Douglas Peerage Case

The Douglas Peerage Case

Rather more than a hundred years ago the whole kingdom was disturbed by the judicial proceedings which were taken with reference to the succession to the ancient honours of the great Scotch house of Douglas. Boswell, who was but little indisposed to exaggeration, and who is reported by Sir Walter Scott to have been such an ardent partizan that he headed a mob which smashed the windows of the judges of the Court of Session, says that "the Douglas cause shook the security of birthright in Scotland to its foundation, and was a cause which, had it happened before the Union, when there was no appeal to a British House of Lords, would have left the fortress of honours and of property in ruins." His zeal even led him to oppose his idol Dr. Johnson, who took the opposite side, and to tell him that he knew nothing of the cause, which, he adds, he does most seriously believe was the case. But however this may be, the popular interest and excitement were extreme; the decision of the Court of Session in 1767 led to serious disturbances, and the reversal of its judgment two years later was received with the most extravagant demonstrations of joy.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Archibald, Duke of Douglas, wore the honours of Sholto, "the Douglas." His father, James, the second Marquis of Douglas, had been twice married, and had issue by his first wife in the person of James, earl of Angus, who was killed at the battle of Steinkirk; and by his second of a son and daughter. The son was the Archibald just mentioned, who became his heir and successor, and the daughter was named Lady Jane. Her ladyship, like most of the women of the Douglas family, was celebrated for her beauty; but unhappily became afterwards as famous for her evil fortune. In her first womanhood she entered into a nuptial agreement with the Earl of Dalkeith, who subsequently became Duke of Buccleuch, but the marriage was unexpectedly broken off, and for very many years she persistently refused all the offers which were made for her hand. At length, in 1746, when she was forty-eight years old, she was secretly married to Mr. Stewart, of Grantully. This gentleman was a penniless scion of a good family, and the sole resources of the newly-wedded couple consisted of an allowance of £300 per annum, which had been granted by the duke to his sister, with whom he was on no friendly terms. Even this paltry means of support was precarious, and it was resolved to keep the marriage secret. The more effectually to conceal it, Mr. Stewart and his nobly-born wife repaired to France, and remained on the Continent for three years. At the end of that time they returned to England, bringing with them two children, of whom they alleged the Lady Jane had been delivered in Paris, at a twin-birth, in July 1748. Six months previously to their arrival in London their marriage had been made public, and the duke had stopped the allowance which he had previously granted. They were, therefore, in the direst distress; and, to add to their other misfortunes, Mr. Stewart being deeply involved in debt, his creditors threw him into prison.

Lady Jane bore up against her accumulated sorrows with more than womanly heroism, and when she found all her efforts to excite the sympathy of her brother unavailing, addressed the following letter to Mr. Pelham, then Secretary of State:—

"SIR,—If I meant to importune you I should ill deserve the generous compassion which I was informed some months ago you expressed upon being acquainted with my distress. I take this as the least troublesome way of thanking you, and desiring you to lay my application before the king in such a light as your own humanity will suggest. I cannot tell my story without seeming to complain of one of whom I never will complain. I am persuaded my brother wishes me well, but, from a mistaken resentment, upon a creditor of mine demanding from him a trifling sum, he has stopped the annuity which he had always paid me—my father having left me, his only younger child, in a manner unprovided for. Till the Duke of Douglas is set right—which I am confident he will be—I am destitute. Presumptive heiress of a great estate and family, with two children, I want bread. Your own nobleness of mind will make you feel how much it costs me to beg, though from the king. My birth, and the attachment of my family, I flatter myself his Majesty is not unacquainted with. Should he think me an object of his royal bounty, my heart won't suffer any bounds to be set to my gratitude; and, give me leave to say, my spirit won't suffer me to be burdensome to his Majesty longer than my cruel necessity compels me.

"I little thought of ever being reduced to petition in this way; your goodness will therefore excuse me if I have mistaken the manner, or said anything improper. Though personally unknown to you, I rely upon your intercession. The consciousness of your own mind in having done so good and charitable a deed will be a better return than the thanks of

Jane Douglas Stewart."

The result was that the king granted the distressed lady a pension of £300 a-year; but Lady Jane seems to have been little relieved thereby. The Douglas' notions of economy were perhaps eccentric, but, at all events, not only did Mr. Stewart still remain in prison, but his wife was frequently compelled to sell the contents of her wardrobe to supply him with suitable food during his prolonged residence in the custody of the officers of the Court of King's Bench. During the course of his incarceration Lady Jane resided in Chelsea, and the letters which passed between the severed pair, letters which were afterwards produced in court—proved that their children were rarely absent from their thoughts, and that on all occasions they treated them with the warmest parental affection.

In 1752, Lady Jane visited Scotland, accompanied by her children, for the purpose, if possible, of effecting a reconciliation with her brother; but the duke flatly refused even to accord her an interview. She therefore returned to London, leaving the children in the care of a nurse at Edinburgh. This woman, who had originally accompanied herself and her husband to the continent, treated them in the kindest possible manner; but, notwithstanding her care, Sholto Thomas Stewart, the younger of the twins, sickened and died on the 11th of May 1753. The disconsolate mother at once hurried back to the Scottish capital, and again endeavoured to move her brother to have compassion upon her in her distress. Her efforts were fruitless, and, worn out by starvation, hardship, and fatigue, she, too, sank and died in the following November, disowned by her friends, and, as she said to Pelham, "wanting bread."

Better days soon dawned upon Archibald, the surviving twin. Lady Shaw, deeply stirred by the misfortunes and lamentable end of his mother, took him under her own charge, and educated and supported him as befitted his condition. When she died a nobleman took him up; and his father, having unexpectedly succeeded to the baronetcy and estates of Grantully, on acquiring his inheritance, immediately executed a bond of provision in his favour for upwards of £2500, and therein acknowledged him as his son by Lady Jane Douglas.

The rancour of the duke, however, had not died away, and he stubbornly refused to recognise the child as his nephew. And, more than this, after having spent the greater portion of his life in seclusion, he unexpectedly entered into a marriage, in 1758, with the eldest daughter of Mr. James Douglas, of Mains. This lady, far from sharing in the opinions of her noble lord, espoused the cause of the lad whom he so firmly repudiated, and became a partisan so earnest that a quarrel resulted, which gave rise to a separation. But peace was easily restored, and quietness once more reigned in the ducal household.

In the middle of 1761, the Duke of Douglas was unexpectedly taken ill, and his physicians pronounced his malady to be mortal. Nature, in her strange and unexplained way, told the ill-tempered peer the same tale, and, when death was actually before his eyes, he repented of his conduct towards his unfortunate sister. To herself he was unable to make any reparation, but her boy remained; and, on the 11th of July 1761, he executed an entail of his entire estates in favour of the heirs of his father, James, Marquis of Douglas, with remainder to Lord Douglas Hamilton, the brother of the Duke of Hamilton, and supplemented it by another deed which set forth that, as in the event of his death without heirs of his body, Archibald Douglas, alias Stewart, a minor, and son of the deceased Lady Jane Douglas, his sister, would succeed him, he appointed the Duchess of Douglas, the Duke of Queensberry, and certain other persons whom he named, to be the lad's tutors and guardians. Thus, from being a rejected waif, the boy became the acknowledged heir to a peerage, and a long rent-roll.

There were still, however, many difficulties to be surmounted. The guardians of the young Hamilton had no intention of losing the splendid prize which was almost within their grasp, and repudiated the boy's pretensions. On the other hand, the guardians of the youthful Stewart-Douglas were determined to procure the official recognition of his claims. Accordingly, immediately after the duke's decease, they hastened to put him in possession of the Douglas estate, and set on foot legal proceedings to justify their conduct. The Hamilton faction thereupon despatched one of their number to Paris, and on his return their emissary rejoiced their hearts and elevated their hopes by informing them that he was convinced, on safe grounds, that Lady Jane Douglas had never given birth to the twins, as suggested, and that the whole story was a fabrication. They, therefore, asserted before the courts that the claimant to the Douglas honours was not a Douglas at all.

They denied that Lady Jane Douglas was delivered on July 10, 1748, in the house of a Madame La Brune, as stated; and brought forward various circumstances to show that Madame La Brune herself never existed. They asserted that it was impossible that the birth could have taken place at that time, because on the specified date, and for several days precedent and subsequent to the 10th of July, Lady Jane Douglas with her husband and a Mrs. Hewit were staying at the Hotel de Chalons—an inn kept by a Mons. Godefroi, who, with his wife, was ready to prove their residence there. And they not only maintained that dark work had been carried on in Paris by the parties concerned in the affair, but alleged that Sir John Stewart, Lady Jane Douglas, and Mrs. Hewit, had stolen from French parents the children which they afterwards foisted upon the public as real Douglases.

The claimant, and those representing him, on their part, brought forward the depositions of several witnesses that Lady Jane Douglas appeared to them to be with child while at Aix-la-Chapelle and other places, and put in evidence the sworn testimony of Mrs. Hewit, who accompanied the newly-wedded pair to the continent, as to the actual delivery of her ladyship at Paris upon the 10th of July 1748. They also submitted the depositions of independent witnesses as to the recognition of the claimant by Sir John (then Mr.) Stewart and his wife, and produced a variety of letters which had passed between Sir John Stewart, Lady Jane Douglas, Mrs. Hewit, and others as to the birth. They also added to their case four letters, which purported to emanate from Pierre la Marre, whom they represented to have been the accoucheur at the delivery of Lady Jane.

Sir John Stewart, Lady Jane's husband, and the reputed father of the claimant, died in June 1764; but, before his decease, his depositions were taken in the presence of two ministers and of a justice of the peace. He asserted, "as one slipping into eternity, that the defendant (Archibald Stewart) and his deceased twin-brother were both born of the body of Lady Jane Douglas, his lawful spouse, in the year 1748."

The case came before the Court of Session on the 17th of July 1767, when no fewer than fifteen judges took their seats to decide it. During its continuance Mrs. Hewit, who was charged with abetting the fraud, died; but before her death she also, like Sir John Stewart, formally and firmly asserted, with her dying breath, that her evidence in the matter was unprejudiced and true. After a patient hearing seven of the judges voted to "sustain the reasons of reduction," and the other seven to "assoilzie the defender." In other words, the bench was divided in opinion, and the Lord President, who has no vote except as an umpire in such a dilemma, voted for the Hamilton or illegitimacy side, and thus deprived Archibald Douglas, or Stewart, of both the title and the estates.

But a matter of such importance could not, naturally, be allowed to remain in such an unsatisfactory condition. An appeal was made to the House of Lords, and the judgment of the Scottish Court of Session was reversed in 1769. Archibald Douglas was, therefore, declared to be the son of Lady Jane, and the heir to the dukedom of Douglas.