“Letters from the Past”
James Trail in Portugal,
to William Adam, London, 1801


Eunice Shanahan

The letter is addressed to William Adam Esq Lincolns Inn London. Because part of the letter is missing there is no beginning to the letter giving a date or address. However, the recipient, or his clerk, has noted Mr. Trail dated 14 May 1801 recd 30th June.

The only postal marking on this part of the letter is a circular date stamp FOREIGN OFFICE JUN 30 1801, which was only in use for the years 1800-1806, and the manuscript charge mark of 2/2.

The letter mentions leaving Lisbon, so if it came by the Falmouth Packet the rate in 1801 was 1s 4d single plus the inland rate to London (for a distance between 230-300 miles and Falmouth is 270) = 10d total 2/2.

The paper is unwatermarked, and it is gold-edged, so it would have been made specifically for the writer and/or his family. The seal is in red wax and appears to show some kind of cat-like animal, frightening off three birds, but as it has not been applied with much force, the lower half of the shield is not very clear.

The addressee William Adam was the only surviving son of Jean Ramsay and John Adam of Blairadam, architect and master mason to the Board of Ordnance in Scotland, of Maryburgh, Kinross. His uncle was the architect Robert Adam. Blairadam House where he was born lies just north of Kelty in Fife but on an isolated side road.

He was educated at the High School in Edinburgh, then studied Law at the University of Edinburgh and Christ Church, Oxford. He trained further at Lincoln's Inn from 1769, to qualify as an English barrister. He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1773 and was eventually called to the English bar in 1782.

Adam represented a number of constituencies in Parliament. He was MP for the rotten borough of Gatton 1774–1780. He represented Wigtown Burghs 1780–1784. He was a Treasury nominee for that seat, as a supporter of Lord North. He moved to another Scottish Burgh seat Elgin Burghs 1784–1790. In 1790–1794 he sat for Ross-shire. His last Parliamentary seat was Kincardineshire, which he represented from 1806 until he became a Judge in January 1812.

So at the time of this letter, he was in between parliamentary positions, and as the letter was addressed to him at Lincolns Inn, he may have been living in London at the time, and practising as a barrister.


At first glance the letter does not seem to be of much use, because of having lost the first page, but the contents of the surviving part of the letter proved to be extremely interesting as a research project. Although I am aware of some of Napoleon Bonaparte’s activities at this time, I had never heard of the War of the Oranges.

The transcription of the letter tells a story of an irascible man who is not happy with his situation. He was English, and in Lisbon with the Portuguese Prince Regent, who later became King John the VI.

Note: Some information about The Prince Regent of Portugal :-

John VI born 13 May 1767 died 10 March 1826), nicknamed “the Clement”, was King of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves from 1816 to 1825. Born in Lisbon in 1767, the son of Maria I and Peter III of Portugal, he was originally an infante, (prince), of Portugal. He only became heir to the throne when his older brother José, Prince of Brazil, died of smallpox in 1788 at the age of 27.

At this time the Queen showed increasing signs of mental instability. On 10 February 1792, seventeen doctors signed a document declaring her unable to manage the kingdom, with no prospect for her condition to improve. John was reluctant to take the reins of power, rejecting the idea of a formal regency. However, due to this mental illness of his mother, Queen Maria I, from 1799, he served as prince regent of Portugal, which was the position he held when this letter was written.

The writer appears to be some kind of aide, responsible for correspondence, and this part of the letter begins with a very interesting comment:-
...only wish to get an answer soon, as it is possible it may arrive before we leave Lisbon, for the Prince Regent will not set out till his wife is brought to bed which is not expected before the end of the month.
NOTE: When the Prince was 17, in 1785 a marriage was arranged for him with the Infanta Carlota Joaquina of Spain, daughter of King Charles IV of Spain and Queen Maria Luisa of Parma. Because John and Carlota were related and because of the bride’s youth (she was only 10 years old at the time), the marriage required a papal dispensation. After being confirmed the marriage capitulation was signed in the throne room of the Spanish court with great pomp and with the participation of both kingdoms. It was followed immediately by a proxy marriage. The marriage was consummated five years later.

They had 9 children, and the one referred to in the above sentence was the sixth, Infanta Isabel Maria born 4 July 1801.So although the Prince Regent thought she was to have been born in May, his calculations were well out.

As a matter of interest, in later life she served as regent of Portugal from 1826 to 1828; and died unmarried on 22 April 1876.

Then it is back to the letter:

and then the preparations & the delays in these preparations will probably consume a few weeks more. If the French are in earnest they will save him a part at least of his journey. We hear they were above a week ago at Burgos by this time they must be near the Portuguese Frontier.

Note : That paragraph puts this letter into a particular historical even, known as The War of the Oranges. This was a brief conflict in 1801 in which Spanish forces, instigated by the government of France, and ultimately supported by the French military, invaded Portugal. It was a precursor to the Peninsular Wars, resulting in the Treaty of Badajoz, the loss of Portuguese territory, in particular Olivenza, as well as ultimately setting the stage for the complete invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by French forces.

I found the background to that conflict which began with Napoleon Bonaparte on wikipedia pages. The dates of the conflict are interesting, as this letter was apparently written on 14th May, 6 days before it began.

In 1800, First Consul Bonaparte and his ally, the Spanish prime-minister and Generalissimo Manuel de Godoy, ultimately demanded Portugal, the last British ally on the continent, to break her alliance with Britain. Portugal refused to cede, and, in April 1801, French troops arrived in the country. They were bolstered by Spanish troops under the command of Manuel de Godoy. Godoy had, under his command, the Spanish Army of Extremadura, with five divisions.

The Spanish attack on Portugal started on the early morning of 20th May, and focused on the Portuguese border region that included the main Garrison Town and Fortifications of Elvas and the smaller fortified towns of Campo Maior, Olivença and Juromenha. The main force of the Spanish Army advanced to Elvas, while two divisions advanced to Campo Maior and another division advanced to Olivença and Juromenha. Without having their fortifications complete and defended only by a few hundred soldiers, most of the militias, Olivença and nearby Juromenha quickly surrendered to the Spanish forces.

The Portuguese garrison of Campo Maior, resisted the assault for 17 days, forcing the Spanish to maintain two entire divisions in its siege. The main Spanish force, under the direct command of Godoy, tried to assault Elvas but was easily repelled by the strong Portuguese garrison commanded by General Francisco de Noronha. The Spanish troops then withdrew to a safe distance from the fortress, with Godoy not daring to attack it again until the end of the war. The war entered in a stalemate, with most of the Spanish forces held in sieges of fortresses and the rest not being able to face the blockade made by the main core of the Portuguese Army. Despite this, Godoy picked oranges from the outside of Elvas and sent them to the Queen of Spain with the message that he would proceed to Lisbon.

Thus, the conflict became known as the “War of the Oranges” .

On 6 June 1801 Portugal agreed to the tenets of the Treaty of Badajoz. Portugal agreed to close its ports to English ships, to give commercial concessions to France, to cede Olivenza to Spain and to pay an indemnity.

The letter continues, with his comments about this conflict. I found his comment about the inns in Portugal interesting, as in Britain at this time, inns were an integral part of life.
As to myself I do not much like this expedition. It will be troublesome & uncomfortable in a country where there are no Inns, but I presume we shall all be provided for as a part of the Prince Regent’s Suite with lodgings & whatever else we may want. I think we must often encamp, we shall travel like a Tartar Horde.

The Prince appeared satisfied with my letter as it now stands, altho’ I am persuaded he is NOT. I take it for granted I shall receive such an answer as I can shew to him.

The only addition I made to the Letter after I shewed him the draft was that I might possibly receive an answer before we left Lisbon. This I did from a desire to accelerate one & from observing that the Prince relies much on its being impossible.

That was enough about the war situation, so James Trail finished his letter on the outside of the page, with more personal information.

As to my general situation you will have heard enough from Wilson to judge how little I like it & how much I long for any Event or any decent means of getting out of it. I must add that this arises a great deal from over anxiety, of temper which I cannot conquer & which rather grows upon me in this detestable country in which there are no comforts nor alleviations of any kind for the plagues incident to my situation, with kindest compliments to your sister Clementina & William , Believe me
Ever most
faithfully yours
James Trail

The end note to the story is that although the first page of the letter is missing, the rest of it is almost a local reporter giving information about a war which led to, and ultimately caused the downfall of Napoleon with his defeat by Wellington and his troops at Waterloo.

Reference: "Great Britain Post Roads Post Towns and Postal Rates" 1635 to 1839 Alan W Robertson
David Robertson For the Port & Carriage of Letters 1570-1840
(for further interesting letters about the Portuguese in Brazil see our letters Earsathome.com/letters/Previctorian/finnie.html The websites for the Prince Regent of Portugal; the addressee William Adam of Lincoln Inn; James Trail (The War of the Oranges.)

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