AMAC Exclusive By Herald Boas
The longstanding rift between England and Scotland is once again making headlines as support for Scottish independence gains momentum across the pond. Tension between the two nations is nothing new, and scholars have devoted thousands of pages to discussing how Scottish attempts to prevent what is perceived as English dominance of Scotland have shaped British history and politics. But, ironically, one of the fiercest Scottish opponents of English rule from 300 years ago went on to change the course of history not on the British Isles, but on the European continent.
Born in Scotland in 1696 the son of an earl, James Francis Edward Keith made his mark on the world with his soldierly prowess. After being forced to flee to the Continent as a result of his support for the Jacobite movement, he fought as a mercenary in many major early 18th century military campaigns, ultimately rising to become a field marshal and close confidante of Frederick the Great of Prussia. His military skills and successes helped shape the map of Europe, but today he is virtually unknown in his native country and forgotten in Europe.
The late 17th and early 18th centuries were unusually complicated political times for Great Britain and European states, as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, regional ambitions, and rivalries among royal families collided with each other, with a new and growing middle class, and with the slowly awakening peasantry. This volatility would lead to the revolutions and world wars of the 19th and 20th centuries when divisions would harden, but in the early 1700s, a well-connected and talented nobleman like James Keith could find opportunity almost anywhere.
In another era, Keith may have enjoyed a quiet, luxurious life as a member of the ruling class. However, like many other Scottish nobles, Keith was a Jacobite, supporting the restoration of the House of Stuart to the British throne. And when Jacobite efforts to put the son of deposed King James I on the throne of Scotland were thwarted, Keith was forced to flee to Europe.
Keith first went to France and then to Spain to join the Jacobite efforts in exile, but internal conflicts among Jacobite leaders led to failure. Keith, now finished with his schooling, joined the Spanish army for several years before offering his services to the Empress Elisabeth of Russia, beginning his service in Russia in 1728. Having proved himself in Spain, Keith became a favorite of the Tzarina, fought in important battles, rose quickly in the Russian army, and was given important posts in Russian domains, including becoming the de facto ruler of Ukraine (1739) and Finland (1741-43), proving to be an especially competent and popular viceroy in both places.
During his service in Russia, the Jacobite forces made a final attempt to put the Scottish pretender James Stuart on the British throne, assembling an army to invade England to oust the hated German-speaking Hanover king and dynasty which had succeeded Queen Anne. Jacobite leaders asked Tzarina Elisabeth to allow James Keith to lead their forces, but she refused. The invasion took place under another Jacobite general and was going well until the general made an untimely and controversial retreat at a critical moment. The Jacobite army was defeated, ending the Stuart rebellion. Military historians have often speculated that, had James Keith been in command, there would have been no retreat, the Jacobites would have overthrown the king from Hanover, and British (and European) history would have been much different.
But Keith did remain in Europe and rose quickly within military circles, enabled by his mastery of military planning, logistics and strategy. By the time he became Frederick the Great’s field marshal and top military advisor, it was a relationship ironically like the one General George C. Marshall and President Franklin Roosevelt had two centuries later when the U.S. defeated the German army that had been made possible by the rise of Frederick’s Prussia 200 years before.
Keith entered his service in Frederick II’s Prussian army in 1747 after falling out of favor with the Tzarina when he rejected her romantic advances. (Elisabeth was notorious for her lusty appetites, and eventually settled down with a Ukrainian commoner whom she never married but nonetheless made a prince.)
Field Marshal (now von) Keith subsequently became the Prussian king’s closest and most candid military advisor participating in many of the battles of the Seven Years War after 1756. He was killed at the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758 after advising Frederick not to fight it.
Nonetheless, Keith’s efforts helped Prussia emerge as a leader among German-speaking central European states, eventually resulting in the establishment of a unified German nation a century later. It was the Prussian military machine that Keith built that helped the British defeat Napoleon at Waterloo and that led to the establishment of German military dominance on the continent, setting the stage for world war a century later.
Ironically, it was Keith’s failure to change the direction of British history that provided the impetus for him to have a profound impact on the history of the rest of Europe. James Keith may not have been able to put his Scottish prince on the throne in London, but he did make an indelible mark on the capitals of the rest of Europe.