Wilhelm Müller: a German James Bond

I should be reading about Sir Home Popham right now, and I am. Honestly I am. Well, mostly I am. Because this week I fell down a massive research rabbit-hole and have been mucking happily about at the bottom of it ever since.

It’s the same thing that happened when I felt compelled to spend a fortnight researching the elusive Major Charles James, and in fact the circumstances are similar. James was a shady character whose public persona concealed a whole world of secret activity. My new chap also seems to have led several parallel lives, some of them highly dangerous.

I first encountered this chap while working through The National Archives (TNA) ADM 1/4354, which (rather excitingly) purports to be Secret Correspondence relating to the naval station in the Downs, 1809–10. I was hoping to find some evidence of Sir Home Popham’s activities during the Walcheren campaign: as it happens he was not mentioned once, but I did find a whole ream of correspondence from Lieutenant William Muller, King’s German Legion.

After reading a few pages I realised I had to find out more. And when I started to look, I found stuff. Lots of stuff, in fact, because Lt Muller KGL was a pretty cool guy. So without further ado may I introduce you to Wilhelm Müller, a chap my son has (aptly enough) described as ‘the German James Bond’.

Early life

Wilhelm Müller was born on 13 May 1783 in Stade, Hanover, reasonably close to Hamburg on the River Elbe.[1] His mother was Portuguese; his father, Christian Gottlieb Müller (1753–1814), owned a fleet of merchant vessels and was a Hanoverian customs officer.[2]

Young Wilhelm probably spent some years training to be an engineer before going to study at the University of Gӧttingen in 1803, where he received a PhD and was for some time employed as a Public Lecturer of Military Sciences. (There was a family history of dual military/academic life: Müller’s grandfather had been professor of mathematics at the University of Gießen alongside being chief engineer of the Duchies of Grubenhagen and Cadenberge.[3])

Müller claimed he had taught ‘several Russian, German, and Polish Princes, three of whom hold … the rank of generals in the French and Russian service’. He taught a broad course, liberally founded on mathematics (he was friends with Carl Friedrich Gauß) but also including ‘orthography, geography, general history, the languages … dancing, fencing, riding, and even jumping and swimming’ as well as sciences (‘natural philosophy’) and moral development. He also travelled ‘through France, Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, Austria, Westphalia, Holland, &c. in order to inspect all remarkable contrivances of machines and inventions, and particularly all military inventions … [and] fields of battle … where the present sovereign of France, and other celebrated warriors, evinced the superiority of their talents over other eminent generals’.[4]

Müller’s map of the terrain of the Wagram campaign from Relation of the Operations and Battles of the Austrian and French Armies in the Year 1809 (1810)

He authored several books: on analytical trigonometry (1807); on the elements of mathematics more generally, including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, stereometry, and spherics (1807); a military encyclopaedia (1808); a handbook of artillery (1810); A Relation of the Operations and Battles of the Austrian and French Armies in the Year 1809 (1810), including details of the Battle of Wagram; Elements of the Science of War (3 vols, 1811); and several books from the 1820s and 1830s on cosmography and terrestrial globes (he later engaged in an extended dispute with Johann Caspar Garthe over a particular kind of globe, which both separately claimed to have invented).[5]

‘The German James Bond’

On 24 April 1809, Dr Müller’s life took a different turn when he was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in the Engineer’s Corps of the King’s German Legion. What persuaded him to return to military life is unclear, but he was probably already working undercover for the British government. Perhaps the military rank was intended as some sort of protection.

Müller was known to and employed by various government departments. In his letters he namechecked William Huskisson (War Department), Joseph Planta (Foreign Office), William Wellesley Pole, John Barrow, and John Wilson Croker (Secretaries of the Admiralty), and Lord Mulgrave (First Lord of the Admiralty). Clearly a man like Müller, intelligent and fluent in German, French, and likely Dutch (living as close as he did to the Dutch border), was a valuable commodity. By the summer of 1809 he was being employed to scout out French fortifications between Boulogne and Bergen-op-Zoom and to report on affairs in northern Germany. As a trained engineer (and an expert in military fortifications at that), he was the perfect man for the job.

Müller’s sketch of a French mortar and British carronade (TNA ADM 1/4354)

Müller’s exploits – his ‘excursions’, as he called them, rather light-heartedly – are covered at some length (and detail) in TNA ADM 1/4354. These are his reports of two trips, one at the end of June/early July 1809 and one in August and September 1809.

‘Excursion’ 1: 29 June–15 July 1809

Müller was clearly not afraid to strain his faculties and bodily strength to the limit, and his report of his July 1809 trip is particularly dizzying. It began on 29 June, ‘about 3 hours after I had the honor of receiving the necessary papers from your [William Wellesley Pole’s] hands’. By noon on the 30th of June he was on board a cutter, the Princess of Wales, making for Heligoland, where he arrived on 3 July.

At this point the journey went a little crazy. Müller wrote a letter to the senior naval officer at Heligoland asking him for a cutter to be sent to meet him on the 9th or 10th July at Ems. Having given himself a rendezvous, Müller then landed at Norden at 10 pm on 4 July – presumably to be under cover of darkness – and travelled overnight to Emden, a journey of 19 miles. An hour after arriving at Emden, and around dawn, he was in a boat taking soundings of the harbour and of the Ems river. He then sailed a little upriver to Delfzijl then continued his breakneck journey, pausing only to change horses. He arrived at 4 am on 6 July at Zwolle, having done (roughly) 110 miles in 24 hours (on early 19th century roads!).

Müller’s map of the area around Cuxhaven (TNA ADM 1/4354)

The next few days passed in similar fashion, with Müller travelling across parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and northern Germany, hardly pausing to do anything but examine the fortifications on his path. His observations, which he recorded in his letter to William Wellesley Pole, were similar for every stop: observations on the fortifications he passed; the size and quality of the garrisons; the number of guns; and whether there were any bodies of troops nearby. He must have done all this on the wing, because he really travelled VERY fast.

Most pertinently for me, on 9 July he travelled to the island of Walcheren, which the British were then preparing to invade. Not that Müller stopped to savour the local sights: he spent a single hour in Middelburg (‘surrounded by a Wall and Ditch’), where he learned there were 14 sail of the line at Flushing and Antwerp and 5 ships of the line on the stocks, along with 8,000 seamen and plenty of shipbuilding materials. By 5 pm he was back on the mainland and by 4 am next day he was in France at Bois-le-Duc.

By this point Müller must have realised he was very close to missing his 10 July appointment with that cutter on the Ems, so he cast a swift eye over the fortresses on the French border then nipped back up to Norden (stopping only to take some more soundings on the Ems ‘as far as a ward for my personal safety would permit’). He reached the rendezvous at 2 am on 11 July. Technically he was late, but the cutter was there anyway. Müller landed at Yarmouth three days later and made his way immediately to London, where he arrived on 15 July at 3 pm, hopefully having had a moment to shave and change his clothes.

Müller’s itinerary (TNA ADM 1/4354)

As Müller put it, ‘I had no time at all for sleep or refreshment except when in the coach or on bord [sic] Ship.’ No kidding. I hope he didn’t faceplant on the table and start snoring halfway through his report to Pole.

‘Excursion’ 2: 3 August–11 September 1809

‘In respect to my remuneration for my troubles,’ Müller wrote, ‘I left it at their Lordships liberallity [sic] either to remunerate me or to give me any further employ[ment], whereby I might receive a proportionate recompense. Accordingly, the following Month … I was again employed on a secret service,’ this time by Lord Mulgrave himself.

Müller’s remit was to check out the French coast closest to Britain and to work out what might be going on in the hearts and minds of the Dutch and German people. This time, however, he had several close shaves. This was, after all, the beginning of August 1809: the Walcheren expedition was in full swing and the French were decidedly twitchy, and definitely on the lookout for British spies.

Müller took precautions. He had to look, as well as act, the part and bought ‘clothes to dress me according to the fashion of the country’: as he explained later, so as ‘not to raise suspicion respecting my dress.’ He also changed a great deal of money through trusted third parties – money he used to buy a carriage and horse, purchase maps and charts, and occasionally outright bribe people for information.

He left London on the evening of 3 August 1809 and landed at Cuxhaven on the 5th. He travelled immediately to Stade, his hometown, because he needed a passport to go to Hamburg.

(The passport is a gift to any historian trying to add flesh to a historical personage. The physical description noted that Müller was tall – 180cm, to be precise, or about 5 foot 11 inches – with brown hair and eyes, an oval face with a round chin, and a fresh complexion.)

(TNA ADM 1/4354)

On 8 August Müller was in Hamburg, where he wrote a letter to William Wellesley Pole recording his initial thoughts about the place and the inclination of the locals (against Bonaparte, he thought). He spent a few days there, buying maps and charts, ‘part of which I thrust [sic, trust] will be usefull, and the rest I was forced to purchase to prevent Suspicion.’

His next major stop was to be Paris, so he needed some people to back him up as a trustworthy man of good character. Accordingly he went to Gӧttingen, where he got the university professors to write him letters of recommendation. On 13 August he was in Cassel, where he found he had company: ‘Jerome Bonaparte was there with almost 2,500 Westphalian troops.’ Apparently Jerome had ordered the execution of 13 ‘estimated Gentlemens [sic]’, which had stirred up anti-French sentiment in the locality.

At Mainz (Mayence) Müller was told he would have to wait two weeks before going into France: ‘however some money procured me directly a French passeport for Paris.’ This wasn’t the last time he used wit and wiles to get his way. At Metz he dined with three imperial messengers, whom he plied with food (and drink). At one in the morning he persuaded one of the couriers, a secretary to Marshal Berthier, to travel with him in his coach (the man was probably too shaky to get back on his horse). His new friend continued to be amazingly talkative. Among other things, Müller learned that Napoleon was keen to finish the war with Austria as soon as possible; that he wanted to invade Russia (this was three years before he actually did, of course); and that the frontiers of France were being strongly reinforced by 18,000 men.

Travelling with the courier may have provided Müller with more than just information: it may also have provided him with immunity. At any rate, they reached Verdun without incident and split up. Müller then went on to Paris, where he arrived at 5 pm on 20 August.

Things now started to get tricky. Müller went to the office of the police and stated his intention to visit Boulogne. He was told, however, that ‘it was forbidden to any stranger to travel to a seaport.’ Müller compromised: he asked for a passport to Montreuil-sur-Mer, still 9 miles or so from the sea. This he secured.

At 4 pm on 23 August Müller left Paris. He arrived at Montreuil the next day at 8 pm. He couldn’t officially go to Boulogne, but that wasn’t going to stop him doing it anyway. At 2 am, therefore, under cover of night, he walked the rest of the way to Boulogne (about 20 miles!). He stayed there long enough to compile some very detailed notes on the defences and garrison and likelihood of a British assault on the place, but then, to his dismay, he bumped into two gendarmes.

Müller must have thought this was the end, but luckily he was able to bluff his way out of this potentially sticky situation by claiming he had lost his way. The gendarmes did not blink at the statement that this man was 20 miles from where his passport said he ought to be and promptly escorted him back to Montreuil.

On 28 August, back in Paris, Müller tried to get a passport for Antwerp. This was wishful thinking – the British expedition to Walcheren was then about 10 miles from Antwerp (it had, however, reached its furthest point and was about to start retreating) – and he failed. Determined to get something out of his visit to Paris, Müller visited an old friend who was a captain in the imperial engineers. ‘By several Means,’ Müller reported with frustrating vagueness, ‘I bought from him for 1800 livres all the maps of French seaports’, along with a map of Westphalia that had been drawn up for Marshal Berthier. While his friend wasn’t looking, he also tore various other charts out of a large book and secreted them in his carriage (I wish he had explained how, but he didn’t, so let your imagination run wild).

With his cabriolet bursting with sensitive documents obtained by the most questionable means, Müller now made his way towards Brussels. On his way he passed several large bodies of troops marching hastily towards the Scheldt and Antwerp, where the British were still expected on an hourly basis. Not unnaturally, Müller ‘hope[d] to meet anywhere … corps of the English Expedition’, but instead ‘I was so unhappy to meet two Gendarmes’ (his phrasing, not mine). Surely he couldn’t be lucky twice? Well actually … he could. They examined his passport and searched his cabriolet: ‘however they saw not my maps etc.’ Müller, presumably sweating profusely, put on the same ‘I am a lost tourist, help help help’ act that had worked so well at Boulogne, and pulled it off a second time. The gendarmes escorted him to Brussels; they left him, and ‘I proceeded discreetly.’ I bet he did.

Flanders, he said, was all in a flap, roused by the proximity of British troops: ‘The general sentiment … was against their Government … they thought likewise that all Holland would soon revolt against their King because a second English Expedition would land in the neighbourhood of Amsterdam.’ (Alas!) At this point, however, Müller just wanted to go home. He therefore made for the Ems as quickly as he could. The moment he got aboard a British ship in the river he showed his ‘official Letter’ from the Admiralty to the commanding officer, who promptly arranged for him to be whisked home by the fastest available route. Müller arrived back in London on 11 September at 9 am.

He was justifiably proud of all he had done: as he wrote to John Wilson Croker, he had travelled 3,592 English miles altogether across his two trips. For this he received a remuneration of £400 (a further £352 was eventually extracted), although Müller did not consider this to cover the risk and discomfort he had undergone.

Müller’s signature (TNA ADM 1/4354)

Later career

Müller may have been engaged in more secret service work in 1813 in the run-up to Leipzig: his record in Beamish’s History of the KGL records that he was employed in North Germany in 1813 and 1814.[7] According to his ODNB entry (and yes, he has one) he did more survey work in Germany and also ‘was employed in the home district’ (i.e. London), so he probably did not serve actively with his regiment abroad.[7] He continued in the KGL, however, and was promoted second captain in December 1812. Here he stuck until the regiment was disbanded in February 1816 and he went on half-pay, although he subsequently served in the Hanoverian army’s engineer corps and was eventually promoted to major. He also became Librarian to the Duke of Cambridge, Governor of Hanover, a position he kept until 1834, and was appointed a Knight of the Guelphic Order in 1821 – perhaps a reward for some of his services?

Private life

After all this, what about Müller’s private life? I wasn’t able to glean much about him as a person from his letters, other than that he seems to have been resourceful, proactive, and quick-thinking, not to mention capable of superhuman abilities to stave off sleep. One thing is for sure: he was not married in 1809, which was possibly one reason why he was willing to undertake such dangerous missions. Müller did, however, latermarry a girl from Newtown in Ireland named Clarinda Catherine Ready, about eight years his junior. Their first child, Wilhelm Adolf, was born in September 1812. Over the next 12 years they had at least five sons (there is no sign of daughters). All the children were born in Stade, which suggests Müller settled back there to bring up his family.

Unfortunately, Müller’s story does not have a tremendously happy ending. He and his wife died within a couple of months of each other in 1846, aged 63 and 55. Their children were not especially long-lived: of the three whose lives I’ve managed to track, Hermann Wilhelm died aged 50, Wilhelm Adolf (the eldest) died aged 46, and David Miles Wilhelm died aged 24.[8]

But what a story their father must have had to tell.

References

All quotations from Wilhelm Müller’s correspondence come from TNA ADM 1/4354.

Many thanks to Lynn Bryant (ever my partner in crime), Rob Griffith, and Gareth Glover for help and pointers.

[1] Date of birth from Werner Kummer, ‘J.A. Brandegger, F. Schneider, J.C. Dibold, J.C. Garthe and W. Müller: minor German globe makers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries’, Globe Studies 51/52 (2005[for 2003/04]), pp. 59–71, p. 68 n 18

[2] His father was an interesting character in his own right. Also educated at Gӧttingen, he was briefly in the British Royal Navy but was invalided out after his leg was permanently damaged during a skirmish with Chinese pirates. He subsequently became captain of a customs frigate on the Elbe and published several works on maritime engineering. See https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Gottlieb_Daniel_M%C3%BCller (accessed 16 October 2020)

[3] http://m.genealogias.info/mobi/1/upload/moller.pdf (accessed 16 October 2020)

[4] William Müller, Elements of the Science of War, vol. 1, pp. ix-xvi

[5] Kummer, ‘Minor German globe makers’, p. 68

[6] North Ludlow Beamish, History of the King’s German Legion (T&W Bone, 1837), p. 531

[7] H.M. Chichester, revised by James Falkner, ‘Müller, William (d. 1846)’, ODNB online, published 22 September 2005, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19515, accessed 15 October 2020

[8] These last two paragraphs have been pieced together through searches on ancestry.co.uk.

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 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.

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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]

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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.