James Francis Edward Keith

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James Keith
Generalfeldmarschall Keith (Pesne).jpg
Birth nameJames Francis Edward Keith
Born(1696-06-11)11 June 1696
Inverugie, Kingdom of Scotland
Died14 October 1758(1758-10-14) (aged 62)
Hochkirch, Electorate of Saxony
BranchRoyal Prussian Army

James Francis Edward Keith (11 June 1696 – 14 October 1758) was a Scottish soldier and Generalfeldmarschall of the Royal Prussian Army. As a Jacobite he took part in a failed attempt to restore the Stuart Monarchy to Britain. When this failed, he fled to Europe, living in France, and then Spain. He joined the Spanish and eventually the Russian armies and fought in the Anglo-Spanish War and the Russo-Swedish War. In the latter he participated in the conquest of Finland and became its viceroy. Subsequently, he participated in the coup d'état that put Elizabeth of Russia on the throne.

He subsequently served in the Prussian army under Frederick the Great, where he distinguished himself in several campaigns. He died during the Seven Years' War at the Battle of Hochkirch. He received the Black Eagle Order and is memorialized on the Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great.

Early life[edit]

Dunnottar Castle, seat of the chiefs of the Clan Keith

Keith was born on 11 June 1696 at Inverugie Castle near Peterhead, the second son of William Keith. His father, was the 9th Earl Marischal of Scotland, was a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, and a member of the Privy Council of James Francis Edward Stuart. His mother, Mary Drummond, was daughter of James Drummond, 4th Earl of Perth (1648–1716), and his first wife, Lady Jane Douglas, the fourth daughter of William Douglas, 1st Marquess of Douglas.

His parents, committed Jacobites, named him after the Great Pretender.[1] He and his brother George (1692/93–1778) were educated by a kinsman, the historian and bishop Robert Keith; James Keith subsequently attended the University of Aberdeen in preparation for the legal profession.[2][3]


The battle of Sheriffmuir

In his own autobiography, Keith himself makes it clear that his dissatisfaction in Great Britain began with the failure of Queen Anne to settle the Scottish succession on her brother James. The placement of a foreign family on the throne of the land led to widespread discontent in Scotland.[4] On either 3 or 20 September 1715, he and his brother had stood side by side to proclaim James Stuart, son of the deposed King James VII and pretender to the Scottish throne, as King of Scotland.[5]

Keith was present later that year at the Battle of Sheriffmuir on 9 November. Subsequently, when the Earl of Mar failed to join up with the English Jacobites and the Catholics in the south, Keith realized that the end of this effort was near. The Jacobite effort was briefly resuscitated that year by the arrival of James himself, who landed at Peterhead at the end of December 1715, but when the Scots realized that James had traveled on a fishing trawler with two servants, not with an armada bringing the army the Scots hoped for, their morale sank even further.[6] Eventually, after the British pursued the rebels almost to the Isle of Skye, a ship from France picked up 100 officers, including Keith, and took them to St. Pol de Leon in Brittany.[7] His activities in this Jacobite rising of 1715 compelled him to remain on the Continent.[8]

James arrives in Peterhead

Eventually, Keith went to Paris, where he had relatives. He spent the better part of a year living hand to mouth by selling the personal items he had brought with him, mostly horse furnishings. Although he could have asked any of his relatives for assistance, but, as he explained in his unfinished memoirs, "... I was then either so bashful or vain, that I wou'd [sic] not own the want I was in."[9] Eventually he received a gift of 1000 livres from Mary of Modena, mother of the Pretender and this, plus some support from home and an allowance from James enabled him to spend the rest of the year at the university. In 1717, he received a commission as colonel of cavalry and was ordered to prepare to go to Scotland again, but the plan, contingent upon support from the Charles XII of Sweden, was discovered and thwarted, and he continued at the university.[9] Later that year, in June, he met Peter I of Russia, and offered the Tsar his sword, being, as Keith considered it "high time ... to quitte [sic] the Academy and endeavor to establish myself somewhere ..." The Tsar apparently saw no need for the sword of a youth.[10]

1719 Uprising[edit]

James Keith, aged 24

When Keith was finally convinced to leave Paris (he had fallen in love),[11] he journeyed to Spain with his brother. They had to deceive the customs agents at the borders about their destination, purpose and origins, Spain being actively engaged in trying to secure the French throne for Philip V in the War of the Quadruple Alliance. Keith and his brother journeyed to Madrid, raising funds for an army for James, arranging for its transport to Scotland, and communicating the king's designs to the various Scots chieftains scattered throughout Europe. At one point in his adventures in Spain, he carried a small note from the James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde and 18,000 crowns to purchase frigates destined to carry an army to Scotland; he returned to France quietly, leaving his brother in Spain to sail with troops to the coast of Scotland. Trying to return to Paris, while in Bordeaux, he masqueraded as a friend's servant so he could acquire some horses to get back to Paris.[12]

In the course of communicating with the Scotsmen in Spain and France, Keith realized that there was a considerable division of factions among James's supporters. The sides all wanted Keith to communicate one thing, or another, often contradictory, to the king, all of which Keith considered favored their private ends, not the needs of the king or the goals of the campaign. Eventually, the Scots embarked for the Isle of Lewis on 19 March in a small ship, from the mouth of the Seine, and set course to round the Orkney Islands The wind forced them off course until, after 24 March, they had altered course and managed to blow by a squadron of English men-of-war which were transporting troops from Ireland to England: news of a conspiracy had reached London by then, and the British had prepared.[13]

The Scots' efforts were further complicated by bickering among the chiefs as to who should take command. Initially, this was awarded to the Marischall, Keith's brother, but the following day, after a long speech by William Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine "which", Keith later wrote, "no body understood but himself,"[13] Murray presented his own commission as lieutenant general, outranking the Marischall's, whose commission of command was only as major general. There was, apparently, considerable subsequent disagreement about how the rebellion should proceed, some wishing to wait for the Duke of Ormonde's 500 Spanish marines on the way from Spain. Knowing that the British had discovered their landing place, Keith's brother convinced Murray to disembark all the troops they had and send the Spanish ships home; the British would inevitably bottle the ships into the harbor and losing the ships would endanger their relationship with Spain.[14]

Unfortunately for the rebellion, Ormonde's fleet had been disbanded by a storm near Galicia, and the soonest the Spanish would raise another one would be the following spring. Time to mount any rebellion was running short. The Scots were poorly armed and even more poorly provisioned and the British force was three days march away. The nearby clans made an effort to raise additional troops, but only gathered generated only about 1,000. The British approached with four regiments of foot and a detachment of a fifth regiment, plus 150 dragoons. The Scots' position was secure enough, but on 10 June, the British came out of the mountains and attacked; in short order, the British navy captured Eilean Donan Castle and, at the Battle of Glen Shiel, the British defeated the Scots small army. The Scotsmen decided that the Spanish should surrender and the Highlanders disperse.[15]

Keith spent several months lurking in the mountains and, in early September, embarked for Holland from Peterhead. Upon trying to cross France to reach Spain, the brothers were arrested at Sedan, and ordered to prison. Keith had in his pocket a pair of commissions from the King of Spain, items which would cause them great trouble, but his jailers did not search him, nor ask for his name. For safety, "pretending a certain necessity, [he] threw them in to a place needless to be named."[15]

Spanish service[edit]

After leaving France, Keith eventually obtained a colonelcy in the Spanish army as part of the Irish Brigade; he then fought in the Siege of Gibraltar (1726–1727).[2] Finding his Protestantism a barrier to promotion in Catholic Spain, he obtained a recommendation from the King of Spain to Peter II of Russia.[16]

Russian service[edit]

In Russian service, Keith was initially assigned to command two regiments of foot belonging to Vasily Vladimirovich Dolgorukov's brigade, he asked for a delay of three months in which he could learn the language and practices of the Russian service. He took the time not only to learn the language, but also to learn the Court and its intricate politics. His first mentor there, James Fitz-James Stuart, 2nd Duke of Berwick and Duke of Liria, fell into a quarrel with both Dolgorukov and Count Matueof.

His commander there, Peter Lacy, had fled Ireland after the Williamite War. He was also one of the first Freemasons active in Russia, as a master of a lodge in Saint Petersburg in 1732–34.[17] He also participated in Elizabeth of Russia's seizure of power in Petersburg.[18] He received the Imperial Order of St Andrew.[19]

During the Russo-Swedish War of 1741–1743, Keith was briefly de facto Vice-Roy of Finland and responsible for the occupying Russian forces, James Keith convened the estates of southwestern Finland on 8 (or 18) september. He proved adept as a capable and liberal civil administrator. In late 1742, Keith was succeeded in the leadership of civil administration of Finland (now based at Turku) by the new Governor-General, Johannes Balthasar von Campenhausen.

Prussian service[edit]

Seven Years' War[edit]

During the Seven Years' War, Keith held high command in the Prussian army. In 1756, he commanded the troops covering the investment of Pirna, and distinguished himself at Lobositz. The battle at Lobositz was a particularly difficult situation. Frederick, in what was his typical manner, dismissed Austrian capability; he sent his columns directly into a valley surrounded by Croatian sharpshooters.

The failure of his troops to make any headway against Lacy's troops, and indeed their apparent collapse, caused Frederick to feel the battle lost, and to leave the field. Upon his departure, command devolved to Keith. Initially Keith made no headway against the Austrian front, but when Lacy was wounded, his subordinates did not have the same command vision, and Keith was able to make some progress against the Austrian front, actually rolling up the Austrian lines to the north and south of Lobositz. The overall Austrian commander, George Browne, had never intended to make this a major battle, and so withdrew the entire force to Budin, approximately eight kilometers (5 mi) away.[20]

In 1757, he commanded at the siege of Prague and later, in this same campaign, he defended Leipzig against a greatly superior force. He was also present at Rossbach, and, while the king was fighting at Leuthen, joined with Prince Henry's force in Saxony.[2]


In 1758, Keith took a prominent part in the Moravian campaign, after which he withdrew from the army to restore his broken health. He returned in time for the autumn campaign in the Lausitz region, and was killed on 14 October 1758 at the battle of Hochkirch. He had been shot several times; the final shot knocked him off his horse into his groom's arms. The groom was dragged away, leaving Keith's body behind.

Although stripped bare by the time the Austrians found him on the battlefield the following day, he was recognized by Lacy, the son of Peter Lacy, his old commander in Russia. The Austrians gave him a decent burial on the field; his groom, who had crept back to the battlefield, observed this and marked the location. Keith was transferred shortly afterwards by Frederick to the garrison church of Berlin.[2]

Relationship with Frederick[edit]

Frederick commemorated Keith on the Rheinsberg Obelisk

While at the University of Aberdeen, James Keith acquired a taste for literature and learning that secured him the esteem of the most distinguished savants of Europe. His experiences in the Jacobite uprisings, and his observations of the contentious competition between and among the clan chieftains, offered him the opportunity early to learn the pitfalls of command, the arts of negotiation, and the importance of listening and diplomacy. This skill was further sharped during the intrigues of the Russian court, where he served for 17 years.[21] He displayed in numerous campaigns the calm, intelligent and watchful valor which was his chief characteristic.

In his personal relationships, he demonstrated calmness and loyalty. In this he was the opposite of his father, who had been described as "very wild, inconstant and passionate."[22] In Finland, he met Eva Merthen.[23] Although they never married, they had several children.[2]

Keith became one of Frederick's chief allies and friends. Keith developed a game of chess for Frederick, life-sized, that the two would play; Frederick also traveled incognito with Keith throughout Germany and Hungary.

At his final battle, he had remonstrated with the king about establishing the camp at Hochkirch, with the Austrians looming in the heights around them, pointing out that staying in the village was suicide. "If the Austrians leave us unmolested in this camp", Keith told the king, "they deserve to be hanged." Frederick reportedly replied, "it is to be hoped they are more afraid of us than of the gallows."[2][24] Frederick was devastated by Keith's death at Hochkirch.


Many memorials were erected to him by the king, Prince Henry, and others. He is memorialized on the Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great (1851). In 1889, the 22nd Infantry Regiment (1st Upper Silesian) was named after him. Hochkirch erected a stone tablet inscribed to Keith outside its church, to stand with others dedicated to the victims of Prussia's defeat by Austria on 14 October 1758. There is also a statue to James Keith in the town of Peterhead in North East Scotland which was gifted to Peterhead by William 1st, King of Prussia, in 1868.


  1. ^ G. E. Cokayne, The complete peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, 8 vols. (1887–98); new ed, ed. V. Gibbs and others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987), 8.484
  2. ^ a b c d e f Peter Buchan, Annals of Peterhead, from its foundation, Scotland, 1819, James Keith, p. 131–132.
  3. ^ Keith, p. 12
  4. ^ James Francis Edward Keith, A fragment of a Memoir of Field Marshal James Keith. Spalding Club, 1843, p. 1.
  5. ^ Sources vary as to the date. Keith himself suggests the 3rd. P. Monod, et al.. maintain it was the 20th. Loyalty and Identity: Jacobites at Home and Abroad. Springer, 2009, p.82.
  6. ^ Keith, p. 20.–24
  7. ^ Keith, p. 32.
  8. ^ Sam Coull, Nothing but my sword: the life of Field Marshal James Francis Edward Keith. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000, p. 53.
  9. ^ a b Keith, p. 33.
  10. ^ Keith, p. 34.
  11. ^ Keith, p. 39.
  12. ^ Keith, pp. 40–42.
  13. ^ a b Keith, p. 47.
  14. ^ Keith, p. 51.
  15. ^ a b Keith, 53.
  16. ^ Keith, p. 77.
  17. ^ Andrew MacKillop, Steve Murdoch. Military Governors and Imperial Frontiers C. 1600–1800: A Study of Scotland and Empires. Brill Academic Publishers, 2003. Page 103.
  18. ^ John Cornelius O'Callaghan, History of the Irish Brigades in the Service of France: From the Revolution, Cameron and Ferguson, 1870 p. 305
  19. ^ Way, George and Squire, Romily. (1994). Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. (Foreword by The Rt Hon. The Earl of Elgin KT, Convenor, The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs). pp. 180– 181.
  20. ^ Franz A.J. Szabo, The Seven Years' War in Europe: 1756–1763, Routledge, Nov 5, 2013, p. 43.
  21. ^ Keith, pp. 51–74.
  22. ^ See G. E. Cokayne. The full quote is this: does everything by starts; hath abundance of flashy wit, and by reason of his quality, hath good interest in the country; all Courts endeavour [sic] to have him at their side for he gives himself liberty of talking when he is not pleased with the Government. He is a thorough Libertine, yet sets up mightily for Episcopy; a hard drinker; a thin body; a middle stature; ambitious of popularity."
  23. ^ Matti Klinge. "Merthen, Eva (1723–1811)". National Biography of Finland. Finnish Literary Society. Retrieved 27 September 2010.
  24. ^ Frederick William Longman, Frederick the Great and the Seven Years' War, Longmans, Green, and Company, 1881, pp. 145–147.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sam Coull: Nothing but my sword: the life of Field Marshal James Francis Edward Keith. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000 ISBN 1-84158-024-4
  • KA Varnhagen von Ense: Leben des Feldmarschalls Jakob Keith. Berlin, 1844
  • James Keith: A Fragment of a Memoir of Field-Marshal James Keith, written by Himself, 1714–1734; edited by Thomas Constable for the Spalding Club. Edinburgh, 1843
  • -- von Paczyński-Tenczyn: Lebensbeschreibung des General-Feldmarschalls Keith. Berlin, 1889 (with a second ed. (Berlin, 1896) on the occasion of the bicentenary of Keith's birth)
  • Peter Buchan, An historical and authentic account of the ancient and noble family of Keith, Earls Marischal of Scotland, from their origin in Germany down to 1778, including a narrative of the military achievements of James Francis Edward Keith, Field-Marshal in Prussia .... Peterhead, 1820
  • Peterheadian (i.e., Norman N. Maclean): Memoir of Marshal Keith, with a sketch of the Keith family. Peterhead, 1869
  • C. F. Pauli: Leben grosser Helden des gegenwärtigen Krieges. Thl. 4. Halle, 17–
  • J.-H. Formey: A discourse on the death of Marshal Keith, read before the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, translated from the French original. Edinburgh, 1764
  • Anon: An Elegy on the universally lamented death of his excellency James-Francis-Edward Keith, Field Marshal in the armies of the King of Prussia, &c. &c. &c. n.p., ca. 1758