James Thomas Brudenell was the only son of Robert, sixth earl of Cardigan and his wife Penelope Anne Cooke. He was born on 16 October 1797 at Hambleden, Buckinghamshire. As Cecil Woodham Smith says:
It was unfortunate that he was destined to grow up in a world that was almost entirely feminine. He already had an elder sister, and seven more girls followed his birth, of whom six survived. He remained the only son, the only boy among seven girls, unique, unchallenged, and the effect on his character was decisive. He was brought up at home among his sisters, and he grew up as such boys do, spoilt, domineering and headstrong. No arm was stronger than his. No rude voice contradicted him, no rough shoulder pushed him. From his earliest consciousness he was the most important, the most interesting, the most influential person in the world . . .
It was to be expected that his parents and sisters should be passionately attached to him, and natural affection and pride were immensely heightened by the circumstance of his extraordinary good looks. In him the Brudenell beauty had come to flower. He was tall, with wide shoulders tapering to a narrow waist, his hair was golden, his eyes flashing sapphire blue, his nose aristocratic, his bearing proud ... the boy had a dash and gallantry that were irresistible. He did not know what fear was. A superb and reckless horseman, he risked his neck on the most dangerous brutes. No tree was too tall for him to climb, no tower too high to scale. He excelled in swordsmanship and promised to be a first-class shot. He had in addition to courage another characteristic which impressed itself on all who met him. He was, alas, unusually stupid; in fact [he was] an ass. The melancholy truth was that his glorious golden head had nothing in it.
He spent two years at Christ Church, Oxford without taking his Degree; then in 1818 he became MP for Marlborough. In 1823 whilst he was in Paris, Brudenell met and fell in love with Elizabeth Johnstone, the wife of a Captain Johnstone who had left her husband. The pair eloped and set up house at Versailles. In June 1824 Captain Johnstone started the divorce process; Brudenell did not offer any defence and did not appear at the court hearing. Johnstone was awarded £1,000 in damages. After the trial, Brudenell offered to give satisfaction to Johnstone, by fighting a duel. Johnstone was reported as saying that 'he has already given me satisfaction: the satisfaction of having removed the most damned bad-tempered and extravagant bitch in the kingdom'.
In May 1824, at the age of 27, Brudenell joined the army as a Cornet in the 8th Hussars through the influence of the Duke of York. He then proceeded to make full use of the purchase system for commissions: he became a Lieutenant in January 1825, a Captain in June 1826, a Major in August 1830. Meanwhile on 26 June 1826 Elizabeth Johnstone's marriage finally was dissolved and she and Brudenell were married. She was promiscuous, extravagant and bad-tempered and the marriage was a disaster. There were no children born to the couple.
In December 1830 Brudenell became a Lieutenant-Colonel; in 1832 he moved to the 15th Hussars at the same rank, having resigned his seat for Marlborough in 1829 because of a difference with the constituency's owner, the Marquis of Ailesbury, over Catholic Emancipation. Brudenell promptly purchased a seat for Fowey. In 1832 he fought a very expensive election for North Northamptonshire, and was returned along with Lord Milton, the heir to the Fitzwilliam estates.
Brudenell was disliked by the officers under his command because of the way he had used the purchase system; his temper also caused perpetual quarrels. In 1833, he illegally ordered one of his officers, Captain Wathen, into custody at Cork. Wathen defended himself so well at a court-martial that Brudenell was persuaded to resign the command of the 15th Hussars. However, his father was an old friend of William IV and was able to obtain for him the command of the 11th Hussars. He went to India in 1836 but the regiment was ordered home quite soon afterwards. When he arrived back in Britain, Brudenell found that his father had died and that he had become the seventh Earl of Cardigan, worth £40,000 a year.
Cardigan continued to have conflicts with his officers but he spent £10,000 a year on the regiment so the 11th Hussars soon became the smartest cavalry regiment in the army. When it came back from India the regiment was stationed at Canterbury; it was there that the 'Black Bottle' affair took place. In May 1840 Cardigan ordered the arrest of Captain Reynolds for placing wine on the mess-table in a black bottle instead of a decanter. Soon afterwards he met another Captain Reynolds from the regiment, and had him arrested for impertinence. An account of this event appeared in the Morning Chronicle, written by Captain Harvey Tuckett; Cardigan promptly challenged him to a duel. At the second shot Captain Tuckett was wounded and public feeling ran strongly against Cardigan, who demanded the right to be tried by his peers. The trial took place on 16 February and lasted only for that day. Cardigan was acquitted on a technicality and retained the command of his regiment until he was promoted to Major-General on 20 June 1854.
In 1854 the Crimean War broke out; the 57 year old Cardigan was sent out in command of a cavalry brigade in Major-General Lord Lucan's division. Lord Lucan and Cardigan were old enemies and brothers-in-law. Cardigan asserted that his command was independent of Lucan's control but their hostility manifested itself both at Varna and the day before the battle of the Alma. When the cavalry camped outside Balaclava, Lord Lucan lived alongside the men while Cardigan dined and slept aboard his luxurious yacht in the harbour. Cardigan led the Light Cavalry into the "Valley of Death" in the charge of the Light Brigade; he was the first in and the first out of the attack on the Russian guns and was unscathed.
Cardigan's subsequent conduct was extremely unfortunate. He returned to England in January 1855 as a hero and was showered with honours. He was made Inspector-General of Cavalry in 1855; he was created a K.C.B., a Commander of the Legion of Honour and Knight of the second class of the Order of the Medjidie. He was made Colonel of the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1859 and was promoted to Lieutenant-General in 1861. He insisted on being regarded as a hero for the rest of his life. After the war he lived at Deene Park, his Northamptonshire seat, where he died from injuries caused by a fall from his horse on 28 March 1868.
Cecil Woodham Smith, The Reason Why. London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1953.
Last modified 14 May 2002