Annesley, James (1715–60), peerage claimant, appears to have been born at Dunmain, Co.Wexford, the son of Arthur Annesley, 4th Baron Altham (1688/9–1727); the identity of his mother is controverted, and this was to furnish the focus in a lawsuit in the Irish court of exchequer in 1743 and, indeed, in other suits in other courts. According to Annesley, his mother was Lord Altham's second wife, Mary Sheffield (d. 1729), the illegitimate daughter of John Sheffield, 1st duke of Buckingham and Normanby. Opposed to this was the contention that his mother was rather one Joan Landy, a maidservant, whom his father introduced as Lady Altham after he had separated from his wife in 1717.
Charles Reade in The wandering heir (1872), a partly fictional account of Annesley's adventures, begins his ‘novel’ at an obscure school a hundred miles from Dublin, where Jemmy – ‘a boy with a delicate skin, and exquisite golden hair’ – was being assaulted by his schoolfellows. The explanation for Jemmy's presence there (which accords with actuality), as traditionally related, was his father's determination to conceal the boy's existence, an existence which, if trumpeted abroad, would have constituted an obstacle to the granting of leases needed to pay off family debts. Arriving later in Dublin, Annesley was effectively abandoned by his father and forced to live a nomadic life, relieved by occasional employment in the Ormond market and at Trinity College. Pity was taken on the lad by one John Purcell, a butcher, and Purcell may have been instrumental in preventing at least one attempted abduction of Annesley when, following the death of Lord Altham, the latter's younger brother, Richard Annesley (qv) (1693–1761), sought in this dramatic fashion to suppress all rumours of the existence of a legitimate heir and thus lay claim himself to his brother's inheritance.
The new Lord Altham, as Richard now proclaimed himself to be – he added the English title of earl of Anglesey through succession from a cousin in 1737 – was eventually triumphant in arranging the kidnapping of his nephew. Early in 1728 James Annesley was smuggled on board the ship James of Dublin, captained by Thomas Hendry, at Ringsend, and sold as an indentured labourer for seven years to an American planter when the ship reached Newcastle on the Delaware river. Having served nearly all of a second seven-year term as a bonded servant, Annesley eventually, in 1740, escaped to Jamaica, where he enlisted as an able seaman on board HMS Falmouth, a vessel commanded by Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon. Annesley's background was subsequently revealed, Vernon agreeing that he should be discharged when the Falmouth reached England, which it did in October 1741.
Annesley now determined on righting the wrong of which he had been a victim, but relatives and lawyers showed reluctance to involve themselves in his cause. The Scottish adventurer Daniel Mackercher proved a stauncher ally, and together they laid plans for the instigation in the Irish courts of a lawsuit which, they hoped, would result in James's legitimacy being accepted. Negotiations opened between James and his uncle at this stage, but when James was prosecuted for homicide arising out of a shooting accident at Staines in Middlesex, Richard scarcely concealed his delight at the prospect of his adversary's being hanged. Delight was premature. James was not hanged; he was acquitted.
The contrived ejectment action of Craig v. Earl of Anglesey, designed to establish James's entitlement to his father's inheritance, opened in the Irish court of exchequer in November 1743. An unprecedented number of counsel – the cream of the Irish bar – represented the two sides. The trial hinged on the proper interpretation of events occurring in 1715, the year of James's birth. Had the true Lady Altham been pregnant at the time? What were Joan Landy's movements then? Had she merely served as a wet nurse? Had anyone seen a baby boy? Had there been celebrations of any birth? The then rules of evidence prevented witnesses who might have had anything useful to say from testifying. Although it was to be maintained that at the trial there had been heard the greatest conflict of direct and heterogeneous evidence ever known in Ireland before or since, the jury, after a fifteen-day hearing, returned a verdict in Craig's favour, and thus in that of James Annesley. Later proceedings in king's bench and apparently in chancery did not result so favourably for James, and he does not seem to have derived the full benefit from the major determination of 1743 in his favour, not least because Richard Annesley moved for the issuance of a writ of error to challenge the decision in the exchequer.
James married twice. His first wife was the daughter of a Mr Chester of Staines Bridge, Middlesex, whom he married in 1742 or 1743. She died in December 1749. His second wife, whom he married in 1751, was Margaret (b. 1727), second daughter of Sir Thomas I'Anson, 4th baronet, of New Bounds, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and his wife Mary (née Bankes). James Annesley died 5 January 1760 at Blackheath, Kent, and was buried at Lee in the same county on 14 January, being described as ‘James Annesley, Esq.' Uncle Richard was to die a year later.
Annesley's sensational adventures attracted much attention at the time and captured the imagination of writers both then and later. Besides Charles Reade's The wandering heir, a detailed, nearly contemporary, version of James's experiences is related by Tobias Smollett in chapter 98 of The adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). Although the litigation in the Scottish court of session over the Dormont heir is thought by some to have given Sir Walter Scott the gist of the plot for Guy Mannering (1815), it is no less possible that James Annesley provided the inspiration for Harry Bertram, the heir of Ellangowan, Uncle Richard for Gilbert Glossin, and Captain Thomas Hendry of the James of Dublin for Captain Dick Hatteraick of the Yungfrauw Hagenslaapen. Similarly James Annesley may have been the model for David Balfour of the house of Shaws, Uncle Richard for Ebenezer Balfour, and Captain Hendry for Captain Elias Hoseason of the brig Covenant in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (1886).