'Birthright': The Astonishing Story Behind 'Kidnapped' In his new book, Birthright, author A. Roger Ekirch gives a historical account of the 18th-century kidnapping of 12-year-old British aristocrat James Annesley. The story captivated public attention and inspired at least five novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure tale Kidnapped.

'Birthright': The Astonishing Story Behind 'Kidnapped'

'Birthright': The Astonishing Story Behind 'Kidnapped'

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Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech. His previous books include Bound for America and At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. hide caption

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Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech. His previous books include Bound for America and At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.

Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped
By Roger Ekirch
Hardcover, 258 pages
W.W. Norton & Company
List price: $24.95
Read An Excerpt

"To commit the care of a minor to him who is next in succession to him is like committing a lamb to be devoured by the wolf."

That quote begins A. Roger Ekirch's new book, Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped — a historical account of the 18th-century kidnapping of 12-year-old British aristocrat James Annesley.

Annesley's story captivated public attention in the 18th century and inspired at least five novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure tale Kidnapped.

The Annesleys were a wealthy English family who also achieved wealth and fame in Ireland and Wales. After the death of James Annesley's father, heir to the Annesley estate, James was to receive his inheritance. But his Uncle Richard had him kidnapped and sent to America as an indentured servant.

"Any tale involving aristocratic shenanigans — certainly one as venal and violent as this — was destined to capture public attention," Ekirch tells NPR's Liane Hansen. It was the largest family fortune ever to be put before a jury.

"Large numbers of people of all social ranks were able to follow closely, given the explosion in newspapers and periodicals," Ekirch says.

Once James Annesley was in the colonies, he worked as a servant for 12 years in northern Delaware — longer than most indentured servants — "because he persistently attempted to escape," Ekirch explains.

Annesley finally ran away to Philadelphia, which was not uncommon for indentured servants — the city was a place of potential employment and also a shipping port. He found a job aboard a merchant vessel bound ultimately for England, which had to stop first in Jamaica.

In Jamaica, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and decided to declare his identity. He caught the attention of Adm. Vernon, the commander of the British Royal Navy.

"[Vernon] is utterly persuaded of Jemmy's rightful claim, and within a matter of weeks is brought back to London," Ekirch says.

In a trial in Dublin in 1743, a jury vindicated Annesley and ruled that he was indeed his father's legitimate heir.

"Jemmy is toasted by high society and low, on both sides of the Irish Sea," Ekirch says. "He is ultimately redeemed, and he does achieve a strong measure of poetic justice."

Excerpt: 'Birthright'

Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped
By Roger Ekirch
Hardcover, 258 pages
W. W. Norton & Company
List price: $24.95

At the time of his abduction, Jemmy Annesley was the putative heir to one of the greatest family fortunes in Ireland. Other than his father's properties and peerage, he stood to receive extensive estates in Ireland, England, and Wales as well as four aristocratic titles, including the treasured earldom of Anglesea, one of two English peerages. By one estimate, the annual income from the lands approached the princely sum of £10,000, roughly comparable in today's prices to more than £1,000,000. By contrast, in Stevenson's Kidnapped, set in Scotland in the year 1751, the young protagonist, David Balfour, is due to inherit, following his father's death, no more than an estate west of Edinburgh that includes the house of Shaws, a large but decrepit mansion.

Just a century earlier in Ireland, the Annesleys had been newcomers — aspiring Englishmen with neither titles nor substantial riches. Apart from personal tenacity and ambition, their rise owed much to Ireland's dramatically transformed social order. Following a new wave of Elizabethan conquest in the late sixteenth century, Protestant adventurers laid claim to confiscated estates, displacing the native Irish with English and Scottish tenants. Colonization, the English monarchy hoped, promised to relieve Britain of its impoverished masses and subdue the indigenous Catholic population — "that rude and barbarous nation,"remarked Elizabeth.

In the "plantation" of Munster in southwestern Ireland, among the thirty-five grantees, or "undertakers," seeking to better their fortunes was an army officer fresh from the fighting, Captain Robert Annesley of Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. The younger son of a gentry family, he obtained in 1589, at thirty years of age, 2,600 acres in County Limerick. The grant was smaller than most. Another military man, Sir Walter Raleigh, a courtier, topped the beneficiaries with 42,000 acres in Cork and Waterford. But Annesley's tract was a start, and, for an ambitious squire, a promising one.

Greater glory awaited his son Francis, a favorite of James I, who became vice-treasurer of Ireland in 1625 and the recipient of two Irish titles: Baron Mountnorris, for the fort of Mountnorris that he had garnered in County Armagh, and Viscount Valentia, after an island once allegedly settled by the Spanish off Ireland's southwestern coast. Those honors, however, paled next to the achievements of Arthur, his eldest son. After serving in the English House of Commons for a brief period during the Civil War, Arthur helped to choreograph the return in 1660 of Charles II. For his loyalty, he became not only a privy counsillor but also an English peer, the first Earl of Anglesea as well as Baron Newport Pagnell. Displaying a shrewd aptitude for political advancement, he was appointed lord privy seal in 1673, a traditional font of patronage.

Already one of Ireland's most powerful men, Arthur became, with the acquisition of fresh estates, one of its largest landowners. He was a figure of considerable learning and culture, adopting the motto, from Horace, of Virtuitus Amore (With Love of Virtue) for the family's coat of arms. Dinner guests at his London mansion in Drury Lane, lying just south of St-Giles-in-the-Fields, included the likes of John Locke and the Earl of Salisbury. A patron of the poet Andrew Marvell, the earl boasted the largest private library in England, some thirty thousand volumes, which he regularly consulted until his death from quinsy, a severe inflammation of the throat, in 1686.

Such were the heights attained by the house of Annesley over just three generations. Along with other "New English" families arriving after the Reformation, the Annesleys were charter members of Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy, the Anglo-Irish elite that dominated the kingdom until the nineteenth century. Fundamental to the family's success was its deepening involvement in court politics, coupled with a willingness to subordinate political principles and personal loyalties in pursuit of preferment and private gain. Although they were not men devoid of convictions, neither religion nor ideology hampered their quest. According to his diary, the Earl of Anglesea was a devout Calvinist, though he attended Anglican services, occasionally with the king. Nor did his nonconformist beliefs prevent the marriages of two of his daughters to prominent Irish Catholic nobles. Above all, the Annesleys, as responsible aristocrats, remained committed to furthering the family's fortunes. Eager to establish titled households in both Ireland and England, Anglesea persuaded the king in 1673 to create an Irish barony for Altham, his second son. In the meantime, his eldest son, James, stood poised to inherit not only his father's English and Irish titles but also the bulk of his estates, which, one observer later claimed, "far exceed any other" in Ireland.

If the Annesleys spent much of the seventeenth century advancing their fortunes, only the rapidity and scale of their ascent set them apart. After all, the Ascendancy was an imported Protestant elite imposed upon a predominantly Catholic population; in no sense was it a traditional aristocracy animated by an ancestral attachment to its lands. By the 1700s, only a small remnant of the leading families possessed either Old Gaelic or Old English roots (originating before the reign of Henry VIII). Most eighteenthcentury grandees descended from families who had arrived in Ireland between the 1530s and the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. With conquest and colonization came the elimination of ancient peerages, if not by the mid-seventeenth century then in the aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, in which a larger Protestant army under William III defeated Irish and French forces commanded by James II, prompting Catholic Jacobite families, such as the Dillons, MacCarthys, and O'Briens, to begin leaving the country. The few remaining Catholic peers were forbidden to sit in the House of Lords, and by 1749, only six "Popish" lords, like the Earl of Westmeath and Viscount Mountgarrett, still resided in the kingdom.

The influx of Protestant adventurers resulted, during the early Stuart monarchies, in a rapid inflation of fresh titles available from the Crown. A sizable number were put up for sale, regardless of the buyer's personal qualifications. Whereas an English barony during the reign of James I cost as much as £10,000, an Irish title could be had for £1,500. More than two-thirds of new Irish peers bore no prior connection to the island, including some with no interest in ever residing there. One aspiring earl, Sir William Pope, could not decide the best town in Ireland for the name of his title. Having narrowed the choice to Granard or Lucan, he received a letter from his puzzled son: "[I] am certain that there is such towns as Lucan and Granard, but can not find it in the map. . . . If it is possible, we will change Granard for a whole county." For his troubles, along with the sum of £2,744, Pope in 1628 took the name of an Ulster county and became the Earl of Downe.

Although the Irish peerage during the eighteenth century was small, with slightly more than one hundred members, its recent origins had resulted in considerable fluidity. For many Protestant nobles, their primary identification with Ireland was one of material fulfillment and social advancement. Often, in fact, the wealthiest peers became absentee landlords, with titles and estates not just in Ireland but also in England. In 1704, at age twentyone, John Perceval, the future Earl of Egmont, inherited 22,000 acres of land in Cork and Tipperary but spent the bulk of his life in London. As late as the 1720s, from one-sixth to one-fourth of Irish rents was annually remitted to absentees. In England, these lords intermarried with privileged families, only returning to their Irish estates for short spells.

By contrast, the island's resident peerage, along with greater numbers of knights and squires, lacked the cultivated gentility of England's aristocracy. Like the American colonies, Ireland remained a borderland of the British Empire; the advance of metropolitan manners and values, even in Dublin, progressed slowly. "Till their situation or their manners are altered," wrote John Boyle, fifth Earl of Orrery, an English native with extensive lands in Ireland, "I hope it will not be my ill fortune to live amongst them."

Absent from the upper ranks was a strong sense of self- discipline; excess and intemperance set the standard. Cards and gaming, cockfights, hurling matches, and hunting parties filled idle hours. "A kennel of dogs is the summum bonum of many a rural squire," wrote "Hibernicus" in the Dublin Weekly Journal. Entertainments were extravagant. Sumptuous dinners, larded with rumps of beef and saddles of venison, flowed with claret and whiskey punch. "The whole business of the day," an essayist complained in 1729, "is to course down a hare, or some other worthy purchase; to get over a most enormous and immoderate dinner; and guzzle down a proportionable quantity of wine."

Still, their improvidence masked a deeper insecurity. A visiting Englishman hinted as much in describing dinner parties: "They always praise the dishes at their own tables and expect that the company should spare no words in their commendation." Another traveler commented upon the vanity of grandees "even from indifferent families."

Many wellsprings fed the insecurity of the Irish aristocracy, including its ambivalent status within both Ireland and the empire. First and foremost, members of the Ascendancy preened themselves as loyal Englishmen, tied by language and law, faith, and blood to the land of their ancestors. In an essay intended for an English audience, Francis Annesley, an influential member of the Irish House of Commons, declared in 1698 that his fellow Protestants were "Englishmen sent over to conquer Ireland, your countrymen, your brothers, your sons, your relations, your acquaintance." And yet, time and again the English parliament enacted legislation counter to Irish interests. Widespread poverty and economic instability only added to the elite's want of self- confidence, as did the country's turbulent heritage. In 1725, a Dublin newspaper reflected, "To be born in IRELAND is usually looked upon as a misfortune." English commentators lost few opportunities to lampoon Irish "backwardness." Jestbooks like Bogg-Witticisms, first published in 1682, popularized the comic figure of "Teague" (an English corruption of the Gaelic name Tadhg), a favorite target for years to come on the London stage. Of absentee landlords, a Dublin writer moaned "that many of our gentlemen bring home with them a scorn for our poverty and obscurity."

Long after the last spasms of rebellion and conquest, brute force remained central to the Ascendancy character, not unlike the propensity for bloodshed characteristic of the English aristocracy during much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. "Their long intestine wars, their constant and slavish dependence upon another kingdom, and their just dread of popery are some sort of excuses for the fire of their brains and the fury of their hearts," observed Orrery.

Quick to take offense, Protestant gentlemen in Ireland routinely dangled swords at their sides, whether in town or in the country. Nor was it uncommon for a neighborhood feud to end in violence. Gentry sons grew notorious for abducting young heiresses to wed and ravish at the point of a sword. Few of the perpetrators were prosecuted, much less punished. Indeed, laws often went unenforced owing to the connivance of landed magnates. Always vulnerable to abuse were social inferiors. Overcharged at a Cork inn for wine, a young Englishman gave the waiter a "hearty drubbing." "It is some satisfaction in this country," he marveled, "that a man has it in his power to punish, with his own hand, the insolence of the lower class of people, without being afraid of a crown-office[r], or a process at law."

Dueling was the most obvious manifestation of this violent ethos. At a time when upper-class violence in England had given way to litigation as the preferred mode of combat, duels remained customary, especially in Dublin. Then, too, many adversaries fought not to uphold personal honor but to exact retribution. These were not set pieces of ritualized violence but bloody clashes more often waged on the spot with short swords than with pistols at a dignified distance. A County Cork combatant in 1733 was stabbed in the back as he lay floundering in the grass. Rarely was eighteenth-century etiquette observed or quarter shown. At a private party, two gentlemen fired pistols at one another in a bedchamber. "It is safer to kill a man, than steal a sheep or a cow," complained Dr. Samuel Madden, the author of Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland . . . (1738).

Reprinted from Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped by A. Roger Ekrich © 2010 by A. Roger Ekrich. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.