An exceptional British
presentation small-sword,
mounted in silver-gilt and enamel
by James Morisset of London and
presented to Major General Eyre Coote
by the Officers of the Bandon Garrison,
Ireland,
1797-98.

 
 

The hilt of cast and chased silver-gilt, struck on the knuckle-bow with the London hallmarks for the assaying year of 1797-98, and the maker’s mark of James Morisset (1738-1815), and decorated overall with neo-Classical iconography, incorporating acanthus leaves, wreaths and sprays of laurel and of oak, the arms of the hilt being formed of wreaths of laurel. The grip and centre of the knuckle-bow inset with oval translucent enamel plaques within cast and chased tied wreaths of laurel, the plaques decorated with trophies of arms and flags. The pommel inset with round translucent enamel plaques within cast and chased tied wreaths of oak, the plaque outside the hand decorated with the shield and crest from the Arms of Eyre Coote (1762-1823) and that inside the hand decorated with Eyre Coote’s crest and initials. The inside of the oval shell-guard pierced with a cast and chased trophy of arms bordered by a double wreath of laurel enclosing the inscription, in gold lettering on a blue translucent enamel base,
PRESENTED BY THE OFFICERS COMPRISING THE GARRISON OF BANDON TO MAJOR GENL. COOTE AS A MARK OF THEIR SINCERE ESTEEM RESPECT & GRATITUDE.
The outside of the oval shell-guard engraved with an inscription giving the Order of Battle of the Bandon garrison in 1797,
Officers of the 2nd Fencible Irish Dragoons, 30th Regiment of Foot, Light Companies Embodied into a Battalion: Westmeath, Wexford, Galway, Waterford, Royal Meath, Fermanagh, Sligo, Limerick County, Roscommon, Derry, Dublin County, Leitrim, and Leitrim Regiment of Militia.
The triangular section blade engraved with scrolls and decorated with gilding. The wooden scabbard covered in polished black shagreen mounted in silver-gilt, the top mount engraved Rundell and Bridge London.

Overall length: 41”, blade length 33”.

The sword.

As a result of scholarly research published periodically since 1972, the name of James Morisset is now inextricably associated with the finest examples of Applied Art in enamels and precious metals and stones to have been produced in England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Morisset’s mark as a London goldsmith appears on so many examples of small-work commissioned for presentation at that time that his name is now a byword for its intrinsic and superlative quality - as it must have been among the contemporary retailers of work in gold and enamels who commissioned items from his workshop. Only his successors, Ray and Montague, came close to emulating the quality of his work.

This superb small-sword has a hilt that is not only similar to other recorded contemporary hilts from Morisset’s workshop but also unique in several significant ways. It exhibits features that lift it above other hilts costing more at the time - most notably, and rarely, the exquisitely observed, rendered and chiselled trophy of arms that pierces the inside of the oval shell-guard and the delicate ribbon of blue enamel and gold lettering that encircles that trophy. This is no mere journeyman’s work; it is quality craftsmanship of the very finest available at the time anywhere in the world. Judging by its materials and the style of its decoration, this is a sword that would have cost its purchasers one hundred guineas in late 1797, when it was commissioned for presentation.

Morisset was by descent a Huguenot - his ancestors had been among those Protestant refugees forced to flee their homes on the continent of Europe to more congenial lands at the end of the seventeenth century. Many Huguenots made their homes in Britain and their names in the world of the decorative arts - among the most notable being that great genius of the English Rococo, the silversmith Paul de Lamerie - and several became important as makers of fine quality sporting guns. Apprenticed to his brother-in-law, the jeweller, goldsmith and enameller Louis Toussaint, from the age of fourteen, Morisset registered his first mark at Goldsmith’s Hall in 1770 and work is recorded as being marked by him from shortly afterwards.

Just as Morisset bestrode the world of the small-worker in precious metals at the end of the eighteenth century, so Rundell and Bridge - the firm that assembled and sold this small-sword - dominated the world of retail jewellery at the same time. Established at 32 Ludgate Hill in the City of London in 1787, the firm became one of a select few from which the majority of the presentation swords, boxes, vases and other items of plate were commissioned during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815. Like their competitors, the firm sub-contracted the work of manufacture, and probably some design too, to jewellers like Morisset.

Thus, this wonderful sword: commissioned from one of the best retail jewellers of the day - a firm that was awarded the Royal Warrant as Goldsmiths and Jewellers to King George III in the same year as this sword was commissioned - and with its gold and enamel components made in the workshop of the man who was undoubtedly the most talented manufacturing jeweller, goldsmith and enameller of the time.

The man.

What did Major General Eyre Coote do to deserve such a gift?

Born in Ireland in 1759, he was the nephew of General Sir Eyre Coote, KB (1726-83), who had already distinguished himself during numerous campaigns in India and who was to continue to dominate military affairs in the sub-continent until his death at Madras in 1783. Educated at Eton and Trinity College Dublin, Coote was commissioned by purchase into the 37th Regiment of Foot - of which his uncle was colonel - in 1774, just before his fifteenth birthday: he may well have been at Trinity at the time. He was bought his next commission, to the rank of lieutenant, in January 1776.

The shots that rang round the world from Lexington Green and from Concord Bridge had been fired in 1775 and soon Britain was shipping regiments west to deal with the rebellious colonists. The 37th was among these regiments and young Lieutenant Coote was on a troopship across the Atlantic before the ink was barely dry on the parchment of his second commission. Ensigns in infantry regiments were normally those accorded the honour of carrying the Colours - of which each battalion had two - but it was as a lieutenant that Coote is said to have carried one of his regiment’s Colours at the battle of Brooklyn in August 1776: the 37th was only lightly engaged on that day and Coote survived his first battle without a scratch. He remained with the 37th throughout the American War for Independence, serving in several campaigns and at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth Court House, purchasing promotion to the rank of captain in 1778 and ending his campaigning at Yorktown in 1781, where he was taken prisoner with the remainder of the garrison.

He returned home in 1783 and purchased the rank of major in the 47th Regiment of Foot, advancing by purchase to that of lieutenant-colonel of the 70th Foot in 1788. As was not unusual at the time, he combined his military service with that in Parliament from 1790, being elected to the Irish House of Commons to represent Ballynakill in 1790 and being returned for Maryborough in 1797. He served in two brief campaigns in the West Indies in 1793 and 1795, being promoted to colonel in 1794 and appointed an ADC to The King in 1795.

Thus, in 1797, Eyre Coote was thirty-eight years old, a colonel in the Army and holding local rank in Ireland as a brigadier-general while he commanded the garrison at Bandon, fifteen miles south-west of Cork, a command to which he had been appointed in 1796. Significantly, he was not only a senior member of the Anglo-Irish Protestant “Ascendancy” in Ireland, but also a serving Member of Parliament for that country: his appointment to command at Bandon undoubtedly took into account his military, social and political credentials.

In 1797, Ireland - rarely the most placid of islands - was in turmoil and in danger. Twenty years previously, the American War for Independence had sparked an explosion for political change, from the reverberations of which Irish ears were continuing to ring. The French Revolution - with concepts such as the Rights of Man - added both fuel and breeze to the flame of a revolt that was being guarded by a combination of an articulate radical minority, the United Irishmen, and an oppressed, but largely inarticulate Catholic peasantry, symbolised by an agrarian secret society calling itself The Defenders. Ireland had always represented a potential springboard from which a foreign invader could leap across the Irish Sea onto the mainland of Britain: this, and the barely-controlled resentment of its largely Catholic and disenfranchised population, had led to its being constantly garrisoned throughout the eighteenth century. At no time was Britain in greater danger from the successful combination of a native rising and a foreign invasion than in the years immediately following the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 and, predictably, this combination occurred in the late 1790s.

A French expedition had arrived in Bantry Bay in December 1796 but had been prevented from landing its troops by appalling gales; its element of surprise lost, along with several ships, it returned home. While that expedition failed, it succeeded in revealing much about military weaknesses in the military structure of Ireland. War against France had denuded Britain of most of its regular soldiers and the defence of the home islands was largely left to auxiliary forces: Militia, Volunteers, Yeomanry and, in the case of Ireland and Scotland, Fencibles. None of these presented a serious threat to an enemy like the French and one very distinguished general sent to Ireland to command its forces in the late 1790s had to resign his command after having the lack of tact to say so, in very uncompromising terms. The nature of the auxiliary forces, and in particular the Militia, was that they were a microcosm of the parochial society from which they were drawn. In Ireland, this meant that the officers of the Militia tended to be drawn from the ranks of the minority Protestant land-owning “Ascendancy” - men like Coote himself - and the other ranks, or enlisted men, from the poor Catholic peasantry. The officers held their positions through patronage, were often absent (a large number, again like Coote, were MPs) and had little or no pretence to any serious interest in soldiering. The soldiers were disaffected, both from their officers and from their country, and were widely, and justly, suspected of having been infiltrated by United Irishmen and Defenders.

Courts martial were held throughout Ireland early in 1797 and some twenty soldiers of the auxiliary forces were shot for treason. The entire island was in ferment of barely-suppressed rebellion and anticipation of a return of the French. Lone soldiers were frequently attacked, beaten and even murdered, and in Bandon, a new town situated in a strategic position close to Cork, the main victualling point for the Royal Navy on the south coast of Ireland, Brigadier-General Eyre Coote instituted a series of investigations into just how loyal his militia soldiers were: the results were not comforting. From his garrison of 520 men, composed of one British regular regiment of Foot, one regiment of Irish Militia - the Leitrim, a regiment of Irish Fencible cavalry and the light companies of twelve Irish militia units formed into a battalion, Coote’s investigations revealed 145 men who had sworn the secret oath of the United Irishmen and who were, thus, traitors to the Crown. As John Moore (to die at La Coruña in 1809 but to succeed Coote in command at Bandon in 1798) revealed to his diary in 1798,
“…A conspiracy was discovered among the Militia last summer [1797] to murder their officers, seize the cannon, and march to Bantry…”

Such sedition was not only intrinsically dangerous to the security of the state; but also it revealed just how useless the Militia regiments would have been against regular French forces, how little their loyalty could be commanded and, by extension, how rotten the entire system that had created and maintained them was. This was a system of which Coote was himself a part: at least three of the commanding officers of his Militia units were fellow-MPs; all of them shared his social status and many would, inevitably, have been close friends or relations of his.

At a time when peaceful coercion was not a recognised form of leadership, an example had to be made and so eighteen of the 145 United Irish militiamen were tried by court martial at Bandon in July 1797; four were acquitted and one was forgiven. The remaining fourteen were sentenced to be flogged before the entire garrison, the number of lashes varying from 550 to 999. In a letter of 9th July 1797 to Thomas Pelham, Chief Secretary for Ireland, Coote enumerated the malefactors and described the occasion of the floggings,
“…all the Troops in the neighbourhood were assembled and a dreadful business it was…”.

Coote, though, was clearly not a man devoid of feeling and, as a soldier, all-too aware of how debilitating a serious flogging could be - not only for the soldier concerned but also for the service, which it deprived of a potentially useful man. Thus, he remitted the majority of the sentences once, on average, one-third had been delivered and on condition that the soldiers whose sentences had been reduced should be sent abroad on military service for life.

At the time, mid-way through 1797, action such as Coote’s, in swiftly identifying and dealing with sedition in the ranks of the Militia, was seen as decisive and was warmly applauded. No one could foresee that the French would return in 1798, once Coote had left Ireland, and that the whole island would erupt in rebellion, a rebellion that was as savage as was its eventual repression. By acting as he did, Coote was assisting in the preservation of the status quo in Ireland, a preservation for which those who benefited from it would have cause to be grateful to him: he had, it might be said, reinforced not only their positions but also their probable belief in the smack of firm government. What could be more natural, on hearing that he would be leaving Ireland on promotion to major general and a command in England, than that his friends, neighbours, fellow-MPs and fellow “Ascendancy” Protestants should club together, late in 1797, to commission for him a suitable farewell present, one truly reflective of their “sincere esteem, respect and [particularly] gratitude” for his conduct while in command at Bandon? This splendid sword is the result.

Coote’s career progressed well for quite a while after he left Ireland. He commanded at Dover, was involved in two campaigns in the Low Countries and one in Egypt and received the knighthoods of the Orders of the Bath (KB) and of the Imperial Ottoman Crescent (KC) in 1802. He went to Jamaica in 1805 as its governor but ill health forced him to return in 1808 and his future eccentricities are thought to have been partly the result of infections, fevers and viruses acquired while in the West Indies. These eccentricities affected his ability to command during the Walcheren expedition in 1809 and he was retired from active service thereafter. By 1809, he was a lieutenant-general and colonel of the 62nd Regiment of Foot. He advanced to the colonelcy of the 34th Regiment in 1810 and to the rank of general in 1814, at which time, upon the expansion of the Order of the Bath to three classes, he became a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath.

In the light of such a distinguished lineage and career, the destruction of his reputation in 1815 must be regarded with some sadness, although some wry attention might profitably be paid not only to the sentences he handed down at Bandon in 1797 but also to the fact that he vociferously opposed the abolition of flogging in the Army during a debate in the House of Commons in March 1813. In November 1815, aged fifty-six, he was charged, through the office of the Lord Mayor of London, with Indecent Conduct: he had, it was alleged, paid boys from Christ’s Hospital school to flog him. Although the Lord Mayor dismissed the case, the damage was done to Coote’s reputation: The Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the Army and a Royal Prince with more than one skeleton in his personal cupboard, ordered an investigation of Coote’s conduct. Coote was found guilty of conduct unbecoming to the character of an officer and gentleman and dismissed the Army, losing his rank, his privileges and his knighthood. His numerous friends and relations, within both the Army and Parliament, insisted that he was mad, not bad, and that the premature deaths of his three daughters, the illness acquired in Jamaica and a degree of hereditary insanity had combined to render him unstable.

Whatever was the case, Coote’s career and reputation lay in ruins and he retired abroad for a time, returning eventually to die on his estate in Hampshire on 10th December 1823.


Image reproduced by courtesy of Peter Finer

 
 

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