Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Keith, James Francis Edward

KEITH, JAMES FRANCIS EDWARD (1696–1758), called commonly Marshal Keith, was born near Peterhead, at the castle of Inverugie, on 11 June 1696. He was the second son and fourth and youngest child of William, the ninth earl Marischal (d. 1712), an episcopalian; his mother, Lady Maria Drummond (d. 1729), daughter of the Earl of Perth, was a catholic, author of the Jacobite song, ‘Lady Keith's Lament.’ With his elder brother, George, the tenth earl Marischal (1693?–1778) [q. v.], he was carefully educated, first, from 1703 till 1710, under his young kinsman, Robert Keith [q. v.], bishop of Fife, and then, for about four years, under William Meston, the Jacobite poet, on whose appointment to the chair of philosophy at Marischal College James seems to have followed him to Aberdeen. He next studied law at Edinburgh; but his heart was set upon soldiering, and in 1715 he was on his way to London to ask a commission, when at York he was met by his brother, who meanwhile had served under Marlborough, and who was hurrying back to take part in Mar's insurrection. At the cross of Aberdeen, on 20 Sept., the brothers proclaimed James VIII, and they served together through the rebellion, fighting bravely in the right wing at Sheriffmuir, welcoming the chevalier to their Kincardineshire seat, Fetteresso, and in May 1716 escaping from the west coast of Scotland to Brittany.

James resumed his interrupted studies at Paris, made rapid progress in mathematics in a class conducted by Maupertuis, and became a member of the Académie des Sciences. During this same period he vainly offered his sword to both Sweden and Russia, and fell deeply in love. His stay in Paris terminated in 1719, when he engaged in Alberoni's expedition to the west highlands, commanded by his brother and the Marquis of Tullibardine. It ended with the ‘battle’ of Glenshiel (10 June) and the surrender next morning of the 274 Spanish auxiliaries; and, after three months' more hiding, Keith followed his brother from Peterhead to Holland. He was a colonel for nine years in the Spanish service, and in 1726–7 took part in the siege of Gibraltar, which at first was so negligently defended that his scheme for surprising it might have very likely succeeded. But his episcopalian creed barred all chance of promotion, and in 1728 he entered the service of Russia as a major-general.

Confining himself to his military duties and keeping clear of court intrigues, in 1730 he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the bodyguard of the Empress Anna (‘an emploiement looked on as one of the greatest trust in the empire’), and in 1732 army inspector on the Volga and Don. In the war of the Polish succession (1733–5) he occupied Volhynia, and then, as second in command to Lascy, pushed forward to the Rhine against the French, till a truce arrested the advance of the Russians. Next, in the war with Turkey, he earned promotion to general of infantry, and got a bullet in the knee at the storming of Otchakoff (July 1737). ‘I had sooner,’ said the empress, ‘lose ten thousand of my best soldiers than Keith;’ but the wound took a bad turn and amputation was pronounced necessary. The Earl Marischal, however, who had hastened from Valencia to Keith's assistance, insisted on carrying him off to Paris, and on their way through Berlin the brothers visited Frederick William I and the Crown Prince Frederick. In Paris (1739) some fragments of cloth were successfully extracted from the wound, and from Paris the brothers paid a three months' visit (February–May 1740) to London, where, though he still was a Jacobite, Keith had more than one audience with George II. On his return to Russia he was made governor of the Ukraine, and a single year of his wise and humane administration made the natives complain that they should either never have appointed him, or, having once done so, never have recalled him. His recall was due to the outbreak of the war with Sweden (1741–1743), in which Keith bore a leading part in the capture of Willmannstrand, in forcing seventeen thousand Swedes to surrender at Helsingfors, and in the reduction of the Åland islands. Among the Swedish prisoners was an orphan, Eva Merthens, pretty and clever, whom Keith carefully educated and made his mistress; he had several children by her.

In August 1744 he returned from a nine months' embassy at Stockholm, and was loaded by the new empress, Elizabeth, with gifts and honours. But the jealousy of the Russians towards foreigners and the personal animosity of Bestucheff, the vice-chancellor, made his position a hazardous one; and little by little he was stripped of all his commands, till in 1747 he found himself left with only a couple of militia regiments. At the instigation, moreover, of Lord Hyndford, the British ambassador, his brother had as a Jacobite been refused permission to visit him at Riga; and, fearing Siberia for himself, Keith at last stole away from the empire.

He had not long to wait or far to go before he found a new master who could recognise his worth. On 18 Sept. 1747—not a month from his leaving St. Petersburg—Frederick the Great created him a Prussian field-marshal, and two years later governor of Berlin, with 1,600l. a year. From the first Marshal ‘Keit’—as Germans pronounce his name—became Frederick's right hand, and in the seven years' war, which broke out in August 1756, he was so closely associated with the king that a full record of his movements would involve a detailed account of the campaign. The victory of Lobositz, the seven weeks' unsuccessful operations before Prague, Keith's two days' defence of Leipzig with four thousand men against twice that number of Austrians, the victory of Rossbach, and Keith's fruitless siege of Olmütz, led up to the disaster of Hochkirch on 14 Oct. 1758. There, at five in the misty morning, the weak Prussian right wing under Keith was surprised—as Keith had warned Frederick it would be surprised—by overwhelming masses of Austrians. Thrice he tried to retrieve the position and twice he was wounded, the second time mortally. His naked corpse, wrapped only in a Croat's mantle, was recognised by the son of his old comrade, Lascy, and was honourably buried by the Austrian commander, Daun, in the village church of Hochkirch, whence Frederick translated it three months later to the Garrison Church at Berlin. A marble statue of him, erected by Frederick in 1786 in the Wilhelmsplatz, was removed in 1857 to the Cadets' Academy, its place being taken by a bronze reproduction, a replica of which was given by King William in 1868 to Peterhead. The monument raised to him in 1776 in Hochkirch Church by his kinsman, Sir Robert Murray Keith [q. v.], bears a Latin epitaph by Ernesti (not Metastasie). In 1889 the 1st Upper Silesian regiment was renamed in his honour the Keith regiment. Two portraits exist of him.

Keith died poor. ‘My brother,’ the Earl Marischal wrote to Madame Geoffrin, ‘has left me a fine heritage. He had just levied contributions on all Bohemia at the head of a great army, and I have found only twenty ducats in his purse.’ As a matter of fact, Keith bequeathed all he had to his mistress, who afterwards married and survived him fifty-three years. It is impossible to determine whether his German biographers are right in ascribing his poverty to a splendid unselfishness, or whether there is anything in the statement of the old ‘Statistical Account’ that he ‘was a very bad economist, and sometimes absented himself from court when he could not pay his debts.’ But as a soldier he was beyond question by far the greatest of all ‘Scots abroad;’ and he may be fitly remembered as the inventor of Kriegspiel, or rather of its precursor, Kriegsschachspiel.

[A fragment of a memoir of Field-marshal James Keith, written by himself, 1714–34, Berlin, 1789; reprint from original manuscript, Spalding Club, Edinburgh, 1843; A Succinct Account of the Person, the Way of Living and of the Court of the King of Prussia, translated from a curious manuscript in French found in the cabinet of the late Field-marshal Keith, London, 4to, 1759—a very interesting but little-known pamphlet of twenty-one pages; Life in German, by K. A. Varnhagen von Ense (Biographische Denkmale, 1844; 3rd ed. Leipzig, 1888); another shorter Life in German by Lieutenant von Paczynski-Tenczyn (Berlin, 1889, portrait); Sir J. Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland, 1795, xv. 152; Peter Buchan's Historical Account of the Family of Keith (Peterhead, 1820), with a translation of the French éloge pronounced on Keith at Berlin by M. Formey; Carlyle's Frederick II; Memoir of Marshal Keith, with a Sketch of the Keith Family, by a Peterheadian (Peterhead, 1869); William Boyd's Old Inverugie (Peterhead, 1885); The Jacobite Rising of 1719, edited by John Russell for the Scottish History Society, 1892.]

F. H. G.