The name’s James, Charles James: a Napoleonic-era enigma (Part 2)

James portrait from Poems vol 1 1811

From the frontispiece of the 1808 edition of Charles James’s Poems

You can read last week’s post about Charles James, poet, fixer, and international man of mystery extraordinaire, here.

Major of the Royal Artillery Drivers and ‘French Secretary’ to the Ordnance

In 1806, Pitt the Younger died and Lord Moira’s Whig associates came to government as the Ministry of All the Talents. Moira himself became Master-General of the Ordnance.

Moira – who was, as you will recall, Charles James’s patron and employer – wanted to bring James with him, but couldn’t quite manage to get him openly attached to the Ordnance. As the Master-General could employ the services of any officer on the Ordnance establishment in any way he wanted, however, Moira appointed James (who, insofar as he had any military duties at all, was currently a lieutenant on half-pay in the 62nd) as Major of the Royal Artillery Drivers.

This was, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t seem to have been exactly illegal. The majority was a new post (created January 1806) with a handsome salary of about £400 a year (a guinea a day, plus perquisites and allowances); because it overlapped with field commissions that already existed, the majority also had very few practical duties. This allowed Moira to use James in any way he liked, and the way he chose to use him was as ‘French Secretary’.

James’s duties as ‘French Secretary’ were just as nebulous as his duties as a major. James himself later described them as follows: ‘attendance on the Master-General, receipt, transcript or translation of foreign papers, personal interviews with foreigners and others, together with confidential reports … chiefly on foreign matters’. [1] The closest anyone got to any practical official designation of James’s duties was a line in a letter from Colonel Charles Neville, Secretary to the Master-General of the Ordnance, employing him for a task ‘whereon his Lordship [the 2nd Earl of Chatham, Moira’s successor at the Ordnance] and you conversed when you last saw him’. [2]

regimental_companion

(The Regimental Companion, vol. 3, p. 508)

From this, it seems that James’s duties either didn’t exist at all, in which case the post was a total sinecure – which James strenuously denied – or that his duties weren’t the kind of thing he could talk about in a public document.

James’s strange position inevitably came to the notice of the Commissioners of Military Enquiry (the Commission for Military Enquiry had been instituted in 1805 to look into potential financial abuses in many military departments). The Commissioners were convinced the new majority was a job, but proving this was like nailing jelly to the wall.

The most likely explanation for James’s role at the Ordnance is that Moira was using him as he had often used him before – to undertake rather shady activities out of the public eye, and to engage in liaison with Ordnance contacts and agents abroad: ‘engaged in particulars of a military nature, for the general benefit of the service’. [3]

It All Becomes Too Much

A-Kick-at-the-Broad-Bottoms-Gillray

James Gillray, ‘A Kick at the Broad-Bottoms!’ (1807), from here. Moira is portrayed on the right with his arms in the air in alarm

Moira fell from the Ordnance (along with the rest of his government) in March 1807, but James stayed on as ‘French Secretary’ under the 2nd Earl of Chatham. Chatham, however, was at the opposite end of the political spectrum from James, and seems to have avoided employing James except when it was absolutely necessary to do so.

James was understandably unhappy with Chatham and with the Commission for Military Enquiry, which he thought should have been investigating why Chatham kept him on the Ordnance’s paybooks without actually using him rather than engaging in a witch-hunt against innocent parties (viz. Major Charles James, RA Drivers):

‘There is not an officer in the service, civil or military, but may be subjected to the most rigorous inquiry. There is not one but may have the dirty passions of the human mind let loose against him; and there are many who may be placed in a situation to excite and consequently to incur the visitation of envy, spleen, and prejudice.’ [4]

But politics was in no mood for military inefficiency, and it was a bad time to be a public servant with a salary but no obvious duties.

Hague

In early 1809, the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief, was investigated by a whole House of Commons committee in 1809 to determine whether he’d been complicit in selling commissions through the influence of his former mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke. James didn’t crop up during that investigation, but he was name-checked in a bile-filled pamphlet by Thomas Hague:

‘I do not inquire what distinguished talent recommended him, whether his poetical effusions, or his military dictionary? I leave Colonel Crewe [James’s friend and another Moira connection] to describe his excellence as a billiard player, and his never erring stroke at some pocket or other. Whether the Major or Lord Petty [a former Chancellor of the Exchequer] be the better financier I care not – I do not question his dexterity as a truckster, his cold closeness as a bargain driver; but, as a gunner driver, I may be permitted to speak of him; to ask what are his claims to the rank he bears, and the pay he receives? Do they arise from foreign service, wounds, or exploits? I will not assert that the Major has never been abroad, because he was educated in the Jesuit’s college, at Bruges; where he has perhaps qualified himself to become the head of that order [ouch]; but, I aver that he has never done a day’s military duty, OUT of England.’ [5]

James v Stuarton

stuarton

James had also been attacked from an altogether dodgier quarter. In February 1808, James brought a case against George Francis Stuart, Count Stuarton (a direct descendant of James II and the Jacobite ‘Kings Over the Water’). Stuarton was almost certainly a connection between Moira and the French Royalists, whose cause Stuarton was in Britain to promote.

The background to the case is hazy – James’s only comment on the matter was that he had ‘instituted a Criminal Information against’ Stuarton ‘for reasons known to the Earl of Moira, and to Earl Spencer, then Secretary of State for the Home Department’. [6] He later claimed he had prosecuted the case with funding from the Ordnance, which suggests the business was one with potential implications for the government. [7]

Stuarton’s libel doesn’t survive, but he probably accused James of playing a double game during the Quiberon affair in 1795, betraying the Royalists and ‘encourag[ing] or abett[ing] their persecutors in Paris’ – perhaps insinuating that the government’s employment of such a man showed it had never been serious about helping the Royalists at all. [8] The man formerly known as ‘Jacobin’ James may well have been a figure of suspicion to many, but, with the silent might of the government behind him, James naturally won his case. Stuarton subsequently escaped to America to avoid arrest.

By this time, however, James was becoming a liability. His usefulness depended on his low profile, and between 1808 and 1810 he was being talked about far too much. Lord Mulgrave, Lord Chatham’s successor at the Ordnance, quietly let James go in August 1810. I don’t suppose it was coincidental that James had just finished giving evidence to the Military Commissioners at the time.

Spying for the Home Office

In 1813, Moira introduced James to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, ‘for the purpose of being honourably employed’. [9] This wasn’t referring to a clerkship.

recto

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here

By November, James was pulling in old favours from his contacts and informants on the continent – men he either knew through his financial ventures, or through his family’s wine trade, or through his work with the French Royalists in the 1790s and early 1800s. His background in Flanders (particularly Liège) also came in handy. [10]

Throughout 1814 and 1815, James’s information networks were crucial to a government seeking to keep an eye on French opinion of the newly-restored Bourbon monarchy. The importance of his contacts rose sharply with the return of Napoleon. [11] James may have remained in the pay of the Home Office until the end of his life: he may have been the ‘Major James’ who was called upon in the trial of the Cato Street conspirators, one of whom confessed to him that the cabinet was about to be murdered. [12] Although I can’t prove James’s connection with the Cato Street Conspiracy, it’s just the sort of thing I’d expect him to be mixed up in.

The end

After 1815, James seems to have spent most of his time devoting himself to domestic concerns. In October 1818, he married a woman named Judith Appleton, who was roughly 23 or 24 years his junior. The pair had already been an unmarried item for at least a decade, and had five children: Charles Woodcock, born in 1807; Francis, who died in 1818; William Bosville, born in 1809; Maria; and Louisa (born in 1816 or 1817). There may also have been another son named John, born in 1808.

Why James waited so long to marry Judith is unclear, but it raises the possibility that one or the other of them may have been secretly married to someone else. I haven’t been able to substantiate this, though.

James didn’t live long enough to enjoy married life much. He died suddenly at the beginning of 1821, at the age of about 63. He was buried with his son Francis in St Mary’s, Paddington.

st mary

St Mary’s Church, Paddington, from here

His widow Judith inherited his house at Gloucester Place and (in a somewhat bizarre twist) she married another army agent – James Ashley – within seven weeks of burying her husband. Keeping it in the family, Ashley’s daughter Elizabeth later married James and Judith’s son Charles Woodcock.

Judith spent many years trying to obtain the money her husband had been owed by Moira (now Marquess of Hastings), but never succeeded. I can’t help feeling that, after so many years of devoted service, James and his family were owed something at least, but then maybe Moira felt his preferment and protection (and James undoubtedly needed both) had cleared all arrears between them.

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] 17th Report of the Commissioners of Military Enquiry (1811), p. 228.

[2] Charles James, Regimental Companion (1811), vol 3 (7th ed) (London: T Egerton, 1811), p. 508.

[3] James, Regimental Companion, vol. 3, pp. 511-12.

[4] James, Regimental Companion, vol. 3, p. 507.

[5] Thomas Hague, A letter to his Royal Highness the Duke of York on Recent Events, with a statement of the conduct of Generals Trigge and Fox, during their Commands at Gibraltar, and an Inquiry into Major Charles James’s Claims to Promotion (London: Wm Horseman, 1809), pp. 38-9.

[6] Memorandum by James, 6 Nov 1807, Liverpool MSS, British Library Add MS 38259, f. 267.

[7] James, Regimental Companion, vol. 3, p. 500.

[8] This is clear from some of the evidence printed in Papers on Charles James read to the Grand Jury for Westminster in the cause James versus George Francis Stuart, alias Count Stuarton, etc, 12 Feb 1808 (London: C. Roworth, 1808).

[9] James to Lord Liverpool, undated [1820], Liverpool MSS, British Library Add MS 38286, f. 228.

[10] James to Lord Sidmouth, Devon Record Office, Sidmouth MSS, 152M/C1813/OF/37, 38.

[11] James to Lord Sidmouth, Devon Record Office, Sidmouth MSS, 152M/C1815/0F29, 30, 31, 36; also Lyon and Turnbull’s Rare Books, MSS, Maps and Photographs catalogue of 31 August 2006, https://issuu.com/lyonandturnbullauctioneers/docs/476.

[12] Morning Chronicle, 20 April 1820.

“The Severest Censure of this House”: a government is repeatedly defeated in the House of Commons, 1810

Current events in Parliament are very interesting to me as a political historian, although I admit I’d prefer to be watching from the safer distance of, say, a couple of centuries. Since I am a historian, however, and a Napoleonic-era one at that, yesterday’s triple defeat of Theresa May’s government reminded me strongly of the situation of the Perceval government over the winter of 1809–1810. Perceval’s government wasn’t exactly found to be in “contempt of Parliament”, like May’s, but it might as well have been. Here’s why.

The Perceval Government

spencer_perceval

Spencer Perceval kissed hands as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the beginning of October 1809. He succeeded the Duke of Portland. At the beginning of September, it had been revealed that Foreign Secretary George Canning had been intriguing against the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, for some months. Portland had actually agreed to force Castlereagh out and reshuffle the cabinet to accommodate Canning’s friend Lord Wellesley. The outcome of all this was that Canning and Castlereagh both resigned (and then fought a duel), while Portland – who had recently suffered a stroke and was in poor health – gave way to Perceval.

Perceval thus started out under the shadow of Canning and Castlereagh’s disgrace. His position was not improved by the fact that the Portland government’s big military campaign of the year – the Walcheren expedition, involving 40,000 troops and over 600 naval vessels – was in its final disastrous throes. The expedition’s commander, Lord Chatham, had failed to take Antwerp (his ultimate goal), and sickness was tearing through the troops. By mid-September, nearly 10,000 men were on the sick list. Most of the army was recalled, but a garrison of 16,000 men under Sir Eyre Coote remained on Walcheren, pending further orders.

Matters were made even worse by the fact that Lord Chatham, the expedition’s commander, had also been a member of Portland’s cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. This was a huge millstone around Perceval’s neck; indeed, many cartoons depicted Chatham at this time with a large millstone inscribed “WALCHEREN”.

AN00079358_001_l

(From here)

Perceval spent several weeks putting his government together. He approached the leaders of the opposition, Lord Grenville and Earl Grey; he approached former prime minister Lord Sidmouth, who had a reasonably sizeable political following. They all refused to join him. With Canning and Castlereagh both out of the question, Perceval found himself having to fall back largely on the same ministers who had served in the discredited Portland government. Even Chatham got to stay on at the Ordnance.

These attempts to shore up an already-tottering government took up most of Perceval’s attentions, and it was only in November that the cabinet finally got around to discussing what to do with Walcheren (meanwhile, half of Coote’s garrison there had fallen ill with fever). Walcheren was finally evacuated at the end of December.

Inquiry: political or military?

Perceval was aware he would face an immediate onslaught from the opposition in Parliament on Walcheren. He knew there was no way he would be able to avoid some sort of political scrutiny, particularly after the extremely influential London Common Council (representing London’s considerable mercantile interests) laid an Address before the King calling for an inquiry into the debacle. A year previously, the Portland government had managed to dodge a similar bullet over the dire military situation in the Peninsula by placing the responsible army commanders (including the future Duke of Wellington) before a military inquiry at Chelsea – despite calls from the City of London for a political investigation. Perceval knew he would not be so lucky now.

common-council-chamber-guildhall

Since an inquiry was inevitable, the only question was what form the inquiry should take. Perceval hoped he would be able to limit any damage to his government by restricting an inquiry to a select committee, which would only be obliged to publish its ultimate decision and not its full proceedings. Effectively, Perceval wanted to control the evidence that would be laid before Parliament (and the public).

Perceval managed to put the meeting of Parliament off over Christmas, but when Parliament met again on 23 January 1810, the opposition went straight to the attack. On 26 January, Lord Porchester led the opposition in its demand for a political inquiry – not a select committee, but a committee of the whole House of Commons (a format that had recently been used for assessing evidence that the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief, had been selling military commissions through his mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke).

mw64890

Lord Porchester

The opposition hoped this format would do two things – indict the government before the eyes of Parliament and the people, and force the government to produce and publish all the relevant paperwork, rather than cherry-picking their evidence. As Porchester argued, the nation at large had a right to know how the government was using its military resources:

I cannot consent to delegate the right of inquiry on this occasion to any select or secret Committee, by whom the course of investigation might be misdirected, or its bounds limited – before whom, possibly, garbled extracts, called documents, might be laid by ministers themselves, in order to produce a partial discussion … It is in a Committee of the whole House alone, we can have a fair case, because if necessary we can examine oral evidence at the Bar.[1]

In other words, Porchester and the opposition were putting the government on trial before the House of Commons – and, by extension, the people.

The government is defeated (repeatedly)

Perceval tried to deflect Porchester’s motion for an inquiry of the whole House by moving the previous question (effectively an attempt to dispose of the motion altogether), on the grounds that a select committee would be more suitable. He found himself deserted by a number of his supporters, including Lord Castlereagh, who (as former Secretary of State for War) welcomed an inquiry into the expedition he had planned, hoping it would clear him; and the Commons supporters of Lord Chatham, who hoped an inquiry would uncover the duplicity of his colleagues in sending him on the expedition with insufficient (and perhaps even false) information.

Perceval first tried to adjourn the debate until 5 February; he was defeated without a division. The previous question was then put, and the opposition carried the day 195 votes to 186. The government was now committed to a full inquiry of the sort they had been dreading. The inquiry began on 2 February 1810; all its proceedings were published, in the newspapers and in the official parliamentary debates (the future Hansard).

Despite the best hopes of the opposition, the government managed to weather the Walcheren storm and did not fall. After the government’s defeats on 26 January, nobody had really been expecting it to survive the inquiry. It nearly didn’t, particularly when it became clear that Lord Chatham had (apparently) submitted a private narrative defending his conduct at Walcheren to the King – an unconstitutional act.

At the end of February 1810, the government was again defeated in the lobbies and forced to produce more written evidence. On 23 February, oppositionist Samuel Whitbread moved that all papers in the Royal archives relating to Chatham’s narrative should be produced; his motion was narrowly passed by 178 to 171. Whitbread then moved two resolutions on 2 March censuring Chatham’s conduct. Perceval was once more unable to move the previous question and throw Whitbread’s censures out without a debate; he lost 221 to 188, with many supporters once again in the Noes lobby. Only an amendment by George Canning (then a backbencher) softened Whitbread’s language and passed without a division, but Perceval had been unable to protect a member of his own government. Only Chatham’s resignation from the cabinet on 7 March prevented the government falling with him.

George Canning

George Canning

The outcome

On 26 March, Lord Porchester moved eight resolutions censuring the ministers:

The expedition to the Scheldt was undertaken under circumstances which afforded no rational hope of adequate success. … The advisers of this ill-judged enterprise are, in the opinion of this House, deeply responsible for the heavy calamities with which its failure has been attended. … Such conduct of His Majesty’s advisers, deserves the severest censure of this House.[2]

The resolutions were discussed by the House of Commons over the course of four bitter days. The opposition had been expecting to force Perceval’s resignation; what actually happened was that Porchester’s resolutions were rejected 272 votes to 232 early in the morning of 31 March. The House of Commons then passed a resolution approving of the retention of Walcheren until December by 255 votes to 232.

What had gone wrong? Perceval’s most recent biographer, Denis Gray, thought Perceval’s unexpected triumph was evidence that his “courage and steadiness had pulled it [survival] off against the greatest imaginable difficulties and odds. After the Walcheren debates Pittites again new that they had a leader of resolution and character.”[3]

Historian Michael Roberts, however, gives a different answer: “The majority of independent members preferred to take the chance that Walcheren would be a salutary lesson to the Government, than to risk putting the country into the hands of a party that had neither policy, nor prospect of uniting upon one, nor ability to carry it out.” Later, Roberts reiterates the point: “The Walcheren vote was not so much in favour of the Tories as against the Whigs”.[4]

In other words, Perceval’s survival was due less to his own skill and more to the weakness of the opposition, which found it easier to criticise than to propose its own alternative agenda. Divided as it was over the issue of whether or not to commit more fully to the war in the Peninsula, and with nascent divisions between Lords Grenville and Grey, the opposition was, indeed, perhaps no more capable than the government to guide the war effort – as their brief stint in power in 1806–7 as the Ministry of All the Talents had shown.

Modern parallels?

Only time will tell of Theresa May’s government is able to hold its own, or whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is capable of presenting a valid alternative political agenda. I suspect we will find out more about that over the coming week. But it struck me that the Walcheren inquiry does have some modern echoes. At any rate, it is certainly not the first time that a government has fought for its life in the face of public scrutiny.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates volume XV (1812), col. 162

[2] Parliamentary Debates vol. XVI (1812), cols. 78–80

[3] Denis Gray, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister (Manchester: University Press, 1963), p. 304

[4] Michael Roberts, The Whig Party, 1807–12 (London, 1939), pp. 147, 322–3)