Messier than fiction

I’ve been reading — or more accurately dipping in and out of — the trial transcripts of the Annesley case.

It was the sensation of 1743. A sailor returned from many years in the American colonies with the claim that he had been kidnapped at the age of twelve and sold into indentured servitude by his uncle after the death of his father, the Earl of Anglesea.

Said uncle had inherited his brother’s title, and strenuously denied that the sailor was his nephew, that he had anything to do with the disappearance of his nephew, and that his nephew was the legitimate son (and therefore heir) to his brother.

We’re all familiar with the story of the wicked uncle who arranges for the rightful heir to be sold away overseas in order to embezzle his heritage. Robert Louis Stephenson made it part of our literary heritage in Kidnapped (possibly prompted by the Annesley case), but even before that we see it in folk tales. It pops up again and again in all kinds of genres. I’ve used a variant myself in Magnus’ Christmas Angel.

The Annesley case bears out the truism that truth is stranger, and certainly less neat, than fiction.

James Annesley claimed to be, and in fact was proved to be, the son of Arthur Annesley, Baron Altham, and his wife Mary Sheffield.

Altham was, even by the standards of the time, a loose living sort of a person. Did his wife take exception? Perhaps. He threw her out of the home, keeping her two-year old son. Four years later, one of his mistresses persuaded him to throw the boy out too, and James was apparently left to more or less raise himself from the age of six.

He must have had some support somewhere, because later several of his school-friends recognised him, and gave evidence about his identity to the courts.

Altham died when James was twelve, and shortly after that, Richard Annesley (Uncle Dick) found the boy and sent him to Delaware to work as an indentured servant.

Later claims that the boy was not legitimate foundered at least in part on the question of why Uncle Dick would have bothered to get rid of someone who could not threaten his claim to the Altham title, and later to the title of Earl of Anglesea, inherited from his cousin.

James returned in 1740, but his claims didn’t become public until 1742. The case notes mention a number of attempts on his life, which James blamed on Uncle Dick, whose comfy state was clearly threatened by his nuisance of a nephew, who had not had the good manners to die in Delaware.

After hearing many witnesses (and an incredible barrage of lies), the Irish court found in favour of James, but that wasn’t the end of it. His estates were returned to him, but Uncle Dick took an appeal and continued to hold the title while it was working its way slowly through the courts. (But note the comment below from a correspondent.)

As an interesting side note, the Annesley vs Anglesea case is the basis for the principle of lawyer-client privilege. The court ruled that a solicitor could not be called on to testify about whether or not his former client took a mistress, and laid out three of the reasons still used today to support the principle.

James died in 1760, and Uncle Dick in 1761. Uncle Dick’s son did not inherit the Anglesea title, which became extinct with the death of the wicked uncle.

Truth is considerably messier than fiction.


4 thoughts on “Messier than fiction

  1. Typos. It all took place in the 18th century. They died in the 1700’s.
    The Irish courts and the English courts disagreed as to who held which titles . The English House of Lords has never rescinded an award of a writ because they made a mistake though the courts can require property be turned over.
    The boy won in the Irish courts.
    The book Birthright is about this case. The idea that Stevenson based Kidnapped on the case is widely held.

    • Thanks. Fixed the typos (that’s what I get for typing straight into the post while sick with a tummy flu) and added a comment on the courts.

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