The only important series of surviving letters from Thomas Anson himself deal with a dramatic close-shave of history. Only two or three years before Shugborough became a beautiful oasis with its new gardens and landscape war came dangerously close. Thomas was at Shugborough in the winter of 1745 within a few hours ride of the approaching army of the Jacobites and Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
He kept his brother George informed of events, riding himself to Stone to hear news from Newcastle-under-Lyme, and sending agents up towards Ashbourne. The original letters are in the British Library. (1)
December 4th ’45 Wednesday
You will share my disappointment when I relate the sequel after your alarm of
your midnight march and most positive assurances that the Rebels were at
Newcastle. I went to Stone in the morning full of the battle I was to see and met Crowds of People coming back in great Consternation who cry’d out ‘it was begun’. I heard no firing, when I came I found all the Troops in and about the Town upon heaps. I forc’d my way to the Duke’s (Cumberland) Quarters where I learn’d that the Rebels were at Leek. Having been long tir’d to death I got home as fast as I could, and find the Rascals left Leek at one this morning and tis suppos’d will be at Derby tonight.
Shugborough, 7 December 1745
…the rebels yesterday marched out of Derby and lay at Ashburn and the adjacent villages. A person I sent to reconnoitre saw the whole body pass along a valley at the other side of Weaver Hills, the road to Newcastle or Leek.
The rebels exceed 7,000: 3,000 or 4,000 good troop, the rest rabble and boys. The Pretender’s son marched at the head. He is something under 6 feet high, wears a plaid, walks well, speaks little, and was never seen to smile. My situation is still the same – between two fires.
Shugborough 9 December 1745
They marched out of Leek yesterday, and are probably returning by the same
route they came. The rebels are greatly exasperated at their reception in Derby: their leader was observ’d to be much more gloomy than usual; their ladies wept; and their
whole body marched out with visible dejection and despair. They have plundered and ravaged, murdered two or three people, and wounded others, so that their name is in horror and detestation. Their cruelty will probably increase, if they have time to exert it, which I fancy the Duke will not give them.
Shugborough 14th December 1745
The rebels marched out of Preston yesterday, our horse marched in that afternoon, and it was thought it would be up with them by noon today.
The threat of further war continued during the next few years and there were rumours of spies and plots into the 1750s. Lady Anson, George Anson’s wife and daughter of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, was in a unique position to know what was happening in the political world and seems to have contacts within the Georgian secret service. Her brother, Colonel Joseph Yorke, was in Europe and an important source of intelligence for his father, the Lord Chancellor, and the government. Elizabeth Anson kept Thomas up to date with the Prince’s movements, and, it seems, Thomas was in a position to report back to her about the Prince when he spent six weeks in Paris in June 1748.
“We hope very much from the Rondeur of your French Ministerial Friends; and I beg my account of the low state of Monarchy here, may not tempt you, or them, to send us over the young Gentleman, whose forlorn & neglected condition we heard of from you, with so much pleasure.”(2)(June 28th 1748 – wrongly dated 1749 in the Staffs Record Office Catalogue)
The Prince had been in France and was still plotting, hoping a dynastic marriage with the daughter of Frederick the Great would give him wider support. His presence in France was an embarrassment at that time because of the negotiations of the Peace of Aix-La-Chapelle which would end the war between France and England. (3) Thomas was acting as a messenger or in some kind of official capacity in Paris and Versailles, though he was also making the excursion a long holiday with his friend James Mytton.
On 13th June 1749 Lady Anson writes to Thomas of “Mr Speaker’s most magnificent Speech to his Majesty” which was “as long as a court sermon and went through everything that had been done this session.” (Presumably Lady Anson was in the speaker’s gallery, taking a close interest in the “Day’s Entertainment.”
He “….represented the Bill for giving the Money to Mr Radcliffe’s Children as a Money Bill, & it was accordingly passed as such. Mr. Radcliffe’s master, the Young Pretender, after having been long lost has at last appeared at Venice, where he is now said to be, in the meantime great search has been made for him in France, where all Passengers upon some of the Great Roads have been stopped & examined.” (3)
Lord Hardwicke had presided over the trial of Charles Radclyffe, one of the Prince’s closest friends and supporters and his condemnation to death and execution in 1746 was described by the old edition of the Dictionary of National Biography as a “gross miscarriage of justice”. (4) As Radclyffe was a French citizen he should not have been tried as a British traitor. The government was making provision for Radclyffe’s children.
The threat from the Prince, though it was increasingly only a threat in his own imagination, continued for several years. Almost incredibly he visited London himself in 1750 to meet potential supporters. In October 1750 he was reported to be in England yet again “in the heart of the kingdom, in the county of Stafford .” (5)
The Anson’s attitude to Bonnie Prince Charlie seems straightforward, but James “Athenian” Stuart, whose name occasionally caused confusion on his travels, was a catholic, and may have been a Jacobite supporter. His principal patron, until his death in 1757, was James Dawkins, who was a fervent Jacobite at least until 1753 when he helped in the ongoing negotiations between Charles Edward Stuart and Frederick the Great. James Stuart lived in Dawkins’ house after his return from his architectural expedition to Greece and he may still have been living in Dawkins’ house when he first met Thomas Anson and became one of his closest friends.
(1) The letters are quoted in full in – Captain S W C Pack CBE MSc ADC RN: Admiral Lord Anson (Cassell 1960)
(2) Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers.D615 P (S)/1/3
(4) Dictionary of National Biography (DNB Online)
(5) Andrew Lang: Pickle the spy. (Available on Google Books)