Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wemyss, James
WEMYSS, JAMES (1610?–1667), master-gunner of England and general of the artillery in Scotland, born about 1610, belonged to the Fifeshire family of this name, which is now represented by the Earl of Wemyss. He was descended from James Wemyss, second son of Sir David Wemyss of Wemyss (1513–1544). His mother was Janet Durie, lady of Cardan in the parish of Auchtenderran in Fife. He came to London in the winter of 1629–30 with his uncle, Colonel Robert Scott, and devoted himself to gunnery and all that appertained thereto.
On 26 Feb. 1634 the king granted a warrant to Sir John Heydon, lieutenant-general of the ordnance, ‘for carrying such quantity of earth to Mr. Wemyss's garden at Foxhall [Vauxhall] as should suffice for making a butt to prove ordnance at.’ Three years later Wemyss's house at Vauxhall was burnt down. This misfortune deprived him of his scientific instruments and the tools he had acquired at his own expense for the furtherance of his inventions. He also had acquired debts to the amount of 2,000l. (Petition of James Wemyss to Charles I, State Papers, Dom. 1637). The king, who had been Wemyss's patron for seven years, appears to have helped the artillerist out of his most pressing liabilities, and in 1638 bestowed on Wemyss the honourable post of master-gunner of England. In February 1639, when an army was about to be levied to march into Scotland, Wemyss brought to the king's notice the lamentable fact that there were few gunners in England who understood the several ranges of ordnance or use of the mortar (Petition of James Wemyss to Charles I, State Papers, Dom. 12 Feb. 1639). Wemyss accompanied the train of artillery which followed the royal army to Berwick in the summer of 1639. He also was selected to serve with the army raised in 1640 to march against the Scots (Notes by Secretary Nicholas of business transacted at the Council of War, 30 Jan. 1640). The ill-success which attended the king's arms on the outbreak of the civil war, and the side taken by the Scottish nation, induced Wemyss to transfer his services to the parliament. He was appointed master of the ordnance to Sir William Waller [q. v.], and in this capacity fought at Cropredy Bridge, 29 June 1644, where he was taken prisoner by the royalists, who also captured Waller's artillery, which consisted of eleven pieces of cannon, ‘with two barricadoes of wood, which were drawn upon wheels, and in each seven small brass and leather guns charged with case-shot’ (Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion). The leather guns for field service were invented by Colonel Robert Scott (memorial inscription in Lambeth church), and were subsequently patented by Wemyss, who improved on his uncle's discovery.
Every effort was made by the Earl of Essex, Sir John Meldrum, Sir William Waller, and Sir Arthur Hesilrigge to get Wemyss, whom Lord Clarendon calls ‘a confessed good officer,’ exchanged, but he appears to have been a prisoner for some months. Charles I told Wemyss the post of master-gunner was not filled up, and offered to reinstate him (Lord Essex to the ‘Committee of both Kingdoms,’ 15 July 1644). In 1646 Wemyss, who held the rank of colonel in the parliamentary army, proved the ordnance and gunpowder for the parliamentary navy, and fitted out three new frigates with a hundred pieces of cannon, for which he was awarded 50l. The same sum was awarded him by the navy commissioners in March 1648 for similar services in the summer of 1647.
In March 1648 Wemyss returned to Scotland, and on the 27th of the same month an act was passed by the Scottish parliament ‘granting to Colonel James Wemyss the privilege of making leather ordnance for three terms of nineteen years, with power to enforce secresy.’ About this time Wemyss appears to have veered round to the side of the king and was deprived by the parliament of his post of master-gunner of England, which was bestowed on Richard Wollaston.
On 10 July 1649 an act nominating Colonel James Wemyss to be general of artillery in the room of Colonel Alexander Hamilton was passed by the Scottish parliament. His pay was fixed at six hundred Scots merks per month, and he was given in addition the command of a regiment (Harl. MS. 6844, f. 123). Wemyss fought at Dunbar (3 Sept. 1650), and had the good fortune to escape capture by Cromwell. He again commanded the Scottish artillery in the campaign of 1651, and was taken prisoner at Worcester. He was confined at Windsor Castle, and when private business of his own demanded his presence in London for a few days he had to find 2,000l. security (State Papers, Dom. 25 June 1652). In 1658 he petitioned Cromwell for an act to be passed in his favour, ‘enabling him to provide a place to erect his works for the making and practising certain inventions of light ordnance and engines of war, the fruits of his study and labour for thirty years.’ This petition, which bears date 27 May 1658, includes a list of Wemyss's scientific inventions for naval and military gunnery (Cal. State Papers, Dom.), which were far in advance of the artillery previously in use. Cromwell's death delayed matters, but Charles II granted a patent ‘to James Wemyss, senior, and James Wemyss, junior, of the invention of the former for making light ordnance, and of a way whereby all motions caused by the force of a river, wind, or horses may be done by one or two men, and may be useful for lifting of weights, draining of mines, &c.’
Wemyss was restored to his post of master-gunner of England by Charles II, and he retained it until 1666, when the king allowed him to return to Scotland. He was granted a certain sum for resigning his post to Captain Valentine Pyne (Petition of James Wemyss, General of the Artillery in Scotland, to the King, 18 Jan. 1667). Wemyss died in December 1667, and by his wife Katherine, widow of John Guilliams and daughter of Thomas Rayment, poulterer, of St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate, who predeceased him in February 1649, left with other issue a son James, who was associated with his father in the patent granted to Colonel Wemyss by Charles II, ‘for making and selling light ordnance, &c.’ The younger Wemyss inherited the estate of Caskieberry, and on 15 April 1672 was created Baron Burntisland for life. He married Margaret, countess of Wemyss in her own right, and at his death in 1685 left a son David, who succeeded his mother as third Earl of Wemyss, and is separately noticed.[There is a memoir of Colonel James Wemyss by the present writer in the Proceedings Royal Artillery Institution, vol. xxiv. See also Fraser's Memorials of the Family of Wemyss, 1888; Acts of Parliament of Scotland; Calendars of State Papers, Dom.; Calendar of the Committee for the Advance of Money, 1642–56, pt. iii.; Clarendon's Hist. of the Rebellion; Douglas's Peerage of Scotland; Harleian MS. 6844, f. 123; Hist. MSS. Comm., Report on the Duke of Portland's MSS. i. 227.]