Court-Martial of English Soldier James Thomas Brudenell

About the court-martial of English aristocrat and soldier James Thomas Brudenell for an illegal duel.


The only son of Thomas Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, James grew up as a pampered, idolized, spoiled brat, to become, at 27, a despicable egocentric whose dream was to command his own regiment. England's 19th-century military establishment provided the perfect servant-master social order for demigod aristocrats. Into this elite of the favored highborn rode Lord Brudenell to claim, as a captain, the reputation of the most hated hero in England's history.

Contemptuous of his regimental superiors as well as his subordinates, his hatred of commoners became legend; they were animals and to be treated as such. Soon dissatisfied with the authority of a captain, Brudenell used his wealth to buy the command of the 15th King's Hussars--it cost him ?40,000. Under Brudenell, the 15th was turned upside down. Officers and commoners alike were court-martialed. The intolerable treatment accorded all ranks soon inspired wholesale desertions. Then in 1833, an enraged Lieutenant Colonel Brudenell preferred charges against Captain Wathen. The charges were nonsensical and petty. In court, under cross-examination, Brudenell's testimony backfired.

The trial, discussed in London's staid Times, aroused public sentiment in favor of Wathen. The ensuing public outcry, plus Brudenell's testimony, turned the court against Brudenell. Not only was Wathen acquitted of all charges, but Brudenell was ousted from his command of the 15th.

Two years later a determined and ruthless Brudenell amassed the authority of his aristocratic friends and in 1834 was appointed to the command of the 11th Light Dragoons. Again The Times voiced the public resentment of Englishmen, but to no avail, as the power of the military closed its protective ranks.

More of a martinet than before, Brudenell had 54 officers and men of the 11th court-martialed in his 1st 6 months of command. The Light Dragoons suffered the degradations inflicted by an aristocrat gone mad. Parliament instigated an investigation into Brudenell's appointment. Pressure by the Army caused the investigation to fail and Brudenell's appointment to be upheld.

With the death of Thomas Brudenell, Lord Brudenell became not just the commander of the 11th, but also the Earl of Cardigan. Nothing could stop him now. He began to rid the 11th of all commoners in order to have a regiment of unsullied aristocrats. The Times printed an unsigned letter of protest against the highhandedness of the 11th's commander. The letter was attributed to a retired captain and former officer in the Dragoons, Harvy Tuckett. Lord Cardigan's seconds called on Tuckett for a written apology. It was not forthcoming. A duel was set for 5 P.M., September 12, at Wimbledon Common.

The Court-Martial. As a result of the illegal duel and Cardigan's being caught at the scene with a smoking pistol in his hand and a seriously wounded Tuckett on the ground, Cardigan was, on October 20, 1840, taken before a grand jury and remanded for trial. As a peer, he could not be tried in a common court. On February 16, 1841, he was summoned before the Lords of Parliament to answer to charges.

For once, Cardigan underestimated the power of his influential friends in his places; he expected to be hanged. Both the prosecution and defense worked together with connivance and legal trickery to have Lord Cardigan acquitted of all charges. The din of public opinion mattered not. James Thomas Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, went on to lead the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.

Significance. Despite damning testimony, public indignation, and being caught in the act, the defendant was freed. The power of England's military and aristocracy prevailed, guaranteeing the protection of one of their own. And down through the ages, the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson still resound: "Half a league, half a league/Half a league onward/All in the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred."

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