Heir Hunters, 18th century style

250 years ago today, Britain was gripped by a scandalous court case that divided the nation.

On one side: those who supported Archibald Douglas as the legal heir to his uncle, the Duke of Douglas.

Ranged against them, those supporting the rival claim of the Duke of Hamilton, who believed Douglas was an imposter – the son of a glass worker, procured on the streets of Paris.

This was the infamous Douglas Cause, now largely forgotten, which came to an end on 27th February 1769.

At the centre of the drama was the beautiful Lady Jane Douglas. While in Paris in July 1748, Lady Jane gave birth to twins, Archibald and Sholto. These were her first children: she was fifty years old.

Archibald was now the heir to the dukedom of Douglas but Lady Jane’s brother had opposed her marriage to the charming but dissolute Colonel John Stewart. As rumours circulated that these were not her real children but were ‘nunnery children’ – meaning, children purchased from orphanages – he refused to accept them and cut off her allowance.

The younger twin, Sholto, died in 1753 and his mother, distraught and destitute, died a few months later.

This might have been the end of the story but in 1758, to the surprise of all, the eccentric Duke of Douglas married Peggy Douglas, who worked on him so unrelentingly in favour of Archibald that he finally named him heir to his estates, ten days before his death in 1761.

This change of heart kicked off a long-running legal battle lasting for eight years and costing both sides upwards of £54,000 – an incredible sum, at the time.

Douglas Cause 1
Document setting out the facts to be proven in the case against Archibald Douglas. From the Andrew Stuart papers, Ref: GD1/237/19/10

The Duke of Hamilton entrusted an Edinburgh lawyer, Andrew Stuart, with the investigation. Stuart’s four-year search for evidence took him all over France and to the Netherlands and Germany. The ‘facts’ of the birth provided by Archibald’s father and Lady Jane’s servant, Helen Hewitt, proved to be remarkably elusive. Key witnesses including the midwife seemed to have vanished into thin air.

As the scale of the investigation grew Stuart was joined by other lawyers and, rather late in the day, the Douglas side sent out their own legal team. The redoubtable Duchess Peggy, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘an old lady who talks broad Scotch with a paralytic voice and is scarce understood by her own countrymen’, also stepped into the fray.

Diary of Alexander Murray, (Boswell of Auchinleck papers: NRS GD1/1278/17)

This entry from the diary of Alexander Murray for 1 June 1763 records the moment when the Douglas team were presented with the shocking news that Andrew Stuart and his team had uncovered the kidnapping of a child of Sanry, a rope dancer, by an Irish gentleman who the Hamilton team believed to be Colonel Steuart.

Two months later the Hamilton team uncovered the case of a Jacques Louis Mignon, son of a glass grinder, taken from his family by ‘a strange gentleman who spoke but indifferent French..[who] wanted two children’. As far as the Hamilton side were concerned, this was the final proof – this child was Archibald Douglas!

Douglas Cause 4
Questions for M and Mme Mignon among the Andrew Stuart papers, Ref: GD237/19/23

The case appeared before the Court of Session in July 1766. Such was the complexity of the case and so voluminous the evidence provided by both pursuers and defenders, that the judges asked for smaller memorials to be drawn up: these still amounted to some 1600 pages between them.

Douglas Cause 5
Opening page in the Court of Session papers recording the decision of the case (Court of Session Acts and Decreets, Ref: CS22/538 

Several of the judges had been in France as young lawyers for one side or the other and held their own strong views on the matter. The decision fell on the casting vote of the Lord President, Robert Dundas, who voted against Archibald.

The Douglas side immediately appealed to the House of Lords. A new champion for their case emerged in the person of James Boswell, who flooded the newspapers in Edinburgh and London with no fewer than 25 articles in Archibald’s favour.

The case opened in January 1769 with speeches lasting for many hours on both sides, but the decision was unanimously reversed. When the news of this popular decision reached Edinburgh, Archibald Douglas’ supporters rioted in the streets and threw stones through the windows of the houses of Hamilton supporters.

Despite all the flaws in the evidence, a major factor in Archibald’s success was his mother, who was depicted as a woman of such integrity and religiosity that it was inconceivable that she could have lied about her children.

But perhaps a more important reason was that, by refusing Archibald’s claim, doubt could have been cast upon the inheritance claims within other great landed families.

Dr Alison Rosie

National Register of Archives for Scotland

National Records of Scotland

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