No coward soul
The intriguing story of Major James Gardiner, a career soldier killed fighting the Jacobites at the battle of Prestonpans in 1745, but who is best known for undergoing an intense religious experience in 1719
Kimberley Jordan Reeman tells the intriguing story of Major James Gardiner, a career soldier killed fighting the Jacobites at the battle of Prestonpans in 1745, but who is best known for undergoing an intense religious experience in 1719 that profoundly shaped his future life
Iwas effectually cured of all inclination to that sin to which I was so strongly addicted, that I thought nothing but shooting me through the head could have cured me.
COLONEL JAMES GARDINER, 1688-1745
It was a hot night in Paris in July of 1719: a Sunday night, but the Sabbath signified nothing in the decadent life of Major James Gardiner, aide de camp to the earl of Stair, a Scot like Gardiner and British ambassador to the court of France under the regent Philippe, duke of Orleans. It was a rare interlude of peace between the two countries, and Gardiner himself was no stranger to war. Born at Carriden in Linlithgowshire on 11 January 1688, he was the son and nephew of soldiers killed on active service, and his older brother Robert had died at the bloody siege of Namur at the age of only sixteen. Gardiner, also commissioned absurdly young, had fought at the battle of Ramillies on 23 May 1706, where he had been shot in the mouth. The musket ball had exited through his neck, narrowly missing the vertebrae and without damaging his tongue or teeth: he had lain in the darkness exploring the wound with his fingers, clearing his mouth of the congealing blood that was threatening to choke him and clenching his fist, cemented with blood, around the gold coins he had unwisely carried into battle. In the night he was discovered, as he had known he would be, by French soldiers intent on plunder: but strangely, as a blade pressed into his breastbone, someone said, ‘do not kill that poor child’, and his body had been loaded onto a barrow and trundled, eventually, to a convent, where the abbess had called him mon fils, and his wound, now infected, had been treated. Here he had remained, cared for by the nuns, for three months until he had been exchanged with other British prisoners and returned to his regiment.
Other battles, other commissions, other promotions followed, and when the peace was signed James Gardiner came to Paris, to the court of Versailles: a court, in this licentious age, which had the reputation of being the most debauched in Europe. Major James Gardiner, now 31 and having abandoned the last constraints of morality, became a connoisseur of its vices.
He had already been out with friends that Sunday evening, but the party had broken up before 11pm, and he had an hour to kill before his midnight assignation with a married woman. So he returned to his lodgings and prowled and drank and contemplated the prospect of further sexual gratification with the craving of the addict he had become: a powerful man, more than six feet tall, with dark hair and dark grey eyes and a long nose and high forehead, and a right cheek scarred not at Ramillies but in the course of the first duel he had fought, when he had been little more than a child. He was said, fittingly for a dragoon officer, to be ‘one of the most competent horsemen that had ever been known’, although a few weeks before this fateful evening he had been thrown violently by a mettlesome horse on a steep, cobbled street. It is possible that he suffered concussion, and certainly the atheists among his acquaintance attributed to that accident the epiphany that now overtook James Gardiner.
Bored, he glanced at his watch, and then at the title of a book lying forgotten on the table – not his usual
pornography but something called The Christian Soldier, or Heaven Taken By Storm. He assumed it had been slipped into his baggage by his mother during his last leave in Scotland, in yet another vain attempt to salvage what remained of his soul. He laughed, and, thinking its dogma might entertain him for half an hour, sat in the armchair and began to read.
His close friend and biographer, Philip Doddridge, describes what happened, as Gardiner reported it to him:
There is a possibility that while he was sitting in this solitude, and reading in this careless and profane manner, he might suddenly fall asleep, and only dream of what he apprehended he saw. But nothing can be more certain than that he judged himself to have been as broad awake during that whole time as he ever was in any part of his life; and he mentioned it to me several times afterwards as what undoubtedly passed, not only in his imagination but before his eyes’.
To another friend Gardiner described it as:
So lively and striking, that he could not tell whether it was to his bodily eyes, or those of his mind. Yet it is evident he looked upon this as a vision, whether it were before the eyes or in the mind, and not as a dream.
Doddridge picks up the story:
He thought he saw an unusual blaze fall on the book while he was reading, which he at first imagined might happen by some accident in the candle.
But lifting up his eyes, he apprehended, to his extreme amazement, that there was before him, as it were suspended in the air, a representation of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the Cross, surrounded on all sides with a glory; and was impressed, as if a voice, or something equivalent to a voice, had come to him (for he was not confident of the very words),‘O sinner, did I suffer this for thee?’ .... Struck with so amazing a Phaenomenon as this, there remained hardly any life left in him, so that he sunk down in the arm-chair in which he sat, and continued, he knew not exactly how long, insensible.
Nor did he throughout all the remainder of the night, once recollect that criminal and detestable assignation, which had before engrossed all his thoughts. He rose in a tumult of passion not to be conceived; and walked to and fro in his chamber, till he was ready to drop down, in
unutterable astonishment and agony of heart; appearing to himself the vilest monster in the creation of God.
It was a fierce awakening, and Gardiner’s soul, cleansed of its ‘most horrid sins’ by that divine fire at midnight, did not leap in exultation: he passed, instead, several days and nights in anguish, shattered, sleepless, and convinced of his own imminent damnation. And then, gradually, from this exhaustion of mind and body, came a curious peace. He emerged from his tormented contemplations of hell and resumed the business of living; but the James Gardiner who returned to the physical world was irrevocably changed. He had abjured the brothels, the gambling hells, the substance abuse, the fluent profanity, the obsessive promiscuity: it was time to explain himself to his friends.
He dreaded it. He wrote to his mother, who had been overjoyed at the news of his conversion: ‘I would much rather be marched up to a battery of the enemy’s cannon than have been obliged to continually face such artillery as this’.
They mocked him, of course. Some mentioned his accident; some thought he had suffered a breakdown; some were openly calling him insane on both sides of the Channel. When Gardiner was transferred back to England he asked a distinguished friend to invite the doubters to dinner, so that he could confront them in a civilized manner.
It was a raucous meal, ‘with much raillery’, during which the major remained uncharacteristically sober and quiet, ‘but when the cloth was taken away and the servants retired, he begged their patience for a few minutes’.What his friends thought when this new, ascetic James Gardiner began to speak of vice and virtue and the fact that throughout his wild, dissolute years he had ‘never tasted anything that deserved to be called happiness’, we cannot know. He did not discuss ‘the extraordinary manner in which he had been awakened’, out of a desire to preserve its sanctity and a deep sense that, in this company, it was neither appropriate nor necessary; but he had misjudged his companions, as they had misjudged him. Once it was apparent that he was still, if less obscenely, the James Gardiner they had always known, ‘he found himself more esteemed and regarded by many’, and the cynics left him alone. The exceptional experience
It is impossible to overstate the significance of Gardiner’s experience, considering the zeitgeist of his time. Although John Wesley (1703-91) would also undergo a religious conversion, it did not occur until 1738, and as Wesley recorded it, it was a much less spectacular manifestation of spirit: ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, and Christ alone, for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death’. William Law (1686-1761), who influenced Wesley and later William Wilberforce, did not write A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which inspired them, until 1729.
The British army itself was a microcosm of 18th-century mores. The hard-drinking, hard-swearing Lieutenant-General Henry Hawley (1685-1759), who proclaimed
‘I hate priests of all professions,’ disdained matrimony and lived openly with his long-term mistress, Elizabeth Toovey, to one of whose illegitimate sons (probably his own) he willed his property. Field Marshal John Ligonier (1680-1770), 1st earl Ligonier, never married, but at the age of 78 was maintaining liaisons with no fewer than four young women. And the young LieutenantColonel James Wolfe (1727-59), the future victor of Quebec, wrote from Inverness in 1752 to his father, Lieutenant-General Edward Wolfe, that his brother officers, whose behaviour he dreaded, ‘surpass me in vice’, and that ‘we use a very dangerous freedom and looseness of speech among ourselves; this, by degrees, makes wickedness and debauchery less odious than they should be. I hear things every day said that would shock your ears, and often say things myself that are not fit to be repeated’. In this milieu, religious ‘enthusiasts’ were regarded as, at best, eccentric, and at worst subversive.
James Gardiner was not the only ‘Christian soldier’ in the British army: there were other high-ranking evangelists who were considered equally peculiar, but they were in the minority. How they reconciled their consciences with thou shalt not kill remains unclear; but for Gardiner, who had in the course of his tumultuous life broken most of the commandments, there came at last a time of grace. He loved and was loved, physically and spiritually, and there was no doubt that theirs was a passionate union: he had married Lady Frances Erskine, daughter of the 9th earl of Buchan, on 11 July 1726, and she, he told Doddridge, ‘valued and loved him much more than he deserved’. Of their thirteen children, to whom he was devoted, only five survived, and Gardiner’s faith was sorely tested when ‘it pleased God to visit his little family with smallpox’. Gardiner, now a lieutenant-colonel commanding a regiment of dragoons quartered in Herefordshire, received news from
Scotland that his five-year-old son, who had seemed to be recovering, was dead. He wrote to Frances, alone with the children at home in East Lothian: ‘He to be sure is happy; and we shall go to him, although he shall not return to us. And therefore it is our wisdom, as well as our duty, to leave all with a gracious God’.
But he was human: his faith faltered: he who had once experienced religious ecstasies in the west of Scotland while riding alone, listening to the singing of larks, fell into black depression, mourned his lost children, felt the weight of his absence from Frances, bowed again to the will of God in October of 1733 when his second son, ‘the darling of all who knew him’, and perhaps the child closest to Gardiner’s heart, died after less than a day’s illness. He wrote to Doddridge, ‘God is all-wise, and everything is done by him for the best. Shall I hold back anything that is his when he requires it?’
It was perhaps inevitable that Gardiner, so much the absentee father, and living, as required by his rank, a peripatetic life with the regiment in Hamilton, Ayr, Carlisle,
Hereford, Maidenhead, Leicester, Warwick, Coventry, Marlborough and Northampton, should take a deeply paternal interest in his men. He was known to walk the cobbled streets and stop suddenly at their billets, inquiring into their welfare, inspecting their horses and the conditions in which they were stabled, exercising and reviewing them personally, and encouraging even the most hardened reprobates to accompany him to church, where he ensured they were seated quietly before the arrival of the congregation. He wore his religion lightly, but he fined his officers for swearing in his presence and banked the proceeds to ‘lay out in providing the men with proper help and accommodation in their distress’. He visited them when they fell ill. He did not coddle: he commanded, awarding punishment when necessary, upholding discipline. The result was ‘one of the most regular and orderly regiments in the public service, with men of sober and obliging conduct’.
It was this regiment he led throughout the Low Countries with the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession, in appalling weather, at one point ‘toward Frankfort’, he wrote to the longsuffering Frances, ‘to the great surprise of the army... Neither can any of us comprehend what we are to do there, for there is no enemy in that country, the French army being marched into Bavaria, where I am sure we cannot follow’.
Neglecting his health but never his dragoons or their horses, he may not have mentioned to Frances the illness, pneumonia or pleurisy, that nearly took his life, and from which he never fully recovered. He wrote, longing for home and a respite from the bloodbath of Flanders, ‘To live with Christ, which is infinitely better than anything we can propose here! Where no mountains shall separate between God and our souls: and I hope it will be some addition to our happiness, that you and I shall be separated no more’.
He wanted to come home, but release from Flanders for a serving lieutenant-colonel would come only with transfer or promotion, and Gardiner had little hope of acquiring the full colonelcy of a regiment, for which competition was stiff. He remained optimistic, scribbling from Aix la Chapelle on 21 April 1743: ‘People here imagine I must be sadly troubled that I have not got a regiment, for six out of seven vacant are now disposed of, but they are strangely mistaken, for it has given me no sort of trouble: my heavenly Father knows what is best for me... and has given me an entire resignation to his will’.
The hand of providence
Two days before this letter was written, the colonelcy of Bland’s Horse, a dragoon regiment quartered almost on Gardiner’s doorstep in Linlithgow, fell vacant, and was offered to Gardiner by George II. He accepted, believing that ‘by this remarkable event Providence had called him home’. He left the regiment he had loved and commanded for so many years, and the men in whose welfare he had taken such a personal interest, and returned to Britain, relapsing en route into feverish illness at Ghent and arriving in London in June
looking, his friend Doddridge noted with concern, ‘ten years older, and so sadly altered’.
His duties as colonel of what was now known as Gardiner’s Horse were not onerous: the day-to-day affairs of the regiment were the business of his lieutenant-colonel, Shugborough Whitney, and Gardiner spent much of his time at his estate, Bankton, in East Lothian, weakened in body but engaged as always in lively, gossipy correspondence with relations and friends and intellectual debate with prominent clergymen. He was also acutely aware, as a soldier and a Scot, of the undercurrents in Scottish politics, and the very evident resurgence of Jacobitism, particularly in Edinburgh. The Jacobites were not a new phenomenon: the earl of Stair had been thwarting plots to restore the ‘Old Pretender’ in Paris in 1714. But this time the threat was palpable, and Gardiner wrote of it with prescience and foreboding, knowing the rawness of his own men and the inexperience of the few regiments quartered in Britain.With an invasion by France, he observed, ‘a few thousand might have a fair chance for marching from Edinburgh to London uncontrolled, and then throw the whole kingdom into an astonishment’.
He remained unwell but indefatigable: writing, praying, studying, at leisure, finally, to be with Frances and his eldest daughter, and to enjoy the quietness of his home, his garden and his orchard. He allowed himself to be persuaded to go to Scarborough for a summer of sea bathing ‘to regain his health’, and he considered travelling to London afterwards; but in his absence the flame of rebellion, which had been smouldering so long, burst into violent life, and he was recalled with his regiment to Stirling. Frances and his daughter accompanied him, and it was there in the castle that James Gardiner took his last leave of them. Frances wept uncontrollably. He comforted her with gentleness and serenity, saying, ‘We have an eternity to spend together’.
He left her and rode to Falkirk with his men, so exhausting himself in the process that he was forced to ask a local minister to write to his superiors on his behalf, requesting reinforcements ‘which might put it in his power to make a stand, which he was very desirous to do’. The rebels were close, and Gardiner’s untried dragoons eager to fight; but reinforcements were not forthcoming, and their fighting spirit evaporated when they were ordered to Dunbar, and left them entirely when they heard that Edinburgh had surrendered to the ‘Young Pretender’ without resistance. Gardiner himself doubted their courage, saying to another senior officer that he would not ‘in case of the flight of those under his command, retreat with them’, and, to a visitor from Edinburgh, ‘I cannot influence the conduct of those as I could wish, but I have one life to sacrifice to my country’s safety, and I shall not spare it’.
Friday 20 September 1745 was one of the last golden days, with vast, deep blue skies and great expanses of pale stubble in fields where barley had been reaped, the ricks steeping in the warm sunlight as an army of 3,000 under Sir John Cope deployed near Prestonpans. Cope changed his position several times before sunset, disliking the ground and the twelve-foot stone walls of Preston House estate to the north and those of James Gardiner’s own estate, Bankton, to the south, between which the army was confined. Gardiner, knowing the neighbourhood intimately, attempted, with another highranking officer, to persuade Cope to launch a surprise attack on the Jacobites before nightfall, and was overruled: he was seen later ‘walking in a very pensive state’.
Whatever foreboding he had felt was compounded when he saw the disposition of Cope’s heavy artillery, ‘which he would have planted in the centre of our small army’, Doddridge wrote, ‘rather than just before his regiment, which was in the right wing: where he was apprehensive that the horses which had not been in any engagement before, might be thrown into some disorder by the discharge so very near them’.
No one listened to him.
He passed the night, which after the golden warmth of the day was cold and misty, armed and wrapped in his military cloak, under a rick of barley in the company of four of his own domestic servants. About three in the morning, he sent all but one of them home. Throughout the night Cope had posted pickets and sentries and lighted bonfires along his front line, which, before sunset,
he had repositioned yet again to face the benevolently misnamed Tranent Meadows, a boggy quagmire through which he did not expect the Jacobites to attack. The barking of dogs in the nearby village of Tranent around 9pm should have warned him that the enemy, too, was on the move, but by 10.30pm an uneasy silence had fallen, and it was not until after 4am on Saturday 21 September that a column of Jacobites, guided by the son of the minor laird who owned the Meadows, took a wildfowler’s path through the marsh to close on Cope’s army before daylight. By 5am, Cope’s sentries had seen enough to be aware of the imminence of attack, and Cope, an accomplished and underrated general, immediately wheeled his forces 90 degrees to the north to face the enemy, with his only two dragoon regiments on either flank. Time did not allow the most effective deployment of these inexperienced troops, and even Gardiner’s own 13th was split awkwardly into three squadrons, with Gardiner himself as close to the artillery as he had feared.
The rebels attacked at dawn, and, as Gardiner had predicted, neither untried men nor horses deafened and terrified by the artillery behind which they were positioned withstood the highland charge.The unseated dragoons fled: those horses not slashed or shot by the enemy galloped in panic from the field. Gardiner, shot in the left breast, flinched at the impact, insisting it was only a flesh wound, and took another bullet in the right thigh. Deserted by all but a dozen or so of his dragoons, and defended ferociously by his lieutenantcolonel, Shugborough Whitney, whose left arm had been shattered by a musket ball, and by a young lieutenant named West, Gardiner was targeted and surrounded by clansmen. Hacking his way free, he spurred to command a small, desperate knot of infantry fighting for their lives: soldiers of Lascelles’ regiment, which he had been ordered to support. Bleeding heavily and shuddering in the saddle, he shouted at them to stand, his strong Scots voice carrying above the screams. ‘Fire on, my lads, and fear nothing!’
They were Scots: although their colonel was English, Lascelles’ was a Scottish regiment, and until the outbreak of rebellion they had been repairing roads in the highlands. Perhaps it gave them heart, in the last seconds of their lives, to hear Gardiner’s Scottish voice, and to witness his courage: but time, for James Gardiner, had run its course. His sword arm was almost severed by the blade of a scythe wielded by a clansman, and as the weapon fell from his hand he was dragged from the saddle. From a distance his servant saw him sustain several wounds from broadswords and crumple to the ground; and then Gardiner raised his left hand and waved his fallen hat, and shouted, ‘Take care of yourself’. A Lochaber axe struck the back of his head, and he collapsed.
The servant did not linger to see him stripped of his coat, shirt, boots, watch and valuables, nor see his grey gelding led away by a jubilant clansman who, it was said, presented it to the Young Pretender. He crept back hours later, as the highlanders were ransacking Gardiner’s house, leaving it littered with torn papers and human faeces. Gardiner, half naked on the bloody ground, was still breathing: he opened his eyes when he was touched but was unable to speak.The servant managed to haul his mangled body onto a cart and to the house of the minister at Tranent, where they laid him in bed. He lingered, in great pain, throughout the night, and died of his many wounds at about eleven the following morning.
What had they seen as they killed him, these Scots? An ageing, ailing man, faithful unto death to his country and his God? A fellow Scot, had they even been able to understand the English he spoke with so indubitably Scottish an accent? A man of staggering courage in the face of certain death, or only a hated enemy?
Those who killed him remain anonymous, their names forgotten, if they were ever known. But James Gardiner is remembered still in Tranent, where a handsome obelisk was erected to his memory in 1853 in the grounds of Bankton House, and where he lies in the mossy peace of the churchyard.The inscription on his gravestone reads, I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith, and the 1611 King James Version with which Gardiner would have been familiar continues, Hencefoorth there is layde up for me a crowne of righteousnesse, which the Lord the righteous iudge shall give me at that day.
He died with valour. Requiescat.
Kimberley Jordan Reeman, B.A., B.A.A., is a Canadian long resident in the United Kingdom, with a particular interest in the ‘45 and its consequences, and the British army of the 18th century. She is the author of the novel Coronach (Troubador Publishing, 2019, https://scot.sh/coronach).