… or possible the Welsh Scot? John Pryse Campbell, first Baron Cawdor of Castlemartin (1755–1821) was a member of the famous Scots clan, but two marriages in different generations to the daughters of Welsh landowners had brought their huge estates into his branch of the family.
John Pryse’s grandfather (another John, 1695–1777) in fact spent most of his life in England and Wales, being educated first at Lincoln’s Inn (which he entered in 1708) and afterwards at Clare College, Cambridge, where according to Venn he was admitted as a fellow-commoner on 29 May 1711. His 1726 marriage to Mary Pryse of Gogerddan in Cardiganshire brought with it coal-mines as well as land, and this extra income enabled him to sell the islands of Islay and Jura (as you do) to a creditor (another Campbell) for £12,000. (The Gogerddan estate became the Welsh Plant Breeding Institute in 1919, and is now home to the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences of Aberystwyth University.)
John Campbell was involved in politics, becoming in the 1734 general election M.P. both for Pembrokeshire (which he had represented since 1727) and Nairnshire (he later became M.P. for Inverness-shire). He was apparently the first M.P. since the Act of Union of 1707 to hold two seats simultaneously – I didn’t even know you could, and wonder whether, like pluralist clergymen in England, you could appoint a curate to manage one of the posts?
Campbell’s eldest son, Pryse Campbell of Cawdor (1727–68) followed the family tradition by entering Clare as a fellow-commoner on 27 November 1745. He married into the Bacon family of Garboldisham in Norfolk, lived at the newly built family seat of Stackpole Court in Pembrokeshire (demolished in 1963 after serious damage caused by the lead being stripped from the roof by soldiers billeted there during the Second World War, though part of the estate survives in the care of the National Trust), and had seven children and a complicated career dominated by the intensely factional politics of the period.
Pryse Campbell predeceased his father, who on his death in 1777 was succeeded by ‘our’ John Campbell, who had been educated at Eton College and then entered Clare as a fellow-commoner on 9 November 1772.
He began in the late 1770s a huge landscaping programme at Stackpole which involved planting thousands of trees, and the creation of three lakes, an eight-arched bridge, and a deer park.
John Pryse Campbell trod a familiar path in politics: he was M.P. for Nairnshire from 1777 to 1780, and then took over the seat of Cardigan Boroughs, holding it until 1796. He became Governor of Milford Haven in 1780, was made first Baron Cawdor of Castlemartin in 1796 (thus moving from the Commons to the Lords), and was a member of the Castlemartin Yeomanry, a captain in the Pembrokeshire Volunteers, and, from 1798, lieutenant-colonel-commandant of the Royal Carmarthenshire militia, possibly as a result of his finest military hour, which came on 22–4 February 1797, when the last invasion of Britain took place.
The French had a Cunning Plan to support the Society of United Irishmen in an invasion of their country by making two diversionary attacks in Britain, but only one element of this threefold masterplan actually took place. News of the arrival on shore at Carregwastad Head near Fishguard of a 1,400-strong French/Irish force (they called themselves La Légion Noire) under the command of Irish-American William Tate, spread rapidly, and Campbell immediately mustered his militia and marched the 30 miles from Stackpole, collecting other volunteers on the way.
The immediate local defence of Fishguard was in the hands of one Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox, whose father William had raised the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry, now about 300 strong. Thomas (or his father) had bought his commission, and he had no military experience: his decision in the face of invasion was to retreat, but while so doing he met Cawdor’s troop, and after a short argument, the latter took command, and the combined force reached Fishguard at about 5 p.m. on the 23rd.
A planned attack on the French was called off because of failing light, but that evening two French officers visited his headquarters (the Royal Oak pub) and offered a negotiated surrender. With great aplomb, Campbell declared that since his forces were greatly superior (they weren’t), he would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, and gave them until 10 a.m. the following morning to make up their minds.
The reason that the French had even thought of surrender was that – bluntly – their army was not fit for purpose. It consisted of about 600 soldiers that Buonaparte did not need for other purposes (e.g. the conquest of Italy); the other 800 was made up from convicts, political prisoners both royalist and republican, and deserters (!), mostly French but under Irish officers. Many of these had turned their attention to looting from the local population as soon as they landed; many others simply became very drunk on wine salvaged from a Portuguese ship which had recently foundered off the coast.
Discipline seems to have broken down irretrievably, and when the French arrived on the designated beach the next morning, their morale was dealt a final blow (according to legend, anyway) by the appearance of a host of British regular troops, in scarlet jackets and tall black hats, along the cliffs above. These were in fact the local women, come to see the show in their red shawls and black steeple hats.
(One woman, Jemima Nicholas, became a heroine for rounding up 12 French troops with a pitchfork and locking them up in the church before handing them over to Cawdor at the pub.) The French surrendered, and were marched off to imprisonment, most of them, including Tate himself being released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1798.
In the aftermath of this excitement, Cawdor wrote to resign his commission, on the ground that he and his fellow officers refused to ‘risk our characters by acting under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Knox whose ignorance of his Duty and want of judgement must be known to you’. This led to Knox challenging him to a duel – though what exactly happened on the day is not know. Cawdor’s diary records: ‘A very fine day. After breakfast rode to the ferry. Met Jos [his second] there, and Mr Knox and Colonel Vaughan near the Williamston Road. Rode home, back by half past two.’ (See more on Cawdor the man of action here.)
But the reason I came across Baron Cawdor was that he was apparently presented by Antonio Canova with a bust, now the subject of an export bar after its recent sale for £4.5 million at Sotheby’s in July. According to the Antiques Trade Gazette, its provenance is tied to the fate of Stackpole Court: ‘Following John Campbell’s death in 1821, it passed down through five generations of the Cawdor family but, by the time the contents of the family house … were sold at auction in 1962, the sculpture’s importance had become forgotten and it was described simply in the catalogue as “a white marble bust of a lady wearing a diadem”.’
Why, you may ask, did Canova give the piece, one of his series of ‘Ideal Forms’, to Cawdor? Because, apparently, the baron had been greatly supportive of efforts to return to Italy the cultural property looted by Napoleon in the previous twenty years, and Canova wanted to thank him. An aspect of Cawdor’s life not mentioned in his ODNB entry is his antiquarian interests. He travelled in Italy and Sicily between 1783 and 1788, buying sculptures and antiquities, and commissioning paintings of the famous archaeological sites – his London house became something of a museum.
He was made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1794 and of the Royal Society the following year; the records of the Royal Academy showed that he was a frequent guest at their dinners when he was in London. In 1800 he sold the contents of his ‘museum’, Sir John Soane being among the buyers. He was also an ideal landlord, improving his agricultural estates and most generous to his tenants and to the poor – a man for two seasons, peace and war, as well as for two countries.