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]

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(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

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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.

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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.

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The 1799 Helder Expedition

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(British forces landing at the Helder, 27 August 1799, by Dirk Lengendyck, from here)

The Helder Expedition was one of the campaigns that formed a part of the Second Coalition of allies against France. Its purpose was to open a second front in Holland to distract the French, who when the campaign was planned doing badly in the Rhineland and northern Italy fighting against Austrian and Russian troops.

Forty-five thousand British and Russian troops landed on the North Holland peninsula between the end of August and the middle of September 1799. Their objective was to march on Amsterdam, with the aim of flushing the French occupying forces out of the country and restoring the regime of the House of Orange.

Strong winds prevented the forces landing at all until the very end of August. The campaign initially went well, with the Dutch navy surrendering without a shot being fired on 30 August, but things quickly went downhill. At the beginning of September the bad weather re-established itself and did not let up for weeks. The allied commander-in-chief, the Duke of York, quickly discovered that he had not been adequately supplied for a lengthy campaign and that the Dutch inhabitants were either indifferent or hostile to the invading forces. The allied forces entrenched themselves behind the Zijpe Canal and waited for the weather to improve.

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(Map of the main locations involved in the Helder campaign, from here)

From the very first the British and Russian forces did not get along well. The two forces did not mix: the British considered the Russians to be little more than savages, “repulsive and ferocious” (Edward Walsh, A narrative of the expedition to Holland 1800, p 47). Matters did not improve when, on 19 September, the Duke of York ordered the troops to attack the French and Dutch lines and force them to retreat further south. Possibly due to poor communication the Russians began marching earlier than planned and soon over-extended their line. The Russian commander in chief, Hermann, and his deputy were captured in the ensuing fight in the town of Bergen. The British troops were forced to abandon their original objective in order to rescue the Russian forces from disaster.

It was not an auspicious beginning, and from that moment on the Russian command— now headed by General Ivan Essen— harboured a deep distrust of their British allies. Two weeks passed before the weather improved sufficiently for another attempt, and on 2 October the allies attempted to capture the towns of Egmont op Zee, Bergen and Alkmaar from the French.

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(Battle of Egmont, 2 October 1799)

On this occasion they were more successful, and by the end of a lengthy day of fighting on the beaches and sand dunes the French fell back. The allies suffered heavy casualties, however, in part due to the nature of the terrain.

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(17th century depiction of Egmont op Zee, showing the huge sand dunes)

The towns were surrounded by a network of enormous sand dunes, some as high as 80 or 100 feet, and criss-crossed with deep narrow valleys. This made it impossible to form up large units of men, and the British in particular found it heavy going. A private soldier from the 92nd regiment of Highlanders wrote afterwards:

“In one instance, one of our parties having climbed to the top of a sand ridge, found that a party of the enemy was just beneath, and instantly rushed down the ridge upon them; but the side of the ridge was so steep and soft, that the effort to keep themselves from falling prevented them from making regular use of their arms. They were involuntarily precipitated amongst the enemy, and the bottom of the ridge was so narrow, and the footing on all sides so soft, that neither party were [sic] able, for want of room, to make use of the bayonet; but they struck at each other with the butts of their firelocks, and some individuals were fighting with their fists.” (Narrative of a private soldier in His Majesty’s 92nd regiment of foot… 1820, p 75)

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(Photograph of the sand dunes around Schoorl, North Holland)

Following the battle of the 2nd October the allied forces were able to move out from behind the Zijpe and entrench themselves further south around Alkmaar. They were still several miles away from Amsterdam, however. A further attempt to push the lines further forward was made on 6 October in an assault on Beverwijk.

Once again, however, poor communication between the brigades led to near disaster. The weather was so poor that the troops could barely see each other, let alone the enemy. The Duke of York, who remained at Alkmaar, had no idea what was going on and sent one of his aides up a church spire with a telescope to check on his troops’ progress.

Reports of the battle are sketchy, but what seems to have happened was that the Russians became over-extended for a second time. They pushed on to Castricum and more British divisions had to be hastily sent out to reinforce them and extend their flank. The French commander, General Brune, charged at the head of his cavalry in person, but were turned back by a British cavalry charge through the sandhills which pretty much saved the day.

By evening the French and Dutch retreated but the allied forces were exhausted and had, once again, suffered heavy casualties. The rain had mired down the roads and cut off their precarious supply lines. They had no choice but to retreat, in some disorder— some British units confused the dykes that criss-crossed the country with the wet roads and fell in. The army retreated back to the Zijpe and the French and Dutch regained their lost territory.

It was status quo, and the weather continued dreadful. The supplies were running low, the men were beginning to fall victim to marsh fever, and there was no immediate prospect of success in a march on Amsterdam. More seriously, news came in of General Suvorov’s defeat in Switzerland at the hands of Massena: the allied force, originally meant to be a distraction for the French, was now in danger of becoming the whole French army’s main focus.

The commanders decided to cut their losses and make terms. These were signed on 18 October and permitted the allied forces to evacuate unmolested, provided 8000 French prisoners of war were released from Britain.

The end result of the campaign was several thousand casualties, mostly Russian, and extreme bad feeling between Britain and her ally. Shortly afterwards Russia dropped out of the coalition, although the Russian troops remained in the Channel Islands until the spring thaw allowed them to return home.