward Bull, 1832), p. 301.

 

4 thoughts on “The name’s James, Charles James: A Napoleonic Enigma (Part 1)

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed you riotous romp into Charles James’ life. Most intriguing. I look forward to Part 2! Thank you :o)

  2. Great post, Jacqueline! I’ve often referred to Charles James’s courts-martial compilation and Military Dictionary while knowing nothing about the man himself. Thank you for this enlightening and entertaining biography – I’m looking forward to part two! 🙂

  3. Pingback: The name’s James, Charles James: a Napoleonic-era enigma (Part 2) | The Late Lord

Leave a Reply to Eamonn O'Keeffe Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s