‘Skulking on the Poop’: the court martial of Captain Henry Rufane 1745

Today’s blog for Mental Health Awareness Week is from Dr Robin Eagles of the Lords 1660-1832 Section. He describes the controversy surrounding the mental and physical health of Marine Captain Henry Rufane during his trial following a battle at sea with the forces of the Young Pretender in 1745…

In the summer of 1745 Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) launched his bid for the British crown. He set out in two ships with a party of around 700 troops of the Irish Brigade in the warship, Elizabeth, while he travelled with his closest companions in a smaller vessel, the Du Teilay (or Doutelle). On 9 July they were intercepted by the Lion commanded by Captain Piercy Brett. A fierce action ensued in which both Lion and Elizabeth were severely damaged, though Elizabeth came off worst. One newspaper reported she was ‘torn all to pieces, several of her ports amidships were broke into one, and by a Dutch ship who spoke with her the next day, they own’d that they lost 300 men.’ Charles left his escort to distract the British man-o-war and was thus able to slip away. He arrived in Scotland relatively unscathed but lacking the professional troops as well as arms and money that had all been stored on the Elizabeth.

This much is extremely well known. Yet what most histories of the rebellion neglect to pick up on is an intriguing sub-plot that was played out aboard the Lion. From Plymouth, into which he had limped after the fight, Captain Brett wrote to the lords of the Admiralty commending the bravery of his men excepting just one: ‘the Captain of Marines, whom I have put under arrest, for skulking in the Poop, under cover of some Baggs that were there, for the greatest part of the Engagement’.

The man in question was Captain Henry Rufane, a former draper’s assistant who had exchanged that trade for a commission some years before. Brought home under arrest, on 10 September he, along with one of his corporals who had been found hiding with his commanding officer, was tried by court martial on board the Duke. Corporal Kane was acquitted but Rufane was sentenced to death for cowardice.

Given some of the testimonies sworn against him, Rufane’s conviction appears unsurprising. The deposition of one man, Serjeant Joseph Cuff, emphasized that at the beginning of the action Rufane appeared to be behaving normally, ordering his men ‘to load and fire as fast as they could’ while he himself stood ‘at the right hand of his men’; but later on when Midshipman How was sent to bring down the marines to help man the guns, he swore that he found only Rufane and two others, all of them lying flat on their bellies. When challenged the two marines both claimed to be wounded. Rufane, though, admitted that he was unhurt but ‘seem’d very much terrified, and would not rise from the place where he was.’

Despite the apparently clear case against Rufane, on 4 October the lords of the Admiralty wrote to the duke of Newcastle, secretary of state, informing him that one of their number, Lord Vere Beauclerk, had referred the matter to the king and cabinet council and enclosed the trial papers for their consideration. What the various depositions reveal is that far from a coward, who had lost his nerve at the worst possible moment, Rufane was suffering from serious ill health.

Rufane’s own defence hinged on two points. The first related to the embarrassing circumstance of being found prone under sacks on the poop deck. In answer to this he insisted that he understood it to be his duty to reserve his men from enemy fire until they had loaded. However, more significantly, he also gave testimony that when the order came from Brett to redeploy ‘he had a fit coming on him, which he perceived by a Diziness [sic] that he used to have before such fits came on… that he had one of his fits 6 months before, but had no one to prove it.’

To support his testimony of being subject to fits Rufane was able to produce a former employer, a linen draper, who deposed that Rufane had been apprenticed to him around 16 years before but that he ‘was obliged to part with him on account of his fits, being sent home once having a fit in the street’. Another witness, Honorius Combauld, a London merchant who had known Rufane for some time, swore that he had advised Rufane to quit lodgings he had had in Charing Cross ‘on account of the Noise in Parliament time’, which had clearly played on the man’s nerves. Rufane also insisted that although Brett reprimanded him immediately after the action, once he had explained his predicament Brett ‘heartily forgave me’ and assured him ‘if my people did not discover it he never would’. And so he continued for two or three days a free man until the arrival of the Augusta commanded by Captain Hamilton, whereupon he was put under arrest.

Such statements appear to suggest two solutions for Rufane’s problem. The most likely seems to be that he suffered from epilepsy – both Rufane and witnesses speaking on his behalf deposed that he had suffered fits from childhood, and that there was a predictability to the way they manifested themselves. Rufane’s own description of his condition underscored the extent to which he was paralysed when in the grip of a seizure:

for several years of my life [I have] been afflicted with violent fits, the effects of which I have always been subject to feel in my head at times, in such a manner, as would for some hours render me Incapable of acting or thinking properly.

However, it seems possible that he also suffered from some form of stress-related mental illness, whether or not this was related to an underlying condition as an epileptic. Lieutenant Joseph Darby said that he found Rufane ‘a very odd sort of man in his understanding but could not say he was foolish, though at some times he acted like one’. Combauld’s testimony echoed this. Having not seen Rufane for 15 years, he said that he had met him again in 1745 and found him ‘as wild and frantic in his behaviour as ever, that everyone took him to be unfit for any business.’

One very obvious question is how a man with such an apparently well-documented history of ill health had managed a role in the marines without previously drawing attention to himself? Another, is how he came to be able to call upon the mediation of so prominent a figure as Lord Vere Beauclerk? Personal connections may well be the key for both and the result of the appeal appears to have gone well for Rufane, who it seems was not executed. We probably catch a further glimpse of him in a will proved in February 1761 of ‘Captain Henry Rufane of Southampton’, who was able to bequeath to his mother, Margaret Rufane, £100 and his brother Francis £50, but which also made telling reference to a brother, Major William Rufane – who was likely the far more successful soldier who rose to become a general and governor.

In an age when it is generally assumed that military discipline was harsh and unyielding, the Rufane case is an intriguing example of someone whose condition was considered seriously and who was consequently saved from the fate originally assigned him. As for the other players in the drama, Piercy Brett became MP for Queenborough, was knighted and became a lord of the Admiralty, while Lord Vere Beauclerk was promoted to the House of Lords as Lord Vere of Hanworth.


Further reading:

  • Christopher Duffy, The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite rising (2003)
  • The National Archives, SP 42/29 (Naval records)

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