Henry Masterman’s observations of Jacobite prisoners as witnesses
In the spring of 1746 on a journey that lasted over two months, Henry Masterman and his clerk, Richard Wright, visited a number of jails in Lancaster, Chester, York, Lincoln, and London. There, these men interviewed Jacobite prisoners and took notes on their characters to assess their level of guilt and their willingness to testify against fellow inmates as witnesses for the Crown. Masterman was known for his experience with criminal prosecutions and for his great ‘fidelity’ to the government, borne out through his service in a similar capacity in the wake of the 1715 rising. Thirty years later he was once again asked to determine in what ways these suspects were involved in the Forty-five, including those who had ‘in any way fomented and encouraged it, as [well as] those who were actually in arms’. Masterman’s letters recount a tedious process fraught with the intransigence and dishonesty of many of the captives, in some places around half of which required a translator who could understand the language ‘universally Spoke in much ye greatest part of ye Highlands’.
By the beginning of the new year in 1746, the British government once again found itself deeply mired in a civil war, as what would prove to be the final Jacobite challenge played itself out across Scotland and England, with France seemingly waiting in the wings. The Jacobite army had only recently recrossed the Scottish border after turning back at Derby, and just four months later its martial campaign would be ruthlessly crushed by British forces under William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, on Culloden Moor in the Highlands of Inverness-shire. Even in the midst of the crisis while both armies were still in the field, many hundreds of alleged Jacobite soldiers and civilians who were captured in the preceding months were already being examined and processed by agents within the Hanoverian government. After over half a century of dynastic and political contention that repeatedly manifested in clandestine plots and active Jacobite risings, these agents were sharply focused on creating a plan to punish treasonous activity that would ensure this was the very last time they would have use for one.
Embroidered canvas on display at NTS Culloden
Despite the recent, lively debate about the value of the work undertaken by historians, we can agree that many of them generally spend the tenure of their careers involved with research, analysis, and output. Depending upon the era of study and subject matter, dutiful historians will go back to the primary sources when at all possible and critically address the lineage of information as well as its context. Following and challenging that data lineage is something about which I have repeatedly written, and this pursuit represents a significant role in the methodology of my everyday work, as I believe it is necessary in order to produce informed and precise history.
Precise historians will familiarize themselves with as many sources as possible and determine which are most relevant, accurate, and valuable to the arguments which they are asserting. Concurrently, sources that challenge those assertions must also be consulted and may lend valuable perspective to or even transformation of the historian’s original assertions. The honest scholars will admit those changes and influences along the way by showing their work while being as deliberate and precise as possible. Preciseness is not just the end goal, it is absolutely integral to the process. In that way, scholarly history follows a course that rightfully marks it as a social science.
Examination of John Bruce, allegedly a soldier in Lord Sempill’s Regiment, 30 April 1746
Deceptions and mistruths in eighteenth century judicial cases are rarely different from those in the modern day. The indicted have always lied to save their own skins or to provide cover for people and institutions they wish to protect. Though overloaded with prisoners and casework by the end of the last Jacobite rising, the British justice system was fundamentally sound enough to make the necessary adjustments to expedite an effective method of processing that massive influx of suspected persons. Many of those lessons were learned in the aftermath of the Fifteen, wherein the first Georgian administration sought to balance victory and clemency, hoping to establish an indelible hallmark upon the nascent regime. Thirty years later, the system was much the same, and though the categories of punishment scaled with an increased number of prisoners taken from a significantly smaller number of total participants, a fair and accurate penal process was again pursued by many of the Hanoverian ministers who were in charge of prosecution.
A handful of high-profile Jacobite trials have since been published, offering readers a glimpse into the legal mechanics of treason cases against the Crown, but these are especially focused on prominent characters who were singled out to be made examples of. The best way to learn more about the regular folks who were involved in the last Jacobite rising is to go through the plethora of original documents housed in archives across Scotland and England, and sometimes further afield. The paper trails of these individuals are often fragmented on account of them facing examinations in the different places they were held, and subsequent prison transfers and other movements can sometimes make tracking them quite difficult. Nonetheless, the raw information left behind by the accused and by the witnesses in favor of or against them can shed valuable light on both the large and small events of 1745-6. It is worth the time spent piecing together these archive-driven stories, which is a focal objective of the JDB project.