The Mystery of the Jacobite Poet
By Edward Corp, retired Professor of British History at the Université de Toulouse
There is a poem in the Stuart Papers written by James Murray, the Jacobite Earl of Dunbar.1 Although it’s undated, it must have been written in January or February 1721, when Dunbar was obliged to leave the Stuart court in Rome because he was so unpopular. The poem reads:
Tho from my King I do retire
‘tis him I love, him I admire
Towards him do all my wishes tend
Which with my Life can only end
Again let the Whigs me rebell call
‘tis they their country do enthrall
Again I’le fight as now I pray
To bring him home that’s far away
What tho’ our last attempt was vain
Our Friends imprison’d, exil’d, slain
As martyrs blood the church increased
So for their sufferings we’l be blest
Heaven quickly will it’s aid afford
Make Brittain own it’s injur’d Lord
And each one bless the glorious day
That brings him home that’s far away
A poem by James Murray, the Jacobite Earl of Dunbar, early 1721. RA SP Box 3/9/2 State Papers Online: The Stuart and Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle.
Written just after the birth of Prince Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie), the poem expresses Murray’s regret at having to leave the exiled King James III, and refers in the second stanza to the unsuccessful Jacobite rising of 1715‒16 (“our last attempt”). But the tone of the poem is positive. There will be another attempt, and this time it will succeed in restoring King James, in bringing “him home that’s far away” in Rome. The reference to “Brittain” rather than England implies that the poem was written by a Scot, and of course the Earl of Dunbar was Scottish.
Dunbar was not only Scottish but also Protestant, and he returned to the court a few years later. Despite being a Protestant, he had bad relations with one of the two Protestant chaplains employed at the Stuart court. This was the Rev. Ezekiel Hamilton, a peculiar and argumentative man who styled himself the grand master of the chivalric Order of Toboso. In 1733, the two men had a serious disagreement concerning poetry.
In August of that year, the other Protestant chaplain, Daniel Williams, died. When Hamilton looked through the dead man’s papers, he discovered five poems written about him in Williams’s handwriting, which he (Hamilton) “considered as violent satyrs against him.”2 Hamilton was furious but couldn’t believe that the poems had been composed by Williams, whom he claimed must have merely copied them “in pure obedience and complaisance to Powerful Patrons.” Examining the poems in detail convinced him that they must have been composed by a Scotsman. “There are not only Scotticisms in these Poems,” he wrote, “but Scots words truly spell’d, which many who know a little of the Scots Language are not able to do, and Mr Williams was a great stranger to that Language.”3 As far as Hamilton was concerned, the chief suspect was Lord Dunbar, who was the most “Powerful Patron” at the court.4
A copy of
“An Inventory of money and other goods, wch were found in ye custody of late Mr Daniel Williams,” signed by Ezekiel Hamilton and James Edgar, September 9, 1733, containing among other things “a packet of letters and other papers.” RA SP Main 164/168 State Papers Online: The Stuart and Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle.
Rev. Ezekiel Hamilton to James Edgar, October 12, 1733. RA SP Main 165/129 State Papers Online: The Stuart and Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle.
Dunbar’s account of this incident, undated but written in December 1733, and in which he denied being the author of the poems, is in the Stuart Papers.5 In it, he argued that he couldn’t possibly be the author of the poems because he was “known never to have written one line in verse during his whole life.”6 Hamilton refused to accept this, and made several complaints to the king “to prove that Mr. Williams’s poetry was none of his own . . . and that others had written it.”7 These complaints were not only very long, but also extremely disrespectful, so after a while, James told Hamilton never to enter the Palazzo del Re again and persuaded the Papal authorities to order him to leave not only Rome but also the Papal States.8
Draft of a letter from Dunbar to an unknown recipient, December 1733. RA SP Main 142/114B (3) State Papers Online: The Stuart and Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle.
Hamilton never forgave Dunbar, and described him as “a Man without Truth and Honour, and who is not to be trusted even in the smallest Matter.”9 In a vitriolic attack on Dunbar, written in April 1734, Hamilton pretended that the Scotsman had wanted to join his chivalric Order of Toboso, but would never be admitted. “His company ought to be avoided by all honourable knights and squires,” he wrote, and “he ought to be condemned to admire himself, to laugh at his own insipid jokes and to read his own dull and malicious poems.”10
But was Dunbar guilty? Without the original five poems, we cannot tell, though as we’ve seen, the Stuart Papers contain evidence that he’d written at least one poem during his life. Perhaps, however, one or more of the poems was written by another Scotsman. So who might that have been, because there were not many Scots at the exiled Jacobite court in Rome. One possible candidate was John Stewart of Bute, a Catholic, who’d joined Hamilton’s Order of Toboso.11 On November 17, 1733, only a few days before he was ordered to leave Rome, Hamilton expelled Stewart from his chivalric Order of Toboso on the grounds that he’d told “ye Irish Recolets at St. Isidore in Rome . . . not to have any further communication, or commerce with the Grand Master.” He then condemned Stewart “to converse only with Bad Generals, and Dull Poets.”12 Was this because he suspected Stewart of being one of the authors of the five poems? Or was it because Stewart had supported Dunbar when the latter denied writing them?
A letter by Edgar of Hamilton to the Knights of Toboso, expelling Stewart from the order, November 17, 1733. RA SP Main 166/7 State Papers Online: The Stuart and Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle.
Dunbar remained at the court in Rome until 1747, and then lived at Avignon until his death in 1770. The Stuart Papers contain hundreds of his letters, including many personal details, but I haven’t yet found any references in them to poetry. Has anyone else ever come across any other poems written by Lord Dunbar?
About the Author
Edward Corp is a retired professor of British history at the Université de Toulouse. His particular interests are 17th- and 18th-century portraits and the history of music (especially orchestral music and opera). Both are relevant to his research concerning the court of the exiled Stuart Kings James II and James III in France and Italy after 1689.
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- RA SP Box 3/9/2.
- RA SP Main 164/168, a copy of “An Inventory of money and other goods, wch were found in ye custody of late Mr. Daniel Williams,” signed by Ezekiel Hamilton and James Edgar, September 9, 1733, containing among other things “a packet of letters and other papers.”
- RA SP Main 165/129, Hamilton to Edgar, October 12, 1733.
- Apart from Lord Dunbar, the most important members of the court in 1733 included the Earl of Nithsdale, John Stewart of Bute, William Hay, and James Edgar, all of whom were Scottish, and Thomas Forster, who was English.
- RA SP Main 142/114, draft of a letter from Dunbar to an unknown recipient, December 1733.
- My emphasis.
- See note 3.
- All the correspondence can be found in RA SP Main 165 and 166. See also Edward Corp, The Stuarts in Italy, 1719‒1766 (Cambridge: 2011), 324‒27.
- Historical Manuscripts Commission, 10th Report (London: 1885), 519, Hamilton to Kelly, April 22, 1738.
- Ibid., 184, Hamilton to the Knights of Toboso, April 22, 1734. My emphasis.
- Corp, The Stuarts in Italy, 324. The son of John Stewart’s half brother was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, a favorite of King George III and the prime minister from 1762 to 1763.
- RA SP Main 166/67 and 68, two copies by Edgar of Hamilton to the Knights of Toboso, expelling Stewart from the order, November 17, 1733. The “Dull Poet” (my emphasis) was Lord Dunbar. The “Bad General” was Thomas Forster, whom Hamilton particularly disliked and whom he criticized for his part in the Jacobite rising of 1715‒16. (See also notes 4 and 5.)