Admiral Sir James Wishart (1659 – 1723)

Wishart Tree No. 004

Wishart, Sir James (c.1659–1723), naval officer, was the second son of William Wishart (1621–1692), a Presbyterian minister of Kinneil, Linlithgow, and his wife, Christian Burne; two of his brothers were George, lieutenant-colonel and baronet, and William Wishart (1660–1729), principal of Edinburgh University (1716–29). As a young man he migrated to the Netherlands, served at sea, reportedly commanding a Dutch warship, and accompanied William of Orange’s invasion force in 1688. He was rewarded on 4 July 1689 with the command of the Pearl; subsequently he commanded the Mary Galley on convoy duty in the Baltic, and in 1692 was captain of the Oxford at the battle of Barfleur. After commanding the Swiftsure and Salisbury he became flag captain to Sir George Rooke aboard the Queen in 1695, and his naval and political connections with the strongly tory Rooke were to have major bearings on his later career. They served together again in 1697 when Rooke commanded the fleet which included Wishart’s Dorsetshire (80 guns). During the subsequent years of peace Wishart commanded a series of guardships, before returning to sea in 1702 in the Eagle, part of Rooke’s force at Vigo; in 1703 he again served as Rooke’s first captain, this time on the Royal Katherine in the channel.

In January 1704 Captain William Whetstone, slightly junior to Wishart, was promoted rear-admiral of the blue over Wishart’s head. Rooke took the matter as a personal insult, writing strongly to the lord high admiral, Prince George of Denmark. As well as condemning the breach of the rules of seniority, he commented that

possibly Captain Wishart’s being a Scotchman may be a reasonable objection with some to his preferment at this time … though he be of that country by birth, he is an Englishman by interest … for some years since he sold what he had in Scotland, added to it what he had acquired from the crown’s service, and with his wife’s fortune purchased, and now enjoys, a very good estate in Yorkshire (Rooke to Prince George, 24 Jan 1704, TNA: PRO, ADM/10/10)

The Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne, the Archduke Charles, added his voice to the campaign, and Wishart was given his flag in February, backdated to the same day as Whetstone’s. As a compromise, at Charles’s request Wishart continued to serve as Rooke’s flag captain throughout 1704, taking part in the attack on Barcelona and obtaining a knighthood on his return (24 October).

Rooke’s downfall in 1705 temporarily stymied Wishart’s career: his Scottish background, and the rumours of Jacobitism associated with it, was given as a reason for not entrusting him with the command of the Dunkirk squadron that year. Despite his impeccable revolutionary credentials, such rumours dogged Wishart throughout his career: in 1714, when he briefly commanded a squadron going to Sweden, both Jacobites and anti-Jacobites believed that he would use this force to support the Pretender. Wishart returned briefly to favour to serve on the lord admiral’s council for the four months prior to Prince George’s death in 1708, and was then promoted to admiral of the blue, an appointment which reopened the old argument about his seniority and led to another byzantine compromise which involved antedating the commissions of four other officers who were either senior to him as post captains or had already served as vice-admirals.

Wishart’s fortunes revived when the tories returned to office in 1710, and he joined the Admiralty commission; his Dutch background also made him a natural choice as special commissioner to the Netherlands in 1711 to discuss both the strength of their component of the combined fleet and a secret scheme to attack the French East Indies trade, which the Dutch rejected. Wishart served as a tory MP for Portsmouth from 1711 to 1715, was promoted to admiral of the white on 8 December 1713 (a promotion which required the obliteration of the 1708 Admiralty minutes restoring the seniority of his near-contemporaries), and commanded the Mediterranean Fleet in 1714–15.

On his return Wishart’s tory politics and the lingering suspicions of Jacobitism put paid to any further chance of employment under George I. He lived in retirement, partly on the estate at Bedale in Yorkshire referred to by Rooke in 1703, and partly at Chelsea; however, after his death on 31 May 1723, after a long period of ill health, he was buried on 5 June in Leatherhead parish church, Surrey. His brother and heir, William, erected a memorial to him there. His wife, Cordelia, survived him and was the main beneficiary of his will, dated 13 May 1723. Wishart also made bequests to a number of nephews and nieces, and stipulated that anyone inheriting any of his lands in the future had to take the surname of Wishart.

Biography © J. D. Davies

Sources   HoP, Commons, 1690–1715 [draft] · D. B. Ellis, ‘Admiral Sir James Wishart, 1659–1723’, Proceedings of the Leatherhead and District Local History Society, 5/no. 4 (1991), 106–11 · TNA: PRO, PROB/11/591, fols. 361–5 · The Byng papers: selected from the letters and papers of Admiral Sir George Byng, first Viscount Torrington, and of his son, Admiral the Hon. John Byng, ed. B. Tunstall, 1, Navy RS, 67 (1930), 65 · papers concerning seniority, 1704, TNA: PRO, Admiralty MSS, ADM/10/10, unfol. · The manuscripts of the duke of Somerset, the marquis of Ailesbury, and the Rev. Sir T. H. G. Puleston, bart., HMC, 43 (1898), 116–18 · Calendar of the Stuart papers belonging to his majesty the king, preserved at Windsor Castle, 7 vols., HMC, 56 (1902–23), vol. 5, p. 511; vol. 6, p. 538 · CSP dom., 1703–4, 517–18 · list of services, TNA: PRO, Admiralty MSS, ADM/6/424 · NMM, Sergison MSS, SER/136 · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Portland, 10 vols., HMC, 29 (1891–1931), vol. 8, p. 302 · J. Charnock, ed., Biographia navalis, 2 (1795), 299 · R. D. Merriman, Mariner’s Mirror, 36 (1950), 152–3 [note] · W. A. Shaw, The knights of England, 2 vols. (1906)

Likenesses   M. Dahl, oils, before 1704, NMM · J. Faber junior, pen-and-ink miniature, 1704, V&A · J. Faber junior, mezzotint, 1722 (after M. Dahl), NPG

Wealth at death   £20,000: HoP, draft biography

In 1919 a W Class destroyer of the Royal Navy was named after him. At one stage it was captained by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The ship was scrapped and broken up in 1945.